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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin
2001

An Account of Field Club Activities 2000
by Marion Owen

Sunday 19 March - A walk in Dorrery - led by Gordon Wilson. A very windy day, though bright and sunny; 37 members left Thurso station to park at the farm steading at Dorrery. We started with a brisk walk to the River Trodden passing two memorial stones. The first stone at the top of the hill was to the memory of Mr Munro who was the local shepherd, the other one at the roadside was for his dog. Just before the river we stopped for coffee and explored two bronze age hut circles and the remains of a later shieling. Recent heavy rain had rendered the moor fairly inhospitable and we were unable to visit antiquities farther up the hill though Gordon pointed out to us the site of the "White Well" - a petrified well which may have been a holy site.

We returned to the cars for lunch and afterwards walked to a Neolithic long cairn with a bronze age cist. To round off the day we visited the site of Gavin's Chapel and graveyard with its very nice yew tree; this can be seen from the train en route to the south. We returned home just as the rain started again.

Sunday 16 April - Our annual coach trip this time to Borgie and Loch Naver well attended as always. The coach sped west with Geoff at the microphone, stopping briefly at Bettyhill, then along the Skelpick road to the cleared village of Achanlochy. This is beautifully sited by a lochan, a sunny spot for coffee and we enjoyed a short walk up the hill looking for the grain kiln and other features of the village.

Next stop was the borg of Borgie, just by the road and a surprise to most. This is a large earthen ringworks, the very deep moat crossed by two broad ramps as if the digging was never quite completed. It was probably Norman and a poor man's Motte.

We passed Coldbackie and crossed the causeway to Talmine for soup and sandwiches at the Craggan Hotel. Our return swept inland past Loch Loyal and Loch Naver, seeing falling rain to the left and right but miraculously missing us. At the end of Naver, we visited a pair of hut circles below the road and later, passing Syre and heading east, stopped to visit the stone rows, grave stones and possible church at Ach'na h-Uai. We passed Kinbrace and visited the R.S.P.B. exhibition at Forsinard on our way home.

Sunday 7 May - Borrowstone Quarry to Ulbster Mausoleum. Driving south of Sarclet, three cars diverted to Ulbster while Geoff led the main party to park outside the quarry. We crossed the old A9 and walked a short distance to an old lime kiln, then east to find a small cairn followed by the great ancient wall and equally puzzling the big stone with a cut groove. We clambered up the hill to look down on the dummy airfield which was created by dumping shell sand on the heather bog. It still looks green and inviting to passing planes. In wartime it was decorated with dummy aircraft, lit at night and surrounded by real guns. It attracted many bombs, some still deep in the peat. The hill top has a collection of radio location buildings and hut foundations, a comfortable seat for lunch.

Later at Ulbster, we admired the elegant Mausoleum, complete with fireplace, the mill and the Mains.

19-22 May - The Club Weekend - Skye this year.

As usual, this was a great weekend with lovely weather, not too many midges and the Broadford Hotel was very welcoming. Most of us went via Drumnadrochit and returned Achnasheen, Contin.

We arrived for dinner on Friday night and on Saturday, we headed for Elgol where Allan had booked a sail for us on Loch Coruisk with plenty of things to see on the way back. We split into two parties and the sail was wonderful with a nice, cheery, informative boatman; seals, basking on rocks, posed for photographs and after about 45 minutes we were disembarking in the midst of the mighty Cuillin. We had over an hour on dry land and wandered about happily jumping over streams, enjoying the views and eating lunch in the sunshine. A nice touch, when we re-joined the boat, our Skipper served us coffee and shortbread - a simple gesture which was much appreciated.

On the drive back to Broadford - SIGHT SEEING! First, Dun Ringall. This was a broch which had been re-worked, the south side had fallen away revealing a chamber. The McKinnon's lived in it till the 17th century. Up the hill in a clearing in the woods there is a large hut circle.

We found that the gardens at Kilmarie were open to the public that day, so, ignoring the burial cairn across the river where we were supposed to be, some of us went there instead. The gardens were lovely but here there was a serious midge problem and we did not stay very long. Back on track again, at the bridge at the head of Loch Slapin, there is a double ringing rock a few yards up stream and 500 yards farther along there is an area of shingle where alpine plants flourish. Next, Cill Chriosd Church where a board on the inside wall supplies information.

Back at the hotel, we had dinner and following this a very good illustrated talk from Andy Curry. Andy had spent his day with the Inverness Field Club who were also weekending in Skye.
Sunday dawned bright and sunny - a long drive today. First, just south of Portree we visited the Aros Experience with its audio tour of the exhibition, followed by a Video. Then to the Tote Stone - a pictish stone protected by a fence and so to Dunvegan and its Castle. We had a delightful tour of the Castle and Gardens - Allan had to round us up when it was time to leave, we were all content to stay longer. We saw John MacLeod of MacLeod resplendent in his kilt and one of us penned a note in the Visitor's Book to the effect that he should not sell the Cuillin!!

More chambered cairns on the way back and then Dum Beag Broch which was in good condition.

Back to the road, we had a lovely panoramic view across Loch Beag enhanced by the lighthouse at Ardtreck Point. Fort Dunmore and Bracadale completed our itinerary and we made our way back by different routes.

Dinner again and then DANCING!! Dashing White Sergeant and Strip the Willow were particularly popular and so, officially, ended our weekend.

Some members stayed on for another day and the rest of us drifted home, our party went to Kyleakin seeing the newly opened Bright Water Centre, the sculpture of Gavin Maxwell's otter and we admired the old castle in the bay - Castle Moil.

A great weekend and once again THANK YOU ALLAN!

Sunday 28 May - Dirlot Castle and Loch More - led by Geoff Leet.

We started at Westerdale Bridge and strolled up the east bank of the Thurso river admiring the sluice gate for the mill laide and up the fine broch. A patch of ground has been excavated between the broch wall and the surrounding earthworks revealing minor huts like those at Auchingill.

Returning to the cars, we drove to Dirlot and enjoyed the gorge, castle and lunch. We clambered over barbed wire to find the stone rows and climbed back again and inevitably, some idiots climbed the castle. Our leader should set a better example!! Third hop was to the dam at Loch More and a walk up the green road to a click mill and the hamlet of Asclorlete which has a fine grain dryer; on a little farther to Backlass and the cornkiln.

We walked back along the lochside finding bog-iron on the beach and resolved to return with the family on a sunny day.

Sunday 11 June - Calum MacKenzie led 35 people to see some of the antiquities in Dunbeath Strath on a lovely warm day. We were joined by four archaeologists to help interpret the ancient sites. Nan Bethune from Dunbeath had brought with her Drs Andrew Baines, Kenneth Brophy and Amelia Pannet who had all specialised in various aspects of the archaeology of Caithness and East Sutherland. We had been restricted to taking only six cars on to the Estate so we piled into the biggest and drove to Toutnagoul cemetery where we started our walk.

Our first stop was at the Wags 1.3km along the track. Here are the remains of two very ruinous large structures and only at one point was it possible to identify an internal pillar and covering slab which form the typical aisled structure inside the wall of a wag. There was much discussion and speculation about the use of Wags and suggestions from dwellings to grain stores were put forward. We are unlikely to know until someone puts up the necessary 500,000 needed for an excavation!!

Then, we headed for Halmaie, a site excavated over a number of seasons by archaeologists from Glasgow University. En route, we passed a possible burnt mound and two hut circles one of which had a trial trench opened at its entrance. This revealed stone steps leading downwards and, as the structure could have been complex and time was short, the trench was recorded and back-filled.

Haimaie itself was thought to be a hut circle but excavation disproved this. From the entrance a paved area led to a complex inner structure and "courtyard"; postholes and evidence of a possible wattle screen were also found. The complexity of this site should stand as a salutary warning to all of us who stand on turf and pontificate on what is underneath our feet!

After lunch, we divided into two parties. Some were not keen to negotiate the slimy looking stepping stones to cross the river to visit the other wags.

Nan Bethune led this group taking them back to Haimaie for a more detailed description of the site.

The main party continued up the track towards Ach-na-clyth, pausing to look at an abandoned farmyard before heading south to cross the river. These wags are much more ruinous than those at the first site, much of the stone having been removed probably to build the large sheep fold nearby. As a result, the aisled structure of the wag is more obvious with several internal pillars and two covering stones still in place.

A search, for a cup mark which someone believed to be on one of the stones, failed to find anything and eventually we returned to the river.

While a few crossed by the stepping stones and re-joined the second party on their way back down the track, the rest of us opted for a leisurely walk along the south bank to the bridge below the cemetery which we crossed and returned to our cars.

Thanks are due to everyone who helped make the outing a success. To Mr Murray-Thriepland who allowed us access to the Estate, Nan Bethune and her band of Archaeologists and to Mrs Sutherland who allowed us to leave our cars on her property at Dunbrae.

Thursday June 29 - Architectural Walk About in Castletown - - Led by Lyn Leet
Olrig Parish Church started life in 1913 as a United Free Church which amalgamated with the Church of Scotland in 1929. Adapted by Sinclair Macdonald to standard design of R J Macbeath of Ross & Macbeath, Architects, Inverness. Gabled manse also by Sinclair Macdonald 1916, so a one off. Most U.F. manses were of a similar 4 up 4 down design - i.e. Shebster, Bettyhill, Strathy, Ulbster. Note asymmetrical gable bellcote. Art nouveau design by Oscar Patterson, stained glass artist 1915 - colourful burning bush and a dove flanking the pulpit.

Walking along the street, notice fine finials on many main street buildings and wall head stormheads.
Drill Hall 1870 a suitably military 2 storey building round turrets with fish tailed slates, finials and crowstepped centre gable.

Public Hall and Reading Room 1866 Gabled, asymmetric, large mullioned bay window gifted by Miss Margaret Traill to the people of Olrig and opened with appropriate ceremony on New year's Day 1867. Miss Traill was the daughter of Sheriff Traill famous for industrialising the flagstone industry; in 1825, he constructed Castlehill Harbour for shipping flagstones all over the world.

Castletown Mill 1818 or 1819. Large disused corn mill 3 storey - T plan. Centre kiln block flanked by 3 bays either side and by projecting gabled chutes. Near centre 3 storey, 6 bay south wing with further gabled chute. Symmetrical fenestration. 1st floor entrance in south gable with forestair access. E and W gables crowstepped. Single ridge stack; Welsh and Caithness slate roofs, front sadly stripped. All mill machinery and overshot wheel removed. 6 feet wide by 16 feet diameter.

Castlehill Harbour Major centre of flagstone industry. Castlehill House, early 19th century mansion now demolished after a fire. Large mains farm complex with mill, extensive steading and dairy.

Harbour 1820, Flagstone harbour built by James Bremner with wide paved triangular quay to facilitate the handling of bulky flagstones exported by boat; stilling basin to calm the sea in the harbour. The ice house was destroyed.

Boat House, Mid 19th century, long rectangular boat house on East side of harbour; carved wooden lintel, loft window.

Castlehill Quarries and workings, dressing areas and workmen's cottages.

Windmill, Early 19th century, to pump away surplus water, built of flagstone with a corbelled doorway.

Finally, we were shown a corrugated iron fishermen's store.

Sunday 9 July - A Walk in Achairn Forest led by Jack Barnaby accompanied by Forester Donald MacNeill and Ranger David Barclay. I have to confess, I had never heard of Achairn Forest. Forests are apparently not well marked on O.S. maps; this one was on the Camster road.

The walk was well attended, with quite a few families as well as Field Club members - about 35 people in total. Donald pointed out to us the new growth of trees and the various flora in the forest. It was rather boggy underfoot, only the prudent wellie wearers emerged with dry feet and we returned to the cars for lunch.

Sunday 23 July - A visit to Isle Nan Ron and Slettel village. After an early start on a fine, but dull day we arrived at Skerray village hall. Here we were met by Pat and Meg, two stalwarts of the local improvements committee who plied us with hot drinks, delicious home baked scones and biscuits. After this pleasant interlude, we visited the well stocked community garden centre and the museum which contained records and artefacts illustrating life in the area in times past. Of particular interest were records relating to life on Nan Ron which was to be the next port of call for 20 Club Members.
The sailors made their way to Skerray harbour from where they made the 15 minute sail to Nan Ron. On the island, a pleasant two hours was spent visiting old buildings which had last been inhabited in 1938 and having a quick look round the island.

Those members who remained on dry land had a pleasant walk on the headland overlooking the island and visited a promontory fort.

The two parties eventually joined up and everyone travelled the short distance to Strachan from where we walked to Slettel, an abandoned settlement in a picturesque setting that was still inhabited into the 60's. After a pleasant saunter around Slettel where many photographs were taken we made our final visit to Skerray Hall where we made ourselves tea and finished off the scones before tackling the return journey.

Sunday 27 August - Broubster pre-clearance village led by Geoff Leet. Our first car-stop was at the early homesteads, seeking longhouses, corn kilns, cruik slots in the walls, absence of fireplaces, in-fields, out-fields, granny's outshot and a pavement all unchanged since 1839 when people were cleared to the Square - our next stop.

We walked westward past Achancly to remnants of a stone circle and a pretty burn which seemed the ideal place for lunch. Gordon identified a click mill site by the cottage and less rare, a horse gin site by Achancly on our way back. We matched the original estate map of the square, especially the "garden sheds", to what lies on the ground.

Next brief stop was at a 5-cavity cup stone (300 yards south-west of the school), then parking at the cattle grid at Shurrery, we walked S.W. down to the north of an island in the Forss where lies a cist. The river (typically) was fuller than on an earlier recent visit. The men gallantly made a chain across the river, wellies were thrown from one bank to the other - even so, it was easy to slip on the greasy stones and one member was unfortunate. Jack valiantly plunged in to the rescue and had to travel home in very wet trousers!! The only hurt was to dignity. Our last visit before ending the day was to the large confusing cairn behind the church, Monadh nah Carn.

Sunday 3 Sept. - A bright sunny morning for our day in Dunbeath - our companions were Nan and George Bethune from the Dunbeath Preservation Trust

We met at the harbour (35 members and guests) and were shown around the bothy, the fish store and the ice house set into the brae. These are wonderful old buildings and Captain Noel Sutherland should be especially thanked for allowing us to tramp through his loft.

We spent the rest of the morning exploring the harbour which dates from the beginning of the 19th century developed to take part in the herring boom of those years. 76 boats were regularly fishing from here in 1838.

Next, to the Heritage Centre for coffee and piles of sandwiches - someone had obviously spent the morning slaving away on our behalf - after which, we wandered around the centre admiring the exhibits.
Then we walked along Dunbeath Strath to the Broch and farther up to the chambered cairns at Loedebest, at this stage, realising that time was getting short, we reluctantly wended our way back. Many thanks to Nan and George for a delightful day.

Sunday 22 October - An Archaeology Week Walk led by Gordon Wilson to Warehouse Hill, Cairn of Get and Garry Whin.

19 people and 2 dogs joined us for this walk on a sunny but windy day to look at the many ancient sites.
We walked along the old Wick/Lybster Railway passing the remains of workers' cottages to an unusual sluice which carried the water down to the mill (now a family home). Farther along, we passed two Iron Age hut circles then climbed steeply to the ridge and a neolithic standing stone, then by the old drovers road to Warehouse Hill passing early longhouses, cornkilns and beyond this an Iron Age Broch. At this stage, we returned to the ridge to Kenny's Cairn - and Yes, I did ask and it is not known who Kenny was!!
We followed the substantial dam to Bronze Age burial cists and fan shaped stone rows.
On our return, still more delights - remains of a Neolithic chambered cairn, early lime kilns and an early bronze age settlement.

N.B. A much better account of this appears on the Caithness Web Site - www.caithness.org accompanied by photographs - courtesy of Bill Fernie and the technology of his digital camera. Thank you Bill! We must encourage him to come on more of our walks!

This ends our activities for 2000 except for the Annual Dinner on Nov.18th at the Pentland Hotel. 62 members attended and Viscount Thurso was our Speaker; an excellent way to round off the year.

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