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Grass and weeds cleared away from Tomb of Dunn medieval chapel site


By Alan Hendry

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Ancient gravestones now free of overgrown grass and weeds after the voluntary efforts of Willie and Glynis.
Ancient gravestones now free of overgrown grass and weeds after the voluntary efforts of Willie and Glynis.

A ruined Caithness chapel has had years of overgrown grass and weeds cleared away thanks to the efforts of Caithness civic leader Willie and his wife Glynis.

The Tomb of Dunn, as it is known locally, complete with its own burial vault, has its origins in medieval times and the cemetery surrounding it is said to contain 57 graves dating back as far as 1742.

The site is close to the Mackays' home at Oldhall, Watten, and recently they were asked by the local group Friends of the Tomb of Dunn if they would be willing to tidy it up. Willie and Glynis are among those who have been volunteering to strim, cut and lift grass in various Caithness cemeteries over the past three years.

The couple were happy to oblige, and carried out the work over a period of several weeks using a strimmer and a rake.

Councillor Mackay, who represents Wick and East Caithness on Highland Council, said they were fascinated to learn about the history of the site and its significance to the community.

It was listed as the Chapel of Dunn by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), the former government body that was responsible for recording and interpreting information about the built and historic environment.

The chapel, which was the burial place of the Sinclairs of Dunn, measures some 48ft by 18ft with crumbling, ivy-clad walls a metre thick up to a roof height of about 14ft. There is an entrance on the east side, while beneath the west half of the chapel is its empty burial vault with a barrel roof which is still intact.

"Glynis and I were approached by the Friends of the Tomb of Dunn and asked if we would be interested in voluntarily clearing the dense overgrown grass and weeds that covered the entire graveyard," Councillor Mackay explained.

"We were only too delighted to take on the task to clear this historic site and get it tidied up. We paced ourselves out over several weeks in two-hour stretches with a strimmer and a rake.

"As we progressedwe could see how important this graveyard and the chapel had been as a place of interment and that it was surrounded by a well-constructed, once continuous stone wall.

"It was interesting to note a sunken trackway around the south-west corner where there is a stone-built stile with flat coping stones on which a coffin could be rested."

Councillor Mackay added: "A report by a RCAHMS inspector stated that there are no datable architectural features in the vault, but when measuring and drawing the structure there was a similarity to the semicircular arch on a nearby Thomas Telford bridge, the radius of which measured 7ft 4in.

The entrance to the medieval chapel where the vault lies.
The entrance to the medieval chapel where the vault lies.

"The vault radius could not be measured directly but, when scaled from a drawing, appears to be 7ft 2in. Taking account of the errors inherent in this method of comparison, it would appear that the same wooden centring has been used for both structures.

"Telford's road from Wick to Thurso was complete by 1818 and if the similarity in the radius of the arches is not a coincidence then the vault of the chapel must also be of this period."

The chapel was visited by travel writer Thomas Pennant in 1790. Among those interred in the graveyard is local soldier John Munro, who was a veteran of the Peninsular War.

The Mackays say they intend to keep regular checks on the graveyard throughout the winter, strimming if necessary. They will also check on the other three cemeteries where they have been doing regular grass-cutting, at Keiss, Canisbay and Corsback.



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