ABOUT HALKIRK - THE HISTORY

from The New Caithness Book edited by Donald Omand and from other sources

The derivation of the place name Halkirk is a Norse form of ecclesiastical origin. It appears as Ha-kirkju in the Norse sagas, takes the forms of Haukirc and Haukyrc in two Latin documents of the thirteenth century, and is to the present day pronounced Haekirc by Gaelic speakers. The last limb is undoubtedly the Norse word for "kirk," and the first member is almost certainly the feminine form Ha of a Norse adjective, meaning "high." Hence Halkirk means "High Kirk," but why so called remains uncertain. It is quite possible that Hoy, a place-name in the immediate neighbourhood, also meaning "high," gave its designation to the kirk, and that in the name Halkirk Hoy lies concealed.

There is dispute among scholars as to whether the Picts living in the far north of Scotland were brought in to the fold of Christianity by missionaries of Columba in the 6th century or by those of Ninian of Galloway long before Columba was born. What is beyond any dispute is the large number of chapels in the parish dedicated to the saints, e.g. to Columba at Dirlot and to St. Trostan, who has five dedications in Caithness, two of them in Halkirk parish, viz., at Westfield and Westerdale. The old parish kirk on the outskirts of the village stands on or close to a site known as Tor Harlogan, signifying an early dedication to the missionary who crossed the Moray Firth from Buchan.

At the nearby chapel of St. Thomas, Skinnet, stood a beautifully carved Class II Pictish symbol stone (Skinnet Stone), one of the two outstanding examples (the other being the Ulbster stone) found in Caithness. Both stones are now housed in Thurso Museum. Unfortunately the Skinnet stone, probably dating to the 7th-9th century AD has been broken into a number of pieces, a sorry fate for this beautiful piece of relief monumental sculpture.

Perhaps the original focus of settlement in the area where Halkirk village now stands was the old castle at Braal, now a roofless rectangular keep pleasantly situated among woodlands on the west bank of the Thurso River. An 18th century traveller, Cordiner, commented on the "aged trees spreading near the castle and the river which "yields plenty of salmon". He wrote favourably of the large garden by the castle with its "rows of fruit trees, bearing plenty of apples, pears, and cherries".

Braal Castle was at one time the principal seat of the Earls of Caithness. As far back as 1375 King Robert II granted Brathwell (Braal) Castle to his son. (The adjacent new castle of Braal, of late 19th century date, has been converted into flats). In 1222, there occurred a dark deed that put the name of Braal on the pages of Scottish history. The incident was caused through the insistence of Bishop Adam to double the butter tax that he received as tithes from his flock. Greatly resisting this imposition, an angry crowd made for Braal Castle, residence of the Earl of Caithness, who was asked to protect the people from the prelate's exactions. One legend had it that the Earl refused to intervene in the dispute: another, that he advised the mob to burn the bishop in his butter. Whatever the advice, the unfortunate prelate was seized and put to death. So incensed was the Scottish King Alexander II by the crime that he came north with soldiers and avenged the bishop's death by causing much bloodshed in the area. Adam was succeeded by the distinguished Bishop Gilbert Moray. Following the barbarous crime at Braal, Gilbert decided to move the bishopric to Dornoch, where the cathedral church of the see now stands.

Halkirk parish continued to be the stage where many bloody skirmishes and clan feuds were enacted (such as the desperate battle at Harpsdale between the Keiths and Gunns) but more settled times had arrived before John Sinclair of Ulbster, grandfather of Agricultural Sir John died, leaving a sum of money for the construction of a stone bridge over the Thurso River, opposite the lands of Comlifoot.

However, as twelve years elapsed before the work was begun, the story soon gained credence that the delay was due to the influence of the devil. When the structure was finally completed it was believed that the devil made a rendezvous there every night. Little wonder few folk would cross the bridge after sunset!

It was almost another 60 years before the indefatigable Sir John Sinclair reputedly mustered his tenants and pushed a road through from Latheron to Georgemas, and ultimately to the bridging point of the river at Comlifoot, Halkirk.

The 19th century had turned before Sir John Sinclair drew up his plans for a settlement at his grandfathers bridge, using land that was not suitable for the plough: the moss of Halkirk.

The plan for a new village was drawn up in 1803 and, in the fashion of the time, was laid out on a grid iron basis with each of the 22.3 x 0.4 ha (55 x 1 acre) holdings delineated and numbered.

The principal thoroughfare at Bridge Street was to be 18.3 m (60 ft) broad and the lesser streets to measure 7.3 to 7.9 m (24 to 26 ft) in width. Dotted along the streets were communal wells, two of which survive on Bridge Street.

Family names are commemorated in Sinclair Street, Lane, and Square as well as in George and Camilla Street. An inn site was allocated on Bridge Street (opposite the end of Sinclair Street) with space for shops to the south of it. It was envisaged that Halkirk would grow into a thriving market centre, but the nearness of Thurso ensured that this would not be so. Only now is the original grid plan being filled in.

The handsome village hall known as the Ross Institute is so named after John Ross, who was born at Gerston in 1834 and emigrated to Otago, New Zealand, in 1861. The business, which he developed, soon expanded until it had branches in all the main towns of New Zealand. In 1911 the Ross Institute was opened, the electric clock (the first in a public building in Scotland) in its tower being a donation of another son of Halkirk, David Murray.

Many people in the area were saved from destitution by receiving contributions from the fund of the Halkirk Village Society, whose accounts in the early part of the last century showed a figure of 300, an enormous sum of money for those times. Further provision was made for the needy with the construction of the Poor House (now converted to flats - but empty) at Halkirk in 1856. It served the west end of the county, the east having a poorhouse, now virtually ruinous, at Ben-a-chielt, by the Causewaymire road.

Distillation of the 'barley bree' has had a long association with Halkirk. For nigh on 100 years the spirit was distilled at Gerston. The earliest distillery foundation, which goes as far back as 1825, survived some 50 years producing whisky of considerable merit, which was a favourite of Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. There is now little trace of the original distillery, the Ben Morven, was established close by in 1886. The still House is all that remains of this once large complex. Ben Morven never acquired the distinction of its predecessor and after a period of financial difficulty, it closed in 1911.

North of Scotland Newspapers Ltd.

This is HALKIRK would like to thank Donald Omand and
North of Scotland Newspapers Ltd. for their kind
permission to reproduce this extract from
THE NEW CAITHNESS BOOK
ISBN 1 871704 00 6