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There is a fascination in origins. Any enterprise, whether it be commercial, social or spiritual, is, in its beginnings, an adventure of resource, courage, faith. Without these qualities nothing begun is ever carried forward to greatness.

In these notes of introduction we are concerned only with the beginning of Christianity, or the Christian Church, in our land, and especially in this parish of wick. It goes back a very long way - right into the dim twilight of prehistoric times.

The figure which, above all others wins distinction in early religious history of Caithness is that of Ninian, who was an apostle of the Celtic Church. He laboured in Scotland a century and a half before Columba landed in Iona in the year 563. The Celtic Church, it must be remembered, held sway before that of Rome.

Whether Ninian visited Caithness in person or not is disputed, but some authorities are of the opinion that he did. The reputed earliest religious building in the county is christened by his name and was situated at "the North Head of Wick Bay". Later research has led to the conclusion that the location is more correctly described as "the head of Wick Bay" and that the church stood near where the Service Bridge spans the river at The Camps.

The early inhabitants of Caithness were Picts, and the first Celts, who came to the North found the land in possession of a people less civilised than themselves. Ninian's disciples carried on the work of Christian evangelisation, and the building at Wick was probably the first in Caithness used for Christian worship.

Evidently some progress was made, for the next personage of historical significance is Fergus of Ireland - the patron saint of Wick - who appeared about 580 AD, a considerable time after the death of Ninian. The name Fergus is fifteenth on a list of Donnan's disciples, whose headquarters were at Suisgill, about two miles form Donnan's cell in Kildonan Strath. Sonan's task appears to have been to train disciples or missionaries to follow up the work of Ninian, and Fergus was sent to Caithness. During the Norse invasion the Vikings burnt Donnan and many others in 617 AD, and Fergus was one of the victims.

Other Caithness saints of whom there is some flitting record are Duthoc and Drosdan, to each of whom there were dedications in the parish, as will be seen from the following list: - 


ACKERGILL   - St Drosdan (converted afterwards to St Tears and Holy Innocents).
HASTER OR HUMSTER  - St. Cuthbert.
KILLIMSTER  - St. Duthoc (Church of the Monks, and monastery).
SIBSTER  - St Mary.
ULBSTER  - St. Martin.

Columba is also credited with doing something to Christianise Caithness in the latter part of the sixth century. One of his disciples was Cormac, and from the numerous Cormacks along the east coast of the county, notably in Wick, it is surmised that Cormac was personally in Caithness for a time. Of this , however there is no other definite evidence.

Reverting to Fergus, his chapel was next of the early religious buildings in Wick. Its location has been usually assigned to Mount Hooly (originally Halie - Holy) at the western end of the town. At an early date a new church ws built at the west end, near the site of the present church of which Sinclair Aisle and the Dunbar Tomb is comparatively modern, but it marks the site of the old family vault of the Sutherland-Dunbars of Hempriggs). According to the Rev. Charles Thomson the church in question must have been built before 1576. It was repaired in 1728 and again in 1752. Round about it was the graveyard, so that interments in the vicinity of the present church must have been customary for many generations.

It is not our purpose here to endeavour to trace the changes which took place during the Norse period or the period during which the Church of Rome held sway. The skein is a very tangled one and difficult of "redding" out, though excellent work has been done in this direction. Especially by the Reverend D Beaton, formerly of Wick, and now of Oban. Much information on the subject can be found in his "Ecclesiastical History of Caithness," and in his "Caithness and Sutherland Records" published by the Viking Club. Pastor John Horne has also written an illuminative chapter on our ecclesiastical history in "The County of Caithness," of which he was editor. It is from these sources that most of the information given in this article has been obtained.*

The period during which the Roman Church in the diocese of Caithness gradually gained ascendancy over the Celtic Church until the triumph of the former under Bishop Gilbert Murray extended roughly over one hundred years. As the Roman Church gained in influence it made an, attempt to suppress the Pictish dedications by nominating some of its own saints; hence a Pictish and Roman saint are occasionally found sharing honours together.

It is not known when the bishopric of Caithness was constituted, but the earliest bishops on record are Andrew (died 1185), John (died 1213), and Adam (burnt at Halkirk, 1222) - all of whom preceded Bishop Gilbert (died 1245), who gave a constitution for the chapter of the diocese, which included Caithness and Sutherland. He was the most distinguished of all the R.C. prelates.

Calder, the historian of Caithness, says Caithness was "intensely Popish," but Horne doubts this very much and gives some cogent reasons to show that Roman Catholicism did not exercise a strong influence over the people in general. Be this as it may, there was abounding superstition. Of this the Rev. Charles Thomson gives several instances in his article on the parish of Wick contributed to the "New Statistical Account." There he records that in Roman Catholic times "the people of wick were debasingly attached to popish superstitions and made very laggard progress in enlightenment after the Reformation." Other writers also declare that the Church of Rome exercised a very pernicious influence, and "it took centuries of stern discipline to drive out superstitious practices begun and encouraged by her." (Beaton's Eccles, Hist., page 106.)

At the Reformation in 1560 the counties of Caithness and Sutherland were still both included in the diocese, and in the period which followed - from the Reformation to the Revolution - matters got much mixed up between the Episcopalian and Presbyterian forms. As Mr Horne puts it: "Episcopacy and Presbyterianism fought and flirted with each other; and sometimes Presbyterians stole Episcopalian guns, and occasionally Episcopalians went on parade in Presbyterian tunics."

From 1638 till Presbyterianism was in the ascendant. At the latter date Episcopacy came into power and continued in governance until the Revolution of 1688 when Presbyterianism again came into its own and has maintained its predominant position ever since.


Ministers of Wick Parish Church since 1567

1567  Andrew Philip. Afterwards translated to Thurso
1576  Thomas Keir. Afterwards translated to Olrig
1580  John Prunto or Pronthoch
1607  John Innes
1614  Thomas Annand
1638  John Smart. (Mr Smart was a member of the famous Glasgow Assembly of 1638.)
1654 (circa)  Harry Forbes, A.M. (Afterwards became minister of Auldearn, Nairnshire.)
1659  William Geddes, A.M. (accepted Episcopacy and was rebuked. Became minister at Urquhart. Restored to Wick, 1692 (see below).
1682  Patrick Clunies, A.M. Died 1691.
1692  William Geddes, A.M. Died 1694. Wrote a number of learned works, but the only one known to be published was entitled "Saints Recreation," with a long and quaint sub-title. It was mostly poetical, but the poetry was not on a high level. Here is a specimen:A Memento to be affixed to the bed for nocturnal meditations:"thy bed's ane emblem of the grave,thy sleep resembles death;Thy bed-cloaths like thy winding-sheet.When lying down's interring like;The darkness like the shadeOf sepulchers, and so the worms like fleas about thy bed. "Some wag or wit has unkindly suggested that this forms a valuable reference to the natural history of Caithness at the close of the seventeenth century!
1698  Alexander Stedman. Sent to Wick by General Assembly's Commission, but for some reason was not settled in the charge.
1701 Charles Keith, Died 1705. In 1702 he represented to the Presbytery that "he had several insuperable difficulties and crushing grievances in the said paroch" (Wick)
1707  James Oliphant. Died 1726. (Wrote an account of the parish for Macfarlane's "Geographical Collections,"
1727 James Ferme. Died 1760, in the 33rd year of his ministry.
1761  Rev David Dunbar of Olrig was presented this year, but died before the date of admission.
1762  James Scobie, A.M. Died 1764, aged 30.
1765  William Sutherland, A.M. Died 1816, in his 79th year and the 52nd year of his ministry. This ws the minister who in his public prayers used to intercede "for the magistrates of Wick, such as they are." He wrote the account of the parish for the Statistical Account (Volume X.).
1813  Robert Phin. (See notes of Mr Phin on another page.)