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Thurso, pp.752-754.

[Gazetteer of Scotland Contents]

   THURSO, a parish on the north coast of Caithness-shire; bounded on the north by the North sea; on the east by Olrig and Bower; on the south by Halkirk; and on the west by Reay. Its greatest length from east to west is 7½ miles; its greatest breadth is 7 miles; and its area is about 35 square miles. The surface gently rises from the shore, and is throughout a slightly inclined plane, interspersed with small eminences, and presenting a rich prospect of pleasant villas and well-cultivated fields. The rivers Thurso and Forss add much to its beauty, and run northward, the former through the interior, and the latter along the western boundary. The coast, 7½ miles in extent in a straight line, but about 11 along its sinuosities, has a flat and fine hard sandy beach in the vicinity of the town, but elsewhere is in general rocky. MURKLE-BAY [which see] is on the east; a small bay, formed by the embouchure of the Forss, is on the west; and the bay of Thurso, about 4 square miles in area, is in the centre. Connected with the last are the roads and the House of SCRABSTER: which see. The small headland of Brimsness flanks the estuary of the Forss. The magnificent promontory of Holborn-head runs out on the west side of Thurso-bay; and forms a twin object to Dunnet-head, 7 miles to the north-east, at the entrance of Dunnet-bay. The rocks west of Holborn exhibit astonishing scenes of natural grandeur; and an insulated rock, called the Clett, situated about 240 feet from its extremity, rises to the height of 400 feet, is covered in summer by vast flocks of sea-fowl, and often sports sublimely with the wild seas which rush against it with tempestuous power. The whole scenery of Thurso-bay is often a shaking and shifting panorama of very high grandeur. “The lengthened waves, thundering along the shores of the spacious crescent-shaped bay, arrest a stranger’s attention, as their curling crests break upon and splash up the sandy slope at his feet. The white streak and the hollow moan of each billow, as it yields up its power, lead away the eye and ear to the sides of the bay; formed of precipitous rocks, and terminated by the high bluff promontories of Holborn and Dunnet, over the top of which, though upwards of 400 feet in height, the spray dashes during storms, and on which even the sea-pink and the short tufted grass hardly obtain a footing. In the distance, the prodigious western precipices of Hoy, which form perhaps the most magnificent cliff-scenery in Britain, with the outlines of the Orkney-hills, compose a most splendid termination to the sea-ward view. The traveller should not fail to walk as far as Holborn-head, where the majestic mural and fissured cliffs, with the Clett, a huge detached rock, the boundless expanse and heaving swell of old Ocean, and the clouds of screaming sea-birds, afford a perfect epitome of this style of scenery.” [Guide to the Highlands.] The soil of the parish is principally clay and loam lying on rock. The arable and the untitled lands bear the proportion to each other of 6 to 5. About 3,000 acres are so poor that they could not be profitably improved. Wood covers a less area than 50 acres. Old red sandstone, which is the principal rock, is extensively quarried both for building and for exportation as pavement-flag; between 200 and 300 men being employed in dressing it into flags, A coarse clay-slate abounds; trap occurs principally on the coast; and both are quarried. There are appearances of lead ore. Thurso-castle, the seat of Sir George Sinclair of Ulbster, Bart., stands a little east of the town, and on the very brink of the bay. It was built, in 1660, by George Earl of Caithness; passed, in 1718, into the possession of the present owner’s ancestor; and possesses much interest as the birth-place and home of the well-known Sir John Sinclair, Bart.,1 the promoter of the Old Statistical Account, and the Agricultural Reports, and of his talented daughters Lady Colquhoun, Miss Hannah Sinclair, and Miss Catherine Sinclair, distinguished as elegant and lively writers. “A recent addition,” says the last of these ladies in her Northern Circuit, “has been made to Thurso-castle, planned and executed by Burn, the cobbler-general of worn-out houses, by whom ancient edifices are mended, cleaned, dyed, and repaired, to look as good as new, or even better. When A—– perceived some flaws in the architecture of several old castles lately, he wished they were all ‘Burn’d’ like ours. Certainly the situation here is somewhat uncommon. In former times showers of spray from the ocean used to dash up to our drawing-room window, when the waves, curling and grating along the shore, sometimes struck at the foundation with animated vehemence, and rebounded among the rocks, till at length a breakwater was raised to defend the wall. You might have imagined that in such a position as I have described, this house was near enough to the sea; but my father liked the peculiarity of being so intimate with the wild winds and waves; so he caused a strong pier to be raised between the old castle and the water, on which Mr. Burn has contrived securely to perch a terrace-walk and an appendix to the building. Several very handsome new apartments are here, from the windows of which I can at this moment count a procession of twenty vessels in full sail, some of which come so close, they are tacking into the very room.” The other principal mansions are Murke-house, Sir John Gordon Sinclair, Bart., and Forss-house, James Sinclair, Esq. Harold’s-tower, a mile east of the town, was built by the late Sir John Sinclair, over the grave of Harold, Earl of Caithness, and is an elegant monument, exhibiting at a distance a somewhat striking appearance. Earl Harold was possessor of the half of Caithness, Orkney, and Shetland; and fell in battle in 1190, while attempting to recover his property from the usurpation of a tyrannical namesake. The Oswalds of Glasgow were originally from Thurso; and Richard Oswald, one of the plenipotentiaries from Great Britain for settling the peace of 1783, was an unsuccessful candidate for the office of Thurso parochial schoolmaster. Two great lines of road run respectively southward and along the coast. Population, in 1801, 3,628; in 1831, 4,679. Houses 739. Assessed property, in 1815, £8,353. – Thurso is in the presbytery of Caithness, and synod of Sutherland and Caithness. Patron, Sir George Sinclair, Bart. Stipend £203 7s.; glebe £17 10s. Unappropriated teinds £193 12s. 10d. The parish-church was built in 1832. Sittings 1,540. A catechist is employed by the Society for propagating Christian knowledge. – An Original Associate congregation was formed before the year 1775; and their meeting-house was built in 1777, at a cost of about £400. Sittings 950. Stipend £70, with a house and garden worth £10. – An Independent congregation was formed, and a chapel built, in 1799. Sittings 940. The minister has a house worth £12 a-year. – A Scottish Baptist congregation was established in 1805; and their place of worship was built in 1831. Sittings about 60. Stipend £23 from the Baptist Home Missionary society, and a variable sum from the congregation with a dwelling-house. – The population, according to a survey by the parish minister in 1836, was about 4,800; of whom 4,000 were stated to be churchmen, and 800 dissenters. – In 1834, the parish school was attended by 32 scholars; and 16 other schools – 13 of which were in the town, and 3 in the country – were attended by 505. Parochial schoolmaster’s salary £35, with £50 fees, and £12 other emoluments. 

   THURSO, a town and burgh-of-barony, at the mouth of Thurso-water, in the cognominal parish, 20 miles west by south of John-o’-Groat’s-house, 20¾ north-west of Wick, 29 south-south-west of Stromness, 44 east-north-east of Tongue, 160 north by east of Inverness, and 326½ north by west of Edinburgh. It consists of an old and a new town. The former is irregular, ill-paved, dull, dirty, and disagreeable. The latter occupies a pleasant and elevated situation on the south-west; and, if completed on the regular, elegant, and extensive plan on which it was originally designed, would he a truly fine metropolis of the far north. But the plan has been very partially executed; it has for many years been almost practically abandoned; and it possesses no prospect of being, at any definite period, resumed. The new town, therefore, is merely a handsome suburb, regularly edificed with neat sandstone houses. The parish-church is a splendid edifice, from a design by Burn; and has a tower 140 feet high. “The new church at Thurso,” says Miss Sinclair, “the chief expense of building which, in a very superior style of architecture, was incurred by my father, is quite a little cathedral, being the handsomest edifice north of Inverness, partly formed of a very hard stone imported from Morayshire.” Its cost was about £6,000. The former church was an old substantial Gothic building. The only other noticeable edifices are a masonic-lodge, a public ball-room, and a large, substantial, elegant stone-bridge across the river. There was, at one time, a town-house; but it fell into decay; and its site was sold to a private person. Linen, woollen, leather, and herring net manufactures employ about 230 persons; and the manufacture of straw-plait employs about 60 females. The fisheries in the bay are very extensive; and, along with the dressing of flags in the neighbouring quarries, afford the chief employment. Their annual aggregate value is about £5,000; and the salmon-fishery – greatly celebrated, and the only one not free – is let at £1,000. The parish books record that, in 1786, no fewer than 2,560 salmon were caught with one sweep of the net! But the Thurso fishermen experience such excessive vicissitudes of success and failure as defy all foresight, and occasionally wear a dash of romance. “Sometimes,” says the lady already twice quoted, “they make ten pounds at a single haul; and often not tenpence in a day. I was particularly sorry for one Caithness fisherman this year, who had caught 60 crans, each equal to a barrel of herrings, at a single draught, worth about £30, but wishing to complete the 100 crans, he tried another successful pull, which sunk his boat worth £100, carried away his net, and left the unfortunate speculator with nothing but his life remaining.” The harbour, when a bar at its entrance has been crossed, is abundantly safe. A bill has been brought into parliament for constructing in the bay of Thurso a commission-harbour, the trustees to be several of the principal proprietors and leading individuals in Thurso and its vicinity, together with all lenders or holders of stock to the amount of £100. The bay of Thurso lies exactly at the western entrance of the Pentland firth, and is in the direct course of the North Sea trade with our American possessions. It is a capacious and secure roadstead in all weathers, and naturally adapted for the construction of a complete and convenient harbour. In 1840, the number of vessels belonging to it was 14; and the number trading to it about 40. Two of the vessels communicate regularly with Leith. A considerable quantity of grain is exported. A weekly market is held on Friday; and annual fairs for cattle and sheep are held in June, July, and September. A mail-coach runs daily to Wick; and a coach runs three times a-week to Tongue. The town has branch-offices of the Commercial Bank of Scotland, and the Aberdeen Town and Country bank; two reading-rooms; two circulating libraries; five friendly societies; and a society for the relief of the destitute sick. Thurso is a place of great antiquity, and is traditionally stated to have been founded in the 12th century. Sir John Sinclair thinks that it may have been the centre of the early commerce of Caithness; and, from the fact, according to Skene’s account of the assize of King David, that the weight of Caithness was made a standard over all Scotland, he thinks that that commerce must have been extensive. In 1633, the town was erected into a burgh-of-barony, by Charles I., in favour of John, Master of Berridale. During nearly two centuries, it was the chief seat of sheriff of Caithness’ courts, and the residence of the sheriff-clerk and procurators; and it was deprived of these honours, which virtually made it the county town, only by the superior and magistrates of Wick raising an action, and proving that they were usurped. The bailies of Thurso continue to be named in all the Supply Acts as commissioners; and the eldest bailie is uniformly appointed a justice-of-the-peace, and a county road trustee. The customary authorities are two bailies, a dean-of-guild, and 12 councillors, who were elected usually by the superior, but occasionally by the old councillors, jointly with the superior or his baron-bailie. A new election seldom occurred, except upon the death of one of the bailies; and, during 7 or 8 years preceding the date of the Municipal corporation inquiry, there was only one bailie. The late Sir John Sinclair, however, allowed the inhabitants to assemble annually and elect six individuals, and out of this list he named the three magistrates. The jurisdiction extends, by charter, over only the old town, but, by agreement, comprehends the new town. The bailie courts, say the Commissioners, “have not been efficient; and, at present, the only regular court held at Thurso is that of the justice-of-the-peace for small debts, which sits once a fortnight.” There are no corporations, exclusive privileges, or exactments for burgess-ship; so that trade is absolutely free. No other police exists than that ordinarily exercised in burghs-of-barony, for the suppression of petty delinquencies. There is no burgh property, no revenue, no debt. Feuars pay their proportion of county taxes; and burgh cess and market customs to the superior, amount jointly, to only £24 or £25 a-year. Population, in 1833, about 2,700; rental about £2,640; houses of £10 and upwards 64, – of from £5 to £10,116.

1  Sir John Sinclair was born on the 10th of May, 1754. He received the rudiments of a classical education at the High school of Edinburgh; carried on his studies at the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow; and completed them at Oxford. In 1780, Sir John was first chosen to represent his native county; and, with the exception of a short interval, he continued in the House of Commons till the year 1811, – a period of above 30 years. Having succeeded in the establishment of a Board of Agriculture, he presided over this great national institution, without emolument, for many years. To the exertions of the Board this country is indebted, in a great degree, for its rapid progress in the art of husbandry. A spirit of enterprise and of invention was excited among the farming classes, and a dignity attached to agriculture which it never had before acquired. Agricultural associations suddenly sprung up on every side, reports were published, in 50 volumes octavo, describing accurately every county in the United Kingdom, and the substance of the information thus accumulated was digested, by Sir John himself, into his ‘Code of Agriculture.’ Among the labours undertaken by Sir John, the most arduous, and perhaps the most successful, was ‘The Statistical Account of Scotland,’ – the foundation of the present work, and the prototype of the New Statistical Account, now in course of publication. So little had the subject been at that time attended to, that the very term “statistics” was of his invention. The work was first commenced in 1790; it was prosecuted uninterruptedly for seven years, during which a correspondence was carried on with all the clergy of the Church of Scotland, amounting nearly to 1,000; and it was brought successfully to completion by the gradual publication of 21 thick octavo volumes, in which a separate account is given of every parish in North Britain. 

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