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The Psalm Tune - "Caithness"

 Henrietta Munro

The following article has been written from notes of the late Christina Keith.

One day in St. Giles in this century a service was held. There, for the first time for many years were the honours of Scotland and two of the psalm tunes sung were 'Caithness' and 'Dunfermline'. Was this expediency because of the opposite ends of the kingdom, or was history looking over their shoulder?

In 1635 the Psalter was published, and at this time the various tunes were given names. Why? Very few Presbyterian psalms were sung in Scotland as it was predominantly Catholic. But it could be that the name 'Caithness' was used because it was a well known name in Edinburgh and particularly in the cathedral of St. Giles. For instance there was a Caithness aisle in St. Giles and the Earls of Caithness had the right to be buried there, and were buried there. Some experts say that there was only a Caithness monument, not an aisle, but the monument stood in the aisle of the Holy Blood, one of the richest in Old St. Giles, and to the ordinary man in the street it was the Caithness Aisle.

It is not certain to whom the monument was dedicated, whether to the first Earl, who was James the Second's Chancellor of Scotland in 1460. He was the man responsible for Roslin Chapel. Or was it to George the Fourth Earl who was a friend of Mary, Queen of Scots and who built the Castle of Mey? George was buried in the Aisle in 1582 anyway. But whether fifteenth or sixteenth century the Caithness Monument was of such splendour as to be a landmark for centuries although after 1582 St. Giles was partitioned in such a way that not one of her 46 altars was left and it is obvious that the Caithness Earls thought that it was no place to be buried in. So what did they do? They moved to Holyrood, to the central aisle of the Chapel Royal no less. But how did they acquire the right of burial there? It takes more than a little influence to manage that, but influence they certainly had at the time. Indeed it is rather surprising but Shakespeare must have known how important the Caithness Earls were because when he wrote Macbeth in 1606 he chose Caithness to speak for the northern nobles. He must have had some reason for this. To digress, Shakespeare must have known more about Scotland than one realises. His witch set sail in a sieve and it is only Scottish witches that can use a sieve for this purpose!

Although as early as 1328 Caithness or Thurso anyway had spoken for Scotland when King David the Second chose the weights and measures used there to be standard for the whole country. Caithness then of course was in the hub of the Scandinavian trade, and exported and imported regularly from the northern countries of Europe.

Even by 1635, when the psalm tunes were being named, Caithness was a place that could not be omitted.

But then came 1707. The Caithness Earl refused to be bribed and fought the Union. Why should Caithness want a Union? The county had no less than three representatives going to the Edinburgh Parliament (two for the burghs and one for the county) and they were paid as well as having journey money and subsistence allowance for sixteen days. They certainly did not want the Union. However the Union did come, and then London and the English did not seem to know where the county was. They consulted the Gazetteer which showed 'Ca' after 'Bu' so in the eyes of the English both counties were adjacent and as usual London won. So for the next century Caithness and Bute had one member each time about. Caithness was certainly not important then. But one day in this century there was a service in St. Giles, and one of the psalm tunes sung was 'Caithness'. Was history looking over their shoulder?

This article first appeared in the Caithness Field Club Bulletin April 1988