ONCE UPON A TIME IN LATHERON
By Stephen Cashmore
It was the year 1715 and all Scotland was agitated by the bungled attempt of James Stewart to reclaim his father's throne from the Hanoverian usurper, German George. Throughout the Highlands, in Perthshire and all around Edinburgh, romantic spirits soared at the thought that the days of cavalier courtesies and the old religion were about to return, for, to the eyes of these gay souls the Protestant faith appeared a stern, joyless blanket laid across the whole land. On the banks of Clyde the Glasgow merchants feared for their fortunes should the pre-Union trade tariffs be reimposed by a London parliament, angered by the Scots stubborn allegiance to the Stuart cause. In far away Caithness, where ordinary folk probably cared as much for the Old Pretender as they did for German George, the Reverend Neil Beaton took ship to eternal life. He had been minister of Latheron parish for almost 35 years. Before that he had charge of Dunnet, the most northerly part of the Kirk's mainland empire. It was to be two years and more before a successor to Neil Beaton appeared.
Andrew Sutherland was ordained minister of the parish of Latheron in August 1717. Of his age and previous experience we know nothing. That he was outwardly a Whig and a staunch upholder of the Protestant succession there can be no doubt; but what his real beliefs were no one can say, for in those days, as now, advancement's path often involved a degree of public insincerity. None of this concerns us; all we are grateful for is that Andrew Sutherland had received an education, and could collect his thoughts and set them down on paper.
As he travelled about his parish, the Minister of Latheron took note of the many curious things he found there. A man of enquiring mind, he was diligent in his search for explanations. Of Andrew Sutherland's 1500 parishioners over the age of ten, a fair proportion had the Gaelic, generally referred to by the educated as 'Irish' and sometimes taken to be a sign of Catholic sympathies. From these folk the Minister probably received scant information; a few, however, must have related old traditions and stories to him, some of which he committed to memory.
In the days before shops stocked printed maps and every little glen and burnlet was sign-posted, place-names were passed on by word of mouth. This often resulted in a great variation in the way the learned spelled these names, which depended both on how the person who spoke the name pronounced it, and the hearer's written interpretation of that pronunciation. This has ever been the sign of a living language, for once oral expression becomes firm fixed and inflexible you can be quite sure that the people who use it have become dead history, as opposed to a dynamic, forward facing life force. To illustrate the development of written language we will use the place-name spellings as Andrew Sutherland wrote them down.
Scattered throughout the parish were a number of fine houses, the seats of noble historic families, or the homes of those who were merely wealthy. These gentlemen and their dependants being the principal sponsors of the local minister, Andrew Sutherland naturally took more than a casual interest in their affairs. Chief amongst the great local landowners was Sir James Sinclair, whose Dunbeath Castle home overlooked the Inter of Dunbeath, where the river of that name emptied into the sea. This sheltered spot was one of the main havens of small fishing boats that came from Moray to cast their nets in the waters off Caithness. On one side of the river mouth a great staging had once been erected from which men fished for cod, but this had been swept away some years before by a violent storm and the surging spate that followed. Andrew Sutherland was sufficiently well informed to know that, some 70 years before, the great Marquis of Montrose had rested awhile at Dunbeath, prior to his defeat at Carbisdale, and his subsequent squalid death at the hands of the Edinburgh hangman.
At Lathronwheel stood the house of Patrick Dunbar of Bowarmadden. This was situated a hundred yards or so from the Burn of Lethronwheel, over which Mr Dunbar had just built a single-arched stone bridge which, the Minister considered, would be of great benefit to all travellers through the parish. On a hill some third of a mile distant from Lathronwheel House stood the unfinished skeleton of a great building. Its date, purpose or origins were things of which Andrew Sutherland could get no certain information, although it was reported that the remains of a broad path leading from this ruins was intended to be the start of a new road leading all the way to Thurso. This road would have replaced the present sorry track across the Causway mire, a road generally regarded as being as bad as any in the country. With this fact Andrew Sutherland was well acquainted, being required to travel across the Causway mire in order to attend Presbytery meetings in Thurso.
Another ruin of unknown age and purpose was situated beside the Burn of Lathron opposite the house of Easter Lathron, where lived a woman Mackenzie, descendent of John Sinclair of Dunbeath. This person was, the Minister noted laconically, a lady of Catholic persuasion. The ruin, a square structure with rounded corners, had clearly been a place of strength, built on top of a rock 60 feet above the burn. But of its architect or builder, Andrew Sutherland's inquiries could find no trace. Of other houses in the parish he was better informed.
Six miles distant from the parish church, hard by the Water of that name, stood Langwall House, home of Lady Langwall, widow of Captain John Sutherland, brother of the late Laird of Forse who lived at Nothingham, the original seat of his family being a ruinous castle beside the sea. Near to where Langwall Water joined the Water of Berndale there had once been a small inn. This inn was at the eastern end of a strong old bridge. By Andrew Sutherland's time the bridge had disappeared, leaving no solid crossing place over either of the two rivers, a circumstance much regretted by the Minister who reports that several people had recently drowned while attempting to ford them. Both these waters had good salmon fishing and, where they met to form Berridale Water, their banks were dotted with houses. These houses had one disadvantage; due to the shadow of the surrounding hills they saw no direct sunlight between 22nd November and January 8th, a curious fact attested to by all who lived in the glen.
Ever the amateur antiquary, Andrew Sutherland was naturally interested in the two ruins below Langwall House. Perched on a rock overlooking the river mouth were the remains of the Castle of Berndale. Entry to this grim structure had been by a drawbridge approached from a steep brae on the landward side. Visits to the castle by this narrow strait, across which only two at a time could pass in safety, would have been fraught with danger. On one side the sea beat against the cliffs; on the other, far below, was the river and nothing between them and the visitor to Berndale Castle but a sheer rock face, dark and treacherous. On safer ground overlooking Berridale Water part of an ancient castle raised its rugged face to the sky. Evidence of its former strength still manifested itself in the thickness of its walls and the deep ditch surrounding it. Other than the bare visible facts, Andrew Sutherland could uncover nothing more about this venerable stronghold.
George Gunn had a house at Braemore, close to the Water of Berndale. Nearby there was an old chapel, last used according to local legend, by a priest named Eyardan, while on a hill opposite this chapel stood another called the Chapel of Braenaheglish. Between the two chapels a road stretched away to the mountain of Scarabin. In pre-Protestant times the people from the country folk would travel along this road on their way to divine service at Braemore. A further tradition told that when the Catholic faith was driven out of Caithness, the priest Eyardan retired to a remote spot at the glutt of Berridale where he built a chapel for those who yet remained faithful to the old religion. Here they worshipped in secret, their ceremonies watched over by the image of some saint or other, carved out of wood, part of which still stood in Andrew Sutherland's day, a cold remnant of an extinguished fire.
There was another chapel at Clyth, about a half mile away from the house of John Sinclair of Ulbster. At one end of this chapel a large, broad stone, covered on both sides with carved signs and symbols, was planted in the ground. These strange hieroglyphs were utterly unintelligible to the Reverend Sutherland, who had come across a number of similar stones in his parish, some of them in places where there was no tradition of Christian burial. There were uncarved stones, too, many of them large and tall-standing, stark silhouettes in the open landscape. Between Mid and Easter Clyth there was a field of these stones, laid out in even rows like the ranks of so many petrified soldiers awaiting the resurrecting trumpet of an unknown god. More remarkable still was the great circle at the Loch of Achkean. Here 32 stones remained upright while all around them lay there rugged companions, fallen, slowly sinking into the earth. And when Andrew Sutherland asked his flock about the stones, no one knew anything whatsoever about these mute sentinels, whose presence in this lonely spot no doubt raised feelings of superstitious awe in souls by nature mystically inclined.
Relics closer to his own time were the multitude of thick-walled circular ruins referred to by Andrew Sutherland as kairns or forts built, some said, by the Picts. Others maintained that these ruins belonged to Viking times. There was a remarkable one at Borge, close to Dunbeath Castle, while beside the Loch of Rangage another stood, its approach lined by an avenue of red currant bushes.
Near Lybster, where lived George Sinclair of that ilk, was a house known as Risgil, formerly the possession of Alexander Sinclair of Swinzie. Through Risgil ran a burn, in a brae above which was located a curious hollow stone. In the back of this hollow stone the figure of a triple cross had been carved, at the arms of which had been scooped out shallow indentations designed, Andrew Sutherland supposed, for a person's elbows. In former days the natives of the place had come to this stone to celebrate holy day rites, whose forms and purpose had now passed out of mind. During his ministry at Latheron, Andrew Sutherland was present when a tree trunk, 21 feet in length, was dug out of Risgil Burn, sure proof to him that the whole country had once been thickly covered in forest.
Latheron parish boasted a number of inns where travellers could put up for the night. Andrew Sutherland records small ones at Borge, Lathran and Clyth, but the main inn appears to have been the one owned by George Sutherland at Ausdale. Hard by the county march, the Ausdale inn was the first one a visitor from the south would happen upon after crossing the Ord of Caithness, a road more dangerous in renown than in reality. In those days the first impression north-bound travellers had of the Ord was of narrow track perilously close to the unfenced edge of a steep precipice, black and naked, the base of which was studded with jagged, sea-battered rocks. A closer inspection would reveal a gentler picture. The flank of the precipice was not bare black rock after all, but a hillside whose heather covering had lately been set on fire, and the narrow path had been widened to 3 horse breadths, thanks to the recent efforts of Sir James Sinclair of Dunbeath.
Overlooking the Ord was prominence known as Craignaboth, at the foot of which was a pinnacle called the Man of the Ord. This rock was a landmark visible for many miles around. Some time towards the end of the 17th century, a packman making his weary way north across the Ord met a ruffianly looking man who seized the packman's staff, beat him over the head until the poor man dropped unconscious, then called out to a confederate, who had been standing watch unseen a few yards away. The two robbers promptly stripped the packman of his clothes and heaved his naked carcass over the side of the Ord. After removing whatever valuables were in the pockets, the robbers hid the clothes in a nearby ditch, picked up the dead man's pack and left the scene, confident that the murder would remain undetected. But the packman's clothes were discovered; the hue and cry raised, and the two men arrested. Confession was swift, justice even swifter. The guilty pair were hanged from a gallows erected on top of Craignaboth, their crow-pecked bodies left dangling for some time, a gruesome warning to would-be criminals. The Reverend Sutherland looked upon this interesting episode as clear evidence of the providential working of the Lord, and his divine detestation of those who infringe his sacred laws.
There are other things. The discovery of shells on the very peak of Morvin, for instance, and the sudden spates which made the burn of Ocumster impassable; but the main details of Andrew Sutherland's account of Latheron as it was in the early years of the 18th century are included above.
For whom was this account written? We do not know. In fact, my assumption that Andrew Sutherland himself was the author is based solely on the fact that he is named as the Minister of the parish. I may well be wrong. Correct me if I am. What we do know is that sometime before 1748 the manuscript found its way into the hands of Walter Macfarlane, a reclusive collector of old Scottish papers. It is now, along with the bulk of Mafarlane's accumulations, in the National Library of Scotland. Selections from these papers, including the account of Latheron, were published in 1906 by the Scottish History Society.
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Steven Cashmore 1999
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