Caithness is a roughly triangular area on the east side of the far north of Scotland. At different times in the past it has been a kingdom, an earldom, a county and a district, and it owes its name to the Pictish Kingdom of Cait. The population today is probably much smaller than at times in the past, before migration, whether forced or voluntary, led many to start new lives elsewhere in Scotland or far beyond its shores: but it has never been large.
Given the relative sparsity of the available human resource, it is remarkable how many people from Caithness have gone on to leave their mark on their world, and in some cases on ours as well. "The Caithness Influence" by Valerie Campbell is a meticulously researched and well presented set of biographies of nearly twenty such natives of the area. Each is covered in a chapter that ranges from three or four to fifteen or more pages in length. A few of those included are widely known. These include the notable author Neil M. Gunn. And two of the biographies are of men who are still with us, Wick-born documentary film maker David Scott and noted artist (and New York resident) Ian Scott. But for the most part the fascinating collection of men (and one woman) assembled here fall into two main groups: those who made significant contributions to science, engineering or in other ways in the UK, and those who made their mark in far flung lands.
The first group includes Alexander Bain, inventor of the electric clock and fax machine; the engineer James Bremner; geologist and naturalist Robert Dick; archaeologist Alexander Rhind and the renowned church minister William Ross. Those perhaps better remembered far from Caithness include Elizabeth Oman Yates, who on 29 November 1893 became the first woman to be elected to be a mayor in New Zealand or anywhere in the British Empire. On the other side of the world, Thurso-born James MacKay became 6th Mayor of Tampa in Florida in the 1800s. Perhaps the most notable of this group is Arthur St Clair who was born near Thurso in 1736: and who became President of the Continental Congress of the United States having previously served as a Major General in the Continental Army.