Coprolites, Cairns and Caithness Brochs
Those Norsemen, eh? As if coming over here and pillaging everything in sight wasn’t enough, they ruddy well started to rename everything. Think about it – some of Caithness’ biggest and most recognisable names Camster, Duncansby, Whaligoe, even the Flow Country (taking its name from the Old Norse ‘flóð’, a term used for bodies of water).
Even flagstone, one of Caithness’ most famous exports, owes its name to those marauding Norsemen: ‘flaga’ is an Old Norse term for slab…honestly; it was all much easier when we spoke Pictish and used Ogham!
By the 18th century Caithness Flagstone had become famed worldwide for its qualities - as a hard-wearing and easily cut stone, and so is very practical in terms of construction. By the late 18th century, Caithness flagstone was being exported throughout the globe, from Mull to New Zealand! The sun never set on the British Empire – but if it did, its rays would be glinting off stone shipped from Scotland’s most northerly county…
However, Caithness remains a fantastic place to see some wonderful archaeological structures and historic buildings which showcase this fantastic resource. Here is a by no means definitive list of some of the top spots in Caithness to enjoy the simple pleasure of a bit of ‘flaga’!
1. Really Knowing Your Coprolite
Geology is a complicated matter, so it’s best to investigate by scratching the surface, rather than with a mechanical digger. Caithness Flagstone forms part of the ‘Old Red Sandstone’ group, found across the North Atlantic, formed around 420 million years ago.
This is the time that Caithness flagstone dates to (there is Upper Caithness Flagstone groups and lower Caithness flagstone group, but, it’s all a little complicated), and the flagstone was formed after layer upon layer of sediment was formed when Caithness was actually underwater, forming part of Lake Orcadie.
If you want to find out more about Lake Orcadie and the forming of the flagstone, then make a visit to the Achnarras Quarry, beside Spittal. This is a popular spot to go fossil-hunting, and you can find many different types of fossilised fish imprinted within the slates here – oh, and fish coprolites, too!
More info here: https://www.nature.scot/sites/default/files/2017-06/Publication%202010%20-%20Fossil%20Fish%20of%20Caithness%20-%20The%20385%20million%20year%20old%20story%20of%20Achanarras%20Quarry.pdf
Fun Fact: The origin of the act of copulation has been pinpointed to fish which inhabited lakes in ancient Scotland, such as Lake Orcadie. Microbrachius dicki is the first-known animal to stop reproducing by spawning and instead mate by having sex, and is named after Thurso resident and naturalist Robert Dick!
2. Camster Cairns
These Neolithic Cairns – some of the best examples of the ‘Orkney Cromarty’ version of burial cairns – can be found a few miles north of Lybster. The ‘Grey Cairns’ are some of earliest structures to be found in the county – at around 5,000 years old - and so one of the earliest uses of Caithness flagstone. Check out the huge lintels lining the passage way as you crawl through them – made all the more impressive when you consider that all of this was done with ‘primitive’ tools. No modern-day power-saws used here!
As a member of Caithness Broch Project, I simply can’t resist talking about brochs, perhaps Caithness’ most iconic structures. For the uninitiated, these are tower-like drystone structures, built during the Iron Age, around 2000 years ago. Brochs, however, are much more than that – these are complex constructions – with double walls, staircases, scarcements, voids, galleries and many other features - which archaeologists, engineers and architects still debate over today.
Brochs are uniquely Scottish, but Caithness has more broch remains than anywhere else = although perhaps the brochs of Caithness do not quite compare to better-preserved examples in Shetland, Orkney, Western Isles or even on the mainland.
One of the best examples of a Caithness broch can be found by walking along the beautiful Dunbeath strath. This broch in particular will soon go through a conservation – and archaeological - project undertaken by the Berriedale and Dunbeath Community Council, so do join in if you get the chance. This broch and strath is mentioned in several Neil M. Gunn stories, so do take the time to investigate the area (and make sure to stop by the Dunbeath Heritage Centre afterwards!) and enjoy the exemplerary stonework of the broch. Take care when entering the cell – there is no fault with the stonework, but rather watch out for the big black spiders which reside in there! Eek!
Another ‘bonus broch’ can be found at top of Scrabster hill, beside Thurso. Many locals know this hill from the prominent ‘O’-shaped structure at the top, sometimes known as the ‘Polo Mint’. Not only is this a fine wee structure (a commemoration of the ‘Northlands Festival’, an arts festival which was held across Caithness in the late 1990s and early 2000s) in itself, but it is thought that the wee ‘bump’ on top of this hill is actually a broch, too!
For more info on brochs, visit www.thebrochproject.co.uk
4. Castlehill Heritage Centre
One simply can’t not discuss flagstone without mentioning the Castlehill Heritage Centre. This lovely wee museum, based in what was Caithness’ largest flagstone works, tells you everything you need to know about the flagstone industry in Caithness. The size and scope of the works, built by James Trail in the late 1th century, reflects the huge amount of trade and business generated by the production, cutting and shipping of flagstone in Caithness.
Once you’ve visited the centre, make sure to take some time to explore the nearby flagstone heritage trail – the centrepiece being the picturesque watermill (although broch-like in appearance, this structure was used to pump water from the quarries). The harbour, too, showcases quaint vertically-stacked flagstones, from which a beautiful view across Dunnet Bay can be had. Other quarries throughout Caithness can also be visited including Forss.
For more information, visit http://www.castletownheritage.co.uk/
5. A really really really long bit of Caithness stone
Here’s a bonus oddity – on Breadalbane Street in Wick, beside Wendy’s Salon, you’ll see a really really long bit of Caithness flagstone. You’ll see it branching across not one, but two windows of the adjacent house. Compare it to the other stone ‘bricks’ used on that house – and indeed the street – and it seems like a strange addition! I mean it’s really long. IT’S VERY LONG. Just take my word for it, and go see it. You’ll probably say “Wow, he was right. That is long.”
But, it just goes to show the versatility of Caithness stone – and I can’t help but recall the huge lintels lining Camster Cairns whenever I see it; there is a satisfaction in seeing similar features throughout history!
Everywhere you look in Caithness, you will see a remnant of the past –whether it’s an archaeological gem like a broch or cairn, or a socio-historic structure like or a watermill, harbour, Caithness ‘hoosie’, or indeed one of the many hundreds of walls found throughout the county - you can’t fail to notice that stonework has had a huge impact on this county. Taking the time to explore some of its many treasures will provide you with a fun, flaga-filled day out. And not a Viking in sight!