On two hessian covered tables in Castlehill Heritage Centre there is a display of tools that were used by workmen employed locally in the Caithness flagstone industry. Visitors are encouraged to pick up the hammers, to feel their weight. The handles are not overly long or thick, but the head is a heavy lump of metal. Swinging such a hammer accurately to thump short, stubby iron wedges into place over the course of a day must have been physically gruelling.
Despite the tough working conditions the Caithness flagstone industry gave many local men a living. Other men given jobs came from further afield. They had been cleared from their crofts and smallholdings by agents of the landowners in the west of Scotland. Initially these men had been heading to the east coast, to the town of Wick, to work in the herring industry but decided, perhaps by the offer of jobs, to stop in Castletown, the centre of the flagstone industry at the time. Others got work on the estate of James Traill of Rattar, Sheriff of Caithness. However, many of these men remained unemployed.
Sheriff Traill had great compassion for these ‘Highlanders’ as he called them and gave large numbers a place to stay and a piece of land to work. When they could not pay rent, he did not press them, but took instead an I.O.U. or promissory note until times improved.
James Traill had inherited the Castlehill Estate in 1788. His agricultural improvements included the combining of small farms into much larger units which allowed modern husbandry to flourish. He planted trees and experimented with new fertilising methods. By introducing a dairy herd from Dunlop in Ayrshire into his cattle breeding programme he improved Caithness cattle which until then had been seen as inferior to herds in the rest of the country.
Traill did not stop there. Having erected a lint-mill, a barley mill and a corn mill he soon realised that with greater yields, new markets were also needed. Alongside all of these improvements he was also the driving force behind the expansion of the Caithness flagstone industry.
The origins of this industry extend back millions of years when layers of sediment were laid down in Lake Orcadi, a vast shallow sea which once covered much of northern Scotland and Orkney. Through geological time the layers of sediment eventually hardened to sandstone which would be quarried much later for use as a building material.
Over thousands of years Caithness men have had an affinity with this material and evidence of their skilled use of stone is easily found. The remains of brochs, hut circles, cairns and standing stones still mark the landscape. When these structures were left behind some of the stone was carried away by later generations and reused for other purposes.
Closer to our own times there are many buildings on farms and in villages and towns that have been cleverly constructed in stone including the fine public buildings of Wick and Thurso. Much more humble, yet still in use and common across the county are the stock proof fences of single upright flagstones fitted together to make lines of field boundary markers.
Though the business of producing flagstones and exporting them had gone on in a small way for a number of years, it was Sheriff James Traill who had the harbour built at Castlehill to get his products, especially flagstones, to a much wider market. Until then stones were ‘lightered’ in small craft to larger ships anchored in the bay. The cut stone was taken to the harbour from the cutting yards by pony and cart or on a horse drawn bogey pulled along a rail track. Then it was loaded by hand aboard small schooners.
Traill’s harbour builder was James Bremner who was born locally in 1784 near Keiss, a village north of Wick. After an apprenticeship at Steel’s shipbuilding yard in Greenock, Bremner returned to work in Caithness as a shipbuilder, harbour builder and wreck raiser. As well as Castlehill Harbour, Bremner built five other local harbours. In total he planned, built or improved nineteen harbours in the north of Scotland which were much needed for the booming herring and flagstone industries. When the building of Castlehill Harbour was complete, the first cargo was shipped out in 1825.
By 1840, one hundred people worked at Castlehill. By the turn of the century, the work force had increased to five hundred.
There were various specialisms in the workplace. To separate two or more thinner slices from a large piece of sandstone the Splitter would select a line. Then using hammers to knock in chisels the Hammermen would follow the line round the outside of the slab. When a chisel stuck, it would be left poking out of the stone – then a fresh chisel was used. When the complete circumference of the slab had been worked round, water was then poured on and the stone left until the next day. The separated layers of stone could then be lifted.
The Dresser was responsible for cutting the stone slabs into squares or rectangles at the cutting bed using a rough toothed, iron saw blade hung from a frame.
The Sand Boy’s job was to fill a V-shaped box above the cutting saws with abrasive sand for aiding the cutting process. He would also add sand to wooden polishing plates. For this process, each lot of grit added was less coarse than the previous one until the required finish of the stone was reached.
In the early days at Castlehill, power was supplied by a waterwheel. This was succeeded by steam engines and eventually oil engines. The Engineer’s job was to operate, maintain and repair this equipment. He also had to care for the wind pump at Castlehill. Its turning action helped drain the surrounding land and turn grinding wheels on which the engineer would sharpen tools.
The Manager was the owner’s right hand man. As well as striving to get maximum effort from the work force, the manager spoke with customers and searched for business all over the world.
So that ships could be loaded whatever the state of the tide, a derrick was built at the harbour mouth to operate boom gates. In this way, water could be kept in the basin. By keeping the heavily laden ships afloat and so prevented from resting on the harbour bottom, loading could continue and no damage would result. From this small harbour, records show that 7000,000 - 8000,000 feet of stone was shipped out annually.
If the weather was too wet or freezing cold, flagstone work could not continue. If there was no work - there was no pay!
On such days, some stone workers might be given farm work. This change of roles was not always welcomed by the stone workers or the farm workers. But since Sheriff Traill owned the flagstone works and the farms there was little say in the matter. Sharpening tools at a grinder at Castlehill windmill may have been a marginally better alternative.
While employment was high, quarry workers were encouraged to live in Castletown and Mr.Traill offered feus of land or plots for sale. Workers were also allowed to take free off cuts of partially dressed stone so they could build their own homes on the main street and in the ‘backies’.
Though stone workers’ wages compared favourably with those of agricultural workers, life was not easy. Working days were long and holidays were few. Lateness for work was punished – even arriving five minutes late meant the loss of an hours pay. There was no sick pay, no national social security payments and workers were forced to buy provisions and coal from the company store on the Traill estate at fixed prices.
Despite the hardships, when there was time off, the quarrymen competed with each other in feats of strength and in athletic pursuits including long jump and throwing.
Kite flying, singing, storytelling and keeping ferrets for poaching rabbits were also popular pastimes as were the dances which would go on for most of a night, leaving no time to go home before setting off for work in the morning.
Unfortunately, from around 1902, the industry began to decline as manufacturers made similar products in concrete which was cheaper. In the next few years trade at the Castlehill works continued to fall before finally closing in 1912. Increased transport costs, higher wage demands and the continuing competition all affected demand and by the 1920s most of the other Caithness quarries had closed.
The workers had to look for jobs elsewhere and many ended up emigrating. For some of them the streets of Boston were not ‘paved with gold’ as they were led to believe, but were paved with flagstones from Caithness.
The flagstones produced at Castlehill Quarry had been sold for use in towns and cities all over the U.K. Supplies also went to Europe, Australia, North America and South America.
However, recently the flagstone industry has had a change of fortune and a range of high quality flagstone goods including paving, roof slates, fireplace finishes and kitchen surfaces are produced locally using state of the art equipment.
The village of Castletown lies on the coastal road, the A836 which runs across the north of Scotland between Thurso and John O’ Groats. The Castlehill Heritage Centre can be found easily within a few minutes of the village.
The Centre, an updated, refurbished farm steading of local stone and floored with flags is a treasure trove of information about the people and local industries which went on in the immediate area.
Various hands-on classes which take place throughout the year give an insight into traditional crafts that were once commonplace. Beautiful baskets of flowers have been hung from the outside walls and the garden fronting the Centre is stunning.
On leaving the Centre and garden, visitors can cross the road to the start of a signposted trail and walk in the footsteps of the stone workers who made this same short journey from the nearby quarry to Castlehill Harbour.
First published in The Highlander
The Magazine of Scottish Heritage
Further information: WWW.castletownheritage.co.uk
The A9 running north from Perth roars with traffic for much of the day. If you are ever driving the section of this road near Dunkeld and feel the need of a rest, you might consider giving the usual stopping places a miss and instead, find the turn-off for the A822, signposted for Crieff.
Some eight miles along this quieter road and just past the hamlet of Trochry, there’s a small car park with an information board and a directional arrow pointing to the start of the Corbenic Poetry Path, a circular walk of around 3.57km. The gradients throughout the walk are fairly easy while the immediate scenery is always interesting and varied.
The path was created by the Corbenic Estate team and numerous volunteers, from home and abroad, who dug out the route and used wheelbarrows to move tons of material. Underfoot the path has been formed with gravel in places, wood chippings in others and where the walking surfaces may become wet and muddy, a variety of wire covered boards. That this work was all done by hand is most impressive.
The path meanders through farmland and areas of different tree species including ancient larch and new plantings of birch. On the day I strolled along its length there was plenty of birdsong, colourful patches of wild flowers poking through leaf litter and sightings of butterflies.
Poems along the path - there are already thirty two with more to come - can be found incised into slate and stone and carved into slabs and rounds of wood. Other poems have been etched on glass, while the poems on paper are sealed in blocks of resin before being secured on top of way markers along the path.
The poems showcase the work of some of the best poets currently living and writing in Scotland. From time to time, they give readings at events held in specially created performance spaces along the path.
One poem written in praise of Douglas Fir trees is attached to the wire cage protecting a single sapling.
This long lived giant
welcoming the mountain winds,
the snow, the mellow light.
through a thousand storms
and century after century.
The primary branches
whorl around the axis,
and stretch like words
far into other times.
There are also a number of sculptures along the path. The renowned sculptor Gezia Sollai was invited to create works here along with six sculptor students from Budapest. Some of the works have been sited to entice walkers into quiet corners along the route. Other sculptures are on show where the background views of the hills of Perthshire are expansive. Like any other works of art, some of the sculptures on display such as the hollowed out log drums – drumsticks provided - may have a particular appeal and become favourites.
Stone carver Michael Reilly is another gifted artist who has created pieces which are now sited along the path. Under his tuition, other members of the Corbenic Community are learning to carve.
Nearing the completion of the circuit, the path runs alongside the River Braan rushing white between rocks and large boulders. This end of the Poetry Path is especially lovely and walkers will find spots where they can enjoy a picnic before climbing a flight of stairs for the last short walk back to the starting point.
Further Information: Corbenic Camphill Community situated in beautiful Strathbaan a few miles from Dunkeld is based on the principle of living and working together with those who have special needs.
Respect and concern for the dignity of each person are actively fostered at Corbenic as is ensuring a stable and secure physical, emotional and social environment.
The Poetry Path is used regularly by those who live in the Corbenic Community.
www.Corbenic Camphill Community
Dugald Ross remembers the day when his interest in archaeology was first sparked. He was helping his parents at their peat bank at Ellishadder on the Isle of Skye. On the way home, his father had drawn the boy’s attention to a large boulder which seemed out of place. His father went on to say that the previous tenant of their croft had named this particular rock the ‘money stone’.
For reasons unknown, possibly while he was cutting peat, that gentleman had dug below the rock and found shards of pottery which, it was believed, he eventually sold to some place or person in Edinburgh.
Being interested in pre-history, Dugald began scraping away the turf under the ‘money stone’ at his earliest opportunity. To his delight, as well as shards of pottery, he also uncovered six finely shaped arrowheads.
The boy had discovered a Neolithic site. Here, some five thousand years ago, perhaps only five or six thousand years after the last Ice Age a family, or a larger group of people, had set up an encampment.
Though there was no sign of a chambered cairn, the frequently found indicator of a Neolithic burial site, Dugald suspects the arrow heads and shards of pottery may have been placed there carefully as part of a burial ceremony for an important member of that community.
As well as being of ceremonial significance, someone, all those years ago, may have tied one of those arrow heads to a straight length of tree branch, added feathers to the other end and fired the arrow to catch their dinner.
With the arrowheads as a centre piece, Dugald founded Staffin museum in the 1970s at the age of 19. The museum is located just off the A855 at Ellishadder near Staffin in northeast Skye. As well as the arrowheads, the museum houses an impressive array of dinosaur fossils which are of international significance.
The first evidence of dinosaurs ranging across Skye came from the discovery of a single footprint in 1982. After much research and argument amongst scientists, the print found at Rubha nam Brathairean, not far from Ellishadder, is now thought to be that of an ornithopod, a large herbivore that would have stood up on its two long legs.
It was fifteen years later before more prints were found in blocks of sandstone in roughly the same area.
For visitors looking at the artefacts on display in the museum, probably the most impressive exhibit is a thick length of dinosaur limb bone. There are several separate broken parts to it which, when lined up, fit together. After these sections were found, Dugald went searching in the same area and eventually came upon other parts of dinosaur skeleton including a large vertebra and a tooth.
Now the limb bone, possibly the femur of a Cetiosaurus which roamed around 175 million years ago, gives an indication of the size its owner might have been. At 10metres tall this beast was closely related to the Diplodocus, a huge herbivore which would have been similar in size to the even better known Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Dr. Neil Clark, curator of palaeontology at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum, who was alerted to the dinosaur finds on Skye, has studied the fossil evidence and has also made his own remarkable discoveries there. As well as slabs of rock bearing numerous dinosaur footprints, he also found what are believed to be the world’s smallest dinosaur footprints (according to his entry in The Guinness Book of Records) on the northwest corner of Skye’s Trotternish peninsula.
He had had taken a particular lump of rock with black markings back to his office in Glasgow. It was only when he lifted the rock to look at it in bright sunlight that footprints could be made out more clearly, one almost on top of another. On measuring the clearest print he found it to be just under 1.7 cm in length. The rock is now on display in the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow.
‘The significance of these prints,’ he said ‘is that they show evidence of dinosaurs breaking out of their eggs and leaving the nest at a very young age.’
It may be hard to imagine, but this area of the earth’s crust we now know as the Isle of Skye extends back some 3 billion years. At different times it has been part of an ocean floor, a tropical sea, a desert, a volcano and an estuary upon which dinosaurs roamed.
‘I’m constantly amazed,’ said Dr. Clark ‘that so much evidence of dinosaurs has been recovered from the storm swept beaches of the Atlantic Isle that is the Isle of Skye, Scotland’s Jurassic Isle.’
Sometimes, searching for dinosaur fossils is not for the fainthearted. After a particularly strenuous day on Skye when Dr. Clark and a few helpers had been hammering, drilling, chiselling and sawing apart a large rock, his leg broke and he had to be airlifted in a dramatic helicopter rescue to hospital in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis.
However, some of the most spectacular finds were first spotted by local people walking on An Corran beach, not far from Staffin Museum at Ellishadder. After the sand had been washed away by heavy seas, a big three-toed footprint of a very large meat eating dinosaur was discovered in a flat expanse of exposed rock.
Dugald Ross continues to search for dinosaur fossils. In summer 2013 he recovered a boulder from the shore nearby. Embedded in the boulder was a very large bone – from the time of this finding the process of identifying the bone has been on going. First published in The Scots Magazine
From its eminent position on a foundation of ancient volcanic rock, Edinburgh Castle’s massive, fortified doors open onto a flat parade ground known as the Esplanade. This square is always busy. Many visitors head for the Castle during the day. Others arrive for evening concerts or the displays of precision drills and musical skills at the annual Military Tattoo.
After the Esplanade, the Royal Mile slopes gradually downwards with a series of roads, narrow lanes and tight alleyways falling away to either side. These alleyways or ‘wynds’ and ‘closes’ running through and between properties have long witnessed the day-to-day lives of people in the densely populated tenements.
On either side of the road, other well- known landmarks including St. Giles Cathedral and John Knox’s House have also known the mundane as well as occasional sensational events down through the years. You can almost sense the history in the old stones.
At the bottom of the hill, the Royal Mile continues into Abbey Strand and stops at the impressive gates of the Palace of Holyroodhouse , residence of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth when she is on official business in Scotland.
A few yards back from the gate, where the modern tarmac meets the old cobblestones there’s a large brass S fixed into the road. This letter marks the place where there was once a prominent painted line. Creditors were not allowed to cross this line. For those in debt who owed money, getting across that line meant they had reached safety, a place affording sanctuary!
Just as today, there were always lots of people in debt. To provide for their needs, a number of establishments offering accommodation with booths selling food and drink sprang up in the area. The few buildings of Abbey Strand are all that remain from the time.
If the Queen is in residence, the Scottish variant of the Royal Standard of the United Kingdom will be fluttering on a flagpole above the Palace rooftop and the place will be closed to the public. However, if a flag bearing the Royal Standard of Scotland is showing, visitors are welcome to visit the Palace, the ruins of Holyrood Abbey and the gardens.
Away from the crowds on the Royal Mile the gardens are a haven of peace for much of the time, though down the ages, long before these acres were so lovingly tended, this was a backdrop for many moments of high drama.
Such a moment happened on a day in 1127 when King David 1 of Scotland was out hunting. At that time, a forest covered the land. When his horse was startled by a deer stag, the king was thrown to the ground. According to one variation of the legend, as the stag charged, he saved himself from being gored by grabbing the beast by the horns. Just then, the king saw a holy cross descending from the skies and the stag reared away.
As an act of thanksgiving for his escape, David 1 founded Holyrood Abbey on the site in 1128. ‘Rood’ is an old name for a crucifix or Christian cross. Augustinian monks were gifted the Abbey with rights to work the land, to pasturage and to draw rents from the villages within their bounds. For his endowment, King David expected prayers for the protection of his kingdom, his government and his hoped for heavenly salvation.
During the 15th century the Abbey guest house was developed into a royal residence until James 4th constructed a Royal Palace adjacent to the Abbey cloister a few years later.
There’s very little known about the garden around this time, but it’s been written that Mary, Queen of Scots (1542 -1587) did enjoy games of real tennis (a bit like the game of squash). She also enjoyed archery for which she wore a velvet glove. She also played croquet, golf and liked hawking.
It was Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, who had the garden laid out much as we find it today. He was also responsible for getting rid of most of the untidy buildings that grew up nearby to provide shelter for sanctuary-seeking debtors. On occasions their numbers could reach 6500, including members of the aristocracy, fleeing from creditors.
The wide garden path beginning near the ruins of the Abbey leads alongside deep borders studded with mature trees, backed by hedges and a wall on one side. The first notable piece of sculpture is a stone sundial carved by John Mylne in 1633 to commemorate Charles 1’s Coronation in the Abbey. It carries the insignia of Charles 1 and his grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots.
As we follow the path round a corner, the next stone sculpture to come into view is a much weathered, slightly hunched fiddle player. Supposedly, Queen Victoria didn’t like this particular figure and it has been moved within the garden a few times.
It’s not long before we turn the next corner and are facing south. Now the views over the large area of grass are expansive and lead over mature trees to the top of Arthur’s Seat. This is Edinburgh’s very small mountain, the remains of another volcanic plug surrounded by wild land. It’s a popular walk, minutes from the centre of town.
To the east, the lawn appears to stretch for a vast distance over flat parkland to distant houses. This deception has been created by an effect known as a ha-ha. Here the grass reaches up a gradual incline to end on top of the unseen high boundary wall.
We’re now passing the foundations of what were once monastic buildings on one side and the ruined Abbey on the other. The Abbey was a magnificent building, worked on by craftsmen from abroad. Inside it was richly painted and furnished. Now the walls are open to the sky.
Near the ancient sunken foundations of other monastic buildings there is a grass covered mound that was once a source of intrigue. Could it be concealing some dark secret? However, on investigation, the lump proved only to be hiding an old kitchen ‘midden’. Now it serves as a podium for the conductor whenever a band plays here during receptions.
Every year, usually in early July, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh host a garden party on the grassed area. They arrive from a room at the back of the Palace and come down a red carpeted flight of steps in the corner where the ruined Abbey is joined on to the Palace.
Over the course of the afternoon, many of the 8000 guests will take the chance to admire the gardens, brought to their best for this particular occasion by a team of up to 14 gardeners.
Some of the guests will be presented to The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh as the Royal couple proceed down an avenue formed by the Queen’s Royal Company of Archers- the Sovereign’s ‘Body Guard’ in Scotland. When they are not practicing their archery skills in the garden, they add an extra dash of colour to ceremonial occasions.
Over hundreds of years there have been many changes worked in the gardens. The mulberry sapling that was recently planted for Charles, Duke of Rothesay appears to be thriving. When King James 1 of England and 6th of Scotland had 10,000 mulberry trees imported, they didn’t grow so well. They were the wrong variety. His hopes of creating a silk industry came to nothing.
It may be helpful to know that even in a Royal garden things don’t always go as planned.
We may not all be invited to the garden party but a visit is always a delight.
First published in The People’s Friend