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General Characteristics

Stretching in a north-easterly diretion between the North Sea and the Pentland Firth, the lowland part of Caithness, wind-swept and treeless, has few scenic features to delight the eye. Yet it has its compensations. It is the same bountiful land, rich in cornfield and meadow, which ages ago attracted the hungry Vikings of barren Norway, The upland moors, the resort of the red grouse, the curlew, and the golden plover, possess the same fascination that yearly attracts thousands of tourists to the Scottish Highlands. Those uplands culminate in the striking peaks of Scaraben (2054) and Morven (2313), the latter a familiar landmark to the fishermen and seamen who frequent the Moray Firth.

The feature of the Caithness coast region is its rock scenery. The Atlantic breakers beating on some of the bolder northern cliffs at a time of heavy gales form an imposing spectacle, and at such times the harbours of Scrabster and Wick experience the terrific forces of nature.

Industrially the Wick herring fishing, though shorn somewhat of its former dimensions, remains the most prominent feature. The outgoing or returning herring fleet is a most attractive spectacle though the newer motor boats and drifters yield in picturesqueness to the old sailing fleet. Caithness has a considerable export and import trade, so that the harbour of Wick has for fully a century been a busy centre of industry.

The people of Caithness, whether engaged in seafaring pursuits, in agriculture, or in commerce, have long enjoyed a reputation for sturdy energy and industry. They are upright and straightforward in all their dealings. The county also possesses a goodly number of landed gentlemen interested not only in their private estates, but also in the public welfare.

Many ruined castles to be seen on its rock-bound coasts testify to the turbulent activity of the feudal magnates of Caithness in bygone days. In recent times no spot in the county is better known than John o' Groats, the Mecca every year of thousands of motorists.

Size, Shape, Boundaries, and Surface

Caithness, though only about one-third of the extent of Sutherland, ranks twelfth in area among the counties of Scotland. Its greatest length extends from the Ord to Duncansby, while the longest stretch from east to west is from Duncansby to Drumhollistan.

The land area of the county (to high-water mark and exclusive of inland water) is 438,833 acres. Inland lochs are numerous, especially in the parishes of Latheron, Halkirk, and Reay, and over an area of 7139 acres. The foreshores extend to 2717 acres, while tidal waters cover 131 acres. Thus the gross area of the county extends to 448,822 acres or 701 square miles.

Caithness forms an isosceles triangle, with its apex at Drumhollistan, the extreme westerly point of the county, just over 30 miles distant from Duncansby and the Ord. The base of the triangle runs for 40 miles in a north-easterly direction along the Moray Firth, from the Ord to Duncansby, with an outward bulge from Sarclet Head to Noss Head, a gentle inland sweep at Dunbcath and a more pronounced indentation at Sinclair Bay. The north side of the county runs westerly from Duncansby to Drumhollistan, with a northward bulge containing bold and rocky promontories reaching out to Dunnet Head. There is one considerable indentation forming Thurso Bay, with smaller bays at Crosskirk and Sandside. The coastline from the Ord round to Drumhollistan, following indentations, extends to about 90 miles. The inland border of the county touches Sutherland along its whole extent and runs in a southerly direction from Drumhollistan to the Ord, with a westward sweep at Cnoc Gaineimh (1391 feet) about 20 miles south of Drumhollistan, where the water of Berriedale and the Thurso river take their rise.

In Pont's map of Caithness (about 1608), the Halladale is given as the north-western boundary between Sutherland and Caithness, but the watershed has been recognised as the boundary since the erection of the shires. In 1892 Strathhalladale, which, though in Sutherland, formed part of the parish of Reay, was detached from Reay and added to the parish of Farr. A detached part of the parish of Thurso (near Dorrery) was added to Halkirk.

There is a striking contrast between the flat, fertile, and well-cultivated country in the north-eastern angle of Caithness and. the inland expanse of barren, waterlogged moor, gradually rising from the northern flats until it attains its greatest elevation in the cone of Morven.

The contour of Caithness is dependent upon its geological structure. Where the archaean metamorphic rocks prevail the country consists of barren heatherclad mountains interspersed with many peat mosses, lochs, and bogs, and the scenery closely resembles that of the northern Highlands. The lowland country, on the other hand, in aspect, as in geological structure, resembles the "Laigh" of Moray, the rich haughs of Easter Ross, and the fertile Orkneys. Like the Orkneys, too, Caithness is nearly devoid of trees. In the summer and autumn the rich cornfields, with the pasture and meadow lands, on which splendid herds of cattle comfortably graze, redeem the flatness of the scene. In former times before the days of advanced agriculture, visitors to Caithness were repelled by the unrelieved bareness of the scenery and described the country as "awesome and forbidding".

If Caithness suffers from lack of trees there is compensation in its coast scenery. The deep geos, the protecting stacks and headlands resound with the crash and roar of huge Atlantic breakers. The elevation of the rocks and promontories adds to the effect. Nowhere in Britain is there finer rock scenery than all the coasts of Caithness.

Watershed, Rivers, and Lakes

The ridge extending from the Ord to Drumhollistan, forming the boundary between Caithness and Sutherland, is the watershed dividing the Straths of Halladale and Kildonan in Sutherland from the basins of the Berriedale, the Thurso, and the Forse. Near chalybeate springs on the heights of Knockfin rise the Thurso and the Berriedale, as well as the Halladale. The Thurso (40 miles), known in its earlier course as the Glut or Strathmore Water, flows into Loch More in Halkirk (where it is joined by the Sleiach burn), and thence runs a course of nearly 30 miles into Thurso Bay. The water of Forse rises in Loch Ealach Beg on the confines of Sutherland, one of a number of mountain tarns in close proximity, which discharge themselves in different directions into the Thurso, the Forse, and the Halladale. The only important streams in the county which do not rise at the watershed are the Water of Dunbeath, draining the basin north of the Berriedale, and the Water of Wick, flowing eastwards from Loch Watten, a distance of 14 miles, into Wick Bay and receiving from the southern moors the Acharole and Achairn burns.

The Loch of Watten (Norse "Water"), 5 miles long by 1 1/2 miles broad, is the largest lake in the county, and next to it in size are Lochs Calder, Shurrery, and More. There are no fewer than twenty-four lochs in the parish of Halkirk, and a large number also in Latheron and Reay. St John's Loch in Dunnet, like Loch IMa Nathair in Strathnaver, enjoyed in olden times a reputation for its healing virtues. Invalids resorted to it in large numbers, especially at Midsummer (St John's Day), plunging into its waters and going through certain ceremonies which were expected to result in an effctive cure.

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