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Thurso, River

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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Thurso (old form, Thorsa; Scand. Thors-a, 'Thor's river'), a parish, containing a town of the same name, and also a river, in the extreme NE of Caithness. The parish is bounded N by the Atlantic, E by the parishes of Olrig and Bower, S and SW by the parish of Halkirk, and W by S by the parish of Reay. The boundary is formed for 2¼ miles on the SW by the river Thurso, for 3¾ miles on the W by S by Forss Water, and elsewhere, except on the N, it is artificial. The greatest length, from NW at Brims Ness to SE, at the point where the parishes of Thurso Bower, and Halkirk meet on the SW side of Sordale Hill, is 10 miles; the greatest width at right angles to this, from Clardon Head to the SW boundary, W of Buckies Hill, is 6 miles; and the area is 28,767·127 acres, of which 368·809 are water, 329·304 are foreshore, and 20·207 are tidal water, while 6860·073 acres are in a detached portion of the parish 4¼ miles SW of the main portion, and running 5¼ miles SW from the S end of the Dorery Hills, with an average breadth of 1½ mile. The whole surface of the parish is considerably above sea-level, rising from the sea in the N in sheer cliffs, with an average height of over 200 feet, or in high steep banks. From these a moory plateau passes southward by Brims Hill (300), Holburn Hill (306), Hill of Forss (400), and Cairnmore Hillock (439), and then undulates towards the river Thurso, which has high steep banks on both sides. To the E of the river there is again a rise to Duncan's Hill (216) and Sordale Hill (300), the last in the extreme SE of the parish, and with Buckies Hill (310) to the W on the opposite side of the river. About half the whole area is under tillage, but the greater part of the soil is poor, and of the other half a considerable moiety is barren heathland. The coast, from near the NW corner of the parish at Brims Ness, has a general N and S direction for 4¼ miles to Holburn Head, whence it turns southward to Scrabster lighthouse, then curves WSW to Scrabster itself, and thence SE, E, and NE to Clardon Head, forming by this sweep Thurso Bay,* the portion of which to the W is the well-known anchorage of Scrabster Roads. The Bay is 2¾ miles wide across the entrance from Holburn Head east-south-eastward to Clardon Head, and 1½ mile deep west-south-westward, at right angles to this line, to the extreme S at the town of Thurso. To the E of Clardon Head is Murkle Bay. The rocks of the parish are fissile beds belonging to the Old Red Sandstone system, some of which, at Weydale, Forss, and elsewhere, are quarried for the Caithness fags or Caithness pavement, so well known for its smooth surface and its durability. Many of the beds are highly fossiliferous, and those in the neighbourhood of the town of Thurso yielded the fine specimens of Asterolepis now in the Hugh Miller and John Miller Collections in the Industrial Museumat Edinburgh. One thin bed, a short distance W of Holburn Head, contains the scarce little crustacean, Estheria membranacea. The drainage is carried off by the river Thurso, which, after tracing part of the south-western boundary, as already described, has a course of 5 miles through the parish, till it falls into the S corner of inner Thurso Bay. The only lake of any size is Loch Cailam or Chaluim (5 x 4 furl.; 435 feet) in the detached portion of the parish. The mansions are Forss House, Scrabster House, and Thurso Castle. The last, to the E of the mouth of the river Thurso, is a large and rather staring structure of 1872-78, in a somewhat poor variety of the Baronial style. The height of its main tower is 147 feet. Its predecessor, erected in 1660 by George, Earl of Caithness, was the birthplace and residence of the famous Sir John Sinclair (1754-1835), to whom Scotland owes theOld Statistical Account, and also of his daughter, Miss Catherine Sinclair (1801-64). His grandson, Sir John-GeorgeTollemache Sinclair of Ulbster, third Bart. since 1786 (b. 1825; suc. 1868), has been Liberal member for Caithness since 1869, and holds 78,053 acres in the shire, valued at £14,212 per annum. A short distance E of the castle is Harold's Tower, erected by Sir John Sinclair to mark the supposed grave of Harald, grandson of Rögnvald, who was defeated by Harald Maddadson in this neighbourhood in 1196. Near the centre of Scrabster Bay are the ruined remains of the old castle of the Bishops of Caithness, occupying the site of the 'borg' which Harald Maddadson destroyed when he captured Bishop John of Caithness and the principal men of the district in 1201. The neighbourhood was also the scene of an earlier battle in 1040, when Moddan, nephew of King Duncan, was surprised and slain in or about the town by Thorkell Fostri and his Norsemen, and thereafter Thorkell's victorious army proceeded to join Thorfinn and take part in the great battle in Moray that preceded Duncan's death. There are some traces of a camp at Holburn Head, and remains of Picts' houses or weems at Sordale, Balliemore, Cairnmore, Scrabster Hill, and elsewhere. A little to the W of Holburn Head is a small obelisk called Slater's Monument, erected in memory of Captain M. A. Slater of the Coast Survey, who is supposed to have been thrown from his horse over the cliff close at hand. The parish is in the presbytery of Caithness and the synod of Sutherland and Caithness, and the living is worth £433 a year. The churches are noticed in connection with the town. Seven schools, with total accommodation for 1082 pupils, had (1884) an average attendance of 622, and grants amounting to £534. Thurso unites with Bower, Cannisbay, Dunnet, Halkirk, Olrig, Reay, and Watten to form Thurso poor-law combination, with a poorhouse having accommodation for 149 inmates. The cemetery is on a high bank overlooking the river Thurso, fully ½ mile S of the town. It contains a monument to Robert Dick (1811-66), the famous scientific baker of Thurso, whose story has been told by Dr Smiles in Robert Dick, Geologist and Botanist (1878). The Georgemas and Thurso branch of the Highland Railway passes NW through the parish to the town, and near it are two main roads from Wick to Thurso. Another road goes westward to Reay, and there are a number or good district roads. The principal proprietor is Sir J. G. T. Sinclair, Bart., of Ulbster, and 5 others hold each an annual value of £500 or upwards, 6 hold each. between £500 and £100, 16 hold each between £100 and £50, and there are a considerable number with. smaller amounts. Valuation (1860) £14,740, (1885) £26,707, 15s., including £918 for the railway. Pop. (1801) 3628, (1831) 4679, (1861) 5561, (1871) 5754, (1881) 6217, of whom 2939 were males and 3278 females, while 4026 were in the police burgh. Houses (1881) 1418.—Ord. Sur., shs. 116, 115, 1878.

The River Thurso rises near the extreme SW end of the parish of Halkirk among the hills that there form the boundary between Sutherland and Caithness, and flows first NE, and then N, through the centre of the parish of Halkirk, and thereafter near the centre of the parish of Thurso to the sea at the S side of Thurso Bay. The whole length of the course is about 27 miles, of which 19½ are in Halkirk and 7½ in Thurso. The hollow through which it flows in the upper part of its course from SW to NE is called Strath More, and near the centre of it is Loch More. At the point where the stream turns N it receives from Strath Bheag a tributary which drains the northern part of the parish of Latheron, and 5½ miles farther down another joins it from the W, from Loch Calder. The other affluents are neither numerous nor important. The fishing is good, particularly in early spring. There is almost no wood along its course, but the high banks between which the river often runs are by no means devoid of beauty. The boulder clay along them contains at several points comminuted shells.

The Town of Thurso stands on the W bank of the river at the month, and has a station at the northern terminus of the Sutherland and Caithness section (1874) of the Highland railway. It is by rail 20¾ miles NW of Wick, 154 NNE of Inverness, and 298 N of Perth. By sea it is 25 miles SSW of Stromness, and 30½ SW of Scapa pier, and by road 21 miles from Wick and 44 ENE of Tongue. It seems to have become an important resort of the Norsemen at a very early date, and it soon became the great centre of trade between Scotland and Norway, Sweden and Denmark. In 1633 it was created a burgh of barony, a status which it still holds, though it is now also a police burgh, the General Police and Improvement Act having been adopted. The superior is Sir J. G. T. Sinclair of Ulbster. For nearly two hundred years after 1633 it was practically the county town of Caithness, the sheriff courts being held and all the ordinary law business of the county transacted there. The superior and magistrates of Wick having, however, raised an action to show that their rights were being usurped, obtained a decree of the Court of Session in their favour in 1828, and the legal business was then removed to Wick. The old part off the town occupies a triangular piece of ground between the bay and the river, and is irregularly built; but the newer part to the SW is regularly laid out, though it has not yet developed into the large place it was designed to be. Near the centre of the town is Macdonald Square, in which is a small public garden, originally the private property of the Sinclair family, but presented to the town by Sir John Sinclair in 1876. In the centre is a statue of Sir John Sinclair of Old Statistical Account celebrity, originally erected at Thurso Castle in 1835, but removed to its present position in 1856. The ground was formerly somewhat bare and neglected, but it was laid out and ornamented in 1882-83 at an expense of £213 raised by public subscription. A promenade was formed at the]inks in 1882. It is over 300 yards long, and the expense of construction was defrayed by the public. The sands to the N of the town form excellent bathing ground. The principal street is Princes Street, formerly High Street, the name having been changed after the visit paid to the town by the Prince and Princess of Wales in October 1876, when His Royal Highness opened an Art and Industrial Exhibition in the Town Hall. The Town Hall, a good Gothic building in Princes Street, contains a courtroom, a public library, and a museum on the ground floor, and on the upper floor a public hall 56 feet 6 inches long, 40 feet wide, and 30 high. It was erected in 1870 at a cost of £2500, obtained partly by public subscription and partly from the proceeds of a bequest of £1000 made by Mr Alexander Henderson several years before. The centre window over the doorway is of stained glass, and shows St Peter-the patron saint of the town-and the arms of Mr Henderson and of Sinclair of Ulbster. The museum contains part of the collections made by the late Robert Dick. The library is carried on under the Public Libraries Act, which was adopted in 1872. The parish church, erected in 1832, after designs by Burns, at a cost of £6000, is a good building, with a tower 140 feet high and a clock, the latter the gift of Mr Henry Miller, London. There are 1540 sittings. Near the river are the roofless walls of the old church of St Peter, believed to date from the 14th century, and surrounded by the old burying-ground. There are two Free churches, the First and the West, of which the latter is a handsome building of 1860 with a good spire. The Congregational church, erected in 1875-76 at a cost of £1100, replaced an old church dating from 1799. There is also an Original Secession church. There is a public school, an institution in Sinclair Street endowed by Mr Alexander Miller for the education of boys, a benevolent institution for girls in Olrig Street, and a Free Church school. The Dunbar Hospital originated in a bequest by Mr Alexander Dunbar, Scrabster, who died in 1859. The foundation stone of the building was laid by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1882. There is regular railway communication with the south, and the mail steamer sails between Orkney and Scrabster daily. There is a small harbour at the mouth of the river, ranking as a creek under Wick, but it is neither convenient nor safe. The principal exports are grain and paving-stone. The harbour or rather roadstead and pier at Scrabster are separately noticed. The only industry of any importance is in connection with the trade in Caithness flags, the sawing, dressing, and polishing of which is carried on by four companies; and there is good fishing in Dunnet Bay. Thurso has a head post office, with money order, savings' bank, insurance, annuity, and telegraph departments; branch offices of the Bank of Scotland, British Linen Company, Commercial, National, and Town and County Banks; a branch of the National Security Savings' Bank; agencies of 27 insurance companies; a newspaper, the Independent Caithness Courier (1866), published every Friday; a rifle hall, with a public reading-room; and several good hotels. Gas is supplied by a private company, and new gasworks were erected in 1880. There is a weekly market on Friday, and there are fairs on the second Tuesday of July (Petermass). and the Fridays in August and September after Dunnet. Sheriff small debt courts are held ten times a year, i.e., once every five weeks, on Thursdays; and justice of peace small debt courts are held every second Wednesday. Pop. of town (1841) 2510, (1861) 3426, (1871) 3622, (1881) 4026, of whom 1827 were males and 2199 females. Houses (1881) 995 occupied, 34 unoccupied, and 16 being built.

* The name is sometimes more widely applied to the whole sweep bounded on the NW by Holburn Head and on the E by Dunnet Head; and embracing on the SE the great sweep of Dunnet Bay. This opening measures 7 miles across the mouth from Holburn Head NE to Dunnet Head, 7½ from Dunnet Head SW to the town of Thurso, and 7 from Holburn Head E by S to Dunnet Sands.

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

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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