'Tales from Braemore & Swein Asleifson – A Northern Pirate' by Robert P Gunn (Whittles Publishing, Dunbeath)
Caithness, where I grew up, provides the locale of this book. However, while I am familiar with Dunbeath – a village on the A9 south of Wick and not far from the border with Sutherland – Braemore is another matter. It turns out to be a tiny village on the banks of the Berriedale River, not far from Dunbeath, and overshadowd by the Highland mountains Morven and Scaraben. It is in this area, where Caithness's only major writer – Neil Gunn – was born, that the majority of these tales are set.
Robert Gunn tells us that his material is made up from the folk tales and legends which were told in the ceilidhs of the past, and which he believes deserve to be recorded and preserved. He may well have succeeded in doing so, but I'm less convinced by the manner of his recording. He says he 'has written them down in a similar manner to the way in which they were told at the ceilidhs', but his language and style rarely suggest anything of the speaking voice or the vernacular. Rather his standard English comes across as lucid but lacking in colour.
The tales themselves, nearly all set in a murky early medieval past, with titles such as 'A Legend of Loch More', 'The Beauty of Braemore', 'The Prisoner's Leap', 'The Giant of Morven', often turn out to be more interesting for their setting in the Caithness landscape than for the stories they tell. At least six of them concern Caithness characters who grow up to be over six-foot tall and outstanding fighters, able to overcome insuperable odds. Other stories are about bloody feuds between clans in Caithness and Sutherland. But for me at least it was the Caithness place names and settings that caught my interest: Girnigoe Castle, Ackergill Castle, Sinclair Castle, Dunbeath itself, Halkirk, Watten, Latheron, Ulbster, Berriedale – all these and more stirred childhood memories. But none more powerful than a story called 'The Battle of Altimarlach'.
The Altimarlach site is only a mile or two up Wick River from the town. It had a reputation as a favourite walk in summertime for families and courting couples. The battle that was supposed to have been fought there occurred in 1680. The antagonists were the Caithness Sinclair clan and a gathering of men from different branches of the powerful clan Campbell. The issue centred on a dispute over who had the rights to the Earl of Caithness title and the ownership of the lands that went with it. On the day, the Campbells succeeded in plotting an easy victory and over 200 Sinclair men and their supporters are reputed to have died.
It took until the early 18th century for the title and lands to be restored to the Sinclairs. In my time we were always told that the battle of Altimarlach was the last clan battle in Scotland – and that claim is made on the memorial cross at the site. Robert Gunn, however, tells us that in truth the last clan battle was fought eight years later in 1688 between the clan Macintosh and the MacDonalds of Keppoch. So Altimarlach proves to be less noteworthy that I've always thought.
One or two of these 'tales' concern Caithness figures from the more recent past. The most interesting story focuses on a man, born in Thurso in 1783, called John Finlayson. (Interestingly later in his life he changed the spelling to 'Finlaison'.) Finlayson proved to be a very clever schoolboy in English, geography and history, but, as Gunn puts it, 'in the field of mathematics he was something of a genius'. In due course he became a solicitor's apprentice, then the factor on a local estate. Moving to Edinburgh, he became the clerk of a Writer to the Signet, but soon after eloped to London with his employer's younger sister.
In London, his mathematical skills soon launched him on a very successful career. Initially a clerk in the Admiralty, he transformed the department's system of correspondence, and compiled the Navy List. More success quickly followed. He established a widows' fund for the civil service and widows of navy medical officers. Soon he was working with the Chancellor of the Exchequer over pensions and annuities. In 1821, he became the first government actuary, meaning that he was called upon whenever government policy involved mathematical calculations in such areas as births, deaths and marriages. As an accountant and calculator, Finlaison's reputation had become second to none.
Finally, Gunn tells us how he was the key figure in ensuring that fellow Caithnessian, Alexander Bain, received due credit for the invention of the electric clock and the printing telegraph in the 1840s, when the Englishman Charles Wheatstone tried to argue that the credit should go to him.
The appeal of this book will be mainly to those of us from the UK's northernmost county. But there is some material here that will interest a wider audience.