Caithness (Norse: Katanes, Gaelic: Gallaibh <ref>Neighbouring Sutherland is known as Cataibh, confusingly.</ref>, Shetlandic: Kadanes<ref>This appears to be the form used in Robert Alan Jamieson's Shoormal</ref>) is the nearest major landmass to Shetland, excluding the Orkney island group. It is a peninsula of Scotland, and Great Britain, orientated towards the north east.
Dunnet Head forms the most northerly extension of the British mainland, rather than its more feted cousin, John O' Groats. Its dramatic seacliffs look out into the North Atlantic and over to the Orkneys.
The Caithness island of Stroma is sometimes included in the Northern Isles.
Caithness' connections with Shetland may be very ancient. Obviously almost anyone wishing to travel between the two must first go round, or via Orkney.
The earliest known name of Shetland, Innse Cait is probably related to the Catti tribe who also gave their name to Caithness. Caithness was a Pictish area, and sometime before the Norse arrived was influenced by Gaeldom (hence names like Dunnet).
William the Lion integrated Caithness into his Scottish kingdom in the 12th Century. The Earls of Orkney (who also controlled Shetland) held the earldom of Caithness until 1231. The battle of Largs, 1263, led to the complete demise of Caithness as a Norse powerbase on mainland Britain.
East Caithness (i.e. to the west of Thurso and Wick) appears to have been the last part of the British mainland to be Norse or Norn speaking. However, just when it stopped speaking Norn is debatable. The reason for this is that Gaelic managed to spread into 2/3 of Caithness after the Norse left, and it is possible it reached the east as well. As Caithness became anglicised in the Middle Ages, Nordic forms of speech would have become established in the areas closest to Orkney which were Norn speaking. Caithness' dialect is an interesting mixture of Norse-words, and Gaelic words (diminutives are often in -ag, rather than -ie, like most Lowland Scots dialects). Caithness was traditionally split between Gaelic-speaking parishes such as Latheron, Dunbeath and Dounreay, and Lowland Scots speaking ones such as Freswick, Olrig, Wick and Thurso. The line between the two ran along the East Clyth burn, and appears to have stayed west of the Thurso/Wick road for many centuries.
Caithness is one of the three areas long associated with the Sinclair family, the others being Roslin and the Northern Isles. Many of the Sinclairs who settled in Shetland were born at Sinclair strongholds in Caithness such as Dunbeath. Nevertheless, at the Battle of Summerdale the participating Shetland Sinclairs were fighting with the Orkney contingent against the invading force from Caithness.
Thurso and Wick are the main settlements, Thurso on the north coast facing the Atlantic, and Wick on the south coast.
Thurso has a population of around 7,000, and became a free burgh in 1633; it was the ecclesiastical centre of the county. Its name derives from Tarvodunum (fort of the bull) which was corrupted into Norse.
Wick also has around 7,000 inhabitants, and became a royal burgh in 1589. It was a major herring port in the 19th Century and still has a minor whitefish industry. In more recent times light industry has been established there, including glass blowing. It has a minor airport.
Dounreay nuclear power plant was a major employer, but controversy over radioactive contamination of beaches and seawater has led to an uncertain future.