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Caithness (Gallaibh in Gaelic) is a traditional county and former administrative county within the Highland area of Scotland. Caithness has also a long and complex history as an earldom. (See Earl of Caithness).

The county consists of ten parishes: of Bower, Canisbay, Dunnet, Halkirk, Latheron, Olrig, Reay, Thurso, Watten and Wick.

Caithness has a land boundary with Sutherland. Otherwise it is bounded by sea. The land boundary follows a watershed and is crossed by two roads (the A9 and the A836) and one railway. Across the Pentland Firth ferries link Caithness with Orkney, and Caithness has also an airport at Wick.

Wick is a Royal Burgh and the county town. The only other burgh in the county is Thurso.

The county council was abolished when the Highland region and Caithness District were created in 1975. In 1996 the region became a unitary authority and the district was also abolished. Caithness remains in use as the name of a Lieutenancy Area, and of an area committee of Highland Council.

Caithness is represented in the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom and in the Scottish Parliament as part of two constituencies which are both called Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. In the Scottish Parliament it is represented also as part of the Highlands and Islands.

In 2001 Caithness had a usually resident population of 23,866 and settlement centres include those of Berriedale, Burnside, Castletown, Dunnet, Halkirk, Haster, John O'Groats, Latheron, Mey, Reay, Sibster, Thurso, Watten and Wick.



Caithness extends about 40 miles (64 kilometres) north-south and about 30 miles (50 km) east-west. The general aspect of the county, which measures in area about 712 square miles (1844 km²), is flat; and this peculiarity is rendered still more striking by the almost total absence of forest.

Most of the county is old red sandstone to an estimated depth of over 4,000 metres. This consists of the cemented sediments of Lake Orcadie, which is believed to have stretched from Shetland to Grampian during the Devonian period, about 370 million years ago. Fossilised fish and plant remains are found between the layers of sediment. Older metamorphic (granite) rock is apparent in the Scaraben and Ord area, in the relatively high southwest area of the county.

Because of the ease with which the sandstone splits to form large flat slabs (flagstone) it is an especially useful building material, and has been used as such since Neolithic times.

Caithness is a land of open, rolling farmland, moorland and scattered settlements. The area is fringed to the north and east by dramatic coastal scenery and is home to large, internationally important colonies of seabirds. The surrounding waters of the Pentland Firth and the North Sea hold a great diversity of marine life. Away from the coast, the landscape is dominated by open moorland and blanket bog, divided up along the straths or river valleys by more fertile farm and croft-land.


The Caithness landscape is rich with the remains of pre-historic occupation. These include the Grey Cairns of Camster, the Stone Lud, the Hill O Many Stanes and a complex of relics around Loch Yarrows. And numerous coastal castles (now mostly ruinous) are Norse in their foundations. When the Norse arrived, probably in the 10th century, the county was probably Pictish, but with its culture subject to some Gaelic influence from the Celtic Church. The name Pentland Firth can be read as meaning Pictland Fjord.

Numerous bands of Norse settlers landed in the county, and gradually established themselves around the coast. On the Latheron (south) side, they extended their settlements as far as Berriedale. Most of the names of places, and not a few of the surnames in the lowland parts of the county, are Norse in origin. A dialect of the Norn language was spoken, although almost nothing is known about it.

For a long time sovereignty over Caithness was disputed between Scotland and the Norwegian Earldom of Orkney. Circa 1196 Earl Harald Maddadarsson agreed to pay a monetary tribute for Caithness to William I. Norway has recognised Caithness as fully Scottish since the Treaty of Perth in 1266.

Scottish Gaelic was spoken in the west of the county into the 20th century, although it is believed to be extinct now. It is sometimes erroneously claimed to have never been spoken in Caithness! The language boundary changed over time, but the New Statistical Record in 1841 says,

"On the eastern side of [the Burn of East Clyth] scarcely a word of Gaelic was either spoken or understood, and on the west side, English suffered the same fate". By English "Lowland Scots", as well as English, would be meant. Caithness Lowland Scots has Norn influences.

Other quotes,

"Persons with a knowledge of Gaelic in the County of Caithness (in 1911) are found to number 1,685, and to constitute 6.7 per cent of the entire population of three years of age and upwards. Of these 1,248 were born in Caithness, 273 in Sutherland, 77 in Ross & Cromarty, and 87 elsewhere. .... By an examination of the age distribution of the Gaelic speakers, it is found that only 22 of them are less than 20 years of age." (J. Patten MacDougall, Registrar General, 1912)
"A presbytery minute of 1727 says of 1,600 people who had 'come of age', 1500 could speak Gaelic only, and a mere five could read. Gaelic at this time was the principal language in most parishes except Bower, Canisbay, Dunnet and Olrig" (Omand, D. From the Vikings to the Forty-Five, in The Caithness book)

Natural heritage

The underlying geology, harsh climate and long history of human occupation have shaped this rich and distinctive natural heritage. Today we see a diverse landscape incorporating both common and rare habitats and species, and Caithness provides a stronghold for many once common breeding species that have undergone serious declines elsewhere, such as waders, water voles and flocks of over-wintering birds.

Many rare mammals, birds and fish have been sighted or caught in and around Caithness waters. Harbour porpoises, dolphins (including Risso's, bottle-nosed, common, Atlantic white-sided and white-beaked dolphins) and minke and long-finned pilot whales are regularly seen from the shore and boats. Both grey and common seals come close to the shore to feed, rest and raise their pups, and otters can be seen close to river mouths in some of the quieter locations.

External links

Template:Scotland traditional countiesde:Caithness nl:Caithness sv:Caithness


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