Wick (surveyed in 1872)


The town of Wick lies around the bay where the River Wick enters the North Sea, on the east coast of Caithness in the far north-east of Scotland. Parts of Caithness were under Scandinavian control from circa AD 800 until 1231, and the name 'Wick' derives from Old Norse Vik, meaning 'bay'. The town of Wick was first mentioned in documents in 1140, became a burgh of barony in 1393, and by 1503 was the caput or centre of a sheriffdom. In recognition of its growing significance as a trading port, Wick was promoted to royal burgh status in 1589. The town had a post office by 1715 and linen spinning was established in the town by 1749, but it was the growth of the herring industry that most facilitated Wick's development. A new quay was built in 1768 and the British Fisheries Society promoted the area heavily. Harbour improvements were designed by Thomas Telford and in 1808 the substantial planned suburb of Pulteneytown was laid out. By 1862 over 1,100 fishing boats operated out of Wick, and in 1871 the population of the parliamentary burgh was 8,131.

Town Planning

Like Stonehaven, another town whose development resulted from the growth of the Scottish fishing industry, the topography of Wick reflects two main periods of town planning. The heart of the old royal burgh lies north of the river, and follows the typical model of a medieval Scottish burgh, comprising a long high street sloping towards an open marketplace (sheets XXV.5.4.- 5.5.) with secondary streets and vennels running perpendicular to the high street. Pulteneytown, south of the river, is an excellent example of late-Georgian burgh planning, with streets laid out formally in a gridiron pattern around Argyle Square (sheet XXV.5.15.). Both the old and new parts of the town are designed on the principle that the civic and economic business of a burgh should be conducted in an open area, i.e. the marketplace or the square, at the heart of the community. Both parts of the town are also close to, and easily accessed from, the harbour and the quay.

Trade and Industry

Many of the craftsmen employed in mid-nineteenth century Wick were involved in secondary industries connected with fishing. These included shipbuilding and boat-building, barrel-making, rope-making and net-making, the latter mainly a female occupation. Many other people were involved in gutting, curing and packing fish, and an iron foundry in the town was principally concerned with manufactures connected to the fishing industry. In addition, Wick contained a distillery, a brewery, saw mills and grain mills. Wick was the market centre for produce from the surrounding countryside, and weekly markets were held on Fridays. Four agricultural fairs were held every year, in March or April, June, July and November.


The farmland around Wick underwent considerable improvement in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, which involved the proper enclosure of fields, land reclamation, redistribution of land among tenants at fixed rents, extended tillage, improved drainage, liming, and a new six-year crop rotation. The staple crops grown were bear, oats, turnips and potatoes. Some farms also provided peat for fuel. Among the livestock reared, cattle were either of the pure Highland breed, or crosses between short-horned bulls and Highland cows, while sheep were generally Cheviots crossed with the Leicester breed. By the mid-nineteenth century, fishing had a more significant impact than farming on the economy of Wick. The Statistical Account notes that 'From time immemorial vast shoals of herrings have frequented the coast', but cod fishing was preferred earlier in Wick's history, and the development of the herring industry occurred relatively late. Both white and red herrings were caught off the Caithness coast, the former in far greater quantity. White fishing was also carried on to some extent, and the River Wick supported a small salmon fishery.

Religious Life

The parish church which stood by the time Wick was surveyed was built in 1830, but its location at the head of the High Street was probably that of the original parish church (sheet XXV.5.4.). A second Church of Scotland building, built in 1845, was located in Pulteneytown. In addition to the Established congregations, other denominations represented in Wick included the Free Church, United Presbyterians, Reformed Presbyterians, Independents, Evangelical Unionists, Baptists and Roman Catholics.


Like most parishes in Scotland in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, Wick contained a parochial school funded by the parish. In addition to the parochial school, Wilson (1857) records the existence of 'Pulteneytown Academy, two General Assembly schools, two Free Church schools, two Society schools, two schools for young ladies and several ordinary private schools'.


The administrative heart of Caithness was Wick's Town and County Hall, which was 'built of Caithness flag, faced with sandstone' (Wilson, 1857). In the mid-nineteenth century, the town contained branches of the Commercial Bank, the City of Glasgow Bank, the Union Bank and the Aberdeen Town and County Bank, several insurance agencies and a Chamber of Commerce. The principal hotels were the Caledonian, the Commercial and the Wellington.

Culture and Society

By 1857 a public library, two public news rooms and a scientific museum were established in Wick. There were also two local newspapers, the John o' Groat Journal and the Northern Ensign, which were published weekly. Active societies included an agricultural society, a masonic lodge and several religious or benevolent societies.

Views of the Character of Wick in 1845

"Maniacs are very rare. Idiots and fatuous persons are remarkably common."

"Unchastity, both in man and woman, is lamentably frequent, which appears from the records of the kirk session to have been always the case."

(both from the Statistical Account)