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Sketch of the Civil and Traditional History of Caithness from the Tenth Century
Chapter II


With respect to the history of Caithness for the first five or six hundred years of the Christian era, nothing with certainty is known. Tradition as well as history is silent on the matter, and the whole subject is involved in impenetrable darkness. It is probable that for a great part of that time the county was a mere desert, uninhabited except by wild beasts. The aboriginal inhabitants would appear to have been the Picts, a people, from the best antiquarian authority, not of Scandinavian, but of Celtic descent. There are still to be seen here and there in the county the remains of what are called Picts' houses. These, however, were not the ordinary dwellings of that people, but strongholds or places of defence. "Their houses," says Scott, "were constructed of wattles; or in more dangerous times they burrowed under ground in long, narrow, tortuous excavations, which still exist, and the idea of which seems to have been suggested by a rabbit warren." About the year 920, Caithness would appear to have been partially peopled, for at that period it was subdued by Sigurd, [He conquered also Ross, Sutherland, and Moray; and from Helgy, his principal officer, the name of Elgin is supposed to be derived.] Earl of Orkney, uncle of the famous Rollo, the invader of Normandy, and paternal ancestor of William the Conqueror. Caithness continued subject to Norwegian rule for nearly four hundred years. After this event, numerous bands of Norsemen came over to Caithness, and driving the natives into the interior, gradually established themselves around the whole sea-coast. On the Latheron side, they extended their settlements as far as Berriedale. This, however, was not effected without some severe struggles with the inhabitants, who felt grievously annoyed at being thus expelled from their usual abodes, and winced not a little under the Scandinavian yoke. Most of the names of places, and not a few of the surnames in the lowland parts of the county, are Norwegian. It is a remarkable circumstance, however, that the Norsemen never succeeded in establishing their language, or any of their peculiar laws or usages, in Caithness. All that we can trace to them are a few superstitions which still linger in some parts of the county, but are soon destined to disappear before the increasing light of knowledge. The case was very different in Orkney. Some of their udal institutions exist there even to this day, or at all events were but very recently abolished. The language spoken by the natives of that county, while under the sway of the sea-kings, was the old Icelandic, or Norse; and it continued in general use till near the end of the sixteenth century. Their language is now the English, with a peculiar " singing accent." Orkney, while it was the chief seat of the earldom, formed, with its fine natural harbours, the great rendezvous of' the war galleys of the Norsemen, whence they issued out on their various piratical expeditions. These vessels, from their peculiar construction and equipment, were admirably adapted for the service in which they were employed. They were generally long, narrow, and low in the water. They were protected with a parapet or breastwork of shields, and many of them were of great size, containing from twenty to thirty banks of oars. The largest of them carried a crew of from 80 to 100 fighting men, whose arms consisted of swords, bows, arrows, and pikes, besides which they had on board a quantity of stones to throw into the vessels of the enemy. On their prows were usually carved figure-heads of dragons, which added not a little to their formidable appearance. This most probably suggested to the picturesque fancy of Scott the striking figure which he uses when describing the Scandinavian rovers and their ships in the " Lay of the Last Minstrel:"—

"Kings of the main, their leaders brave,
Their barks the dragons of the wave."

Sigurd, the first Norwegian Earl of Orkney and Caithness, died and was buried at Burghead, in Morayshire. The circumstances connected with his death are not a little extraordinary. "He gained," says Mr Worsaae, "the victory in a foray over the Scotch jarl Melbrigd, and cut off his head, which, in the overweening pride of his triumph, he hung at his saddle; but a sharp tooth that projected from the head chafed his leg, and caused a wound which proved his death." Sigurd having left no issue, the earldom reverted to the family of his brother Ronald. About the middle of the tenth century, two brothers, Liot and Skuli, lineal descendants of that family, contended for the earldom. The former was supported in his claim by the King of Norway, and the latter, so far as Caithness was concerned, by the King of Scotland. Arms, the usual mode of deciding disputes at the time, were resorted to. Skuli was assisted by a Sutherland chieftain, to whom Torfaeus gives the high-sounding title of "Comes Magbragdus." In a battle which was fought at Dale, in the parish of Halkirk, Skuli was defeated and slain, on which Liot seized the whole of Caithness, and kept forcible possession of it. Not long after, the Sutherland chief, burning with a desire to be revenged for the affair at Dale, collected as many followers as he could, and invaded the county. Liot, with a nearly equal force, met him at Toftingall, near the hill of Spittal, where a desperate engagement took place. Victory at length declared for Liot, but he received a severe wound, of which in the course of a few days he died.

It is supposed that the tall-standing stone near Brabster-dorran, in the parish of Bower, was erected in memory of Liot, and that it indicates the spot where he was buried. This supposition derives some confirmation from the circumstance that the stone was anciently called "stone Lud," which would seem to be a corruption of stone Liot or Liot's stone. There can be no doubt, however, that it is a sepulchral monument commemorative of some great man. The doctrine of Odin commanded it as a sacred duty to erect stones of this description in memory of the brave. "The large stones," says the late Mr Pope, of Reay, "erected at Rangag and along the burn of Latheron, are all sepulchral monuments." This is confirmed by the testimony of Mr Worsaae. "Tall bauta stones," says that writer, "are to be seen in several places in Caithness, to which some legend about the Danes is generally attached; they now stand in a leaning posture, as if mourning over the departed times of the heroic age. A monument of a Danish princess who, according to tradition, suffered shipwreck on the coast, was formerly to be found in a churchyard at Ulbster."

Ragnhilde, the widow of Liot, and daughter of the famous Erik, King of Norway, surnamed the bloody, lived for some time at Murkle. [Murkle was a place of great note in ancient times. It was the seat of a famous nunnery; and here, John, one of the old Earls of Caithness, signed a document binding himself and his followers to support Edward I. of England in his war with Scotland.] She was a woman of a most infamous character, and had been thrice married. She caused her two former husbands, who were brothers of Liot, to be murdered —the one at Murkle, and the other at Stennis, in Orkney; and yet, with incredible effrontery, affecting entire innocence of the heavy crimes laid to her charge, she offered Liot her hand, and being a beautiful woman, and of an insinuating address, he was induced to marry her.

In the year 1014, Sigurd, the second of that name, Earl of Orkney and Caithness, embarked with a large body of troops for Ireland to assist one of the Norwegian chiefs in a war with the Irish King Brian. A celebrated battle took place at Clontarf,

[In the old traditional records of Ireland, the battle of Clontarf holds a prominent place, and the issue is described as the greatest and most decisive victory which the Irish ever had over the Danes. During the famous repeal agitation, O'Connell, with consummate tact and knowledge of the Irish character, turned the circumstance to account in arousing the so-called patriotism of his countrymen. King Brian, from whom he gave out that he was descended, was extolled to the skies as a martyr for the deliverance of his country from the yoke of the oppressors. Fancied prints of the battle and of Brian were largely distributed among the deluded peasantry; and the battle was further celebrated in songs and speeches as having completely annihilated the Danish power in Ireland, and saved her independence and freedom. In this matter, however, O'Connell and his partisans did not adhere to strict historical truth; for the battle of Clontarf did not annihilate the Danish power in Ireland, and the northern adventurers, under their respective chiefs, maintained their sway, in some parts of that country, for a long time afterwards. But agitation and not veracity was the object of O'Connell. At length, when he had sufficiently raised the excitable feelings of his followers, he concluded one of his seditious harangues with a notice that he would hold a great repeal meeting on the celebrated plain of Clontarf. "Every body knew beforehand," says an able writer, "that the real meaning of this was, that just as the Irish, with Brian at their head, had formerly defeated the Danes on that very place, so should they now, in like manner, follow O'Connell, and make every sacrifice to wrest back their lost independence from English or Saxon ascendancy. But Government forbade the meeting, and indicted O'Connell."]

about three miles to the north-east of Dublin, in which both Brian and the Earl were slain. The Norwegian annalists, like most ancient writers, appear to have been fond of the marvellous, and in some cases without any nice discrimination or sifting of materials, to have mingled fact and fable together. A short time before setting out on his expedition to Ireland, Sigurd's mother presented him with a standard made by her own hand, in which was woven, with exquisite art, the image of the raven, a bird sacred to Odin, the Scandinavian god of war. The raven was represented with outspread wings, and in the act of soaring upwards. On receiving the banner the Earl was assured by his mother that it had this remarkable property, that whoever had it carried before him would be victorious, but that the standard-bearer himself was doomed to fall. In the battle of Clontarf, accordingly, two of Sigurd's standard-bearers were killed. After this, none of his officers would take up the fatal colours, on which the Earl wrapped them round his body, and gallantly fought until he fell, pierced with innumerable wounds. It was only after a long and desperate struggle that the Irish obtained the victory. Torfaeus gives an account of a remarkable prodigy which was seen at the time in Caithness. On Christmas-day (the day of the battle) a man, named Daraddus, saw a number of persons on horseback ride at full speed towards a small hill, near which he dwelt, and seemingly enter into it. He was led by curiosity to approach the spot, when, looking through an opening in the side of the hillock, he observed twelve gigantic figures, resembling women, employed in weaving a web. As they wove, they sang a mournful song or dirge descriptive of the battle in Ireland, in which they foretold the death of King Brian, and that of the Earl of Orkney. When they had finished their task, they tore the web into twelve pieces. Each took her own portion, and once more mounting their horses, six galloped to the south, and six to the north. This singular legend derives a peculiar interest from the circumstance that it forms the subject of Gray's celebrated ode, the "Fatal Sisters." The sisters mentioned by the poet were the Valkyries, or choosers of the slain in the Gothic mythology, and the special ministers of Odin. They were mounted on swift horses, with drawn swords in their hands; and, in the throng of battle, selected such as were destined to slaughter, and conducted them to Valhalla, (the hall of Odin, or paradise of the brave,) where they attended the banquet, and served the departed heroes with horns of mead and ale. Gray's ode purports to be the song sung by the unearthly ladies. The following are some of its more striking stanzas:—

"Now the storm begins to lower,
(Haste the loom of hell prepare,)
Iron sleet of arrowy shower
Hurtles in the darkened air.
See! the grisly texture grow—
'Tis of human entrails made;
And the weights that play below,
Each a gasping warrior's head.
Shafts for shuttles, dipt in gore,
Shoot the trembling chords along;
Sword, that once a monarch bore,
Keep the tissue close and strong.

* * * * *

Low the dauntless Earl is laid,
Gor'd with many a gaping wound;
Fate demands a nobler head,
Soon a King shall bite the ground.

* * * * *

Horror covers all the heath,
Clouds of carnage blot the sun;
Sisters! weave the web of death,
Sisters! cease—the work is done.
Mortal! thou that hear'st the tale,
Learn the tenor of our song;
Scotland! through each winding vale
Far and wide the notes prolong.
Sisters! hence with spurs of speed
Each her thundering falchion wield,
Each bestride her sable steed,
Hurry, hurry to the field."

The scene of this extraordinary legend is supposed to be a knoll or hillock, in the parish of Olrig, called Sysa, which has been particularly celebrated, from time immemorial, as a favourite haunt of witches and fairies. Of late years its appearance has been somewhat altered by the agricultural improvements which have taken place in the common in which it is situated. Sysa, originally, notwithstanding its bad name, possessed some features of interest. On gaining the top from the north, you saw the side fronting the south shaped into a beautiful green hollow, having a gentle slope downwards. This hollow contained a spring of delicious water, clear as crystal; and, in the summer season, the sward around it was of the richest green, thickly sprinkled with wild-flowers, and contrasting strongly with the brown and stunted herbage of the surrounding moor. It was, on the whole, a rather pretty spot, and, situated as it was, it came upon the eye like an oasis in the desert.

Among the local legends of a supernatural kind connected with Sysa, is the following, which may, not inappropriately, be appended to that from Torfaeus.

THE PIPER OF THE WINDY HA'.

Many years ago a young man, named Peter Waters, after driving his cattle to the then undivided common, halted about noon, on his way home, at the well of Sysa, in order to quench his thirst with a draught from that refreshing spring. It was a warm and beautiful day in the "leafy month of June"—one of nature's holidays—and the sun shone out with unclouded brilliancy. The spot had a peculiarly sweet and tranquil air about it that invited to repose. Not a living thing seemed to intrude within the fairy hollow, save the golden honey-bee that came humming along, lighted for a moment on a flower to sip its nectared sweets, and then flew away with its glad murmuring note as before. Having quenched his thirst, Peter resolved, before proceeding farther, to indulge himself with half an hour's rest; and, accordingly, he lay down and stretched himself at full length on his back. For a minute or two he continued to follow with his eye a lark that rose a few yards from him, and carolled like "a musical cherub" as it mounted higher and higher in the air; but an irresistible drowsiness, like that produced by mesmerism, stole over him, and he finally fell fast asleep. He slept till near sunset, when he was awakened by a gentle shake on the shoulder. Starting in a moment from his recumbent position, and rubbing his eyes, our hero beheld, to his astonishment, a most beautiful young lady, dressed in green, with golden ringlets, blue eyes, and the sweetest countenance in the world, standing beside him. Though a great admirer of the sex, Peter had not been accustomed to the society of ladies, and he, therefore, very naturally, felt not a little nervous and confused in the presence of his fair visitant. A blush overspread his countenance, and his heart throbbed violently. His first impulse was to take to his heels; but the lady bestowed on him such a bewitching smile, that he became rivetted to the spot, and could not move a single step. By degrees his timidity wore away, and he recovered his self-possession so far as to be able, without much stammering, to converse with the beautiful stranger.

"Don't be afraid of me, Peter," said the lady, with one of her most captivating smiles, and in a voice soft and clear as a silver bell. "I feel a great interest in you, and I am come to make a man of you."

"I am much obliged to you, indeed," stammered Peter; "the greatest nobleman in the kingdom might be proud of your fair hand, but I have no desire as yet to enter into the silken cord; and, besides, I would require to be better acquainted with you before I took such a step. People commonly court a little before they marry."

"You mistake me altogether, Peter," said the lady, giving way to a hearty laugh. "Though you appear a very nice young man, I make you no offer of my hand; what I mean is, that I will put you in the way of rising in the world and making your fortune. Here are two things, a book and a pipe. Make your choice of the one or the other. If you take the book, you will become the most popular preacher in the North; and if you take the pipe, you will be the best performer on that martial instrument in Scotland. I shall give you five minutes to consider," added she, drawing from her bosom a small golden time-piece about the size of a sovereign.

The book was a splendidly-bound copy of the Bible, richly embossed with gold, with a golden clasp; the pipe a most beautiful instrument of its kind, with a green silken bag of gold and silver tissue, and superbly furnished with a number of silver keys. Peter gazed with admiration on the two articles, and was greatly puzzled which of the two to choose. It would be a grand thing, he thought with himself, to be a. popular preacher, to have a good glebe and manse, to be company for the laird and his lady, and to be cried up as a "fine man," and worshipped by the crowd. On the other hand, he was a great enthusiast for music, and he should like, above all things, to be able to play the bagpipe. Should he once become famed as the best piper in Scotland, he had no doubt that he would get plenty of employment, and the money would flow like shells into his pocket. After thus considering the matter in his own mind, Peter at length came to a determination, and said to the lady,—"Since you are so kind, I think I will choose the pipe; but as I never fingered a chanter in my life, I fear it will be a long time before I learn to play on such a difficult instrument."

"No fear of that," rejoined the lady, "blow up, and you'll find that the pipe of its own accord will discourse the most eloquent music."

Peter did as he was desired, and to his great surprise and delight he played "Maggie Lauder" in a style that Rob the Ranter himself could not have surpassed. Some cattle that were grazing hard by lifted their heads from the ground the moment they heard the first notes of the tune, and kept flinging and capering about in the most extraordinary manner.

"This is perfectly wonderful," exclaimed Peter, delighted beyond measure with his own performance; "there must surely be some glamour about this instrument."

Then thanking the lady for the invaluable present, he was about to take his departure, when she said—

"Stop a moment, there is one condition attached to the gift; this day seven years, at the very same hour of the evening, you will have to meet me by moonlight at the well of Sysa. Swear by its enchanted spring that you will do so."

Peter rashly swore by the fairy well, and promised, if alive, to keep the appointment; then thanking the fair donor for her gift, he retraced his way over the hill of Olrig to his paternal residence, which was called the "Windy Ha'."

On reaching home, Peter, with an air of triumph, produced his pipe, which excited much curiosity and wonder, and was greatly admired; but when he related how he came by it, the old people were not a little staggered, and began to regard the gift with suspicion.

"It's no canny," said his father, shaking his head; "and I would advise you, Peter, to have nothing to do with it."

"The Best protect us!" exclaimed his mother; "my bairn is lost. He must have got it from none other than the queen of the fairies."

"Nonsense," said Peter, "it was not the queen of the fairies, but a real lady—and a kind and beautiful lady she was—that gave me the pipe."

"But of what use can it be to you," said his father, "when ye canna play on it?"

"Can I not?" returned Peter; "I'll let you see that directly;" and putting the wind-pipe to his mouth, and inflating the bag, he struck up the "Fairy Dance" in a style that electrified the household. The whole family, including the grandmother— ninety years of age—started at once to their feet and danced heartily, overturning stools, and scattering the fire which was in the middle of the floor, with their fantastic movements. The piper continued to play as if he would never stop.

At length his father, panting for breath, and with the perspiration trickling down his cheeks, cried out, "For mercy's sake, Peter, gie owre, or you'll be the death of me and yir mither, as well as poor old grannie."

"I think," said Peter, laying aside his pipe out of compassion for their limbs, "I think you'll no longer say that I cannot play."

From this time our hero's fame as a musician spread rapidly over the country; and as he was sent for to perform at every wedding and merry-making that took place for miles around, he began to realise a little fortune. But "no man can tether time or tide." The seven years soon rolled away, and the day big with destiny arrived, when he must keep his appointment with the strange lady. He accordingly set off with rather uneasy feelings, for he did not know what might be the result, whether for good or evil, of this interview. Rover, the housedog, attempted to follow him, but when he was chid back, the affectionate animal gazed after his master as long as he could see him, then raised his head and howled long and pitifully. The evening was just such another as that on which he first met the mysterious stranger. The sun—near his setting —poured a flood of yellow radiance over the brown moor; and in the succeeding moonlight, Sysa seemed to glow with more than earthly lustre. The lark had ceased to sing, and the plover's note alone was heard wailing like the voice of a spirit over the desert waste. As to what happened at this second and final interview, the legend is silent; but poor Peter never returned again to the Windy Ha', and the general belief was, that he was carried away to Fairyland.

To resume the thread of our narrative. Sigurd, who was killed in Ireland, left four sons, Summorlid, Brusi, Einar, and Thorfin. He was twice married. His second wife was a daughter of King Malcolm, the second of Scotland. Thorfin was the son of this lady. The three eldest sons divided the sovereignty of Orkney and Shetland between them, and Thorfin was, by his maternal grandfather, created Earl of Caithness. Having refused to pay tribute to his successor on the Scottish throne, he was supplanted in the earldom of Caithness by one Moddan, who, with a body of troops, had fixed his headquarters in Thurso. Highly resenting the indignity, Thorfin was determined to maintain his rights by either fair means or foul. With this view he came to the town, and surprising his rival in the night-time, he set fire to his house, and slew him as he attempted to escape by a window from the flames. For a number of years Thorfin pursued the profession of a regular Viking, and in that capacity performed many daring achievements along the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. He made an incursion even into England, fought three successive pitched battles with the bravest troops of Hardicanute, [Abercrombie, Mar, Ach, Scots Nation.] and returned home laden with plunder. When in Caithness, he frequently resided at Duncansbay, from the advantage of its proximity to Orkney. Some years before his death, he was seized with remorse for the many crimes and outrages of which he had been guilty; and, as was customary at the period, he set out on a pious pilgrimage to Borne, and was there absolved by the Pope of all his sins. On his return home, he retired to Birsa, in the mainland of Orkney, where he founded and dedicated a church to Christ, and lived afterwards a devout life. He died about the year 1064, and was buried in the church which himself had built. "Thorfm," says Mr Worsaae, "was the last of the Earls in whom the old Scandinavian Viking's spirit lived and stirred. His power was greater than that of any of his predecessors; for, according to the Sagas, he ruled over no fewer than eleven earldoms in Scotland, over all the Hebrides, and a large kingdom in Ireland." This statement of the Sagas in regard to Thorfin's ruling over eleven counties in Scotland is very questionable. That he may have plundered and devastated eleven counties is highly probable; but that he held them under his sway, there is no ground whatever for believing. There is not the least hint of such a thing in any of our Scotch or English annals.


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