Before the school holidays finally disappeared this week, we spent a couple of days touring around the county visiting places we had never been to. Spending more time in Caithness over the summer has opened my eyes to just how many attractions we have available at home. If you read my blog regularly, you’ll know that we had a couple of lovely days out at Lyth Arts Centre and Dunbeath Castle Gardens. It’s funny how we don’t always appreciate what’s on our own doorstep isn’t it? As much as I love my home county I’m guilty of not making an effort to experience the things that visitors to the area quite rightly seek out.
And so on Sunday we made a visit to Castlehill Heritage Centre, which is run by the Castletown Heritage Society. Although I’m very familiar with the Castletown area (I lived there until I was 12), I don’t recall ever visiting the Heritage Centre before. However, we often walk our dog around the Flagstone Trail and Battery Road – one of my favourite Sunday outings. En route you can find out all about the local flagstone industry which back in the 1800’s, saw Caithness flagstone exported around the world. Watch out for the old windpump which we used to call ‘Rupert’s Castle’ when we were kids after a relative convinced us that he lived there. (That’s the bear, for the uninitiated. To date there have been no sightings of him in the area, but keep your eyes peeled just in case 😉 ).
The Heritage Centre itself is housed in an ex farm stead dating back to the 17th century. One highlight on entering the centre is the wonderful Heritage Garden which hosts an array of beautiful plants and flowered displays. We were lucky to visit on a gorgeous day, when volunteers were offering seasonal cream teas to visitors. I would have taken a photo of the lovely scones and cakes I bought for my son and his companion but they were rapidly devoured!
Inside the centre there is a plethora of fascinating information about the local area. The centre also hosts regular exhibitions, and the latest one, ‘Formidable Females’, charts the lives of some notable local women in line with the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act. You can also see part of the first bomb to fall on mainland Britain during World War 2 (which was retrieved from peats at Achavrole near the village of Watten). All in all a most educational experience – I really hope the kids were taking note!
Next up on our list for a (slightly murky-looking) Monday was Mary-Ann’s Cottage, near Dunnet, where visitors can enjoy a guided tour of a circa 1800’s croft. The croft, and associated cottage, have been preserved as they were when the last inhabitant, Mary-Ann Calder, left the croft in 1990 at the age of almost 93. The croft had been in Mary-Ann’s family for three generations having been built by her Grandfather, John Young in 1850. It was amazing to wander around and imagine the hugely sustainable way of life there – almost everything that the family needed was provided by the croft. I was also hugely impressed by the personal attention and wealth of information offered to us by our tour guides – their genuine connection and respect for the history of the place was a joy to see. I was also impressed by the force of nature that was Mary-Ann Calder. On top of everything else, this woman sent her son to university, quilted blankets, bathed in a tin bath until she left her home and even made honey from her own bees!
One of the highlights of the visit for me was learning about the ‘magic stone’ which was found in the cottage after Mary-Ann’s departure. Wrapped in a stocking, and found at the back of a cupboard, this piece of volcanic glass is said to be a ‘healing stone’ which may have been rubbed on animals or humans to relieve them of their ills. According to information at the cottage, it may have originally come from the wall of a now-demolished nearby chapel – although Mary-Ann herself professed to know nothing about it when later interviewed by a local historian. Whether this assertion was due to her religious beliefs (the local church would not have approved of such things) remains with Mary. What was clear when learning about Mary-Ann and her life was that in the context of formidable females, this hard working lady was up there with the best.
To round off our trip around the county we visited John O’ Groats for coffee. If you ever find yourself looking for a Starbucks in Caithness I can recommend Natural Retreat’s Storehouse close to the iconic JOG sign. We were delighted to discover that – not only do they serve yummy soya lattes 🙂 – they are also a dog friendly café inside. They even gave our furbabe a free puppuccino (cue LOTS more rapid devouring…)
Here’s to firsts and new discoveries, eh?
Caithness, where will you take us next?
You can find out more about the Castlehill Heritage Centre (including opening times) here on their website. Mary Ann’s Cottage is well signposted at Dunnet and is currently open daily from June-September 2pm – 4.30pm (times correct as at August 2018).