BUILDINGS, or structures which are considered to be of special architectural or historic interest, are listed by the secretary of state for Scotland.
This statutory list grades properties in three categories – “A”, “B” and “C”(s) depending on their importance. In Thurso, over a hundred are listed but only one falls into the “A” category – a building of national importance – Old St Peter’s Church and burial ground.
Now George Watson has written its history, drawn from the scant sources available, in a booklet published by the Caithness Field Club. Over the years George has made an important contribution to recording the history of Caithness, in particular its built heritage, although one of his most interesting pieces of research, produced 33 years ago, was the story of John Gow, the Orkney pirate whose family originated in Caithness.
George introduces his story of Old St Peter’s by saying, “More than a parish church... This is the story of St Peter’s, the old parish church of Thurso on the North coast of Scotland. It begins in the 12th century, when Norse rule was waning and Caithness was being brought under the Scottish crown. It ends in 1833, with the opening of the present parish church in the new town.”
Towards the end of his account he says the abandoned church was left to decay although the graveyard continued in use for a time as a final resting place for those whose spouses were buried there. The decline of the building has continued although sufficient remains to justify the “A” listing.
Local groups such as the Friends of Old St Peter’s and the Thurso Heritage Society have striven to arrest further deterioration and to deter intruders who have caused damage to the structure and to tombstones in the past.
The burial ground is the responsibility of the Highland Council, inherited from the old town council via the district council but Inverness has been reluctant to accept the care of the old church itself. Thurso Heritage Society is aiming to obtain funding to undertake consolidation of the fabric of Old St Peter’s. Caithness Field Club, publisher of George’s new booklet, is making a contribution from its sales to the heritage society. Copies are on sale at Caithness Horizons in the old town hall.
CASTLETOWN Heritage Society is another local group seeking to tell the history of its village with an excellent visitor centre. Not just a museum of the past, but kept alive by hosting local organisations that meet regularly in the well-appointed buildings.
Exhibitions too are a feature of this enterprising society and its joint summer display with the Wick Society is a selection of photographs relating to the Castletown area chosen from the Johnston Collection of 50,000 surviving glass-plate negatives.
What is it about these old black-and-white portraits of family groups that have such an arresting quality, not possessed by modern colour photographs? The period clothing and the carefully arranged grouping by the photographer must have a lot to do with it.
Also on display are images of the Castlehill flagstone works and their impact on the village and the parish of Olrig.
One alien photograph shows a windmill in Orkney but is included because it sits on a stone stump similar to the one at Castlehill which once must have had much the same wooden structure and sails upon it.
The Castlehill exhibition is open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, from 2pm to 4pm, and is approached through a most attractive garden.
A MONTH or two back I suggested a native of Dunnet, Janet Brown (née Mackenzie), aged 107 years, was probably the oldest Caithnessian. Nobody has suggested a rival but Sheila Davidson has written to give her background.
Janet Brown was born in West Dunnet and brought up in the village where she attended school with her great friend, Sheila’s mother, Dolly Stuart (née Banks). Education over, they went their separate ways, Janet to train as a nurse and Sheila’s mother to work in Dundee. However, they kept in close contact until Dolly died in 2008, aged 103.
One of the sorrows of great old age is that contemporaries pass on and a survivor is left with no friends of the same generation. How comforting for both Janet and Dolly to both be in touch beyond their 100th birthdays.
The photograph of Janet was taken three months ago at her Edinburgh care home where she is reputed to be in very good health.
THE most popular musical film ever was The Sound of Music which appeared in 1965 starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Adjusted for inflation, it is third in box office hits behind Gone With the Wind and Star Wars.
It was of Andrew’s performance as a young mother substitute, with an aura of sparkling unspoilt youth, that critic Kenneth Tynan memorably wrote “she of the thrice-scrubbed innocence”.
That was long ago and the actress recently celebrated her 69th birthday. Trouble with old folk is they are always moaning about their infirmities – I should know, I’m one of them. Modern science has done much to extend life but cannot relieve all the aches and pains that flesh is heir to.
Andrews recognised this and, making a special music hall charity appearance in New York to mark her birthday, one of the songs she performed from the legendary musical was My Favourite Things, but with somewhat different words, more appropriate for a senior citizen. It began:
“Botox and nose drops and needles for knitting,
“Walkers and handrails and new dental fittings.
“Bundles of magazines tied up with string,
“These are a few of my favourite things.”
There were five more similar verses. She was given a standing ovation from the audience (they were probably mostly oldies too) which lasted four minutes.
I HAVE always regarded snakes as beautiful creatures but potentially dangerous and best to be given a wide berth. But my view changed somewhat recently after my doctor prescribed new pills for high blood pressure.
Apparently snake venom has its uses in medicine as a blood-pressure lowering agent. Derived from the venom of the jararaca pit viper is a substance which blocks the action of enzymes that raise blood pressure. So effective has it proved an estimated 40 million people have benefitted from it.
An American snake expert has recently died (at the age of 100) who specialised in collection of reptile venom for medical purposes.
He survived nearly 200 poisonous bites but had built up an immunity by administering himself with regular shots of snake venom.
Starting with tiny doses from cobras he eventually moved on to a cocktail of venoms from 32 different types of snake.
His immunity was severely tested when he was bitten by a king cobra. His doctor said he didn’t know anyone who had ever survived such a bite. He also recovered, in his nineties, from a bite to his right index finger that dissolved the bone.
When I lived in Dorset many years ago, my eldest daughter, then a toddler, ran into the house calling, “Mummy, come and see this big worm”. It proved to be a large adder that had crossed the drive and settled under the pram (containing the baby). As my wife approached, the snake quickly vanished into a low dry-stone wall which I carefully demolished until it was found and killed, all done from a safe distance using a garden hoe. It measured 24 inches, head to tail, about the norm for an adult snake.
Adders are prevalent on the Dorset heath land, and in nearby Corfe Castle children wore wellies when playing in areas where snakes were known to exist.
About that time, the housekeeper to the village doctor went one day to his airing cupboard and was horrified to find it a mass of little wriggling snakes.
It seems the doctor’s son had discovered some leathery snake’s eggs and had put them in the warmth of the cupboard to incubate – and then returned to his boarding school. However, there was no risk of harm since they were the progeny of a less common reptile, the larger non-poisonous grass snake.
They could not have resulted from an adder since it reproduces by giving live birth to its young, but the housekeeper was probably unaware of this at the time Larger than the adder, adult grass snakes average four feet in length.
In Caithness I have only encountered the rare adder on the approach to Morven. Once, heading for the top from Braemore I spotted three basking in the warm sun on a rock at wheelhouse. It was the perfect photo opportunity: dark green sinuous reptiles with their clearly marked dark zig-zag vertical stripe all against a pale grey background – but I had foolishly left my camera at home.
I am told adders may be seen at the RSBP nature reserve at Forsinard. Apart from viewing the live CCTV hen harrier nest-watch in the visitor centre, you can join a guided walk over the peatland flows where an adder might be spotted. The walks take place at 2pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays until the end of August.