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History of Caithness
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The prelature of Caithness was founded about the year 115O. The first bishop of whom we have any distinct account was Andrew, who died in the year 1185. He is said to have been much at the court of King David I., and his two immediate successors, Malcolm and William. During his incumbency, mention is made of a rather curious tax which was imposed on Caithness, and which was, no doubt, considered by the natives at the time a very heavy and grievous one. Earl Harald, it would appear, being somewhat troubled in conscience, grantee to the Roman See, for the redemption of his sins, a penny (unum denarium) from each inhabited house in the county. This grant, which had the twofold good effect of clearing off a debt of guilt, and at the same time replenishing the Pope’s exchequer, was attested by Andrew. In the list of those elevated to the See of Caithness, there would appear to have been several eminent prelates, Popish and Protestant, besides Gilbert Murray, who enjoyed the dignity.
Among the most distinguished of the Protestant bishops was John Abernethy, who was ejected after the meeting of the famous General Assembly at Glasgow in 1638. He was the author of a religious work entitled “A Christian and Heavenly Treatise, containing physic for the soul, very necessary for all that would enjoy true soundness of mind, and peace of conscience.” The book, which may be still seen in the libraries of the curious in antiquarian lore, is written in the quaint style peculiar to divines of that age, and in point of doctrine has been considered highly evangelical. The last bishop was Andrew Wood, who was ejected at the Revolution in 1688, and died at Dunbar in 1695, aged 76.
There would seem to have been a bitter feeling in some parishes at least in the county against episcopacy after it was finally superseded by presbyterianism. Of this popular dislike one very curious instance may be mentioned. On the gallery of the old church at Watten there was long a rude painting, evidently intended as a satire on what was then denominated “black prelacy.” It represented the congregation met for worship, with the reader in the desk and the bishop, in full canonicals, in the pulpit. Immediately opposite was a grotesque figure of satan, no doubt in canonicals also, with cloven foot and horns, belching out fire and brimstone on the terrified audience. It is but justice, however, to state that episcopacy, or rather the modified form of it which prevailed in Caithness, did not merit the odium thus so uncharitably heaped upon it. It appears from the Presbytery records (the best and only authority on the subject) that the ministers were generally well conducted and diligent in the discharge of their duties, and that the bishops were in the habit of regularly visiting the different parishes, enforcing discipline where it was necessary, and doing all they could for the moral and spiritual welfare of the people. Indeed, if rigid discipline could have repressed immorality, there was no failure of duty in this respect. Delinquents were regularly made to stand in sackcloth before the congregation on Sunday; and one case is mentioned of a Donald Fraser who, for the edification of the natives, had to do penance in this garb in every kirk in the county! The crime of which this worthy confessed himself guilty was, in the words of the minutes of Presbytery, “counterfeiting himself to be dumb, and deceiving the people with lying signs of divination, as also for living in sin with a woman to whom he was not married.” It was then universally believed by the vulgar, and the belief is not yet altogether exploded, that deaf and dumb persons or “dummies,” as they were called, had the gift of prescience, and could foretell by signs whatever was to happen, whether of good or evil, to any one that consulted them.
There are no cartularies or documents,1 extant at least in the county, to show the revenue of the see in popish or prelatic times; but from the thinness and poverty of the population, it could not be one of the richest. In Caithness, the bishop’s lands were Scrabster, Lythmore, Stemster, and Dorrery, situated in the parishes of Reay and Thurso. Dorrery was used as a “grass room” or sheiling. Their present rent is £1882 8s. 3d. Among other lands belonging to the bishop in Sutherland was Durness, a parish equal in extent to a small county, being about 25 miles long and 12 broad, and (including all its lochs and arms of the sea) nearly 300 square miles in area. A bit of romance is attached to the history of this district. According to tradition, a Lewis chieftain of the name of Morison, having come to Thurso for a cargo of oatmeal, happened to fall in love with the bishop’s daughter and sought her hand. Being a handsome, good-looking fellow, the young lady, nothing loth, agreed to take him, as the marriage ritual has it, “for better for worse.” They were accordingly united in due form; and the bishop gave Morison, as a marriage portion with the bride, the whole of Durness! In addition to other property about the end of the 15th century, the castle and lands of Redcastle,2 in Ross-shire (anciently called Ardmanach), passed into the hands of the bishop of Caithness by a grant from the Crown. They do not appear, however, to have been long possessed by that dignitary; for in 1524 James V. granted them, along with the Earldom of Ross, to James, Earl of Moray.
The chapter of the cathedral of Caithness, as it was constituted by Gilbert Murray, consisted of ten members, the bishop being the chief, and receiving the fruits of six parishes for his use. The archdeacon had for his prebend the church of Bower. Among the appointments of the undignified canons one had for his prebend the church of Olrig, one the church of Dunnet, and a third the church of Canisbay.
Before the Reformation, Caithness would seem to have been intensely popish. Every parish in the county abounded with small chapels dedicated to particular saints or saintesses; and of these there were images, chiefly of stone, which the ignorant vulgar regarded as objects of worship. The common people were in fact little better than rank idolaters. Such was the deep hold which Popery had in the district, that many years after the Reformed faith was introduced, some of the older inhabitants were accustomed, at particular times, to visit the old chapels, and kneel before the images. The Reformed ministers, of course, did all in their power to suppress this debasing superstition; but they found they had to do with a very “stiff-necked generation.” The work was not only difficult, but perilous. In 1613, Dr Richard Merchiston of Bower fell a martyr to his zeal against this species of hagiolatry. He was in the habit of going through the adjoining parishes, and demolishing the images wherever he found them. The people of Wick, at the time, would appear to have been still strongly attached to the old superstition. In the course of a crusade through that parish, the worthy iconoclast entered the royal burgh, and broke a stone image of their patron saint, St. Fergus.3 The inhabitants were shocked and exasperated at what they deemed an act of sacrilege, and with difficulty were restrained by the magistrates from doing violence to his person. They secretly threatened vengeance, however, and a party of them following him as he went home in the evening, caught hold of him and drowned him in the river of Wick. It was given out that it was the saints who did it, and that St. Fergus, in particular, was seen astride of the parson in the water, and holding him down! A further idea of the semi barbarous condition of the natives, and of the little regard paid to outward decency during the religious services of the church, may be gathered from the following anecdote in the old statistical account of Halkirk, “Some time after the Reformation,” says the writer, “during the incumbency of the Reverend Mr Cumming, the lettergae, as the precentor was called, was one Tait, gardener in Brawl. This Tait sung so loud, and with such a large open mouth, that a young fellow of the name of Iverach was tempted to throw a stone into it, whereby his teeth were broken and his singing stopped at once, and he himself almost choked. Iverach immediately took to his heels, the service was converted to laughter, two of Tait’s sons overtook him, and the scene was closed with a most desperate fight.”
It was some considerable time after the Reformation before all the parishes in the county were provided with ministers. In 1576 only four of the parishes - namely, Wick, Thurso, Halkirk, and Dunnet - had pastors. The other parishes were indifferently supplied by laics, who read to the people, and were thence called readers. All the incumbencies, however, would seem to have been filled up about the year 1600.4
It may be interesting to state that a Mr Zachary Pont was minister of Bower in the year 1605. He married Margaret, daughter of the celebrated John Knox, by his second wife, who was a daughter of Lord Ochiltree. The Ochiltree family bore the name of Stewart, and were related to the Royal House of Stewart. Robert Pont, the father of Zachary, was minister of St. Cuthbert’s in Edinburgh, and an intimate friend of the great reformer. James VI. offered him the bishopric of Caithness, which he refused. Mr Pont, the minister of Bower, had a daughter who was married into the family of Bishop Honeyman of Graemsay in Orkney; and the Honeymans afterwards by marriage became connected with the Dunbars of Scrabster, the Hendersons of Stemster, and other families in this county.
Education made still slower progress in the county than the reformation from Popery. The heritors disregarded, or at least evaded, the Parochial School Act; and the ministers, it would seem, were not very troublesome in urging upon them their bounden duty in regard to this most important matter. The peasantry were literally serfs, and the lairds were not particularly anxious to expand their ideas, and elevate them above that condition. Wick and Thurso were not legally supplied with schools till 1706;5 and, even so late as 1772, Reay was without a statutory school. In some cases the heritors gave the pittance of legal salary, but no school-room or schoolhouse, and the schoolmaster not unfrequently taught in the church or in the steeple! The steeple of the church at Dunnet was many years used as a school-room. Owing to the culpable negligence of the heritors, in not affording the necessary accommodation and means of education, the great body of the people, about the beginning of the eighteenth century, were in a lamentable state of ignorance. Not one in fifty could either read or write. In 1701, when a call was “moderated in” to a new minister in Wick, it is stated in the session records that the “call was unanimously subscribed by the heritors and elders present, and consented to by a great number who could not subscribe.” This is the more astonishing as we find from the Synod records that, in 1687, parents keeping back their children from school were to be rebuked by the session, and to be compelled to send them to it, at least three days in the week, and, further, that none be married who cannot say the Lord’s Prayer, Creed, and Ten Commandments! This, we suspect, would be found a pretty severe test even in our own enlightened age.
At the present day Caithness, in the matter of education, is pretty much on a par with most other counties in Scotland. The parochial schools, where the parishes are large, are supplemented by schools belonging to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, to the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, and to the Free Church. There are also a few subscription and adventure schools, which are chiefly taught in the winter season. Were it not for this addition to the means of education provided by law a great portion of the people would have been totally uneducated. This would have been particularly the case in such a parish as Latheron, for instance, which is about twenty-seven miles long and from ten to fifteen broad. When the last statistical account of this parish was drawn up there were in it altogether no fewer than eighteen schools. Of these, fourteen were unendowed, and, it is said, of very inferior quality. This might, indeed, be expected from the smallness of the emoluments, which averaged only from £3 to £4, including fees! “What is wanted,” the writer of the account very sensibly remarks, “is not so much additional schools as additional salaries. Without the latter it is hopeless to attempt to raise the character of the former.”
On the 5th of January, 1838, some Caithness gentlemen residing in Edinburgh organised a society, entitled “The Edinburgh Caithness Association,” chiefly with the laudable view of promoting the spread of education, and raising its standard in their native county. Its principal founder was Mr Benjamin Mackay, late of the High School, a man of great learning and distinguished ability. He drew up regulations and a programme of the various branches for examination, copies of which were transmitted to the several heritors, ministers, and teachers in the county. By the rules of the Association, competitions were to be held annually in Wick and Thurso. All the schools, male and female, in the two districts were to be open to them; and the clergy of the different denominations were to be the examinators, and to award the prizes to the successful competitors. No constitution could have been framed freer from sectarian or party bias or with a more benevolent object. The scheme was warmly approved of, and most of the gentlemen and clergy in Caithness, and a good many residing out of it, but connected with the county by property or otherwise, joined the Association, and remitted donations and contributions in order to raise a fund for defraying the necessary expenses. A handsome legacy of £100 was bequeathed to it by Mr Francis Sutherland, an old Caithnessman who had long resided in the United States. The Earl of Caithness was made honorary president. In the month of September, 1841, Mr Mackay attended himself the first competitions at Wick and Thurso, examined the pupils, and inaugurated the Association with great eclat. Everything promised to go on flourishingly, when the unfortunate Disruption in 1843 took place, and converted the whole of Scotland into an arena of bitter religious strife. The evil spirit got into the competitions, and, though outward decency was observed, there was little brotherly kindness among the examinators, and matters did not get on harmoniously. In awarding the prizes cries of partiality were raised, and broad insinuations thrown out of collusion between some of the examiners and the teachers. A system of cramming for the express purpose of carrying off prizes was known to be carried on; and many parents exclaimed against the practice of certain teachers, who, for several months every year, confined their attention to a few of their more advanced scholars, while the general business of the school was handed over to one or two of the bigger boys.
In 1845, the Free Church ministers and their teachers withdrew from the competitions, on the ground that the Committee of the Association at Edinburgh had arbitrarily appointed as chairman two gentlemen connected with the Established Church, whereas they ought to have left each meeting to choose its own chairman. The seceders set on foot a rival Association, and competitions under its auspices were held at Wick and Thurso for the first time in 1846, and continued for a year or two afterwards. The parent Association, however, by certain concessions, brought about a reunion, which continued until 1853, when a second disruption took place, and the rival association was reorganised. In 1857 the committee at Edinburgh obtained the assistance of Dr Cumming, Government Inspector of the Free Church schools, as examiner-in-chief at Wick and Thurso - an arrangement which they fondly hoped would unite all parties. But in this expectation they were disappointed; for the clergymen of both churches, generally speaking, kept away from the meetings, and but few schools sent pupils to them. The rival association, which betrayed symptoms of unhealthiness from the beginning, has ceased to exist; and the original competitions are still carried on, but they are not supported as they ought to be, and they have lost a good deal of the public interest which at first attached to them. Such is a brief history of the Edinburgh Caithness Association, or rather of the competitions at Wick and Thurso, which shows how extremely difficult it is to work out the most benevolent scheme when it has to contend with the jealousies and prejudices of human nature. It cannot be denied, however, that in spite of these unfortunate jarrings and divisions, the competitions have done good. They have given a stimulus to education in the county; and they might have been productive of still greater benefits if the mischievous spirit of party could have been excluded from the proceedings.
To the honour of the Association it deserves to be mentioned, that since the competitions commenced, not fewer than 1500 volumes of literary and religious publications have been distributed as prizes, exceeding in value £200, besides £100 expended in bursaries to students from Caithness attending the University of Edinburgh. Mr Andrew Snody, a gentleman who had long taken a warm interest in the cause of education, has been secretary of the association from its commencement.
The accommodation of the parochial schoolmasters of Caithness is of a very inferior description. With one or two exceptions, their houses are strictly built according to what Professor Pillans somewhere terms the “villanous Act of 1803,” which provides that the dwelling house shall consist of not more than two rooms, including the kitchen. From a paragraph in Lord Cockburn’s “Memorial of his Times,” it would appear that the schoolmasters of Scotland may be thankful that they got even this small accommodation. Lord-Advocate Hope was the person who officially promoted the measure in Parliament; and Cockburn says :-“ Hope told me that he had considerable difficulty in getting even the two rooms, and that a great majority of the lairds and Scotch members were quite indignant at being obliged to build palaces for dominies !“ Comment on this is unnecessary. An amelioration of the condition of the parish schoolmasters is imperatively required. It is vain to talk of elevating the standard of education without elevating the status of the teacher. If the parochial school establishment is to be maintained, it must be greatly extended, and the salary increased to such amount as will render the office of schoolmaster an object worthy of a man of talent and literary attainment.
1. In a note which I was kindly favoured with on this subject from Professor Cosmo Innes, hesays, “I do not think you will and more information of the diocese of Caithness, and its revenue and benefices than is given in the “Origines Parochiales Scotiae.” Bishop Gilbert Murray’s foundation shows no great endowment before his time. But then you have traces of those old exactions and dues which preceded the acquiring of tithes. We have no “Antiqua Taxatio,” nor “Verus valor,” nor “Bagimont Roll” of Caithness.
2. The crown landsare now under the management of the Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Woods, etc. Before 1809 the rent was as low as £80. It was then raised to £700, and at present the lettings are as follows :- Scrabster, £925; Dorrery, with shootings, £442 1Os.; Lythmore and Stemster, £514 18s. 3d.; in all, £1882 8s. 3d. - Henderson’s Gen, View, 49th Rep. Com, Woods, etc. -” Cawdor Papers,”
3. St. Fergus was no legendary or fabulous saint, but an Irish missionary who came to Caithness about the middle, it is supposed, of the eighth century, and did much to convert the natives, who were then in a state of heathenism, to Christianity. His residence would appear to have been in Wick, or its neighbourhood. After labouring for some time in that district he went to Buchan, in Aberdeenshire, and thence to Glammis, in Angus, where he died. His remains were deposited in the Abbey of Scone. “The great house of Cheyne,” says Coscno Innes, “so much connected with Caithness, was proprietor of the parish in Buchan, which derives its name of St. Fergus from the Caithness saint. “-See note by this eminent archaeo1ogist in “Bannatyne’s Miscellany,” VoL III. One of the fairs in Wick is named after this saint the Fergusmas.
4. The ministers were for a long period very poorly paid. In 1658, the stipend of Olrig, for instance, was only a little more than £25 stg. That of Halkirk in 1685 was £36; and even as low down as the middle of last century, the stipends averaged only £52.
5. Since the Brat edition of this work, I find that Canisbay also got a statutory school in 1706. The salary given to the teacher was a chalder of victual and twenty pounds Scots, to be paid by the heritors in proportion to the valued rent of their respective properties. The heritors at the time were Sir James Sinclair of Mey, David Sinclair of Freswlck, John Sinclair of Ratter for his lands in Stroma, Sir Alexander Mackenzie for the “nether town” of Stroma, Margaret Sinclair (relict of Alexander Sinclair of Brabster), Donald Groat of Warse, and John Groat, portioner of Duncansbay.