Back to Fiona's Finding Service
Back to Index | Previous page | Next page

Communications

Caithness now possesses about 300 miles of excellent roads. Until the end of the eighteenth century inland communication was maintained by horse tracks connecting the principal towns and villages. Communication with the south of Scotland was conducted almost entirely by sea. The road from Thurso to Latheron, the first road of any importance in the county, was constructed between 1785 and 1790, under the direction of Sir John Sinclair, by means of statute labour. Thurso Bridge was built in 1800, and in the same year a bridge was built at Wick. Under the provisions of the Highland Roads Act (1803) the "Parliamentary" road from Inverness to Thurso was extended from the Ord to Wick and thence to Thurso. It was completed in 1811. One half of the cost of this important road was provided locally, chiefly by the proprietors and farmers; even the small tenants had to pay their quota as statute labour had been commuted to a money payment in 1793. Between 1806 and 1860 several new roads were constructed and provision made for the maintenance of existing roads. In 1818 the mail coach, which had already been established between Inverness and Tain, commenced running by Bonar bridge and the Ord to Wick and Thurso, thus opening regular communication by land with the south of Scotland. The County Road Act of 1860 placed all the leading highways under a County Road Trust. Under the older statutes tolls were charged to meet the cost of road repair, but these were abolished by the general Roads and Bridges Act in 1878, when the whole cost of road maintenance was thrown upon the road assessments payable equally by owners and occupiers of heritages. In 1889 Road Boards were constituted under the county councils to administer the maintenance and repair of the county roads. On the development of motor traffic in the early part of this century the tour to John o' Groats became very fashionable, so that for a time the Caithness roads had a heavy motor traffic during the summer, and road repairs formed a heavy burden upon the county. The Development and Road Improvement Funds Act of 1909 provided some relief, and led to an improvement in the roads.

The railway from Helmsdale by Forsinard to Wick (with a branch from Georgemas Junction to Thurso) was completed in 1874. Caithness was thus brought into daily communication with the south of Scotland and the industries of the county, which had made great progress after the construction of the county roads, received a further impetus. The Lybster Light Railway, constructed in 1885, proved of great service to the villages on the east coast, though the benefit would have been greater still had it been possible to carry this line direct from Helmsdale. The detour by rail from Helmsdale to Lybster illustrates the dependence of communications upon the contour of the land. Even now the large section of the county lying to the west of a line from Latheron to Reay is almost destitute of roads on account of natural obstacles. Mail and passenger traffic along the north coast from Thurso to Tongue and Durness, is now conducted by motor power, and the mail coach "Defiance" has disappeared from the road.

Roll of Honour

The earliest of the notables of Caithness was the viking Sweyn Asleifson, who flourished in the twelfth century. According to Calder, Sweyn was born in Canisbay and had one of his strongholds on Sinclair Bay. A bold and wily marauder on all the British coasts, he was slain during an attack upon Dublin in 1170. "It has been said", runs the Saga, "that he was the greatest man in the western lands, either in old times or at the present day, of those who had not a higher title than he had".

Among the bishops of Caithness several were men of note. To Andrew, the first bishop, a scholar of repute, has been attributed the authorship of the well-known treatise De situ Albaniae. In the seventeenth century Bishop Abernethy was long remembered as the author of A Christian heavenly treatise containing physieke for the soul. A contemporary of Bishop Abernethy was the Rev. Timothy Pont, minister of Dunnet, who acquired considerable repute as a map-maker and commentator upon Ptolemy. He died in 1621.

Towards the end of the fifteenth century John Groat, a Fleming, received a royal grant of the lands and ferry of Duncansby. These possessions and the land of Wares and other remained in the Groat family for generations. There were Groats among the heritors of the parish of Canisbay till the eighteenth century. No Caithness name is so familiar throughout the world as "John o' Groat's".

Richard Oswald of Auchencruive, a son of the minister of Watten, is remembered in Caithness through his benefactions for the poor. He acted as plenipotentiary for Great Britain in 1782, when he negotiated with Benjamin Franklin the Treaty of Paris, acknowledging the independence of the United States.

The most notable Caithness man in the eighteenth century was Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster (1754-1835). Born at Thurso Castle, he was educated at the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Oxford. Next to Adam Smith, under whom he studied economics at Glasgow, he was the most distinguished Scottish economist in the eighteenth century. While taking a leading part in promoting agricultural improvements in Caithness, he also did much for agriculture and fisheries throughout Great Britain. He was one of the founders of the British Fisheries Society and of the Board of Agriculture. The herring-fishing industry at Wick owed its rise mainly to his enterprise and foresight. For nearly thirty years he sat as Member of Parliament for Caithness and Bute. A voluminous writer, he edited the first Statistical Account of Scotland (1792-98), a work of great national importance, wrote a history of the Public Revenue of Great Britain, and published many pamphlets upon financial questions now forgotten but useful in their day. A biography of Sir John Sinclair was published by his daughter, Miss Catherine Sinclair, herself a voluminous writer of novels and books of travel.

The Rev. John Morrison, D.D. (1750-98), a native of Cairnie, Aberdeenshire, after holding minor educational appointments in Caithness, became in 1780 minister of Canisbay. Possessed of considerable poetical talent, he was a contrihutor to Ruddiman's Weekly Magazine (1771-75). He also prepared historical notes upon Caithness for George Chalmers' Caledonia. His title to permanent fame rests on his work as a sacred poet. He was the author of seven scriptural Paraphrases (Nos. 19, 21, 27, 28, 29, 30 and 35) in the collection published by the authority of the Church of Scotland.

One of the worthies of Caithness in the eighteenth century was Sir William Sinclair of Dunbeath (died 1767), founder of the Baptist community at Keiss. He was the author of a small volume of hymns.

Among well-known sons of Caithness in the nineteenth century was James Bremner, engineer (1784-1856), a native of Keiss, who gained distinction throughout the whole country by his skill in harbour and marine engineering. His fellow citizens erected a statue to his memory on the high ground overlooking the entrance to Wick harbour.

Alexander Henry Rhind of Sibster (1830-61) occupies a high place among Scottish antiquaries. He explored the remains of the neolithic period in his native county. His researches also extended to many districts on the continent of Europe, in North Africa (including Egypt), and in Greece. He bequeathed rich benefactions to Caithness and to Edinburgh University, and founded the Rhind Lectureship in Archaeology.

Dr John Rae (1846-1915), a son of Wick, and an eminent writer upon economic subjects, gave lustre to a name long associated with the literature and journalism of the county. His best known works are Contemporary Socialism and the Life of Adam Smith.

Mention may be made of two sons of Caithness men who attained distinction in the last century. Sir Oliver Mowat, a leading Canadian statesman, for twenty-four years premier of Ontario, was the son of John Mowat, a native of Canisbay. The essayist and historian Henry Duff Traill, though born in London, was connected with the Traills of Rattar.

Back to Fiona's Finding Service
Back to Index | Previous page | Next page


e-mail to:fnsnclr@btinternet.com