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Halkirk, Caithness

Historical Description

HALKIRK, a parish, in the county of Caithness, 7 miles (S. by E.) from Thurso; containing 2963 inhabitants, of whom 236 are in the village. This place, the name of which is of very uncertain origin, includes the ancient parishes of Halkirk and Skinnet, supposed to have been united soon after the Reformation. It is evidently of remote antiquity, and was one of the seats of the Harolds and Sinclairs, Earls of Caithness, of whose baronial castle there are still considerable remains on the north bank of the river Thurso. On the opposite bank of that river was one of the residences of the Bishops of Caithness and Sutherland, of which, however, not the slightest vestige can now be traced. The only event of historical importance connected with the place, is the assassination of one of the bishops by some ruffians who were supposed to have been employed for that purpose by the Earl of Caithness, in revenge for an additional assessment imposed by the bishop on his lands. The perpetrators of this inhuman murder were afterwards discovered, through the strenuous exertions of King Alexander II., by whose special order they were sentenced to punishment.

The PARISH is situated nearly in the centre of the county, and measures about twenty-four miles in length and from three to twelve in breadth, comprising an area of 74,000 acres, of which 6000 are arable, nearly an equal number meadow and pasture, and the remainder moorland, water, and waste. Its surface is generally level; the only hill of any considerable elevation is that of Spittal, about three miles to the south-east of the church, and partly in the parish of Watten. There are not less than twenty lakes, of which the most extensive are Loch Calder in the north, and Loch More in the south; the former is three miles and a half in length and nearly a mile in breadth, and the latter of about equal extent. The rivers are, the Thurso, which, issuing from Loch More, flows through this parish and that of Thurso, and falls into the sea at Thurso bay; and the Forss, which partly bounds this parish on the north-west, and joins the sea at Forss, in the parish of Thurso. Salmon and trout are found in both these rivers; and trout of various kinds are taken in the larger, and also in the smaller lakes, and in the various streams that issue from them into the river Thurso.

The SOIL is various, in many parts a clayey loam; and though generally wet and cold, resting on a clayey subsoil, it has been greatly improved by the use of lime and, marl. The chief crops are oats, barley, and bear. The system of husbandry has been gradually advancing, and some considerable tracts of moor and moss have been drained, and brought into cultivation; the farmhouses and offices are in tolerable condition; and the lands have been partly inclosed. In this parish the pastures are luxuriantly rich; and considerable numbers of sheep chiefly of the Cheviot breed, and cattle of the Highland breed and crosses from the Teeswater and Ayrshire breeds, are reared, and sent to Thurso and Wick, whence many are forwarded by steam to the English markets. The annual value of real property in the parish is £6052. The moors abound with game, consisting principally of grouse, hares, snipes, and partridges; and certain portions are leased out by the proprietors, producing a rental of £500 per annum. There are but scanty remains to be seen of ancient wood; and though a few plantations have been made around the houses of some of the proprietors, they are not in a very thriving state, the soil and climate being unfavourable to their growth. The principal substrata are flagstone, limestone, and freestone; and coal and lead-ore have also been found, the latter of which was wrought by the late Sir John Sinclair, of Ulbster, Bart. There are quarries of flagstone for paving wrought at Spittal, the produce being sent to Leith and Aberdeen for exportation. Several handsome and substantial houses have been erected in various parts, inhabited by some of the principal farmers, but no seat requiring particular description. The village is neatly built; it contains a good inn, and has a friendly society with funds amounting to £300. A cattle-market, called St. Magnus', is held in the village on the third Tuesday in December; and another, called Georgemas, takes place on the last Tuesday in April and in July, on the hill of Ruggy, partly in the parish. Facility of communication is maintained by several good roads, and by two bridges over the river Thurso, one near the village, and the other at Dale, both which are substantial structures; also by a bridge of wood at Dirlot. The turnpike-road to Thurso passes for nearly a mile through part of the parish.

For ECCLESIASTICAL purposes the parish is within the bounds of the presbytery of Caithness, synod of Sutherland and Caithness. The minister's stipend is £205. 19., with a manse, and a glebe valued at £8 per annum; patron. Sir James Colquhoun, Bart. Halkirk church, erected in 1743, and enlarged in 1833, is situated in the village, and is a neat plain structure containing 858 sittings. There is a missionary chapel at Achrenny, with 403 sittings; the minister has a stipend of £50 from the Royal Bounty, with a house and garden, and pasture for a horse. In addition to this, he receives £45 from the inhabitants of Halsary in the parish of Watten, and Halladale in the parish of Reay, where, also, there are missionary stations at which he officiates. The parochial school is well conducted; the master has a salary of £34, with a house and garden, and the fees average about £5 per annum. There are several Picts' houses and remains of ancient chapels in the parish, the latter consisting of those of St. Thomas at Skinnet and St. Magnus at Spittal, the walls of which are still tolerably entire. Some remains of a third existed, at Banniskirk; but they have totally disappeared under the operation of the plough. There were other chapels in the parish. Of the remains of the castle of Braal, the seat of the Earls of Caithness, the more ancient portion is a tower, whose walls, of great thickness, are still remaining to the height of thirty-five feet; within the eastern wall is a staircase, leading to the summit. The more modern portion, which, from the difficulty of carrying the materials, was never completed, consists only of the ground-floor, 100 feet in length and fifty feet wide, divided into six vaults. There are also remains of castles at Dirlot and Loch More: the former, said to have been erected by the Sutherlands, is situated on the summit of a detached rock rising abruptly to the height of fifty feet, from the river Thurso, by which it was at one time surrounded. The latter was built by Ronald Cheyne, in the fourteenth century, in a district selected as abounding with deer. There are several springs supposed to possess mineral properties; but they have not been properly analysed.

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