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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin
2003

A Classic Walk - A Trip to Latheron & Forse Early Settlement
(by Gordon Wilson)

Cars can be parked at the Gunn Museum Car Park where there are also toilets.

The walk starts by proceeding half a mile north along the Wick road. We come to a walled track to our left, going north This is now completely blocked by gorse. The track is easily spotted by the long line of gorse bushes which were often used as boundary markers, particularly on the Drovers' Roads - this is possibly one of the early roads south. In May, this track is a blaze of yellow with the gorse in full bloom. The track is known as "The Crask", being the estate boundary road between Forse and Latheron estates leading to the Corr Croft.

A point to notice - opposite the entrance to the track is an old once ruined house with unusual lead lattice windows - the cost of this must have been unusual for such a humble cottage, (The cottage has now been renovated and the windows have gone.)

Flowers to look for (depending on the season):

Marsh Marigold Violet Lousewort

Milkwort Lady's Smock Silverweed Hawkweed Chickweed Celandine

Primrose Sundew Speedwell

Wood Sorrel Butterwort Stitchwort

and others, with numerous mosses, sedges and grasses.

Birds to look for include :

Gulls (various)

Skuas

Curlew

Lapwings

Redshanks

Greenshanks

Skylarks

Wheatears

Pippits

Sparrows

Swans

Buzzards

Crows

Rooks

Kestrels

On this walk in the spring be alert for ground nests.

We proceed another hundred yards down the road to a gate leading to an abandoned house. This building is the Quoys. It was built (as far as is known) in the 1840's in an Irish style. The then Laird of Forse had an Irish wife and had the cottage built to remind her of home.

Adjacent to this building is a well with roof cover and obviously the water was piped to the house. However, looking closely under the new cover reveals a much earlier surround to the well with 3 steps down to it. Some of these early wells with stone steps were classified as Holy Wells (possibly sacred to St Trostan). The different time scale of the architecture is interesting.

This well is on a line to the north which had other springs for watering animals. Most of the springs have been covered to allow planting.

We travel around the field edge to a gate at the north and then up the track to a lone Rowan tree - a gate opposite this allows us to walk in the direction of Forse House.

We pass through a later settlement where you can see traces of cultivation (some run-rig or lazy beds), inside a ringed area marked by a clear outline of heather - stone houses and a couple of long houses. Possibly potatoes and corn were the basic crops. This settlement may have resulted from the earlier clearances of the Straths - there are similarities to the Upper Dunbeath, Rossal and Naver Settlements.

The water in the well by the Quoys cottage runs from a spring, with a fence around it, on the hill south east of the Wag. We will have a look at this further on in the walk.

This water was piped all the way to the road, where it was diverted north and south. However, local demand became too heavy and a county supply had to be implemented.

We then lead on to a natural spring (fenced off) - pure clear water with green mosses and small white flowers (water crowfoot)

Another oddity is a dry ditch running west to east - may have been a culvert or laide - but for what purpose???

Next a visit to Forse House Doocot, This is of the lectern style with ledges on the outer walls. These were to stop rats reaching the nesting areas.

THE HISTORY OF SCOTTISH DOOCOTS.

1. The Romans, who brought the Pigeon Lofts to Britain, kept pigeons for food and sacrifices.

2. A Columbarium or Peristeron was a vast Roman structures which could hold as many as 5000 birds.

3. Men (slaves?) were paid to chew bread which was subsequently used as a superior kind of pigeon feed.

4. The pigeons were kept in very crammed conditions and often had their legs broken to fatten them more quickly for the table.

5 Doocots had 5 essential requirements then, which still apply today

I. shelter

II. ventilation

III. ease of access

IV. protection from vermin

V. nesting facilities

6. Around the 16th and 17th centuries the Beehive Doocots were changed to the Lectern type.

7. In 1417 the right to own a pigeon loft was limited, by statute, to the Lairds.

8. In 1424 parents of children who broke into pigeon houses risked a fine of 2-3 pound.

9. By 1567 shooting of the Laird's birds was punishable by 40 days in prison.

10. In 1670 the right to own a doocot was subject to the Laird's approval.

Proceeding north we pass a unique collection of trees at the rear of Forse House. At the time of planting, local estate owners vied with each other as to who could grow the best collection of trees,

Pass through a gate at the corner of the wood, forward mile, we come to the first unexcavated Broch - though badly unkempt, it is immediately identifiable - sited on the top of an escarpment commanding a 360 degree all round view including, on a clear day, coastline and sea.

Further west we come to a dam, creating a lochan - water supply to Forse House - an ideal place for lunch.

Built against the boundary wall, there is an unusual building with back and front doors lined up and a floor covered with Caithness flagstones - something to do with sheep dipping??

Further south west - about mile - we come to another unexcavated Broch - very badly unkempt. With 3 Brochs in this area within a mile of each other, popular opinion is that, when a Broch became unhygienic and in need of repair, they just upped and built another one. It does not suggest that this was a warlike area, but that Brochs were the centre around which these early communities settled.

Another mile west, we come to the main Wag or Dun. The site is approximately 80 yards x 80 yards, making the settlement one of the biggest in Caithness. Note the shaped pile of stones, 6 feet high at the west side, were placed there during the 1948 excavation, and is NOT an altar used for Druid sacrifices.

Forse Wag/Dun appears as a wide collection of stones with a variety of structures - tunnels, chambers and steps. It has been partially excavated twice - in 1939 and 1948 It is stated these were rather clumsily done

Theory is that the settlement began as a group of stone huts - then was replaced by a Broch which, in turn, was robbed to create a series of pillared houses, generally known in Caithness, as a "Wag". This may derive from a Gaelic word meaning "little cave".

To the north, is a circular wall of the Broch, with its entrance flanked by a stair and a gallery in the wall. The interior of the Broch and its southern wall were destroyed when a long rectangular house was built over it. Another long house stands to the west, with the remains of 2 rows of upright stones. These pillar-like stones support stone lintels - a later suggestion is that these were covered with turf. Also notice door checks on side entrances - leading off to other rooms or houses.

Another 200 yards west we find two Iron Age Hut Circles - one of these Hut Circles appears to have a Souterrain (an earth house). What these underground tunnels were for is not known. Some say it was a cold store; others think it may have a religious connotation.

Proceeding north, there is another Hut Circle - possibly Bronze Age - and then we go in the direction of the lone Rowan tree, using it to guide us to the gate on the drovers' track.

Cross the track to the site of a Standing Stone -I have doubts about this one. I think it is possibly a boundary marker.

Then cross the hill to the Bell Tower. This old Bell Tower was built on the hill top - the story being that the original bell of the church could not be heard at the Forse Settlement. The new Bell Tower on the hill top gave the church members no excuse for missing services.

We then pass below the Tower to a Lime Kiln, (The local east coast hills were known as the Lime Hills). Lime was necessary to improve the land for cultivation.

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