N E W S F E E D S >>>

History of Caithness
J.T. Calder
Chapter 4
(Note: The whole chapter is on this page)

Index & Introduction  Chapter One  Chapter Two  Chapter Three

Civil And Traditional
History Of Caithness

Chapter 4

In the year 1196, a famous battle was fought on the hill of Clairdon, about two miles to the east of Thurso, between Earl Harold, son of the infamous Countess of Athole, and Harold, grandson of that Earl Ronald who was assassinated in Caithness. By way of distinction they are called Harold the Elder and Harold the Younger. The former, who, from his extraordinary cruelty and tyranny, has acquired the cogno­men of Wicked Earl Harold, was a perfect scourge to Caithness, and his memory is handed down by tradition in it even to this day, confirming the truth of the poet’s remark, that “the evil that men do lives after them.” This bold bad man had violently dispossessed Harold the Younger of one-half of the county, which belonged to him by inheritance from his grand­father, Earl Ronald; and it was to recover his share of the earldom and his hereditary rights that the latter took the field. Each mustered a large force.  The army of Harold the Younger was mostly all natives of Caithness; that of Harold the Elder was chiefly composed of Orkneymen or Norwegians.  Murt and Lifolf, two brave and experienced officers, led on the Caithnessmen. 

The battle commenced with a furious attack on both sides, and raged for some time without any decided advantage to either. At length, notwithstanding their supe­riority in numbers, the Norvegians were on the point of being completely routed - and were, in fact, pursued with great slaughter to a hollow near the head of Murkle Bay-when the leaders of Harold the Younger’s army were both unfortunately slain. Harold himself had fallen in the early part of the engagement; and the Caithnessmen, having none now to lead them, got into confusion, and fled from the field with the utmost precipitation. Harold was buried near the spot where he fell, and a small temple or chapel was erected over his grave, which was afterwards resorted to as a shrine by the inhabitants of the neighbourhood.  The author of the “Book of Flota” says that “the many miracles by which God was pleased to honour his remains certified to those that then lived that he was a good man, and had a just cause.” The chapel, in process of time, fell into decay, and the late Sir John Sinclair, in memory of the event, erected a monument over the spot, which bears the name of Harold’s Tower.  Some of the weapons used in this battle were found in a peat moss near the old castle of Haymer. They were ugly-looking machines, resembling a ploughshare, and were all of solid iron.

After this victory Harold easily subdued the whole of Caithness, and then returned in triumph to Orkney. When William the Lion, who was then king of Scotland, heard of the state of matters in Caithness, he despatched a message to Reginald,1 Lord of the Isles, with whom he was on terms of amity, asking him to give his assistance in recovering that county from the tyranny of Harold. Reginald readily under­took the task, and having transported a body of troops into Caithness, he defeated and put to flight the Norwegians that opposed him, and soon placed the whole county under the authority of its legitimate sovereign.  He next appointed three governors to administer the civil affairs of the district, and then set sail for the isles. As soon as Reginald departed, Harold, who was biding his time, sent over a confidential emissary to Caithness with private instructions to assassinate the deputies, one of whom the miscreant succeeded in putting to death.  Harold soon after followed himself with a large army, fully determined to reconquer the county. He disembarked his troops at Scrabster Roads, where the fleet which conveyed them found a safe and commodious anchorage.  The inhabitants of Thurso, who had sided with the king’s party in the recent contest, were thrown into the utmost consternation when they heard of Harold’s arrival; and, anticipating nothing but the severest punishment, they applied to John, bishop of the county, and begged of him to intercede with the tyrant in their behalf.

The bishop, who lived near Scrabster, agreed to do so, and having met Harold on his way into the town, strongly pleaded for mercy to the poor people, but the savage Earl only laughed at his request, and ordered one of his attendants, named Lom­berd, to seize the prelate, and cut out his tongue, and put out both his eyes!” 2  He then proceeded to the town, where he scourged and imprisoned all of the inhabitants who could not pay the heavy fine which he imposed, and hanged such of the principal men in it as he knew were not favourable to his rule. In this way, he overran the whole of Caithness, and forced the terrified natives everywhere to submit to his despotic authority.  In the meantime, messengers were despatched to the Scottish Court to inform King William of the atrocious outrage on the bishop, and of the cruel and tyrannical pro­ceedings of Harold in the county. William forthwith collected a large body of troops, and marched with all speed to Caith­ness, for the purpose of chastising Harold and putting a check to his wicked and barbarous measures in the north.

After crossing the Ord of Caithness, he encamped at Ausdale, a solitary valley about four miles from Berriedale.  Harold mustered an army to oppose him, but finding that he had much fewer troops than the king, he proposed terms of accommodation, and sued for peace.3   The king, with ill-judged lenity, granted him a pardon for the outrages he had com­mitted, and, only mulcting him in a heavy fine, re-instated him in the earldom.  This fine, which Fordan says, amounted to two thousand pounds of silver, Harold forced the inhabi­tants to pay. The Pope ordered Lomberd to undergo a long and mortifying penance for the cruel and unchristian manner ill which he had used the bishop. The missive of his Holiness, which we have slightly condensed, is addressed to the Bishop of Orkney, and enjoins as follows :-“ Lomberd, bare­footed and naked, except breeches and a short woollen vest without sleeves, having his tongue tied by a string and drawn out so as to project beyond his lips, and the ends of the string bound round his neck, with rods in his hand, in sight of all men, shall walk for fifteen days successively through his own native district, etc.; he shall go to the door of the church without entering, and there, prostrate on the earth, be scourged with the rods he is to carry; he is to spend each day in fasting and silence, and to be fed in the evening on bread and water only.  After these fifteen days are passed, he shall prepare within a month to set out for Jerusalem, and there labour in the service of the cross for three years; and for two years he shall fast every Friday on bread and water, unless by the indulgence of some discreet bishop, on account of bodily infirmity, this abstinence be mitigated.” It does not appear that Harold, the author of the barbarity, was made to undergo any penitentiary discipline.4  He died in the year 1206, aged 73. He was a man of large stature, and his face was remark­able for its ferocity of expression.  He was succeeded by his son John.

After this, few events of any local or historical importance occurred till the year 1222. At this time, Adam, Bishop of Caithness, was barbarously put to death in his own palace at Halkirk by the people, on account of the rigour with which he exacted his tithes. He excommunicated, it is said, several of them for not paying their allotted portion of tiend - a terrible infliction in those days, when it was believed that no person who died under that curse could escape eternal punishment. The blame of much of this undue severity was imputed to a monk of Newbottle, named Serlo, who lived with him as a companion, and was known to be his confidential friend and adviser. A part of the bishop’s revenue consisted of a tax on butter; and it was the established usage in Caithness, that for every score of cows, a span of butter should be paid to that dignitary.  Adam at first exacted a span (about a stone of Scots measure) from fifteen cows, then from twelve, and at length demanded a span for every ten cows. This the people considered an intolerable imposition to which they would not submit, and waxed exceedingly wroth against the bishop and the monk. There was an annual fair held on a hill, near the Castle of Braw1,5 where John, Earl of Caithness, at this time usually resided.

At this fair, the inhabitants of the district, to the number of about 300, collected, and led on by two sons of one Simon Harbister, in Harpsdale, they went in a body to the Earl, complained bitterly of the hardship and injustice of the impost, and demanded redress. The Earl at first refused to interfere in the matter, as being one with which he had no concern; but feeling annoyed at their importunity, and disapproving at the same time of the conduct of the bishop, he hastily ejaculated, “The devil take the bishop and his butter; you may roast him if you please!“ The people took this remark in its literal sense, as an order to burn the prelate, and off they set to the palace to put it into execution.  The bishop and the bogmadr, or lawman of the place, whose name was Rafn, were at the time in an upper room of the mansion, discussing the subject of the tithes, and solacing themselves with a glass of ale. The lawman seriously advised Adam to depart from his last demand, and not to exasperate the people, but the latter was obstinate and refused to listen to the salutary advice. In the meantime, the disorderly mob drew near, shouting out, “Roast him alive!” and when the bishop and the sheriff saw that matters were beginning to assume a serious aspect, Serlo, the monk, was sent out to pacify them; but no sooner did he make his appearance, than he was felled to the ground by the stroke of a heavy bludgeon, and trampelled to death by the crowd. The sheriff now came forward and tried to mollify their rage.  He assured them that Bishop Adam was disposed to lighten the exaction, and that he was coming out to speak with them on the subject. He beseeched them to listen to reason, and not to commit any further outrage, having already done what was sufficient to bring down upon them the heaviest punishment of the law. But his address had little or no effect on the infuriated rabble; and when the prelate, clad in the robes of his office, and with a small crucifix hanging from his breast, advanced to offer terms, they dragged him forcibly to his own kitchen, heaped on the fire additional fuel, and there burned him to death!6 The sheriff, who saw that his own life would be in jeopardy if he attempted to interfere, was obliged to remain a passive spectator of the horrid deed.

When King Alexander II. heard of the barbarous murder of the bishop, he came all the way from Jedburgh to Caith­ness, and inflicted on the perpetrators thereof as barbarous a punishment.7 The greater part of them were, by the king’s orders, hanged, and the rest had their feet and hands cut off, and were otherwise mutilated in a manner too shocking for description. Pope Celestine the Fourth issued a bull, still extant, in which he highly commends the king for his praise­worthy conduct on this occasion. All the ancient writers, who treat of the North, relate this story, and though they differ in a few particulars, they agree in the main fact as to the burning of the bishop. Boethius lays the whole blame of the crime upon the Earl. He says-” Adam, Bishop of Caithness, because he piously maintained the rights and dignities of the church, was thrown into a glowing furnace by the Earl of that county, and burnt to ashes, and thus took his flight to heaven.” Wyntoun, in his quaint, old rhyming chronicle, thus describes the murder of the Bishop --

“Himself bindyn and woundyt, syne
 Thai put him in his awyn kychyne, (kitchen)
 In thair felony and thair ire,
 Thare thai brynt him in a fyre.”

This unfortunate prelate was a native of the south of Scotland, and had been for some time Abbot of Melrose. He was consecrated Bishop of Caithness in 1214. The ceremony is thus stated in the chronicle of Melrose :-“ Anno MCCXIIII. consecratus est Adam, Abbas Melrosenensis in Episcop. de Cathanesiae.” The newly-elected Bishop seems to have been a man of a proud and unbending disposition; and coming as he did from Melrose, it is not improbable also that he was a boa vivant; for, according to the popular rhyme, --

 “The monks of Melrose they made gude kail
   On Fridays, when they fasted;
   They never wanted beef or ale
   As lang’s their neighbour’s lasted."8

It would appear, however, that he was a scholar, and possessed of considerable literary talent. Among other works, he is said to have been the author of a history of Scotland in three books.9  By the clergy he was regarded as a martyr, who had died in defence of the rights and privileges of the order; and his body not having been altogether consumed by the flames, the remains were afterwards disinterred from the common burying ground in Halkirk, and removed to a more honourable sepulture in the cathedral church of the diocese at Dornoch.

Nothing can more forcibly show the barbarous-or I might rather say savage-condition of the natives of Caithness at the period in question than this murder. The Church of Rome was then in the full zenith of her power. The whole of Christendom yielded to her the most implicit obedience. The priestly office was held in the utmost veneration, and the person of an ecclesiastic was hedged round with a divinity which rendered him sacred in the eyes of the multitude. Such being the almost idolatrous reverence paid to the clergy, it is evident that the people of Caithness, barbarous as they were, must have been very harshly dealt with in the matter of tithes, and wrought up to a desperate pitch of frenzy before they could have committed such a heinous crime as that of putting to death a churchman, and that churchman, too, the highest dignitary in the county.

Although there is no sufficient reason to believe that the Earl really instigated the people to burn the bishop, yet he was justly reprehensible for the rash and indiscreet expression which they construed into an order for committing the deed. He absconded for some time; but afterwards took courage, and resolved to justify himself in person before the king. “With this view,” says a Scotch chronicler, “he made his application upon the day of the Epiphany, when, conform to custom, the court was all in mirth, and the king, with wine and music, more than usually exhilarated.”  These circumstances were favourable to the Earl, who attested his innocence with oaths, and was therefore pardoned.  Not many years after he was murdered himself in Thurso by a set of ruffians from Orkney.  The house in which he resided when in town being attacked, he ran down to a cellar underground to conceal himself, but being found out by the assassins, he was dragged from his hiding-place, and cruelly stabbed to death. They then, according to the usual practice, set fire to the house.  The two principal actors in this tragedy were Haneff, the collector of the King of Norway’s revenue in Orkney, and Svekoll, a descendant of Earl Ronald.  The latter had some time before quarrelled with Earl John about some property in Caithness which the Earl refused to give up, and on this account Svekoll, in particular, cherished towards him a violent animosity.  The party sallied out from a tavern where they had been carousing to perpetrate the crime.

Adam, the late bishop, was succeeded in the diocese of Caithness by the celebrated archdeacon, Gilbert Murray, who is said to have been one of the most-pious, learned, and accomplished prelates of his time.  He was a native of Duffus, in Morayshire, of highly respectable parentage, and was chiefly educated abroad. When he had finished his studies, he travelled through the greater part of Germany, France, and Italy, in order to enlarge his knowledge of the world, and observe in person the political, social, and religious condition of the people in the different places through which he passed.  On his return to his native country, he entered the Church, and by his eminent talents, learning, and qualifications for the ministerial office, soon rose to be Archdeacon of Moray. He particularly distinguished himself as a strenuous supporter of the rights and liberties of the Scottish Church; and when yet a young man, was sent by William, King of Scotland, to attend a convocation of the clergy at Northampton,10 in order to prevent any measure being adopted there which might be prejudicial to her interests.  “At this convocation,” says Sir Robert Gordon, “the Pope’s legate was present, and went about to persuade the Scots to receive the Archbishop of York for their metropolitan; which motion this Gilbert, then Archdeacon of Moray, did altogether cross and hinder as a novation and encroachment upon the Scottish liberties, and did argue so eagerly and eloquently to the contrary, and with so great admiration, that the legate was obliged to leave his pursuit and break up the convocation, whereat the English clergy were much grieved.”

Murray was also in high favour with Alexander II., who made him treasurer for the North of Scotland, and committed to his safe keeping the Bulls which were issued by sundry popes concerning the rights and liberties of the Scottish Church.  He was, unquestionably, an able and patriotic prelate; and, when circumstances demanded it, he could lay aside the crosier and take up the sword,   --a thing quite common with churchmen of spirit in those days.  On one remarkable occasion he is said to have greatly distinguished himself in this military capacity.  A large band of Danish pirates had landed at the Little Ferry; and as they were on their way to plunder Dornoch, they were attacked by a body of Highlanders under William, Earl of Sutherland, assisted by the bishop and his brother, Richard Murray, at a place called Embo, not far from the town.  After a severe conflict the Danes were completely routed, and their leader was slain. A number of them were cut down by the Sutherland men as they chased them to the ferry; while the few that escaped the sword immediately took to their galleys and left the coast.  At the commencement of the action, Bishop Murray’s armour-bearer, it is said, took to his heels and fled, carrying his master’s shield along with him; and being deprived of this important safeguard, the worthy prelate was obliged to fight without it.  His brother, Richard, was killed in the course of the engagement.

In the time of Bishop Gilbert Murray, Sutherland and Caithness formed one diocese. His residence when in Caithness was the Castle of Burnside,11 near Thurso, a part of the ruins of which still remains. It stood, like most of the other castles of the period, close by the sea, on the margin of the crescent-shaped bank overlooking Scrabster Roads, and on the land side was protected by a drawbridge.  A terrace formed in the bank, and extending to about half a mile from the castle, was called the Bishop’s Walk.  Here Murray died in the year 1245, and his remains were carried all the way to Dornoch, and interred in the cathedral there which himself had founded.  He was an excellent prelate, and did much to instruct and civilise the inhabitants.  He translated, it is said, for the benefit of the people composing his see, the Psalms and the Gospels into the Gaelic language, from which it may be inferred that in his time the Gaelic was the common dialect of both Sutherland and Caithness. Indeed, it is now generally allowed by antiquarians that it was the common language of all Scotland, with the exception of the Lothians, down till the reign of Malcolm Canmore, in the eleventh century.  The deceased prelate was, on account of his many eminent virtues, duly canonised.  His festival was celebrated on the first day of April, and St. Gilbert was among the Scotch saints restored to the kalendar of the Scotch church in the ill-starred Service Book of Charles the First.

1263. - After a lapse of some eighteen years from the death of Murray, the only matter of any public interest connected with the county refers to the celebrated expedition of Haco, King of Norway, to Largs.  On his way thither Haco called at Orkney, where he remained for about three weeks, providing his fleet with additional stores and other necessaries for his expedition.  The first place to which he came was Elwick bay, in Shapinshay.  He afterwards, accompanied by Magnus, Earl of Orkney, who had joined him with all his available force, removed to St. Margaret’s Hope, in the island of South Ronaldshay.  During the time he was there he despatched agents to Caithness for the purpose of exacting tribute from the natives.  These officials were instructed to acquaint the people that if they refused to pay the tax the King of Norway would punish them by laying waste the country with fire and sword, and rather than incur the threatened infliction they paid the impost.  At length, early in the month of August, Haco set sail with his fleet from St. Margaret’s Hope, and nearing the Caithness coast, passed through the Pentland Firth.  His own ship, the royal galley, is described as being of large dimensions, and constructed wholly of oak. “Its dragon head glowed with burnished gold; the banner of Norway was displayed at the stern, and the warrior champions were ranged along the deck in proud array.”  In the mean­time, to repel the threatened invasion, of which he had timely notice, the Scottish King, Alexander III., had collected about two thousand horse and a numerous host of foot soldiers, which were commanded by Alexander Stewart, grandfather of the first monarch of that name who sat on the Scottish throne.  In this army, Abercromby, in his “Martial Achievements,” says there was a body of Caithnessmen.  The natives of the county never became thoroughly reconciled to the Norwegian yoke; and it is probable that the body of men in question went to assist the Scottish king on this occasion chiefly out of revenge for the impost which had been levied on them by Haco, and the despotic manner in which they were in general used by their Scandinavian governors.  Tytler, the historian, mentions a curious precautionary measure which was adopted by Alexander in order to secure the allegiance of the petty chiefs of the Hebrides, namely, the seizing of a number of their children as hostages.  Similar hostages were also taken from Caithness, who were allowed each a penny a day for their support.

The result of Haco’s expedition is well known.  In the battle of Largs he lost 16,000 of his men, and the greater part of his vast fleet, which consisted of more than 100 ships, was destroyed by a tempest.  Haco himself, on his way home, died of a broken heart in the bishop’s palace at Kirkwall; and his remains, which were at first laid in the cathedral, were afterwards brought over to Norway, and buried, with all the funeral pomp befitting royalty, in Bergen.  Torfaeus mentions that a few days before the battle an annular eclipse of the sun happened. “Nonis Augusti tenebrae solem obfuscabant, circulo tantum lucido sidus ambienti.”

1. By the Noise writers this Hebridean chief is named Rognva1d Gudrodson. He was of Norwegian extraction, being the son of Ingeborg, daughter of Earl Hacon Paulson,

2. This crime would appear to have been very common in ancient times. In Hume’s “History of England” there occurs the following passage -“ By an Act of the fifth of this reign (Henry IV.) it is made felony to cut out any per­son’s tongue or put out his eyes ;“ crimes which the Act says were very frequent. “This savage spirit of revenge,” he adds, “denotes a barbarous people.”

3. Sir Robert Gordon, on the authority of Boethius, says that King William chased Harold to Duncansbay, where, by way of retaliation, he first put out his eyes, etc., and then hanged him. But this story is not entitled to the slightest credit. Boethius, as Robertson just1y observes, is a credulous writer; and Torfaeus’ account of the matte; as given in the text, is, beyond a doubt, the correct one.

4. In the former edition, the author fell into an error in stating that it was Harold, and not Lomberd, who was ordered by the Pope to do penance for the mutilation of John, Bishop of Caithness. The account of this barbarous deed was transmitted to the Pope by the Bishop of Orkney; and that dignitary, most probably from fear of Harold’s resentment, would seem to have with­held the truth, and thrown the whole blame on Lombcrd, who was merely an instrument in the hands of the more guilty chief.

5. The Castle of Brawl
(the ruins of which still exist) was anciently called Brathwell. In Scottish record mention of it is made as far back as the year 1375. Like the castle of Girnigoe, it comprehended two buildings belonging to different eras of architecture. The part of the tower which remains of the older building is 35 feet in height; and the walls, which are 9 feet thick, are pierced with numerous loopholes. There are several recesses in the walls, about the size of small rooms, which were evidently used as such by the inmates, and which would appear to have communicated with passages and staircases similarly placed. The front of the newer castle, which seems not to have been completed, is from 12 to 15 feet high, with a ground floor measur­ing 100 feet long and 50 broad, and divided into 6 vaults. The ruins are situated on a beautiful spot close by the river of Halkirk; and the old tower, or keep, from its being the occasional residence of the Scandinavin Earls of Orkney and Caithness, was in all probability erected by one of them.

6. The common tradition in the county is that the bishop was boiled to death in his own brewing kettle, but the account given in the text is the one which history authenticates.

7. The writer of the old statistical account of Halkirk says-” The Bishop of Caithness was assassinated by a set of ruffians from Harpsdale, a place belonging to the chaplainry.  These savages were the sons of John of Harpsdale, whom the Earl of Caithness suborned as instruments very fit for the execution of that horrid deed, in revenge of the bishop having assessed his lands in the chaplainry with an addition to the chaplain’s living. This account, which the writer says he had from tradition, differs materially from that given in the text from Torfaeus, but I am inclined to think that the Norse chronicler’s version of the story is the true one, more especially as it agrees in most particulars with the accounts found in the “Monastic Annals of Tweedale,” and other ancient records

8. The monks of old, both in England and Scotland, would appear to have kept a first-rate table. Hume, in his history of England, gives the following amusing anecdote in proof of this from an ancient writer :-The monks and prior of St Swithin threw themselves one day prostrate on the ground before Henry II. complaining, with many tears and much doleful lamentation, that the Bishop of Winchester, who was also their abbot, had cut off three dishes from their table: “How many has he left you?” said the king. “Ten only,” replied the disconsolate monks. “I myself,” exclaimed the king, never have more than three; and I enjoin your bishop to reduce you to the same number.”

9. In a long list of authors whom Sir Robert Gordon consulted, when writing his History of the House of Sutherland, the first mentioned is “Adamus, Episcopus Cateynensis,” Adam, Bishop of Caithness.

10. Cosmo Innes, a learned and able writer on antiquities, discredits altogether this account of Sir Robert and others, touching Murray’s presence at the con­vocation, and it must be admitted that his remark carries much force with It.  “The story,” says he, “of his having distinguished himself at the council of Northampton in 1176, and thereby winning a rapid promotion to his bishopric, when the election to the sea of Caithness happened forty-seven years after that council, needs no refutation.  He had better titles to respect. He had a large share in civilising his rude province,” etc.

11. This castle of Burnside was in 1568 the residence of Bishop Robert Stewart, who dates from it a charter of some property in the town of Thurso, of which, as well as of the adjoining lands of Ormlie, the bishops were superiors.  He was brother of Mathew Stewart, Eari of Lennox, and uncle of Darnley. He afterwards renounced Popery, and became an intimate friend of the great Reformer.  He died in 1586.

Intro   Chapter One  Chapter Two  Chapter Three