Parish of Reay

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

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1791-99: Reay
1834-45: Reay

Reay, a village of NW Caithness and a parish also of NE Sutherland. The village stands near the head of Sandside Bay, 10¾ miles WSW of Thurso, under which it has a post office, with money order, savings' bank, and telegraph departments. It consists of an inn, a school, the parish church, and a few houses. An older town, whose ruins were uncovered by a waterspout in 1751, is said to have been a burgh of regality, with two free fairs and a free port, granted by James VI. when he knighted Donald Mackay in 1616. This Donald Mackay was the first of the Lords Reay, an account of whom is given under Tongue. A market cross at the present village claims to have belonged to the traditionary burgh. Sandside Bay, measuring 6 furlongs across the entrance, and 5 thence to its inmost recess, is fringed with fine sandy links. A harbour was formed here nearly 50 years ago by Major Innes at a cost of over £3000.

The parish contains also the adjoining villages of Melvich and Portskerra, 6½ miles W of Reay; and, in the S, the station of Forsinard, 28½ miles SW of Thurso. It is bounded N by the North Sea, E by Thurso and Halkirk, SE by Thurso (detached) and Halkirk, SW by Kildonan, and W by Farr. Its utmost length, from N to S, is 191/8 miles; its utmost breadth, from E to W, is 147/8 miles; and its area is 1842/3 square miles or 118,169¼ acres, of which 46,3262/3 belong to Caithness and 71,842¾ to Sutherland, whilst 2391½ are water, 4421/6 foreshore, and 34 tidal water. The bold and rocky sea-coast, which measures 15¼ miles along all its ins and outs, is indented by the Bay of Bighouse (6 x 5 furl.) near Portskerra, by Sandside Bay, and by triangular Crosskirk Bay (2½ x 3 furl.) at the eastern boundary. It rises rapidly from the sea to 91 feet near Portskerra, 314 at Cnoc Geodh Stoir, 152 at Fresgoe or Sandside Head, and 172 at the Hill of Lybster. Caverns a re not infrequent; and near Borrowston a turf-clad natural arch spans a tide-washed chasm, nearly 50 feet deep. The river Halladale, rising close to the southern boundary at an altitude of 1200 feet above sea-level, runs 221/8 miles north-north-westward and northward to the Bay of Bighouse, and is fed by Dyke Water (running 8¾ miles north-north-eastward) and a number of lesser streams. Sandside, Reay, and Achvarasdal Burns flow northward to Sandside Bay; and Forss Water, issuing from Loch Shurrery (1¼ mile x 2½ furl.; 321 feet), winds 12½ miles northward, mainly along the eastern boundary, to Crosskirk Bay. Of sixty-eight other lakes and lakelets, the largest are Loch Calder (23/8 miles x 7½ furl.; 205 feet), on the eastern border; Loch Cailam or Chaluim (5 x 4 furl.; 435 feet), on the south-eastern border; and Loch na Seilge (5 x 4 furl.; 398 feet), 5 miles SSW of Reay. The surface is hilly but hardly mountainous, chief elevations being Ben Ratha (795 feet) and Ben nam Bad Mhor (952) in the Caithness portion, Ben Ruadh (837) on the western border, Ben Griam Bheag (1903) on the southern border, and the Knockfin Heights (1442) at the meeting-point of Reay, Kildonan, and Halkirk parishes. The rocks on the seaboard are Devonian sandstone, paving flag, and limestone; whilst those of the hills include granite, syenite, gneiss, hornblende, and quartzite. The sandstone and limestone have been largely quarried; shell-marl has been dug in large quantities at Dounreay and Brawlbin; iron ore is found in various places; and a vein of lead ore occurs near Reay village, but not under conditions to encourage mining. A mineral spring at Helshetter claims to be little inferior to the Strathpeffer wells. The soil on the seaboard about Borrowston and Dounreay is clayey and very tenacious of moisture, around Sandside Bay is sandy, and in the low parts of Strath-Halladale is a dark earth mixed with silicious sand. Little more than 3000 acres is in tillage; and a very trivial aggregate is under wood. The fine sheep-farm of Bighouse, comprising most of the Sutherland division of the parish, belongs to the Duke of Sutherland; the Sandside estate to the Duke of Portland; and the estate of Dounreay, 16,464 acres in extent, to Sir R.C. Sinclair of Stevenston, Bart. The great improvements carried out on the last-named property since 1859, in the way of building, draining, fencing, road-making, etc., are fully described in Trans. Highl. and Ag. Soc. for 1866 and 1875. Antiquities are a rude but extensive fortification on Ben Freiceadain near Loch Shurrery; remains of several circular towers in Strath-Halladale; numerous Picts' houses; and a ruined pre-Reformation chapel, St Mary's, at Lybster- 'one of the most remarkable and ancient churches in the north of Scotland.' Its nave measures 17 feet by 12, and its chancel is 10 feet square; whilst a door at the W end and another in the chancel have inclined jambs, and are less than 4 feet high (T. S. Muir's Old Church Architecture, 1861). Reay is in the presbytery of Caithness and the synod of Sutherland and Caithness; the living is worth £300. The parish church was built in 1739, and contains 432 sittings. Other places of worship are Shurrery mission chapel, Reay Free church, and Strath-Halladale Free Church mission chapel; and five public schools-Brubster, Dalhalvaig, Dounreay, Melvich, and Reay-with respective accommodation for 64, 72, 100, 150, and 143 children, had (1884) an average attendance of 22, 30, 38, 40, and 66, and grants of £42, 16s. 3d., £30, 10s., £37, 16s. 3d., £17, 6s. 8d., and £52, 16s. 11d. Valuation (1881) £10,421, (1885) £11,662, of which £8752, 8s. was for the Caithness division. Pop. (1801) 2406, (1831) 2881, (1861) 2476, (1871) 2331, (1881) 2191, of whom 1197 were in Caithness, and 1301 were Gaelic-speaking.—Ord. Sur., shs. 115, 109, 1878.

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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