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Caithness Field Club

An Account of Field Club Activities 1999
Marion Owen

Tuesday 26 January
Dr. Richard Oram started our year with an excellent and well attended lecture entitled MacBeth - Man or Myth.

Sunday 14 February
Our first winter walk fittingly dubbed "Valentine's Day Walk". This was led by Gordon Wilson; a walk through Rumster Forest looking at the antiquities, admiring the trees, their branches weighted down by recent snow. It was a crisp bright day with a clear blue sky and fifteen hardy souls braved the frosty weather. We visited two early settlements - one with the remains of an Iron age broch and the other one sported a large communal corn kiln in very good order.

After lunch, we saw another ruinous broch and an old mill with two placer dams still in fairly good condition.

We had enjoyed the novelty of the day; it is not very often that we tramp about on snow rutted tracks.

Most of us managed to stay vertical and we wended our way home with rosy faces.

Tuesday 23 February
Lyn Leet gave us the John Porter Lecture and talked to us on Vernacular Buildings. Again a well attended talk with Lyn once more trying to persuade us to look up a little more when we were out and about.

Thursday 25 February
Geoffrey Stell of RCHAMS spoke to us from the floor of the British Legion on the Defence of Scapa Flow.

Wednesday 17 March
Leslie Myatt's talk on Stone Circles in the Wick Assembly Rooms brought to an end our winter programme.

Tuesday 6 April
A.G.M. and Social evening at the Brown Trout Hotel, Watten. This was well attended and after the formalities we had supper and were shown slides of our outings by Gordon and Jack.

Sunday 18 April
The Spring Coach Trip and again a bright sunny day. We headed west stopping at the Bettyhill Hotel for coffee, then down the west side of Strath Naver.

We had permission to enter the grounds of Syre Lodge and investigate the two graves there. Details of these were passed around on the coach. Then to Altnahara, along the west bank of Loch Loyal through Tongue and to the Craggan Hotel at Melness for lunch.

Back again to the Causeway taking the left turn to Kinloch Lodge (A838) then north again passing Lochan Hakel where it is said some of Bonnie Prince Charlie's gold still lingers!! Here we stretched our legs by walking up to the Broch finding garnets on the way. After this we headed for home; the sun had shone all day and we were back in Thurso by 5.30pm.

Weekend 23 - 25 April
The Vernacular Buildings working party had their weekend at MacKay's Hotel Wick. They were lectured and led (or mis-led!) by Lyn Leet, George Watson, Donald Omand and Ian Sutherland. They visited Wick Town, then Ian's re-built fishing boat and the Heritage Centre, the Northern Harbours, two crofts at Yarrows finishing with Whaligoe Steps and the Ulbster Mausoleum.

Sunday 9 May
A trip to Dounreay Castle organised by Calum MacKenzie. This was something completely different. We duly arrived at Dounreay and were escorted to one of the lecture halls. Here we were given coffee and biscuits and Mr Sandy McWhirter - Head of Engineering - talked to us at length telling us of the remedial work on the Castle and environs undertaken by Morrisons and over seen by Kirkdale Archaeology ; The site is protected as a Scottish Ancient Monument.

George Watson followed this with a talk on the history of the Castle and then we went to see it. Personally, I was surprised to find that there was quite a lot of it left, although visitors were not allowed inside there was still plenty to see.

Off to the Tower after this to see the exhibition and on our way home we walked up to Cnoc Freiceadain with its three cairns. Horns can be seen at the end of the south cairn which is virtually intact and at 71 metres long is one of the longest of its type.

On a fine day, there are tremendous views over to Dounreay, much of Caithness and Orkney, but we were not to be so blessed. It was pretty bleak up there; Geoff led some of the party to see the stone rows and then we called it a day.

Sunday 23 May
An Exploration of Badbea led by Jack Barnaby. 21 people, including three visitors were present. A wild windy day with squally showers - we had no difficulty believing the stories about children and animals having to be tethered to the cliff in days gone by.

Small groups of ruined croft houses are dispersed at intervals along the cliff top for about 2 km. The path takes us to a monumental stone pillar set on the ruins of a longhouse; this was erected in 1911 by Don Sutherland of New Zealand in memory of his father Alexander Sutherland who was born at Badbea in 1806 and left for New Zealand in 1839.

The village was founded by tenants evicted from the Straths in some of the earliest clearances. People from Langwell are said to have arrived in 1793 followed by others from Berriedale and Ousdale. The houses may originally have had central hearths but latterly had chimneys in the gable walls.

There were 28 families at Badbea in the early 19th century and some 60 - 100 people still there in 1847. Most of them emigrated to North America and New Zealand, the last inhabitants left in 1911.

28 - 30 May - Club Weekend
The Castle Hotel Huntly - We all travelled down in the rain and arrived in time for a sumptuous dinner. The hotel was beautifully situated reached by driving through the town over a narrow bridge past the ruined Huntly Castle.

Next morning - still raining - we saw the Maiden Stone Cross Slab, one of the last symbol stones to be carved in Grampian and one of the finest. It takes its name from the legend of the daughter of the Laird of Balquain who died during her elopement.

On then to Archaeolink - a very well planned exhibition telling its tale of days gone by. There were three "iron age craftsmen" - one the local archaeologist - demonstrating how the work must have been done with the tools at their disposal. There was also an excellent video and in the grounds, a stone age hut with a peat fire in the middle, hens clucking around and a horse tethered in a nearby field. We found plenty to occupy us until lunch time.

Still it rained ! On to Dunideer Hill fort - a mediaeval tower rising to 268 metres built circa1260, one of the earliest stone castles in Scotland.

The highlight of the day for me was Leith Hall, in the same family, the Leiths and Leith Hays for 300 years. The oldest wing - the north wing was built in 1650 with a courtyard and brew house, bake house, stores and stables to the south. In 1756, the fourth laird - John Leith - built up the east wing, re-sited the stables, inserted a kitchen on the south side and added little pavilions at each corner.

Around 1797, General Alexander Leith-Hay instituted major changes, turning the house back to front and creating a new south wing for the principal apartments. These five provincial drawing rooms are the best in the house. In 1886, the billiard room was built above the arch to the courtyard by the eighth Laird - Allexander Sebastion and was later changed to a Music room.

Outside, the walled garden largely created by the second last laird, contains two pictish stones, one of them the Wolf stone from Percylieu. The garden opens through a delightful 19th century Moon Gate on to the old turnpike road that ran over the hill to Huntly. To the south-east of the house are two ponds created for boating, fishing and duck shooting and there is an Ice house in good condition.

I don't think anyone had really noticed but at last the rain had eased off!

Sunday - Today, we had a guided tour of Huntly Castle - one of the most sophisticated buildings of its day with its splendid heraldic mantel pieces inserted by George, first Marquis in the first decade of the 17th century showing the arms of Huntly and Lennox with the Royal arms above. At the top of the round tower, 20 metres high, the belvedere gives wide views over the country side. The first Marquis also added the impressive heraldic frontispiece over the main doorway to one Lord Lyon. We also visited the dungeons and from the depths of its hopeless pit to the airy sweetness of its oriels, it was always a statement of Gordon power.

Next, Mortlach Parish Kirk, Dufftown. One of the earliest Christian sites in Grampian. The present church dates from the 13th century. The recently modified T Plan stems from the extensions of 1826 and 1876. It was restored in 1931. The church yard, too, boasts a little watch tower and a Pictish battle stone.

Our weekend ended (by now in brilliant sunshine!) with a visit to Craigellachie Bridge - one of Thomas Telford's most spectacular creations and one of the oldest surviving bridges in Scotland. Built between 1812 and 1815, under the direction of the Commissioners for Roads and Bridges who put up half of the 8,200 costs.

After this Alan, (who must breathe a sigh of relief when it is all over!) was thanked for organising so many interesting activities and finding us such an excellent hotel.

We then went our separate ways.

Sunday 13 June
Twenty one members came with us to Dunviden Broch led by Gordon Wilson. The day before and much of the night, rain had fallen steadily and we were all greatly relieved when the weather forecast proved fairly accurate and Sunday was in fact, a very pleasant day.

A lovely walk along Strath Naver and to Dunviden chambered cairn where the two partition slabs and five stall stones are probably in their original condition. On the N.W. face of the largest partition slab, we have nine shallow cup marks ; these may well indicate that the cairn remained in use beyond neolithic times. The small stones which originally formed the body of the structure have disappeared - probably plundered to build the nearby broch.

The clearance village between cairn and broch is one of the best preserved in the strath with five long houses and some smaller buildings complete with corn kiln and well.

On to the broch, impressively sited though completely ruined on a rise toward the river - the entrance identified by a fallen lintel slab.

Lunch was enjoyed in comfort - plenty of stones to sit on - and many photographs were taken.

On our way back, we came to Loch mo Naire, named after a celtic goddess. The loch became famous for its healing powers and for many centuries - as recently as the first world war - sick and disabled people came to immerse themselves in its waters.

Above the loch - some 3-400 feet there are clearance cairns and hut circles a'plenty giving proof of continued existence of people and cultivation.

Our thanks to Mrs Bannerman for allowing us to tramp over her land and of course to Gordon for a well researched and most enjoyable day out.

Sunday June 27
On a day of fairly indifferent weather, twenty one members and fifteen members of the public accompanied Donald McNeill of Forest Enterprises some six miles into Naver Forest to visit two clearance villages. The larger of the two - Truderscaig - was very extensive and the remains of buildings serving about forty families and their livestock could be seen along with the remains of earlier dwellings including hut circles and long houses. The other village was smaller - Bad an Leathaid - here we saw the remains of shielings, a corn kiln and lazy beds. The views from both sites were very impressive and would have been stunning had the weather been better.

Wednesday 30 June
An evening walk led by Gordon Wilson From Duncansby Head to John o'Groats.

Despite a day of heavy rain, 9 members turned up. Thankfully, the weather eased off and we walked down passing the various geos, watching the seabirds going about their business.

At Sannick Bay we examined a neolithic midden and saw how the rabbits were excavating it. Farther along, we came on a small cage containing thrift: this valiant attempt to encourage it to spread has been in operation for several years without any apparent success.

Next, a shell midden showing shell levels from the last 10,000 years to the present day. At the next bay, the crumbled house and winches once used for hauling the boats up the beach is all that remains to remind us of the days of the herring fishers. This area also has an early midden topped by, what we suspect, is a Norse settlement.

We arrived at John o'Groats, a bit damp but glad we had made the effort to leave our comfortable homes on a very unpromising evening.

Sunday 11 July
Berriedale Strath - a riverside walk. This was a beautifully warm sunny day and with insect repellant to the fore and Factor 12 on exposed skin, 24 people set off up the strath.

The first part of the trek was overgrown and slippery though a hand rail thoughtfully placed helped over the worst bits.

This again, is a clearance area. It was cleared by Donald Horn in 1830 from Auckencraig - the people were settled in Badbea with the Ousdale folk.

Of the first settlement, few remains are visible. At the west end is the remains of a corn kiln which would suggest local milling ; there are also some walled-off areas - perhaps once cultivated.

The second settlement is much the same but may have had a secondary use when the sheep walks were introduced.

We crossed the river by the now un-used bridge - looking at the debris on the bridge we could get a fairly accurate idea of the water height during the winter and here, we settled down to have our lunch.

Later, walking up the hill side we came upon the remains of an iron age hut circle, possibly with a souterrain and finally, at the top of the hill - an iron age broch. I thought this was most impressive with substantial outer works though there has been much disturbance of the inner stone work.

On the way down, we saw something I had not previously seen; it was left to Jim Calder to tell us about it. It was a cage which was a trap for hooded crows. There was an open panel at the top and food inside the cage; the crow could get in easily enough but could not escape. The captive bird encouraged other crows (Perhaps they are not very bright!) and the farmer/keeper, fed up with the mayhem they were inflicting on his animals, dealt with them later.

It was a most enjoyable walk on one of the nicest days this year ; we were treated to the sight of many buzzards along the way as well as the smaller wagtails and dippers. Back in Berriedale most of us stayed for a while chatting and soaking up the sunshine before heading for home.

Sunday 25 July
Visit to Stemster Estate led by Jack Barnaby. A group of 24 Club members gathered at the site of a meal mill which once served the whole of the Stemster estate.

Jack introduced Mr Donald Coghill, who farms the estate and he (Mr Coghill) explained how the surface water was channelled to drive the mill and also used for other purposes such as sheep washing prior to shearing. To illustrate the way in which farming is changing he also showed us a recently developed S.S.I. in the area.

Moving on to the steading, we were shown maps dating back to the early 18th century which gave a fascinating insight into how the estate had been formed and subsequently modified to how it is today. After a visit to the stables and the low dam which once fed a threshing mill, the group visited Stemster House which was built by the Henderson family in 1790. We also visited the remains of a much earlier house, built by the Sinclair family. The estate owner, Mr McCandlish showed us around the family stable which remained largely in its original condition and contained records and photographs of horses and equipment used in the heyday of horse transport.

After a brief look at the many interesting out buildings in the area of the house our party walked to a wooded area on the edge of Loch Scarmclate where lunch was taken in the sunshine at the old boat house.

After lunch, we had a pleasant walk around the western end of the estate visiting remains of estate workers houses, the old school and the smithy. More ancient relics in the form of two long cairns were also visited.

The walk ended at the 17th century doo'cot.

Finally, Jack thanked Mr Coghill for all the effort he had put into making the visit so interesting and enjoyable.

Sunday 22 August
Cliff walk led by Gordon Wilson with the chance to see sea birds and heath birds in their natural habitat as well as a profusion of wild flowers.

40 members and visitors assembled on a lovely still day; summer arrived rather late this year but it seems to be in no hurry to leave us and once again the sun shone.

We started at Milltown, about 8km south of John OGroats. The clapper bridge, the communal drying kiln and the fisherman's house have all been excavated and renovated and although the mill remains a rough pile of stones, the old mill race and back-up dam can still be seen.

Half way to Buchollie, large steel hawsers had been dropped over the cliff - we wondered why.

Now for - Buchollie Castle. This ruined castle rearing up about 100 feet from the sea is a magnificent site against the background of blue sky and sea. The ruins date from the 14th century when the Mowat family from Buchollie in Aberdeenshire received a grant of land from Robert the Bruce. In the 17th century, the land was sold to the Sinclairs and possibly the castle was abandoned at that time.

It is believed that it was built on the site of LAMBABORG - first mentioned as the stronghold of SWEYN ASLIEFSON - the Norse pirate, killed raiding Dublin 1171. This was adjacent to the early Norse settlement at Freswick. In these surroundings we had our lunch and unfortunately the midges joined us !

Then to the promontory broch, believed to be Iron age with outer buildings added later. We noted the geo cutting inland past the broch. There could also be the remains of a burial cairn.

On to Freswick House. This dates from the 17th century - possibly built by the Sinclairs of Rattar after acquiring the land from the Mowats. A small cell for punishing locals who offended the Laird still exists in the bridge across the burn. Because of the severe punishment meted out to these unfortunates, the house was nicknamed "The house of cruelty".

At the back of the farm steading, adjacent to Freswick House, lies the remains of a recent mill; the water was dammed higher up the hill and was fed to the mill wheel by an underground channel.

There is also a doo'cote. In 1424, parents whose children broke into these pigeon houses risked a fine of 2/3 pound and by 1567, shooting the Laird's birds was punishable by 40 days in prison!

So ended our cliff walk and late afternoon, we headed for home.

Sunday 12 September
Learable Hill Kildonan
The Leader of the expedition - Geoff Leet - was alarmed to find his car alone at the Suisgill kennels. The rest of the cavalcade had comfort-stopped at Forsinard but eventually, we re-united and crossed the suspension bridge, a field and the railway track and climbed past the cottage to the first pre-clearance settlement. Here, Paul Humphreys sought the "head dyke" which kept the beasts from the meadows and crops.

The standing stone, inscribed with a cross, guided us to two sets of stone rows so lines of members stood on the stones to allow the pattern to be seen and photographed. Nearby was a stone circle and a cairn with stalls.

We followed the head dyke north finding an enigmatic settlement outside the dyke and the ruins of a homestead provided round stones as seats for lunch.

Farther north, our leader located the cup marked stone though to find the nearby ring-marked stone he needed the help of the librarian Joyce Brown. Examples of both are found elsewhere but their meaning is unknown.

On our return walk, we inspected the grain kiln dug into the hill. Learable must be the most comprehensive ancient site in the North.

Sunday 10 October
Shurrery, Brawlbin.
This outing was timed for Archaeology Week which led a family from London, between houses, currently living in a camper van to join us.

Our leader, Gordon Wilson, reached the parking area off the Dorrery Road with half his party missing! Gordon MacLachlan set off in pursuit and returned with all but two cars. We later learned that these two did ultimately find the parked cars but declined to hunt after the Club across a soggy bog in steady rain.

The main body were learning to distinguish between Bronze Age and Iron Age hut circles (the latter using stone and being larger and thicker walled). Happily by this time, the rain cleared and we were shown cairns and cists.

After lunch, we saw a sequence of farm buildings of the 1800's which included a large grain kiln and a threshing mill.

Sunday 17 October
Loch Yarrows to Loch Watenan
Gordon Wilson was back on the ground he had surveyed after an extensive heather fire a few years ago and found relics not seen for 2000 years. A couple from Glasgow had seen "What's on in Caithness" and been encouraged to join us as did the locum chiropodist, Cherry Walton.

We parked by South Yarrows farm and walked below the dam to cross the outfall and along the edge of the loch to the stone rows, thence up the hill to standing stones (re-erected) and cairns.

After lunch the walk down towards Loch Watenan past a cist which Gordon and Jack had previously discovered and reported. Sadly, the cover was missing and the cist was full of peat. The head of Loch Watenan has lines of huge, recumbent stones, set as if for the base of a wall but far larger than any wall requires. Perhaps the explanation is geological.

The car drivers were taken back to Yarrows and some of us had time to admire the Lybster Light Railway sidings before we headed for home.

Published in 2000 Bulletin