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Caithness

"Some people will tell you that there is no beauty about the Caithness flats. But there is a beauty that is all its own about flat countries – long swathes of greens and blues and yellows and browns, which can only be seen where the distances are limitless. The Caithness skies are as wide and splendid as those of Holland, and we all know how the great Dutch painters loved to paint them. Wherever you go along this road by the Pentland seas you will also see that perfect poem in gold and blue – the long line of yellow cornfields meeting the sapphire seas. And for the light! Dawns and sunsets are never so beautiful as when they are seen over a wide sea or a level land." – T. Ratcliffe Barnett, 1942

In that open landscape the night sky can feel close, and there is evidence that people in Caithness have been studying it for more than 4000 years. In several parts of the county there are rows of small stones, whose position seems to be linked to movements of the moon. Such rows are found in some other parts of Britain, but always parallel; in Caithness, they are fan-shaped, in places such as the Hill o' Many Stanes at Mid Clyth. Here there are over 200 stones, seldom more than half a metre high, set on edge with their long axis along the row.

Professor Alexander Thom studied the site and found that there are sightlines to a notch in a distant lines of hills where the moon would rise at an extreme position in its cycle. He found that the rows in fact fall into three separate fan patterns, with the distances between there centres in the ration 3: 4: 5. One of the fans points to the Hill of Yarrows, and a possible link with the star Capella. Around 4000 years ago Capella was a circumpolar star, and its motion then took it in an arc behind the hill.

"Anyone who studies such sites," he said, "will realize that the people who built them possessed a highly developed knowledge of the complicated movements of the Moon in the sky, and that they must have employed some form of extrapolation. The implications are far-reaching. The design of the necessary sectors, whether obtained by pure reason or by some complex empirical operation, demanded a highly trained intellect. The discipline necessary could not have arisen out of nothing. there must have been behind it a school or a system of mathematical reasoning,"

A hundred and fifty years ago a Caithness man showed a similar brilliance in technology. Alexander Bain, born in a croft in Watten in 1811, took out a patent in 1811 for what we know today as the fax machine. The message to be sent was set out in metal printer's type. A metal stylus was swept slowly back and fore over the lettering. When it touched metal and completed the circuit, a current could flow. When there was a space, the current stopped. Those changes in current were sent on to the receiver, where a second stylus was slowly drawn across a chemical paper, in step with the stylus at the sending end. Current through the paper – soaked in potassium ferrocyanide – turned it black, so providing marks that matched the type at the sending end. each stylus was drawn across the paper by an electromagnetic pendulum, and a separate clockwork mechanism moved the paper on, a line at a time.

Some of Bain's own equipment is on view at Caithness Horizons, the former Thurso Town Hall, and we are looking forward to seeing it on our travels.






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