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History of Caithness
Civil And Traditional
Pref. 2nd Edition
Memoir of Author
Appendix 2 Roads
App 2 - Superstition
App 2 - Extracts
Caithness In 1887
WITH respect to the history of Caithness for the first five or six hundred years of the Christian era, nothing with certainty is known. Tradition, as well as history, is silent on the matter; and the whole subject is involved in impenetrable darkness. It is probable that for a great part of that time the county was a mere desert, uninhabited except by wild beasts. The aboriginal inhabitants would appear to have been the Picts,1 a people, from the best antiquarian authority, not of Scandinavian, but of Celtic descent. There are still to be seen here and there in the county the remains of what are called Picts’ houses. These, however, were not the ordinary dwellings of that people, hut strongholds or places of defence. “Their houses,” says Scott, “were constructed of wattles; or in more dangerous times they burrowed under ground in long, narrow, tortuous excavations, which still exist, and the idea of which seems to have been suggested by a rabbit warren.” About the year 920, Caithness would appear to have been partially peopled, for at that period it was subdued by Sigurd,2 Earl of Orkney. Sigurd’s immediate predecessor was his brother, Ronald, the first Norwegian Earl of Orkney, on whom the administration of the islands was conferred by the celebrated Harold Harfager. This Ronald was the father of the famous Rollo, the invader of Normandy, and paternal ancestor of William the Conqueror. Caithness continued subject to Norwegian rule for nearly four hundred years.
From time to time after its annexation to Orkney, numerous bands of Norsemen landed in the county, and, driving the natives into the interior, gradually established themselves around the whole sea-coast. On the Latheron side, they extended their settlements as far as Berriedale. This, however, was not effected without some severe struggles with the inhabitants, who felt grievously annoyed at being thus expelled from their usual abodes, and winced not a little under the Scandinavian yoke. Most of the names of places, and not a few of the surnames in the lowland parts of the county, are Norwegian. It is a remarkable circumstance, however, that the Norsemen never succeeded in establishing their language, or any of their peculiar laws or usages, in Caithness. All that we can trace to them are a few superstitions which still linger in some parts of the county, but are soon destined to disappear before the increasing light of knowledge. The case was very different in Orkney. Some of their udal institutions exist there even to this day, or, at all events, were but very recently abolished. The language spoken by the natives of that county, while under the sway of the sea-kings, was the old Icelandic, or Norse; and it continued in general use till near the end of the sixteenth century. Their language is now the English, with a peculiar “singing accent.”
Orkney, while it was the chief
seat of the earldom, formed, with its fine natural harbours, the great
rendezvous of the war galleys of the Norsemen, whence they issued out
on their various piratical expeditions. These vessels, from their
peculiar construction and equipment, were admirably adapted for the
service in which they were employed. They were generally long,
narrow, and low in the water. They were protected with a parapet or
breastwork of shields, and many of them were of great size, containing
from twenty to thirty banks of oars. The largest of them carried a
crew of from 80 to 100
fighting men, whose arms consisted of swords,
bows, arrows, and pikes, besides which they had on board a quantity of
stones to throw into the vessels of the enemy. On their prows were
usually carved figure heads of dragons, which added riot a little to
their formidable appearance. This most probably suggested to the
picturesque fancy of Scott the striking figure which he uses when
describing the Scandinavian rovers and their ships in the “Lay of the
Last Minstrel “-
These sea-kings, as they were called, made descents upon most of the maritime countries of Europe, and carried home with them silks, armour, golden vases, jewels, embroidered carpets and tapestry, wines, and various other articles of luxury from the several castles, churches, and palaces which they plundered.
Sigurd, who was, strictly speaking, the first Norwegian Earl of Orkney and Caithness, died, and was buried at Burghead, in Morayshire. The circumstances connected with his death are not a little extraordinary. “He gained,” says Mr Worsaae, “the victory in a foray over the Scotch jarl Melbrigd, and cut off his head, which, in the overweening pride of his triumph, he hung at his saddle; but a sharp tooth that projected from the head chafed his leg, and caused a wound which proved his death.” Sigurd having left no issue, the earldom reverted to the family of his brother Ronald.3 About the middle of the tenth century, two brothers, Liot and Skuli, lineal descendants of that family, contended for the earldom. The former was supported in his claim by the King of Norway, and the latter, so far as Caithness was concerned, by the King of Scotland. Arms, the usual mode of deciding disputes at the time, were resorted to. Skuli was assisted by a Sutherland chieftain, to whom Torfaeus gives the high-sounding title of “Comes Magbragdus.” In a battle which was fought at Dale, in the parish of Halkirk, Skuli was defeated and slain, on which Liot seized the whole of Caithness, and kept forcible possession of it. Not long after, the Sutherland chief, burning with a desire to be revenged for the affair at Dale, collected as many followers as he could, and invaded the county. Liot, with a nearly equal force, met him at Toftingall, near the hill of Spittal, where a desperate engagement took place. Victory at length declared for Liot, but he received a severe wound, of which, in the course of a few days, he died.
It is supposed that the tall standing stone near Brabsterdorran, in the parish of Bower, was erected in memory of Liot, and that it indicates the spot where he was buried. This supposition derives some confirmation from the circumstance that the stone was anciently called “stone Lud,” which would seem to be a corruption of stone Liot or Liot’s stone. There can be no doubt, however, that it is a sepulchral monument commemorative of some great man. The doctrine of Odin commanded it as a sacred duty to erect stones of this description in memory of the brave. “The large stones,” says the late Mr Pope, of Reay, “erected at Rangag and along the burn of Latheron, are all sepulchral monuments.” This is confirmed by the testimony of Mr Worsaae. “Tall bauta4 stories,” says that writer, “are to be seen in several places in Caithness, to which some legend about the Danes is generally attached; they now stand in a leaning posture, as if mourning over the departed times of the heroic age. A monument of a Danish princess who, according to tradition, suffered shipwreck on the coast, was formerly to be found in a churchyard at Ulbster.” The story is that Gunn of Clyth, having paid a visit to Denmark, married a young ‘princess of that country. On his way home with his bride the vessel was wrecked near Ulbster, and the lady unfortunately perished. The accident, which happened at night, was said to be owing to the pilot, who mistook a light at Ulbster for one at Clyth.
While noticing these strange relics of a former age, I may here mention that one of the most curious monuments of antiquity in the county is to be seen on the south side of the loch of Stemster, in the parish of Latheron. It consists of a number of standing stones ranged in the form of an elongated horse shoe, with the opening to the south, and the convex end next the loch. The distance between the two points that form the opening is 85 1/2 feet, and the depth from the centre of the opening to the centre of the concave is 226 feet. Several of the stones have fallen, but there are still about thirty-three standing. Eight feet seems to have been the regular distance between each. This remarkable structure is said by the writer of the statistical account of Latheron to have been a Druidical temple; but it is extremely doubtful if Druidism ever penetrated into Caithness, and it is more likely that the monument in question was erected by the Scandinavians, and used by them as a place of meeting both for judicial and religious purposes. We learn from the Eyrbiggja Saga, and from the works of Bartholin, Wormius, and others, that the northern nations, while in a state of heathenism, held courts of justice, and offered up sacrifices to their deities in circles of standing stones.
But to proceed with our narrative. Ragnhilde, the widow of Liot, and daughter of the famous Erik, King of Norway, surnamed the bloody, lived for some time at Murkle.5 She was a woman of a most infamous character, and had been thrice married. She caused her two former husbands, who were brothers of Liot, to be murdered-the one at Murkle, and the other at Stennis, in Orkney ; and yet, with incredible effrontery, affecting entire innocence of the heavy crimes laid to her charge, she offered Liot her hand, and being a beautiful woman, and of an insinuating address, lie was induced to marry her.
In the year 1014, Sigurd, the second of that name, Earl of Orkney and Caithness, embarked with a large body of troops for Ireland to assist one of the Norwegian chiefs in a war with the Irish King Brian. A celebrated battle took place at Clontarf,6 about three miles to the north-east of Dublin, in which both Brian and the Earl were slain. The Norwegian annalists, like most ancient writers, appear to have been fond of the marvellous, and in some cases without any nice discrimination or sifting of materials, to have mingled fact and fable together. A short time before setting out on his expedition to Ireland, Audna, Sigurd’s mother,7 presented him with a standard made by her own hand, in which was woven, with exquisite art, the image of the raven, a bird sacred to Odin, the Scandinavian god of war. The rayen was represented with outspread wings, and in the act of soaring upwards. On receiving the banner the Earl was assured by his mother that
it had this remarkable property, that whoever had it carried before him would he victorious, hut that the standard-bearer himself was doomed to fall. In the battle of Clontarf, accordingly, two of Sigurd’s standard-bearers were killed. After thiss, none of his officers would take up the fatal colours, on which tire Earl wrapped them round Iris body, and gallantly fought until he fell, pierced with innumerable wounds. It was only after a long and desperate struggle that the Irish obtained the victory.
Torfaeus gives air account of a remarkable prodigy which was seen at the time in Caitluress. On (Good Friday (the day of the battle) a man named Daraddus, saw a number of persons on horseback ride at full speed towards a small hill, near which he dwelt, and seemingly enter into it. He was led by curiosity to approach the spot, when, looking through an opening in the side of the hillock, he observed twelve gigantic figures, resembling women, employed in weaving a web. As they wove, they sang a mournful song or dirge descriptive of the battle in Ireland, in which they foretold the death of King Brian, and that of the Earl of Orkney. When they had finished their task, they tore the web into twelve pieces. Each took her own portion, and once more mounting their horses, six galloped to the south, and six to the north. This singular legend derives a peculiar interest from the circumstance that it forms the subject of Gray’s celebrated ode, the “ Fatal Sisters.” The sisters mentioned by tire poet were the Valkyries, or choosers of the slain in the Gothic mythology, and the special ministers of Odin. They were mounted on swift horses, with drawn swords in their hands ; and, in the throng of battle, selected such as were destined to slaughter, and conducted them to Valhalla (the ball of Odin, or paradise of the brave), where they attended the banquet, and served the departed heroes with horns of mead and ale. Gray’s ode purports to be the song sung by the unearthly ladies. The following are some of its more striking stanzas:-
“Now the storm begins
Low the dauntless Earl
Horror covers all the
The scene of this extraordinary legend is supposed to be a knoll or hillock in the parish of Olrig, called Sysa, which has been particularly celebrated, from time immemorial, as a favourite haunt of witches and fairies. Of late years its appearance has been somewhat altered by the agricultural improvements which have taken place in the common in which it is situated. Sysa, originally, notwithstanding its bad name, possessed some features of interest. On gaining the top from the north, you saw the side fronting the south shaped into a beautiful green hollow, having a geirtle slope downwards. This hollow contained a spring of delicious water, clear as crystal ; and, in the summer season, the sward around it was of the richest green, thickly sprinkled with wild-flowers, and contrasting strongly with the brown and stunted herbage of the surrounding moor. It was, on the whole, a rather pretty spot, and, siturated as it was, it came upon tire eye like an Oasis iii the desert.
Among the local legends of a surpernatural kind connected with Sysa, is the following, which may, not inappropriately, be appended to that from Torfaeus.
THE PIPER OF THE WINDY HA’.
Many years ago a young man, named Peter Waters, after driving his cattle to the their undivided common, halted about noon, on his way home, at tire well of Sysa, in order to quench his thirst with a draught from that refreshing spring. It was a warm and beaurtiful day in the “leafy month of June “-one of nature’s holidays-and the sun shone out with unclouded brilliancy. The spot had a peculiarly sweet and tranquil air about it that invited to repose. Not a living thing seemed to intrude within the fairy hollow, save the golden honey-bee that came humming along, lighted for a moment on a flower to sip its nectared sweets, and then flew away with its glad murmuring note as before. Having quenched his thirst, Peter resolved, before proceeding farther, to indulge himself with half an hour’s rest; and, accordingly, he lay down and stretched himself at full length on his back. For a minute or two he continued to follow with his eye a lark that rose a few yards from him, and carolled like a “musical cherub” as it mounted higher and higher in the air; but air irresistible drowsiness, like that produced by mesmerism, stole over him, and he finally fell fast asleep. He slept till near sunset, when he was awakened by a gentle shake on the shoulder. Starting in a moment from his recumbent position, and rubbing his eyes, our hero beheld, to his astonishment, a most beautiful young lady, dressed in green, with golden ringlets, blue eyes, and the sweetest countenance in the world, standing beside him. Though a great admirer of the sex, Peter had not been accustomed to the society of ladies, and he, therefore, very naturally, felt not a little nervous and confused in the presence of his fair visitant. A blush overspread his countenance, and his heart throbbed violently. His first impulse was to take to his heels; but the lady bestowed on him such a bewitching smile, that he became rivetted to the spot, and could not move a single step. By degrees his timidity wore away, and he recovered his self-possession so far as to be able, without much stammering, to converse with the beautiful stranger.
“Don’t be afraid of me, Peter,” said the lady, with one of her most captivating smiles, and in a voice soft and clear as a silver hell. “I feel a great interest in you, and I am come to make a man of you.”
“I am much obliged to you, indeed,” stammered Peter; “the greatest nobleman in the kingdom might be proud of your fair hand, but I have no desire as yet to enter into the silken cord; and, besides, I would require to be better acquainted with you before I took such a step. People commonly court a little before they marry.”
“You mistake me altogether, Peter,” said the lady, giving way to a hearty laugh. “Though you appear a very nice young man, I make no offer of my hand; what I mean is, that I will put you in the way of rising in the world and making your fortune. Here are two things, a book and a pipe. Make your choice of the one or the other. If you take the hook, you will become the most popular preacher in the North; and if you take the pipe, you will be the best performer on that martial instrument in Scotland. I shall give your five minutes to consider,” added she, drawing from her bosom a small golden time-piece about the size of a sovereign.
The book was a splendidly-bound copy of the Bible, richly embossed with gold, with a golden clasp; the pipe a most beautiful instrument of its kind, with a green silken bag of gold and silver tissue, and superbly furnished with a number of silver keys. Peter gazed with admiration on the two articles, and was greatly puzzled which of the two to choose. It would be a grand thing, he thought with himself, to be a popular preacher, to have a good glebe and manse, to be company for the laird and his lady, and to he cried up as a ”“fine man,” and worshipped by the crowd. On the other hand, he was a great enthusiast for music, and he should like, above all things, to he able to play the bagpipe. Should he once become famed as the best piper in Scotland, he had no doubt that he would get plenty of employment, and the money would flow like shells into his pocket. After thus considering the matter in his own mind, Peter at length came to a determination, and said to the lady, “ Since you are so kind, I think I will choose the pipe; but as I never fingered a chanter in my life, I fear it will be a long time before I learn to play on such a difficult instrument.”
No. fear of that,” rejoined the lady, “blow up, and you’ll find that the pipe of its own accord will discourse the most eloquent music.”
Peter did as he was desired, and to his great surprise and delight he played “Maggie Lauder” in a stlye that Rob the Ranter himself could not have surpassed. Some cattle that were grazing hard by lifted their heads from the ground the moment they heard the first notes of the tune, and kept flinging and capering about in the most extraordinary manner.
“This is perfectly wonderful,” exclaimed Peter, delighted beyond measure with his own performance ; “ there must surely be some glamour about this instrument.”
Their thankirg the lady for the invaluable present, he was about to take his departure, when she said- “Stop a moment; there is one condition attached to the gift: this day seven years, at the very same hour of the evening, you will have to meet me by moonlight at the well of Sysa. Swear by its enchanted spring that you will do so.”
Peter rashly swore by the fairy well, and promised, if alive, to keep the appointment; then thanking the fair donor for her gift, he retraced his way over the hill of Olrig to his paternal residence, which was called the “Windy Ha’.”
On reaching home, Peter, with an air of triumph, produced his pipe, which excited much curiosity and wonder, and was greatly admired; but when he related how he came by it, the old people were not a little staggered, and began to regard tire gift with suspicion.
“It’s no canny,” said his father, shaking his head; “and I would advise you, Peter, to have nothing to do with it.”
“The Best protect us!“ exclaimed his mother; “my bairn is lost. He must have got it from none other than the queen of the fairies.”
“Nonsense,” said Peter; “it was not the queen of the fairies, but a real lady-and a kind and beautiful lady she was-that gave me the pipe.”
“But of what use can it he to you,” said his father, “when ye canna play on it.”
“Can I not I” returned Peter. “I’ll let you see that directly ;“ and, putting the wind-pipe to his mouth and inflating the bag, he struck urp the “Fairy Dance” in a style that electrified the household. The whole family, including the grandmother-ninety years of age-started at once to their feet and danced heartily, overturning stools, and scattering the fire, which was in the middle of the floor, with their fantastic movements. The piper continued to play as if he would never stop.
At length his father, panting for breath, and with the perspiration trickling down his cheeks, cried out, “For mercy’s sake, Peter, gie ower, or you’ll be the death of me and yir mither, as well as poor old grannie.”
“I think,” said Peter, laying
aside his pipe out of compassion for their limbs, “I think you’ll no
longer say that I can’t play.”
To resume the thread of our narrative. Sigurd, who was killed in Ireland, left four sons, Summorlid, Brusi, Einar, and Thorfin. He was twice married. His second wife was a daughter of King Malcolm, the second of Scotland. Thorfin was the son of this lady, and is said to have been brought up in the Scottish court. The three eldest sons divided the sovereignty of Orkney and Shetland between them, and Thorfin was, by his maternal grandfather, created Earl of Caithness. Having refused to pay tribute to his successor on the Scottish throne, he was supplanted in the earldom of Caithness by one Moddan, who, with a body of troops, had fixed his headquarters in Thurso. Highly resenting the indignity, Thorfin was determined to maintain his rights by either fair means or foul. With this view he came to the town, and surprising his rival in the night-time, he set fire to his house, and slew him as he attempted to escape by a window from the flames. For a number of years Thorfin pursued the profession of a regular viking, and in that capacity performed many daring achievements along the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. He made an incursion even into England, fought three successive pitched battles with the bravest troops of Hardicanute,9 and returned home laden with plunder. When in Caithness, he frequently resided in Canisbay,~ from the advantage of its proximity to Orkney. Some years before his death, he was seized with remorse for the many crimes and outrages of which he had been guilty; and, as was customary at the period, he set out on a pious pilgrimage to Rome, and was there absolved by the Pope of all his sins. On his return home, he retired to Birsa, in the mainland of Orkney, where he founded and dedicated a church to Christ, and lived afterwards a devout life. He died about the year 1064, and was buried in the church which himself had built. “Thorfin,” says Mr Worsaae, “was the last of the Earls in whom the old Scandinavian viking’s spirit lived and stirred. His power was greater than that of any of his predecessors; for, according to the Sagas, he ruled over no fewer than eleven earldoms in Scotland, over all the Hebrides, and a large kingdom in Ireland.” This statement of the Sagas in regard to Thorfin’s ruling over eleven counties of Scotland is very questionable. That he may have plundered and devastated eleven counties is highly probable; but that he held them under his sway, there is no ground whatever for believing. There is not the least hint of such a thing in any of our Scotch or English annals. At the time of his death Thorfin was about 80 years of age. Torfaeus describes his personal appearance and character in nearly the following terms. He was a thin, tall man, with dark hair, large shaggy eyebrows, and a visage frightfully ugly; but he possessed a bold and resolute spirit, and was every inch a warrior. His widow, Ingibing, was the daughter of Finn Arnason, a Norwegian grandee. The Norse writers say, that after the death of Thorfin she was married to Malcolm Canmore; but this is evidently a pure fiction, for, as the translator of Torfaeus justly remarks, “neither the Scotch nor English historians mention anything of this union, which they could not omit had it been a fact. Indeed, they state a much more suitable match, to wit, good Queen Margaret, and none else, so it is clear the Sagas are not to be depended upon in this matter.”
1. The first writer who mentions the Picts is Eumenius, the orator, who was a professor at Autun, io Burgundy. In the year 297, and again in 308, he speaks of the Caledonians and Picts as the same people-” Caledones aliiqui Picti.” (Brown His. High., chap. 1, p. 33.)
2. He conquered also Ross, Sutherland, and Moray ; and from Helgy, his principal officer, the name of Elgin is supposed to be derived.
3.Einar, one of Ronald’s sons who succeeded to the earldom, was the first who taught the natives of Orkney and Caithness to use turf for fuel. From this circumstance, he acquired the additional appellation of Torf Einar. He was the natural brother of Rollo, afterwards Duke of Normandy.
4. The learned Danish antiquary has here fallen into a slight error. A bauta stone is a tomb stone inscribed with runics; but so far as we know, there are no such sepulchral monuments in the county. The monoliths, which arc still standing, are all plain and unhewn, without any written characters or figures whatever, with the exception of the one in the burying ground at Ulbster, on which there arc rudely sculptured a cross and a half moon, together with the forms of various uncouth animals, including the serpent.
5. Murkle was a place of great note in ancient times. It was the seat of a famous nunnery; and here, John, one of the old Earls of Caithness, signed a document binding himself and his followers to support Edward I. of England in his war with Scotland. The seal, which was affixed to the writ, bore the Earl’s coat of arms, which was a ship with a tressure of flower de luce around it.
6. In the old traditional records of Ireland, the battle of Clontarf holds a prominent place, and the issue is described as the greatest and most decisive victory which the Irish ever had over the Danes. During the famous repeal agitation, O’Connell, with consummate tact and knowledge of the Irish character, turned the circumstance to account in arousing the so-called patriotism of his countrymen. King Brian, from whom he gave out that he was descended, was extolled to the skies as a martyr for the deliverance of his country from the yoke of the oppressors. Fancied prints of the battle and of Brian were largely distributed among the deluded peasantry; and the battle was further celebrated in songs and speeches as having completely annihilated the Danish power in Ireland, and saved ,her independence and freedom. In this matter, however, O’Connell and his partisans did not adhere to strict historical truth; for the battle of Clontarf did not annihilate the Danish power in Ireland; and the northern adventurers, under their respective chiefs, maintained their sway in some parts of that country for a long time afterwards. But agitation, and not veracity, was the object of O’Connell. At length, when he had sufficiently raised the excitable feelings of his followers, he concluded one of his seditious harangues with a notice that he would hold a great repeal meeting on the celebrated plain of Clontarf. “Everybody knew beforehand,” says an able writer, “that the real meaning of this was, that just as the Irish, with Brian at their head, had formerly defeated the Danes on that very place, so should they now, in like manner, follow O’Connell, and make every sacrifice to wrest back their lost independence from English or Saxon ascendancy; but Government forbade the meeting, and indicted O’Connell.”
7. This ingenious lady was the daughter of an Irish chief. Her husband, Ludovic (Sigurd’s father), died in Caithness, and was buried at a place called Stenhone in the parish of Watten.
8. Torfaeus gives the song from the original Norse with a Latin translation. North Ronaldshay is said to have been the last place in Orkney where the Norse was spoken. Some time after Gray’s ode was published, the clergyman of that island read it to some of the oldest inhabitants, who assured him that they were quite familiar with it in the original, and had often heard it sung in their younger days.
9. Ahercromhie, Mar. Ach. Scots Nation.
10. Torfnus calls the place of his residence “Gadgedlis,” which is supposed to be the present township of Gills in that parish.