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Old County of Caithness

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

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1834-45: Caithness

Caithness, a maritime county in the extreme NE of the mainland of Scotland, bounded N by the Pentland Firth, E by the German Ocean, SE by the Moray Firth, SW and W by Sutherland. With irregular five-sided outline, it measures from NE to SW 43 miles; its breadth, in the opposite direction, is 28 miles; its circuit is about 145 miles; and its area is 455,708 acres, or 712 square miles. The coast has an extent of about 105 miles; includes Stroma island, lying in the Pentland Firth; and is prevailingly bold and rocky. Chief headlands are Dunnet Head (306 feet), in the middle of the N; Duncansby Head (210), in the extreme NE; and Noss Head (115), at the point where the E coast begins to trend to the SW. Other headlands are Brims Ness, Holburn Head, and Dwarrick Head, in the N; Skirsa Head and Ness Head, in the E; and Wick Head, Ulbster Head, and the Ord (652), in the SE. Chief bays are Dunnet Bay, entering between Holburn Head and Dwarrick Head, in the N; and Sinclairs Bay, entering between Ness Head and Noss Head, in the E. Smaller bays are Sandside, Thurso, and Cannis, in the N; Freswick and Wick, in the E; and 5 or 6 little inlets or harbours in the SE. Low beaches or sandy downs lie around some portions of the northern and the eastern bays; but cliffs, cavernous rocks, and stacks or skerries characterise mostly all other parts of the coast. The surface, except over a mean breadth of about 8 miles along the SW and W, is mainly a monotonous plain, and over those 8 miles in the SW and W is mainly mountainous or hilly. Low ridges diversify the plain in the parishes of Wick, Bower, Watten, Dunnet, Olrick, Thurso, Reay, and Halkirk; and, except on the tops of some of them, where heath and bog prevail, they are generally clothed with green pasture. Bogs of various kinds, from deep moss to peaty moor, also diversify much of the plain, together with parts of the western mountains; they form large low flat tracts from the central districts up to the base of the mountains; they even form a considerable tract so deep and swampy as to be untraversable by cattle, not far from the north-eastern extremity of the county; and they are computed, in their several kinds and distributions, to amount aggregately to more than one-third of the entire area. In the W and SW, from N to S, rise the following eminences, of which those marked with asterisks culminate on the Sutherland border:-*Ben Ruadh (608 feet), *Sithean Harry (759), Ben nam Bad Mhor (952), *Cnoc Crom-uillt (1199), Ben Alisky (1142), *Knockfin Heights (1416), Maiden Pap (1587), Morven (2313), Scaraben (2054), Meall na Carrach (1301), *Creag Scalabsdale (1819), and Braigh na h-Eaglaise (1387). Those in the SW have steep acclivities and rugged surfaces, being often nothing but bare rock; those in the W are less wild, less rugged, and less lofty, and for the most part are moorish or heathy. Sir John Sinclair, computing the entire area at 316,042 Scottish acres, reckoned 3000 acres to be sand or sea-beaches, 6731 to be fresh water, 130,261 to be deep mosses and flat moors, 71,200 to be mountains or high moory hills, 62,000 to be green pastures and common downs, 2000 to be meadows or haughs by the sides of streams, 850 to be occupied by coppices and plantations, and only 40,000 to be arable land of any description, either infield or outfield. The chief rivers or streams, named in the order of their length or importance, are the Thurso, the Wick, the Forss, the Berriedale, the Longwall, the Wester, the Dunbeath, and numerous burns. The chief lakes are Watten, Calder, More, Hempriggs, Westfield, StempsterBower, Stempster-Latheron, Rangag, Ruard, Toftingall, Alterwall, Harland, Dunnet, Mey, Duren, Kelm, Shurary, Killieminster, Yarrow, Brakegoe, Olgany, and a number of lochlets. 'The Old Red sandstone,' says Mr Macdonald, 'abounds extensively in Caithness. The principal rocks in the hilly district all belong to this formation. In many parts of flatter grounds the underlying rock is a clay slate or flagstone, which consists of a formation of alternating beds of silicious and calcareosilicious flagstone or slate-clay, dark foliated bituminous limestone, pyritous shale, etc. . . . Generally speaking, the strata lie from NE to SW, but the interruptions are very numerous.' Minerals are rare. The discovery of a coaly substance near Scrabster led to an unsuccessful search; and veins of iron and copper ore, worked for a time in Reay and Wick parishes, were soon abandoned. A mine of lead ore was sunk a century since at Achinnarras, but proved unprofitable. Marl abounds in many of the bogs and lakes, and has been of some service for reclaiming and improving land. Millstones, building stones, and paving stones, variously from granite, limestone, and sandstone, have been extensively quarried. Pavement flagstones, for exportation, are so largely worked as to at ford the most extensive employment to the population next to farming and fishing; and they are well known and highly appreciated in most parts of the kingdom. They belong to the middle formation of the Devonian epoch; they imbed such vast numbers of fossil fish and plants, that portions of the fossils or impressions found there can be seen in almost every stone; and they owe their tenacity and durability to the cementing of their silica and alumina with calcareous and bituminous portions of organic matter- They were computed, in 1869, to be exported to the annual amount of from 500,000 to 600,000 superficial yards, worth from £70,000 to £80,000. The principal localities of them are on a line of 10 or 12 miles along the N coast of the Pentland Firth from Olrick parish to Reay parish, and a line from a point of the E coast 4 miles S of Wick, westward to the centre of the county in Halkirk parish. They were first exported from the lands of Scrabster, near Thurso; and they are now most largely exported from Castlehill or Castletown quarries, about 5 miles E of Thurso. The quantity of them shipped annually from Castletown Harbour, in years up to 1881, ranged from 10,000 to 15,000 tons. Farm labourers' wages, though lower than in any other northern county, rose from 30 to 40 per cent. within 20 years up to June 1880, such rise being partly due to this working of flagstones; since then they have fallen from 10 to 15 per cent. The soil of the arable land and green pasture-from the E bank of Forss Water on the N coast to Assery; thence eastward by Calder Loch to Halkirk on Thurso river; thence along that river to Dale; thence eastward, by Achatibster, Toftingall, Bilbster, and Thurster, to the coast at Hempriggs; thence along the coast northward to Wester Water; thence up that water and past Bower, Alterwall, and Thurdistoft, to Dunnet Bay at Castlehill-is strongly argillaceous, and lies in the western parts on horizontal rock, in the eastern parts on hard till, drift, or gravel. The soil of the arable land and green pasture in the district W of Forss Water is a black loam or a mixture of dark earth and crystalline sand, generally incumbent on a comparatively irretentive horizontal rock. The soil in the district NE of the line of Wester Water, including the N wing of Wick parish, and most of Canisbay and Dunnet parishes, also is a dark loam, incumbent partly on irretentive rock, partly on gritty red gravel. The soil along the SE coast, from Hempriggs to the Ord, is a mixture of dark earth with gritty sand and fragments of rock, a sort of stony hazel loam, sharp and productive, incumbent on various kinds of rock; and the soil in the other districts of the county, comprehending the higher parts of Halkirk, Watten, and Latheron parishes, is variable, may be called alluvial near the banks of streams, and either a dark loam, an argillaceous earth, or a mixture of humus and gravel in other places. According to Mr G. J. Walker's 'Royal Commission Report on Agriculture ' (1881), about two-fifths of the arable land are good, one-fifth being bad, and the rest medium. The climate, on the whole, is cold, wet, and windy. Inclemency of weather, owing to the total want of mountain shelter along the E and N, is felt more severely in winter and spring than in the neighbouring counties of Sutherland and Ross; and rain is both more frequent and more heavy than anywhere else in Scotland, except in Argyllshire, and in the western parts of Inverness-shire, Rossshire, and Sutherland, the rainfall exceeding 34 inches. Snow and hard frost commonly commence about the end of December, sometimes earlier; and rain is generally frequent and heavy during October, November, and December. The winds blow from the W or the NW during three-fourths of the year, and they frequently rise to strong gales in winter, spring, and autumn. The prevailing wind, from the beginning of May till the middle of June, is usually from the NW, with a bleak cloudy sky; and from the end of June till September, is variable from the SW to the SE, but seldom from the N. The agriculture of Caithness received a great impulse from the labours of the celebrated Sir John Sinclair (1754-1835), though not so great as his proprietorship in the county might have led one to expect, nor so great as his mere second-hand influence produced on not a few other counties in both Scotland and England. But it afterwards was carried to a high pitch by the exertions of Sheriff Traill of Rattar, Mr Horne of Scouthel, Sir Benjamin Dunbar, and other local improvers; and at length it acquired an eminence much loftier than the agriculture of some districts in Britain which have a far superior soil and climate. 'Farms,' wrote the New Statist in 1845, 'are now to be seen of as great extent, and cultivated with as great skill and success, as in any part of Scotland. A considerable part of the county, of course, is still in the possession of small farmers, paying from £10 to £50 of yearly rent; but their condition is improving, and many of them raise green crops, and pursue a system of rotation.' At the present day, out of 3252 holdings, there are 1927 of under £10,576 of between £10 and £20, and 386 of from £20 to £50; still the improvement has been very great, as will be brought out by the statistical tables of our Introduction. A great number of Cattle of the best description have long been annually reared for sale in the south; and the breeds of them have been so much improved as to take a large proportion of prizes at the Highland and Agricultural Society's shows. Sheep also are kept in large numbers; have been improved by crosses with the Cheviot and other breeds; and have, in some instances, brought the highest prices at the Falkirk trysts. Small horses are imported from the islands; and many swine are kept. The principal branch of industry in Caithness, next to agriculture, is sea fishing. Various departments of productive labour, such as implement making, rope making, and cooper work, are carried on mainly or almost wholly in subordination to farming and fishing; some also are carried on in connection with commerce and with the local supply of all the ordinary kinds of artificer's work; at Wick there is one large distillery; but all these industries, taken together, are of less importance to the community than fishing alone. Many or most of the fishermen combine farming with their fishery work; or rather hold small farms, and employ themselves alternately in farming and in fishing. Two of the 26 fishery districts which embrace all the coasts of Scotland and its islands, from the southern extremity of Galloway to the northern extremity of Shetland, are restricted to Caithness alone, and at least 2 if not 3 others of these districts draw within their operations not a few of the Caithness fishermen. The two entirely Caithness districts are Wick and Lybster; and these have fully more than one-tenth of all the fishermen and fisher boys of the total 26 districts. Considerable harbours are at Thurso, Castletown, Lybster, and other places; but Wick is the only head port; and most of the commerce connected with the county may be regarded as identical with what we shall have to show in our article on Wick. Valuable facility of communication is afforded by steamers plying weekly between Granton near Edinburgh and the Orkney and Shetland islands, and calling at Wick and Thurso. Inland communication beyond the county's own limits has always been rendered difficult by the barrier of mountain along all the inland border, and by the steepness and height of the main pass over the Ord, contiguous to the coast, into Sutherland. Railway communication necessarily became desiderated after the advent of the railway epoch and specially after the formation of the Highland line so far north as the N border of Ross-shire; but it acquired no fair hope of being attainable till so late as 1866, and was not begun to be formed so late as the early part of 1871. A bill for the construction of a line from Wick to Thurso, with a view to eventual extension into junction with the Sutherland railway, passed parliament in July 1866; but in May 1871 it was superseded by another, authorising a line from the terminus of the Sutherland railway at Helmsdale, through the W centre of Caithness, by way of Halkirk, to Thurso, with a branch to Wick, and that railway was opened in 1874. The only royal burgh is Wick; the only other town is Thurso; and the principal villages are Halkirk, Lybster, Castletown, Keiss, Sarclett, and Berriedale. The principal seats are Langwell, Barrogill Castle, Tister House, Thurso Castle, Hempriggs, Ackergill Tower, Toftingall, Watten, Barrock House, Murkle, Sandside, Westfield, Dunbeath Castle, Freswick, Stirkoke, Swiney, Nottingham House, Bilbster, Stemster, Forss, Forse, Thrumster, South-dun, Olrig, Latheronwheel, Lynegar, Castle Hill, Achavarn, Scots Calder, and Camster. According to Miscellaneous Statistics of the United Kingdom (1879), 471,763 acres, with total gross estimated rental of £136,886, were divided among 1028 landowners, three together holding 217,415 acres (rental £28,349), two 63,477 (£16,738), eight 112,623 (£35,352), seven 54,656 (£14,336), five 15,658 (£7301), four 1013 (£1531), four 285 (£341), eighteen 419 (£4922), etc. The county comprises the old parishes of Bower, Canisbay, Dunnet, Halkirk, Latheron, Olrig, Thurso, Watten, and Wick, part of the old parish of Reay, the quoad sacra parishes of Berriedale, Keiss, and Pulteneytown, and the chapelry of Lybster; and these constitute the presbytery of Caithness, in the synod of Sutherland and Caithness, with 691 communicants of the Church of Scotland in 1878. The Free Church also has a presbytery of Caithness, with congregations at Berriedale, Bower, Bruan, Canisbay, Dunnet, Halkirk, Keiss, Latheron, Lybster, Olrig, Pulteneytown, Reay, Westerdale, and Watten, and with two at Thurso and two at Wick. Other congregations within the county are, 1 U.P. at Wick, 2 Reformed Presbyterian at Wick and Thurso, 2 Congregational at Wick and Thurso, 1 Evangelical Union at Wick, 2 Baptist at Wick and Keiss, 1 Episcopalian at Wick, and 1 Roman Catholic at Wick. In the year ending 30 Sept. 1880, the county had 66 schools (60 of them public), which, with accommodation for 8820 children, had 6435 on the registers, and 4548 in average attendance, whilst the certificated, assistant, and pupil teachers numbered 75,2, and 66. The county is governed (1881) by a lord-lieutenant, vice-admiral, and high sheriff, a vice-lieutenant, 12 deputy-lieutenants, a sheriff, a sheriff-substitute, and 78 magistrates. Sheriff courts are held at Wick every Tuesday and Friday during session: sheriff small debt courts at Wick every Tuesday during session, at Thurso every fifth Thursday, and at Lybster every fifth Wednesday; justice of peace small debt courts at Wick on the first and third Monday of every month, at Thurso on every alternate Wednesday; and courts of quarter sessions at Wick and at Thurso. The police force, in 1880, comprised 19 men; and the salary of the chief constable was £200. The committals for crime, in the yearly average of 1841-50, were 15; of 1851-55,19; of 1856-60,36; of 1861-65,45; of 1864-68,38; of 1870-74,44; and of 1875-79,40. The number of persons tried at the instance of the police, in 1879, was 304; convicted, 266; committed for trial, 24; not dealt with, 44. The county prison is at Wick. The annual value of real property, assessed at £35,469 in 1815, was £66,572 in 1843, £102,910 in 1866, and £133,922 in 1881, including £2444 for railway. The county, prior to the Reform Act of 1832, returned a member to parliament alternately with Buteshire; but since has sent one for itself (always a Liberal). The constituency in 1881 was 1147. The royal burgh of Wick also unites with four others beyond Caithness in sending a member to parliament. Pop. (1801) 22,609, (1811) 23,419, (1821) 29,181, (1831) 34,529, (1841) 36,343, (1851) 38,709, (1861) 41,111, (1871) 39,992, (1881) 38,845, of whom 20,507 were females. Houses (1881) 7814 inhabited, 269 vacant, 57 building. The registration county takes in a part of Reay parish from Sutherland, and had, in 1881, a population of 39,839. All the parishes except Bower are assessed for the poor, and all are included in the two poor-law combinations of Latheron and Thurso. The number of registered poor, in the year ending 14 May 1880, was 1473; of dependants on these, 618; of casual poor, 197; of dependants on these, 90. The receipts for the poor, in the was £12,563,4s. 9½d. The number of pauper lunatics was 164, their cost being £2316,4s. 1d. The percentage of illegitimate births was 8.6 in 1872,12.2 in 1874,9.5 in 1879, and 11-4 in 1881. The territory now forming Caithness was anciently inhabited by the Caledonian tribe of the Curnavii, and about the beginning of the 10th century was subdued and settled by the Norsemen under Sigurd, Jarl of Orkney. It retains some topographical names of the Celtic or Caledonian times; but it is broadly characterised, in both its nomenclature and its antiquities, by ancient Scandinavian possession. The Scandinavian Jarls of Orkney held it as an earldom nominally under the crown of Scotland, and by King David (1107-24) it was erected into a diocese. The inhabitants, wavering in their allegiance between the Orcadian Jarls and the Scottish kings, were not long in throwing off the Scandinavian yoke. William the Lyon, in 1196, collected a strong army, crossed the Oikell, and brought Sutherland and Caithness under the power of the Scottish crown. The principal families of Caithness, at that time, were the Guns and the De Cheynes; and these were soon afterwards represented or superseded by three other leading families, the Sinclairs, the Sutherlands, and the Keiths. Feuds arose among these three latter families, or between some one or other of them and clans in other parts of the Highlands, and either formed or produced all the most signal events of subsequent times in Caithness. The Sinclairs soon got and retained the upper hand; a branch of them, in 1455, was ennobled as Earl of Caithness and Baron Berriedale. But, in 1672, Campbell of Glenorchy purchased the earldom from the contemporary earl, and afterwards married his widow; and his so doing led to a sanguinary conflict in Wick parish, on the banks of the Altimarlach-happily the last event of its kind in Caithness. Campbell was subsequently created Earl of Breadalbane, with precedence according to the patent of the Caithness earldom, and the representatives of the original Earl of Caithness thenceforth alone have been Earls of Caithness. The Scottish seats of the earls are Barrogill Castle and Tister House, both of them in Caithness. Ancient Caledonian stone circles are at Stemster Loch and Bower. The singular structures popularly called Picts' houses, generally of a circular form, in the shape of a truncated cone, with walls 9 or 10 feet thick, and surrounded by a deep ditch and a rampart, are numerous. There also are several old castles, many of them ruinous, some still habitable. The chief of these are Barrogill, elegantly modernised into a seat of the Earl of Caithness; Thurso, the venerable seat of Sir John G. T. Sinclair, Bart.; Scrabster, the ruined residence of the quondam bishops of Caithness; Girnigoe and Sinclair, erected by the thanes of Caithness; Ackergill, built by the Keiths, Earls Marischal; Dunbeath and Brims, still habitable; and Freswick, Keiss, Forss, Berriedale, Downreay, Brawl, and Durlet, all in ruins. Some substructions on a small green knoll, 1½ mile W of Duncansby Head, are vestiges of John o' Groat's House. Caithness, though mainly a lowland tract, assimilated in language and customs to the Lowland counties, is often erroneously classed as part of the Highlands; at the census of 1881 only 1796 persons were returned as habitually speaking Gaelic, and of these 1282 were in Reay, 233 in Halkirk, and 167 in Watten parish. See James MacDonald, ` On the Agriculture of Caithness,' in Trans. Highl. and Ag. Soc., 1875; Jas. T. Calder, Sketch of the Civil and Traditional History of Caithness from the Tenth Century (Glas. 1861); and Sam. Laing, Prehistoric Remains of Caithness (Lond. 1866).

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Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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