Castletown Heritage Society News

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Dateline: 26 December 2019

Winter evening talks

Our winter series of evening talks gets underway on Tuesday 28 January with a talk by Muriel Murray, who will reveal the fascinating story of the Williamsons of Banniskirk's struggle against Napoleon Bonaparte.

The next talk, in February, will be presented by Norse Stone who produce bespoke original Caithness flagstone products at their base at Lieurary Quarry. The talk will discuss the challenges of Caithness Flagstone production and marketing in the modern day, and the techniques used to create their unique products. The date in February has yet to be confirmed - watch this space for further details.

The third talk will be in March, where UHI PhD student Julian Grant will present an overview of his research thus far into the relationship between local heritage and tourism in communities around the route of the North Coast 500. The date in March has yet to be confirmed - watch this space for further details.

For our final talk in the series on Tuesday 21 April, we will be delighted to welcome Duncan Macniven CBE who was Registrar General for Scotland from 2003 to 2011. Duncan's talk will explore Scotland's demography since 1755, with special reference to Caithness. The talk follows the AGM of Castletown Heritage Society.

Dateline: 26 December 2019

Boxing Day Opening - Another Great Success!

As has now become tradition, Castlehill Heritage Centre held a special opening on Boxing Day and we were delighted to welcome a large crowd of visitors. Alan Bruce again worked his magic with his own 'secret recipe' mulled wine - it certainly went down a treat with the warm mince-meat pies!

Extra chairs and tables were quickly set up to accommodate the steadily growing stream of arrivals, and judging by the conversations and stories flowing freely round the room it was a warm, comfy and friendly place to be!

Dateline: 24 October 2019

Latest Exhibition - Getting The Message Across

Our ever-popular summer exhibition protraying the history of the Caithness Flagstone Industry has now been put to bed for the year, and replaced with our exciting new autumn exhibition.

Getting the Message Across explores how we have communicated through the ages - from symbols and letters to the rapid technological changes in the 20th Century. On display are artefacts, photographs and stories exploring the fascinating technical and social history of communication in Caithness, including local Post Office memorabilia and military communication equipment. Try out our WWII field telephones! Has technology has improved the art of communication? Come along and judge for yourself! Open from 2pm to 4pm every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.

Dateline: 06 October 2019

October pottery workshops get underway

This past weekend our ever-popular pottery workshops returned to Castlehill, this time with a Christmas theme. On Saturday morning, the participants designed their ornaments then worked the clay to remove air, rolling and cutting out shapes for Christmas decorations. They learned different techniques and methods of individualising each shape and the colour and glazing possibilities.

On Sunday morning, after drying overnight, the clay shapes were painted - tense, concentrated work, the shapes being still fragile and the colours and detail needed a steady hand. Over the course of the week the pieces will be fired, ready for another application of glaze at the third workshop next weekend, after which they will be given their final firing. Fingers crossed!


Elspet Chapman

To find out more or to register interest in any of our events and workshops, please click HERE.

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Many happy returns to Stephen and Kara!

On the 21st September we were delighted to host our second wedding at Castlehill Heritage Centre. Tying the knot were local Castletown couple Stephen Fraser and Kara Maclennan, who were blessed with beautiful weather for their special day. The wedding ceremony took place in the main exhibition space, which they had transformed into a lovely silk clad grotto. After the ceremony they signed the register in glorious sunshine on the patio, before posing for photographs in and around our lovely heritage garden whilst the guests enjoyed drinks and canapes in the sunshine. We wish them every happiness in their married life together!

If you would be interested in holding a wedding or other special family occasion at Castlehill Heritage Centre we would be delighted to explore the art of the possible. Please contact us HERE.

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September Smithing Workshop a roaring success

By popular demand we held our fourth smithing workshop on Saturday 14th September. This workshop was aimed at stretching the skills of those who had dabbled previously, however also catered for some 'first timers'. As with previous workshops, the event was enjoyed by all.

Further smithing workshops will be held next year - watch this website for further details. To find out more or to register interest in any of our events and workshops, please click HERE.

Dateline: 28 August 2019

The Old Church gives up its secrets

There are many church buildings in the village of Castletown but the largest is probably to be found at Burnside opposite the primary school. Built in 1840 to accommodate the rising population of the parish of Olrig, the Established Church of Olrig was replaced in 1929 by the present parish church in the main street. The image on the left is from a postcard believed to date from the late 1920s, and shows the church with its imposing tower and clock showing thirteen minutes past eleven. Today (image right) the upper part of the tower is missing. The building is currently being rescued and converted to a residence.

Thanks to the sharp eyes of local man Colin Hossack, evidence has come to light of the building's uses over the years. When wooden panelling inside the church tower was stripped out in the course of renovation work, years of pencilled graffiti came to light. The earliest identifiable inscriptions date from 1864 and record the annual checks which were done on the church clock every September along with the minor time adjustments made.

During WWII the church was used by the RAF and next to the church was the cookhouse. Maureen Cormack, who lives opposite the church, remembers that Polish servicemen baked a birthday cake for her there. A clear message pencilled on one panel says "in memory of F Richards who spent the best years of his life plate- bashing in the cookhouse." Local war-time romances are perhaps implied in the inscriptions "In loving memory of Gracie Dallas Sept 1941" and "memories live longer than dreams" encircled by a heart and arrow. Servicemen from further afield are also represented. Canadian serviceman Rahert from Newfoundland signed in on 2nd April 1939.

In more recent times the tower seems to have attracted the youth of the day. The names of some of the village's present elder residents indicate they were there in the 1950s. A favourite prank was to sneak up the tower to ring the church bell. Benny Geddes recalls being caught in the tower by the headmaster - there was no escape!

Castletown Heritage Society is delighted to have been given this slice of history. The six wood panels carrying the graffiti will be mounted and put on display at Castlehill Heritage Centre.

Dateline: 27 August 2019

Cream Tea Sunday breaks all records

The sun shone brilliantly on Sunday and brought with it the biggest attendance we have ever had at a Cream Tea - so much so that we ran out of scones! No-one went away disappointed however as there was a good extra stock of freshly baked cakes to ensure a fine feed was had by all. The Heritage Garden was fair buzzing with folk enjoying their cuppa, scone, cake and a good yarn with friends in the sunshine.

The North Highland Woodturners Open Day which was running at the same time was also voted a success, attracting quite a few folk keen to see the demonstrations and try their hand at turning a small item to take home with them.

Many thanks must go to our willing band of volunteers who helped on the day, especially Helen for her amazing scones and overall organisation of the Cream Teas during August with partner Hugh. Not forgetting Irene for all her hard work in the Garden! Roll on next August!

Dateline: 23 August 2019

North Highland Woodturners Summer Demonstration Day

The North Highland Woodturners Association will be holding their annual summer demonstration at Castlehill Heritage Centre on Saturday 7 September. The event will feature two highly talented local woodturners - Mick O'Donnell and Fred Haughton - who will demonstrate their advanced skills in a live woodturning session.

Admission £3.00. Tea/coffee and biscuits supplied.

Dateline: 21 August 2019

Castlehill closed to public for the day on Sat 21 September

Castlehill Heritage Centre will not be open to the public on Saturday 21 September - we are delighted to be hosting a wedding. The Centre will re-open as usual on Sunday 22 September at 2pm.

If you would be interested in holding a wedding or other special family occasion at Castlehill Heritage Centre we would be delighted to explore the art of the possible. Please contact us HERE.

Dateline: 03 August 2019

A splendid summer treat - Cream Tea at Castlehill

Returning by popular demand, on every Sunday in August we will be serving Cream Teas at Castlehill.

Delicious home made scones and cakes. Guaranteed to get the taste buds dancing!

A perfect way to complement a Sunday afternoon stroll round the Flagstone trail or a meander round the amazing Heritage Garden. £3.50 per person.

On Sunday 25th August there will be a special bonus - the North Highland Woodturners Association will be holding an open day. Live demonstrations and the chance to have a go yourself, making a small item to take home with you.

Have a Cream Tea and try a new hobby!


Dateline: 16 July 2019

Smithing workshop - so good they want another one!

The sound of ringing anvils and the smell of a blacksmith's forge filled the air at Castlehill at the weekend as ten enthusiastic metal bashers took part in the third of our metal smithing workshops. To kick things off, workshop tutor Dave Ritchie guided the team in the techniques required to make a twisted iron coat hook - looks easy, but temperature is everything - too much and all your hard work drops off in the forge! Having mastered the coat hook the next challenge was to make a Celtic cross - this required somewhat more skill and patience - forging the circle from a piece of thin flat bar proved to be a challenge, but everyone mastered it in the end.

Lots of happy smiley faces at the end of the day, with the workshop being given a big thumbs-up.

By popular demand we will be running another smithing workshop on Saturday 14 September. These events are extremely popular and the September workshop is now fully subscribed, with a waiting list. The dates for any future smithing workshops will be announced on this website, and advertised locally.

To find out more or to register interest in any of our events and workshops, please click HERE.

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Heritage Garden in blooming good form

Our volunteer gardener Irene has been working her magic in the heritage garden over the past months, and in the sunshine on Saturday it was a special place to be. Colour is bursting from every bed and pot. The 'wild garden' bed is particularly impressive, with a blaze of red poppies catching the eye.

Lets hope the weather stays fair, as in a couple of weeks time we will be running our Cream Teas (every Sunday in August, 2pm to 4pm) - where better to enjoy your cuppa, cake and scone than at a picnic table in the heritage garden?

Dateline: 07 July 2019

Summer Exhibition - Caithness Flagstone Industry

Our ever-popular summer exhibition featuring themed displays of artefacts, photographs and stories exploring the fascinating industrial and social history of the Flagstone Industry in Caithness is now up and running.



Running in parallel with this is a small exhibition exploring our local maritime heritage, including artefacts, stories, charts and models, from the 16th century to the modern day. Castlehill harbour played a key role in the export of flagstone from the Castlehill Flagstone Works and still thrives today, serving a number of small fishing and leisure craft.

Open 2pm to 4pm every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon

Dateline: 04 June 2019

Canisbay School pupils learn about 'walking' the stone

On Tuesday 4th June, we were delighted to welcome primary 4/5 from Canisbay School to Castlehill Heritage Centre to learn about the Flagstone Industry at Castlehill during the 19th century.

The morning began with the children helping to enact the formation of flagstone. Using plastic sheets and chairs for mountains and various means of making the sounds of wind, rain, thunder and the sun, the children saw how the flagstone developed in layers of sedimentary material, sometimes leaving fish stranded between the layers which eventually became fossils.

From a social history aspect they learnt about the clothing worn by the flagstone workers and the lack of safety equipment available or worn in those days. They dressed up as the workers, the gaffer and the owner Mr James Traill. Following discussion about the hazards of working with flagstone in a quarry our volunteers helped them dress in modern safety clothing, including goggles, ear defenders, steel toed boots and gloves.

Hugh Crowden explained about the tools used to 'work' the flagstone, giving a series of practical demonstrations as to how the flagstones were extracted at the quarry and moved around by 'walking' them. Under his guidance the children each had a go at cutting thin flagstone roofing tiles to size and making fixing holes in them.

To complete the morning the children looked at and discussed photographs of the various flagstone production and finishing processes, comparing the old and the modern ways.

We are always encouraged by the interest shown by the children from the local schools when visiting Castlehill and learning a little about our local heritage through a live, hands-on experience. As one child today put it - "Can I come back tomorrow?" Everyone took home the piece of flagstone they had worked on as a memento.

Dateline: 01 June 2019

Mood Boards? Sounds pretty dreamy!

The first in our series of three hands-on millinery workshops got underway on Saturday 1 June. As the first step in designing their own personalised piece of headgear our expert tutor coached the workshop participants in the process of creating a 'mood board' - an arrangement of images, materials, pieces of text or similar, intended to evoke or project a particular style or concept for the finished article. All clever stuff!

Millinery images by Elspet Chapman

Dateline: 18 May 2019

The Pottery Bowls approach the final stage

All the bowls have been successfully fired thanks to Susan. During today's workshop, two layers of glaze have been applied to the bowls which are now drying ready for the final layers, then into the fiery kiln once more.

Pottery images by Elspet Chapman

Dateline: 11 May 2019

The Pottery Bowls take shape

In the second in our series of Pottery Bowl Workshops the participants smoothed the almost dried bowls, cutting off any unrequired edges. The bowls were handled with great trepidation. As the bowls had to be treated as if eggshells, some participants decided to leave their bowls with their rustic organic finishes. The bowls will now be fired ready for glazing.

In the workshop next Saturday, the pots will be glazed and decorated. If you would like to learn more about, or take part in our various hands-on vernacular skills workshops just click here! We would be delighted to hear from you.

Dateline: Thursday 9 May 2019

Do you know this house?

Visitors coming to Castlehill Heritage Centre often ask for help and advice in tracing an ancester. We are always pleased to help, supported by our constantly expanding archive of local information, photographs and records etc. We are currently working to trace family connections to the Oman family that lived in the village in the mid 1800s. One clue is that they may have lived in the house shown on the left, and we are seeking to identify where in the village or parish this may have been located. Do you have any ideas?

If you have any information please contact us on or drop in to Castletown Heritage Centre during opening hours. All hints or clues gratefully received!

Dateline: Wednesday 8 May 2019

A busy weekend at Castlehill!

It was a hive of activity over the weekend at Castlehill Heritage Centre.

On Friday evening the committee of Castletown Heritage Society held their annual chill-out night, where committee members dined on a selection of tasty treats brought along by each of the attendees - a do-it-yourself banquet, if you wish! A good night was had by all, with much reminiscing over past events and achievements!

Saturday morning saw the first of our three pottery bowl workshops get underway. The event was fully subscribed, with everyone taking full advantage of the opportunity to learn how to make an ornate, functional ceramic bowl by moulding sections of clay around an inflated baloon. Once dried these will be glazed and decorated in future workshops.

Whilst the pottery bowl workshop was in full swing in the main hall, at the other end of the building The North Highland Woodturners Association were holding one of their regular meetings. Members both experienced and new to the craft were busy turning out items in their workshop, or studying new techniques as demonstrated in a masterclass held in the archaeology laboratory. They meet at Castlehill Heritage Centre on the first Saturday (except Jan) and third Saturday (except Dec) each month, from 9 am to 12 noon.

With the workshop and woodturning sessions completed, it was all change, in readiness for regular Saturday and Sunday afternoon openings from 2 pm to 4 pm. Our themed exhibitions are popular with visitors and locals alike, and the hosting team were kept on their foot welcoming a steady stream of visitors. At the moment we have four displays running concurrently.

The first features 'Pastimes from Past Times' and explores how local people spent their leisure hours in times gone by. From sport to music, handicrafts, and everything in between, the exhibition features articles, photographs and artefacts from recent times to a bygone age. The exhibits have jogged many a memory from 'grown-up' visitors regarding familiar toys and games from their childhood, or items last seen at 'Grannie's house'.

The second exhibition depicts the story of McIvor & Allan, Wood Chip Carvers who were based in Castletown. Their skill and craftsmanship is brought to life through this fascinating display, which includes examples of their exquisite, locally made products, the quality and popularity of which led to exports all around the world. Apart from their innovative artistic designs, some might argue that they beat IKEA and the like to the concept of flat pack furniture, as some items destined for shipping were designed to be disassembled then re-assembled on arrival at their destination. Just sounds like good commercial sense to us!

Just opened at the weekend is a small exhibition exploring our local maritime heritage, including artefacts, stories, charts and models, from the 16th century to the modern day. Castlehill harbour played a key role in the export of flagstone from the Castlehill Flagstone Works and still thrives today, serving a number of small fishing and leisure craft.

One of our most popular exhibits is the WWII Rolls-Royce Merlin engine that was recovered from a Caithness bog by Robbie Falconer and Lewis Sinclair, from Halkirk, in 1990. The engine belonged to a RAF Hurricane that was stationed at RAF Castletown in August 1941, and was involved in a mid-air collision during a training flight. The story of the incident, and the subsequent exploits of the Norwegian pilot, Lt Jens Muller of 331 Squadron, is quite incredible. As a taster, Jens was one of only three servicemen to successfully make it home following the Great Escape in 1944 from Stalag Luft III! This exhibit with it's incredible back story is not to be missed!

Castlehill Heritage Centre is open from 2 pm to 4 pm every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, all year round (except Christmas Day and New Year's Day). The Centre is fully accessible, and ample parking is available. Entry is free, but donations are most welcome! To find us, just click here!

Dateline: Tuesday 23 April 2019

Castletown Heritage Society AGM

Castletown Heritage Society held its Annual General Meeting for 2019 on Tuesday 23rd April at 7.30pm in Castlehill Heritage Centre.

Retiring Chairman Roy Blackburn gave a comprehensive account of the Society's activities over the past year, highlighting the award in September 2018 of a 4 Star Grading under the Visit scotland Visitor Attraction Scheme for Castlehill Heritage Centre. The upgrading reflected 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. 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 for 2018/19 which confirmed that the Society continues on a firm, sustainable footing. On completion of all the formal reporting, interim chairman Hamish Pottinger presided over the election of the following office bearers for the 2019/20 session:

Neil Buchan
Roy Blackburn

Helen Gunn

Jayne Blackburn


Hugh Crowden
Elspet Chapman
Alex Groves
Muriel Murray
Alice Morrison
It could be you, if you would like to volunteer!

Following completion of the official proceedings, guest speaker Ian Maclean from the Caithness Broch Project gave an enthusiastic presentation on the current status of the project and forward plans to achieve the ultimate goal of rebuilding a full scale Iron Age Broch using traditional methods, along with a visitor centre and dry stone workshop. The talk was extremely informative and very well received by the appreciative audience, as evidenced by a lively question and answer session.

If you would like to assist in any way with the activities of Castletown Heritage Society, be it through donation/loan of locally relevant artefacts, contribution of historical/geneological information associated with the parish, or volunteering a little time to support our activities we would be delighted to hear from you. Feel free to drop by Castlehill Heritage Centre during opening hours, speak to any member of the Committee or contact us by telephone or email.

Dateline: 15 April 2019

Do you know this basket?

Artist and basketmaker Tim Johnson will be visiting Castletown Heritage Centre for the fourth time over the Easter weekend for a special reason! On a previous visit he discovered this special basket in the little Thurso museum 'The Way it Was'. With a little research and comparing the basket to others in museums and collections around Europe it seems this basket is very special and it's weaving technique is not normally thought of as Scottish or British.

Made from locally harvested rushes the basket was perhaps used for gathering eggs or to take on a fishing trip to carry bait - have you seen one similar? Do you know anyone who used to make them? Have you got any old photographs of similar baskets in use? Can you tell us anything about them? We would love to hear from you. Tim will be making and demonstrating at Castletown Heritage Centre on Saturday and Sunday 20th and 21st April 2019 - all welcome.

If you have any information please contact Muriel Murray at the Castletown Heritage Centre: or Tim Johnson: for assistance. [Photo copyrhight T Johnston]

Dateline: 30 March 2019

Wheelchair now available to assist access

The main areas within Castlehill Heritage Centre and Heritage Garden have been designed to be fully accessible to visitors with restricted mobility, however we recognise that some visitors may still find walking round the Centre and exhibits, or the distance from the disabled parking to the Centre entrance, tiring or a bit of a challenge. To assist, we now have a transit wheelchair available, which can be either used self-propelled or guided by an assistant. Just ask any of our guides for assistance.

Dateline: 10 March 2019

Pottery Bowl Workshops

Following the highly successful pottery workshops held last year a further series of three hands-on traditional skills pottery workshops will be held on Saturday 4, 11 and 18 of May 2019.

These highly popular workshops are quickly fully booked - advance booking and payment of £30 for the three sessions in full is essential. To find out more and register interest please click HERE.

If sufficient interest is shown we may organise a further workshop for those new to pottery later in the year.

Dateline: 31 January 2019

Castlehill re-opens with new exhibition

The work to redecorate the main eareas within Castlehill Heritage Centre is now complete, and the Centre will re-open on Saturday 2nd February at 2pm.

The theme for the latest exhibition is 'Pastimes from Past Times' and explores how local people spent their leisure hours in times gone by. From sport to music, handicrafts, and everything in between, the exhibition features articles, photographs and artefacts from recent times to a bygone age.

The Centre is open from 2pm - 4pm every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon .

Thank you Castlehill

One of the main objectives of Castletown Heritage Society is to communicate and educate on the history and traditions associated with the Village of Castletown and the Parish of Olrig, and just before Christmas we were delighted to host a visit of pupils from Castletown Primary School.

The pupils were given a tour of Castlehill heritage Centre, including the World War I exhibition and the 1940 Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. As a special treat the pupils took part in a specially prepared. The visit went down a treat, as evidenced by the lovely thank-you cards received from some of the pupils.

Dateline: 07 January 2019

A fresh start to the New Year

For the first time since the doors to Castlehill Heritage Centre opened in April 2007 the Centre will be closed during January. We have always prided ourselves in opening every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon all year round (Christmas Day and New Year's Day excepted) - one of the very few heritage visitor attractions in the north of Scotland to do so - but after almost eleven years of continuous operation we are taking a brief pause to undertake a major redecoration of the internal facilities.

Work is underway and is on schedule to be completed by the end of the month, ready for the doors to re-open at 2pm on Saturday 2 February, and thereafter from 2pm - 4pm every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

In the meantime, should you have any queries about Castletown Heritage Society, or the life, times and history of Castletown and the Parish of Olrig we would be delighted to hear from you - either contact us by email or telephone - contact CHS.

Winter series of Evening Talks

The first in our traditional series of Winter Talks gets underway on Tuesday 12 February.

From Castletown lass to Australian pioneer - Muriel Murray will reveal the fascinating story of the life and times of Frances Purves from Thurdistoft.


Don (on right) during a previous talk at Castlehill

The second talk is on Tuesday 26 March and will be given by F/Lt Don Mason RAF RV(Ret) BEM, and titled Evade and Escape. Don Mason is a WWII veteran who took part in the war as a pilot and navigator, racking up almost 5,000 flying hours in operations over Europe. Ninety-eight year old Don has a fascinating story to tell about an operatives duty to evade capture - and then escape if the worst happened. He will focus in particular on the escape lines developed from Belgium through Spain and across the Pyrenees. Not to be missed!

Our third talk will be on Tuesday 23rd April as part of our AGM and will be given by Kenneth McElroy on the Caithness Broch Project, which aims to construct a replica Broch structure to help interpret the county's rich Iron Age history. More details to follow.

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