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AGM At Gills Harbour and Some History Below

26th March 2018

Photograph of AGM At Gills Harbour and Some History Below

An eloquent plea for a Gills Bay to Shetland sea-link from 1872, uncovered b y local 'historian Mr Morris Pottinger.

With Gills Harbour Ltd's AGM coming on Tuesday 27.03.2018 evening at 19:30 sharp, retired farmer (Caithness & Orkney) Mr Morris Pottinger, who regularly writes historical articles for the Groat and has written the book on Parish Life on the Pentland Firth about mid-17th C, has kindly sent this extract from an Orkney paper of 1872 - see below.

It refers to a place we know as The Bocht, whose name harks back to the time that there were semi-feral 'Rocky' breed of (native) sheep there as well as at Dunnet & Duncansby Heads.

The proposal came from Mr Purves, who at the time managed West Canisbay & Lochend Farms and had access to the Gills 'Pasture' before Crofters Commom Grazings were officially recognised. (1886: Crofters Scotland Act; the 1896 sequel to it formed the official UK taxpayer-funed body that paid c. 33% of the cost of the original Gills Pier (c. £750,000 i n to-day's money).

Mr Pottinger's book is based on Canisbay Kirk Session records from the 1640s to c. 1665. There is then a gap till the early 18th C

That's the time of the Royalist invasion of Caithness by the Marquess of Montrose at Sannick (He was soundly beaten at Carbisdale Battle by a contingent of the Scottish Army & then the Battle of Worcester when Cromwell's roundheads gave the Scots covenanter Army an awful beating, with some Canisbay (drafted soldiers) losses there.

Cromwell's General Monck occupied NE Caithness as a result of the first and Roundheads were mainly based at Ackergill Tower. The masked Christmas party at Canisbay proved that not all of his soldiers obeyed his call to ban the festive season celebrations especially if sex was involved as seems likely here! They built the Bridge over the Duncansby/John O'Groats Mill amd Morris thinks that they had a cannon emplacement at Ness o'Quoys.

The Kirk of course frowned on extra-marital sex, and young locals were regularly hauled before the Kirk Session especially when the girl got pregnant. The man was usually more or less compelled to offer marriage as the Kirk ... as the body with the social remit of the day ... did not ever want a fatherless bairn to be a future cost 'burden' to it.

The number of sex-related 'offences' give the impression that there was little else of local young folks' minds; of course there was the 'jougs' at Canisbay Kirk for 'guilty' parties found to have been 'fornicating' as can be read in Morris's book.

The Laird of Mey at the time was the schoolboy murderer who shot dead the Edinburgh Baillie (City Council magistrate) in a teenage riot at the Royal High after the Council there cut down on school holidays.

On a happier subject this is the time when John Knox's pledge of a school every parish came true for Canisbay; it was at Kirkstyle, and attendance for bairns was compulsory, over 200 years before that became true nationally. And the bairns had to walk from Auckengill/Freswick as well as Duncansby (modern JO'G) as well as from U & L Gills, U & L Warse and Mey.

The Kirk was generous to a party of wrecked Dutch sailors, providing them with the means to get back to the Netherlands.

The Freswick linen industry was active then: the Lint Lochies alongside the A99 on the E. Side of the Warth Hill were the 'retting' ponds where the strands of flax-plant were removed for combing/spinning with weaving also happening there.

Extract from THE ORKNEY HERALD 1872

A project for utilising the natural site of a harbour at St John's Head, Caithness involving the material development of the natural resources of the northern extremity of Great Britain, and the island groups of Orkney and Shetland, by James Purves, Lochend, Thurso.

The Sutherland and Caithness Railway Company is making rapid progress in extending through railway communication direct to the towns of Wick and Thurso, under the Act of last Session of Parliament The only available route of railway extension into Caithness adopted by the Company is through the centre of the Highland and pastoral district of the county, remote from the situations occupied by the rural and industrially productive population, and when completed, however advantageous it may be as regards direct postal and through traffic communication, it will afford little or no local railway accommodation.

The population of the county is about 40,000 whereof 28.000 inhabit the landward districts. The number of agricultural occupations is 3232 of which the largest portion is crofts along the coast, affording homes to the seafaring population engaged in the herring fisheries. The largest herring fishing station is at the harbour of Wick; and there are smaller stations dispersed along the coast. The following instance will show the advantage that local railway communication between the stations would afford to the herring fishery. The take of herrings at the Wick station in the week ending August 19f 1871 was 74,580 crans.

That week's Saturday Herring Circular says:- "The Quays, curing stations, yards, streets, and every available spot, are covered with barrels; men and women are utterly exhausted with the almost ceaseless labour of the week; large quantities of herrings are lying uncured, barrels and salt are almost exhausted and all concerned are in a condition of unprecedented excitement.11 A large proportion of the take was partially spoilt before the curing could be overtaken, and in consequence the relative value of the whole season's take at Wick was depreciated. This would have been avoided if all the extra labour and materials from the other stations could have been concentrated at Wick. The herring fishing occupies only seven weeks of the summer season. There are abundance of white fish along the coast; but these are caught at present only for home consumption, from want of access to markets which a local railway in connection with the through line would supply. Therefore when through railway extension is completed, a local railway will be required for developing the fisheries as well as for promoting the extension of the agricultural improvements of the county.

The material resources of the sea and land are so productive that a local line made at the coast of £4,500 per mile would pay an adequate return on the coast of construction, irrespective of the advantage rt would be to the through line as a feeder.In The fourth report of the Royal Commissioner on the employment of children, young persons, and women in agriculture, Mr Campion, in his report, page 123 p 2 "Caithness" ably and truly describes the condition and circumstance of the population of this county.The deplorable condition and circumstances of the population of Shetland will be amply illustrated in the report of the Royal Commissioners on the "System". The clearances of the population from the rural townships to make room for sheep, at present in operation there is a most deplorable policy. The islands are not opened up to trade and there is not sufficient local Capital for carrying on the fisheries extensively. The people live In a state of semi-starvation, fall on the poor's rates, and become an encumbrance on property, and thereafter are being cleared out, although the fisheries are capable of being made highly productive and remunerative.

The Dutch from early in the seventeenth to the middle eighteenth century, drew £2,000 000 and £3,000 000 per annum out of the Shetland fisheries, and are said to have realised altogether about £200.000 000 sterling from this source before their maritime power was broken by wars and other causes.

That the Shetland Islands still exist, that the sea still surrounds them, and that there still are fish in the surrounding area, are undeniable facts. But the 2500 Dutch Luggers, of eighty tons burden each, with forty ships of war in attendance, are not there, and it may be worthwhile to ascertain whether the present limited value of these fisheries is owing to want of such appliances or to want of abundance of fish in the sea. The present total average yearly value of all the sea fisheries of Scotland, exclusive of salmon is only £1,500,000. If the Shetland fisheries alone, a century ago, were worth one-third more than this amount to the Dutch, surely it may be taken for granted now, when the question of our food supply has become of such absorbing interest, that the development of these British fisheries still affords an ample field for enterprise and investment of capital.

Orkney is a more fertile country than either Caithness or Shetland and has made considerable progress in agricultural improvement during the last thirty years. But its fisheries are not prosecuted for the same reasons that prevent the development of those of Shetland These exceedingly valuable appendages of the United Kingdom have been neglected, and have remained in a state of semi-barbarism, while the indomitable energy of Britain has colonised the four quarters of the globe.

The present relative material position of the counties of Caithness, and of Orkney and Shetland is shown in the agricultural statistical returns of the Board of Trade.

Through railway communication wiII be of great advantage to Caithness, and when a locaf line is obtained the accommodation to this country will be complete. But Orkney and Shetland cannot be opened without a commodious harbour at the nearest and most suitable point to which the railway can be extended. The agricultural produce of Orkney and Shetland must always be of secondary importance to the fisheries. Both can only be developed, and the islands opened up to trade, by daily access to the railway through regular and adequate steamboat services.

The writer has had frequent occasions to visit Orkney and Shetland since 1842, and was engaged for some time in the management of landed estates in Orkney. The two Island groups possess special peculiarities that render them highly interesting to the lover of nature. The writer ascertained from observation and practical experience that their natural resources are of much greater importance and of much higher material value than is generally attributed to them, and he was thereby induced to devote his attention to the necessary requirements for developing their capabilities. He became tenant of the grazing of St John's Mead, the nearest point of Caithness to Orkney in 1869, and as an immediate prospect of railway extrusion afforded itself at this time, he turned his attention to the finding out of a site for a suitable harbour from which Orkney and Shetland could be opened up. The required site exists in the proper place on the east and sheltered side of St John's Head directly opposite the entrance to Longhope, the other harbours of refuge within the South Isles of Orkney and Scapa Flow, and only 8 ½ miles distant from the point of entrance.

The practicability of the route is proved by the fact that the Orkney mails and passengers were carried over it in open row boats 16 feet of keel with comparative regularity and perfect safety from the establishment of this mail service in 1844 to 1856 when Scrabster Pier was erected. They were then removed from this route and have since been conveyed from Scrabster to Stromness by mail packet, the boat remaining at Stromness overnight as Scrabster Pier and Bay do not afford adequate shelter with rough weather.

Scrabster Pier and Stromness Harbour render this route practicable for mail conveyance once a day between those points. But the experience of sixteen years proves it to be totally impracticable for passenger or other traffic. The distance from Scrabster to Stromness is over 29 mites. The passage is across the compressed and condensed Atlantic waves and exposed to the full fury of the storms from the northwest, and Hoy Sound, the inlet to Orkney by this route is often as turbulent as ocean elsewhere in toughest storm. And Stromness, on the western coast of Orkney is not in such a situation as Kirkwall for the concentration of the produce for the "North Isles."

The passage of 8 ½ miles across the Pentland Firth is sheltered from the north by the Orkney Islands and the storm waves are run down in the tides of the Firth. Those tides, whether it flood or ebb, instead of being an obstruction, can be taken west or east of Stroma so as to facilitate the passage. Within Cantick Head is a calm inland sea with harbours of refuge in which each of the "South Isles" can be called at as well as Kirkwall and Stromness.

In 1833 the Aberdeen, Leith and Clyde Shipping Company put a small steamboat on to the Orkney and Shetland trade, making trips once a fortnight between Leith, Aberdeen, Wick, Kirkwall and Lerwick. In 1838 Government entered into a contract with the Company to convey mails to Shetland weekly, with liberty to touch a! Wick and Kirkwall. This arrangement proved an incalculable boon to Orkney and Shetland, and for the last few years the contract has been extended to conveying the mails to Shetland twice a week during the summer months. This arrangement evidently is now totally inadequate, and the question is are these districts of sufficient importance from an Imperial point of view to warrant such an outlay as will bring them into daily postal and traffic communication with extreme northern railway extension, or is the further development of their resources to be indefinitely retarded by the hundreds of miles of ocean passage over which their traffic with the rest of the Kingdom is at present conveyed!

The writer, after discovering the natural site, prepared the accompanying plan of a harbour at St John's Head. The site of the harbour is in the right place, at the northern extremity of Great Britain, and in a situation which a local railway can and should approach. It is perfectiy sheltered, has ample sea room, and a depth of waler sufficient for the largest ship in the navy. Except Cromarty, where such a harbour is not required, it is the only site of a low water harbour on the north-east coast of Scotland. All engineering skill has failed in erecting harbours on this coast because the laws of nature are against them. Wick breakwater is a notable example of such failures. The perfect natural breakwater at St John's Head makes it a wild looking place, the appearance of which would frighten the highest authorities in engineering. But even with the roughest storms the pilots of the Pentland Firth take and leave the "Bought" as they call it in their yawls with perfect safety.

1. Local enterprise can do nothing in erecting such a harbour as is requisite , although it is of the utmost local importance. But as it is of national rather than merely local importance, it should be made by Government. The harbour constructed on the site ought to be commodious enough to hold a Man-of-war, and afford a point of call for all the merchant ships that pass through the Pentland Firth continuously, as weli as form the connecting link between railway extension and regular steamboat postal and traffic communication with and throughout all the islands of the Orkney and Shetland groups. The erection of such a harbour in connection with local railway extension from the through railway at Thurso round the coast to Wick and thence to Lybster would connect the town populations of Thurso. Wick and Lybster with Kirkwall, Stromness and Lerwick, and bring the whole rural and seafaring population of Caithness, Orkney and Shetland into direct and daily communication throughout. Thereby the productive powers of the industry of this whole northern community would be increased manifold, and ever-increasing supplies of produce would be obtained from the inexhaustible resources of sea and land.

The through railway would afford regular and direct access to market for the perishable fish produce, the demand for which would incite the exertion necessary for obtaining the supply and capital for profitable investment would find its way north. The population, instead of continuing to diminish as shown by last Census, would again take up a continuous ratio of increase. This county showed the greatest increase of rural population of all others in the kingdom during the previous decades of the century. Orkney and Shetland also showed a progressive increase. No population could have been more productively employed than in such permanent improvement of the soil as has been effected in this country; and the bone and sinew of the industry of this northern district are now emigrating, not from want of ample field demanding further improvement, but from want of investment of capital in the employment of labour.

It is unnecessary to discuss the restriction on the investment of Capital in the improvement of the soil of Great Britain. In the Dominion of Canada there are no such restrictions, and she opens her arms to receive any number of the strong, muscular, energetic, healthy and intelligent sons of our small crofters and labourers, who would a thousand times rather remain at home if they saw any prospect of maintaining themselves comfortably in the social relations of life. This is denied them, and thus it happens that all the young men are emigrating who are worth the having, and no doubt they go for their individual good. But the females are unfortunate. The lads go abroad and the young women cannot remain at home. They go south to service, and their family ties are broken. Something of the nature and extent of the present exodus may be realised from the following paragraph extracted from a recent issue of a local paper-
*It is touching, week after week, to witness the parting scenes at Scrabster and Wick, as the steamers leave our shores. Fathers and mothers bid farewell to sons and daughters, and the last fond look and waving of handkerchiefs parts them probably for ever. These occur as regularly as the steamers sail, and have been going on to an extent that would awaken a feeling of intensity but for its regularity. We venture to say that if all the lads and lasses that have been deported from here for the last six months were to march along the streets of Wick and Thurso in single file, there would be such a commotion as was never witnessed in either town, and people's eyes would be opened to the terrible calamity which the country is suffering."

This process of expatriation progresses at an equal ratio from Orkney and Shetland. The sources of the supply of Industry Is thus forsaking this northern district, while its waste lands are only developed to a limited extent because its resources are not opened up by the application of Capital in the employment of labour.

The Poor Law Amendment (Scotland) Act 1843 has conduced towards bringing about the present deplorable state of matters in Shetland, and to include Shetland under a general Truck Act for the United Kingdom before the country is opened up to trade and the investment of Capital, would be disastrous in the extreme. The acquisition of a commodious harbour would be the keystone of the situation, and the cost thereof is the great desideration. Government has been amply recouped for the outlays in Highland Roads and Bridges by the enhanced material improvement over the North of Scotland, and it would also be as amply recouped for the cost of making this harbour by the enhanced productiveness of these hitherto shamefully neglected islands. Their Northern Seas are the most productive fishing grounds of the United Kingdom. They are capable of yielding an amount of nutritious food equivalent to that of the whole foreign livestock at present imported and it cannot be gainsaid that the development of the fisheries thereof is a matter of National importance as regards their produce. It is also of National importance as there is no other nursery for seamen in her Majesty's dominions to be compared with the West Hebrides, the West Coast, the County of Caithness, and the Orkney and Shetland Islands, where the great bulk of the population are trained to a seafaring life while engaged in the fisheries.

Therefore, it would be of vast advantage to cultivate such a source of supply for manning the navy, and to have one or two training ships of war stationed in these northern seas, with a depot at the harbour and railway terminus. There would be no fear of losing the ships as there would be harbours of refuge in each quarter, affording perfect shelter from every storm that can blow. There is no lee-shore in the Pentland Firth, and "The Pilots of the Pentland Firth" are the bravest of men and the best of sailors, who would teach the naval p5.

p 6 officers to keep their ships afloat until the sea wear their bottoms thin and they have to be docked in the harbours to get related. Wars and commotions are still on the wing and should Britain lose supremacy of the seas her National prosperity must now cease and undermine.

The accompanying engravings show:- (NOTE from The engravings mentioned are not available for this publication)
1. A plan of the proposed harbour at St John's Head.
2. The Admiralty chart of Pentland Firth with continuous lines showing the
proposed route of Caithness local railway and site of proposed harbour and
dotted lines showing route of steamboats through South. Isles of Orkney.
3. The present steamboat routes to Caithness, Stornoway, Orkney and Shetland, also the Sutherland and Caithness railway route, proposed. Caithness local railway route by lines and proposed mail service, passenger and traffic route from proposed harbour through Orkney and Shetland - completed by red dotted lines.

This district has been totally devoid of influential representation since the death of the last Norwegian Earl Magnus. There is nothing truer in practice than that "Everyone's business is no one's business." And although the importance, advisability and practicability of a scheme of such national importance can be proved to a demonstration, this may not secure its adoption and execution. Nevertheless the writer is induced to submit the scheme through the press to the consideration of the discerning public in the hope that attention may be directed to the subject, with speedy realisation of results beneficial alike to the population of this remote Northern district and to the nation at large.


Thanks to Bill Mowat for sending the item transcribed by Morris Pottinger

It may still be possible to buy a second hand copy of Morris Pottinger,s book at -

A CRAN - explanation
From Morris Pottinger's blog "Rain On My Window" - "Herring Days in Stronsay" 4th July 2008.
In Great Britain, a unit of capacity for fish, specifically herring, since 1852 the quantity needed to fill 37½ imperial gallons (about 6.03 cubic feet, or 170.5 liters). Since 1832 it had been defined legally as 45 wine gallons, almost exactly the same value.1 Under the Herring Industry Board's rules, and Weights and Measures Regulations, any herring not sold by the cran must be sold by weight. A cran but can vary from 700 to 2500.2
The cran originated in Scotland as a heaped measure. A standard but bottomless 30-gallon herring barrel was filled to overflowing with fish, and then the barrel was lifted off. Because the fish were heaped, the resulting pile contained more than 30 gallons of herring - observers estimated around 34 wine gallons. 4
In the United States, the size of the cran was fixed "from and after the first day of June, 1816, the cran to be used for the purchase and sale of fresh herrings...shall be of the content or capacity of forty-two gallons English wine measure."

The History of Caithness by J.T. Calder

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