Of Cathedrals and Canals

One of the first things a visitor to Dornoch notices is the sandstone cathedral, pride of place in the centre of the town. Visitors are encouraged to walk around it and admire the beautiful stonework, the gargoyles, to consider the first cathedral building of the 1220s and the restoration of two hundred years ago. But Bishop Gilbert of Moravia’s removal of the Seat of the Bishopric of Caithness from Halkirk to Dornoch left an archaeological mark not only on the town, but running through the surrounding countryside.

Dornoch Cathedral, rebuilt in the 1820s (From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie)

Dornoch Cathedral, rebuilt in the 1820s (From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie)

The landward side of the parish, stretching up the Evelix Valley, is now crofted. Criss-crossed with single track roads it rises into a series of low hills. The lowest road runs parallel to the River Evelix. Venturing westward off the A9 it is now possible to skirt Milltown of Evelix Farm, where the ruins of a large water mill and its lade are clearly visible. Unlike ruined mills further upstream, this one operated into the twentieth century. The road to Rearquhar passes through unremarkable fields of sheep, with the occasional pony. As it rises the land becomes a little rougher. Soon it wends its way among a little patch of old birch trees, picturesquely crooked and shady. There is a reason this patch of soil is left as woodland rather than being under cultivation. It is not flat and smooth like the surrounding fields. In fact there is a pair of rather steep banks running for twenty yards or so straight towards the road. The geomorphology of the area, especially the long esker separating Dornoch from Camore, might suggest that the feature is another remnant of glaciation. But eskers and drumlins do not tend to come in parallel pairs. This is man-made.

canal near Rearquhar (photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie)

canal near Rearquhar (photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie)

Making Dornoch into the Seat of the Bishopric of Caithness was much more than an administrative move. As the cathedral was built, so were a series of buildings to house various members of the church hierarchy and to enable the administration of the region. Today’s Castle Hotel is one remaining tower of three, surrounding a courtyard, which made up the Bishop’s Palace. Other impressive stone-built houses for the church officials towered above the wattle and turf homes of locals. Placenames show how Gilbert divided up land to help support the six canons. ‘Achendean’, now the name of a house beside the Castle Hotel, and ‘Achinchanter’ on the outskirts of the town, suggest these areas were granted to the Dean and, possibly, the Precentor.

There are a few theories as to why Gilbert chose to locate in Dornoch. Was it because he was related to the Earl of Sutherland, busy establishing himself at Dunrobin, in the hopes that he could protect him from the sort of attack suffered by his predecessors in Halkirk? If so, why was the cathedral not built in Golspie? Or was it because there was already a religious establishment at Dornoch? There are certainly indications this was the case. Whether they were already there or brought in by Gilbert it appears Dornoch was home to a number of monks.

Monks did not spend all their time in prayer, meditation or singing. Most orders were highly practical. They grew their own food in gardens and on farms and laboured on church-related building projects. Undoubtedly they worked on Dornoch’s new buildings. As Dornoch developed into something more than a mixed farming township, especially one which reflected the prestige of such a great person as the Bishop of Caithness, also needed good infrastructure. Especially water. Water for people to use and water for operating the flour mill.

The best supply was from the River Evelix. The monks used the original line of the glacial river for their canal, although before their time the river had changed its course, now turning sharply to the south-west and emptying into the Dornoch Firth at Meikle Ferry. Details as to where exactly it can be seen are explained in Robertson and Park’s Abandoned Buildings of the Evelix Valley, but it was cut from Rearquhar, and its remains appear and disappear past the Astle road and through Fleuchary. Beyond that no traces of it can be found. The remains of this substantial engineering project, which must have been one of the wonders of Sutherland at the time, did not survive the enclosure of fields and the advent of deep ploughing.

Michael Hook, A History of the Royal Burgh of Dornoch (Dornoch: Historylinks Museum, 2005)
S.J.T. Robertson and R.G. Park, Abandoned Buildings of the Evelix Valley (Dornoch: Historylinks Museum, 2009)

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