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Caithness’s oldest church
The chapel of St Mary at Crosskirk is arguably the oldest surviving ecclesiastical building in Caithness. It is not easy to put a date to a building as plain as this, but it was probably built in the 1100s.

St Mary’s, however, was only a chapel dependent on the church at Reay. The existence of a 9th-century cross-slab in the graveyard there shows that Reay was an older and more important ecclesiastical site than Crosskirk.

About 300m to the south of the church there is a spring known as St Mary’s Well. Between the church and the cliff edge was an Iron Age broch, which was excavated between 1966 and 1972 before it finally collapsed into the sea.

A Norse building
The Norse, who controlled Orkney and Shetland from the 9th century, also ruled part of the northern mainland of Scotland for a time. However, by the 1100s the people of Caithness were acknowledging the nominal authority of the Scottish Crown.

Nevertheless, St Mary’s resembles churches in Orkney rather than churches in the rest of the Highlands, which were usually single chambers with no division between nave and chancel.

In common with St Mary’s Chapel on the Orcadian island of Wyre, this St Mary’s has a nave and separate square-ended chancel. This is the normal pattern for stone churches of a similar date in Norway.

The church was originally entered from the west end through a door, the sides of which taper towards the top – a feature also found in early Irish churches. The chancel was also entered through an arch with tapering jambs.

  • The setting – close to the rugged north coast, well worth the hike to get there.