AT THE end of April 2022, I returned to Caithness to not so much continue my coastal circumperambulation as to cover the cracks. Windy conditions and poor visibility had kept me off the shoreline and on public roads on my last walk and, as a result, there were a couple of things I’d missed out that I would rather have not done. I aimed to fix that with a circular walk, starting and ending in Wick.
I arrived in Wick late in the morning and made my way from Wick railway station towards the Bridge of Wick. On the way, I dropped down onto a footpath alongside the Wick River, bringing me face-to-face with Wick’s Riverside Fountain.
The fountain hasn’t actually worked for years but is being restored as part of a community-led initiative to regenerate the riverside space. It was originally erected in 1906 and donated to the town by William Paterson Smith, who had previously held the position of provost (which is equivalent to mayor).
Bridge of Wick
Immediately beyond the fountains stood the triple-arched Bridge of Wick, which was built in 1877. Designed by Murdoch Paterson (1826-98), the Inverness-based chief engineer of the Highland Railway, it was constructed by a local contractor, Daniel Miller and replaced a similar one erected in 1821 by that ‘Colossus of Roads’, engineer Thomas Telford (1757-1824). The newer bridge reused Telford’s footings.
In many cases, one of Telford’s bridges would be the first bridge ever built on a site, not least because there often hadn’t been a proper road until he built it. The Bridge of Wick is not one of those cases, however.
Before Telford, a wooden bridge crossed the river slightly upstream of the current alignment, resting upon stone piers. This structure dated back to at least 1665 — when glovers and shoemakers were reprimanded for beating their skins on it — and was refurbished in 1776 (a century of glover and shoemaker abuse does take its toll).
Today, the Bridge of Wick carries the A99 and I backtracked up this road as it transformed from Bridge Street to High Street, George Street and then North Road, heading north-west out of the town. Stone-built shops and civic buildings gave way, first to houses and then to wide, flat open fields on my left. On my right, I passed a business park and the Tesco where last time I encountered an optimistic crow.
Ackergill & Hempriggs
On this occasion, no hopeful crow approached me as I passed the Ackergill & Hempriggs War Memorial, a monument to those who fell in one of humanity’s greater efforts to provide crowkind with an all-you-can-eat buffet.
The war memorial was unveiled in 1924 by General Henry Sinclair Horne, 1st Baron Horne (1861-1921).
Born in Wick, Horne had served with distinction as an artillery officer in the Second Boer War (1899-1902) and then again in WW1 at the Battle of Mons (1914). Promoted to general in 1916, he took command of the British First Army, making him the only British artillery officer to command an army in WW1.
A little beyond Wick John o’ Groats Airport, I turned north into a side-road with a handful of houses scattered along it. This was Ackergill (from Old Norse akr, ‘corn-field’ and gil, ‘ravine’) and it was quite a lot nicer than walking alongside the A99.
Thanks to having my woolly tea-cosy hat at at the start of this road and not having it at the end, I got to walk the full length of this road thrice. In the meantime, someone had found my hat and, trusting that I’d surely be back for it later, had picked it up and left it carefully-folded atop a gatepost. Which was neat.
Thank-you, mysterious hat-folder, your surprisingly tidy generosity is much appreciated!
As much as Ackergill was nicer to walk than the A99, I’m not entirely sure it was three times as nice, so I was keen to press on as I reached its shoreward end for the second time. The promise of more interesting sights peeked coyly over some trees…
Ackergill Tower is a privately-owned residence that until recently used to be a hotel. This means that it is not open to the public and the only views you can get of it are from outside its walls. But those views are not bad at all.
The original tower was built by Clan Keith, the estate having passed to them from the Cheynes in 1350 on the death of Reginald Cheyne. His daughter Mariot Cheyne was married to John Keith, the second son of the Marischal of Scotland, Sir Edward Keith, whose hereditary duties included guarding the Scottish royal regalia and protecting the King in Parliament. The first tower was possibly raised by John’s son (Andrew Keith) in an effort to keep up with his cousins (John’s brother, William Keith, having inherited the prestigious marshalcy).
In 1538, when the Ackergill line of Keiths ran out of male heirs and James V granted the tower to their cousin, William Keith, Earl Marischal, which is mildly ironic if it was built in an effort to keep up with them.
Alterations & Improvements
The current building comprises an early 16th century, five-storey, oblong tower house with a four-storey wing added to its rear in the early 18th century. It was further remodelled in the 19th, with the addition of new, larger windows plus raised battlements and an extended roof.
The Keiths sold the tower to the Sinclairs in 1612 and then, in 1676, it passed to John Campbell, 2nd Earl of Breadalbane and Holland (1662-1752) in payment of a Sinclair debt. He then sold it to William Dunbar of Hempriggs in 1699, who acquired it in a much-deteriorated state – it was he and his descendants who made made the many later alterations and ‘improvements’.
The tower remained in Dunbar hands until 1986, after which it became a hotel. It returned to private ownership as a residence in 2018, having been purchased by American millionairess, philanthropist and Episcopalian minister, Betsee Parker.
Although the Sinclairs acquired Ackergill Tower legally in 1612, it wasn’t the first time that they had possessed it, George Sinclair, 4th Earl of Caithness having seized it by surprise attack in 1547. He took the castle’s captain, Alexander Keith, and his servant John Skarlet hostage, detaining them in George’s own castle at Girnigoe.
Mary of Guise – mother and Regent to the five-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots — forced George to relinquish the tower but granted him remission. Letting him off without punishment proved to be absolutely terrible as a deterrent as he besieged it again in 1556. Once again he received remission, which understandably upset the Keiths.
Not that the Keiths were in any way paragons of virtue. In 1593, Robert Keith seized the tower from his own brother, the Earl Marischal, and was officially declared a rebel. Five years later, another relative – John Keith of Subster – scaled the walls at night using ladders and likewise stole possession of his cousin’s tower.
A far worse stain on the Keiths’ character occurred in the early 15th century, possibly 1426 (the dates are uncertain). Dugald Keith, then head of the clan, was greatly enamoured of Helen, the daughter of Lachlan Gunn. On hearing that she was engaged to her cousin, Alexander Gunn, he decided a dramatic gesture was required to win her heart and you can’t get much more dramatic than murdering her fiancé the night before the wedding and then abducting her!
Somehow – no doubt to Dugald’s utter confusion – this rumbustious romancing failed to earn her unbridled affection and instead resulted in her suicide, Helen throwing herself from the tower. I mean, who’d have guessed? A feud between the Keiths and the Gunns then ensued but more of that later…
While I doubt that Dr Parker had any tragic abductees held within the tower, I definitely lacked a sturdy umbrella with which to fend off their impact should they leap from above onto my head. That being so, I hastily backtracked to the road, at the end of which I found Ackergillshore Harbour.
The harbour itself dates from the mid-19th century, the site having been surveyed and planned by local harbour constructor James Bremner of Stain in 1845.
The harbour’s most peculiar feature – a disused lifeboat slipway that seems to be missing a boathouse —was erected in 1910 for the RNLI. Made of ferro-concrete, this was actually the first of its type to be constructed in the UK and was built to service a lifeboat that had been stationed at Ackergillshore since 1878.
The slipway remained in use until 1965 but never did have a boathouse at its top (though there was a separate boathouse building nearby). While the landward end just ends abruptly now, old photos reveal that steps led up to the top of the ramp until at least the 1990s.
Today, the harbour sees little use, apart from the odd boat for crab and lobster fishing.
The way onwards from Ackergillshore Harbour started as a grassy path at sea level but then climbed a low, steep bank that formed the coastal slope. The land above it was grassy and flat and pretty easy going. I ambled along for about a quarter of a mile, whereupon I encountered a reminder of battles more recent than those between Clans Keith, Sinclair and Gunn…
St Tear’s Chapel
A similar distance further on, I encountered this marker, indicating the site of St Tear’s Chapel:
It is not at all clear to whom this chapel was supposed to have been dedicated – there not being a known St Tear or Tayre — though one possibility is St Airerain. His feast day was 29th December, one day after the Feast of Holy Innocents, on which day Bishop Robert Forbes (1708–1775) noted the chapel as being annually attended.
The chapel existed from at least the late 15th century and was still marked as such on Aaron Arrowsmith’s map of 1807 (as ‘chappel’). By the time the appropriate Ordnance Survey 1st edition sheet was published in 1877, St Tear’s Chapel was annotated “site of” indicating it had already gone. Today there is nothing to see, bar a few scattered stones and a foundation overgrown with grass.
For a description of what is used to look like, we can turn to the aforementioned Robert Forbes.
Elected the Bishop of Ross and Caithness for the Scottish Episcopal Church in 1762, he mostly resided in Leith but made two trips to visit his northern flock: one in 1762 when newly enthroned, and another in 1770. A keen antiquarian, Forbes wrote articles for the Edinburgh Magazine, so the observations he made on his first visit are recorded.
The chapel was already ruinous in Forbes’s day and he noted that it was small and built of “stone and mortar, without any lime.” It was also short on windows, with only the south wall so illuminated.
Battle of Champions
We know the chapel dates back to at least the 15th century because it is mentioned as the site of the Battle of Champions in 1478, a clash between clans Keith and Gunn arising from abduction of Helen Gunn. This was described in The History of Feuds and Conflicts among the Clans, published by Robert & Andrew Foulis in 1764 and reprinted in 1780 by John Gillies. According to the title page, it was itself based on a manuscript written during the reign of James IV (1473-1513).
The Battle of Champions was a trial by combat intended to decisively end the otherwise indecisive feuding that had occurred since Helen Gunn’s abduction. A battle on Tannach Moor in 1438 had failed to resolve the issue, when the Keiths showed up with Mackay reinforcements (the Mackays had a separate feud with the Gunns). A second battle on Mannistane Hill saw numerous losses but no end to the feud.
With both clans losing members to ongoing hostilities, it was agreed to settle the dispute once and for all by means of a formal battle between twelve men on horseback on each side. This took place at the chapel.
Victory through Perfidy
Unfortunately for the Gunns, the Keiths once again showed a total disregard for adherence to behavioural norms and showed up with their twelve horses carrying two men each.
With the Keiths now outnumbering the Gunns two-to-one, they proceeded to slaughter their way to victory, killing the Gunn’s chieftain in the process. This guaranteed that the feud would rumble on indefinitely and a formal treaty of friendship would not be signed until 1978 (to mark 500 years since the Battle of Champions).
Girnigoe & Noss
Just beyond the site of the chapel, the path ceased to wander unconstrained over flat fields but instead became restricted to the edge of a low cliff, pinned there by the barbed wire fence of Noss Farm.
Fortunately, the path was broad enough and the cliffs low enough that they didn’t trigger my unpredictable fear of heights (though that would get more than enough exercise before the week was out). For now, I was entirely comfortable with my situation and the cliffs were failing to fulfil the role of my frightening foe.
Seagulls at Home
It being the seaside, seagulls were very much in evidence, flying this way and that and mewing and squealing as seagulls are wont to do. Many were nesting in the ledges of the cliff face and on rocky stacks offshore and, as I turned one bend in the path, I was given a perfect view of one such avian abode:
A little further on was another abode that allowed one to see right inside, though this one was long abandoned and had not always been quite so open to the elements. This was the castle that I had seen earlier from a position next to Ackergill Tower. Except that, technically, it wasn’t a castle. It was two – Castles Girnigoe and Sinclair.
Castle Girnigoe (from Norse grǿnn, ‘green’ and gjá, ‘chasm’) is the older part, a tower house built on a rocky promontory that was very nearly an island. It was built by William Sinclair, 2nd Earl of Caithness (1459-1513) between 1476 and 1496; he would go on to die fighting the English at the Battle of Flodden and his grandson, George, would eventually seize neighbouring Ackergill Tower, as previously noted.
Since George was forced to relinquish Ackergill Tower, the Sinclairs had to satisfy their castle addiction by other means and the solution was for George’s son – George Sinclair, 5th Earl of Caithness – to build a new one right next door to Girnigoe.
Castle Sinclair was a fortified gatehouse, courtyard and other buildings connected to Castle Girnigoe by a sliding drawbridge. It was, in effect, a landward extension of the latter and the Sinclairs no doubt thought of them both as one big castle.
Two Castles, Two Names
George junior petitioned the Scottish Parliament to change its name to Castle Sinclair but the legal change never really stuck and both names remained in use, with Castle Sinclair coming in time to be used for the new part and Castle Girnigoe for the old.
Once beyond the castles, the path also managed to outflank Noss Farm, at which point it turned inland and opened out. I was now rapidly approaching Noss Head.
Noss Head Lighthouse
Dominating this otherwise planar landscape of Noss Head was Noss Head Lighthouse. This was built in 1849 by Robert Arnot of Inverness to a design by engineer Alan Stevenson (1807-1865). The lantern housing had diagonal framing, which was a new idea of Alan’s that subsequently became the new standard as it it was both stronger and masked less of the light.
The tower is quite short, just 18 m high, but its position on the clifftop raises the light to 53 m above mean sea level. It was automated in 1987 and its rotational lamp replaced by an LED array in 2017.
While an access road to the lighthouse was definitely needed, its construction was used as a make-work scheme for locals in need of poor relief on account of the Highland Potato Famine. As access roads go, it is perfectly adequate and would have carried me easily back to Wick. I, however, had other plans.
The 1st ed OS map shows a track following the coastline from Noss Head to Staxigoe, though this was downgraded to a footpath by the 2nd ed. My six-year old “current” OS map (2016) indicated that the path was still there, though it was hard to make out on satellite map images. Nonetheless, I was keen to give it a go…
The path started faint on the ground, tending to invisible, but I soon came to a wall that ran right to the cliff edge and its singular gateway was a pretty big clue as to where the path had to run. Having thus acquired it, I was able to follow as it veered back to the cliff edge and ran above several coves and geos. Like Swallow Geo, for instance:
Soon, I began to see the old fishing village of Staxigoe ahead:
As I got closer, my meandering path was abruptly constrained:
Staxigoe (from Norse stakkr, ‘stack’ and gjá, ‘chasm’) was once the largest herring salting station in Europe, but the use of ever-larger boats and the subsequent growth of Wick as a herring port killed it dead. Today, its harbour is more likely to play host to a pleasant picnic than to a fishing vessel.
Closing the Loop
At Staxigoe, I joined the public road, which I was pleased to find had a pedestrian pavement. I followed the road for about a mile as it curved around through Papigoe (a neighbouring former fishing hamlet) to Broadhaven, which long ago ceased to be a separate hamlet and is now the easternmost end of Wick.
From Broadhaven, I had another mile to go, via Wick’s streets, before I returned to my starting place by the Bridge of Wick.
This was a short walk for me, at ten miles, but a good one. It included three locations —Ackergill Tower, Castles Sinclair & Girnigoe and Noss Head — I’d have otherwise bypassed but didn’t want to, and it made a nice prelude to the rest of my trip, which would involve walking from Wick to Inverness over six days. In the rain, if the forecasts were correct…
This time: 10 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,997 miles