Castletown Heritage Society News

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Dateline: 06 November 2018

Castletown recalls World War 1

November 2018 marks one hundred years since the end of the First World War, and to commemorate this momentous occasion Castletown Heritage Society is staging an exhibition at Castlehill Heritage Centre. The fascinating exhibition explores the impact of the war both on those at home and those serving abroad, and features artefacts and ephemera from the period together with poignant stories and first hand accounts of the challenges, bravery and suffering involved, all with a local focus.

The exhibition is open from 2pm - 4pm every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

If you have any stories or information relating to the impact of WWI on Castletown and the Parish of Olrig we would be delighted to hear from you - either drop in to the exhibition or contact us by email or telephone - contact CHS.

Dateline: 22 September 2018

Second Smithing Workshop

Following on from the success of our smithing workshop held in July this year, our second workshop proved to be just as popular and was once again led by Dave Ritchie, an experienced metal-worker who lives in Castletown. Armed with portable forge, anvils and a selection of metal bars, Dave helped and encouraged the keen participants to delevop their metal working skills.

We intend to run a further more advanced workshop next year for those who have participated in the two beginners smithing workshops, or for those who already have some smithing skills.

The date of the next workshop will be published on this website as soon as it has been arranged. Booking will be essential, so if you wish to take part please contact us by email or telephone - contact CHS. A deposit will be required to secure your place.

Dateline: 19 September 2018

Formidable Females exhibition proves to be a hit

Our Formidable Females exhibition featuring a selection of inspiring local women from our past has proved extremely popular. This was the first time various Caithness heritage and arts centres had collaborated on a common theme - on this occasion the celebration of 100 years of female suffrage. Visitors to each location were able to find out about other similar displays, enhancing their enjoyment and understanding of the theme. We hope to have similar collaboration in the future. Our exhibition features stories and portraits of matriarchs, women pioneers, women in business, in farming, in education, in military and civil service, all revealing the inner strength of northern females, whatever their station in life.

The exhibition is still available to view at Castlehill Heritage Centre, which is open every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon from 2pm to 4pm.

Castlehill Heritage Centre on BBC 'Home Front Heroes'

Castletown Heritage Society was recently approached by BBC Salford who wished to film at Castlehill Heritage Centre. The series they were working on is Home Front Heroes in which a celebrity finds out about the life of one of their relatives who lived through the Second World War. The personality proved to be a Blue Peter presenter called Radzi Chinyanganya, whose grandmother ran a farm at Strathcoul, Calder, before moving to Dundee.

Castletown Heritage Society members Morris Pottinger and Muriel Murray provided background information for the film makers, who were particularly struck by the splendour of the heritage garden at Castlehill. The programme is to air around the 5th November at 9 a.m. on BBC 1.

Dateline: 18 September 2018

Breaking News - Castlehill achieves 4 Star status

Castletown Heritage Society is delighted to announce that Castlehill Heritage Centre has been awarded a 4 Star grading under the Visit Scotland Visitor Attraction Scheme.

The upgrading reflects the hard work by the Society and its supporters to continuously improve both the visitor experience and the general facilities at Castlehill since being awarded 3 Stars in December 2013.

The grading report makes particular mention of the hospitality, friendliness, service and efficiency of our volunteers manning the centre, grading these aspects as 5 Star - exceptional. Similarly graded exceptional were the cleanliness of the centre and the grounds. The garden merited a special mention as looking superb and creating an excellent feature to greet visitors on arrival. Well done everyone!

The Society also welcomes the suggestions for further improvement included within the report and is currently considering a number of possible enhancements to the visitor experience - watch this space!

If you would like to get involved with the activities of Castlehill Heritage Society and the operation of Castlehill Heritage Centre we would be delighted to hear from you - contact CHS.

Dateline: 27 August 2018

Caithness Archaeology

Copies of the acclaimed book Caithness Archaeology: Aspects of Prehistory are once again available for sale at Castlehill Heritage Centre.

Written by Andy Heald and John Barber of AOC Archaeology, the book is an eminently readable account of the archaeology of Caithness that provides an inspiring source for the study of people and place over time. Andy, John and others from AOC have supported Castletown Heritage Society on a number of our archaeological projects, including our year long LiDAR inspired project A Window on the hidden Bronze Age Landscape of Caithness, the results of which are on display in Castlehill Heritage Centre.

If you would like to take part in our next archaeological project we would be delighted to hear from you - contact CHS.

Dateline: 10 July 2018

HIE Staff Volunteer at Castlehill

Six staff from Highlands & Islands Enterprise [HIE] got out of the office last week to volunteer their time to help at Castlehill Heritage Centre in Castletown as part of Employer Supported Volunteering. HIE leads the way in supporting community initiatives by encouraging staff to volunteer in the local community supporting many good causes. The event was organised by Catherine Patterson, Volunteer Development Officer at Caithness Voluntary Group HTSI, who liaised between HIE and the heritage centre to coordinate the volunteering day. Staff rolled up their sleeves and armed with paintbrushes painted display items including a boat in the walled garden and guttering around the centre. Glorious weather helped make the task more enjoyable. Muriel Murray, a volunteer committee member at Castlehill Heritage centre was delighted with the support offered by the HIE volunteers and said "many hands make light work of tasks, this is wonderful, many thanks".

If you would like to volunteer at our community led Castlehill Heritage Centre we would be delighted to hear from you - contact CHS.

Dateline: 7 July 2018

Smithing Workshop

Our search for traditional village skills to offer as workshops led us to Dave Ritchie, an experienced metal-worker who lives in Castletown. Armed with portable forge, anvil and a selection of metal bars, Dave demonstrated the art of smithing to a dozen keen participants. The circular area in the Castlehill courtyard garden proved the ideal setting for instruction. Soon from the noise of hammer blows, the smoke and fire emerged a series of curved and twisted objects both functional and decorative, from tent pegs to ornamental pot stands.

The day was declared a success and we are now in the process of organising a second event, likely to take place at the end of September. If you would like to take part please email us to reserve a place.

To support the next workshop we are seeking a second anvil to allow those taking part to make best use of their time. If you know of one please contact CHS .

Dateline: 22 May 2018


CHS was delighted to host a visit recently from delegates attending the Scottish School for Northern Studies. The annual conference, organised by Colleen Batey, archaeology lecturer at Glasgow University held two days of lectures from eminent speakers on history and archaeology. A further session featured local speakers, who variously explained the attitude of residents of Thurso to the influx of incomers to work at Dounreay in the 1950s and 60s: life as a child on Stroma: and the rise and fall of the flagstone industry. The last day was devoted to a field trip including Iron Age broch sites, the Norse site at Freswick Links and a visit to Castlehill Heritage Centre. Volunteers at the centre were kept busy answering the many questions which the knowledgeable visitors fired at them.

Good weather prevailed last week allowing the postponed visit of Garance Warburton from Nucleus, the Caithness and Nuclear Archive in Wick to take place. Garance is the community engagement officer and is responsible for ensuring that the general public knows about the contents of the archive and is encouraged to visit. Her well attended visit to Castlehill was one in a series, allowing her to meet interested local people throughout the county and show them a selection of records, photos, maps and plans held in the archive pertaining to their area. The oldest document on show from the archive was a sassine from 1583 and was about a land transfer at Kirklands, Olrig.

Dateline: 7 May 2018

Castletown P2 pupils visit Castlehill

Some twenty Primary Two pupils and four accompanying adults from Castletown Primary School recently visited Castlehill. We have close relations with the school and always welcome a visit when our current display at Castlehill co-incudes with their learning programme. On this occasion were approached by the class teacher Mrs Audrey Mackay who was interested in aspects of our retrospective view of Castletown In The News display. We selected areas suitable for P2, settling on Laundry and the first cars in the area. The doctor, farmers, teachers, bankers and Mrs Traill the estate owner were the first owners of “hot rods” in the village. One pupil was delighted to find that the owner of one of them owned the farm he presently lives in.

The pupils were a bit aghast at the amount of physical work involved in the weekly wash in the days before electricity and modern gadgets like washing machines and tumble driers. They soon discovered first hand that even simple chores were quite hard work!

Dateline: Wednesday 25 April 2018

Castletown Heritage Society AGM

Castletown Heritage Society held its Annual General Meeting for 2018 on Wednesday 25th April. Chairman Roy Blackburn gave a comprehensive and entertaining account of the Society's activities over the past year. Roy's report also reminded us of the diversity and number of things we get up to! To read his report in full click here.

Treasurer Helen Gunn presented the accounts which confirmed that the Society continues on a firm, sustainable footing. On completion of all the formal reporting, the following office bearers for the 2018/18 session were elected:

Roy Blackburn
Elspet Chapman

Helen Gunn

Jayne Blackburn
Neil Buchan
Hugh Crowden
Liz Geddes
Alex Groves
Graham Hull
Alice Morrison
Muriel Murray
Colin Robertson
It could be you, if you would like to volunteer!

Following the official proceedings guest speaker Alan McIvor gave a fascinating talk about Old St Peter’s Church in Thurso and the Church of Caithness. The evening was rounded off with light refreshements.

Dateline: 18 April 2018

Flagstone Exhibition

Our very popular summer exhibition returns, featuring themed displays of artefacts, photographs and stories exploring the fascinating industrial and social history of the Flagstone Industry in Caithness.

To find out more click HERE

Dateline: 20 March 2018

Evening Talk - Their Past, Your Future

On Tuesday 20th March, a packed audience at Castlehill Heritage Centre was enthralled by F/LT Don Mason RAFVR (Ret), DSO*, DFC*, L/H* as he presented a fascinating talk entitled “Their Past, Your Future”. Now well into his nineties, Don Mason is a WW2 veteran and had a wonderful story to tell and treasury of memories to share about his experiences and exploits as a bomber pilot, wireless operator and navigator during WWII.

Don was born in 1921 in the village of Churchill, 10 miles east of Kidderminster and he lived and worked in the Midlands area of England. On leaving school Don was apprenticed to a motor manufacturing company producing custom vehicles. Don’s fascination with all things flying started at an early age. At 8 years he saw the R100 in his school yard flying overhead and also went to see Sir Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus. Alan Cobham was an aviation pioneer who ran a series of flying tours in the 1930’s to promote aviation to the general public.

Don joined the RAF Volunteer Reserves in 1938 and was called up in Sept 1939 and served in the RAF Volunteer Reserves until Sept 1946. During that time he undertook a total of around 5000 flying hours. He started his training on Tiger Moths and progressed to multi-engined training in Air Speed Oxfords. He then flew in Bristol Blenheims, Victoria Wellingtons and Short Sterlings. He was badly injured in May 1941 whilst a pilot and due to an eye injury had to retrain as a wireless operator and a navigator. Don’s talk was based on this period in his life. After the war, Don returned to employment in the motor industry and then took employment at Salisbury College where he finished as Head of Engineering. He moved to Thurso in 1988 to be with his family.

*(DSO = Distinguished Service Order - awarded for meritorious or distinguished service by officers of the armed forces during wartime, typically in actual combat. DFC = Distinguished Flying Cross – awarded for "an act of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying in active operations against the enemy". Legion d’Honneur (awarded in January 2018) – awarded in recognition for outstanding contribution to the D-Day landings and the liberation of France.)


Dateline: 20 February 2018

Evening Talk - Following the Threads of History

This evening, Muriel Murray presented the second talk in the 2018 winter series, and contained a mix of images of the earliest fragments or signs of textile uncovered by archaeologists. Some like the Westray imprint on a beaker of woven material dating to the Neolithic Age and the scrap of woven cloth found at Perth dating from the Bronze Age. Cloak pins found at Freswick give an indication of the thickness and nature of cloth they must have pierced and held together.

The Vikings left imprints of their woven textiles on metal belts, buckles and brooches in burials as reports of the Castletown brooch found near the shore in the 1700s. A complete set of clothing was found in the peat at Quintfall, Barrock in the 1920s. The wearer is thought to have possibly been a soldier from the late 1600s.

Letters from the Castle of Mey refer to high class ladies exchanging heckles or carders for preparing flax prior to spinning linen. Castletown had its own linen mill in the 1800s set up by James Traill. 19th century embroidered samplers from Crossroads School pupils showed the importance of needlework for girls looking to make "good wives for working men". Crossroads School opened in 1979 following the closure of the small local schools at Rattar, Barrock, Scarfskerry and Brough.

An Ayrshire lace wedding head-dress from 1905 recalls the days when lace mills employed children as young as 8. In Castletown, too, school teachers bemoaned the fact that boys of 8 were leaving school to work in the flagstone works. Post Cards from the WW1 trenches like the one addressed to Miss Baikie, Viewfirth, Castletown recall the dark days of the early 20th century, while a tablecloth embroidered with the names of RAF personnel based at RAF Castletown commemorates those who maintained the wireless station on Durran Hill. A Muriel pointed out, even the smallest fragment of textile can be a useful reflection of its time.

Dateline: 05 February 2018

Evening Talk - Castletown and the Caithness Archive

The evening talk which was originally scheduled to take place on Tuesday 16th January 2018 and which was cancelled due to extreme weather has now been rescheduled for Tuesday 8 May. Garance Warburton will talk about the work of the Caithness archive and some of the archive material linked to Olrig Parish. This will be an excellent opportunity to see the kind of documents that are kept in the archive.

The talk will take place in Castlehill Heritage Centre. To find out more click HERE

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Castletown and District Hits The Headlines

The latest feature at Castlehill Heritage Centre has now opened to the public. The display covers a multitude of press cuttings and general news dating back to the early 1900s including natural occurrences, social and leisure, shocks, winners and losers and more.

To find out more click HERE

Dateline: Thursday 1 February 2018

Crofting and Farming Exhibition - last chance to visit

The current exhibition in Castlehill Heritage Centre, 'Farming and Crofting' was formally opened by Iain Morris of Olrig Mains back in November 17 and has had a highly successful run. It only has a week or two to run - miss it miss out!

The exhibition offers a collection of photos and stories and the actual tools of work on and around the farm. A more inclusive title might be 'our agricultural heritage', but that belies the fact that agriculture - where our food comes from and how farmers struggle to balance 'efficiency' and 'sustainability'- two words that are hurled rather loosely from seemingly opposite camps - continue to affect us all even though we may not be aware of it.

The logic of people who actually do the work is undeniable - a few moments handling a peat spade explains what might otherwise seem an odd shape for a spade and why it is back breaking work. The display on casks reveals that a barrel is just one of many possible casks with distinct names based on the quantity they held. A 'firkin' for example holds nine gallons.

In addition to the many photos and their associated stories on dairying and peat cutting, horses and ploughs and managing the land, the exhibition, as always, prompted conversations. Iain Morris spoke about a chapter of evictions not familiar to most of the listeners. The evocative, sometimes heavy handed evictions of poor families from their crofts in the 18th and 19th centuries is familiar to most. Not as familiar are the later evictions, not by private landlords seeking to increase the yield of their land, but by bureaucrats breaking up large farms to make small holdings. Iain and his family were evicted twice for these ill-fated schemes.

The biggest change in Iain Morris's lifetime of farming, and one reinforced by the exhibition, is a change from labour-intensive agricultural practices. While everyone is familiar with the fact that Dounreay had an enormous impact on the life in Caithness, Iain offered some specific examples that helped bring it home. In the late 1950's, a farm worker earned about £5 10 shillings. Dounreay offered £8; a welder could earn £15. To understand what those numbers mean, Iain explained that a lamb usually sold for £5 and a fleece for £5. At that time, rent was based on the value of the wool crop. Sadly today the price of wool barely exceeds the cost of the shearing, but the price of wool for knitting (almost entirely spun outside the UK) has increased markedly since those days.

As fewer families are actively engaged in and on the land, the personal stories, the direct experience, disappear. We pass by fields and do not know the stories behind them - then and now. The intriguing exhibition at Castlehill and the stories it will prompt is a good step toward making our agricultural heritage manifest again so we can all make good decisions about how we want our community managed.

The Crofting and Farming exhibition will be open for a few more weeks every Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday from 2-4 pm.

Special arrangements can be made for school groups or interested groups of individuals - just drop us an email here and we'll see what we can do.

Do go to see the exhibition and add your stories to the ones already there!

Dateline: 31 January 2018

Winter series of Evening Talks

Unfortunately the first talk (scheduled to take place on Tuesday 16th January 2018) had to be cancelled due to extreme weather and will be rescheduled for later in the season. Watch this space for details. The talk, by Garance Warburton from the Caithness archive, will be a chance to see some of the archive material linked to Olrig Parish, and a good opportunity to see these kind of documents that are kept in the archive.

The second talk is on Tuesday 13th February and will be given by Muriel Murray. It is titled “Following the Threads of History”. This will be a fascinating glimpse into local history from Neolithic to the present through preserved fragments of textile and their ghosts!


The third talk will be on Tuesday 20th March and will be given by F/Lt Don Mason RAF RV(Ret). It is titled “Their Past, Your Future”. Don Mason is a WW2 veteran who took part in the war as a pilot. He has a wonderful story to tell and also an exhibition to go with the talk. He is into his nineties and has a treasury of memories.

Our fourth and AGM talk will be on Wednesday 25th April and will be given by Alan McIvor. It is a talk about Old St Peter’s Church in Thurso and the Church of Caithness. We all know the church is there but do we know much of it’s history. This will be most informative and will put the old church into context.

All talks will take place in Castlehill Heritage Centre. Full details and times will be published on the 'Education' page- watch this space! To find out more click HERE