We rose early and walked along the beach to Duncansbay Head, or Rongisby as the old maps have it, gathering a few of those charming little shells called John o'Groat Buckies by the way. After walking round the site of John o'Groat's house, we returned to our comfortable quarters at the Huna Inn for breakfast. John o'Groat seems to have acted with more wisdom than many entrusted with the affairs of a nation. When his sons quarrelled for precedence at his table, he consoled them with the promise that when the next family gathering took place the matter should be settled to the satisfaction of all. During the interval he built a house having eight sides, each with a door and window, with an octagonal table in the centre so that each of his eight sons could enter at his own door and sit at his own side or "head" of the table. By this arrangement - which reminded us of King Arthur's use of his round table - he dispelled the animosity which previously prevailed. After breakfast, and in the presence of Mr. and Mrs. Mackenzie, we made an entry in the famous Album with name and address, object of journey, and exact time of departure, and they promised to reserve a space beneath the entry to record the result, which was to be posted to them immediately we reached our journey's end.
It was about half-past ten o'clock when we started on our long walk along a circuitous and unknown route from John o'Groat's to Land's End. Our host and hostess stood watching our departure and waving adieux until we disappeared in the distance. We were in high spirits, and soon reached the junction of roads where we turned to the left towards Wick. The first part of our walk was through the Parish of Canisbay, in the ancient records of which some reference is made to the more recent representatives of the Groat family, but as these were made two hundred years ago, they were now almost illegible. Our road lay through a wild moorland district with a few farms and cottages here and there, mainly occupied by fishermen. There were no fences to the fields or roads, and no bushes or trees, and the cattle were either herded or tied to stakes.
After passing through Canisbay, we arrived at the most northerly house in the Parish of Wick, formerly a public-house, and recognised as the half-way house between Wick and John o'Groat's. We found it occupied as a farm by Mr. John Nicolson, and here we saw the skeleton of a whale doing duty as a garden fence. The dead whale, seventy feet in length, had been found drifting in the sea, and had been hauled ashore by the fishermen. Mr. Nicolson had an ingenious son, who showed us a working sun-dial in the garden in front of the house which he had constructed out of a portion of the backbone, and in the same bone he had also formed a curious contrivance by which he could tell the day of the month. He told us he was the only man that studied painting in the North, and invited us into the house, wherein several rooms he showed us some of his paintings, which were really excellent considering they were executed in ordinary wall paint. His mother informed us that he began to study drawing when he was ill with a slow fever, but not bed-fast. Two of the pictures, that of an old bachelor and a Scotch lassie, a servant, were very good indeed.
We also saw a picture of an old woman, a local celebrity, about a hundred years old, which was considered to be an excellent likeness, and showed the old lady's eyes so sunk in her head as to be scarcely visible. We considered that we had here found one of Nature's artists, who would probably have made a name for himself if given the advantages so many have who lack the ability, for he certainly possessed both the imaginative faculty and no small degree of dexterity in execution. He pointed out to us the house of a farmer over the way who slept in the Parish of Wick and took his meals in that of Canisbay, the boundary being marked by a chimney in the centre of the roof. He also informed us that his brother accompanied Elihu Burritt, the American blacksmith, for some distance when he walked from London to John o'Groat's.
We were now about eleven miles from Wick, and as Mr. Nicolson told us of an old castle we had missed, we turned back across the moors for about a mile and a half to view it. He warned us that we might see a man belonging to the neighbourhood who was partly insane, and who, roaming amongst the castle ruins, usually ran straight towards any strangers as if to do them injury; but if we met him we must not be afraid, as he was perfectly harmless. We had no desire to meet a madman, and luckily, although we kept a sharp look-out, we did not see him. We found the ruined castle resting on a rock overlooking the sea with the rolling waves dashing on its base below; it was connected with the mainland by a very narrow strip broken through in one place, and formerly crossed by a drawbridge. As this was no longer available, it was somewhat difficult to scale the embankment opposite; still we scrambled up and passed triumphantly through the archway into the ruins, not meeting with that resistance we fancied we should have done in the days of its daring owner. A portion only of the tower remained, as the other part had fallen about two years before our visit. The castle, so tradition stated, had been built about the year 1100 by one Buchollie, a famous pirate, who owned also another castle somewhere in the Orkneys. How men could carry on such an unholy occupation amidst such dangerous surroundings was a mystery to us.
On our return we again saw our friend Mr. Nicolson, who told us there were quite a number of castles in Caithness, as well as Pictish forts and Druidical circles, a large proportion of the castles lying along the coast we were traversing. He gave us the names of some of them, and told us that they materially enhanced the beauty of this rock-bound coast. He also described to us a point of the coast near Ackergill, which we should pass, where the rocks formed a remarkably perfect profile of the Great Duke of Wellington, though others spoke of it as a black giant. It could only be seen from the sea, but was marvellously correct and life-like, and of gigantic proportions.
Acting on Mr. Nicolson's instructions, we proceeded along the beach to Keiss Castle, and ascended to its second storey by means of a rustic ladder. It was apparently of a more recent date than Buchollie, and a greater portion of it remained standing. A little to the west of it we saw another and more modern castle, one of the seats of the Duke of Portland, who, we were told, had never yet visited it. Before reaching the village of Keiss, we came to a small quay, where we stayed a short time watching the fishermen getting their smacks ready before sailing out to sea, and then we adjourned to the village inn, where we were provided with a first-class tea, for which we were quite ready. The people at the inn evidently did not think their business inconsistent with religion, for on the walls of the apartment where we had our tea were hanging two pictures of a religious character, and a motto "Offer unto God thanksgiving," and between them a framed advertisement of "Edinburgh Ales"!
After tea we continued our journey until we came to the last house in the village of Keiss, a small cottage on the left-hand side of the road, and here we called to inspect a model of John o'Groat's house, which had been built by a local stonemason, and exhibited at the great Exhibition in London in 1862. Its skilful builder became insane soon after he had finished it, and shortly afterwards died. It was quite a palatial model and much more handsome than its supposed original was ever likely to have been. It had eight doors with eight flights of steps leading up to them, and above were eight towers with watchmen on them, and inside the house was a table with eight sides made from wood said to have been from the original table in the house of Groat, and procured from one of his descendants. The model was accompanied by a ground plan and a print of the elevation taken from a photo by a local artist. There was no charge for admission or for looking at the model, but a donation left with the fatherless family was thankfully received.
We now walked for miles along the seashore over huge sand-hills with fine views of the herring-boats putting out to sea. We counted fifty-six in one fleet, and the number would have been far greater had not Noss Head intervened to obstruct our view, as many more went out that night from Wick, although the herring season was now nearly over. We passed Ackergill Tower, the residence of Sir George Dunbar, and about two miles farther on we came to two old castles quite near to each other, which were formerly the strongholds of the Earls of Caithness. They were named Girnigoe and Sinclair. Girnigoe was the oldest, and under the ruins of the keep was a dismal dungeon.
It was now getting dark, and not the pleasantest time to view old castles surrounded by black rocks with the moan of the sea as it invaded the chasms of the rocks on which they stood. Amongst these lonely ruins we spoke of the past, for had our visit been three centuries earlier, the dismal sounds from the sea below would have mingled with those from the unfortunate young man chained up in that loathsome dungeon, whose only light came from a small hole high up in the wall. Such was John, Master of Caithness, the eldest son of the fifth Sinclair, Earl of Caithness, who is said to have been imprisoned here because he had wooed and won the affections of the daughter of a neighbouring laird, marked out by his father, at that time a widower, for himself. He was confined in that old dungeon for more than six long years before death released him from his inhuman parent.
During his imprisonment John had three keepers appointed over him - Murdoch Roy and two brothers named Ingram and David Sinclair. Roy attended him regularly, and did all the menial work, as the other two keepers were kinsmen of the earl, his father, who had imprisoned him. Roy was sorry for the unfortunate nobleman, and arranged a plot to set him at liberty, which was unfortunately discovered by John's brother William, who bore him no good will. William told his father, the earl, who immediately ordered Roy to be executed. The poor wretch was accordingly brought out and hanged on the common gibbet of the castle without a moment being allowed him to prepare for his final account.
Soon afterwards, in order to avenge the death of Roy, John, who was a man of great bodily strength and whose bad usage and long imprisonment had affected his mind, managed to seize his brother William on the occasion of his visit to the dungeon and strangle him. This only deepened the earl's antipathy towards his unhappy son, and his keepers were encouraged to put him to death. The plan adopted was such as could only have entered the imagination of fiends, for they withheld food from their prisoner for the space of five days, and then set before him a piece of salt beef of which he ate voraciously. Soon after, when he called for water, they refused to give him any, and he died of raging thirst. Another account said they gave him brandy, of which he drank so copiously that he died raving mad. In any case, there is no doubt whatever that he was barbarously done to death.
Every castle along the seacoast had some story of cruelty connected with it, but the story of Girnigoe was perhaps the worst of all, and we were glad to get away from a place with such dismal associations.
About a hundred years after this sad event the Clan of the Campbells of Glenorchy declared war on the Sinclairs of Keiss, and marched into Caithness to meet them; but the Sinclairs instead of going out to meet them at the Ord of Caithness, a naturally fortified position, stayed at home, and the Campbells took up a strong position at Altimarloch, about two miles from Wick. The Sinclairs spent the night before the battle drinking and carousing, and then attacked the Campbells in the strong position they had taken up, with the result that the Sinclairs were routed and many of them perished.
They meet, they close in deadly
But brief the bloody fray;
Before the Campbells' furious charge
The Caithness ranks give way.
The shrieking mother wrung her
The maiden tore her hair,
And all was lamentation loud,
And terror, and despair.
It was commonly said that the well-known quicksteps, "The Campbells are coming" and the "Braes of Glenorchy" obtained their names from this raid.
The Sinclairs of Keiss were a powerful and warlike family, and they soon regained their position. It was a pleasing contrast to note that in 1765 Sir William Sinclair of Keiss had laid aside his sword, embracing the views held by the Baptists, and after being baptized in London became the founder of that denomination in Caithness and a well-known preacher and writer of hymns.
In his younger days he was in the army, where he earned fame as an expert swordsman, his fame in that respect spreading throughout the countryside. Years after he had retired from the service, while sitting in his study one forenoon intently perusing a religious work, his valet announced the arrival of a stranger who wished to see him. The servant was ordered to show him into the apartment, and in stalked a strong muscular-looking man with a formidable Andrea Ferrara sword hanging by his side, and, making a low obeisance, he thus addressed the knight:
"Sir William, I hope you will pardon my intrusion. I am a native of England and a professional swordsman. In the course of my travels through Scotland, I have not yet met with a gentleman able to cope with me in the noble science of swordsmanship. Since I came to Caithness I have heard that you are an adept with my favourite weapon, and I have called to see if you would do me the honour to exchange a few passes with me just in the way of testing our respective abilities."
Sir William was both amused and astonished at this extraordinary request, and replied that he had long ago thrown aside the sword, and, except in case of necessity, never intended to use it any more. But the stranger would take no denial, and earnestly insisted that he would favour him with a proof of his skill.
"Very well," said Sir William, "to please you I shall do so," and, rising and fetching his sword, he desired the stranger, who was an ugly-looking fellow, to draw and defend himself. After a pass or two Sir William, with a dexterous stroke, cut off a button from the vest of his opponent.
"Will that satisfy you," inquired Sir William; "or shall I go a little deeper and draw blood?"
"Oh, I am perfectly satisfied," said the other. "I find I have for once met a gentleman who knows how to handle his sword."
In about half a mile after leaving the ruins of these old castles we saw the Noss Head Lighthouse, with its powerful light already flashing over the darkening seas, and we decided to visit it. We had to scale several fences, and when we got there we found we had arrived long after the authorised hours for the admission of visitors. We had therefore some difficulty in gaining an entrance, as the man whose attention we had attracted did not at first understand why we could not come again the next day. When we explained the nature of our journey, he kindly admitted us through the gate. The lighthouse and its surroundings were scrupulously clean, and if we had been Her Majesty's Inspectors of Lighthouses, if such there be, we could not have done otherwise than report favourably of our visit.
The attendants were very kind to us, one of them accompanying us to the top, and as the lighthouse was 175 feet high, we had a great number of steps to climb. We had never seen the interior of a lighthouse before, and were greatly interested in the wonderful mechanism by which the flashlight was worked. We were much impressed by the incalculable value of these national institutions, especially in such dangerous positions as we knew from experience prevailed on those stormy coasts. We were highly delighted with our novel adventure, and, after regaining the entrance, we walked briskly away; but it was quite dark before we had covered the three miles that separated the lighthouse from the fishery town of Wick. Here we procured suitable lodgings, and then hurried to the post office for the letters that waited us, which we were delighted to read, for it seemed ages since we left home.
(Distance walked twenty-five miles.)
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