Garrywhin Fort, Ulbster, Caithness

Hillfort:  OS Grid Reference – ND 312 414

Getting Here

Going up the A99, just as your approaching Ulbster, take the left turn where the phone box is and go up the track for about a mile towards Watenan house.  A few hundred yards before here, three walls meet: follow the walling to the NW, past the nearby Cairn of Get and Garrywhin Stone Rows.  You’ll walk right into the fort!

Archaeology & History

This is a gigantic old hillfort, surrounded on all sides by a mass of prehistoric remains from the neolithic and Bronze Age periods.  But the fort itself is mainly Iron Age.  It occupies the summit of a broad ridge of land with 3, possibly 4 entrances and surrounded by bog-land.  It measures 590 feet north-to-south and up to 200 feet wide at its greatest diameter.  The stone walling averages some 8 feet wide around the fort and its entrances are lined with large slabs of stone.

Folklore

The local folklore writer George Sutherland (1937) told that the cliffs on the western edge of this large hillfort were haunted and under the protection of supernatural guardians.  One tale he narrated told of,

“a young man (who) happened to be at Garrywhin one day. He met a mysterious stranger there. The stranger asked him to look at the cliff and to tell him if he saw anything unusual. He looked and saw nothing unusual in the cliff. The stranger then gave him a pencil with a small glass in one end…and bade him look at the cliff through the glass. He did so, and to his horror he saw a large hairy beast slowly climbing up the perpendicular face of rock as a fly would walk up a pane of glass in a window. He got frightened and fled. To his dying day he believed that the strange man and the big hairy beast were creatures not of this world.”

There is also the curious folktale about powerful whisky attached to some characters by the Garrywhin Fort!

Many years after the fort had been constructed, a man and his son came to live on the southern end of the hill. They made a living selling their own brand of whisky, and a special kind of beer to local people. Local people were perplexed as to how the two could make such drinks, as they grew no barley or any other kind of grain, so the reputation soon gathered that they used supernatural means. The two men declared simply that their drinks were made from simple plants, but kept their methods secret. But the local folk wanted to know just how they made it so strong and so ended up threatening them for their secrets.

As George Sutherland wrote:

“It was known to everyone that dealt with them that they had a cave in the face of precipice in which they did their work unseen by any eyes but their own, and in which they stored their goods. Owing to some magical contrivance, no one – apart from the old man and his son – could find the entrance into the cave. Every device that ingenuity could suggest was tried on the old man and his son to induce them to reveal their secret, but in vain. At last they threatened them with death. The old man said to them, “If I should tell you, my son would kill me for doing so; kill my son and then I shall think over the matter.” They killed his son. The old man then said to them, “Now, kill me also; no on else knows our secret, and it will die with me.” They killed him, and so the secret remained a secret.

“Every inch of the face of the precipice, and of the adjacent ground, was scrutinised and tested over and over again, but no trace of the cave, or of the heather whisky and the heather ale stored in it, was ever found.”

References:

  1. Sutherland, George, Folklore Gleanings and Character Sketches from the Far North, John o’ Groats Journal: Wick 1937.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

 

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  58.355391, -3.176507 Garrywhin Fort

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