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Dunnet, Caithness

Historical Description

DUNNET, a sea-port and parish, in the county of Caithness, 9 miles (E. N. E.) from Thurso; containing 1880 inhabitants. This parish, the origin of the name of which is involved in obscurity, is one of the most northern in Scotland; it is about ten miles in length, and varies in breadth from two to four miles. Dunnet is bounded on the south by the parish of Bower, on the south-west by that of Olrig, on the east by Cannisbay, and on the north and north-west by the Pentland Firth, into which projects the extensive promontory of Dunnet Head. This Head consists of numerous hills and valleys, covered with fine pasture for cattle and sheep, and throughout its whole extent of coast, which is about nine miles, presents to the sea a front of broken rocks from 100 to 400 feet high. An isthmus of low land, about two miles broad, connects it with the rest of the parish; but with the exception of the keepers of the lighthouse, it is entirely uninhabited. A large number of sea-fowl, especially the layer or puffin, visit it during the season of incubation. The shore to the east of Dunnet Head is low and rocky, and the current of the Firth during spring tides is so strong that no vessel can stem it, from which circumstance, and the velocity of contiguous currents in opposite directions, the navigation here is dangerous to strangers. Of the several good havens for small craft, Brough and Ham or Holm havens are considered capable of great improvement. In the interior the parish is of level surface, there being scarcely an eminence deserving the name of a hill. The larger portion consists of moss and moor, and the soil in the cultivated parts is in general of a light nature, with little clay or loam; in some places it is sandy, and in others a light black earth, and rich clay. Adjoining the shore, east of Dunnet bay, is a barren tract nearly two miles in breadth, which is said to have been formerly arable ground. The rock formation at Dunnet Head is freestone, and throughout the rest of the parish grey slate: at Inkstack are some quarries of flagstone, supplying materials for pavements, of which considerable quantities are shipped for the south. The annual value of real property in Dunnet is £4268.

The parish contains the three villages of Dunnet, Brough, and Scarfskerry. Part of the population is engaged in salmon-fishing, which has been carried on, particularly in Dunnet bay, with great success for the last few years: there is also a lobster-fishery, and cod, haddock, flounders, halibut, and skate are obtained. Four fairs are held, of which the principal is Marymas, on the Tuesday after August 15th (O.S.); it continues two days, and is almost exclusively a cattle and horse fair: the others are on the first and third Tuesdays in October (O.S.) and first Tuesday in April, for cattle, horses, &c. Cattle are also conveyed by steamers to the Leith and Edinburgh markets; the grain is generally shipped to the same quarter, and meal is sent to the weekly markets of Wick and Thurso. For ecclesiastical purposes the parish is within the bounds of the presbytery of Caithness, synod of Sutherland and Caithness; patron. Sir James Colquhoun, Bart. The stipend of the minister is £191, with a manse, and a glebe of the annual value of £12. Dunnet church, which is very ancient, is a plain oblong building, with a tower at the west end; in 1836-7 it underwent a thorough repair, being re-roofed, and enlarged by a capacious aisle, and it is now a commodious and comfortable place of worship. The parochial school affords instruction in the ordinary branches of education; the master has the maximum salary, with about £10 from fees, and a house and garden. Another school is supported by the General Assembly, and a third partly by Mr. Traill, on whose property it is built, and partly by fees. There are also two female schools, aided by the respective heritors and the Kirk Session. In 1764 William Sinclair, Esq., of Freswick, bequeathed an annuity of £5. 11. for the poor of the parish; and the late Messrs. Oswald, of Glasgow, left £600, now vested in land, for the same purpose. The lighthouse on Dunnet Head was first lighted on the 1st October, 1831; it stands on a precipice, about 300 feet above the level of the sea, and from the ground is sixty-one feet in height: the erection has proved of great service in preventing shipwreck and guiding vessels through the Firth. Timothy Pont, who did much to illustrate the geography of his country, was minister of Dunnet in the beginning of the seventeenth century.

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