Long ago, when I first came to live in Caithness and travelled south regularly to visit relatives, I drove along that stretch of the A9 known as the Causwaymyre a couple of times a year. This road runs along the edge of a wide expanse of moorland stretching for many miles inland to the mountains of Morven and Scaraben. I always had the urge to abandon the car and just set off into the distance, using these peaks as guides. As I usually had several children in the car, I never gave in to this urge!
It was with delight that I recently discovered that my impulse was not as mad as it had seemed but was an echo of journeys made by many, many people over the centuries. Before the days of roads, people did indeed use these two mountain peaks as guides across the moors. They also followed the main rivers and a local historian, George Watson, noted that the old paths could be re-created by joining points on the rivers where there were fords. He then realised that each fording point also had the remains (often no more than a grassy mound) of a chapel beside it. These chapels would have provided overnight shelter for travellers and care for any who fell ill on the way.
I came across this information while researching the early saints of the area. This in turn had been stimulated by reading Deacon John Woodside’s book ‘Together in Christ’ about the saints of Aberdeen Diocese and discovering that several of them had Caithness connections. By an unexpected but fascinating journey three of us (the book had been read by a small book group based at St Anne’s RC church, Thurso) devised six circular routes around Caithness linking the sites associated with thirty-two of the thirty-three names that we had compiled. (The other name, Devenic, did not have a specific site associated with it.) We named our routes ‘The Northern Saints Trails’ (Sadly, this name is also used for a similar project in the north of England!) Our details can be seen at www.wickstferguschurch.org.uk/page16.html.
When we started this project, we had three aims – to make these saints better-known; to encourage inter-denominational interest in our shared heritage and to encourage tourism. In order to meet the last of these aims, we decided to link with the North Coast 500 route. So our first circle follows this route, highlighting the main saints along the way. Numbers 1 to 5 are Inverness, Beauly, Applecross, Balnakiel and Strathnaver. Then numbers 6 to 23 follow the Caithness coast to Dunbeath. Numbers 24 to 34 return the traveller to Inverness. So the inland Caithness sites are numbered from 35 to 50. There is much scope for various centres outside Caithness to compile their own local ‘Saints Trails’. It is amazing how much information is available once you start digging! For this project, we just skimmed the surface of the ‘outside Caithness’ sites. Even so, we kept coming across interesting links, as many of ‘our’ names were also associated with other areas. It is surprising how much travelling these early saints did. My sense of being pulled across the moors was but the faintest echo of their burning desire to spread the Gospel. Today, we try to achieve this with facebook pages and zoom meetings. The saints of the 6th to 9th Centuries walked through lands inhabited by wolves and the fierce Caledonian bear.
One of the most surprising aspects of our research has been the lack of general knowledge about this period in local history. Primary school children have always been taught about the Vikings and their influence on Caithness language and culture. Within the last few years, the Caithness Broch Project have worked hard to involve children in their work on learning about the lives of the early inhabitants of the county. Why have the centuries between these two periods been ignored? Perhaps the most stark example of this neglect is the village of Spittal, towards the north end of the Causwaymyre. Even many local people do not realise the significance of the name (think hospital, hospitality, hostel) and just how important the site is. There is a site near it dedicated to St Magnus where there are still significant remains of a chapel, graveyard and the hostel itself. Researching this site was one of the factors in prompting us to move on to our next project. It became obvious that Spittal had been the main resting point for travellers passing through the county from Orkney to all point south. We fairly quickly realised, thanks to the work of members of the Caithness Field Club, that there was enough evidence to re-establish the medieval pilgrimage route between St Duthac’s, Tain and St Magnus’, Kirkwall. As this is a separate project, I will describe it in more detail in another article.
In the meantime, it is worth thinking of those early missionaries. How can we, or indeed you personally, continue their work in our own age?
Jane Coll | Caithness
Look out next year for the launch of the Northern Pilgrims Way. Beggining on the 29th May at St Duthac's in Tain with the Episcopal Bishop Mark Strange and Bishop Hugh Gilbert of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Aberdeen. There are further events in Thurso and Mass in Old St Peters' Kirk on 3rd July 2021 with Fr James Bell of St Mary's Inverness along with the deanery pilgrimage group. Finally the last part of the pilgrimage will be in St Magnus's Cathedral Kirkwall. Keep an eye on: https://www.wickstferguschurch.org.uk/page16.html for further details or failing that email me.