18 October 2010--Blustery morning, plenty of sun, but periodic passing squalls. I have some time to pass before a tour at the
Pulteney Distillery, so I explore Wick's Pulteneytown neighborhood. This is said to be the first planned industrial town, designed by
(who else) Thomas Telford, when the government decided to make Wick the center of the booming herring fishery. There's a lot of nice,
if relatively straightforward, stone architecture. Breadalbane Terrace, where the captains of industry would have lived, and Argyll
Square look prosperous and well cared for. Away from those streets, however, Pulteneytown looks increasingly down at the heels,
especially in the lower streets (including one named for Telford) near the waterfront. There, and up on the hill toward the distillery,
too many windows are boarded up. It's a shame--Wick would seem ripe for gentrification, but the threadbare Caithness economy can't
support it, and gentry are thin on the ground. I suppose it has been this way since the collapse of the fishery in the '30s.
Heading up toward the distillery, I have the impression that Pulteneytown was never finished, not to the original plan, anyway. It seems to peter out at odd blocks, after which there is more modern and less attractive construction. Lots of pebbledash. Too bad more of the old building stock hadn't been properly conserved before any of this had gone up.
I get a good standard tour of the distillery. It's certainly not a showplace--it's cramped, the stills unpolished, lots of dodgy-looking wiring showing--but it has some interesting features, not least the oddly-shaped stills. The real payoff is filling a bottle from a cask in the tasting room. It's a beauty of a whisky, and I find myself wondering whether it is in itself worth a trip to this far corner of Scotland.
On my way out, I notice a warehouse door open, and the workers who see me peering in with my camera wave me inside. I'm not there ten seconds when a horrendous squall hits. It only lasts a few minutes, but I'd have been soaked through had I been out on the street.
I take a drive out of town, to the Grey Cairns of Camster. This is perhaps the most atmospheric neolithic site in mainland Scotland, the two chambered cairns standing on a bleak moor a hundred yards or so off a lonely single-track road. I've been here several times, usually in an evocative gray mist. Today there is a fair amount of sun, giving me the best photographic opportunity I've had here. As well, the site has been very wet on previous visits, and I haven't been able to enter the round cairn before.
I start with the long cairn, actually two smaller cairns run together. The passages are very low and narrow. Both chambers collapsed long ago, and are now capped with modern skylit domes, which are not apparent from the outside. Exiting the second chamber on my hands and knees, I smack into the low lintel stone and take a serious divot out of my head. I've suffered many scrapes and bruises in such places over the years, but this is, I am sure, by far the worst.
After circling around the long cairn for photos (and to gather my scattered wits), I enter the round cairn. The passageway is extremely tight, but the reward is great--the inner chamber is nearly intact, with just a small skylight set where the capstone would have been. I exit very carefully.
Back in Wick, I visit the Wick Heritage Museum in lower Pulteneytown, recommended to me by last night's bartender. There is an astonishing array of artifacts crammed in here, much of it fascinating, but the clutter is confusing and overwhelming in places. Many cases are lacking in interpretation, and I feel that I'm just looking at things. Lots of things. Still, it's impressive. A standout for me is a collection of old photographs, many showing aspects of the herring fishery--hundreds of boats jammed (like sardines!) into the harbor, packers on the pier, coopers turning out thousands of barrels. The herring run lasted twelve weeks in summer, and the town swelled to two and a half times its normal population with migrant workers. It looks like organized madness.
I'm thinking to dine in the Mackay's bistro this evening, but it's very small and I haven't reserved, so it's the Alexander Bain again. At least there is free wi-fi along with the undistinguished food and bad pints. Oh, that's unfair--the Deuchar's is off tonight, last night's apparently having been the dregs of a cask, and the Abbot Ale is decent. I'll have another, and a dram of Pulteney, at Mackay's lounge before calling it a night.