THE CATHEDRAL OF CAITHNESS - THE CASE FOR SKINNET.

In recent times historians have often stated that, prior to being at Dornoch, the cathedral of the diocese was at Halkirk.  This statement requires examination in view of a number of conflicting statements which would, in fact, point to the church of Skinnet being the earliest cathedral.

In the earliest times the bishop seemed to be based either at his house of Scrabster or that at Halkirk. But it is questionable if he had a Cathedral in the modern sense of the term - a permanent establishment with dignitaries (dean, precentor, etc).  The cathedral - were he had his 'cathedra' or seat - was, perhaps, as itinerant as he was! He would, I would suggest, use the nearest baptismal church (parish church) to where he was at the time. However, I believe that Skinnet was his a priori cathedral. Perhaps it is useful to use 'cathedral' for the early locus of a bishop and retain 'Cathedral' for the later establishment with its permanent foundation of dignitaries. (In this sense also, I believe it would be correct to style Kineddar and Birnie as cathedrals of the early Bishops of Moray, whilst Spynie and, eventually, Elgin, were Cathedrals.)

The bishop certainly had a residence at Halkirk and there was a chapel there, but it is often talked of as being "small."  In comparison, the nearby church of Skinnet seems always to have been larger and better founded - was this then, in fact, the cathedral? It was the only parish church in the district at the time of Bishop Gilbert's foundation of the new chapter at Dornoch {Origines Parochiales} and was held in common and its fruits shared between the three northern prebends. In Origines Parochiales it also says that Halkirk did not become a separate parish until the start of the 13th Century. From this it is at least clear that in early times Skinnet was the 'senior' church of the two.

Near the church of Skinnet stood a building called the abbey, its ruins visible up to "the end of the last century." {Origines Parochiales}. Does this, in some way, link with the old legend of a community of monks from Dunfermline being founded in the diocese?

Skinnet seems to have had an inordinately large number of chapels associated with it or served by it - eleven, which is more than any other parish (Wick had 9 and Thurso 7/8). It's geographical position is also very much at the centre of these northern lands.

Two cross-slabs have been recovered from the chapel site at Skinnet showing its obvious claim to 'high status' from very early times.

Its dedication to St Thomas is unique in the north, there being no other example in Ross or Caithness. Indeed the only other northern examples of this dedication are the chapel which stood to the south of Elgin Cathedral and a chapel of St Thomas in Inverness. The Skinnet dedication would appear, then, to be a 'roman' replacement for an earlier Pictish/Norse dedication. Saint Thomas a Becket died on 29th December 1170 so the dedication can not be older than this - but the church site certainly is, by many hundreds of years!

At Skinnet was left to stand "the sacred chair of St Thomas, of exquisite workmanship in stone, an object of some curiosity, it may be of superstitious veneration, till broken down and used in building a fence"!  Was this the episcopal chair or seat - the 'cathedra' of Caithness?

Perhaps the most important indicator is the fact that after Bishop Adam was so hideously burned to death at his 'palace' of Halkirk, it was to Skinnet that his body was first taken, even though there was a chapel at the place and that (as some would have it) the cathedral was at Halkrik. It is simply beyond belief that any other church but the 'major' one would be chosen for his burial!

Will we ever be sure? Well, of course not, the evidence has all but gone. However, I would strongly suggest that there is a substantial case for Skinnet to be at least considered as the site of the older cathedral.

David Moray

Cushnie Enterprises, May 2005

 
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