The ruins of Old St. Peter’s Church can still be seen in the old part of Thurso. It was the chapel of the Bishop of Caithness when he was at his summer residence at Scrabster. It was later used as the Parish Church. The church is believed to date from the 12th century or even earlier, although the present structure dates mainly from the 15th and 16th centuries. Of particular note is the well preserved stone tracery in the window of the south transept (beside the road). Old St Peter’s Kirk in Thurso is the town’s only catagory “A” listed structure and one of Thurso’s most ancient buildings of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.
Turso is mainland Scotland’s most northerly town; there has been a settlement here from at least the 12th century. The oldest part of Thurso can be found on the west bank of the river by the harbour. Be sure to take a walk down Shore Street which contains many houses dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Although modernisation has obscured some of their original features, no.16/18 incorporates an unusual 2 storey round external stair tower. The winding streets will lead you to the ruins of Old St Peter’s Church, which dates mainly to the 16th and 17th centuries, although a church has stood on this site from at least the 13th century. Old St Peter’s Church fell out of use in 1832 when the new St Peter’s Church in St John’s Square replaced it. In summer the churchyard is open during the day, in winter a key is obtainable on request from the Town Hall.
There are many stories about Old St. Peter’s. For example in 1654 there are records of a witch known as Graycoat. She was held in the tower of Old St. Peter’s. The story is that a Thurso man, having trouble with his whisky fermentation, noticed a cat that often appeared and dipped its paw into the whisky barrel. Being sure that this was in fact witch-craft he scythed off the cat’s paw. When the tub was drained the only thing found in the bottom was a human hand. Meanwhile Graycoat appeared with a bandaged hand and was summoned before the Kirk Session in Old St. Peter’s! Harald’s Tower just outside the town is the 18th century burial place of the Sinclair family of Ulbster. Just to the west, in a most picturesque spot, is Forss Old Mill which sits by a winding river. Further to the west is the Dounreay Visitor Centre.
The ruined kirk of St Peter, although enlarged and extensively rebuilt in the first half of the 17th century, incorporates considerable remains of what may have been an early 12th century Bishop’s minster or Head Kirk. The Runic Inscribed Stone discovered inserted into the masonry of St. Peter’s Kirk, Thurso, was surveyed, removed from the building construction, repaired and replaced with a replica. The runic stone was located in the tower wall of the church. An episode of conservation works were subsequently carried out from December 2006 until February 2007.
Further reading list to explore Old St Peter’s Kirk:
Old St. Peter’s Church and Burial Ground
Caithness KW14 8AE