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1851 - Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, Samuel Lewis

WICK, a parish and burgh (royal) and county-town, in the county of Caithness; the parish containing, with the town of Wick proper, Pulteney-Town, adjoining, and the villages of Sarclet, Staxigoe, Reiss, and Ackergill, 10,393 inhabitants, of whom 1333 are in Wick proper, 16 miles (S. by E.) from Canisbay, 20½ (S. E. by E.) from Thurso, and 276 (N.) from Edinburgh. This place, the name of which signifies in the Celtic language a village or small town on an arm of the sea, appears to have been originally inhabited by a Celtic tribe, who at a very early period fell under the power of the Picts, of whose settlement in this part of the kingdom, many ancient monuments are still remaining. The Norwegians under Sigard, brother of Ronald, to whom Harold had granted the Orkneys, eventually obtained possession also of Caithness, Sutherland, and Ross, which continued to be governed by a succession of Norwegian earls for many generations. About the year 1330, that part of Caithness which includes the parish of Wick belonged to the family of Cheyne, of whom the last male heir. Sir Reginald de Cheyne, dying in 1350, was succeeded by his two daughters, who by marriage conveyed the lands to the Sinclairs, Sutherlands, and Keiths. In 1464, a feud arising between the clan of Gun, who held lands here, and the Keiths, a sanguinary conflict took place on the moors of Tannach, in this parish, in which the former were defeated: and above a century afterwards, in 1588, the Earl of Sutherland in revenge for the slaughter of some of his dependents by the Sinclairs, Earls of Caithness, made an inroad into the territories of the latter, burnt the town of Wick, laid siege to their baronial castle of Girnigoe, and after a fruitless endeavour to reduce it, wasted the adjacent district. The lands in this parish belonging to the Earls of Caithness were sold in 1672, by his grandson, to the lord of Glenorchy, who, having thus become proprietor of the greater part of Wick, married the countess, and assumed the title of Earl of Caithness. To vindicate his claim to this honour, which was disputed by Sinclair of Keiss, Glenorchy raised a considerable force; and Sinclair, with a band of 400 of his adherents, took post in the town of Wick, to intercept his progress to Keiss. A battle now occurred, in which Sinclair was defeated; but notwithstanding, his right was subsequently acknowledged, and Glenorchy, to compensate his disappointment, was created Baron of Wick. The baron did not, however, long retain his lands here; for in the year 1690, dividing the estate into numerous portions, he sold them to as many proprietors; and Sir George Dunbar, of Hempriggs, is now the principal landowner.

The TOWN is situated at the head of the bay of Wick in the Moray Firth, on the north side of the river Wick, over which is a handsome bridge connecting the town with the populous district of Pulteney-Town. Its streets are irregularly formed, and the houses but indifferently built; the place is, however, lighted with gas from works erected in 1840, and the inhabitants expect to be soon amply supplied with water. A subscription library, established in 1826, now forms a collection of more than 1600 volumes; and there are reading-rooms in Pulteney-Town and Wick, the former established in the year 1829 and the latter in 1840, both well supplied with public journals, and supported by subscription. The weekly paper called the John O'Groat Journal is also published here. Among the principal manufactures carried on are, the making of ropes and cordage, for which there are four establishments employing about eighty men; and the building of ships, one or two of which are always on the stocks, occupying about fifty men. There are also twelve yards for boat-building; nearly 100 boats are annually launched for the fisheries, and from seventy to eighty persons are engaged in the yards. Here are a distillery and brewery, a meal and barley mill, and four saw-mills, three of them driven by steam; an iron-foundry has been established in Pulteney-Town, and about sixty men are employed in preparing paving stones for exportation. The females are much occupied in spinning yarn, and making it into nets for the herring fishery; for which fishery, also, nearly 300 coopers are constantly employed. The post-office has a daily delivery; and the revenue, previously to the reduction of the postage, averaged £1200 a year. A branch of the Commercial Bank has been established, and a handsome building of freestone with an Ionic portico erected for its use: there is also a branch of the Aberdeen Town and County Bank. The market, which is abundantly supplied, is on Friday. Fairs for cattle are held at Kilminster on the first Tuesday in March; at Wick on the first Tuesday after Palm Sunday, also in the month of June, and about the end of November; and at Hill of Wick on the Tuesday after the 20th of July. Facility of intercourse is afforded by good roads, which pass for many miles through the parish; and a steam-boat plies weekly, from March till November, between Lerwick, Kirkwall, Wick, Aberdeen, and Leith, for goods and passengers.

The trade of the port was early carried on upon a tolerable scale; and in 1588, when the Earl of Sutherland burnt the town, it is recorded that he plundered a ship belonging to one of the merchants of the place. In 1843 the number of vessels registered as belonging to the port was thirty-five, of the aggregate burthen of 2529 tons; and the tonnage of the vessels that touch here averages in the aggregate about 30,000 annually: the customs in the year 1843 amounted to £824. There is a chamber of commerce in the town. The original harbour, at the mouth of the river Wick, in the bay, was accessible only to vessels of very small burthen; and in 1810 a harbour was consequently constructed by the British Society for extending the Fisheries and improving the Sea-coasts of the kingdom, at a cost of £14,000, towards which £8500 were granted by government. This was capable of receiving 100 vessels of considerable size; but from the great increase of the fishery, subsequent to the erection of Pulteney-Town by that company, a more capacious harbour was formed, at an expense of £40,000. In 1844 the society obtained an act of parliament for further extending the harbour of Pulteney-Town. There are also small harbours at the villages of Sarclet, Broadhaven, and Staxigoe. A salmon-fishery is conducted in the bay and river of Wick, and about 150 men are generally engaged throughout the year in the white-fishery off the coast. The principal trade arises from the herring-fishery, which was first established here in I767, by two or three individuals who fitted out two sloops for the purpose. In 1808, the British Society granted portions of land in perpetual feus, on low terms, for the encouragement of the fishery, which since that time has rapidly increased, and is now carried on to a vast extent, affording employment to nearly 8000 persons during the season. The season usually commences about the middle of July, and continues till the end of September. About 900 boats are engaged, and the average quantity of fish is 88,500 barrels, of which 63,500 are of fish cured for exportation, chiefly to Ireland and the Baltic, to the former country 50,000, to the latter 5000; the remainder is either consumed at home, or sent coastwise. On the 19th of August, 1848, during a heavy gale of wind, thirty herring-boats were lost, and thirty-seven fishermen were drowned, in attempting to make Wick harbour, to which they belonged. The custom-house for the district has been removed from Thurso to this town.

The town was erected into a royal burgh by charter of James VI. in 1589; and in 1828, the courts of the sheriff, previously held at Thurso, were removed to this place as the county town. The government of the burgh is vested in a provost, two bailies, a treasurer, a dean of guild, and seven councillors. There are no incorporated trades. The fee for admission as a burgess, originally £8. 8. for a stranger, and half that sum for the son or son-in-law of a burgess, has since been reduced to £4. 4. In the session of 1844, an act of parliament was passed, conferring the requisite powers for enforcing police regulations in Pulteney-Town, and for supplying it with water. The town and county hall is a neat building of stone, with a campanile turret terminating in a cupola and dome; the hall is a well-proportioned apartment, and its walls are hung with portraits of the late Earl of Caithness, the late Sir John Sinclair, of Ulbster, the late James Traill, Esq., of Ratter, sheriff-depute of Caithness, and Kenneth Macleay, Esq. The town-house and gaol were erected in 1828, at an expense of £2000, of which the greater part was paid by the burgh: the gaol is sufficient both for the burgh and the county; it is well ventilated, with the advantage of airing-yards, and is visited by a chaplain who has a salary of £20 per annum. This burgh, with the burghs of Kirkwall, Dornoch, Tain, Dingwall, and, since the passing of the Reform act, Cromarty, returns a member to the imperial parliament: the number of voters within the boundary is 364.

The parish Is bounded on the east by the Moray Firth, and is about sixteen miles in extreme length from north to south, and about six miles in average breadth, comprising an area of above 60,000 acres, of which about a fourth is arable land, and the remainder rough pasture, moss, and waste. Its surface is generally flat, with a gradual slope in some parts. From the bay of Wick, the vale of Stircoke extends in a western direction for nearly nine miles to the lake of Watten, without attaining an elevation of more than sixty feet above the level of the sea. About half a mile above the town commences a similar valley, stretching in a southern direction, almost parallel with the coast, and at its southern extremity rising to a moderate height; while on the north-west, a third valley, in which is the deep and extensive moss of Kilminster, separates the parish from that of Bower. The only rising grounds that can be called hills are the heights of Yarrow and Canister, towards the south-west. The coast is indented with numerous bays, which make it about twenty-six miles in extent; and presents a great variety of features. To the north it is rocky: thence the land slopes by degrees to the bay of Keiss, the shores of which are low, and formed of flinty sand; and to the south of this e.xtensive bay is the boldly-projecting promontory called Noss Head, on which are the ancient castles of Sinclair and Girnigoe. Between this and Broadhaven is the small bay or harbour of Staxigoe. Between Broadhaven and the bay of Wick is the headland of Proudfoot, constituting the northern boundary of the bay, of rugged and precipitous aspect; and on the south of the bay is a projecting rock between two immense chasms, on which arc the remains of the tower of Auld Wick, forming an excellent landmark to mariners. Still further to the south are the fishing-haven of Hempriggs, and the harbour of Sarclet.

There are several lakes in the parish. The principal in the north are, Loch Wester, within less than a mile of Keiss bay, about a mile long and less than half a mile wide, and from which an outlet flows into the bay; Loch Noss, on the promontory of Noss Head, and which, notwithstanding its elevation and the absence of any inlets, is seldom dry; and Loch Kilminster, in the centre of the moss of that name, about three-quarters of a mile in breadth. To the south of the last is Loch Ifinless, connected with it by a rivulet which eventually flows into the river Wick. In the southern part of the parish are. Loch Dhu, three-quarters of a mile in circumference; Loch Hempriggs, about a mile in length and half a mile in breadth, from which an outlet is cut into Pulteney-Town; Loch Yarrow; and Loch Sarclet. The principal river is the Wick, which issues from Loch Watten, in the parish of Watten, and, flowing through the rich and fertile valley of Stircoke, after receiving various tributary streams, falls into the bay of Wick. The scenery of the parish, with the exception of a few pleasing spots near the mouth of the river, is uninteresting.

The SOIL is various; in some parts light and sandy, in others a rich loam, but for the greater part a stiff clay. Agriculture previously to 1790 was in a most neglected state; the lands were in the hands of middlemen, by whom they were sublet in small portions, and at extravagant rents, to tenants utterly incapable of managing them with profit. Sir Benjamin Dunbar, however, who succeeded his father in 1782, entirely changed the system, divided his lands into commodious farms, and let them to tenants at a moderate rent on lease; since which, a rapid and effectual improvement has taken place. Lands have been drained and inclosed; the farm buildings are substantial and commodious, and all the more recent improvements in implements of husbandry have been adopted. Crops are raised of grain, of turnips, and different grasses. The cattle are of the pure Highland breed, and a cross with the short-horned; and the sheep generally of the Cheviot, with a few of a cross between that and the Leicester breed. There is very little natural wood. Plantations have been made to a considerable extent around the houses of proprietors; but with the exception of the elder-trees, to which the soil appears favourable, they are not in a thriving state. The rocks are chiefly of greywacke, greywacke- slate, sandstone of various colours, limestone, and flagstone: stone is extensively quarried; and the flagstone, after being dressed for pavement, is exported in large quantities. Veins of iron, lead, and copper ore have been discovered in some places. The annual value of real property in the parish is £17,028. Hempriggs House, the seat of Lady Duffus, and of considerable antiquity, is a spacious and handsome mansion, finely situated, and surrounded with plantations. Ackergill Tower, the seat of Sir George Dunbar, Bart., anciently the baronial castle of the Keiths, stands on the southern shore of Keiss bay, and is a noble rectangular structure, eighty-two feet in height, and the walls of which, crowned with battlements, are thirteen feet in thickness. The whole edifice, though bearing the hoar of antiquity, is in a state of entire preservation. Stircoke House, the seat of William Home, Esq., of Scouthel; Thrumster House, the seat of Robert Innes, Esq. and Rosebank, the seat of Kenneth Macleay, Esq., of Keiss, are also good mansions.

For ECCLESIASTICAL purposes this place is within the limits of the presbytery of Caithness, synod of Caithness and Sutherland. The minister's stipend is £232. 1. 8. with a manse, and a glebe valued at £50 per annum; patron. Sir George Dunbar. Wick church, erected in 1S30, is a spacious structure of blue stone with dressings of freestone, in the early English style of architecture, with a spire, and contains 1981 sittings, including 146 on forms: it is conveniently situated at the western extremity of the town. A church was built by government near the bay of Keiss, at an expense of £1500, in 1827; and in 1833 a quoad sacra parish was assigned to it: the minister has a stipend of £120, and a manse, by endowment of government. There are places of worship for members of the Free Church, the United Presbyterian Church, Reformed Presbyterians, Baptists, Independents, Original Seceders, and Wesleyans; and during the fishing-season, a Roman Catholic chapel is open for strangers, chiefly from Ireland. The parochial school is numerously attended; the master has a salary of £34. 4. 4., and the fees average about £50 or £60 per annum. There are schools at Keiss, Noss, and Ulbster, each of which is endowed with £7. 10. from a bequest by the Rev. William Hallowell, to which an equal sum is added by the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge. Schools are likewise held at Thrumster and Stircoke, for which the proprietors have built houses, and have given endowments in land to the masters, to whom, also, salaries of £25 each are paid by the General Assembly. At Pulteney-Town is a school supported by the British Society for extending the Fisheries and improving the Sea-coasts of the Kingdom. There are numerous Sabbath schools in the parish, and also many private schools.

Among the various monuments of antiquity are, the ruins of Picts' houses scattered throughout the parish, and the ruins of two ancient castles called Linglass, with which it is said a village was connected; they are both of conical form, and are said to have been destroyed by fire. At Ulbster is an upright stone, inscribed with illegible characters, supposed to have been erected to the memory of a Danish princess, married to the founder of the clan Gun, and wrecked on her arrival at Caithness. Along the coast are the remains of the baronial castles of Auld Wick, Girnigoe, Sinclair, and Keiss. In the churchyard, and opposite to the door of the parish church, are the roofless walls of Sinclair's aisle, part of the ancient church of St. Fergus, in which was deposited the heart, cased in lead, of George, fifth Earl of Caithness, whose body was interred in the church of St. Giles at Edinburgh. There are also still some remains of several places of worship thought to have been originally built by the Culdees. The parish of Wick confers the title of Baron on the Marquess of Breadalbane.