We were very impressed when we recently visited Caithness Horizons for the first time. This lovely museum does a brilliant job of telling the story of Caithness through informative displays and amazing artefacts, and there are some fascinating parallels with the history of Orkney to discover. As such, we’d highly recommend a visit to anyone travelling to Thurso or Orkney. We were delighted when Joanne Howdle, the Curator and Deputy Director of Caithness Horizons, agreed to answer our questions about the museum!
Q. Caithness Horizons is a new museum – where can I find it and when was it created? Was there a museum in Thurso before?
A. Caithness Horizons is located at the end of the pedestrianised High Street in Thurso. The Museum occupies the Old Thurso Town Hall built in 1871 in the Victorian Gothic style and the next door Carnegie Library, built in 1910. The Museum opened to the public on 1st December 2008. It was seven years in development and came about through an innovative and sometimes challenging partnership between three organisations sharing a common goal which culminated in the creation of a new independent charitable company and the opening of a new Museum. The three organisations involved were Thurso Heritage Society, The Highland Council and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). All three organisations faced a similar problem – they had venues that needed major refurbishment, both to maintain the integrity of their buildings and to ensure they were compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act. In addition The Highland Council had a Collection but no designated venue in the area in which to display it.
Q. What exhibits can visitors to Caithness Horizons expect to see?
A. The Museum exhibitions tell the story of Caithness from the fossil fish of the Devonian period about 380 million years ago to the present day. Caithness Horizons has three unique exhibitions areas that display artefacts in its Collection that are of national importance:
- Early Medieval sculpture – Pictish symbol stones and Viking/Norse rune-inscribed memorial stones
- The herbarium of Robert Dick (1811 – 1866) a renowned self-taught botanist and geologist who lived in Thurso
- The socio-economic history of the Dounreay Nuclear Research Establishment
Q. What exhibit in Caithness Horizons attracts the most attention?
A. The Pictish symbols stones (pictured at the top of the page) are very popular with visitors. The people whom we call Picts lived in most of Scotland but their cultural monuments largely survive east of the Highlands and north of the Firth of Forth, as far as Shetland. It is likely that this region was divided into several Pictish kingdoms, ruled by kings and warrior aristocrats. Theirs was the dominant culture from the 5th – 9th centuries AD, and from around 600 AD they were influenced by both Irish and Northumbrian Christianity. Their language was probably most closely related to Welsh. No confirmed Pictish manuscripts survive, but their sculpture provides plenty of evidence that they developed a literate and sophisticated Christian culture. From the late 9th century AD onwards, the Picts lost political power to the Gaels coming in from the west and Scandinavians from the east and north. The Pictish people were assimilated by these new cultures and their language disappeared.
The other most popular exhibit is the Control Desk and Control Room Display Panels from the Control Room of the Dounreay Materials Testing Reactor, which in 1958 was the first nuclear reactor to go critical on Scottish soil. These artefacts were used to operate and control the mechanical components within the reactor and give a real time indication of the reactor’s status and condition. The Museum is unique in that it is the only place in the world where visitors can see Pictish symbol stones and the control room of a nuclear reactor together in one place.
Q. Does Caithness Horizons have any exhibits of interest for children?
A. Many of the exhibitions at Caithness Horizons have interpretation panels designed by children by members of the Museum’s Peter’s Pals: Young Curators Club who are aged 5 – 12 years old. The master slave manipulator arm in the Dounreay exhibition is popular with children as is the replica Viking longship. The Museum also provides a Family Pack with activities to guide children around its Collection.
Q. What is your personal favourite artefact in Caithness Horizons and why?
A. The Museum Curator’s favourite object in the Museum is the Viking/Norse rune-inscribed memorial stone dedicated to a man called Ingólfr. This cruciform-shaped memorial stone was found near St. Peter’s Church, which stands on a headland where the Thurso River flows out into the Pentland Firth. It was found in 1896, closely associated with two burials, an adult and a child. Along the cross-shaft there is a runic inscription. Runes are an ancient Germanic alphabet which had been in use for many hundreds of years by the time this memorial stone was made. This alphabet was adopted by the Church and in the 12th – 13th centuries AD rune-inscribed stones are often carved with religious inscriptions. Most of these are Scandinavia in origin, but a broken rune stone found in 2013 at Naversdale Farm, Orphir on Orkney is inscribed with a snippet of the Lord’s Prayer. The runes carved on the memorial stone are the Scandinavian variety, and the language is Old Norse, as is the name, Ingólfr. The inscription reads “…?made this overlay in memory of Ingólfr, his/her father”
There is a small cross cut into the centre of the cross-head of the memorial stone. It is possible that the cross marks the end of the inscription. The base of the cross has been broken off. The shape of this memorial stone was probably an instruction to the reader to make the sign of the cross, invoking God’s mercy on the soul of Ingólfr. It is hard to know exactly when this memorial stone was made. The inscription looks most like inscriptions that date from the 11th century AD found elsewhere in the British Isles and Scandinavia. The word overlay (Old Norse: yfirlag) is unique, and may refer to this particular stone, or perhaps to a grave-slab which this stone stood next to. Certainly, this stone does not look big enough to have been intended to cover an adult male burial – although we should remember that one of the two burials found in 1896 was crouched.
Q. Are there any changing exhibits / exhibitions in Caithness Horizons?
A. Caithness Horizons has an annual programme of temporary exhibitions of both local and national interest, in the past the Museum has hosted the Douglas Gordon exhibition from Artist Rooms, an exhibition from the British Museum of Surfing and another from the National Maritime Museum as well as by Caithness artists such as Hazel Cashmore and Joanne B. Kaar, please visit www.caithnesshorizons.co.uk for more details
Q. Why would you recommend that someone travelling to or from Orkney visits Caithness Horizons?
A. From the mid-9th century AD, much of Northern and Western Scotland including Caithness together with much of Northern England and Western Ireland, was settled by newcomers from Scandinavia. At first worshippers of gods such as Odin and Thor (Thurso probably means Thor’s River in Old Norse), they had converted to Christianity by the end of the 10th century AD. Caithness became part of the Earldom of Orkney, ruled from Norway, and its wealthy aristocrats had a mixed Gaelic-Scandinavian culture. The cultural history of Caithness is very similar to Orkney and tells another part of the fascinating story of the North Highlands so complements a visit to Orkney.
Q. What other facilities are there at Caithness Horizons?
A. The Museum has a cafe, gift shop, an annual programme of temporary exhibitions and special events and is home to the VisitScotland Visitor Information Centre from April to October.
Q. Have you had any special guests visiting Caithness Horizons?
A. We have had lots of special guest our most recent during the Caithness Viking Festival in July 2016 was Einar Selvik a very famous Norwegian musician from the band Wardruna who’s music is based on the Viking Age runes of the Elder Futhark alphabet. Einar composes and sings in Old Norse and is responsible for composing the score for the History Channels television show Vikings. He has also appeared as an actor on the show.
Q. What would you like a visitor to take away from the experience of visiting Caithness Horizons?
A. We would like a visitor to take away from a visit to the Museum the fact that Caithness rather than being an isolated place has been a vibrant place to live a hub for history, culture and technical innovation from the Neolithic to the present day.
Caithness Horizons can be found in the Old Town Hall, High Street, Thurso, Caithness, KW14 8DD. For more information, please visit http://www.caithnesshorizons.co.uk/
Orkney and Shetland enthusiast, family man, loves walks, likes animals, terrible at sports, dire taste in music, great taste in films and tv, eats a little too much for his own good.