Historical description of Caithness, Scotland

CAITHNESS-SHIRE, a county, in the north-east of Scotland, bounded on the north by the Pentland Firth; on the east and south-east, by the North Sea; and on the west and south-west, by the county of Sutherland. It lies between 58° 10' and 58° 40' (N. Lat.), and 3° and 3° 65' (W. Long.), and is about forty-three miles in length, and thirty miles in breadth; comprising an area of 618 square miles, or 395,520 acres; 6965 inhabited houses, and 216 uninhabited; and a population of 36,343, of whom 17,135 are males, and 19,208 females. On account of its remote situation, Caithness had little intercourse with the principal parts of the country, and is consequently connected with few historical events of importance, except occasional hostilities with the Danes and Norwegians, of which there are some memorials in various monumental relics. From ancient records, it appears to have been erected into an earldom in 875; the title, after being for a long period in abeyance, was revived in favour of William Sinclair, a descendant of Robert II., in 1455. Many of the men of Caithness attended James IV. at the battle of Flodden Field, under the Earl of Caithness; and scarcely an individual of the number survived that fatal conflict. Before the abolition of episcopacy, this county, with Sutherland, constituted a diocese, of which the cathedral and episcopal palace were situated at Dornoch; it is at present in the synod of Sutherland and Caithness, and comprises one presbytery and ten parishes. For civil purposes it is divided into the districts of Wick and Thurso, where the quarter-sessions and other courts are held alternately, Wick being the seat of the sheriff court. It contains the royal burgh of Wick, which is the county town; the town of Thurso; and a few inconsiderable villages.

The SURFACE is generally level, with the exception of some mountainous tracts on the borders of Sutherland, and a few eminences in other parts. The chief mountains are, the Ord of Caithness, which has an elevation of 1250 feet; the Scarry hills, 1876 feet; and the Maiden Paps, an elevation of 2000 feet, above the sea. One of the principal valleys is that of Berriedale, at the base of the last ridge of mountains; and the plain of Caithness, extending to the Pentland Firth, comprises about four-fifths of the lands: it is interspersed with detached hills, some of which are of considerable height. There are numerous lakes, but none of any great extent; and of the streams which intersect the county in many parts, only the Forrs and Thurso waters in the north-west, and the Wick and Berriedale waters in the south-east, approach the resemblance of rivers. The coast is bold, rocky, and precipitous, indented with numerous bays, and marked by lofty promontories. Along the shore of Pentland Firth are caverns in the rocks, from which the agitated waters, ascending with prodigious force, overspread the neighbourhood with incessant foam; and about four miles to the north of the coast, and nearly in the centre of the Firth, is the island of Stroma, which forms part of the county. The bays are those of Sandside, Thurso, Dunnet, and Gills, on the north; and Duncans, Freswick, Sinclair, and Wick, on the east: the most prominent headlands are Holburn, Dwarrick, Dunnet, Duncans, Skirsa, Noss, and Wick. A little more than a fifth part of the land is in cultivation, consisting chiefly of tracts near the rivers, and the slopes of the various eminences; the remainder is mostly moor, some parts of which are nearly 300 feet above the sea. During the last thirty or forty years, the county has made extraordinary progress in agricultural and all public improvements. The annual value of the real property in the county is £66,572, of which £57,982 are returned for lands, £6870 for houses, £1035 for fisheries, and £685 for quarries. The principal seats are Barogill Castle, Thurso Castle, Dunbeath, Freswick, Hempriggs, Ackergill, Barroch, Forrs, and Sandside. The herring-fishery off the east coast is extensive and lucrative, indeed the most important in Britain. There is a spacious harbour at Wick, besides several other small harbours for the vessels engaged in the fisheries; and considerable quantities of grain, cattle, and wool are shipped. The county gives the title of Earl to the ancient family of Sinclair.

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