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Robert Dick of Thurso
Chapter IV. Description of Caithness


The name of Caithness is derived from the old Norse. It indicates the ness, naze, or nose of Cattey. Many of the headlands are also denominated ness, from Brim’s Ness to the west of Thurso, to Noss Head north of Wick. Indeed, the same word is applied to headlands along the east coast of Scotland and England—from Tarbat Ness in Boss to Dungeness in Kent. The same word is applied to the Naze in Norway and in Essex, and to Cape Gris Nez (Gray Nose) near Calais. It usually indicates a headland which the Scandinavians have named, or near which they have settled.

Caithness seems to have been almost entirely Scandinavian. The creeks or bays in which the Norsemen anchored, or where they ran their boats ashore, are called by Norwegian names, from Wick, the greatest fishing station in the world, to Freswick, Sleswick, Dwarwick, and such like inlets.

The Gaels seem to have been pushed inland towards the hilly country of Sutherland, while the Scandinavians occupied the low-lying ground along the coast. Almost every farm steading is called by a Scandinavian name. Hence Scrabster, Lybster, Seister, Thurster, Ulbster, and such like—the word ster being from “saetr,” the Scandinavian word for farm. Dahls, or dales, penetrate the country to the southward, though the Celtic word Strath is still preserved. Hence Strath Halladale and Strath Helmsdale in Sutherlandshire. North of that region, the rivers are called forss or water. Worsaae derives the name of Thurso from Thor the pagan god, and aa a river. Hence Thorsa, or Thor’s river.

The people also resemble their progenitors. The fair hair, blue eyes, and tall figures of the Scandinavians are still preserved throughout the county,—in contradistinction to the small size, the dark hair, the swarthy skin, and the black or steely-blue eyes of the Celts, to the south and west of Scotland.

All the firths, or inlets of the sea, are known by Norse names. The Pentland Firth, which runs between the north coast of Caithness and the Orkneys, was in old Norse called the Petland Fiord. Here we have the mythical Picts again. Bleau, in his Geographical Atlas, says that the Piets, when defeated by the Scots, fled to Duncansby, from whence they crossed to Orkney. But, meeting with resistance by the natives, they were forced to return. On their way back to Caithness, they all perished in the firth; from which catastrophe it was ever after called the Pictland or Pentland Firth.

Heavy currents run through the Firth. The tide runs at the rate of ten miles an hour. A full-rigged ship, with her sails set and a favourable wind, is sometimes driven back by the tide. This I have seen when journeying along the shores of the Firth. Sometimes it is whirled round amidst the eddying currents. Where the currents of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea meet, the water is churned and eddied about as in a maelstrom. At the east end of the Firth is the island of Stroma, which in old Norse means “ the island in the current.” The population of the island is of pure Norwegian descent; the men being excellent sailors and boatmen.

Not far from this island, and in sight of John o’ Groat’s, are the two Pentland Skerries, commanding the eastern entrance to the Firth. They were originally called Petland Skjaere. The largest skerry contains two lighthouses, one higher than the other, to be a surer guide to the mariner.

During the equinoctial gales, the wind sweeps across the county with great fury. It is scarcely possible to hold one’s feet. Cattle are blown down, and trees are blown away. The thatched roofs of the cottages are held down by strong straw ropes with heavy stones hanging at their ends; otherwise the roofs would be blown away, as well as the cottages themselves.

It is scarcely possible to grow a tree in the northern part of the county. Hedges are almost unknown. Instead of hedges, the fields are separated from each other by Caithness flags set on end. To one accustomed to the beautiful woods and hedgerows of the south, the cheerlessness of Caithness scenery may well be imagined. Robert Chambers said of the county—“ The appearance of Caithness is frightful, and productive of melancholy feelings.” “It is only a great morass,” says another writer; “ the climate is unfavourable; the stormy winds are always blowing across it; mists suddenly come on, and the air is always damp.”

A desperate effort has been made to grow trees at Barrogill Castle, within sight of the Pentland Firth. A wood surrounds the east side of the castle. The trees are planted thick, and they are protected by a high wall. But at the point at which the wall ends, the tops of the trees are sharply cut away as if by a scythe. They are chilled and eaten down by the sea-drift.

The best wood in the northern part of the county is at Castlehill, where the imported trees are protected by rising grounds on all sides. The only tree that thrives in Caithness is the common bourtree or elder. The trembling poplar, the white birch, and the hazel, are also occasionally found in sheltered places.

But though the county of Caithness is for the most part flat and cheerless, it is redeemed from monotony by its glorions coast scenery. On the east, as well as on the west, the rocks jut out into the ocean in stupendous cliffs. “When the stormy winds do blow” is the time to see the wonders of the north—at Duncansby Head, at Dunnet Head, at Holborn Head, at Noss Head, and, indeed, all round the coast. At Wick Bay, only a few years ago, a tremendous storm from the east dashed to pieces the new breakwater, lifting up stones of tons weight and dashing them on the beach,—thus setting at defiance the skill and ingenuity of the engineer who had built it.

Duncansby Head is also exposed to the full fury of the North Sea. It is a continuous precipice about two miles in extent, and of a semicircular shape. It is remarkable for its stupendous boldness, and the wild and striking appearance of the chasms and goes by which it is indented. In front of the cliff are three Stacks, which have been washed round by successive storms, and stand out bare and red several hundred yards from the mainland. The cliff consists principally of old red sandstone, and partly of Caithness slate.

The huge, long, white-crested billows, lashed into fury by the storm, chase each other up the beach, and burst with astounding force. At high tide, they dash up the cliffs and rush over the summit into the mainland. Fiom thence they run down over the inland slopes, into a rivulet which joins the Pentland Firth near John o’ Groat’s. From the summit of the cliff a fine view is obtained of the Skerries at the mouth of the Firth, of Stroma, the island in the current, and of the Orkney Islands as far as the bold headland of Hoy.

Along the east coast, numberless castles are built upon the cliffs. They are mostly in ruins. Many ol them are prehistoric. Wick Castle, Girnigo Castle, and Keiss Castle, are the oldest. Ho one knows who built them. Most probably they are the strongholds of the Scandinavian chiefs, who, at some unknown period, took possession of the lowland part of the county.

The castle of Al-Wick—or, as it is usually called, the Auld Man of Wick—seems to be one of the most ancient. It consists of a grim-looking tower or keep of the rudest masonry, perforated here and there with arrow-slits. It is three stories high; but entirely roofless and floorless. It is surrounded by an outer wall, within which are the ruins of some old houses. A deep broad moat defends it on the land side. At present, it forms an excellent landmark to vessels approaching that part of the coast.

Girnigo Castle, situated on the promontory of Hoss Head, is also very old. Castle Sinclair, which was added to it, has a history, which Girnigo has not. But the old builders were so much better than the new ones, that while Castle Sinclair has fallen to ruins, Girnigo Castle stands as firmly as it did at the time at which it was built.

The constantly rolling sea, ever for ever, washes itself against the rocks, grinding away the softest parts. The red sandstone goes first, leaving long hollows amongst the slates, through which the sea drives inland. In stormy weather, the waves wash in with

great force, sometimes a quarter of a mile or more; and at theS~^ far end, they drive up into the open air, blowing like a whale. '

These hollows under the rocks are called goes or gyoes. They are common V all round Caithness. One of them is near Wick, at the castle of Al-Wick.


Girnigo castle.
 

Robert Dick describes another near Thurso, which will be found referred to in a future part of the story.

From the northern part of Caithness, where the >N11 ground is comparatively flat inland, and full of lochs from Thurso to Wick, the land gradually ascends, until we find hills and then mountains close upon the borders of Sutherland. Morven, Maiden Tap, and Skerry Ben, form part of a range of mountains, extending from Sandside Bay on the north, to Helmsdale on the south. Morven is the great mountain of Caithness. It is 2331 feet high. It is regarded as the great weather-glass of the county. When the mist gathers about its base, rain is sure to follow; but when the mist ascends to the top and disperses, leaving the majestic outline of the mountain exposed to view, then the weather will be fine. “During harvest especially,” says a local writer, “all eyes are directed towards it; and it never deceives.

“In vision I behold tall Morven stand,
And see the morning mist distilling tears
Around his shoulders, desolate and grand.”

From what we have already stated, it will be understood that Caithness is by no means a fertile county. Until a comparatively recent period agriculture was in a very backward state. When Pennant visited the county about a hundred years ago, he describes it as little better than “an immense morass,” with here and there some fruitful spots of oats and bere, and much coarse grass.

In those places where any agriculture was carried on, the women did the work of horses. They carried the manure on their backs to the field; and did the most of the manual labour. The land could scarcely be called ploughed. The Caithness plough was one-stilted. It was dragged over the ground by a yoke of oxen, driven by a woman. There were neither barns nor granaries in the county. The corn was preserved in the chaff in bykes, which were low stacks in the shape of bee-hives, thatched quite round.

Thurso, the chief place in Caithness, carried on a trade with Norway and Denmark, long before it began to communicate with the rest of Scotland. The sea was by far the easiest mode of transit; and all the people along the coast were sailors. But, indeed, there was very little traffic to be carried on. The only two clusters of houses in the county were Thurso and Wick. Thurso must have been the more important place, as it not only had a church, but also a bishop— the Bishop’s Palace being close at hand. Thurso was a small fishing town, and Wick contained only a few hundred inhabitants. But the fishing has long left Thurso, and gone to Wick. “The only fishing at Thurso now,” said Dick, “is sillocks and sillock scrae. The salmon fishing, however, is the best in the kingdom.”

There were then no roads in Caithness. The extensive hollows in the flat slaty ground were filled with morasses. There was not a single wheel-cart in the county before 1780. Crubbans were the substitutes for carts. They were wicker baskets. Two of them, hung one on each side of a pony from a wooden saddle, beneath which was a cushion of straw, carried corn, goods, and other articles. Six or seven ponies thus loaded, says Henderson in his Agricultural Survey of Caithness, might be seen going in a kind of Indian file, each tied by the halter to the other’s tail, a person leading the front horse, and each of the others was pulled forward by the tail of the one before him. Yet traffic was carried on throughout England in the same manner, about three hundred years ago.

Caithness was behind in everything. The only geography of the county was known from Danish sources. Timothy Pont made his first map in 1608. It was shut out from the rest of Scotland by the mountainous county of Sutherland.2 It was long before a road could be made to enable the people to communicate with their countrymen farther south. The only road lay along the eastern shore, among rocks and sand, which were often covered by the tide. The inland road lay over the Ord of Caithness. The Ord is a formidable pass between Sutherland and Caithness. It is situated at the eastern boundary of the two counties. There is a lofty mountain on one side of the road, and a steep precipice on the other, at the foot of which is the sea.

The Ord is the termination of a long mountain ridge, and is the brow of a steep hill overhanging the ocean. On the Sutherland side, the headland is cleft into a gorge of great depth, which runs a long way inland. The old road—before the present bridge was built over the gorge —was a mere path or shelf along the outer edge of the promontory twelve hundred feet above the sea. When

the weather was stormy, it could not he passed in safety. Even in fair weather, the road was so difficult and dangerous that, when the chaise of a landed proprietor had to pass it, a force of fifteen or twenty persons was employed to help on the carriage and horses.

Pennant, who travelled into many strange places, described the pass as “infinitely more high and horrible than Penmaenmaur in Wales and another writer says, J that if any stumble thereupon, they are in danger of falling down a precipice into the sea at the bottom of the rock, which is very terrible to behold.” The old path is still to be seen from Helmsdale. It is like a sheep-track winding up the steep brow of tlie hill, some three or four hundred feet above the rolling surge.

The road to Thurso from the Ord road was almost impassable. It was a mere horse track over the hill of Bencheilt. This road was made passable for carriages through the energy of Sir John Sinclair. The Abbe Gregoire denominated Sir John “the most indefatigable man in Europe.” To him the improvement of the county of Caithness in a great measure belongs. He was born at Thurso Castle, an ancient edifice built by the' sixth Earl of Caithness. It has since been pulled down to make room for a spick-and-span new castle, much less picturesque than the old one. It stood almost 'within sea-mark on Thurso Bay. In stormy weather, the sea spray sometimes passed over the roof. Miss Catherine Sinclair has said that fish have been caught with a line from the drawing-room window; and vessels have been wrecked so close under the turrets, that the voices of the drowning sailors have been heard.

When Sir John succeeded to his estates, three-fourths of Caithness consisted of deep peat-moss, and of hills covered with heath, or altogether naked. On arriving at his majority, he determined upon the improvement of his estates, and of the county generally. One of the first things that he did was to endeavour to make a roaci to Thurso over Bencheilt, in the centre of the county. He himself surveyed the road and marked out its lines. He called together twelve hundred and sixty labourers to meet him early one morning, and set them all simultaneously to work. They began at the dawn of day, and before nightfall, the sheep-track, six miles in length, was converted into a road perfectly easy for carts and carriages. This showed what energy could accomplish.

The young laird was not satisfied with that. He formed a large number of farms on his own estate. He enclosed, drained, and reduced them to order, entirely at his own expense. He built bridges; he made roads; he introduced the best cattle; he provided the best turnip, rye-grass, and clover seeds; he enjoined upon his farmers to adopt a regular rotation of crops; and in a short time converted what had been a barren wilderness into a well-cultivated district. He enclosed on his own estate about 12,000 English acres of waste land, all of which eventually repaid the outlay. Among his other achievements, he introduced the Cheviot breed of sheep into the whole of Scotland, and thus doubled the value of the grazing grounds north of the Tweed.

Sir John tried to introduce trees at Thurso, but he found it difficult to make them grow. It was necessary to dig a hole of large dimensions through the subsoil of slaty rock, over which the tenants of the neighbouring townlands were obliged annually, for seven years, to heap a large mound of compost. And even when the trees did grow they were often blown away by the furious winds from the north and west.

Sir John even tried to introduce nightingales into Caithness! But Nature baffled his efforts. He obtained nightingales’ eggs from the London bird fanciers. They were substituted for those of the robin redbreast. The eggs were hatched. The young nightingales soon flew about the bushes round Thurso Castle. But so soon as the summer had ended, the birds disappeared and never returned.


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