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National Gazetteer, 1868

Caithness - History and Description, 1868

"CAITHNESS, a maritime county of Scotland, situated at the north-eastern extremity of Great Britain, and bounded on the N. and E. by the North Sea, and on the S. and W. by Sutherlandshire. It is of irregular form, and extends in length from Duncansby Head in the N. to the Ord of Caithness in the S., about 40 miles; and in breadth from E. to W., at the widest part, about 30 miles. It is in circuit about 150 miles, including a coast-line of above 100 miles, and comprises an area which is variously estimated at 600 or 700 square miles. The county lies between 58° 5' and 58° 40' N. lat., and between 3° 0' and 3° 53' W. long. In the earliest ages this district appears to have been occupied by the tribes called Logi, Cornabii, and Catini, which were probably Celtic; and it has been suggested that the present name, Caithness, may contain a relic of the name of the last mentioned tribe. The county was part of the Roman division of Britain called Vespasiana, or Caledonia. At an early period the original inhabitants were attacked and subdued by the northern pirates; and the Scandinavian Jarls of Orkney, in the 10th century, reduced Caithness and Sutherland under their dominion. In the 14th century this county had become the seat of an extensive and important trade with the countries on the shores of the Baltic. A striking illustration of this is furnished in the fact that the weights and measures used in Caithness were at that period made the standards for all Scotland. Many ruined forts and names of places attest the presence and dominion of the Danes and Norwegians. The Keiths, Sutherlands, and Sinclairs became powerful families here in the middle ages, and the latter family is now represented by the Earl of Caithness. The general aspect of Caithness is dreary and uninteresting. A range of hills separates it from Sutherlandshire, but the surface of the county is mostly flat. To the S. are the Morven or Morbhein mountains, and another range running parallel with them to the Ord of Caithness and the sea. The former range contains the Maiden Paps, and its highest summits rise above 2,000 feet. In the valley between these ranges of hills runs Langwell Water. Granite prevails near the Ord, and limestone in the northern range. The Old Red sandstone underlies the greater part of the county, which is almost entirely moor-land, with scattered low hills. Spittle Hill, near the centre of the county, is the highest of these. There are about 30 lakes of small size and without the charm of beauty, and some rivers, none of which are navigable. Forss Water and Thurso Water, rising in the hills on the W. and S.W., run northward to the sea. The latter has a course of about 30 miles. Wick Water runs eastward from Loch Watten to Wick Bay; and Dunbeath, Berridale, and Langwell waters run in the same direction to the sea. Trout, salmon, and eels are found in the principal streams and lakes. The coast-line of Caithness is mostly rocky, with numerous bays, headlands, and caves. The N. coast terminates in two bold promontories-that to the W. called Dunnet Head, and that to the E. Duncansby Head, called by Ptolemy Berubium. Off the coast, in the Pentland Firth, is the island of Stroma, and near it the Swalchie whirlpool and the so-called "Merry Men of Mey," which are breakers caused, like the vortex, by the strong currents of the Firth. Off Duncansby Head are the Stacks, two detached rocks of freestone, swarming with sea-birds. Near this headland is the traditional site of John o'Groat's House, but of the house itself not a vestige is to be seen. From Houna Inn is the ferry to Stroma and the Orkneys. There are remains of numerous castles along the coast. A harbour was constructed at Wick in 1831, at a cost of £40,000, and its defect of being exposed to easterly winds is now being remedied. There are also convenient harbours at Thurso and Sandside Bay, besides several smaller ones. Dunnet Head, on which there is a lighthouse, is the most northerly point of Scotland and Great Britain. Granite, slate, flagstones, limestone, sandstone, and freestone are quarried at various places, and copper and lead ore have been obtained. The climate is damp and cold, and the soil mostly a heavy clay or marl. Little wheat is grown, the chief crops being oats, beans, turnips, &c. Great advance has been made in the methods of cultivation, and in the condition of the farmers, under the auspices of Sir John Sinclair, who possessed 100,000 acres, being near a sixth of the county. Before his time there were no roads through the estate. He introduced Cheviot sheep farming, established fisheries, banks, &c., and improved the country to such an extent that the estate of Langwell, which he purchased for £8,000, has sold for £40,000. Many of the small farmers are also fishermen. Besides the native cattle and sheep, there are many of the Argyle and Cheviot breeds, and Leicester sheep. Farming, fishing, and stone-quarrying form the main occupations of the people. The herring fishery is the most important, employing about 700 boats (besides a large number from other districts), and about 12,000 persons. Salmon, cod, ling, and lobsters are also taken. The county contains large beds of peat, which is cut in the summer for fuel. Caithness comprises ten parishes, and forms a presbytery in the synod of Sutherland and Caithness. Wick is the county town and the only royal and parliamentary borough. Thurso is a burgh of barony and a market town. These are the only towns in the county. There are several villages, chiefly fishing stations. Some of the inhabitants still speak Gaelic. Caithness returns one member to the imperial parliament, and Wick unites with Cromarty, Dornoch, Dingwall Tain, and Kirkwall in returning one. Until the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832, this county returned a representative to parliament alternately with Buteshire. The sheriff court for the county and the commissary court are held at Wick every Thursday during the session. Quarter sessions are held at Wick and Thurso, and small debt courts at Wick, Thurso, and Lybster. Population in 1851, 38,709; in 1861, 41,216. No important manufactures are carried on in the county. The antiquities consist of the remains of castles, which are numerous along the coasts. One of the most remarkable ruins is Braal Castle, supposed to have been an episcopal residence, or a seat of the earls of Caithness. It is near Halkirk, on Thurso Water. There are stone circles at Bower and Steinster Loch. The rude structures called Picts' Houses are found in various places. Barrogill Castle, on the coast of the Pentland Firth, is an old seat of the Sinclairs, earls of Caithness. The other principal seats are Watten, the residence of Sir R. A. Anstruther, Bart.; Thurso Castle, of Sir G. Sinclair, Bart.; Barrock, of Sir J. Sinclair, Bart.; Ackergill, of Sir G. Dunbar, Bart.; Castle Hill, of G. Traill, Esq., M.P., besides Hempriggs, Toftengall, Langwell, &c. The chief roads run from Wick along the coast, northward to Houna Ferry, and thence to Thurso; and southward to Lybster, Berridale Castle, Helmsdale, &c. There are also roads direct from Wick to Thurso and Castletown. Steamboats ply regularly between Wick and the Forth twice a week, and between Thurso and the Forth weekly through the summer."

Description(s) from The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868)