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History of Caithness
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EARLY NOTICE OF CAITHNESS.—The earliest
notice we have of Caithness is to be found in the Life of Ambrosius
Merlin, who flourished in the fifth century; but although the
“strange prophecies” of this author are looked upon by many as being
of an apocryphal character, yet it may interest not a few in
Caithness to know who were the inhabitants of the county in the
first century. Merlin says that Marius, son of Arviragus was
“crowned king (of Britain) in the years of our blessed Saviour
threescore and fourteene, a wise and just man, and flourished in
great prosperity and wealth; in whose time one Loudricus (whom some
writers call Rodicus), with a mighty Army of Picts or Scythians,
whom some call also Goths, and Huns, landed in a part of Scotland,
wasting and spoyling wheresoever he came with Iron and Fire, whom
Marius met in Battaile and gave him a great overthrow, in which
their Duke Loudricus was slaine; in remembrance of which victory in
Stanismore, a place of Westmaria or Westmoreland, where this
battaile was fought, he caused a great stone or pillar to be
erected, upon which was inscribed in capital Letters Marii victoria.
The remnant of the Army that survived the battaile humbly besought
the King to allow them some place under his dominions in which to
inhabite, who commiserating their case granted them a place in
Scotland Cathnese, to whom the Britaines, disdaining to give their
daughters in marriage, they allyed themselves with the Irish, and
were afterwards called Pictavians.”|
A SKETCH OF THE HILL OF WICK CASE.
This common, situated about half a mile northward of the royal burgh of Wick, was surrounded by the cultivated land occupied by the tenants of the Hempriggs estate. Its limits, as defined by one who knew them in 1748,* were as follows:-“Bounded by the following lands, viz., the lands of Wick, Gallowhill, Smallquoys, Gillock, Whiterashes, Kilminster, Ackergill, West Noss, Quoystain, Staxigoe, Dam of Papigoe, and the lands of Papigoe.” On the tract of land thus surrounded, the tenants on the estates of Hempriggs and Hopville (now Sibster), and the feuars of Wick and their tenants from time immemorial pastured their cattle and sheep, cast feal and divot, and prepared clay for building purposes. The witness quoted above states that about the year mentioned “the feuars of Wick and their tenants had upwards of 80 head of cattle and 300 to 400 sheep pasturing on the said commonty.”
The liberties thus enjoyed by the townspeople were neither restricted nor encroached upon until the beginning of the present century, when one of the tenants of Sir Benjamin Dunbar (afterwards Lord Duffus), proprietor of the Hempriggs estate, began cutting a ditch at Blackbridge so as to enclose a considerable portion of the common where the feuars had hitherto exercised their rights of pasturage.
The Magistrates and Town Council, considering themselves “the natural guardians” of the rights now encroached upon, met and instructed a “Protest and Interruption,” and afterwards an interdict. A deputation from the Town Council visited Sir Benjamin on the subject, and it was only after considerable delay on his part, and being hard pressed by the action of the Town Council that he would condescend to give a definite reply to their remonstrances or come to terms with them so as to have an amicable settlement of the subject in dispute. Several years after the action taken by the Magistrates and Town Council, Sir Benjamin did condescend to approach that body, and this be did in a pompous and magniloquent “Representation,” wherein he says, “it must be a very desirable circumstance that all bounding property, servitudes, and claims of both parties should be ascertained and fixed, for while they remain unsettled the rapacious attempts of individuals will, under the mask of public exertions, appropriate to their present advantage everything they can filch from both parties; and the proprietor of the estate of Hempriggs finds himself in this manner hindered from dealing on that liberal footing with the inhabitants of the burgh that he would be inclined to do, or giving them those accommodations he otherwise wished to do. Sir Benjamin Dunbar therefore proposes to enter into
[Note at bottom of page 340]* See William Swanson’s evidence in proof led in 1818.
a submission upon the broadest basis of all claims competent to each party against the other party in which their interests may clash.”
A submission or plan of arbitration was drawn up by the Town Council, and concurred in by sundry heritors and feuars—between Sir Benjamin and the provost, bailies, and council—for having the rights of the superior, feuars, and other inhabitants of the town to the Hill of Wick and the Mosses of Hayland and Bronzie ascertained, and to have the same divided according to the rights of the respective parties. Following upon this submission, an action was raised in the Court of Session at the instance of Sir Benjamin Dunbar, Mr William Macleay (residing magistrate of the burgh), Mr James Horne (Writer to the Signet, Edinburgh), Mr John Macleay (of Rosebank, Wick), and Mr Harry Bain (merchant, Wick), against the feuars of the burgh, to “exhibit and produce their several rights and titles whereby they claim right to the said commonty and mosses, or to the rights of servitude thereon.” The summons is dated and signeted the 1st February, 1813. Proceedings had gone on for some years in the case, when the baronet appears to have got some legal enlightenment on the position he should take in the action, which resulted in his presenting a petition to the Court of Session craving to be sisted from being a pursuer in the case to that of a defender. The Lord Ordinary decided against him; but, on a reclaiming petition to the First Division of the Court, their lordships “alter the interlocutor of the Lord Ordinary reclaimed against, allow the name of the petitioner to be withdrawn from this process as a pursuer, and to sist himself a defender therein.” Accordingly, Sir Benjamin lodged his defences, which resolve into the statement that the whole tract of land sought to be divided was his property. By an interlocutor of 3rd July, 1818, Lord Alloway “sustains the defences for Sir Benjamin Dunbar, assoilzies him from the conclusions of the libel, and decerns.” Litigation, notwithstanding, continued; but this reverse decision was doubtless a severe blow to the pursuers—their co-litigant, the leading pursuer in the case, and upon whose support they chiefly relied, thus to assume a decidedly hostile attitude towards their cause, and to have legal sanction for his action, must have had a very depressing effect upon the Town Council and feuars, who had hitherto displayed the utmost energy and determination in prosecuting their cause.
But before this interlocutor was pronounced, and while Sir Benjamin appeared as a pursuer in the action, a commission was granted to Mr Henderson, Sheriff-Substitute of Caithness, and proof to a certain extent taken. After this, proceedings were suspended until 1824, when a remit was made to Sheriff Traill as judicial referee; but this appears to have fallen by the tacit consent of all parties. Six years after there was “a wakening of the process which had fallen asleep.” In June, 1830, Lord Newton renewed the commission at the instance of all parties-pursuers and defenders, or either of them—to the Sheriff-Depute or Substitute of Caithness to take the proof, with the powers and in the terms specified in former interlocutors.
Mr Gregg, Sheriff-Substitute, accepted the commission, held his court at Wick, where all parties having interest were cited to appear. At the first diet fixed for proof, Mr Stuart, Edinburgh, and Mr Rose, town clerk, appeared for the superior of the burgh and Magistrates, as representing the community, and for Mr Horne of Langwell, and others. Mr George Lewis Sinclair, W.S., Edinburgh, appeared for Lord Duffus, who gave in a Representation and Protest from his lordship, wherein it was stated “that by an Act of Parliament, when a royal burgh and an entailed property are concerned, no division of commonty can take place except by a special act obtained for that purpose. That the burgh, or pretended burgh of Wick, has no land or feudal investment or burgage tenure. Therefore that in the present case no claim from them can be admitted nor any proceedings take place whilst they assert a title.” This reference to the Act of 1695 clearly indicates the cause of that sudden and inexplicable change of action manifested by Lord Duffus in presenting the petition to the Lord Ordinary to sist him from being a pursuer to a defender in the case. By this statute, commonties belonging to the sovereign and royal burghs are expressly excluded from division.
Sheriff Gregg, after leading a full and voluminous proof, gave in a most elaborate and exhaustive report on the evidence adduced, wherein he states, in considering the case for the magistrates as representing the burgh, “I have great doubts whether a claim, such as is urged by the burgh, can be at all legally sustained...on one point. Murray’s case (a case previously quoted) is not without value; it shows that it is inconsistent with the nature of servitudes of this kind, that any party not in possession of the dominant tenement should have the benefit thereof in claiming. Consistently with this principle, if a whole burgh were feued out, the magistrates, for the community, could not claim as well as the individual feuars. At best they claim only for what the feuars do not claim for; but in this case where is the line of distinction to be drawn? On what proof does the burgh found, except the proof adduced in evidence of individual right?”
The commissioner shows indisputably that the rights possessed by the feuars of the burgh were merely of a servitudal character, and in no degree proprietory; and after a careful examination of titles produced with the evidence led, he could admit only the rights of ten feuars, with respect to whose claims he reports:–“I sustain the following for right of servitude of pasturage and divots, each for one cow.” There were fifty-eight feuars in the burgh. Of these, twenty claimed, but neither proved nor produced titles; nineteen produced titles, but did not bring proof to support their claims; nine claims were defective in proof, and were not sustained. From this it will be seen that on investigation the rights of the feuars and inhabitants to the Hill of Wick were limited to that of ten of the former, and that to the extent of pasture for one cow, and to cut divot for house purposes.
Notwithstanding the sound legal opinion expressed by the commissioner in his report, the magistrates still looked upon themselves as the “natural guardians” of the people’s rights, and persisted in the action, with the result as shown in Lord Fullerton’s interlocutor of 11th July, 1833:–“The Lord Ordinary having heard parties’ procurators, and considered the cases together with the proofs, finds that the parties now appearing as pursuers have not a title to insist in the present action; therefore refuses the representation given against Lord Alloway’s interlocutor of the 3rd July, 1818 years; sustains the defences for Lord Duffus, and assoilzies him from the conclusions of the libel, but finds no expenses due, and decerns.”
Although costs were not given against the magistrates, yet the expenses incurred amounted to £580, being paid by them out of the burgh funds. The council proposed to bear the one-half thereof, and to apportion the other amongst the feuars. But few of those for whom the magistrates “fought and bled “ paid their share of the expense allocated upon them. In the annual balance-sheet of the burgh the claim against the feuars for expenses incurred in the Hill of Wick process stood as an asset until 1877, when it was wiped off the council’s books as irrecoverable. This case cost the Town Council fully £500.
Had the ten feuars whose claims were sustained continued to send their cattle to the common, it is not in the least degree probable that they would have been prevented, but failing to do so for the past fifty years, their right has doubtless lapsed.
The Hill of Wick at the beginning of the century was a large tract of uncultivated land, but has for the last thirty years been all under cultivation, and yields excellent crops. The road formed in 1847 to Nosshead Lighthouse runs through it, having about a fourth of its extent to the east of the road.
Note - Table To Go HERE
LIVINGS OF CAITHNESS CLERGY.—In answers to the Agent of the Committee of Mid-Lothian anent the livings of the Caithness clergy about the middle of last century, it is stated that “The conversion of bear and meal at six shillings eleven and a third of a penny sterling per boll is now and has been at least for forty years back the rate universally admitted in Caithness in the sale of lands, and though this may be true that in cheap years ministers have sold their victual stipend at five shillings and fourpence per boll (as the minister of Watten in particular says be did his) yet as true it is that he did sell, or at least might have sold, his victual for double the price in some other years.”
In one of the answers, it is stated, “There Is no county in Scotland where vivers in general are sold cheaper than in Caithness. Good beef sells, from the beginning of the season till about Christmas, from three shillings to four shillings per quarter, salted beef is sold for five shillings or five-and-sixpence per quarter, good mutton from six pence to a shilling per quarter, according to size, and as the county happened to be well stocked with sheep or otherwise, pork from three farthings to a penny farthing a pound. A goose for sixpence, a hen for twopence halfpenny, a cock for threepence, a dozen of eggs for a penny, a good cod for a penny or three halfpence at most, a dozen haddocks or twenty whitings for a penny, good butter three halfpence a pound, cheese at three halfpence.”
COPY OF THE CHARTER
JAMES, by the grace of God, King of the Scots, to all true men of his whole land, clergy and laity, greeting: Know ye that we, understanding that not only are the annual revenues or income of our crown increased by the industry and increase of free burghs within our kingdom, but also that the lieges of the same are very greatly enriched by the foreign commerce and trade of the burgesses and free inhabitants of the said burghs; and, also, considering that there is no free burgh within the limits or bounds of Caithness, and that the town of Wick, lying within our sheriffdom of Inverness, is situated on the sea-coast in a place very suitable and fit for navigation: so that, if the said town of Wick were erected into a free royal burgh, and the ordinary magistrates of the same were elected, with the advice of our trusty cousin, George Earl of Caithness, his heirs, and successors, not only would our said annual revenues be increased by the customs and taxes of the said burgh, and those living within the said bounds of Caithness be enriched by the frequent access of merchants and foreign traders and rendered more civilized, but also thefts, rapines, murders, and other oppressions committed amongst the said inhabitants, would be repressed through fear of punishment. Therefore, and for various other reasons and considerations us moving, from certain knowledge and of our own accord, after our perfect and legitimate age of twentyone years completed, declared in our Parliament and our general revocation made in the same, we have made, constituted, created, erected, and incorporated, and in terms of these presents do make, constitute, create, erect, and incorporate the whole and entire aforesaid town of Wick with all and sundry houses, buildings, tenements, waste places, yards, Orchards, tofts and crofts lying within the territory of the same, into one free royal burgh, with a free harbour, to be called the burgh of Wick in all time coming: with special and plenary power to the free inhabitants and burgesses of the said burgh and their successors in the future, with the express advice and consent of our said cousin, George Earl of Caithness, his heirs and successors, and not otherwise or in other manner of making, electing, constituting, and creating a provost and four bailies, indwellers or inhabitants of the said burgh, together with a treasurer, dean of guild, councillors, burgesses, sergeants, and other officers necessary within the said burgh for the government of the same, and those as often as shall be deemed expedient for reasonable causes, of depositing one-half part of the monies paid by the said burgesses in respect of their freedom in our said burgh for our said cousin and his successors in future, and the other moiety of the same monies to be applied for the public good of the said burgh. With free, also and special, power to the said burgesses and free inhabitants duly elected, received and admitted to the freedom of the said burgh, through the present and future councillors and dean of guild of the same, of buying and selling within the said burgh and freedom of the same (lie) pakpeil and wine, ale, cloth, as well linen as woollen, narrow, long, and broad, and other kinds of commerce and goods (lie), those called stapill guidis (lie), taip. And also with power to the said provost, bailies, and councillors of the aforesaid burgh and their successors of admitting and receiving within the same burgh bakers, tinsmiths, butchers, fishers, dealers in fish and flesh, tailors, blacksmiths, weavers, fullers, carpenters, and all other necessary artificers and operatives pertaining and relating to the freedom of a free burgh, with power also to the said craftsmen of using and exercising their aforesaid trades as freely as they are used and exercised in any royal burgh within our said kingdom. And likewise with power to the said provost, bailies, councillors, burgesses, and their successors of building one public prison or more within the said burgh, and a market cross; and of holding a market every week on Friday, together with three free fairs thrice in the year, viz., on the Feast of All Saints, On the Lord’s Day for Palm Branches, and on the Nativity of John the Baptist, which are popularly called Allhallowmas, Palm Sunday, and Midsummer, and these for the space of four days each; and of charging, levying, receiving, and collecting the customs and dues of the same, and of applying them for the public good of the said burgh; also of charging, levying, receiving, and collecting all and sundry petty customs of the aforesaid harbour of the aforesaid burgh, as well by land as by sea, and of applying them to the aforewritten use. And also with power to the said bailies and their successors of receiving resignations of all and sundry lands, tenements, annual rents, yards, tofts, crofts, and others lying within the said burgh and freedom of the same, and of handing over and disposing of the same to any person or persons, with infeftments, charters, sasines, and other necessary evidents; of appointing, fixing, beginning, confirming, holding, and, as often as need be, of adjourning burgh courts within the said burgh and freedom of the same twice in the week, viz., on Tuesday and Saturday; of making, creating, and appointing clerks, sergeants, bailiffs, and all other officers and necessary members of court; of punishing transgressors according to the form of law; of levying and applying to their peculiar uses the forfeitures and fines of the said courts, and, if necessary, of seizing and distraining for the same; of making and ordaining acts, laws, and statutes within the said burgh and freedom of the same, for the keeping and observance of good order; of apprehending, arresting, imprisoning, punishing, and, according to the laws of our kingdom, beheading and hanging all transgressors and delinquents with pit, gallows, in fang thief, out fang thief, and generally of using and exercising all, any, and sundry, with all privileges, immunities, and liberties whatsoever, as freely, in all respects, as any other free royal burgh within our said kingdom. To hold and have the whole and entire aforesaid burgh of Wick, with all and sundry houses, buildings, tenements, waste places, yards, tofts, crofts, and others whatsoever lying within the territory of the same, together with the harbour aforesaid, anchorages and customs of the same; and with all and sundry liberties and immunities and privileges aforewritten of the said burgh to the aforesaid provost, bailies, councillors, burgesses, and free inhabitants of the same, and their successors, of us and our successors, in free burgage in perpetuity, by all their righteous ancient meathes and divisions, according as they lie in length and breadth, in houses, buildings, bounds, grazings, fields, tofts, moors, marshes, ways, paths, waters, pools, streams, meadows, pasturages, mills, multures, and their sequels, fowlings, huntings, fishings, peats, divots, coals, coal-pits, rabbits, rabbit-warrens, pigeons, pigeon-cots, forges, malt-kilns, and breweries, woods, forests, thickets, beams, and timber, quarries of stone and lime, with courts and their ishes bloodwits, and with all and sundry liberties, commodities, profits, assythments, and their proper pertinents whatsoever, as well those not named as those named, as well those under the earth as those above the earth, far and near, belonging or seeming in any manner whatever justly to belong to the said burgh, harbour, and others particularly mentioned before, with their pertinents, in all time coming, freely, quietly, fully, entirely, honourably, well, and in peace, and without revocation, contradiction, hindrance, or obstacle in any way. The said provost, bailies, councillors, burgesses, and free inhabitants, and their successors, to render therefor annually to us and our successors the sum of ten merks of the money of this our realm, on the Feast of Pentecost, in name of alba firma only, together with the due and accustomed burghal service only.
In testimony of which we have commanded our seal to be put to this our present charter in presence of our much-loved cousins and advisers, John Lord Hamilton, commendator of our monastery of Aberbrothock, Archiband Earl Angus, Lords Douglas, Dalkeith, and Abernethy, our very reverend and venerable Fathers in Christ Patrick Archbishop of St Andrews, Walter Prior of Blantyre, keeper of our Privy Seal; our chosen privy councillors, Alexander Hay of Easter Kennet, clerk of the register and council of our rolls; Lewis Bellenden of Auchnoull, knight, clerk of our justiciary; and Mr Robert Scott, director of our chancery. At Edinburgh, the twenty-fifth day of the month of September, in the year of our Lord, one thousand five hundred and eighty-nine, and the twenty-third of our reign.
Extracted from the registers in the archives, kept under the Parliament House on this and the two preceding ages, by Mr Thomas Gibsone, one of the principal clerks of council and session, having power to this effect from the Lord Clerk of the Register.
(Signed) THO. GIBSONE.
King James VI., who granted the charter, was born on the 19th June, 1566, and was crowned on the 29th July, 1567, when he was about thirteen months old.
It may be interesting to know that this charter was granted after two devastating raids into Caithness by Alexander Earl of Sutherland – the first in 1588, when, in virtue of a Commission from the Privy Council, he entered the county at the head of all the forces he could command, burnt the town of Wick, besieged the Earl of Caithness in Girnigoe Castle for twelve days, killed several of the inhabitants, and returned to Sutherlandshire with a great spoil of cattle.
The second marauding exploit took place in the following year, and but a few months (Whitsunday 1589) prior to the date of the charter, when Earl Alexander sent Alexander Gordon of Kilcalmekill, with three hundred chosen men, into Caithness, who struck terror into the inhabitants, ranged the county at large, spoiled and wasted freely all the country before them, filled many places with ruin and desolation, and pursued their enemies with a bloody execution as long as their fury lasted, and slew a number of the inhabitants.
Earl George and the victims of the Earl of Sutherland’s cruelty resident in the town, doubtless considered that having the town erected into a free burgh, under the King’s seal, would prevent the recurrence of such like depredations in future, ensure the protection of the lives and property of the inhabitants from fierce and furious freebooters, and, in the words of the charter, “thefts, rapines, murders, and other oppressions committed amongst the said inhabitants would be repressed through fear of punishment.”
CASTLES SINCLAIR AND GIRNIGOE, AND MEY.
The present seat of the Earls of Caithness is Barrogill Castle, Mey, on the shore of the Pentland Firth and the following description of this castle as it was in A.D., 1628, is given in verse by William Lithgow in his “Travels through Europe, Asia, and Africa:”—“And now being arrived at Maji (Mey) to embark for Orkney, sight, time and duty command me to celebrate these following lines, to gratify the kindness of that noble Lord, George Earl of Caithness, with his honourable cousin and first accadent of his house, the right worshipful Sir William Sinclair of Cathell, knight, laird of Maji:—
Sir! sighting now thyself and palace fair,
* Sir William Sinclair's motto.