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Caithness Field Club Bulletin
Skinnet Chapel and the Origins of Halkirk Parish
(by George Watson)
When Bishop Gilbert Murray (1222-1245) re-organised the diocese to support his new cathedral at Dornoch he nominated individual parish churches to provide for each prebend. However the incomes of Dunnet, Olrig and Canisbay had to be augmented by assigning the church of Skinnet, to be held by them in common. That is, each of these parishes had a share of the teinds of Skinnet.
The suggestion that this 'common' church was a relic of an earlier parish system1 is difficult to sustain as there are no other indications of such a system. Its subordination to three poor parish churches clearly shows that it did not have the standing of a parish church when the cathedral was being established. Nevertheless its very substantial income needs to be explained.
Within the modern county of Caithness, the founding charter of Dornoch Cathedral2 names six parishes: Bower, Watten, Canisbay, Dunnet, Olrig and Reay; and by a process of elimination the parishes held by the Bishop himself were Reay, Thurso, Wick and Latheron3. These nine parishes had probably been stable units since the reign of David 1 (1124 - 1153) who had made compulsory the payment of teinds by lands served by parish churches4. Alteration of parish boundaries was resisted as it affected the income of the church concerned. Since neither Halkirk nor Skinnet are named as parishes at this time, it follows that the parish of Thurso was very much larger than at present, and is likely to have extended southwards to the border of the modern county.
Rather than wrangle over changes to parish boundaries, Bishop Gilbert Murray appears to have allocated the teinds from the southern part of his own parish of Thurso to the three poorer parishes and arranged for them to be collected at Skinnet. The First Statistical Account of Halkirk records the remains of a large building "called the Abbey" near the chapel which was probably the tithe barn where the teinds were stored. It would have been at this time that the present southern boundary of Thurso parish was drawn, not as a parish boundary but to define lands which would deliver their teinds to Skinnet. Within this broad division were a number of reservations, Bishop Gilbert seems to have retained Dorrery for his own use and it remained fossilised as a detached part of Thurso parish until 18915. He also ensured the annual pensions of two clerics, who might otherwise have suffered by the re-organisation. His clerk William of Ros continued to received 100 shillings and his chaplain Eudo 3 marks from the church of Skinnet6. At this time Skinnet was probably an auxiliary chapel within the parish of Thurso. These auxiliary chapels can be recognised around other parish churches but because of the truncation of the parish, Thurso now appears to have fewer of these secondary chapels than might be expected.
A number of factors suggest that the present ruin at Skinnet should be dated to the last quarter of the 12th century. It is dedicated to St. Thomas, probably Thomas A'Becket7 who was canonised in 1173. In Scotland the earliest dedication to the saint was Arbroath Abbey founded by King William in 1178. The same king brought an army to Caithness sometime about 1200, to avenge the attack by Harald Maddadson on Bishop John at Scrabster. During the royal visit, the bishop may well have shown his gratitude by dedicating a new church to the King's favourite saint.
Because a 9th century Pictish cross was found at Skinnet
an earlier date might be thought appropriate for this chapel. However the
cross slab is decorated on all four sidesso has clearly been designed as a
free standing monument. Indeed the early photographs of the stone show a
decided erosion mark at ground level8
indicating that it had stood in the open for a considerable time, and had
probably fallen, before being re-used within the chapel. In July 1861 T.S.
Muir when describing the trouble he had freeing the stone from the west
gable wrote, "the pillar seems to have been used as a stone of
construction."9 . Since the
early history of this Pictish monument is unknown it is of little help in
dating the existing ruin.
It was here on the south side of the river opposite Brawl that Adam the third Scottish bishop made his residence in 1214 and apart from a pilgrimage to Rome in 1218, here he lived until his murder in 1222. The saga account of Bishop Adam's death calls this spot Ha Kirkia in Thorsdale,10 a variation of this name Haukirc is used in the Chronical of Melrose (1170-1264) and slightly later in 1275-6 we have the vicarage of Haukirk. It was the Rev. Alexander Pope (1706-1782) who first proposed 'high church' as the derivation of this name11, but this terminology is not used elsewhere. Even at Halkirk such a meaning would have been inaccurate, for at the time of the Bishop's murder, the churches of Skinnet and Thurso were more important and after Adam's death, Halkirk is described simply as a vicarage. This was however a period of increased Scottish influence in the area, so perhaps the place-name Ha Kirkia should be considered as an early form of the compound seen in Ha' of Durran, Ha' of Duncansbay and Haugh of Stainland, where Ha' means low lying meadow-land. In other words, Bishop Adam built his residence on meadow land belonging to or near a kirk. Whether this kirk already existed or as seems more likely was built as part of the bishop's residence, is difficult to determine. What is quite certain is that the kirk continued to function as a vicarage after Adam's death.
In 1753 a new parish church was built on the same site and according to the First Statistical Account (OSA) of 1791, "The rising ground whereon the kirk stands is called Tore Harlogan, and the kirk Teampul Harlogan". The meaning of this name has been given as 'The Hill / Temple in the Hollow', a straight forward description of the locality and not very different from that proposed above for Ha Kirkia. Alternatively The Hill and Temple of Tarlogan has been proposed. Although Tarloc is a personal name from Pictish times, it is here linked with Temple - a term which was not introduced into Scotland until much later, most likely by returning Crusaders.
In 1769 the Rev Alexander Pope further confused the picture by attributing a different location to the bishop's chapel. In Torfaeus he says, "The church stood near Quoycrook and was called St. Katharine's, a green spot full of stones pointing out the place where it stood." Quoycrook (sometimes Quarrycrook) itself has now disappeared, it lay on the east side of the Burn of Halkirk near its junction with the the river Thurso12 . It is worth noting that Pope wrote some 16 years after the building of the new parish church had obliterated all trace of the earlier chapel on Tore Harlogan. It would appear that he had been misled by St. Katherine's proximity to the traditional site of the bishop's residence and had assumed contemporaneity.
St. Katharine was a favourite saint of the Sinclairs13 and it seems more likely that the chapel, noted by Pope, post dates 1455, when the Sinclairs became Earls of Caithness. Its position close to one of the main fords over the river Thurso would indicate that "the green spot full of stones" was probably the remains of a later wayside shrine. The modern spelling of the parish name with its intrusive 'L' first appears when 'Halkirk and Skenand' are recorded as a combined vicarage about 150014.
As late as 1566 "the kirkis of Halkirk and Skenand [are] callit the commoun kirkis of the Cathnes diocy" 15 , that is they were still being held in common by Olrig, Dunnet and Canisbay. This link was finally broken by the combined effects of the Reformation (1560) and the destruction of Dornoch cathedral in 1570. Thereafter, what had originally been the teind lands of Skinnet, which had developed as the combined vicarage of Halkirk and Skinnet, were now regarded as an independent unit and became the post-Reformation parish. When Skinnet fell out of use about 162016 Halkirk assumed the principal role and became the parish church. The continuing use of the graveyard at Skinnet, until at least 189117, probably preserved many of the local traditions about the old chapel.
St. Magnus at Spittal was described in 1358 as "A poor hospital in the diocese of Caithness" and later in 1440 as "St Magnus de Skymer"18 where 'Skymer' is almost certainly a mis-reading of a hand-written 'Skynnef. If this assumption is correct it is another indication of the extent of the teind-lands of Skinnet. The hospital is undoubtedly a relic of the pilgrimage route to and from St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall and despite its location within the diocese of Caithness, its link with Orkney survived long after its demise, for the OSA of Halkirk recorded that "It was annexed to the diocese of Orkney, and is still on the Exchequer books as part of that diocese."19. This affiliation meant that St. Magnus was never in contention as the parish church, though it had grown from a 'poor hospital' to a relatively large establishment. In 1791 the minister of Halkirk remarked that its chapel was "some feet broader and several feet longer than the present parish church [built in 1753], which is among the largest in these northern counties." Later descriptions also mention traces of several other buildings in the locality.
On one occasion, between 1549 and 1552, the Bishop of Caithness admonished the Earl of Caithness for breaching the sanctuary of St. Magnus. He claimed that one of his tenants " was unworthily taken out of St. Magnus girth and neither accused nor convicted [was] cruelly slain without confession, for which he oft times cried."20.
Pilgrimage was discouraged after the Reformation and more than one Act (1568, 1581) was passed banning it altogether. While this legislation, no doubt, decreased traffic and donations, the chapel at Spittal continued to be used until about 164421, but by 1769 the roof had gone and "nothing remained but the walls of the kirk"22. Over the years, the graveyard had become a special burial place for the clan Gunn and the site is often referred to as Gunn's Kirk, where interments continued until about 1871.
From the above it can be seen that the present day parish of Halkirk consists of teind-lands allocated to Skinnet, in the 13th century. That these teind-lands had been carved from an earlier much larger Thurso parish is most clearly seen at Dorrery, which survived as part of Thurso parish until modern times. The small chapel on this estate, known as Gavin's Kirk, probably preserves the name of Master Gawaine Boirthuik who became Dean of Caithness at Scrabster on 1 June 1566. Only three years before, Bishop Robert Stewart had had a commission to plant kirks within his diocese and in 1570 he was specially thanked by the Assembly for his efforts23. There can be little doubt that he would have planted one of the kirks on that part of Thurso parish which had recently become isolated by the formation of the new parish of Halkirk.