- Pictish province in northernmost mainland Scotland;
- A county in the northeast of that region, which still survives as a ceremonial county;
- A district in the Highland Region, 1975-96.
Its name meant headland of Caitt.
Caitt (or Cat) was one of the seven legendary sons of Cruithe, legendary King of the Picts, and ruled the province named after him. Norse settlers colonised this remote part of Alba, the united Kingdom of the Picts and Scots, from the mid-9th century and the Norse Jarl of Orkney, a subject of the Norwegian King, ruled over it. The Jarls, when necessary, acknowledged the King of Scotland’s overlordship over the mainland, but the region was so far away from the centre of Scottish power that normally it was quite undisturbed, though William the Lion asserted his authority in 1196.
In the second quarter of the 13th century two changes brought Caithness closer to the Kingdom of Scotland . In 1231 the Earl of Angus became Jarl of Orkney by inheritance. The Jarl’s power was weakened by being in the hands of an outsider, and the King’s interest was increased by having one of his subjects ruling in the province. At about the same time the northwest, west and south of the province broke away under an earl of its own, the Earl of Sutherland, who looked more to Scotland. The northeastern sector, to which the name of Caithness remained attached, stayed under the Jarl of Orkney.
The diocese of Caithness had begun in the mid-12th century while the province was still united, and as far as church organisation was concerned, it remained united. The cathedral was at Dornoch (in southeastern Sutherland), but possibly the see was originally at Hallkirk, south of Thurso. It was there that Bishop Adam was roasted alive in the house where he had sought protection against angry tenants in 1223.
About the middle of the 14th century, Caithness and Orkney separated. Caithness was held by troublesome relatives of the King, c.1375-1437. The first of these Earls was the son of King Robert II’s second marriage and undeniably legitimate, which is the reason for the troublesomeness of the Earls. King Robert III, the eldest son of Robert II’s first marriage, had been born ten years before the only known marriage ceremony took place.
In 1455 Orkney and Caithness came into the same hands again, when William Sinclair, whose family had held Orkney for some time, was made Earl of Caithness. In 1468 the sovereignty over Orkney started to pass from Norway to Scotland and in 1470, under pressure from the King, the last Jarl resigned his rights into the King’s hands, thus increasing the royal grip on the islands. He was allowed to keep the Earldom of Caithness, which still survives.
Caithness was part of an immense region under the King’s Sheriff at Inverness and only became a separate county in 1641 (an attempt to create a separate sheriffdom in 1503 had failed). It was 12th in area of the 33 counties of Scotland and in the early 1970s the 21st in population.
In 1975 it became part of the new Highlands region, remaining a district within the region and keeping its Lord Lieutenant. The district was abolished in 1996 but the Lord Lieutenant remains.