INTRODUCTION TO CAITHNESS
Caithness is a land of open, rolling farmland and moor studded with lochs
and dissected by rivers, roads and scattered settlements. Covering an area
of approximately 1,800 km2, the county is fringed to the north and east by
dramatic coastal scenery and is home to large, internationally important
colonies of seabirds. The surrounding waters of the Pentland Firth and the
North Sea hold a great diversity of marine life.
Cliffs at dawn, near Latheronwheel
Away from the coast, the landscape
is dominated by
open moor and blanket bog, divided up by more fertile farm and croft land
along the straths or river valleys. The blanket bogs of Caithness and
Sutherland are internationally important, and together make up
approximately 4% of the World’s resource of maritime, treeless blanket
bogs. The underlying geology, harsh climate and long history of
human occupation have shaped this rich and distinctive natural heritage.
Today we see a diverse landscape incorporating both common and rare
habitats and species. Caithness provides a stronghold for many species
that have undergone serious decline elsewhere in the UK.
Around 370 million years ago, during the Devonian age, Northern Caithness
and Orkney were part of a vast freshwater lake, known as Lake Orcadie.
Horizontal beds of siltstone (Caithness flag) and sandstone were laid down
under this ancient inland lake, which once extended from Shetland to
Inverness-shire and across to Norway. Fish fossils from this time can be
found in old quarries such as Achanarras, near Spittal.
The main rock type is old red
sandstone, laid down in layers and sculpted by ice and sea to produce some
of the most dramatic coastal scenery in the UK. Breeding seabirds such as
guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars have exploited the
resulting ledges at locations such as the Stacks of Duncansby and cliffs
of Dunnet and Holburn Head. Flagstones were an important raw
material to Caithness folk, and can be seen all over the county as dykes,
floors or roofing materials. During the late 1890s to the 1920s, Caithness
flagstone was exported all over the world. Old quarries have been reopened
in recent years to meet a renewed demand.
A low-lying, maritime county, Caithness’ climate is characterised by mild
winters, cool summers and generally persistent winds. The wetlands and
lochs do not freeze for long spells, and this has been a factor in
attracting large numbers of over-wintering wildfowl like greylag geese and
wading birds such as dunlin and purple sandpiper.
The earliest settlers in Caithness have been traced back to Mesolithic
times. Just after 4,000BC, people started building chambered tombs, stone
round houses. They would have hunted wild animals, grown crops and grazed
domestic animals, changing the biodiversity and the landscape to suit
Through the centuries, Caithness
people have developed a strong relationship with the land and surrounding
sea. The population has grown to 25,470, and tourism and nuclear power
have replaced farming, crofting and fishing as the county’s dominant
Farmland by Loch Scarmclate