Pleasant Gardens and Ruined Cathedrals: Pococke’s Tour Part 3

In 1760 Bishop Pococke was not driving south to Dunrobin along the A9. Rather he would have been following the road, still passable on foot, that tightly hugs the coastline from Brora. He was therefore in an excellent position to see the remains of the broch at Carn Liath (I have omitted his description but it can be found on archive.org. https://archive.org/details/toursinscotland00pocogoog/mode/2up) and the gardens at Dunrobin, as well as the old castle – this being a generation before the current French chateau-style building was erected.

Coming along the coast near a mile to Dunrobin, Lord Sutherland’s castle and house, we were surprized at seeing half-a-dozen families forming so many groupes – viz., the man, his wife, and children, each under a coverlit, and reposing on the shoar, in order to wait for ye tyde to go a-fishing.

The old road just north of Dunrobin Castle, following the coastline where the fishing families were waiting. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

We arrived at Dunrobin, twenty miles from Dunbeath. This castle is finely situated on the end of a hill, which is cut off by a deep fossee, so that it appears on the south side, and next to the sea, like an old Celtic mount. Between it and the sea is a very good garden. The castle did consist of two square towers and a gateway. One tower only remains now, to which the house is built. There are good appartments in it, tho some have been destroyed by fire. The present earl has begun to plant the hanging ground from the house, and proposes to carry it on, which will make it exceeding fine. This castle was built by the first Earl of Sutherland.

A small mile to the north-west is a part called the old town and ye remains of a Pictish castle, which must have been the residence of the Thanes of Sutherland…

…We crossed the ferry at the river [Little Ferry at Loch Fleet] which rises towards Lough Schin, and they say it is most part of the way a fruitfull vale, and so it appeared as far as we could see. We travelled over a sandy head of land, and came to the cross set up there in memory of the defeat of the Danes (when they landed here in 1263) by William, Earl of Sutherland, and Gilbert Murray, Bishop of Cathness.

Remains of a pier on the south side of Loch Fleet, looking up the ‘fruitfull vale’ towards Rogart. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

We came to Domock, which is pleasantly situated on the head of land not far from … the Kyle of Dornock … There is very little trade in this town, and no manufacture but spinning of linnen yarn. The church here is the body of the old cathedral which belonged to the Bishop of Cathness. It seems to be pretty near a Greek cross, tho’ in the eastern part, now uncovered, there are four arches on each side supported by round pillars, with a kind of a Gothic Doric capital. In the body or nave are only three plain Gothic windows on each side; but what is most remarkable is a round tower within jiyning to the south-west angle of the middle part. It is built for a staircase, and is about ten feet in diameter, with geometrical stairs. The bishop’s house is a solid high building, consisting of four floors above the arched offices on which it was built. They show also the dean’s house, and it is probable several other houses now standing near the church did belong to the members of the chapter. These were granted with other parts of the church estate to the Earl of Sutherland. This is a royal burgh, of which they made me a burgess.

Dornoch’s manufacturing energies may not have impressed him, but it seems likely that a fair number of residents probably took in spinning from the gentleman farming a few miles along the road at Cyderhall.

In two miles we passed by Siderhall, a fine situation, now belonging to Lord Sutherland … Here a gentleman carries on a manufacture of flax in order to prepare for spinning; gives it out, and sells the yarn. A mile more brought us to Skibo, the seat of Mr. Mackay, half-brother to Lord Reay, and member of Parliament. It was a castle and country seat of the bishops of Cathness, very pleasantly situated over a hanging ground, which was improved into a very good garden, and remains to this day much in the same state, except that there are walls built, which produce all sorts of fruit in great perfection, and I believe not more than six weeks later than about London.

More flax-growing was in evidence the next day as he continued up the Kyle and when he arrived in Tain he saw where much of it ended up. We tend to assume that people in mid-eighteenth-century rural Scotland were self-sufficient farmers, so it’s interesting to see evidence of commercial flax production.

To be continued…

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