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Focus on Caithness heritage sites in Thurso Camera Club challenge


By Alan Hendry

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John O'Groats mill, by Gareth Watkins. The mill complex is to be developed into a community hub and visitor attraction.
John O'Groats mill, by Gareth Watkins. The mill complex is to be developed into a community hub and visitor attraction.

Following the success of Thurso Camera Club’s weekly photograph challenge in the spring, with the top photos being published in the Caithness Courier, the club set its members a summer challenge.

They had to take up to six photo of lesser-known heritage sites or interesting locations for a presentation to the club during the autumn.

Meetings over the autumn and winter season are being conducted virtually via Zoom.

The members who took part in the challenge gave their presentations over two meetings in late September and early October.

James Gunn, the camera club chairman, said: “Only a few took up the challenge, but they showcased some very interesting locations that many of the club members did not know about.

"As well as the photos, they also gave some background to the history. Many commented how they have lived most or even all of their lives in Caithness, yet did not know about some of the sites.

"The county has a wealth of heritage that is really untapped. I thought it was worthwhile to share some of the main highlights.”

Castletown gun battery, by Neil Buchan.
Castletown gun battery, by Neil Buchan.

Neil Buchan chose the military heritage surrounding Castletown.

In 1866, under the influence of the Earl of Caithness, an artillery company was formed in Castletown. A training battery was constructed on the coast just to the west of the village, overlooking Dunnet Bay. It is around 10m above sea level and comprises a stone wall and earth bank, with two cannon embrasures. A small sunken chamber – likely the powder room – is set down three steps at the east end of the wall and bank, while a rectangular building, which was used as a guard room, is at the west end of the battery, just out of shot of the picture. The Castletown battery is a scheduled monument and is considered of national importance as it is one of the best surviving examples of its type.

In late 1939 a site was chosen at Thurdistoft for the construction of a new airfield for fighter aircraft to defend the fleet in Scapa Flow, in the North Atlantic and against possible invasion from German-occupied Norway. RAF Castletown became operational under No 13 Group Fighter Command in June 1940.

RAF Castletown gun butts and decontamination building, by Neil Buchan.
RAF Castletown gun butts and decontamination building, by Neil Buchan.

At its height the station strength was officially 1227 personnel, including 60 officers and 113 senior NCOs, but when operational support personnel are included the total number may have been closer to 2500.

There remain to this day a great many physical reminders of RAF Castletown. The photograph shows the gun butts on the left, and the gas decontamination building on the right, with the Dunnet dunes and Dunnet Head in the background.

Dirlot Gorge, near Westerdale, by Grant Coghill.
Dirlot Gorge, near Westerdale, by Grant Coghill.

Grant Coghill selected Dirlot Gorge near Westerdale and St Mary’s Chapel at Crosskirk.

Dirlot Castle was constructed in the first half of the 14th century by Sir Reginald Cheyne and it sat upon a 40-50ft rock, making it very difficult to attack. The rock is adjacent to the River Thurso and Dirlot Gorge and sits next to a deep stretch of water known as the Devil’s Pool. Local legend says that a pot of gold lies at the bottom.

The Cheynes, Gunns, Mackays and the Sutherlands occupied the castle at various times until its abandonment around 1660. It is thought that the castle stones were used to construct the walls of the adjacent Dirlot graveyard whose earliest recorded grave is 1664. It is perhaps fitting that the walls were laid out in the shape of an arrowhead, given Dirlot’s long history and true purpose. In the photo, the cemetery is on the left and the scant remains of the castle on the right.

St Mary’s Chapel at Crosskirk Forss, by Grant Coghill.
St Mary’s Chapel at Crosskirk Forss, by Grant Coghill.

St Mary’s Chapel at Crosskirk, Forss, was probably built in the 1100s, though the religious significance of the site may date back further. Two long-cist burials were discovered on its grounds during excavation, and a Pictish symbol stone is said to have been found nearby. St Mary’s was a dependant chapel of the church at Reay. It has a plain, rectangular design, sharing a lot in common with contemporary Norse churches of Orkney.

The former fishing station at Clyth harbour, by Julie Catterall.
The former fishing station at Clyth harbour, by Julie Catterall.

Julie Catterall chose Clyth harbour and Forse Castle.

Clyth harbour is located on the east Caithness coast near Clyth Mains, south of Clyth lighthouse. This now-ruined fishing station is typical of many similar 19th-century buildings located in harbours, many now unused, on this part of the coast. A walk along the Caithness section of the John O'Groats Trail passes through much historical evidence of the once-thriving fishing industry in Caithness.

Forse Castle, between Latheron and Lybster, by Julie Catterall.
Forse Castle, between Latheron and Lybster, by Julie Catterall.

The ruinous Forse Castle is located on the east coast between Latheron and Lybster and is protected as a scheduled ancient monument.

It was built in approximately 1200 and was the stronghold of the Sutherland of Forse family. It was occupied until around 1600.

Braal Castle, Halkirk, by James Gunn.
Braal Castle, Halkirk, by James Gunn.

James Gunn chose Braal Castle, Halkirk, and Dunbeath Broch.

The original Braal Castle is a scheduled ancient monument and is hidden in trees behind the new castle, which has been converted into flats. The new castle was in fact a grand hunting and fishing lodge built by the Sinclairs in the mid-19th century.

Old Braal Castle is known to have existed in 1375, as Robert II granted the “Castle of Brathwell” to his son David Stewart. Brathwell was shortened to Braal over the centuries. It is thought to have been built on the site of an even earlier Norse castle. It is a rectangular keep with walls 35ft by 37ft in length and around 9ft thick. The thick walls contain the stairs and even a toilet. Most of the castle remains today, but is dangerous to enter.

The 2000-year-old Dunbeath Broch, by James Gunn.
The 2000-year-old Dunbeath Broch, by James Gunn.

The broch at Dunbeath is a scheduled ancient monument and is accessible by an easy walk along the river path from the car park at Dunbeath mill. It was built around 2000 years ago and was first investigated in 1866 by W Sinclair of Dunbeath. Dunbeath and Berriedale Community Council conducted a new programme of investigations and structural consolidations in 2016-2018 and erected information boards. The original height was around 16m and the diameter is 16.2m. The surviving wall is 2.6m high.

John O’Groats mill, by Gareth Watkins. The mill was in the Houston family for six generations.
John O’Groats mill, by Gareth Watkins. The mill was in the Houston family for six generations.

Gareth Watkins chose the John O’Groats mill.

After being in the Houston family for six generations the John O'Groats mill has now been bought by John O'Groats Mill Trust, which intends to return it to service and develop it as a tourist attraction and community space. Since closing in 2001 following the passing of the last miller, the mill has been mothballed but could be returned to operation with relatively little effort, although this is just a small part of the ambitious redevelopment plans.

The interior is beautifully preserved and a testament to the expert craftsmen who built and maintained it. When it eventually reopens to the public it will be a wonderful window into the past. There is still a lot of fundraising still to be done but the dedicated trust team are working hard to bring it back to life.

Abandoned croft house, by Bob Murdoch.
Abandoned croft house, by Bob Murdoch.

Bob Murdoch chose to highlight the vast numbers of abandoned croft houses. Most are from the 19th century and early 20th, but surprisingly there are a few from the late 20th century. Some have been saved by being renovated into modern homes, but most are left to the ravages of the weather and slowly deteriorate. They have become quite a notable feature in some parts of the county.

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