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Scenes and Stories of the North of Scotland
Chapter V. - The Caithness Coast


This is intended to be a chapter of mosaics, for it contains many and parti-coloured fragments, pieced together as skilfully as I can, relating to the scenery, people, and traditions of my native county. The above heading has been chosen because the dominant outward feature of interest in Caithness is the almost continuous succession of lofty mural precipices which form the coast line, and because the chief human associations, past and present, of the county, lie along the rugged, rocky fringe of its shores.

This most northern county on the mainland of Scotland has many peculiar, if not unique, features. Occupying the north-east corner of the country, its form is rudely triangular, though the lines are warped and curved by many a cape and bay. The northern side faces the cold Arctic Ocean and the Orkney Islands ; the eastern lies fully open to the wild storms of the North Sea ; while the south-western border, touching these two at their landward extremities and so completing the triangle, runs along the waving line over moor and mountain, which divides the county from Sutherland. On that boundary march there are elevated ridges toward

the north, and toward the south clusters of mountains, some of which rise like cones or pyramids over the low moorlands around. Apart from this more elevated strip along the borders of Sutherland, the county of Caithness is for the most part a widely-extended plateau, high above sea level, and varied over most of its surface by shallow valleys and gentle undulations. The dreary and almost treeless character of the interior, with its “moors and mosses many o’,” has perhaps no attractions for the ordinary traveller; and only certain parties, who have themselves come from beyond the “herring-pond,” will agree with the American who said that Caithness was “the finest clearance” he had ever seen. Yet there are many who ought to take an interest even in the inland regions of the county. To the geologist, for example, the Old Red Sandstone yields a plentiful crop of fossil remains and other objects well worthy of his attention and study. To the noble Hugh Miller, Caithness was a happy hunting ground from which he gathered rich scientific spoils. Many remember the humorous squib which was suggested by his rambles over the Old Red Sandstone,

“Tobacco and whisky cost siller,
An’ meal is but scanty at hame ;
But gang to the stane-mason Miller,
He’ll pang wi’ ichth!olites yer wame ;
Wi’ fish as Agassiz has ca’d them
In Greek like themsel’s hard and odd,
That were baked in stane pies afore Adam
Gie’d names to the haddocks an’ cod.”

To the antiquarian and historian also, every parish in the county offers a wide and rich field for research. The cliffs and bays of the coast line are thickly studded with ancient towers and castles. Their battlements and walls exhibit every stage of ruin and decay, but the very winds which whisper and wail around them are scented with romance. To an observant and curious eye, even the tamest valley or barest ridge has something to show. Let any one look at a full-sized Ordnance Survey map of Caithness, and he will find it dotted all over, north, south, east, and west, with the significant words in German lettering, “Picts Ho.” or “Picts’ Houses.” These were the rude dwellings of the original inhabitants of the county. In many cases the stones have been ruthlessly scattered, and the sites torn up with the plough, yet not a few still remain in a wonderful state of preservation. Some of these houses have been carefully uncovered and examined, and have disclosed objects of interest and value which are fitted to throw much useful light upon the old-world life of the inmates.

These are outward and visible features, but I cannot overlook one which is as real and significant as any of them, though it makes no appeal to the eye of the traveller. We have all seen old maps, on which the real or reputed sites of battles are marked with tiny crossswords. If the same system were adopted in the drafting of a map of Caithness, the significant signs of old conflicts would be almost as numerous as Picts’ houses on the face of the county. No wonder it might be so, for there is an ancient couplet, often quoted to this day, which declares,

“Sinclair, Sutherland, Keith, and Clan Gun,
There never was peace where these four were in.”

Here I must make bold to repeat a question to which. I have never yet found or been offered an answer. Why were the far-famed Mackays omitted from these lines ? Certain I am that they did more fighting in Caithness than any other clan except their traditional enemies, the native Sinclairs. Perhaps the gifted poet could not squeeze an additional name into his line. On the other hand the Guns, or Gunns, were not particularly prominent in the strifes of these bloody days—at least not in Caithness—and their omission from the couplet would do little wrong to history. That being so, I venture to suggest that in future the couplet should run thus :—

“Sinclair, Sutherland, Keith, and Mackay,
There never was peace when these four were nigh.”

If you search the old clan records, you will find yourself perfectly bewildered with the never-ending, ever-stirring tale of raid and rapine, duel and skirmish, pitched battle and chronic warfare, of which these moors and valleys were the arena for generation after generation. Thus has it come to pass that it cannot safely be said of almost any twenty square yards in the county, Here at least no foeman’s blood ever stained the soil. In imagination, yet with almost no risk of error anywhere, you may sprinkle the map all over with the fatal sign of the cross-swords.

There can be no question that the coast scenery is the dominant feature of interest to the traveller in Caithness. The petty tourist, who pays a flying visit to Wick and Thurso and then declares he has seen Caithness, should be banished south of the Grampians at once—to the Isle of Dogs if you like. Meantime he may skip the rest of this paragraph, and of several which follow. The northern shores from Drumholistan in the Reay country to Duncansbay Head, and the eastern shores from Duncansbay Head to the Orel, are overshadowed throughout five-sixths of their length, by mile upon mile, mile upon mile, of brown cliffs, whose brows are firmly knit against wind and storm, and relax not even in the sunshine. These rocky flagstone walls have been built up in hundreds upon hundreds of layers—some of considerable thickness, like tiers of actual masonry—others thin and ragged like the uncut leaves of a book lying upon the table. As an eminent authority has graphically said, “The faces of the precipices are constantly etched out in alternate lines of cornice and frieze, on some of which vegetation finds a footing, while others are crowded with sea-fowl.” This iron-bound coast is withal characterized by profuse diversity of detail. At close but irregular intervals, the cliffs are cut from top to bottom by deep narrow ravines called “goes” (pronounced gyoes, in one syllable), whose walls resound with the breaking of the surf which heaves between them. Many and marvellous also are the caves which open their ungainly mouths to the tide and blast—some narrow and dark like the dens of wild beasts, others with temple-like interiors of pillar and aisle and groined roof. Yet again we note another feature of these iron defences against the ocean. Detached from cliff or shore stand isolated masses of rock, called “stacks”— some of equal thickness from base to summit, like broken columns in the forum of Pompeii, others like elongated cones which taper upward and point to the sky above. Without doubt they once formed part of the sea-walls themselves, but storm and wave have cut them off from their parent strata. Disinherited and lonely though they be, they still stand erect and defiant in presence of the attacking foe.

In addition to many smaller indentations of the sea, there are two wide breaks in the rock-walls which are the fence and defence of the county. These are Sinclair Bay on the east coast and the double bay of Thurso and Dunnet on the north. With precipitous cliffs at their seaward extremities, they are fringed with wide sunlit sweeps of yellow sand, where with arched neck and curling mane may be seen

“The white steeds of ocean that leap
With a hollow and wearisome roar.”

No one needs to be told, and yet no one can fully realise, how dangerous and deadly this coast has ever been to the “toilers of the deep,” sailors and fishermen alike. Many a brave life has been quenched, and many a stout craft dashed into fragments off these cruel heights. Over these things it is no shame to drop a tear ; but not to all, nor at all times, have they been occasion of grief. We are taught to pray “ for those in peril on the sea,55 but I fear this was not always the spirit of those who dwelt on the Caithness seaboard. To many, even in days not very long gone by, a wreck on the coast was a godsend—a kind providence, for the chance of plunder was too good to be foolishly despised or thrown away. We need not wonder that this should be the opinion of any or every man who was a self-elected and self-appointed “receiver of wreck!” There were in the good old days many such native officials, and ofttimes they even quarrelled over their individual rights and privileges.

As there were not a few of this way of thinking in the far north, it will surprise no one to learn that the erection of lighthouses oil our headlands and skerries was not regarded with much favour. Many were not much concerned even to hide or disguise their disapproval. One of these, a grim, northern fisherman, expressed his mind slily but plainly enough to Mr Stevenson, the noted lighthouse engineer. The latter had on one occasion hired a boat to carry him somewhere on an errand of duty. As they sped along, Mr Stevenson, in a tone of interest and sympathy, said to the boatman,

“How is it that your sails are so poor and tattered?” The skipper was equal to the occasion, for he replied with some emphasis,

“If it lied been God’s mill that ye liedna built sae mony lichthooses, I wud hae gotten new sails last winter.”

It is not likely that Mr Stevenson pursued that line of conversation further; the boatman was evidently not one who was very open to conviction on the subject. Besides, all questions which lie on the border line between divine sovereignty and human responsibility are full of risk and difficulty. It would be wise on the whole to avoid controversy regarding them. One of our modern poets goes so far as to suggest that the sea itself considers it very good sport to hurl vessels on their doom and force the hot tears of many a wife and mother. Does not Swinburne speak of

“the noise of seaward storm that mocks With roaring laughter from reverberate rocks The cry of ships near shipwreck ”

If the scenery of Caithness is in many respects unique, so are the people, by which I mean the great majority of the inhabitants. As to race and blood, they stand out in bold relief from the natives of any other part of Great Britain, but are closely allied to the islanders of Orkney and Shetland. You remember how Daniel Defoe treats this subject in his famous cynical piece, “The True-born Englishman,” a defence of William of Orange against the race prejudices of his day. After enumerating the various elements, Romans, Gauls, Saxons, Danes, Picts, and others, out of which the English nation has been formed, he goes on to say,

“From this amphibious, ill-born mob began
That vain, ill-natured thing, an Englishman.
The customs, sirnames, languages, and manners
Of all these nations are their own explainers :
Whose relics are so lasting and so strong,
They’ve left a shibboleth upon our tongue ;
By which with easy search you may distinguish
Your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman-English.”

The poet had good reason to scourge such a mongrel people for their pretended or boasted purity of blood ; but to the people of Caithness the reproach of mixed elements scarcely at all applies. As briefly as possible let me try to tell their story.

Who may have inhabited Caithness or any other part of our islands in the days of Moses no one can tell, and no one is the worse for his ignorance. We must come down nearly to the beginning of the Christian era before we get into our fingers any threads of fact regarding the early occupation of Britain. One or two centuries before Christ, powerful tribes of Aryan origin spread over Western Europe, and crossed over also to the British Isles. Some say they came from Central Asia, some say from the northern slopes of the Alps, some say from the southern shores of the Baltic, some say from Africa and Spain; as to the actual whence, there is no real certainty. They were, however, the Celtic branch of the Aryan family, and after their settlement in Britain, were driven westward and northward by the Jutes, Saxons, and Angles, who came after them from the Continent at a later period.

One branch of the Celts retreated into Wales and Cornwall, another possessed themselves of Ireland, the Isle of Man, and the Scottish Highlands, even as far north as Caithness. As for the old aborigines, few and weak as they probably were, they must have been either extinguished or absorbed by the invaders, who for all practical purposes may be considered the primitive inhabitants of the country, at least in historic times. Thus the Celtic hordes—to whom probably the name Picts or Picti first belonged, because some of them painted their persons—occupied Caithness for some time before, and for several centuries after, the birth of Christ. Then came a great, though a gradual revolution, the beginning of which dates from the year 780 or thereabouts. The Norse and Danish Vikings—so named from their sheltering and skulking in the “viks” or bays—began to make their savage descents upon the northern islands and counties of Scotland. These sea-kings and their crews were for generations the terror of Western Europe. Fearless alike either of storm or foe, they swept down upon the seaboard of Caithness to ravage and destroy. Towns and villages were sacked and burnt, and the inhabitants scattered, slain, or carried into slavery. With graphic touch the poet thus pictures to us one of these sea-kings,

“From out his castle on the strand
He led his tawny-bearded band
In stormy bark from land to land.

“The red dawn was his goodly sign,
He set his face to sleet and brine,
And quaffed the blast like ruddy wine.

“The storm-blast was his deity ;
His lover was the fitful sea ;
The wailing winds his melody.

“By rocky scaur and beachy head
He followed where his fancy led,
And down the rainy waters fled,

“And left the peopled towns behind,
And gave his days and nights to find
What lay beyond the western wind.”

By-and-by the Vikings entirely changed their policy and tactics. They came, not to raid and depart again, but to remain and colonise. They acted the part of the camel who asked room in a tent for his head, and then, forcing his whole body in, dispossessed the inhabitants. The Norsemen founded settlements here and there on the coast, and ere long pressed the old Celtic inhabitants backward further and further into the interior. Thus did they leave to the former possessors only a strip of country parallel with the march of Sutherland-shire. Between the two races there was a border land, but no fixed boundary stone. Even to this day we can roughly define the extent and limits of the Scandinavian conquest and occupation by the Norse names on the northern and eastern side of the line, and the Celtic on the western and southern. To a keenly observant eye the distinction is visible in the prevailing physical type, for those of Viking blood may be known

“By the tall form, blue eye, proportion fair,
The limbs athletic, and the long light hair.”

The contrast may also be noted in the character and habits of the two races; and there are many evidences of it in their language, and some even in their music. As to the last named element, it is worthy of note, and may surprise some people to know, that the bagpipe is rarely to be heard in Caithness. No doubt it is an ancient and honourable instrument, for a high authority has declared,

“And Music first on earth was heard
In Gaelic accents deep,
When Jubal in his oxter squeezed
The blether o’ a sheep;”

but in the Scandinavian county it is an exotic—an imported article from Sutherland—and little esteemed by the sons and daughters of the Norsemen. As a consequence of these statements I hope one excellent result will appear. We hear some people, for whom we entertain the sincerest pity, express in very vehement language their abhorrence of the bagpipe. In most cases this is no more than a proud pretence, but they have now an opportunity of proving their sincerity. If they like the north, but dislike the bagpipes, let them go to Caithness, and the nearer to John O’ Groat’s the better. As soon as this book is afloat, I shall expect to hear of a great demand for summer lodgings in the county. Please avoid the towns, however, for they are at times tainted with the Celtic musical element.

These statements regarding the people of Caithness would hardly be considered up to date were I to omit mention of two other circumstances. While the large majority of the inhabitants are of Scandinavian blood, there does exist a considerable Celtic element, due not so much to the remaining descendants of the old race, but still more to the scores and scores of families who were driven out of Sutherland early in this century by the cruel policy of eviction. These very naturally settled for the most part in the parishes nearest to their native county, among people many of whom were of their own blood and language. Of Saxon blood also there are undoubtedly some traces among the families of Caithness. Methinks I now hear some ignorant Southerner express his wonder that any one of Saxon lineage, and therefore knowing better things, should wander and settle so far north, even for gold or for love. It might be sufficient to reply that his wonder will not diminish either the fact or its significance. But we have a better instrument of retort within reach. In this connection I cannot resist the temptation to refer to a common reproach and a delusion connected therewith. It has sometimes been said in the south that “no fools come from Scotland,” because those who in point of fact leave Scotland show themselves wise by so doing. That being so, the number of Scotsmen who have found their way to England is supposed to be, to say the least of it, remarkably large. Now I have a nice little fact to offer as a gift to our English friends. It is asserted, and has, I believe, been proved, that in proportion to the population of the two countries, there are more Englishmen resident in Scotland than Scotsmen resident in England. It is sometimes quite delightful to make that statement to a typical John Bull, and to watch its effect. If that dose appears not to be sufficient, you may add this other, that, according to the same proportion, Scotland is, when tested by taxation, the richest country in the world. One can take a malicious pleasure in driving these points home upon the class of “ small ” southerners, if they are at all disposed to crow over “poor Scotland.”

Had space permitted, I might here review the formative influences, such as natural scenery, social conditions and institutions, history, and religion, which made the Norsemen what they were, and have to so large an extent moulded the people of Caithness into what they are. With a bare and simple statement I must pass from that tempting theme. As compared with the Celts and the Saxons, the sons of the Vikings are characterised by restless energy, sturdy independence, singular adaptability, and frank generosity. When we remember that the inhabitants of our whole eastern seaboard, from John o’ Groat’s at least as far as the mouth of the Humber, are tinged with the same blood, we can understand how great has been the Norse influence in the formation of the British character, and how many and manifest its results in our national history and development.

Here I might be tempted to indulge at some length in a dissertation on the origin and fortunes of the family— for, strictly speaking, it should not be a clan—to which I have the honour to belong. These are matters of quite peculiar interest to me, but I have at least one good reason for reticence and brevity. So far as the far past is concerned, I should scarcely be able to say much to the credit of my ancestors. Even were I able to produce evidence of high character and noble deeds on the part of some of my “forbears,” I should be checked by the salutary warning that

“They who on glorious ancestry enlarge,
Produce their debt instead of their discharge.”

The truth is that my case very much resembles that of Sydney Smith, of whom some one inquired as to the decease of one of his progenitors. In reply, the humourist made the significant confession, “ Well, he disappeared suddenly at the time of the assizes, and we asked no questions.” If not quite so dark as is hinted at in these neatly-chosen words, the history of the Sinclairs is for the most part a record of rapine, blood, and strife, and any little traits or incidents of a more pleasing kind are only

“rari nantes in gurgite vasto.”

It is said that on one occasion Columba, the noble missionary of Iona, was asked to invoke a blessing on a warrior’s sword. He responded in the remarkable words, “God grant that it may never drink a drop of blood.” Not for many generations was such a prayer uttered, or at least its burden fulfilled, in the case of a Sinclair’s sword. They fought with every clan who dared to claim an inch of soil in Caithness, and appear at more than one period to have possessed the whole county. They were, however, most unfortunate when they ventured on expeditions far away from home. How wofully unfortunate they were, the more prominent chapters in their history will show! I shall only mention two instances.

The first of these takes us back into the early part of the sixteenth century. James IV. of Scotland had quarrelled with his brother-in-law, Henry VIII., and set out with a large army for the invasion of England. The Scotch army encamped upon the hill of Flodden, and on its northern slopes was fought, in 1513, the blackest battle in the annals of the northern kingdom. William Sinclair, Earl of Caithness, and 300 of his men were on the right wing of James’s array, and even after others had fled from the scene of disaster fought to the bitter end. It almost looked like the extinction of

“The lordly line of high St Clair,”

for the Earl fell on the field, and seareely a man— perhaps not one at all—returned to tell the tale. When leaving home on that fatal occasion the Sinclairs had worn a green uniform, and had crossed the lofty ridge of the Ord, the southern boundary of the county, on a Monday. Ever since it has been an unwritten law that no one of the name should ever wear that luekless colour, or eross the Ord on the same unpropitious day of the week. Well might the Sinclairs of Caithness at that date join in the pathetic lament,

“Dool for the order sent our lads to the Border,
The English foranceby guile wan the day ;
The Flowers of the Forest that fought aye the foremost,
The prime of our land lie cauld on the clay.

“We’ll hae nae mair liltin’ at the ewe milkin’,
Women and bairns are heartless and wae ;
Sighin’ and moanin’ on ilka green loanin’,
The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away.”

The second great misfortune to the Sinclairs took place about a century later, in 1612, during the war of young Gustavus Adolphus against Norway and Denmark. Colonel George Sinclair crossed to Norway with a force variously estimated at from 300 to 1400 men, but most probably about 900, with the intention of finding his way over the mountains to Sweden. These troops were levied “on the sly,” and the “root of all evil” was not wanting in the project. The Scotch king and government did what they could to prevent its execution, and threatened that the leaders would be “put to the horn,” that is, declared to be outlaws after three blasts of the horn at the cross of Edinburgh. When Sinclair and his men landed in the Romsdal Fiord; they met with unexpected and serious resistance. They were attacked in a narrow defile in Gudljrandsdalcn by large bodies of the peasantry, who, at a critical spot, hurled great masses of rock down upon them. Colonel Sinclair fell among the rest, and at least half his men were slain. Next day upwards of 100 more were put to death ; and only some eighteen escaped with their lives. A monument on the high road below the scene of conflict marks the grave of the leader, who was a son of John, the Master of Caithness, of whom we have by-and-bye an even more tragic story to tell. The people of Norway are proud of their victory over the Sinclairs, and it has frequently been made the subject of song. Here are the first and last verses of a free translation of one of these ballads :—

“To Norway Sinclair steered his course
Across the salt sea wave,
But in Kringelen’s mountain pass
He found an early grave.
To fight for Swedish gold he sailed,
He and his hireling band :
Help, God; and nerve the peasant’s arm
To wield the patriot brand.

“Oh many a maid and mother wept
And father’s cheek grew pale,
When from the few survivors’ lips
Was heard the startling tale.
A monument yet marks the spot
Which points to Sinclair’s bier,
And tells how fourteen hundred men
Sunk in that pass of fear.”

In justice to my clansmen, I must here take leave to repel an insinuation, and also to correct an error. In some accounts of the fatal expedition, and especially in a ballad by one called Storm, the Sinclairs are represented as having burnt and plundered wherever they went. They are even accused of having slain children at their mothers’ breasts. All this is absolutely untrue. One Envold Kruse, a local stadtholder, reporting officially on the subject, says, “ We have also since ascertained that those Scots who were defeated and captured on their march through this country, have absolutely neither burnt, murdered, nor destroyed anything/' Again, in the last verse quoted above, the number of Colonel Sinclair’s band is stated at 1400 men. Space would fail me to enter fully into a discussion of these figures. This, however, after careful and exhaustive investigation by competent authorities, may be held as proven, that the Caithness men cannot have been more than 900 at the utmost, and that 500 is probably nearer the correct figure.

As a foil, though but a partial one, to these stories of disaster, it may be well to note one of the Sinclair chiefs, who was a distinguished patriot and soldier. This was Sir William Sinclair, who played his part so bravely at the battle of Bannockburn that King Robert the Bruce, in acknowledgment of his valorous exploits, presented him with a beautiful sword. On the broad blade was inscribed this legend: “Le Roi me donne, St Clair me porte,” i.e., The king gifts me, St Clair carries me. At a later date, the gallant knight again showed his devotion to his monarch. Before he died, King Robert charged

Lord James of Douglas to have his heart embalmed, carefully borne to the Holy Land, and finally deposited in the Holy Sepulchre. After the king’s decease, Sir William Sinclair was one of the knights who set out with Douglas on his pious errand to Palestine; but he fell, as Douglas himself did not very long after, in an encounter with the Moors in Spain.

Before coming to more modern times and more civilised ways, let me here insert two weird old stories, the scenes of which are in different parts of the county. One at least of these is undoubtedly founded on fact, though over what is true not a little that is mythical and imaginative has grown, like the lichen on the lettering of an old tombstone. It is neither my business nor my intention to attempt to disentangle these elements; and, therefore, I shall present the traditions just as they have shaped themselves in my memory, after somewhat careful inquiry and study.

The first, and perhaps the more doubtful of these, which I shall make also the briefer, is a story of the Bruan coast, some ten miles south of Wick. Nowhere, even on the Caithness seaboard, are the rocks and caves and goes more fantastically wild and imposing. Only those who have sailed along beneath their shadows know their varied and marvellous attractions. It is not, however, with these that we have at present to do.

At a particular spot on this iron-bound coast, there is a bold rock or cliff, which the Gaelic people call “Leac na on,” i.e., the rock of gold. The traveller will easily find a civil and obliging Bruan man to point out its situation. The story connected with that rock and its name is one of treachery and cruelty. For a moment I thought of calling it also a story of love, but the sequel will show why that word has been omitted. A Caithness chieftain, probably a Sinclair, though I hope not, seems to have possessed lands and a residence on this coast. He had wooed and won a Danish lady or Princess, but we have no record of their courtship, if, indeed, anything of the kind ever took place. She seems, however, to have consented to make Caithness her adopted home. At length, the time of the marriage drew near, and it was decided that the ceremony should take place on this side the North Sea, Embarking in a Danish vessel, she sailed for the land of her adoption, and might surely hope for an affectionate welcome from her lover. She certainly did not come empty-handed, for the vessel bore the lady’s splendid dowry of gold and treasure. But alas ! what a fickle, treacherous, cruel creature is man, though he be a Caitlmessman, or even a Sinclair! The chieftain was more in love with the dowry than with the lady. Under pretence of securing her safety, it had been arranged that a bright light should be exhibited on the coast, toward which the Danes might with confidence steer their vessel. The greedy, heartless lover fixed that light purposely on the most dangerous cliff he could select, and the result, unfortunately, was entirely in accordance with his fell design. At dead of night, when not a glimmer of light shone in the sky, the bride’s vessel struck the fatal rock, and in a few brief moments, falling back in shattered fragments, sunk beneath the waves. The Danish lady and her convoy perished with the wreck, for not a hand was extended to rescue them. The chieftain roared with delight at this primary success of his project, but most probably did not after all gain his ultimate end. In his day it would be no easy matter, if, indeed, possible at all, to fish up the gold and other treasure from among the seaweed and rocks. We should all be sorry to think that the wretch was made one penny the richer by the spoils. Let us hope that they still lie among the

“Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scattered in the bottom of the sea.”

If even now the Danish gold and jewellery are there, we shall leave them undisturbed in the spirit of the poetess who sings—

“Yet more, the depths have more! what wealth untold,
Far down, and shining through their stillness, lies!
Thou hast the starry gems, the burning gold,
Won from ten thousand royal argosies!
Sweep o’er thy spoils, thou wild and wrathful main!
Earth claims not these again!”

Of the many ruined castles which stud the cliffs of Caithness, the Sinclairs once possessed the great majority, for most of them belonged to one branch or other of that powerful family. Probably one of the oldest of these is the venerable Castle of Keiss, on the western shore of Sinclair Bay,—a ruin indeed, yet how stately and firm on its rocky basement. Its main walls are still wonderfully entire, and its lofty turrets and gables are visible far over land and sea. On the opposite side of the same spacious bay, and crowning cliffs of wild grandeur, stand the twin Castles Sinclair and Girnigoe, the chief stronghold of the Earls of Caithness in the old days of blood and iron. The very image of that grim and gaunt fastness recalls the questions and replies of Heine’s song—

“Hast thou seen the castle olden,
High towering by the sea!
Crimson—bright and golden
The clouds above it be.
Down stooping, it appeareth
In the glassy wave below ;
Its lofty towers it reareth
Where the clouds of even glow.
Well have I seen it towering
That castle by the sea ;
And the moon above it lowering,
And the mists about it flee.
The winds and waves rebounding—
Say, rang they fresh and clear?
Heard’st thou from bright halls sounding
Music and festal cheer.
The winds and waves were sleeping,
But from that castle high
The sound of wailing and weeping
Brought tears into my eye.”

Castles Sinclair and Girnigoe are perched on a bold, rocky promontory which runs out almost parallel with the cliffs of the mainland, a deep, wild goe rocking its surging waters between. Castle Sinclair, the more modern and yet the more ruinous, stands on the neck of the projecting cape; while Castle Girnigoe, the older and yet the more perfect, occupies the crown of the rock, ancl its walls seem at one time to have extended far beyond the present structure. The twin strongholds may be said to have a joint tenancy of the peninsula, and once-a-day a drawbridge over a yawning gulf connected their walls and chambers. Far out upon the point of the cliffs where they first dip downward toward the sea, are the remains of an oubliette or secret dungeon. Thence, through a trap door, and by a steep slide on the face of the rocks, communication might be had with the waters and boats below.

On the ground floor of Castle Girnigoe, three or four separate chambers yet remain in a fair state of preservation. From a comer in one of these, a flight of broken steps leads down to a damp, vaulted dungeon, dimly lit from a narrow aperture in the wall. This was the scene of the terrible tragedy, of which we must presently tell the sad history. If ruins could feel or manifest the sense of shame, then surely, Girnigoe ! thou mightest well blush even in thine old age!

“Yet, proudly mid the tide of years,
Thou lift’st on high thine airy form
Scene of primeval hopes and fears,
Slow yielding to the storm!”

Certainly, if Goethe be right in describing architecture as petrified music, Castles Sinclair and Girnigoe sound out one of the most gruesome dirges or laments that was ever embodied in stone.

About the middle of the sixteenth century, George Sinclair, Earl of Caithness, became bitterly incensed against his eldest son, John, the Master of Caithness and his father’s heir. The cause of disagreement has been variously stated. According to one account, the Earl had a bitter feud with the inhabitants of Dornoch in Sutherlandshire, and had sent his son, along with the chief of the clan Mackay, to punish them. The townspeople had promised certain concessions, and had given three hostages as a pledge of their fidelity. The angry, treacherous Earl ordered these men to be executed forthwith. His son, and Mackay of Strathnaver—to their credit be it said—refused to carry out his decision, and so the rupture took place between them and him. The young Master, to escape the anger and resentment of his father, took refuge with his ally Mackay in the Reay country, and resided there for several years. This absence from home gave rise to two other causes of offence and suspicion. In the first place, rumours from time to time reached the Earl that his son and Mackay were plotting against him, and even cherished designs against his life. Moreover, as in many such cases, we must have regard to the counsel, “ Cherchez la femme; ” and in this instance, it will yield something. The chief of the Mackays had, it is said, a charming daughter, who quite captived the Earl’s son, and eventually became his wife. This gave great offence to his father, who, being by this time a widower, was himself contemplating matrimony again. He resented the idea of his son’s outstripping him, and first becoming the father of another heir to the earldom. Moved by these or such like causes of offence, the Earl, who was naturally jealous and cruel, laid a plot to ensnare both his rebellious son and his traditional enemy at once. He invited them to come to Castle Girnigoe, and professed the most sincere anxiety to be reconciled to them both.

Trusting to the Earls good faith, they rode together, on horseback and unattended, to the fatal towers on Sinclair Bay. As they were entering by the drawbridge, the Chief of the Mackays noticed what he considered an unusual and unnecessary force of armed men on duty. Taking alarm at once, he turned his horse’s head on the very bridge, and fled with all speed. The young Master was, however, less fortunate. He was at once seized and thrust down into the damp and gloomy cell in the under regions of Girnigoe; and there he lay, in cruel neglect and solitude, for many years. His first keeper was one Murdo Roy, who planned the escape of his young and gallant prisoner. The plot was discovered by William, the Earl’s second son, and Murdo was summarily executed for his kindly intentions toward his ward. His head for some time after adorned the castle walls. A short time after poor Murdo s fate was thus sealed, William entered the prisoner’s cell, and the brothers had an angry altercation. At length John, who was a man of powerful physique, and therefore called Garroiv, the strong, sprang, fettered though he was, upon his brother, and actually crushed his life out in an iron embrace. It is but right to add that William had espoused his father’s side, had threatened his brother’s life, and would not have been much grieved to have the heir out of his way.

During these events the Earl was absent from home, but immediately on his return, lie appointed two keepers, by name James and Ingram Sinclair, to watch the young Master, so that he was guarded more carefully and treated more cruelly than ever. As to the part latterly played by these gaolers, traditions differ. According to one story, they plundered the castle in the Earl’s absence, fled with the spoils, and left the Master of Caithness to perish of famine in his cell. Another version, more circumstantial, and, alas ! far more revolting, seems unfortunately the true one, or at least nearer to the sad truth. It is said that the two Sinclairs, instigated by the Earl himself, deliberately compassed the death of the poor captive—and that by a most inhuman method. Having starved their victim for a few days, they then set before him an abundant supply of salt beef, of which he ate voraciously. Then, when raging thirst came upon him, they refused him even a drop of water, and left him to die in writhing agony. The inscription on his tombstone in the old churchyard of Wick, speaks of him as “ane noble and worthie man, who departed this life the 15th day of March, 1576.”

The old Earl, the father, died in Edinburgh in 1583, and was succeeded by George, the son of the murdered Master. This George very soon took opportunity to avenge his father’s death upon the brothers Sinclair. One of them, Ingram, was to be married, and the new Earl, to make his vengeance the more terrible, chose the wedding day for his purpose. He first met James, who was making his way to the happy festivities, ran him through with his sword, and left him a corpse by the roadside. Proceeding yet further on his bloody errand, he found Ingram with some companions beguiling the time before the ceremony in a game of football. The Earl approached him at once, saying, in a tone of cheery innocence, “Do you know, one of my corbies {i.e., crows, a familiar name for pistols) missed fire this morning". At the same moment, as if to examine it, he drew a pistol from the holster on his saddle, and shot the bridegroom dead upon the spot. Instead of a happy bridal came a double funeral, and no one was bold enough or strong enough “to bell the cat,” and bring the Earl to justice. It may even have been thought that he was fully justified in wreaking vengeance on the men who so cruelly murdered his father. These were not the days of longspun, wearisome trials. The whole story is but a specimen of many such deeds and scenes in the old days in Caithness; let us hope that the one now recorded is the most unnatural and inhuman of all. If any one thinks that such things never have been done, and never could be done, south of the Grampians, let him turn to the year 1402, in the kingdom of Fife, and find out what became of the Duke of Rothesay, the King’s son, in the palace of Falkland. Two blacks do not make a white; but the question here is, which is the deeper black, and, really, there seems little to choose between the two cases.

More than perhaps any other county in Scotland, Caithness has, during the past thirty years especially, been passing through stage after stage of rapid transition, almost amounting to revolution. This is true in regard to politics, social conditions, and religious questions alike.

Public opinion and sentiment have undergone changes, the pace of which has become more and more rapid every year. Some of “the adorers of time gone by” have been weeping and wailing profusely. My own opinion is, that in these changes there has been much to regret, but far far more to cause rejoicing. It is not my purpose here to discuss the pros and cons of these various currents in the minds of men. Two things, however, I think I may do without offence, namely, state in a few words some of the motive causes of change and offer a few slight illustrations of the contrast between the dead or dying past and the living present.

Among the active forces which have caused upheaval, four seem to me to be the most powerful and prominent. These are, the spread of education, railway extension, the wider diffusion of press influence, and the pressure of hard times as regards the harvests both of land and sea. Only on the first of these shall I venture to speak ; and though sorely tempted to write chapters, I must restrain personal feeling and impulse, and be content with a few sentences. Education was, without doubt, the first of the forces of change to operate upon Caithness. Fifty years ago, there were many shrewd and prosperous men in the county, whose training, even in the three R’s—Reading, Riting, and Rithmetic—was very imperfect indeed. Let me instance one rather amusing case. It was that of a shoemaker who provided the Sheriff of the county with boots. The worthy tradesman had with no little trouble and pains drawn up an account to be presented to his customer ; yet, when it was completed, lie found, to his chagrin, that he could not read it himself. Once and again he had made the attempt and failed; but at length a happy thought gave him immediate relief and comfort. Turning to a friend, he exclaimed, with a satisfied smile, “Weel, I canna mak’t oot, but d— cares, it’s gaun til a better scholar than masel.” What a comfort to know that the Sheriff could read so well. Such is the story. Even thirty years ago such a case must have been somewhat rare in the county. At that time the schools of the county were admirably taught, and the standard of education wonderfully high. As one evidence for the truth of these statements, I may mention that at that period, Caithness sent to Edinburgh more students in proportion to her population than any other county in Scotland, with the possible exception of Dumfries. There is also one rural parish which may, without fear of rivalry, claim as natives a larger number of professional men scattered all over the world than, perhaps, any other in the country. This general diffusion of sound and well advanced education paved the way for the breaking up of many an old tradition and sentiment embedded in the life of the community. Thus has it come to pass that in many questions affecting especially the Church and the land, “ the axles are so hot that we have long-been smelling fire.5’ To vary the figure we may say that what an eminent statesman lately called “ the invisible creeping wind of public sentiment ” has been blowing about many old leaves.

In the regions of social life and of politics, it may be of interest to chronicle some forms or aspects of change, even though I refrain from pronouncing any opinion upon them.

Among what are called the middle classes, the humble and homely ways of half a century ago are fast passing away. Contentment and simplicity are more rarely found, while pride and luxury are manifesting themselves in growing measure. Some one has contrasted these conditions in the following plain and pithy lines :—

“Man to the plough,
Wife to the sow,
Son to the flail,
Daughter to the pail,
And your rents will be netted ;
But man tally-ho,
Daughter piano,
Son Greek and Latin,
Wife silk and satin,
And you’ll soon be gazetted.”

Very sorry should I be to apply these words to the middle-class people of Caithness as a whole. Still, they indicate, in an exaggerated and therefore harmless form, the direction in which things are tending. Let us hope that in no case will the sad end with which the lines close be realised. If we look a step lower in the social scale, what do we find ? Among the small farmers and crofters the changes in progress have been not so much in social condition, for that as yet has been little altered, but in political feeling and aspiration. Twenty or thirty years ago, the minds of these men were as to great questions in a listless, almost stagnant, condition.

Within the last decade the land question has set the heather on fire, and burns on hundreds if not thousands of hearths in the valleys and villages of Caithness. What many would call a social rebellion smoulders all over the county, arid there are not so many now-a-days disposed to echo the pious wish :—

“Bless the squire and his relations,
And keep us all in our proper stations.”

It is an undoubted fact—welcome it or bewail it, whichever you please—that Radicalism more or less extreme is rampant in almost every parish.

Not less real though perhaps less patent are the changes in relioious thought and customs. Into these I cannot fully enter, but I may gather as from the surface of things a few indications of the contrast between the then of fifty years ago and the now of 1890. Nowhere in all Scotland did there exist at the earlier period a more dogged and determined conservatism in matters religious than in Caithness. As to outward forms many would sing, con amove,

“Old customs! Oh I love the sound!
However simple they may be;
"Whate’er with time hath sanction found
Is welcome and is dear to me.”

It is the fashion with some people to stigmatize that spirit in unmeasured terms as if it were only and wholly evil —the fruit of nothing but tyranny and ignorance. Those who so speak show on their own part a want of knowledge no less than of breadth and charity. Among many things which seem to most of us grotesque and foolish, the candid eye can take note of many things which were good and noble. It is therefore in no carping or jeering spirit that I touch upon the lighter side of some phenomena in religious life which are now little more than memories.

Among the good folks of Caithness half a century ago the office of the Christian ministry commanded a singular measure of deference and respect. This was due to the character both of the office itself and of the men, generally speaking, who discharged its duties. There were, for example, certain amusements which might be permissible or barely so among ordinary Christians, but which were not to be tolerated for a moment in one of “ the cloth.” You remember the cynical charge addressed by Sydney Smith to a young clergyman :

“Hunt not, fish not, shoot not,
Dance not, fiddle not, flute not;
Be sure you have nothing to do with the Whigs,
But stay at home and feed your pigs ;
Above all, I make it my particular desire
That at least once a week you dine with the Squire.”

The first six counsels at all events are in full accordance with the common opinion of religious people in the far north at that period. Any man who practised such things would be denounced and boycotted by those who were reputed the best of the people. Exception, however, was made in favour—if so it can be called—of the “moderate” ministers. They were considered so hopelessly wrong in other respects that no one cared to criticise too nicely any questionable thing they might do.

A curious incident bearing upon this point occurred in the case of the famous “Apostle of the North,” Dr John Macdonald of Ferintosh. Some details may have escaped my memory, but I believe that what follows is in the main correct. His father, James Macdonald, was catechist in the parish of Reay, and was a man of high religious repute. His son John was born in the depth of winter, and the father carried his child through wreaths of snow to the manse that he might be baptized. The minister was from home ; he had gone out shooting with the laird; but the catechist, nothing daunted and bearing his tender load, went in pursuit over the snowy moors, and at length, after no little labour, came up with his pastor. The ceremony was performed there and then, simply and briefly. Stepping out upon a frozen sheet of water, the minister broke a hole in the ice, lifted the all but frozen element between his fingers, and dropped it on the child’s face with the usual formula. That boy became the wonderful preacher of after years, and often with pawky humour declared that his baptism was but a foretaste of the cold treatment he ever after received at the hands of the “ Moderates.5’ No evangelical who cared for his good name and influence would £0 shooting with the laird, and have to be hunted in such a fashion.

Since godly ministers were held in such high estimation, curious results sometimes followed. Young preachers were tempted to imitate the old; and, as usual, what they reproduced was often the very faults or foibles of the model. The most remarkable thing is that at times a young man was highly thought of because there was some resemblance in his person or manner to a very weakness or oddity of a greater than himself. A highly respected minister in Caithness, about the year 1830, was the Rev. Archibald Cook of Bruan, who was commonly spoken of as Archie Cook. He was a man of deep piety and quaint genius, but was also peculiar and somewhat eccentric. In his day, a young man, newly fledged, preached in a Caithness Church. After service, there were many comments on his performance—mostly of an unfavourable kind. One good old woman, however, abounding in Christian charity, found out one peculiar excellence at least in the neophyte. Being asked by a neighbour what she thought of him, she at once replied,

“Oh, wumman/am thinkan lie’s a rayal godly, gracious young man. He coughs jist like Airchie Cook.”

I have even been assured that the qualification mentioned was the means of his appointment as pastor over that very congregation. It may not be wise to show any countenance to such a view, for it might produce effects at which one shudders among the rising ministry. We do not wish to find in the pulpit analogies of infinite variety to the Alexandra limp or Archie Cook’s cough.

If in these old days the ministers were carefully fenced in by restraints in one direction, so were the people by laws and statutes in others. Here, however, I must confess that I go back more than two hundred years for my illustration. It appears that, even at that early period, the offence of non-church-going was sadly prevalent. If so, it was not for lack of strong enactments on the subject. Here is an extract from the Session Records of the parish of Canisbay :—

“December 27, 1652.—Ordained yt (y for th, or the, all through) for mending ye people, ye better to keepe ye Kirk, a roll of ye names of ye families be taken up, and Sabbathlie, yt they be called upon by name, and who bees notted absent sail pay 40d. toties quoties.” The last two words simply mean that “as often,” as the offence was committed, “so often” should the penalty be inflicted. The worthy minister who first quoted this extract fifty years ago, touchingly remarks, “ This is a most salutary regulation.” I believe that, even down to his day, the law might have been enforced; who would dare to attempt it now? But mark, I pray you, what a wistful, plaintive ring there is about the minister’s declaration. Can the 40d. have anything to do with it? How the stipends and spirits of ministers would mount up, and the coffers of the Churches bulge out, if such a source of revenue could be tapped in this wealthy but degenerate nineteenth century! No wonder many good people in this world are adorers of the past! Must I add a line more? No wonder that many more profanely prefer the present!

An old custom, not yet extinct, but fast losing its hold, was the “reading of the line” in the public service of praise. As some may not understand that expression, it may be well to state its meaning. When the minister “gave out ” several verses of a Psalm to be sung, the precentor proceeded to read aloud the first line with strong intonation, and then led the congregation in singing it. He then read the second line in the same fashion, and again led off the volume of united praise; and so on with each line of the verses announced from the pulpit. The practice probably originated in the fact that many worshippers in the Highlands were unable to read either their own or any other language. In that ease, it served the useful purpose of enabling all to join in the praises of the sanctuary. Through those congregations in which the services were conducted in Gaelic, the “reading of the line” became common in Caithness, even in those parishes where the English language was the medium of worship. No stranger can have any idea of the importance attached to this custom in the north. It has been adhered to with the utmost tenacity, and dies hard. When attempts have been made in certain parts of the country to secure its abandonment, bitter wrangling and sometimes even serious disruption in congregations have been the consequence. The “reading of the line” has even been accounted an essential in spiritual worship, and any word or action tending to its disparagement has been regarded as nothing less than sacrilege. Some who can see nothing either specially good or specially evil in the practice may be disposed to ask on what grounds its sacred character has been supposed to rest. That question I cannot fully answer, but this I do know, that it has sometimes been defended on grounds of Scripture. The words in the prophecy of Isaiah, “line upon line, line upon line” have been quoted as an argument and warrant for the practice. It is not likely that the custom will long survive unless provided with some better defence.

The false interpretation put upon the prophet’s words is no better and no worse than another of which I have heard. A very different application of the passage was once made not many miles from Grangemouth in Stirlingshire. Two brothers called Little—please note the name—possessed a small property in that district. They were bachelors, and, perhaps, a little lonely, so upon one occasion they invited both the parish minister and the parish schoolmaster to dinner. The brothers occupied opposite ends of the table, while the two guests sat vis-a-vis at the sides. During dinner, or more probably towards its close, the elder brother took up the prophet’s words, and applied them skilfully to the group around the table. Extending his left hand toward the schoolmaster, he said, “Line upon line;” reaching out his right toward the minister, he said, “precept upon precept;” touching his own breast, he said, “here a Little;” pointing across to his brother, he said, “and there a LittleIn Caithness the reading of the line” is to a large extent a thing of the past. Improved education and taste are both against it, and its days are numbered.

Before closing this chapter, it may be noted that among the old ministers and people of Caithness, quiet humour was both displayed and appreciated. Moreover, it was not considered out of place in its moderate application even to sacred things. There is, I know, one clergyman still alive and much respected in Caithness, who could supply many choice illustrations of the truth of what I have said. Many have long wished he would give them to the public. Those who like myself are natives of the county, but have lived very little in it, must be content with small store of these sweet morsels. Let me offer one or two out of the small stock I possess.

It has always been a marked characteristic of the religious people of Caithness, that they made large use of Scripture language and illustration even in the affairs of everyday life. This arose from no irreverence, but from the strong hold which the sacred diction had taken of their minds. Their speech was saturated with the words and phrases of Holy "Writ. On one occasion two or three of “ the Men ” came to visit my father at the manse. It may be well to mention for the information of some readers, that these pious laymen of religious repute and influence were called “ Men,” as some one has said, “ not because they were not women, but because they were not ministers.” They were elders of the Church and leaders of the people in spiritual matters. W ell, a few of them came from a considerable distance, and knocked at the kitchen door of the manse. The servant invited them to enter, provided them with seats, and asked what message she would carry to her master. One of them, speaking for all, gave this peculiar reply. “Tell ’im ’e be keepan’ ’is picklies o’ whate because 5e Midianites hev come.” When the girl delivered her message, my father’s smile told that he understood its meaning perfectly and at once, and he went downstairs immediately to give his visitors a cordial welcome. Perhaps I should repeat the words in a form intelligible to all. “Tell him to be keeping his pickles of wheat because the Midianites have come.” Now, what did the message mean? In the book of Judges we read that Gideon “threshed wheat by the wine press, to hide it from the Midianites.” So the worthy men, clothing their words in Scripture language, intended to say, “If the minister has any precious truths or experiences which he does not care to communicate to others, let him hide them, for we are like the Midianites—we shall steal them if we can.” There is something far more than merely delicate humour in the story.

On one occasion a most worthy minister in the parish of Latheron offered to drive me as far as the Ord, the boundary headland of Caithness, on my way southward to Ross-shire. As we were passing Dunbeath, we overtook a somewhat doubtful-looking character, who asked if he might get a “lift,” and assured us he would trespass on our kindness only for “a mile and no more.”

“Come away, then,” said Mr M., the minister, in a kindly tone; “get up behind.”

On we went at a fair pace, and the mile was soon covered. Our new acquaintance kept up a lively conversation with the minister, whom he had at once recognised. By-and-bye the second mile was more than past, and he still kept his seat. At last Mr M. thought it high time to give the stranger a hint, and he did it with no less delicacy than humour.

“Do you know, friend,” said the minister, “you have reminded me very forcibly of one of the injunctions given by our Lord to His disciples?”

“Indeed—indeed!—what was that?” replied the stranger, much interested, and apparently gratified.

“Well,” said Mr M., turning half round, “don’t you remember the words, ‘ Whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain?”

The stranger was silent for a little while, and then, evidently desiring to ponder the words alone, bade us a grateful “Good-bye" and stepped down from his seat.

The following are two illustrations from the sayings of eminent preachers belonging to Caithness. On a certain occasion one of these announced as his text the words in Revelation, “There was silence in heaven for the space of half-an-hour.” He began his discourse by declaring, with much emphasis, “Well, friends, this is a sad intimation for the female portion of my congregation.” It strikes me I have heard the same remark attributed to some southern divine. Perhaps I am wrong; I shall be glad if my memory fails me in this particular. If two, or even more, have said it, may it not be because great minds often arrive without any collusion at the same important conclusion?

Another Caithness minister was once discoursing on the duty of Christians to “wash one another’s feet.” Here is a quaint extract from the sermon—taken down however, before the days of shorthand.

“One way in which disciples wash one another’s feet is by reproving one another. But the reproof must not be couched in angry words, so as to destroy the effect; nor in tame, so as to fail of effect. It must be just as in washing a brother’s feet—you must not use boiling water to scald, nor frozen water to freeze them.”

Some of the ministers of Caithness in these old days were narrow in opinion, severe in censure, arbitrary in rule, and harsh in doctrine; but most of them were also men of genuine piety, much kindliness of heart, and warm hospitality; a few at least bore the stamp of lofty genius. They “served their generation”—they were not sent or meant to serve ours ; and as a body they deserved the high respect in which they were held by the people.


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