Highland Archives

VICTORIA’S LOON COMES TO THURSO

By Stephen Cashmore

When the good news came there were many among the respectable majority who breathed a deep sigh of relief. It was not before time. The town has fallen into a swamp of moral apathy. Drunkenness was rife and it was no longer unusual to find the Sunday morning promenades littered with delinquent young men, most of them well under the influence, swearing, blaspheming, jeering at honest folk and generally scandalising decent society. Parties out strolling along the Esplanade had been insulted by gangs of idlers, whose boisterous carry-ons disgraced a civilised country. Sabbath afternoons were little better. Boys had been seen trespassing on the gasworks site, throwing stones and swinging on a yard crane there in defiance of the Lord’s Day ordinances.

Moral uncleanliness was echoed by the condition of the streets in which heaps of evil smelling dung festered for days, uncollected, a danger to life and limb. Indeed, on a dark autumn night, less than a year before, a respectable man had injured himself falling over one of these street middens. He was currently engaged with the Police Commissioners in an acrimonious legal action over compensation. There were open sewers whose smells poisoned the nostrils of passers-by, manure heaps outside mean houses where humans lived together with pigs, and conditions at a local slaughterhouse could not be mentioned in mixed company.

Some folk blamed it all on the fact that the local police were controlled from a town 20 miles away. Others dated this civic decline from the time that the railway arrived in 1874, since when the station had acted as a magnet for wasters, who went there to greet passengers from every arriving train with stares and indecent remarks. Ironically, the train station was now to be the springboard for the most important event anyone could remember – the Prince of Wales was coming to Thurso.

Around noon on a Monday 2nd October, 1876, the Prince and Princess of Wales bade a temporary farewell to the fairy tale castle, where they had been guests of the Duke of Sutherland, and boarded a special train which was to take them and their host the 68 railway miles to Thurso. The train was under the personal supervision of Mr Dougall, manager of the Highland Railway, David Jones, the railway’s superintendent, and its chief engineer, Mr Paterson. The Duke, who was himself an enthusiastic railway amateur, rode in the engine, the Prince of Wales at his side, at once an honour and a bloody nuisance to the engine driver and his mate.

Leaving the Duke’s private station at Dunrobin, the royal train puffed its way north past Brora, where the Duke had a brickworks and a coal mine; on through Helmsdale and over the wide-skied moorland that borders the county march between Sutherland and Caithness. It was dry. The heather glowed in the afternoon sun, gold as the ore prospectors were panning from the burns around Kildonan. Passing Altnabreac, station to the sportsmen who came north every August for the annual grouse massacre, the train began the long descent towards Thurso, a town of 4000 souls and home of Sir Tollemache Sinclair, Member of Parliament and friend of the great and good.

As two o’clock approached, the great throng that crowded the platforms and choked the entrances to Thurso station grew ever more excited. About 3,000 had turned out to greet their future King. Since ten that morning carts had been banished from the streets leading to the station. Carriages were likewise forbidden. All the pavements had been swept and the unsightly middens had been removed to the town depot by scavengers employed by the Commissioners of Police. Every pole and lamp post was decked with crimson cloth and bunting, patriotic flags waved in the breeze. Walls were hung with shields and heraldic devices. Triumphal arches had been erected wreathed with evergreens and entwined flowers, a credit to Tyrer and Company, the Manchester firm that had been hired to arrange all this street décor. Everyone was dressed in their holiday best. The Caithness Artillery Volunteers were on the platform, a royal honour guard under the command of Captain Keith of Mey Corps. When the train came into view the crowd began cheering

Down from the gleaming train stepped the regal couple, on to a crimson carpet on which the Earl of Caithness, resplendent in his Lord Lieutenant’s uniform, was waiting to receive them. The Volunteer’s band struck up God Bless the Prince of Wales, and the whole crowd joined in, for displays of patriotism have always been infectious events.

Addresses of welcome were read by Mr Henderson of Stemster, and Thurso’s Chief Magistrate, Mr Bremner. These were short – the crowd had come not to hear speeches, but to feast their eyes on those near mythical beings, the heir to the throne and his princess.

Prince Edward wore a kilt of Sutherland tartan; his wife was dressed in a grey gown, richly decorated. They saluted their subjects, took their seats in Sir Tollemache’s carriage, and set off in convoy behind the Volunteer band, and the Freemasons of Wick and Thurso, who were all wearing full insignia. Out of the station and into Ulbster Terrace passed the grand procession. On into Sutherland Street, past Macdonald Square and along Forss Street towards the old Free Church which had been hurriedly tarted-up to serve as the venue for an Exhibition of art and industry.

This Exhibition was the chief object of the Prince’s visit to Thurso. He had come to declare it open; he did, and hundreds trooped into the old church to view displays of wrought flagstone, woven tapestry, intricately carved wooden cabinets and fretwork. There were glass cases filled with stuffed birds – fierce-faced falcons, eagles, owls, grouse and ducks. Splendid models of two huge salmon caught in the Thurso were on show, one of 50 pounds, the other a 42 pounder. For those of a scientific bent there were geological specimens, archaeological remains, local antiquities to study. But the main attraction was the paintings; most of them skilfully executed copies of Old Master works in the collections of the Duke of Sutherland, Sir Tollemache Sinclair, or his cousin the Earl of Caithness. The whole show was laid out with great taste, and everyone was delighted with it. By then, the Prince of Wales was well on his way to the castle of Thurso East, where luncheon awaited.

While the Royal party enjoyed Sir Tollemache’s hospitality, the lesser mortals tucked into a public banquet in Thurso Town Hall, local dignitaries queuing up to offer loyal and patriotic toasts. A few sore heids next day, no doubt, but that evening the chief thing blazing was Thurso Castle which was lit up in honour of the Royal visit. The Prince of Wales, however, saw none of this midnight splendour; he had returned to Dunrobin on the 4 p.m. train, leaving behind a host of memories and at least two lasting legacies – the name Princes Street, and a Prince of Wales feathers decoration in premises that now form part of Don Sinclair’s shop.

A catalogue of the Exhibition of art and industry was printed. Copies of it are in Thurso Library and the Heritage Museum. It would be interesting to know whether or not photographs of the Prince of Wales’s historic visit to Thurso exist.

 

Highland Archives Index

 

Steven Cashmore 1999


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