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Wick (Donald Murray): Week 17 – 15 July

Sinclair’s Bay is part of a broad crescent sweeping 20 miles or so from Noss Head near Wick all the way up to Duncansby in the far northeast. Some 2,000 years of coastal defences can be traced in the monuments scattered along the bay. There are the remains of Iron Age brochs, those great round stone edifices that once towered above the cliffs. Debate still rages as to why they were built—whether defensive structures, manor houses or (my personal theory) the ventilation towers of a vast Iron Age underground railway—but Caithness has more ruined brochs than any other part of Britain, many of them strategically placed overlooking the sea.

A foggy day in Wick

Then there are the castles. Sinclair’s Bay has three: Girnigoe in the south, Ackergill Tower in the middle and Keiss (pronounced to rhyme with fleece) to the north. Seen from the sea, Keiss towers dramatically on the cliffs—as impressive in its way as, say, Harlech or Edinburgh castles. It’s only when you view it from the landward side that you realise it’s all a front, that it has breadth and height but hardly any depth, like the mockup Western town in Blazing Saddles. (As I get older I tend to look at medieval castles with a different perspective; I can’t help wondering how they managed all those steeply winding turret staircases in an age without knee replacements or stairlifts.)

Old Keiss Castle and a pillbox

We were over by Girnigoe Castle on Sunday, and I was surprised (and quietly delighted) to find a lone piper playing there. It was a blustery day, though, and the wind whipped the skirl o’ the pipes around so that it sounded from where we were as though someone had trapped an an angry wasp in a jam jar. Perhaps it’s a new initiative by the Scottish Tourist Board, and when you rent a camper van in Inverness you’re also issued with a free piper to enhance the experience as you travel round?

Well. In gansey news I’m getting on for halfway down the second sleeve (in terms of knitting, if not distance) and the end is in sight. If I can keep up this rate I might even finish it next weekend. Of course, we won’t be able to see it at its best until its been washed and blocked, but already it feels like a classic.

Another foggy day in Wick

The third age represented along the Caithness coast is of course the Second World War. After the German invasion of Norway in 1940 Caithness was very much on the front line and Keiss, with its long flat beach, was heavily fortified. Most of the defences have been cleared since, but you can still see numerous pillboxes (machine-gun emplacements) as well as examples of “dragons’ teeth” (concrete anti-tank defences shaped like huge toblerones) above Keiss beach. The beach was mined, reportedly Britain’s longest minefield, and there was even a “flame barrage” (in the event of an invasion, the beach could have been flooded with a petrol-oil mixture and set alight). Impossible to imagine on a peaceful July day in 2019, when there was nothing out to sea save a couple of fishing boats bobbing placidly on the swell, nothing in the air but predatory herring gulls. It probably says something about us that these are the monuments that endure; Philip Larkin once memorably wrote that “what will survive of us is love”—he didn’t go on to add, “and castles and pillboxes”, but maybe he should have.

[Apologies for the late posting – internet gremlins.  Margaret]

4 comments to Wick (Donald Murray): Week 17 – 15 July

  • =Tamar

    It was illuminating to me to realize that virtually all of the knights, etc, of the medieval period were teenagers, and often brain-damaged teens at that. The history of the world is in fact a history of gang fights.

    In the face of that, a castle that is almost all show makes sense: bluster and bully, with just enough strength to stand against an average attack, and most potential enemies will slink away and look for a likelier victim.

    Butbutbut…aren’t brochs the landing sites for the UFOs? I’m so disappointed.

    I wonder why the completed gansey sleeve seems to have shadow diamonds on the plain part.

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar, I tend to base my understanding of medieval knights on Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“we’re knights of the round table, we dance whenever we’re able…”). This may not be entirely accurate.

  • Deb Gillanders

    Of course brochs could have been ventilation shafts. The Jurassic fossils formed 180m years & a couple of minutes or so by sediment infilling the tunnellings made by hungry shrimp things that had just, like the ladies of the court of king Caractacus, comma, passed by, could easily indicate the early precursors to tiny railways. Once they’d got hold of Steam, there’d be no stopping the little buggers.
    There’s a broch on Loch Dunvegan that commands a good view of the Outer Isles &, in the other direction, the eponymous castle. I suspect that when the gnarly old warriors complained about the gyp these spiral staircases were giving their knees, their old mothers would dig them in the ribs with their cromachs & remind them that it was Aye better than a’ that crawling aboot.
    Nutha thing; don’t know why I haven’t considered this before but – it would be a grand thing just if you might consider loaning some Ganseys to Propagansey 2019 & augmenting this exhibition with your wonderful revivals of old patterns from up your way. Any supporting paperwork, ie notations, notes on provenance, theories about railways etc also gratefully received & displayed.
    Please do give it some thought; I can pay postage.
    Let me know!

  • Gordon

    Hi Deb, my first thought on brochs was that they were the giant remains of Prehistoric termite mounds. (Subsequently disproved by David Attenborough.) As for turret stairs, just think how much fun they must’ve had sliding down the banisters!

    I’m flattered at the suggestion of contributing to Propagansey (it’s only distance that stops us coming along for it). Certainly this one and the previous Caithness one would seem to fit the bill. Happy to sort out details offline! Cheers, Gordon

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