Wick

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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Wick, a royal burgh, seaport, seat of trade, and the county town of Caithness, at the head of Wick Bay, near the middle of the E coast of the parish just described. It is the eastern terminus of the Sutherland and Caithness section (1874) of the Highland railway, and by rail is 161¼ miles NNE of Inverness. By road it is 18½ miles S of Huna and John o' Groat's House, and 14¾ NNE of Lybster. By sea it is about 50 miles S of Kirkwall, and 110 NNW of Aberdeen. The town may be said to consist of three portions, Wick proper to the N of Wick Water, Louisburgh still farther N, and Pulteneytown to the SE on the S side of Wick Water. The burgh was formerly confined within narrow limits, but in 1883 the sheriff granted a petition praying for the inclusion within the boundary of both Louisburgh and the high ground on the opposite side of the river from Wick about the railway station. In the time of the Vikings, from whom it received its name, it seems to have been a resort of some importance, and mention of it occurs in the Sagas as early as 1140, when ` Earl Rognvald went over to Caithness and was entertained at Vik by a man named Harold; ' but its modern history may be said to date from 1589, when Wick proper was constituted a royal burgh by charter of James VI. So little idea, however, had the citizens as to their rights and privileges thus obtained, that the burgh practically remained under superiors-first the Earls of Caithness and thereafter the families of Ulbster and Sutherland-like a mere burgh of barony till the Municipal Reform Act of 1833. There are no burgage lands, and the Duke of Sutherland is still feudal superior. Wick itself consists of a narrow crooked street called High Street, running in a general line N and S along the N bank of the river, and with closes and lanes running off on both sides. It is poorly edificed. Lonisburgh, which dates from the latter part of last century, lies to the N and NW. Opening off High Street southward is the only wellbuilt street of the town, the short Bridge Street, which crosses the river by a fine stone bridge of three arches erected in 1874. This leads to Pulteneytown, which is divided into Lower Pulteneytown, situated on low ground adjoining the bank of the stream, and Upper Pulteneytown, situated on the high ground overlooking the bay. The greater portion of both lies along streets regularly laid out at right angles, Upper Pulteneytown having in addition a large but somewhat neglected central square. This suburb, which is the seat of all the trade, and contains more than half the whole population, was laid out by the British Fisheries Society in 1808, shortly before they commenced operations at the harbour, and was designed to be a model fishing-town. Wick townhall, in Bridge Street, is a somewhat dingy building with a sandstone front and a cupola-shaped belfry over the doorway. The county buildings, erected in 1866 at a cost of £6000, are also in Bridge Street, and contain a good court-room with retiring rooms and accommodation for the various county offices. The prison behind the town-house has been disused since 1882. The parish church, at the W end of the town, was erected in 1830 at a cost of £5000, and is a poor Gothic building with a spire. It contains 1900 sittings. The preReformation parish church, dedicated to St Fergus, is supposed to have stood at Mount Halie, near the E end of the town, but a more recent structure-the predecessor of that removed to make way for the present building occupied a site close to the existing church. The only traces of it now remaining are the structures called the Sinclair Aisle and the Dinbar Tomb. At Pulteneytown there is a quoad sacra church erected in 1842, and containing 550 sittings. The Free church in Bridge Street is a good building, erected in 1862. Of two Free churches in Pulteneytown the one dates from the Disruption, and has a spire added in 1862. The other Reformed Presbyterian till 1876-was built in 1839, and contains 380 sittings. The United Presbyterian church in Pulteneytown,- built in 1878-79 at a cost of £4000, and containing 700 sittings, replaced an older church erected in 1815. The original Congregational church in Wick, built in 1799, was replaced by the present building on a different site in 1882. It contains 500 sittings. The Evangelical Union church, with 520 sittings, was erected in 1845. St John's Episcopal church, in Pulteneytown, a building of 1870, Decorated Gothic in style, has 150 sittings, and there are also a small Baptist church (1809), with 150 sittings, and St Joachim's Roman Catholic church in Pulteneytown, erected in 1837, and containing 250 sittings. The Temperance Hall, erected in 1842, has accommodation for about 1000 persons. Two of the bank offices are very good buildings, and there is a fine hotel close to the bridge erected at the time of the opening of the railway. Besides the stone bridge at Bridge Street, there is a wooden bridge farther down the river near the harbour. The old burying ground was round the church, but owing to its crowded condition, a new cemetery was formed in 1872 to the S of Pulteneytown. Under the burgh school board the Pulteneytown Academy, North Wick and South Wick schools, with accommodation for 519, 300, and 280 pupils respectively, had, in 1884, attendances of 334, 234, and 259, and grants of £323, 15s., £204, 15s., and £226, 8s. 6d.

The jurisdiction of the port of Wick extends from Bonar-Bridge round all the E, N, and W coast as far as Rhu Stoer on the W coast of Sutherland, and takes in also the island of Stroma in the Pentland Firth. It thus includes the harbours of Little Ferry, Helmsdale, Lybster, Broadhaven, Scrabster, and Portskerry, besides numerous creeks. Except as regards fishing-boats, the shipping trade is mostly confined to Wick. In 1850 the number of vessels belonging to the port was 54, with an aggregate tonnage of 3445; in 1875 there were 65 sailing vessels, with an aggregate tonnage of 6412, and 1 steam vessel, with a tonnage of 108; and in 1884 there were 56 sailing vessels, with an aggregate tonnage of 5085. The following table shows the tonnage of vessels that entered from and to foreign and colonial ports and coastwise with cargoes and ballast, in various years:-

Entered. Cleared.
Year. British. Foreign. Total. British. Foreign. Total.
1860 103,706 4,770 108,476 98,547 8,648 107,195
1867 79,258 5,271 84,629 75,853 5,146 80,999
1874 92,840 5,310 98,150 82,731 4,778 87,509
1883 108,714 13,651 122,365 87,195 13,496 100,560

The exports are chiefly fish, but grain, cattle, and country produce generally are also sent away. The imports are principally coal, wood, and goods suited for a general country trade. There is regular steam communication with Aberdeen and Granton twice a week in summer and once in winter, and with Kirkwall and Lerwick once a week.

The commerce of early times seems to have found accommodation in the mouth of the river, and at small jetties on the N side; and no attempt to form a regular harbour was made till 1810, when the first one was constructed, partly from Government funds, and partly with money furnished by the British Fisheries Society, originally founded in 1786 for the purpose of developing the fisheries round the British coasts. The works then executed cost £14,000; but as they proved inadequate for their purpose, improvements were carried out between 1825 and 1831 at a cost of £40,000, and the works brought into the state in which they remained down to 1882. From the increased size of vessels and boats employed in connection with the fishing, this new harbour was, within a few years, again found too small, and in 1844 the Fisheries Society obtained an Act of Parliament empowering them to enlarge it. Nothing was, however, done, and in consequence of the insufficient nature of the accommodation, and the harbour's being a tidal one, and having its mouth so placed to shelter it from the sea that boats entering 189 had to broach broadside to the sea before running in, great loss of life occurred in 1845, and again in 1848. In 1857 a fresh Act was obtained, but as the scheme proposed under it required the sanction of the Admiralty, and that body wished for the formation of a harbour of refuge which the Society could not afford to carry out, nothing was done till 1862, when it was agreed that a modified harbour of refuge should be formed. This was to be accomplished by the construction of a breakwater running out from the S shore of the bay 430 yards to the SE of the old works, and extending 1450 feet outward at right angles to the shore, terminating in 30 feet of water, and sheltering an area of about 25 acres, of which more than 20 had a depth of over 2 fathoms at low water. The force of the waves in the bay seems, however, to have been underestimated, if, indeed, the principle of construction was not wholly wrong; and year after year portions of the great pier were thrown down. At last, after the Society had expended £62,000 of a Government loan, £54, 000 of their own funds, and £40,000 of surplus harbour rates, in terrific gales during the years 1871 and 1872-when the force of the waves was such as to break iron bars measuring 8 by 3 inches-the whole structure was completely ruined, except a fragment of the shore end, and operations were abandoned in 1874, from which time till 1880 the storms of each winter swept away portion after portion of what remained. In 1879 a fresh Act was obtained by the Fisheries Society, empowering them to hand over the whole works to a body of trustees elected by public bodies in the town, while all sums against the harbour for repayment of the sums expended on it by the Society were abandoned. The old works were injured by the storms of 1880; and the trustees obtained from the Treasury, first a remission of interest, and ultimately in 1882 a suspension of the present repayment of the £60,000 due to the Public Works Loan Commissioners; and under a provisional order obtained in 1883, they have proceeded with new works which are estimated to cost £90, 000, of which £50,000 is to be obtained on loan from the Public Works Commissioners. These operations contemplate the lengthening of the south quay 300 feet, the erection of a new north quay outside the present one, so as to enlarge the existing harbour by 2½ acres, and the deepening of the whole area by 8 feet, the extreme depth of the entrance at low water being thus about 17 feet.

The great industry of Wick is fishing, particularly herring fishing. Prior to 1768 the only herring caught were by hand lines for bait; but then, under the encouragement of a parliamentary bounty, boats were fitted out for systematic prosecution of the trade. In that year, probably from inexperience, operations failed, but in 1782, 363 barrels were caught, and in 1790, 13, 000 barrels; and ever since the formation of the harbour it has been frequented by large numbers of boats from all quarters. During the season, in July and August, this gives the place a somewhat ` ancient and fish-like smell,' and herring and herring barrels are everywhere to be found along the shore, sometimes occupying considerable spaces along the sides of the streets in the portion of the town nearest the harbour. The fishermen come from all parts of Scotland, the greater number being ` hired men ' from the Western Highlands and Islands. The fishery district of Wick extends from Whale Goe or Whaligoe, 7 miles N by W of the town of Wick, round the rest of the Moray Firth and N and W coasts as far as Cape Wrath. It embraces the fishing towns and villages of Whaligoe, Sarelet, Wick, Ramsgoe, Broadhaven, Greenigoe, Uttergoe, Elzie, Staxigoe, Ackergill, Keiss, Nybster and Auckingill, Freswick, Duncansbay, Stroma, Huna, Gills, Mey, Scarfskerry, Ham, Brough, Dunnet, Murkle, Thurso and Scrabster, Crosskirk and Brims, Sandside, Portskerry, Strathyhead, Armadale, Kirktomy, Farr, Torrisdale, Scullomy, Talmine, Eri boll, and Smoo. Half of the boats and men employed, and about two-thirds of the first-class boats, belong to Wick itself and the neighbouring places. Belonging to the district there were, in 1883, 388 first-class, 49 second. class, and 336 third-class boats, employing 2642 fisher n en and boys and 3776 other persons. The boats were valued at £51,507, the nets at £37, 916, and the lines as 458. The number of boats fishing within the district, most of them from Wick harbour and the neighbouring Broadhaven, in 1821 was 595, and from this time it gradually increased till 1831 when it was 1021, fell off again in 1838 to 566, increased in 1857 to 1100 and in 1862 to 1122, and has since then, owing to the insufficient harbour accommodation, fallen off very largely. The number in 1883 was 518, and the total catch 120, 304 crans, the best average fishing per boat ever made. There were employed in connection with these boats 3367 fisher men and boys and 2186 other persons, and the total number of barrels cured was 155, 668, of which 135, 842 were exported to the Continent. A bank within ten miles of Wick, and other banks beyond, afford excellent white fishing, the town being in winter and spring one of the great centres of this industry. The number of cod, ling, and hake cured in 1883 was 69, 004; and over £25, 000 worth of other fish, including crabs and lobsters, were captured. Minor industries are the manufacture of ropes, sails, and herring nets; and there is a large steam sawmill in Wick, and a distillery and brewery in Pulteneytown.

The burgh is governed by a provost, 3 bailies, a dean of guild, a treasurer, and 9 councillors; and under the General Police and Improvement Act of 1862, which was adopted in 1874, the councillors are also police commissioners, but the police force is united with that of the county. The British Fisheries Society are superiors of Pulteneytown, but there are 12 improvement commissioners who exercise local power, and who also, under the Public Health Act, form the Local Authority. There is a separate police force of 3 men (one to every 1691 or the population), under a superintendent with a salary of £50 a year. Gas is supplied by a private company constituted in 1846. Pulteneytown is supplied with water from Loch Hempriggs, and a supply was introduced into the other districts in 1882 from Loch of Yarehouse at a cost of £6000. The town has a head post office, with money order, savings' bank, insurance, and telegraph departments, branch offices of the Bank of Scotland, British Linen Company, Commercial, North of Scotland, and Town and County Banks. There is also a branch of the National Security Savings' Bank, agencies of 39 insurance companies, and several good hotels. The newspapers are the Liberal John o' Groat Journal (1836), published on Thursday, and the Independent Northern Ensign (1850), published on Wednesday evening. Among the miscellaneous institutions may be noticed a custom-house, a station of the Naval Reserve, with buildings erected in 1876 on the South Head, beyond Pulteneytown; a Freemasons' hall, a lifeboat station, two public newsrooms, a chamber of commerce, artillery and rifle volunteers, a branch of the Shipwrecked Mariners' Society, and the usual benevolent and philanthropic associations. Sheriff ordinary and commissary courts for the county are held every Tuesday and Friday during session, and small debt courts for the parishes of Wick, Watten, Bower, and Canisbay every Tuesday during session. Down till 1828 these courts were held at Thurso. (See Thurso.) Quarter sessions are held at both Wick and Thurso, and justice of peace small debt courts on the first and third Mondays of each month. There is a weekly market on Friday, and there are fairs on the second last Tuesday of July, on 17 November o. s., or the Tuesday thereafter, and on the last Friday of every other month. There is a coach to Castletown and Thurso, and another to Lybster and Dunbeath every day.

The parliamentary burgh, which includes Pulteneytown, Louisburgh, Broadhaven, and a small district round, as well as Wick proper, unites with Dingwall, Tain, Cromarty, Dornoch, and Kirkwall in returning a member to parliament. Parliamentary constituency (1885) 941; municipal 448. Valuation, royal burgh, (1875) £4691, (1885) £5585, including £478 for the railway; parliamentary burgh (1875) £21, 892, (1885) £24, 218. Pop. of extended royal burgh, 2954; inhabited houses, 527. - Pop. of parliamentary burgh (1841) 5522, (1861) 7475, (1871) 8131, (1881) 8053, of whom 3810 were males and 4243 were females. Houses (1881) 1258 inhabited, 32 uninhabited, and 10 being built. Of the whole population 5253 were in Pulteneytown, 1860 in Wick proper, and 940 in Louisburgh; and of the inhabited houses 791 were in Pulteneytown, 293 in Wick proper, and 174 in Louisburgh.—Ord. Sur., sh. 116, 1878.

Janetstown, a village in Wick parish, Caithness, 5 furlongs W of the station.

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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