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Canisbay, Caithness

Historical Description

CANISBAY, a parish, in the county of CAITHNESS; including the island of Stroma, a small part of the former quoad sacra parish of Keiss, and the detached places or townships of Auckingill, Brabster, Duncansbay, Freswick, Gills, Huna, and East and West Mey; and containing 2306 inhabitants. The name of this place has generally been supposed to be a corruption of the term Canute's bay, from some Norwegian chief who arrived here; but others think it comes from Canna, the name of a plant once abundant in the district. In ancient times the parish was portioned into several parts, in each of which there was a religious edifice; and at Freswick are the ruins of an old castle, called Bucholie Castle, which is of great antiquity, and is said to have been inhabited in the twelfth century by a Danish nobleman of the name of Suenus Asteilf. From certain entries in the session records, it is probable that Oliver Cromwell, or some of his officers, were in the parish in the year 1652.

CANISBAY is situated in the north-east corner of Scotland, and is the most remote parish in the country. It measures about eight miles in length, from east to west, and its mean breadth is about six miles, the whole containing upwards of 32,000 acres. The parish is bounded on the north by the Pentland Firth, and on the east by the German Ocean; the coast on the north side is in general level, but on the east bold and precipitous. The chief headlands are Grey-head, Skirsa-head, St. John's or Mey head, and the beautiful promontory of Duncunshay head, which last is about two miles in circumference, and is indented with several large ravines. Near it are two rocks surrounded by the sea, called the Stacks of Duncansbay, they are of oval form, and rise fantastically to a great height, attracting swarms of sea-fowl in the spring and summer: on the top of the larger stack the eagle has its habitation. The bays are, Freswick bay, on the east, and Duncansbay and Gills bay, on the north, the beaches of which consist principally of sand and shells. In the interior the land is remarkably level, the Ward or Watch hill being the only considerable elevation, rising about 300 feet above the sea; the loch of Mey, in circumference about a mile and a half, is the sole loch in the parish, and among the few small streams the burn of Freswick is the principal.

Heath and deep moss, with a little coarse grass, cover nine-tenths of the surface; in the cultivated grounds the soil consists in general of a light black loam, with an intermixture of moss. The moor and pasture comprehend about 28,800 acres in a state of undivided common, and open to the cattle and sheep of all the parishioners; the arable land consists of about 3200 acres, the produce of which is bear and oats, with potatoes, turnips, &c. The sheep and cattle, with the exception of a few reared by the large proprietors, are of the native breeds in their worst and most deteriorated state. Agriculture is at a very low ebb; the rotation system is unknown among the people in general, and the crops, for want of manure and good husbandry, are of a very inferior kind. The annual value of real property in the parish is £3675. The prevailing rock is red sandstone, there is also some greywacke, and a tolerable supply of limestone is obtained. The three chief proprietors have all good mansions; that of the Earl of Caithness is Barrogil Castle, an ancient and venerable pile, and the two others are the Houses of Freswick and Brabster. Several boats are regularly engaged in obtaining lobsters for the London market, and there are thirty large boats employed in the herring-fishery, the value of the fisheries being estimated at £1650 per annum. Cod are plentiful on the coast; and coal-fish, or, as they are provincially called, cuddens, are at some seasons of the year caught in immense quantities, and are of great use to the poorer inhabitants, as they not only serve for food, but supply plenty of oil for light. The people rely principally upon fishing for their subsistence. There are post-offices at Mey and Huna, the latter of which is seventeen miles and a quarter from Wick; and a turnpike-road runs from Thurso to Huna. Two small fairs for the sale of horses, cattle, and swine are held yearly, one in February, at Freswick, and the other in December, at Canisbay.

Ecclesiastically the parish is within the bounds of the presbytery of Caithness, synod of Caithness and Sutherland; patron, William James John Alexander Sinclair, Esq., of Freswick: the stipend is £205, and there is a manse, with a glebe worth £6 per annum. The church was thoroughly repaired in 1832, and accommodates 512 persons. A parochial school is supported, the master of which has the maximum salary, with the legal accommodations, and £5 fees. There are also two schools maintained by the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, a General Assembly's school, and a parochial subscription library. About a mile and a half to the west of Duucansbay-head stood the celebrated John o' Groat's House, of which nothing but the site remains.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, 1851 by Samuel Lewis