Welcome to Wick
For just short of 500 years Wick was the administrative centre of Caithness, the most northerly county in mainland Scotland. The county has an area of about 618 square miles: bounded in the north by the Pentland Firth, to southwest by the county of Sutherland, and to the southeast by the North Sea. It is an area famed for its dramatic coastline and sea cliffs. Wick lies on the east coast, fifteen miles south of John O'Groats. What is known today as Wick is actually two villages which have grown together: Pulteneytown on the southern bank of the River Wick and Wick itself, on the northern bank. While Pulteneytown is the centre of the fishing trade, Wick, with some fine Victorian buildings, is like a little Aberdeen.
While Caithness has been continually settled for over eight thousand years, the origins of the town of Wick seem considerably more recent. The name Wick, derived from ‘Vik', Old Norse for ‘bay', tells of the settlements origins. It was in the 8th and 9th centuries the Vikings began arriving in Scotland, first as raiders and later as settlers. In the centuries that followed the Vikings began using Wick's bay as a harbour for their trading vessels and longships. In the 12th century Old Wick Castle was built for the Norse Earl of Caithness, Haraald Madasson. While these earls ruled from Orkney, the fortress was most likely the primary mainland seat of Madasson and his progenitors. Sitting on a narrow spit of rock just south of today's town, surrounded by sheer cliffs and defensive ditches which cut it off from the mainland, Old Wick Castle is amongst the earliest surviving keeps in Scotland. Today the ruins of the castle are known affectionately as the ‘Old Man of Wick'.
In the 13th century the Vikings were ousted from Scotland and the keep fell into the hands of a succession of Scottish families ruling Caithness as vassals of the Kings of Scotland. It was a stronghold of Sir Reginald de Cheyne until his death in 1345 when it passed to the Earl of Sutherland by virtue of the marriage between Nicholas Sutherland of Duffus to Cheyne's daughter. Then to the Lords Oliphant, who were given the charge of using it to protect the town from continual attack, mainly from the Sinclairs and Gunns. 'Oliphant's Leap' commemorates the spot where the Lord of Oliphant who, being pursued by Sinclairs did not have time to blow his horn to have the drawbridge lowered, was forced to leap the defensive chasm on horseback to safety in the stronghold. In the 15th century, the Sinclairs eventually took the castle and town after an eight day siege in which Lord Oliphant's supporters surrendered due to lack of food and water. The castle was then sold on to the Campbells, who sold it on to Dunbars who in the end abandoned it to ruin in 1910.
Wick town developed as a fishing community and became a Royal Burgh in 1589. It would not be until two hundred years later when the glory days of Wick's fishing industry arrived. In 1768 Sir John Sinclair tried to promote the town as a centre for the herring fishing industry by building a quay. It was, however, the interest shown in Wick by British Fisheries Society in the 1780s which really helped the town to take off. By the end of the 18th century Wick was a significant port, with around 200 boats based in its harbour. In the early 18th century harbour improvements and the construction of Wick Bridge, connecting for the first time Pulteneytown and Wick (both projects undertaken by Thomas Telford), followed by the building of a further pier in 1831, strengthened the town's position considerably. At its height, in the late 19th century, the harbour had around 1,000 boats operating out of it at any one time, while fishing and related industries employed somewhere in the region of 14,000 local people, making it Europe's largest herring port. Sadly, such intensive fishing could not be sustained; in the early 20th century over fishing had exhausted stocks and Wick fell into decline. By 1940 there were only 30 fishing boats based at Wick, more or less the same number as remain today.
In the 1970s the discovery of North Sea Oil helped to halt the economic decline, although not before the population had fallen to around 8,000. Wick harbour is now used as a base by vessels supplying the offshore oil rigs. The development of Wick Airport has also been stimulated by the oil industry: it has been converted from an old WWII airfield just north of the town. Today Wick is an interesting town with considerable character, some fine buildings and a warm and friendly atmosphere.