Caithness is haunted by its neolithic peoples,
and its Picts and Vikings
Copyright Nancy Lyon, 2009
Hagar's Lounge was the dive of all dives, a smelly fag-stained basement pub in Wick, the Scottish Highland town that Robert Louis Stevenson described in 1868 as "one of the meanest of man's towns, on the baldest of God's bays."
The Vikings wouldn't bear this odd insult to the North Sea port they founded in the 9th century as Vik (old Norse for "bay"). And they'd surely be enraged at Britain's Idler Magazine for nominating Wick as a contender for title of "Britain's Crappest Town" in 2003.
The windswept peatbog Flow Country around Wick has been called odd too. One Victorian MacCulloch wrote: On entering into Caithness, all the pleasures of travelling are gone and past, for an uglier country from one end to the other would not easily be found. I saw a Caithness forest. It was precisely five feet two inches and a half high. Such a forest, potted, would have been a fortune to a Chinese.
That's absolutely insulting. I can see how the wind-bashed vegetation of this ignored part of Scotland would inspire allusions to Bonsai. The trees are oddly stunted and twisted by the salty wind. But Caithness contains one of the largest and most intact areas of blanket bog in the world, an ancient rare and fragile habitat protected by UK and European legislation, and under consideration as a World Heritage Site.
It's a soggy, squishy, boggy world of carnivorous plants like sundews, butterworts and bladderworts, fluffy bog cotton, and a breeding ground for mighty arctic skuas. Adders breed here too, thus inspiring strange folk remedies and cures for their bites, like adder soup!!! Made from an adder, of course!
Caithness is a dreamscape for hikers, birdwatchers and archaelogists - a raw place of big sky and dramatic light, moorlands, sea stacks and geos, cliff-edged rocky inlets.
The wind still carries its echos of the neolithic peoples, the Celtic warlords, the Picts and Vikings who marked the landscape with their chambered cairns, stone circles, henges, standing stones and brochs.
I have ventured around Caithness from Lybster to Nybster and Mybster, to Scrabster, Thrumster, Ulbster and all the old Norse "bsters" and "wicks" in between. I've gone up to spectacular Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on mainland Britain. I’ve hiked the Yarrows Archaeological Trail under a black-and-blue summer sky streaked with gold and rainbows.
At the deserted Clearance Village of Badbea I wandered among ruined sad crofts on a towering cliff so exposed that the evicted Scottish crofters who were forced to settle here in the 18th century had to actually tether their children and sheep to the hillside to keep them from blowing off into the sea!
At Thurso --Thor’s River-- I gaped at the thunderous Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea smashing together over the Pentland Firth. All of these wonders, from Neolithic to Now can be enjoyed on day outings from Wick, Thurso or Lybster.
As for Wick, the town that King James VI made a Royal Burgh way back in 1589, it sure could use lots of cheery paint and hotel upgrades. The “silver darlings” that glittered like coins in the nets of 19th century fishermen are all gone now.
But the story of Wick's herring fishing heyday, when the town reigned as Europe’s Herringopolis, is celebrated in some old reference tomes in Wick's Carnegie Library and in Wick's wonderful rambling old
Wick Heritage Centre
Caithness in the far northeast corner of Scotland, was named by ancient Picts and Vikings. Caith was one of the seven provinces of pre-Celtic Pictland, named for the tribe who took the wildcat as its animal totem. The Viking invaders added ness-- old Norse for headland.
Seeing as how the Vikings reigned over Caithness, Orkney and the Shetland Isles from 850 A.D. until the Treaty of Perth in 1266 A.D., and that Norn, a dialect of Old Norse, was spoken in these parts well into the 16th century, I wasn't surprised to find a Wick pub called Hagar's Lounge. Yet should I have wandered into this dimwit echo of that glorious Viking past expecting to meet their proud Nordic descendants?
There I was--in the midst of these Gaelic-Norse flavored Caithnessian accents with their elongated ooooohs, eeeehs
and ayeeees, made even longer by the row of cider bottles lined up along the bar. I could hardly believe what I was hearing...talk about human bones turning up on building sites of new bungalows all over Caithness. Vertebrae! Jawbones! Skulls! Fingers! A Hitchcocktian nightmare!
"Who got murdered?"
"Ah noobody,lass" said a tall sunken-eyed man. "The forensic police suppose the bones're over 1500 years auld, bein' all broon from the peaty earth. How they got into the building contractor’s cement is the stoory. Aye."
"Aye, sand poachers, they wair," said another man. "In the middle of the night a digger gouges out lorryloads of sand from the beach dunes off the Hempriggs Estate, near that posh Ackergill Castle where they have them convention meetins. Then the poachers flog the sand on to a building contractor to use for all the new houses going up. But they dinnae ken, they dug straight through a Viking burial site. We got Viking bones all over Caithness noo!"
I imagined the horror...Viking graves bulldozed by greedy builders...all these rich "Southerners" coming up from England to build holiday homes with Viking bones interred in their walls...vengeful Viking spirits stalking their new-built houses to put their own skeletons back together...
"Aren't you angry about your ancestor's bones?" I frowned at the shaggy red-haired man. "How can this happen to a Scottish archaeological site?"
"Ah lass, the site belongs to a Scot way oot in Caleefornyah. T'wasn't a legally protected Scheduled Ancient Monument, though it should've been, I reckon. Caithness is littered with chambered cairns, hut circles and stone circles and hill forts. Noobody minds 'em 'cept the tourists and the archaeologists and planners who fight over 'em with the developers."
"Way up here we do what we want," piped the other."These big skies quicken the cowboy instinct."
"Listen up, lassie. We've had a building spree on in Caithness ever since the Atomics came in the 1950's to work at the Dounreay Nuclear Energy plant. Then we had the North Sea Oilers in the '70's. Now it's the Decomms coming to take apart that filty nuke plant. They all want their new houses. They all need sand. But I wouldn't want noo Viking fingers pokin' oouta me bedroom walls. Noo, noo, noo!"
The Great Ackergill Sand Heist. That's what we'll call it in years to come. Over 1000 tons of prime North Sea beach sand, dune grass, Viking bones and all, hauled away from a site beside Ackergill Links, Reiss, to a contractor's yard at a quarry near Watten, then sold to cement-hungry housing boom builders.
Agent for the Hempriggs Estate would claim that the graveyard's location in the miles of dunes along Sinclair's Bay had not been clearly marked, that the breach of its boundaries was inadvertent. Yet had the estate applied to the local Council for planning permission to extract the sand --as law requires-- it would have been refused planning permission for archaeological reasons. Ackergill Cemetery has been recorded as an archaeological site of national and possibly international importance, for aspects which are unique or extremely rare in Scotland.
In the 19th century a 9th century Ogham-inscribed symbol stone was excavated from the site. In 1925 and 1926 Arthur J.H. Edwards partially excavated Ackergill with support from the Gunning Fellowship. His illustrated findings, with the exact location of the graves, comprised a lengthy report in the February 8, 1926 Proceedings of the Society for Scottish Antiquaries.
Edwards found a series of corbelled, stone-lined and chambered cists with the remains of sixteen bodies from infants to elders, one with a 10th century bronze chain around its neck. The main series of cists were buried under a mound which is still visible today. Edwards also found a post sticking out of a cairn --with a notice forbidding the removal of sand from the site. They knew even back then!
Little good it does that some bags of the haunted sand were mysteriously returned to the ravaged site weeks after the sand heist. Patrick Ashmore, Head of Archaeology of Historic Scotland regrets that some of Ackergill’s archaeological value has been lost forever.
Curious to see it, I went out to Ackergill at sunset and recognized the spot by the chaos of wrecked dunes. That evening the sky was a shocking mustard yellow, streaking the waves and watery sand with its eerie glow. I imagined the lean swooping Viking longboats on the horizon and the women of these high, narrow-faced people, as their unearthed skulls read, waiting upon the shore.
I pictured these first farmers patiently quarrying and cutting the stone slabs to make endurable coffins for their loved ones, then combing the beach for sparkling white quartzite pebbles to place on top. Even Scottish children know the magic contained in these lucky chucky stones. Yet today, except for the few quartz burial stones scattered by the bulldozers, they are nowhere to be found in the area.
I hope the Ackergill heist rouses the Scottish authorities to better protect Caithness. It may not be as lush and dreamy and celebrated as the Gaelic Isle of Skye, but its archaeological treasures may prove as amazing as Orkney's Skara Brae, declared a World Heritage Site.
Down south in England, the mystical stones of Stonehenge are now roped off to visitors, and the StoneHenge car park is jammed with tour buses. But in Caithness you still have the rare privilege—if you dare--of exploring the inside of a 6,000 year-old burial cairn with nary a soul around to save you.
The Grey Cairns of Camster date from 3800 B.C. and these 200-foot long chambered tombs are the best preserved in all of Britain.
On my first visit to Caithness I drove the four miles out from Lybster and wandered the processional length to the beehive-shaped piles of of stones weighing several thousand tons. The iron grill door barring the entrance to one of the cairns was easy to creak open, but the passage over the dirt and into the dark of the interior was suffocatingly narrow. I got down on my knees, and then on my belly and started to crawl through the 7-meter long passage to the inside chamber.
Inhaling the ancient blackness, a panic seized me. Was it being buried alive, or being locked in, with no one to scream to? In this lonely landscape I could wait a thousand years for rescue. Or so my imagination wandered. Afraid of my own fear, I was. Which is fear enough. After all, the neolithic people entered
these cairns with ceremony and ritual, surrounded by witnesses to the sacred events. I would leave it for a sunny day...
From Ackergill's ravaged dunes, I could look down the coast to Sinclair Bay to another sort of tomb, not as humble as these torn Viking graves. Glowering over Noss Head, the dark jagged ruins of Castle Girnigoe are as evil looking as it gets. One 19th century traveler wrote ...if Goethe be right in describing architecture as petrified music, Girnigoe sounds out one of the most gruesome dirges or laments that was ever embodied in stone.
Girnigoe, the stronghold of the despotic Earls of Caithness, was named for the sound of the North Sea waves "girning" in the narrow inlet or geo. Girnigoe was impregnable when erected in 1476, but was shot to pieces by 17th century cannons.
Rotting steps descend to the dungeon where George, the fourth and most Wicked Earl of Caithness imprisoned and starved his first-born son John in 1576. Before John was fed salted beef and made to die of thirst, he managed to batter his vengeful brother William to death with his prison chains...
Its ruins, the secret dungeon and oubliette were treacherous to explore, as any slip would dash a body on the wave-lashed rocks below. But that was the thrill before me now: no admission fees, no handrails, ropes or crowds, just the ghosts of the poor souls murdered there. And I'm thinking... between the Vikings and the evil earls, Caithness is a ghost-buster's heaven.
READ: A modern Viking Raid in Caithness a "fictional reality disaster" tale concerning "arkysomethin or other", by Gordon J. Mooney
NEWS FLASH! Caithness has a new museum! Caithness Horizons is a beautiful new state-of-the-art museum celebrating the region's history and archaeological treasures. It's located in Thurso, in the Old Town Hall on the High Street.