Reay parish


1851 - Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, Samuel Lewis

REAY, a parish, partly in the county of Sutherland, but chiefly in the county of Caithness, 9½ miles (\V. S. W.) from Thurso; containing, with the fishing-villages of Melvich and Portskerray, 2SI1 inhabitants, of whom 1067 are in Sutherland, and 1744 in Caithness. This place, the history of which is involved in great obscurity, is supposed to have derived its name, originally Urray, from a Pictish chieftain who occupied a castle here, now in ruins, but the site of which is still called Knock-Urray. This place appears to have been celebrated by the North Highland bards as of some importance at a very early period; and in 1751, from the bursting of a water-spout, which formed for itself a deep channel in the sands between the present village and the shore, there were discovered the remains of an ancient town, said to have been a burgh of regality. Upon this occasion, the gables of several houses built of stone in a continuous line, and the foundations of many others, with pavements and various pieces of earthenware, were found among the ruins, as well as the old market cross, now placed in the village of New Reay. The stones of which the houses were built, being of good quality, were removed, and numerous other relics of the ancient buildings carried otf; but the sand-banks beginning to fall in, all further search was prevented, and the site of the town, sixteen feet below the surface, was again buried in the sand.

The PARISH is bounded on the north by the North Sea, along the shore of which it extends for nearly nine miles; and is about eighteen miles in length from north to south. From the extreme irregularity of its form, the superficial contents have not been ascertained; about 2500 acres are arable, and the remainder hill pasture, moorland, and waste. The surface is strikingly diversified: towards the sea-coast it is tolerably even, but in other parts mountainous and hilly. The highest of the mountains are, Ben-Radh, which has an elevation of 1760 feet above the level of the sea, and Ben-Shurery, Ben-na-Bad, and Ben-Ruaidh, which are little inferior in height; the hills are Knock-na-Bareibhich, Knock-Sleitill, and Muillanan-Liadh, with several others less conspicuous. Between these heights extends for nearly the whole length of the parish the valley of Strathalladale, in the Sutherland district, watered by the river Halladale, which has its source in the hills on the confines of Kildonan parish, and, taking a northern course, flows through the vale into the bay of Bighouse. The river Forss has its source in a small lake to the east of Ben-na-Bad, and winds northwards into Loch Shurery, on issuing from which it forms a boundary between this parish and Thurso, and then falls into the bay of Crosskirk. There are also several streams not distinguished by name, issuing from the lakes; two of these, uniting their waters, and another passing by the church, flow into the bay of Sandside. Though numerous, the lakes are but of small extent. The principal are, Loch Cailm, which is about three miles in circumference; Loch Shurery, a mile and a half in length and nearly half a mile in breadth; Lochs Seirach and Tonnard, less than a mile in length, and connected by a small rivulet; and Luch Sleitill, in Strathalladale, abounding with red trout of superior quality, some of which are two feet long. In many parts the coast is bold and rocky. Of the several bays, those of Sandside and Bighouse are the most important. The former is a mile in breadth, and is surrounded by level sandy land affording good pasture: a commodious harbour has been constructed here by Major Lines, at a cost of more than £3000, having safe shelter for vessels, and for the boats employed in the herring-fishery. At Borrowston the shore is perforated with numerous caverns, one of which, called Gling Glang, is said to have obtained that appellation from the sound produced in its descent by a stone thrown into it. Near the spot is a naturally-formed arch, over a chasm forty feet in depth, into which the tide flows: the crown of it, on a level with the adjacent surface, is covered with green turf. The fish taken off the coast are herrings, cod, ling, turbot, haddock, skate, whiting, mackerel, flounders, sand-eels, and other kinds; and salmon and trout are found in tolerable abundance in the rivers. The fisheries are principally carried on at the villages of Melvieh and Portskerray, which see.

In the Sutherland district the soil is chiefly a dark loam, mixed with sand, and, when under proper cultivation, producing average crops. In the Caithness division it is generally of richer quality; towards the coast clayey and tenacious, and near Burrowston and Sandside light and sandy. The principal crops are oats and barley, with tlie usual grasses. The parish has much more of a pastoral than of an agricultural character, but the system of husbandry lias nevertheless been gradually improving, and considerable tracts of moor have been brought into cultivation; the lands have been partially inclosed by the proprietors of Sandside and Shebster, and a new channel has been made for the river Halladale by the Duke of Sutherland, and embankments raised to prevent its inundation of the strath. Many of the smaller farms have been united, and formed into sheep-walks j and the rearing of sheep and black-cattle, for which there are broad pastures, is the principal dependence of the tenantry. The small native breed of sheep has been superseded by the Cheviots, which, from the extension of sheep-farming, now constitute the principal live stock; the cattle are of the Highland breed. Neither ancient woods nor modern plantations are to be seen, with the exception of a few coppices of birch in Strathalladale, and a few trees in the grounds of Sandside House, lately planted by the proprietor; the soil does not appear to be at all favourable to the growth of timber. There are numerous interesting displays of the sandstones and sandstone-slates so prevalent in the county; and of the primitive formations there are granite, sienite, hornblende rocks, gneiss, and quartz. Large quarries of freestone of good quality have been opened in different parts, and limestone is also extensively wrought. Shell-marl is found in the hills of Dunreay and Brawlbin, and is applied with great success to the improvement of the neighbouring lands. Blocks of gritstone are obtained in the same hills, and are formed into excellent millstones. In several places are indications of iron-ore; and near the village, a small vein of lead-ore was discovered on the estate of Capt. Macdonald, but not under circumstances to warrant the working of it. The annual value of real property in the parish is £4138. Sandside House, the seat of Captain Macdonald, on the western shore of Sandside bay; Isauid House, on the opposite shore of the bay; and Bighouse, the ancient seat of the Mackays, and now the property of the Duke of Sutherland, are the principal houses. The village of New Reay, so called in contradistinction to the town previously noticed, stands on the road from Thurso to Tongue, and is neatly built. Fairs, chiefly for cattle and for various kinds of wares, are held in the beginning of September and the end of December. A post-office under that of Thurso, the nearest market-town, has been established here; and facility of communication is maintained by the turnpike-road, along which the mail passes every alternate day, and by cross roads, and bridges over the rivers.

For ECCLESIASTICAL purposes the place is within the bounds of the presbytery of Caithness and synod of Caithness and Sutherland. The minister's stipend is about £1.50, with a manse, and a glebe valued at £8 per annum; patron, the Crown. Reay church, erected in 1739, is a plain substantial structure in the village, and has 6.'jO sittings. A missionary, who ofliciates every third Sunday at Dispolly, in the district of Halladale, receives a stipend partly from the congregation, and partly from the Royal Bounty; the place of worship, built by the people of the district, assisted by the late Countess of Sutherland, contains sittings for 55{) persons. A church at Shurery has been partly endowed by Major Innes, in connexion with the Established Church; and a catechist is supported by the Royal Bounty and the Kirk Session. The members of the Free Church have a place of worship in the parish. The parochial school is attended by nearly 100 children; the master has a salary of £34. 4. 4., with a house and garden, and the fees. A school is maintained by the General Assembly, and three other schools are supported by individual subscription. There are numerous remains of Picts' houses, built of large stones without cement; of circular form, and varying from sixty to seventy feet in diameter; the walls of massive thickness: the most entire of these ancient buildings is one called the Borg, at Breakrow, in Strathalladale. Upon the summit of Benfrectan, or " the hill of the watch," are the remains of a strong intrenchment: the ramparts, still in many parts entire, appear to have inclosed an ample area, having in the centre a circular tower, from the top of which a beacon could be displayed on the appearance of an enemy, when the women and children, with the cattle, were placed within the fort, which was easily defended against numbers. On the hill of Shebster are remains of two similar fortresses, at some distance from each other, and between which, according to tradition, there was a subterraneous communication. Near Lybster, in the eastern part of the parish, are the remains of an ancient chapel called Crosskirk, with a burying-ground; the walls of the building are of great thickness, and the entrance is very low. At Shebster are the ruins of a like chapel, near which is a tomb containing a coffin of stones, rudely formed. There are several mineral springs, chiefly chalybeate, and one of them, at Helshetter, is thought to be little inferior to the water of Strathpeffer. The parish gives the title of baron to Lord Reay; and the whole of the surrounding district, for many miles, used to be called Lord Reay's Country.