Robert Louis Stevenson spent the summer of 1868 in Caithness and called Wick “one of the meanest of man's towns, on the baldest of God's bays.” Stevenson wasn’t fond of the Scottish weather, even in Edinburgh, and way up here the dour stone buildings and low glowering clouds can seem cruel. But the Vikings wouldn't bear Stevenson’s insult to the North Sea port they founded in the 9th century as Vik (old Norse for "bay"). And they'd surely be outraged at Britain's Idler Magazine for nominating Wick as a contender for title of Britain's Crappest Town in 2003.
The town that King James VI made a Royal Burgh in 1589 could sure use some cheery paint and hotel upgrades and a modern swimming pool to replace the North Sea water trinkie carved into the rock. And as for the “silver darlings” - not sequined ladies of the night, but the fish that glittered like coins in the nets of 19th century herring fishermen when Wick reigned as Europe’s “Herringopolis” - it’s all history now, proudly told in Wick’s wonderful Carnegie library and in the Wick Heritage Centre. And hail to the toon pipers! The award-winning Wick Pipe Band, flouting bright MacKenzie tartans and ostrich feather bonnets, keeps up the town’s spirits with its old-fashioned Variety Show.
The windswept peatbog Flow Country around Wick has been mocked too. One Victorian MacCulloch wrote:
On entering into Caithness, all the pleasures of travelling are gone and past, for an uglier country from one end to the other would not easily be found. I saw a Caithness forest. It was precisely five feet two inches and a half high. Such a forest, potted, would have been a fortune to a Chinese.
That's absolutely insulting. I can see how the wind-bashed vegetation of this ignored part of Scotland would inspire allusions to Bonsai. The trees here — when there are trees — are oddly stunted and twisted by the fierce salty wind. But this raw place of big sky and dramatic light, moorlands, sea stacks and geos (cliff-edged rocky inlets) is a dreamscape for hikers and archaeologists.
Caithness contains one of the largest and most intact areas of blanket bog in the world — an ancient rare and fragile habitat that up till now— pre-Brexit — has been protected by UK and European legislation, and under consideration as a World Heritage Site. It's a soggy, squishy, boggy world blooming with fluffy bog cotton and carnivorous plants like sundews, butterworts and bladderworts. It’s also a breeding ground for mighty arctic skuas, known locally as “bonkskies” for their surprise head-bonking attacks when humans encroach upon their nesting grounds. Adders breed in the Caithness Flow Country too, thus inspiring strange folk remedies and cures for their bites, like adder soup! Made from an adder, of course.
I’ve explored Caithness from Lybster to Nybster and Mybster, to Scrabster, Thrumster, Ulbster and all the old Norse “bsters” and “wicks” in between, and up to the spectaculr Dunnet Head, the most northernly point on the British mainland.
I’ve hiked the Yarrows Archaeological Trail under a black-and-blue summer sky streaked with gold and rainbows. At the deserted Clearance Villages of Badbea, I’ve wandered among abandoned ruined crofts on a towering cliff so exposed that the evicted tenants forcibly moved here in the 18th century had to tether their children and their sheep to keep them from blowing off into the sea. At Thurso (Thor’s River) I’ve gaped at the thunderous Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea crashing together over the Pentland Firth. All of these wonders, from Neolithic to Now, can be enjoyed on day outings from Wick, Thurso or Lybster.
As I have discovered on my many explorations of Caithness with Gordon Mooney, Caithness and its spirited people will never deign to become a mere “Scottish tourist product.”
The Vikings reigned over Caithness, Orkney and the Shetland Isles from 850 A.D. until the Treaty of Perth in 1266 A.D. Norn, a dialect of Old Norse, was spoken in these parts well into the 16th century. So I wasn't surprised to find a pub in Wick pub called Hagar's Lounge. Yet should I have wandered into this dimwit echo of that glorious Viking past expecting to meet their proud Nordic descendants? Hagar's Lounge was the dive of all dives, a smelly fag-stained basement pub in Wick. Yet after I turned to go, I was pulled back in again by all the wonderful sounds in the pub. It wasn’t musical notes that delighted my ears, but the sound of another accent I had not heard in Scotland.
There I was--in the midst of these Gaelic-Norse flavored Caithnessian accents with their elongated ooooohs, eeeehs and ayeeees, made even longer by the row of cider bottles lined up along the bar. I could hardly believe what I was hearing...talk about human bones turning up on building sites of new bungalows all over Caithness. Vertebrae! Jawbones! Skulls! Fingers! A Hitchcocktian nightmare!
"Who got murdered?"
"Ah noobody, lass" said a tall sunken-eyed man. "The forensic police suppose the bones're over 1500 years auld, bein' all broon from the peaty earth. How they made their way into the building contractor’s cement is the stoory. Aye."
"Aye, sand poachers, they wair," said another man. "In the middle of the night a digger gouges out lorryloads of sand from the beach dunes off the Hempriggs Estate, near that posh Ackergill Castle where they have them convention meetins. Then the poachers flog the sand on to a building contractor to use for all the new houses going up. But they dinnae ken, they dug straight through a Viking burial site. We got Viking bones all over Caithness noo!"
I imagined the horror...Viking graves bulldozed by greedy builders...all these rich "Southerners" coming up from England to build holiday homes with Viking bones interred in their walls...vengeful Viking spirits stalking their new-built houses to put their own skeletons back together...
"Aren't you angry about your ancestor's bones?" I frowned at the shaggy red-haired man. "How can this happen to a Scottish archaeological site?"
"Ah lass, the site belongs to a Scot way oot in Caleefornyah. T'wasn't a legally protected Scheduled Ancient Monument, though it should've been, I reckon. Caithness is littered with chambered cairns, hut circles and stone circles and hill forts. Noobody minds 'em 'cept the tourists and the archaeologists and planners who fight over 'em with the developers."
"Way up here we do what we want," piped the other." These big skies quicken the cowboy instinct."
"Listen up, lassie. We've had a building spree on in Caithness ever since the Atomics came in the 1950's to work at the Dounreay Nuclear Energy plant. Then we had the North Sea Oilers in the '70's. Now it's the Decomms coming to take apart that filty nuke plant. They all want their new houses. They all need sand. But I wouldn't want noo Viking fingers pokin' oouta me bedroom walls. Noo, noo, noo!"
The Great Ackergill Sand Heist. That's what we'll call it in years to come. Over 1000 tons of prime North Sea beach sand, dune grass, Viking bones and all, hauled away from a site beside Ackergill Links, Reiss, to a contractor's yard at a quarry near Watten, then sold to cement-hungry housing boom builders.
Agent for the Hempriggs Estate would claim that the graveyard's location in the miles of dunes along Sinclair's Bay had not been clearly marked, that the breach of its boundaries was inadvertent. Yet had the estate applied to the local Council for planning permission to extract the sand --as law requires-- it would have been refused planning permission for archaeological reasons. Ackergill Cemetery has been recorded as an archaeological site of national and possibly international importance, for aspects which are unique or extremely rare in Scotland.
In the 19th century a 9th century Ogham-inscribed symbol stone was excavated from the site. In 1925 and 1926 Arthur J.H. Edwards partially excavated Ackergill with support from the Gunning Fellowship. His illustrated findings, with the exact location of the graves, comprised a lengthy report in the February 8, 1926 Proceedings of the Society for Scottish Antiquaries.
Edwards found a series of corbelled, stone-lined and chambered cists with the remains of sixteen bodies from infants to elders, one with a 10th century bronze chain around its neck. The main series of cists were buried under a mound which is still visible today. Edwards also found a post sticking out of a cairn --with a notice forbidding the removal of sand from the site. They knew even back then!
Little good it does that some bags of the haunted sand were mysteriously returned to the ravaged site weeks after the sand heist. Patrick Ashmore, Head of Archaeology of Historic Scotland regrets that some of Ackergill’s archaeological value has been lost forever.
Curious to see it, I went out to Ackergill at sunset and recognized the spot by the chaos of wrecked dunes. That evening the sky was a shocking mustard yellow, streaking the waves and watery sand with its eerie glow. I imagined the lean swooping Viking longboats on the horizon and the women of these high, narrow-faced people, as their unearthed skulls read, waiting upon the shore.
I pictured these first farmers patiently quarrying and cutting the stone slabs to make endurable coffins for their loved ones, then combing the beach for sparkling white quartzite pebbles to place on top. Even Scottish children know the magic contained in these lucky chucky stones. Yet today, except for the few quartz burial stones scattered by the bulldozers, they are nowhere to be found in the area.
I hope the Ackergill heist rouses the Scottish authorities to better protect Caithness. It may not be as lush and dreamy and celebrated as the Gaelic Isle of Skye, but its archaeological treasures may prove as amazing as Orkney's Skara Brae, declared a World Heritage Site. For now, Caithness is still a dreamscape for hikers, birdwatchers and archaelogists - a raw place of big sky and dramatic light, moorlands, sea stacks and geos, cliff-edged rocky inlets.