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Dateline: Friday 16 October 2020

Castletown Heritage Society AGM goes virtual

Castletown Heritage Society held its Annual General Meeting for 2020 on Thursday 15 October at 7.00pm. The 2020 AGM was originally scheduled to be held on 21 April, however this had to be postponed due to the Covid -19 pandemic. The impact of Covid remains very much with us and the current Scottish Government restrictions precluded the possibility of holding a physical meeting, hence the decision to hold a virtual AGM using the Zoom video conferencing platform.

Retiring Chairman Neil Buchan gave a comprehensive account of the Society's activities over the past year. Visitor numbers were up on 2018/19. To read his report in full click here.

Treasurer Helen Gunn presented the accounts for 2019/20 which confirmed that the Society continues on a firm, sustainable footing. On completion of all the formal reporting, interim chairman Liz Geddes presided over the election of the following office bearers for the 2020/21 session:

Neil Buchan
Roy Blackburn

Helen Gunn

Jayne Blackburn


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

The next AGM will be scheduled for April 2021, and should a physical meeting not be possible the event will again be held as a virtual meeting.

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 contact us by telephone or email.

Dateline: 27 September 2020

Castlehill Heritage Centre - Reopening Update

Following a review and risk assessment taking account of the current deteriorating national situation regarding the coronavirus pandemic and feedback from other heritage organisations operating in the Highland Region, Castletown Heritage Society have concluded that it is not currently practicable to reopen Castlehill Heritage Centre to visitors. The safety and welfare of our volunteer staff and visitors remains of the highest priority.

We have therefore taken the decision to postpone reopening until Easter 2021, subject to an acceptable risk assessment based on prevailing conditions at the time and taking account of the best available sector specific guidance for galleries, museums and heritage attractions published by the Scottish Government. Further information regarding the reopening date will be published on this website and our Facebook page in due course.

In the meantime we are actively working to increase online accessibility to our extensive collection of artefacts, photographs and accumulated local heritage knowledge - watch this space for upcoming exciting news regarding on-line exhibitions, talks and podcasts!

Castletown Heritage Society AGM

The Annual General Meeting of the Castletown Heritage Society was due to be held in Castlehill Heritage Centre on Tuesday 21 April at 7.30pm, however the event had to be postponed in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The AGM will now take place as a virtual Zoom based event on Thursday 15 October at 7 pm.

In order to take part in the AGM you need to pre-register by sending an email with your details via this link. Joining instructions will be emailed following approval of registration.

All current officers of the Society agreed to continue in post in the interim.

Dateline: 04 August 2020

An unusual visitor to Castlehill

When Neil was down at Castlehill Heritage Centre at the end of last week doing some maintenance in the boiler room, he was taken by surprise by a large insect that flew slowly past him. It landed on some wood sweepings before taking off again and landing on a wall frame. Looking a bit like an overgrown wasp at almost 4cm long it was unusual to say the least!

A quick browse on the interweb revealed that it was a female Giant Horntail. According to the Wildlife Trusts website, the Giant Horntail is a massive sawfly that is also known as the 'giant woodwasp' or 'greater horntail wasp'. A relative of the wasp, the female is black and yellow and has a long, stinger-like tail that is actually her ovipositor, which she uses to lay her eggs into wood, particularly pine. The larvae live in the wood of pine trees, where they spend up to five years developing. As the logs stored in the boiler room came from the Dunnet Forestry Trust and were largely pine, this all made sense. Seemingly, the length of time the larvae spend in wood does result in the adults sometimes emerging from harvested timber used for building or even furniture! Despite its fearsome appearance, the giant horntail is harmless, much to Neil's relief!

Dateline: 24 July 2020

Superb drone photos of Castlehill and Castletown

This week we were delighted to receive some aerial photographs of Castlehill and Castletown taken by local man Robin Herrick. Robin is a long time supporter of Castlehill Heritage Centre and thought the Centre and harbour area would be an ideal location to try out his latest drone. A small selection of his images are shown below. Thank you Robin!

Looking north over Castlehill Heritage Centre across Dunnet Bay towards Dunnet Head. The Flagstone Trail is to the left of the Heritage Centre

View west of Castlehill Heritage Centre and the enclosed Heritage Garden. The Flagstone trail lies above the Centre. The ruined buildings in the foreground are the remains of Castlehill Farm in the grounds of Castlehill House.

Clicking on this image will link you to a separate Google site showing a 360 degree view taken over Castlehill - there you can 'grab' the image to scroll up, down or sideways as you wish - amazing!

[Note: your browser may request that you open the site in a new window - this is standard security process]

Castlehill Harbour with Dunnet Bay and the Dunnet Head archipelago beyond.

Looking east towards the 3 mile long golden sands of Dunnet Beach

General view of the east end of Castletown

The central area of Castletown, with Olrig Hill beyond.

The west end of Castletown. On the right the A836 can be seen stretching all the way to Thurso in the distance.


Dateline: 21 July 2020

Castletown lady strikes a blow for women's rights!

Another interesting snippet uncovered during recent review of a 1938 copy of the John O'Groat Journal was the fact that during the local county council elections that year, two women were elected to the Caithness County Council for the first time ever. One of them was Mrs Margaret Mackenzie who won the Castletown seat formerly held by her husband. She stayed in Manu House, Castletown.

Mrs Mackenzie's daughter still lives in the village and is now 91 years old. She is a regular visitor to Castlehill Heritage Centre.

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From another John O'Groat Journal dated 11 May 1962 comes a photograph of a 'Go-Kart' race held at Thurdistoft, Castletown. The event was organised by Caithness Car Club, and held on a runway of the former WWII airfield known as RAF Castletown. The remoteness of Castletown belies its one-time strategic importance for the defence of Scapa Flow and the coastal waters round Northern Britain. From the outbreak of war Caithness found itself in the front line, not only with Scapa Flow just 20 or so miles away, but with the threat of German occupation of Norway, the government was fearful of an invasion here in Caithness, to deny the fleets safe anchorage in Scapa and to hinder our ability to patrol the North sea. The need for a fighter aerodrome in the far north was realised when RAF Castletown was officially opened on the 28th May, 1940. At its height the station strength was officially 1,227 personnel, including 60 officers and 113 Senior NCOs.

After the war the airfield was decommissioned, however the runways survived for many years, finding use for occasional landing of small private aircraft and local events such as described in the article above. Over time the runways have all but disappeared under surface growth, and form part of the general estate of Thurdistoft Farm. Many of the wartime buildings and structures survive to this day however and can be readily identified from the road, such as the Gas Decontamination building shown in the photograph on the right, taken in April 2020. Further information on RAF Castletown and wartime activity in the area can be found in our booklet 'Castletown Recalls', published by Castletown Heritage Society in 2005 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of VE Day. A copy of the booklet can be downloaded here.

Caithness Car Club was formed in 1955 with the aim of promoting and organising motor sport events in the north of Scotland. The club is still very active today, organising both sprints and autotests which are held in the local areas of Wick, and Golspie in Sutherland. Autotests are held as part of the club's own championship, whilst the sprints at Golspie form part of the club's local championship and the renowned Scottish Sprint Championship.

Dateline: 15 July 2020

1950s radiogram restored to life!

The Covid Lockdown gave many of us the opportunity to spend some time on the projects that we've never quite got round to. A case in point was the restoration of a 1950s radiogram by our Chairman, Neil. The radiogram belonged to the family of his wife Liz and was purchased by her parents shortly after they were married in 1957. The radiogram was a faithful friend and played a large part in family entertainment for the next forty years or so until it was replaced with a modern hifi system capable of playing CDs etc. The radiogram was consigned to an outbuilding where it lay undisturbed until the begining of this year, when the building was due to be demolished. Neil decided that restoring the radiogram would be an interesting project, and the Lockdown removed the 'when I've got some spare time' excuse!

As found in the outhouse. Note the piles of dust from the woodworm activity!

Recovered to the workshop

The radiogram is fitted with an auto-changer turntable

The radiogram was branded RGD, a very popular manufacturer of radio and relevision equipment in the forties and fifties. The veneered wooden case was largely undamaged, save for some localised attack by the dreaded woodworm, and the loss of some veneer from the edges of the case. After recovery to Neil's workshop the first task was to give it a general clean and treat the wood to kill the woodworm and prevent reinfestation. This was done three times, just to make sure! The chassis was then removed, cleaned and given a careful inspection. A date marking on one of the chassis components revealed that the chassis was manufactured after January 1956. Through some internet research Neil established that RGD was taken over by Regentone in 1952 so this unit was probably made by Regentone using a proven RGD chassis design. Service data for the chassis, together with some useful hints and tips for repair and restoration was obtained from a very helpful website

Chassis removed from the case

Date marking on the HT smoothing capacitor can shows the radiogram was manufactured after Jan 1956

The can of the smoothing capacitor was found to be corroded through

Replacement of the vulnerable capacitors complete

No power was applied to the chassis until a number of vulnerable components were checked and replaced. The electrolytic HT smoothing capacitors and paper signal capacitors on old valve equipment are notorious for degrading with age, so plugging it in and hoping for the best would very likely have resulted in a loud bang and a puff of smoke, with the consequential risk of more difficult to replace components being destroyed. This caution proved to be rather wise, as the aluminium can of the main smoothing capacitor was found to have corroded through and the electrolyte had leaked out. A recipe for some fireworks if ever there was one! All vulnerable capacitors were therefore replaced with modern equivalents as a matter of course. The failed dial lamps were replaced and the various plugs, sockets and valve bases were cleaned to ensure good contact.

It lives! - Radio Scotland on Medium Wave

Chassis replaced into the case.

A happy moment as the turntable works perfectly!

Thankfully, the electonic repairs proved to be successful, and on powering up the chassis the unit came to life, and Radio Scotland was soon filling the workshop. After cleaning the record turntable components the chassis was reassembled in the case. On test the auto-changer turntable worked a treat, and happily played a 78rpm record of Scottish dance music. The hardware now complete, attention was turned to the case; the missing veneer replaced with some iron-on veneer and a few coats of varnish carefully applied. After filling in the worst of the woodworm holes a final polish brought the unit back to some semblance of its former glory.

The radiogram at Castlehill Heritage Centre playing the radio

In action with an old 78rpm record

Liz and her brother James kindly offered to donate the radiogram to Castlehill Heritage Centre, where it will now be used to support our exhibitions, including playing our large collection of 78rpm records.

Dateline: 14 July 2020

It was hard work in the old days!

One of our researchers was recently browsing through some old copies of the local papers (John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier) and came across an article by the columnist “Howburn” in 1947 on “Thurso as a port”. He recalls the topsail schooners carrying Caithness flagstone and coal. “When the wind was blowing down the river a towline was rowed out to the mark buoy by the pilots. The ships were then man-hauled to their berths. The harbourmaster then gave out 21 leather tickets to the haulers, which entitled them to sixpence each at the harbourmaster’s office. An occasional visitor was the Flower of Olrig, being a smaller type she generally traded to her home port of Castlehill. Once a year a small schooner nearly always Finnish, came all the way from St Petersburg with a cargo of oil-cake for William Purves of Thurdistoft."

Also of interest was an article recording that farm workers wages in 1937 were as follows: Grieve including perquisites 36 shillings, Foreman 32 shillings and 3 pence, Ploughman 31 shillings, and Shepherd 35 shillings. [As an aside, the word 'perquisite' is less commonly used now but means 'a benefit which one enjoys or is entitled to on account of one's job or position', for example a tied house may have been made available to the Grieve, rent free, and probably farm produce such as tatties and meal. Over time 'perquisite' has increasingly became abbreviated to perk, now more commonly associated with a non-monetary benefit associated with a job or work; for example a manager might be allocated a more palatial office than his staff on the basis that it is a perk of the job. Every day is a school day!]

Dateline: 12 July 2020

Monday Night Art Class goes virtual during Lockdown

Keen members of the Castletown Art Class run by Helen Moore at Castlehill Heritage Centre were not looking forward to a long spell of inactivity over lockdown. In reality however a frenzy of artistic activity has kept us all busy over these past months. Helen has given up her precious time (she is also the education and outreach officer for Lyth Arts Centre) to provide us with artistic instruction and inspiration. Weekly exercises and challenges have proved useful and popular.

Through a dedicated facebook group we were able to see, admire and comment on each other’s work as we attempted abstract art, layering, glazing, complementary colours etc., including non-objective or non-representational abstract painting - really pushing the boundaries of experience here! Not only did this keep our painting going through lockdown, it helped alleviate the isolation and frustration. Thank you Helen!

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Genealogical research team never sleeps.......

The “research department“ at Castlehill has not been idle over the closure of the centre. Recently help has been sent to a Canadian lady whose ancestors came from Olrig parish in the 19th century. She is planning to visit, once restrictions are lifted. Although she had done some research into the Hendry family already, we were able to supply her with a few surprise facts she did not know.

A lady from Argyll asked if we could throw any light on a William Gunn from Sutherland. With a name like that there was every chance that this was a Caithness family and so it turned out. We were able to find ancestors in Wick and Houstry and suggested that William probably joined the Caithness Highlanders which led him to the Peninsular War where he was injured in the battle of Salamanca.

The extra time at home has also allowed us to catch up on background reading including the rivetting story of Vera Atkins (pictured left) who organised the parachuting of agents into war-time France. The book A Life in Secrets by Sarah Helm was recommended by Don Mason from Thurso who was instrumental in dropping the agents behind enemy lines. F/Lt Don Mason RAF RV(Ret) BEM, took part in the war as a pilot and navigator, racking up almost 5,000 flying hours in operations over Europe. Ninety-nine year old Don has been a popular speaker at Castlehill’s winter talk programme in the past.

Dateline: 06 July 2020

Castlehill Heritage Centre - Opening Update

Following a review of the sector specific guidance for galleries, museums and heritage attractions published by the Scottish Government, Castletown Heritage Society are working towards putting appropriate arrangements in place to enable the Centre to reopen. The very interactive dialogue between visitors and the volunteer guides manning the Centre presents some particular challenges and risks that will need to be considered carefully in parallel with the published guidance - the safety and welfare of our volunteer staff and visitors is of the highest priority.

We hope to be able to put appropriate arrangements in place such that we will be able to reopen Castlehill to visitors sometime in September, however this is very much under review - check this website for updates on the way forward.

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Heritage garden plays its part in relieving Lockdown blues

The COVID crisis and Lockdown have meant big changes for everyone, not least to the volunteers that run Castlehill Heritage Centre. Safety checks and essential maintenance have been undertaken with due consideration to the published Lockdown guidance, and on-line inquiries and requests for assistance have been successfully managed remotely.

At the weekend we received a request from local visual artist Joanne Kaar who is working on a project with fellow local artist Helen Moore, the education and outreach officer for Lyth Arts Centre who are working to get activity packs into local care homes. The packs will be based on the theme of flowers, and amongst other things will include paint, paper, glue and small photo frames and some blotting paper to press flowers. Joanne's plan was to gather flowers and leaves to press and have them dry and ready for participants to use in their picture making straight away. Participants would then be be able to continue to press more flowers/leaves brought in by carers and family members using the blotting paper.

Joanne wondered if we would be able to help get the project underway by donating flowers, herbs and leaves for pressing from the Castlehill Heritage Garden, which thanks to the careful and responsible efforts of our volunteer gardener is thriving in all its summer glory? Of course we were, delighted to help!

Muriel lept into action straight away and arranged access for Joanne the same day. Working in an appropriate socially distanced manner they collected a large bundle of a variety of flowers and leaves. Hopefully these will bring a little bit of cheer the the residents in our local care homes. Well done Muriel!

In common with the rest of Castlehill Heritage Centre the Heritage Garden is not currently open to visitors. We are however looking at ways by which we might open it in advance of the main Centre. Watch this space for further details!

Dateline: 18 March 2020


Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic

In accordance with current HM Government advice to restrict social interaction to help mitigate the spread of coronavirus, Castletown Heritage Society has taken the decision to close Castlehill Heritage Centre to visitors and to cancel / postpone all scheduled workshops, exhibitions and events until further notice.

Information on the re-opening of the Centre and restart of activities will be published on this website in due course. In the meantime, the Society will endeavour to respond normally to emailed or postal inquiries about the social and industrial heritage of Castletown and the Parish of Olrig.

The Annual General Meeting of the Castletown Heritage Society, which was due to be held in Castlehill Heritage Centre on Tuesday 21 April at 7.30pm will be rescheduled later in the year when conditions permit. The draft Chairman's Annual Report will be published on this website pending approval at the reconvened AGM. It is anticipated all current officers of the Society will continue in post in the interim.


Dateline: 11 March 2020

Living Landscapes of Castletown

Over the past six months, UHI PhD student Julian Grant has been supported by Castletown Heritage Society in undertaking research into the impact of the North Coast 500, and tourism generally, on local communities such as Castletown and the Parish of Olrig. Julian has become a well kent face in the community and is an ardent supporter of the Castletown Peedie Cafe, a great opportunity to meet locals and visitors alike.

His talk last night was very well received, summarising his work to date. Some of the findings were truly fascinating and prompted many searching questions from the attentive audience. A key part of his presentation was the launch of the next phase of his project - a photographic challenge where local volunteers will take photographs over the next few weeks to try to capture their interpretation of community life in Castletown today. Watch this space!

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High tide at Castlehill

Castlehill Harbour was awash this morning as a high Spring tide overtopped the harbour quays.


Dateline: 26 February 2020

Caithness Flagstone - Versatile, Durable, Fashionable

The on the 25th of February by Kerry Spiers of Norse Stone Ltd was very well attended. Norse Stone produce bespoke original Caithness flagstone products at their base at Lieurary Quarry. Kerry gave an insight into the workings of their quarries, the challenges of Caithness Flagstone production and marketing in the modern day, and the techniques used to create their unique products. Based on her presentation the flagstone industry is once again clearly on the rise.

Dateline: 29 January 2020

Muriel nails it!

Our winter series of evening talks got off to a tremendous start last night when Muriel Murray presented the fascinating story of two sons of the Williamson family from Banniskirk and their campaigns and service during the Napoloenic wars. As always, Muriel had undertaken extensive research to support her talk which included a number of really interesting 'side stories', such as when a Napoleonic ship en route to Canada ran aground on an Orkney island. Extracts from letters written home by the brothers revealed much about the life typical of servicemen of the time. Throughout the evening Muriel held the audience spellbound, leading to a lively Q&A session and much praise for her presentation.

The next talk, on the 25th of 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.