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Dateline: Wednesday 26 December 2007

Cannon ball found in West Murkle Garden

The cannon ball on the left was found in a west Murkle garden. It weighs in at an impressive 22lbs (~10 kg) and is about 4 inches (100mm) in diameter. Local historian George Watson believes it came either from one of Cromwell's frigates in 1654 or from John Gow's pirate ship in 1724. The smaller ball on the right is about 2 inches in diameter. Both are remarkably well preserved and are on display as part of the Castletown at Sea exhibition currently running at the Castlehill Heritage Centre (weekends 1-3pm).

If anyone can shed any further light on the nature or history of these artefacts, please get in touch.

Dateline: Saturday 15 December 2007


Committee Christmas Dinner

Yesterday evening the Castletown Heritage Society committee members and their partners took a well earned break from their duties and efforts with a Christmas dinner at the St Clair Arms Hotel in Castletown.

After a first class meal courtesy of Andrew Mackay and his team we were entertained by John Innes and his karaoke extravaganza. Whilst we perhaps might have chosen to sit other than directly in front of the PA system, we had a ring-side seat to watch the star performers, first prize for which must go to a group of teachers from Thurso High School. Also in atttendance were the committee and helpers from Castletown Play Group. All in all a thoroughly enjoyable evening!

Sair heids aside it was back to business today with the Castlehill Centre open from 1pm to 3pm every Saturday and Sunday over the winter season. The current main feature is an exhibition exploring the fascinating relationship between Castletown and the Parish of Olrig and the sea. We will be open on Boxing Day if you are out and about walking off the excesses of Christmas Day!

Clockwise from left - Muriel Murray (Chairwoman), Liz Buchan, Keith Murray, Fiona Wares, John Crowden.


Clockwise from left - Bill Smith, John Crowden, Benny Geddes, Liz Geddes, High Crowden, Christine Crowden, Anne Smith

Dateline: Saturday 17 November 2007
Official Opening declared outstanding success

Figurehead from the schooner 'Flower of Olrig'

The long held aspirations of Castletown Heritage Society to create a multi-purpose exhibition and vernacular skills centre were finally realised today when Lord Maclennan of Rogart performed the official Opening Ceremony at the Castlehill Heritage Centre.

A large audience of invited guests and visitors turned out to hear Chairwoman Muriel Murray explain how the Centre had been developed through the hard work and dedication of Society members, friends and supporters, including a number of local contractors and suppliers. She also thanked the various organisations who lent financial support, either directly (Highland 2007 Community Fund and Lottery Fund Awards for All) or in kind (UKAEA Dounreay, Invisible Heating Systems and Caithness Stone Industries) through the generous donation of materials.

In his speech, Lord Maclennan paid tribute to the vision and dedication of the Society, whose drive and enthusiasm had been recognised as a leading inspiration for the North Highland Initiative.

A key feature of the opening ceremony was the launch of Castletown and the Sea - an exhibition exploring the fascinating relationship between Castletown and the Parish of Olrig and the sea - the Viking landings, the export of Flagstone from Castlehill Harbour to as far afield as Argentina, India and Australia, local heroes of the high seas, fishing, the many ships that foundered in the area, wartime events and more.

In declaring the centre open Lord Maclennan reflected that the content of the exhibition demonstrated the adaptabilty and resourcefulness of the local population throughout history to the present day.

The exhibition and Heritage Centre will be open from 1pm to 3pm every Saturday and Sunday over the winter and other times by arrangement.

Chairwoman Muriel Murray

Lord Maclennan of Rogart

The Centre is officially declared open!


A steady stream of visitors arrived throughout the afternoon

Products from Joanne Karr's workshop on paper making

Open Day and display of results from the Vernacular Skills Workshops.

Sat 27 October 2007

In stark contrast to the damp and dreich weather, a warm welcome awaited everyone who came along to the Open Day on Saturday 27th October.

On display were examples of what was achieved during the vernacular skills workshops held as part of the Highland 2007 Year of Culture Community Programme. Many of the workshop tutors were on hand to explain the techniques and skills used including Joanne Karr, Nona Mackay and the ladies of Murkle Rural, and Ann Johnston, whose sessions on spinning and carding were very popular.

Visitors were also able to view the latest progress in developing the Castlehill Heritage Centre, including the access arrangements through the garden courtyard.

Click here for a full report on each of the skills workshops, or click on the Highland 2007 tab above.

Treadle powered wood working lathe and samples of work by local craftsman Alan Jones.

The access path through the garden is now all but complete - well done Hugh and Muriel!

This event was supported by Highland 2007 & LEADER+.

Chairwoman Muriel Murray describes the layout of the water channel which runs to the south of Castlehill House grounds and which fed the flagstone works and the farm mill via a diverter sluice. The mill channel runs through the Heritage Centre grounds.

The site of the main stone cutting machines and overshot water wheel

John Crowden describes the linear layout of the stone cutting machines. The two dam discharge pipes that powered the overshot wheel can be seen in the background

The interlocking structure of the drainage channel from the flagstone works has stood the test of time and the ravages of the Pentland Firth

Castletown Heritage contributes to Highland Archaeology Fortnight 07 October 2007

One of the tourist attractions available to visitors to the French capital is a visit to " les Egouts de Paris" commonly billed as the "Sewers of Paris". The trip takes tourists down the many underground channels under the streets. These contain not the effluent of the city but the pipes and cables carrying power and communications, electricity ,gas, water, telephone and television services.

A similar experience awaited those intrepid walkers who joined Castletown Heritage on a tour of the network of underground water channels which were constructed in the early 19th century to bring water power to the village water mills and flagstone works.

The natural supplies from Ruther Myre and the Loch of Durran were harnessed by means of dams, sluices and mill lades. The construction of these channels is of remarkable standard, using the local stone in horizontal and vertical settings. In places the underground water ways are high enough to walk through.

Sadly many of the channels and underground works are now overgrown and damaged but the quality, ingenuity and extent of the engineered structures can be readily appreciated.

Contributing greatly to the enjoyment of the afternoon's explorations was the presence of local historian George Watson and archaeologist Paul Humphreys, who brought their combined historical and engineering knowledge into play.

The day was judged to have been stimulating, raising more questions and areas for investigation than answers and easy explanations.

The mill at Sandend also contained a sawmill, grain stores and latterly, a slaughterhouse. Sadly the oldest parts of the building are now in an advanced state of decay.

To the left of the Stannergill Burn the water channel that supplied the mill can be seen on the raised embankment (above the dyke). The channel continued from this point carried on stone pillars to the mill race.

The sluice gates on the dam at the Garth are now crumbling ruins

The quality of the stonework in the underground channels remains impressive

The warren of underground channels can pose hazards for the unwary

Underfloor heating pipes in place, ready for cement grout pour

Archive store nearing completion 25 Sept 07

Thanks to a few long sessions by Hugh and David the internal walls and fireproof roof lining are now complete. The final stage will be to finish the floor and complete installation of the electrics, fire detection system and ventilation.

Neil in action fixing the pipework. The reflective boiler suit is handy in the dark evenings....

James Henderson in action skimming the top soil

"That's a grand machine that" - "Aye" - "You're no far wrong"

When finished, the cleared area will be the disabled car park

Hugh directs Gordon as he pours clean metal into the drain trench

Outdoor work session at Castlehill 23 Sept 07

A marathon ten hour session on Sunday by five stalwart workers saw great strides made in the construction of the disabled parking area at the entrance to the Heritage Centre and improvements to drainage and surfacing within the courtyard.

With expert guidance from James Henderson the entrance area was cleared and levelled, ready for laying of hardcore. All the top soil has been retained for use within raised beds and similar features that will be constructed later as part of a heritage themed garden within the courtyard area.

A new surface water drain was laid down the centre of the courtyard and recycled demolition rubble, kindly donated by George Campbell, was spread to adjust the courtyard level, again in preparation for finishing with compacted hardcore.

There's still much to do but the external areas are now definitely starting to look the part.

The next key activity outside is to complete the access path, which can be seen in the bottom right photo, and instal the new access gate in the wall adjacent to the 'Flower of Olrig'.

Watch this space!

Gordon gets to grips with the tracked excavator

James shows how it should be done

Recycled demolition rubble being used to raise the finished level in the courtyard

Still some way to go, but the courtyard is starting to take shape

Mystery Object unveiled

Visitors on the Doors Open Day were challenged to identify a mystery object, seen here atop a wash tub. Therein lies the answer for we can reveal that the device was the agitator for the fore-runner of the modern washing machine. Rotating the handle activates an ingenious mechanism which produces an oscillating (self reversing) motion on a pair of paddles attached to the central shaft and immersed within the washing.

Well done to all who took part in the challenge, although no-one managed to guess correctly!

Doors Open Day - Saturday 8 September

A pleasing number of interested visitors took advantage of Doors Open Day to call in to Castlehill Heritage Centre. On display were reminders of some of the traditional skills common in the village in bygone days, side by side with examples of work done during the summer traditional skills workshops run by CHS.

We were delighted to welcome both local people and visitors from further afield such as Ross-shire and Sutherland. Prize for the most distant visitors goes to Canadian Marilyn Mowat and her sister from Mission, British Columbia. For Marilyn it was a nostalgic voyage of discovery as her great great grandfather had lived in Castletown. George Mowat, a shoemaker married the girl next door Jane Sutherland in the Free Church, Thurso in the mid 1800s. Most of the family eventually emigrated but David and William stayed. Robert Mowat farmed West Mey and his daughter married Alec Nicolson. If these names seem familiar to you get in touch with CHS and we will pass on the info to Marilyn.

Good news for aspiring Drystone Dykers

For anyone who missed or was unable to attend one of our series of Drystone Dyking training courses and can't wait until our next course next year, fear not! Dave Goulder, master craftsman, will shortly be holding a two day training course based in Dunbeath. For further details contact Augusta Hutt by email on

Castletown Heritage Society works with the Prince's Charities

Castletown Drill Hall was the location of the launch by HRH the Prince of Wales of an important initiative which is sure to have a positive effect on the future of the village.

The North Highland Initiative has already had success both in raising the profile of local produce through the Mey Selections brand name and in working to realise the potential of long-term tourism growth in the north. Now a Built Environment Advisory Group has been established to explore the under-developed potential of the built heritage in the far north.

Representatives from Castletown Heritage joined a range of residents, business people, farmers, planners and others with an interest in Castletown, first at a Scoping Meeting and later at a 3- day Enquiry by Design workshop. Using their inside knowledge of the village CHS members were able to guide the others round the many interesting buildings and tell them the story of Castletown's past.

Prior to formally launching the new venture HRH Prince Charles, the Duke of Rothesay, joined the groups who were working on various aspects of possible plans and lay-outs for a sustainable future for the village. Click here for a link to the Prince's speech.

The North Highland Initiative hopes that "the radical approach being taken at Castletown to forge a long-term plan for regeneration will become a model for the entire region and beyond."

Two evening public meetings were well attended and the follow-up report on progress is awaited in September or early October.

Click on these links for further information on:

The Prince's Foundation For The Built Environment

The Prince's Regeneration Trust

Muriel Murray and Liz Geddes at the Scoping Meeting, exploring potential opportunities for the regeneration of Castletown

Photograph courtesy of The Prince's Foundation


New access path leading down the courtyard to what will be the main access door to exhibition area (visible above in the corner just beyond the drystone wall partitioning the patio area)

Progress at Castlehill Centre - 19 August 2007

When snatches of decent weather allow, Hugh and his team have been busy creating the access path that will ultimately lead visitors from a new gate to be created in the south wall of the courtyard (next to the 'Flower of Olrig' feature) through the heritage garden area to the main entrance of the Vernacular Skills facility and exhibition space.

Hugh has also been busy constructing the final part of the first phase of the conversion works - the creation of an atmospherically controlled archive store for the extensive collection of artefacts owned by Castletown Heritage Society. In common with the other areas in the Centre, the Archive Store will feature an underfloor heating system designed and supplied by Invisible Heating Systems of Ullapool.

Construction underway of insulated, fireproof walls in Archive Store

This week's mystery photo

Castletown Heritage is deeply indebted to Sena Leitch and the family of the late Sinclair Gunn of Castletown in allowing the Society to take custody of the artefacts accumulated by Sinclair Gunn during his lifetime, such that the people of the village and others may benefit from seeing what is truly an eclectic collection - everything from matchboxes to mangles!

Among the many diverse items discovered in various sheds and cupboards were boxes of glass negatives that offer an intriguing glimpse into life in Castletown almost 90 years ago. It was a privilege to be offered Sinclair's collection, but a particular one to be party to the photographs, which after all allow us to share intimate family moments.

In 2005 we published a selection of the photographs as a calendar and whilst we were able to trace the background to most of the images, this one has left us puzzled.

Can you help us identify the location or the story behind the photograph? If so, we would be delighted to hear from you.

If you can help, please contact us at:

Flagstone Village Book

Now available on CD ROM

Our comprehensive and highly popular 144 page illustrated book (ISBN 0-9542738-0-X) on the history of the village and parish is now available to purchase on CD ROM, priced at £15 plus post & packing.

To order your copy please contact:

Annual General Meeting

Wednesday 25 April 07

Feedback was very positive from the large crowd of attendees at the Castletown Heritage Annual General Meeting which was held in the newly opened Castlehill Heritage Centre. In presenting her annual report Chairwoman Muriel Murray reflected on what had been achieved through the hard work and dedication of members and their families. Whilst some minor finishing is still to be completed, the Vernacular Skills centre is now fully operational and had hosted the very successful Rope, Basket and Paper Making workshop over the previous week. Future plans already under consideration include developing a further part of the building in conjunction with the River of Stone archeological project.

The eclectic collection of artefacts gathered by the Society over the years will now be progressively transferred to the building, catalogued and put on display in a series of themed exhibitions, the first of which will be held later in the year on the theme Castletown and the Sea.

The guest speaker for the evening was Nan Bethune of Dunbeath Preservation Trust who delivered a fascinating insight into Caithness place names with Pictish derivations.

The following office bearers were duly elected to serve for the 07/08 session:

Chairwoman: Muriel Murray

Vice Chair: Elizabeth Geddes

Secretary: Fiona Wares

Treasurer: John Moar

Committee: Neil Buchan, Christine Crowden, Hugh Crowden, Anne Smith, Agnes Swanson

Muriel Murray discussing recent acquisitions with Gordon Calder

Nan Bethune in action

AGM photos courtesy of Sheila Moir

South end of Vernacular Skills area approaching completion.

Now where does this bit go?

David Swanson installing handrails on the disabled access ramp

Castlehill update - 17 Apr 07

Last minute preparations and finishing works are in hand to have the Vernicular Skills Facility within Castlehill Heritage Centre operational by Thursday 19th April in time for the first of a series of workshops organised as part of the Highland 2007 Community Programme.

The flagstone floor is complete bar some grouting, access and fire doors now installed and operational, fire alarm system installed and commissioning underway, plumbing works approaching completion, disabled access ramps completed and general finishing in hand. The list of minor snagging identified during the building works control inspection earlier this week is all but complete and subject to a satisfactory drains test on Wednesday 18th it should be all systems go for Thursday opening.

Whilst the vast majority of the work has been done by our willing band of volunteers we have been very grateful for the last minute support of Barnies Electrical, O'Brien Construction and Corrie Plumbing for their assistance in ensuring the opening deadline will be met.

New main access fire doors and disabled access ramp

John Moar commissioning the fire alarm system

Disabled toliet complete and ready for finishing

Muriel presenting John with a farewell gift from the Society

(Sorry about the poor quality of the photograph - that reflective jacket really confused the camera!)

Aberdeen 1 Castletown 0 - 29 March 07

Aberdeen's gain is very much Castletown's loss as John Crowden, Secretary and long time stalwart of Castletown Heritage Society handed in his resignation at the committee meeting on Thursday 29 March. John is heading off to a new job in the Silver City and to mark the occasion Muriel Murray, Chairwoman, presented John with a farewell gift and card.

John has been an active member of the Society from its earliest days and has been involved in most things the Society has done over the years, from establishing the Heritage Trail and production of various publications to the recent building works at Castlehill. Whatever needed to be done John could be counted on to wield a spade, screw driver, hammer, pen or whatever was required to tackle the job in hand.

We wish him well in his new job in Aberdeen.

Installation of the underfloor heating pipework and flagstone progresses in a phased manner

Flagstone floor underway - 27 March 07

With the lining out and painting of vernacular skills centre all but complete, work has started to lay a genuine Caithness flagstone floor which will be a distinctive and highly appropriate feature of the finished facility. Prior to laying the stone, high efficiency floor insulation slabs were laid and the underfloor heating pipework clipped to the top surface. This is an interesting task in itself due to the pipe having at times a mind of its own!

The materials for the underfloor heating system were sourced from Invisible Heating Systems in Ullapool who were not only very competitive, but have been extremely helpful in designing the system and providing installation advice.

The flagstone, which again has been sourced locally - from Caithness Stone Industries - is nominally 25mm thick and has been supplied cut to a size appropriate to ensure compliance with the HSE Manual Handling Regulations. Approximately one quarter of the floor area has now been laid thanks to Hugh's sterling work and already it is starting to look really impressive!

Knit one, purl one anyone?

Clearing the collapsed channel

Gordon gets well stuck in

Drains come to life at Castlehill - 18 March 07

The good weather in March has enabled outside work to progress at Castlehill. To the north of the building the soil drain biodigester has been coupled up, ready for connection of the control system.

To the south of the building the approach area has been cleared, new hardcore laid and the construction of a wheelchair access ramp built out of reclaimed Caithness flagstone is underway, ready for the first events in April.

To the south and east, existing eighteenth century building drains have been refurbished to improve drainage in front of the main entrance door and within the courtyard area. The drains, which were found to be channelled out of the solid rock in some areas were in the form of a box channel constructed out of flagstone and in most areas were still draining freely, but a section in the centre of the courtyard had collapsed at some time in the past, resulting in the water draining from the approach area backing up and seeping into the courtyard. This has now been remedied with new drainage pipe installed with the assistance and expert guidance of James Henderson. The difference in the courtyard is noticeable already!


Castlehill Harbour winter scene

Salmon nets at Castlehill

Carters loading flagstone at Castlehill early twentieth century

Help us chart Castletown's nautical history

We have just embarked on an exciting new project to explore the fascinating relationship between Castletown and the Parish of Olrig and the sea (apart that is from the stunning views over Dunnet Bay) - the Viking landings, the export of Flagstone from Castlehill Harbour to as far afield as Argentina, India and Australia, local heroes of the high seas, fishing, the many ships that foundered in the area, and there's more....we know there is! Did Cromwell's warships land here? Did the Armada pass by?

We would be delighted to hear from anyone who can help us capture and preserve Castletown's nautical history, the results of which we hope to present as a themed exhibition later in the year.

Perhaps you have some artefacts related to the sea or a relative past or present from the area who was a sailor, built or repaired boats, salvaged wrecks, fished, emigrated from the area or served in the maritime forces during wars or other military campaigns.

Any information, be it fact or folklore would be most welcome. Contact us at:

Progress at Castlehill Heritage Centre - 4 March 07

As our Chairwoman Muriel Murray observed this morning, one can not help but be impressed with progress over the past few weeks in the main exhibition and skills workshop area. The framing round the walls and ceiling has been completed with high thermal efficiency insulation between the studs, lighting and emergency lighting is in place and operational. Wiring for power and the computer network has been laid in and the task of lining out with plasterboard, taping and filling is well advanced. Elsewhere in the building painting and finishing is underway in the office and the toilets.

The next major step is to lay the floor insulation, instal the underfloor heating pipework then lay the new Caithness Flagstone floor, which will be a feature in itself. When the floor is in place, work can start on installing some modest kitchen facilities at the north end of the area.

The end objective is to have the facility ready in early April for the first of the series of courses and workshops that will be held as part of Highland 2007:

Rope, basket, and paper making workshop. Thursday 19th, Friday 20th April and Monday 23rd, Tuesday 24th April 2007.

For further information on this and other courses, workshops and activities planned during 2007 please contact:

Muriel and Hugh hard at it

Plasterboarding well advanced

Starting to look really good!

Newsletter January 2007 Page 1 page 2

Sinclairs of Coulag

From the other side of the world in New Zealand we have recently received information on the Sinclair family, who used to farm at the Coulag, Castletown in the 1800's. Some of the sons emigrated to New Zealand in the mid 1800's and started farming at Cheviot, South Island. The family later paid for the erection of a headstone on their mother's and father's grave in Olrig Cemetry. Earlier this year Doug Archibald, the great-great-great-grandson of John Sinclair, farmer of the Coulag, visited the grave of his ancester who died on 29th July 1870 aged 70 years. Having spoken to a committee member of Castletown Heritage Society he later sent us a copy of the history of the Sinclairs in new Zealand which mentions their roots in Caithness.

Work forges ahead at the Castlehill Heritage Centre

Work to create a sustainable venue within the Castlehill Heritage Centre for the development and delivery of events and training workshops featuring local and vernacular skills has started in earnest thanks to the voluntary skills and expertise of a dedicated band of committee members and supporters. A full security system has now been installed and the main training area and exhibition space is starting to take shape.

If you live locally, have construction/DIY skills to offer and can spare a few hours to lend a hand your support would be very welcome. Contact

RAF Castletown Walk.

As part of Scottish Archeology month and Highland Archeology Fortnight, Castletown Heritage Society organised a walk around RAF Castletown. Known locally as Thurdistoft, the walk was led by Andrew Gutteridge who has an amazing knowledge of Caithness and the Second World War. The walk took us from the support areas such as the parachute packing shed and transport workshops to the ammunition stores, fuel stores and decontamination building where servicemen would be decontaminated after a gas attack. We then moved on to the airfield proper and visited the sites of the airplane stances, runways and the maintenance hangers before finishing at the firing ranges, where the aim of aircraft gins was checked prior to being declared fully operational.

During the early war years the airfield was a rather bleak site with grass runways and tents as accommodation, but as the years passed more modern facilities and comforts were introduced.

You can read a full account of the history of RAF Castletown in our booklet 'Castletown Recalls 1939-1945'.

Kirkular Tour

In support of the Highland Archeology Fortnight, Castletown Heritage Society organised a 'Kirkular Tour' of the ecclesiastical sites of Olrig Parish, exploring the fascinating history of Christian worship from Pictish times to the modern day.

An informative booklet is available from Castletown Heritage Society for £4.00 + postage and packing.

Quiz Night & Stovies Evening

On Friday 28th April 2006, Castletown Heritage Society held a fund raising Quiz and Stovies Night in the Drill Hall, Castletown. Sandy McWhirter, Socio-Economic Development Manager, UKAEA, Dounreay acted as compere for the evening, keeping everyone entertained while he put eight teams through their paces on subjects as diverse as Sport, Geography, Entertainment, Words & Language, Local History and General Knowledge. In what proved to be a closely fought but thoroughly enjoyable evening, the local team from the Highlander Cafe just managed to scrape victory by half a point over the 'Tattie Howkers' from Thurso. Each member of the winning team received a unique trophy - a replica ceramic model of the Wind Pump tower at Castlehill mounted on a flagstone base. The highly detailed and original trophies were hand made by Mrs Elizabeth Moar and her son John.

The winning Highlander Cafe team.

From the left:

Carol Scorer, Helen Sutherland, Elsa Swanson, Andrew Campbell, Sandy McWhirter.

Castletown Showcase

In January 2006 Castletown Heritage Society supported the Castletown Community Council's Castletown Showcase day held in the Drill Hall. The well attended event provided the opportunity for all the local community based organisations to 'showcase' their aims, objectives and achievements. On display at the Castletown Heritage zone were a range of local artefacts, photographs and details of the proposed Castlehill Heritage Centre.

The Castletown Heritage display.