- THURSO, a burgh of barony, sea-port, and parish, in the county of Caithness; containing 4881 inhabitants, of whom 2510 are in the burgh, 20 miles (N. W. by W.) from Wick, and 55 (N. N. E.) from Dornoch. This place derives its name from its situation at the mouth of the river Thurso, or the river of "Thor." From the weights used here being adopted in the reign of David I. as the standard of assize for the kingdom, it appears to have attained a high degree of commercial prosperity at a very early period. Few events, however, of striking importance are recorded in its history; and it was not till the year 1633 that it obtained a charter erecting it into a free burgh of barony, granted by Charles I. to the master of Berrydale, at that time its superior. In the reign of this monarch, during the wars of the Covenanters, the Earl of Montrose, having landed on one of the islands of Orkney, visited this place, and resided for some time in a house of which the ruins are still remaining. In 1746 a party of Highlanders under the command of their chieftain, Mc Leod, encamped near Thurso for some time, previously to the battle of Culloden, in order to recruit their numbers; but the inhabitants, stedfast in their loyalty to the reigning monarch, pursued them on their departure; and at a ferry near Dunrobin Castle, attacking the party, took several of their officers prisoners. The barony passed from the lords of Berrydale, in 1718, to the ancestor of the late Sir John Sinclair, author of the well known Statistical Account of Scotland, whose representative, Sir George Sinclair, of Ulbster, Bart., is the present proprietor.The town is pleasantly situated, and extends along the shore of the spacious bay of the same name; it is irregularly built, consisting of an ancient and a modern portion, in which latter are many substantial and handsome houses. Two public libraries are supported by subscription, and there is also a reading and news room, well supplied with the daily journals and periodical publications; a Masonic lodge has been established for several years. The environs of the town, which commands an extensive sea-view embracing the fine bay of Thurso, the Pentland Frith, and the Isles of Orkney, abound with interesting features, enlivened with numerous seats and much pleasing scenery. The principal manufactures are those of linen and woollen cloths, and nets for the fisheries, in which 200 persons are employed; there are also a large tannery and a rope-walk. The several handicraft trades requisite for the supply of the neighbourhood are carried on in the town, and there are numerous shops well stored with various kinds of merchandise, and some good inns. The fisheries in the bay are extensive, consisting chiefly of haddock, cod, and lobsters. In the river, and around the bay, the salmon-fisheries produce a rental of £1000 per annum; and the herring-fishery affords employment to considerable numbers during the months of June, July, and August.The chief trade of the port is the exportation of grain, cattle, sheep, and other agricultural produce; of paving stones, in the dressing of which many of the inhabitants are employed; and of the produce of the fisheries, in which fourteen vessels belonging to the port are constantly engaged. There is a considerable coasting-trade, and about forty vessels annually enter and clear out from the harbour. The harbour, which is sheltered from the waves of the Pentland Frith by Dunnet Head on the north-east, and Holburn Head on the west, is easily accessible at spring-tides to vessels not drawing more than twelve feet water, and which, after passing the bar, may anchor in perfect safety; but for want of a pier, they can only load or unload their cargoes at low-water. Within the limits of the bay are the Scrabster roads, about a mile to the west of the town, where vessels of any burthen may at all times find safe anchorage, and where it is in contemplation to erect a commodious pier. The post-office has a tolerable delivery, and a branch of the Commercial Bank of Scotland has been established some years in the town. The market of Thurso, which is abundantly supplied with provisions of all kinds, is on Friday; and fairs, chiefly for the sale of sheep and cattle, are held annually in June, July, and September. Facility of communication is maintained by the turnpike-road along the coast, which passes for eight miles through the parish; by other good roads towards the south and west, along which the mail travels daily; and by bridges across the various rivers, one of which is a handsome bridge over the Thurso, erected near the town. Two sailing packets ply from Thurso to Leith, and, during the summer months, a steamer weekly from Wick to Leith. The government of the burgh is vested in two bailies and twelve councillors, elected annually by the superior, and of whom the elder bailie is ex officio a justice of the peace for the county: the jurisdiction, though originally limited to the old town, has been extended to the new town. There are no incorporations possessing exclusive privileges, and any one is at liberty to carry on trade within the town without becoming a burgess. For nearly two centuries the sheriff of Caithness was in the habit of holding his courts here, till 1828, when they were transferred to Wick, the county-town, at the suit of Earl Gower and the magistrates of that royal burgh; the only court at present held at Thurso is that of the justices of the peace for the recovery of small debts. The town-hall has been removed, and the only prison is a small lockup house for the temporary confinement of offenders till their removal to the county gaol at Wick.The parish, which is bounded on the north by the North Sea, is about eight miles in length and nearly five in breadth, and comprises 22,040 acres; 12,000 are arable and pasture in almost equal portions, forty woodland and plantations, and the remainder moor and waste. The surface rises from the sea-shore in gentle undulations towards the south, though without attaining any considerable degree of elevation; and the scenery is strikingly diversified, combining prominent features of romantic grandeur with the more picturesque appearances of richly-cultivated vales and pleasing villas. The principal rivers are, the Thurso, which rises in some springs near the borders of Sutherlandshire, and after receiving numerous tributaries in its course, runs northward through the parish, and falls into the bay of Thurso near the town; and the Forss, which has its source in the parish of Reay, and after forming the western boundary of this parish, flows into the sea at Crosskirk bay. Both these rivers abound with salmon. The coast is about eight miles in extent, and with the exception of that of the Scrabster roads, to the west of Thurso bay, which is a level sand, is bold and rugged. At the extremity of Holburn Head, which projects boldly into the sea, is an isolated rock about 160 yards in length, and eighty in breadth, separated from the main land by a deep narrow channel, and rising perpendicularly to a height of 400 feet above the sea; it is the resort of numerous aquatic birds during the summer months.The soil, though various, consists chiefly of clay and loam resting on a substratum of sandstone or clay-slate; the chief crops are grain of all kinds, with potatoes and turnips, and the usual grasses. The system of husbandry has been for some time gradually improving; the lands have been partly drained and inclosed, and considerable portions of waste land been brought into cultivation: the farm-buildings, also, have been greatly bettered, and are now generally commodious and well arranged. The sheep are usually of the Cheviot and the Leicestershire breeds; and the cattle, to the improvement of which much attention is paid, are chiefly the Highland and Teeswater. The plantations, though not extensive, are mostly in a thriving state; they consist of oak, elm, plane, common and mountain ash, and firs of various kinds. There are several quarries of whinstone, freestone, and slate, wrought with success; and large quantities of Caithness flags, in the dressing of which 250 men are employed, are sent to London, Newcastle, Glasgow, and other towns. The rateable annual value of the parish is £8052. Thurso Castle, the seat of Sir George Sinclair, originally the baronial residence of the earls of Caithness, is an ancient mansion, situated on the shore of the North Sea, and commanding a good view over the bay of Thurso and the Orkney Islands; it has been greatly enlarged and improved by the present proprietor. Forss House, the seat of James Sinclair, Esq., is a handsome modern mansion, beautifully situated on the bank of the river Forss, in a richlyplanted demesne embracing a fine prospect of that stream, which forms a beautiful cascade nearly in front of the house. Murkle House, the property of Sir John Gordon Sinclair, of Stevenston, Bart., is also a handsome mansion, at the north-eastern extremity of the parish, overlooking the bay of Murkle.The ecclesiastical affairs are under the superintendence of the presbytery of Caithness and synod of Sutherland and Caithness. The minister's stipend is £203. 7., with a manse, and a glebe valued at £17. 10. per annum: patron, Sir George Sinclair. The church, erected in 1832, by the late Sir John Sinclair, at an expense of £6000, is an elegant structure in the later English style of architecture, with a tower and spire 140 feet high; and contains 1540 sittings. There are also places of worship for members of the Free Church, Original Seceders, and Independents. The parochial school is attended by about seventy children; the master has a salary of £34. 4. 4., with a house and garden, and the fees average £50 per annum. Half a mile to the west of the town are the ruins of an ancient castle, formerly the palace of the bishops of Caithness, originally built by Bishop Gilbert Murray, about the year 1230; it is beautifully situated on the shore of the bay, and though little of it is now left, it appears to have been a place of great strength. In the town are the remains of the old church, dedicated to St. Peter, which was built by Bishop Murray in 1240, and enlarged in the 17th century; it continued to be the parish church till the erection of the present structure in 1832, and the walls are still entire. On the extreme point of Holburn Head are the remains of a camp supposed to have been formed on the invasion of Caithness by the Norwegians. About two miles to the east of the town is the tomb of Earl Harold, who was killed in battle while attempting to recover his possessions from the usurpation of Earl Harold the Elder: a castellated building of considerable extent was erected over it by the late Sir John Sinclair, which is called Harold's Tower, and forms a conspicuous feature in the landscape. Sir John Sinclair, who died in 1835, and Richard Oswald, Esq., one of the plenipotentiaries of the British court for settling the peace of 1783, were natives of this place.
A Topographical dictionary of Scotland. Samuel Lewis. 1856.
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