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