Monday, September 8, 2014

The Ord of Caithness Part A

John Gunn

The Ord: John Thomson's Atlas of Scotland 1832
John Gunn and his family lived at Badbea for many years. John’s obituary states:
“During the ministry of the Godly Mr McDonald, Helmsdale, John Gunn was there summer and winter, and in all weathers he could be seen crossing the Ord to hear Mr McDonald. A man near Helmsdale, whose house he had to pass every Sabbath, used to say to his family - "There is John Gunn and his folk, all the way from Badbea (a distance of 8 miles) and you are not ready yet."
Source: Northern Ensign 13 July 1876

Crossing the Ord

For centuries the main route between Sutherland and Caithness had a stretch of road about two miles long that was extremely dangerous. Known as the Ord of Caithness, stories both old and new abound about its perils.

The Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland lists:
 Ord or Ord-of-Caithness, an abrupt, broad, lofty, granite mountain, overhanging the sea, on the mutual border of Sutherland and Caithness, 4 miles by road NE of Helmsdale. The old road over it, formerly the only land ingress to Caithness, traversed the crest of its stupendous seaward precipices at a height and in a manner most appalling to both man and beast; and even the present road, formed in 1811, rises to an elevation of 726 feet above sea-level, and has very stiff gradients.
Source: Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland Ed Francis Groome (1892-6)

In the NCAP photo both the old precipice route and the new road are visible

17th Century Terrors

 “During all this time the peasantry of the county were in a most wretched condition. Among other evils, Caithness was overrun with thieves. In 1617 a regularly organised band of these vagabonds infested the borders of Sutherland and Caithness, where they waylaid and robbed travellers, and violated every unprotected female that had the misfortune to fall into their hands. Their principal haunt was the Ord of Caithness, a spot peculiarly adapted for their purpose. Scarce a week passed without the commission of some murder, rape, or robbery, in that quarter... A strong posse of armed men were sent out to watch the movements of the gang, and to apprehend them. In a few days nearly the whole of the miscreants were seized and imprisoned, and after a summary trial sentenced to the gallows. A gibbet was erected on the highest part of the Ord, where, without benefit of clergy, they were all hanged as a terror to evil-doers.
Source: James Calder, Sketch of the Civil and Traditional History of Caithness from the Tenth Century, Ch IX
From the top of the Ord looking toward Navidale

Edge of the Precipice

Rev Donald Sage wrote of his crossing by foot over the Ord about 1809:
“We proceeded next day, notwithstanding the continuance of the storm, and in spite of a hard frost during the night, which put us both in the morning in imminent peril of our lives. It was in crossing the Ord in Caithness where the road in those days crept along the very edge of the precipice. Both my fellow-traveler and I lost our footing, slipped upon the ice, rendered still more slippery by a coating of snow which it had received that morning, and fell flat on the very brink of the precipice. We gathered ourselves up again in fear and trembling; it was certainly one of those occasions during the course of my life in which I felt the fears of death upon me.”
Source: Parish Life in the North of Scotland by Rev Donald Sage, 1899 Chapter XII

Catherine Sinclair 

Catherine Sinclair, daughter of Sir John Sinclair, wrote about the Ord:
“The Ord of Caithness was formerly pre-eminent for being the most dangerous bit of road in Scotland. Mr Telford tamed it down, however into such perfect safety and insignificance, that modern travelers can scarcely credit the difficulty and hazard with which ten years ago it was crossed, unless they are shown the old track, an almost perpendicular line of loose stones at the edge of an airy precipice.
During the last century, whenever the late Earl of Caithness, my grandmother Lady Janet Sinclair, or any of the chief landed proprietors entered that county [Caithness] a troop of their tenants assembled on the border of Sutherland, and drew the carriage themselves over the hill [the Ord] a distance of two miles, that nothing might be trusted to the discretion of quadrupeds. A pretty considerably narrow, perpendicular road skirted along the very edge of a precipice rising twelve hundred feet abruptly out of the ocean without the smallest hint of a parapet and many travelers, seeing this formidable obstacle turned their horses heads without proceding to scale it. The accident maker for the Dumfries courier could settle for life here as there is quite a treasury of untold stories to be heard in every house, how the mail was upset in one place, at another how Lord Duffus had only time to spring out and save his life before his gig and horse went over, and never spoke more. The mail coach now rattles down the whole descent of the gorge, scarcely deigning even to use a drag!

Sinclairs don't cross the Ord on a Monday

It is an old established superstition, that none of our clan may cross the Ord on a Monday, because on that day of the week [in 1513], forty [300] Sinclairs, commanded by the Earle of Caithness, ventured over to the battle of Flodden Field, and not one survived except the drummer, who was dismissed before the battle began. The whole troop had dressed in green, and since then it is likewise considered foolhardy in anyone bearing the name of Sinclair to wear green. I question whether we are entitled to eat green peas, or to drink green tea, and whenever a Sinclair loses his purse, it must of course have been of the objectionable colour.”
Source: Catherine Sinclair 'Shetland and the Shetlanders' - published 1840

Thomas Telford built the road from the Ord to Wick between 1808 and 1812. The Ord bridge was built about 1820. This eliminated the precipice route. The Ord road has since been upgraded many times but is still regarded as a challenging road to drive especially between Navidale and the hairpin bend at the Berriedale Braes

Helmsdale Information

 Memorial to John Welsh The tablet was moved from the
 original site of his death about 500 mts NWof here and 
  built into this cairn when the road was widened.

“Up till the early years of the 19th century the road followed a giddy course across the face of the headland some 800 feet above the sea, and many are the grim tales associated with it. The old folks tell of one wild winter's night when the coach was blown off the road and hurled on the rocks below, and history records that robbers haunted the Ord till Sir Robert Gordon, who was acting as Regent for the young Earl of Sutherland, took summary action and hanged them on gibbets erected on the summit. Even the new road has not been without its tragedies. Near the boundary mark there is to be seen the memorial to John Welsh who perished in a snowstorm in 1878, on which is inscribed the sober injunction "Be ye also ready" and nearby there are several cairns to mark the last resting place of other victims of the Ord's fury.”

Snow on the Ord Road

The Blizzards of 1978
A retired manager of the Ousdale farm told me of his own experience of a blizzard and heavy snow on the Ord road. Once when the road was blocked with up to 30 feet of snow, he had to bring the body of a traveller who had perished in a vehicle, back to Ousdale until the rescue services could access the farm. Where to keep the body safely was a most grim problem as hungry, half frozen rats were prowling. 
These cows in a blizzard are not at the Ord but are in the Highlands at Dunnet and show how cold a Highlands' blizzard can be. This is probaby more like the weather was when poor John Welsh perished.  Photo: David Glass

John Gunn 1787 – 1876 traversed the Ord on foot many times in his lifetime, both round the precipice route and along the Telford road. He survived the ever present hazards. My next blog will report on some hard working women who unfortunately didn’t. 

No comments:

Post a Comment