The changes have made Thurso’s Rotterdam Street less of a ‘black gutter’
Thurso’s Legacy by a Thirsa Loon
I couldn’t think of what to write for this article, so I closed my eyes, circled a finger, and put it on a card. Wherever it lands would be the subject of this article. So it’s Rotterdam Street!
While the name reminds us of Thurso’s extensive trade with the Continent, it also bore another, less flattering title. Commonly known as Black Gutter, the name suggests his condition wasn’t exactly top notch.
This street was part of the old town of Thurso and connected it to the new. In 1835, the city council decided that the road needed to be renovated, cleaned and widened. It was also “for the benefit of foreigners and to improve trade”.
Among the properties on the street was one that was run down. But it took 21 years before the council could buy it and finally start the cleaning program.
Like today, it contained various businesses. About two centuries ago, those operating from the streets included William Manson, a writer (lawyer); David Robeson, a fish preparer, and Benjamin Murray, owner of the Star Inn.
I should mention that Rotterdam Street has a history related to printing and publishing. The street was home to the first office of Caithness Courier, Thurso’s second newspaper, which started in 1866 under William Wood Docherty.
A few years later other traders included bookseller Benjamin Waters and cobblers William Sutherland and nearby James Swanson. William Waters was a multi-tasker, having his salters and butchers down the street, possibly both from the same store.
Additionally, there was another drinking establishment called Stewarts Inn, run by Margaret Stewart. I could list a few other companies, but that would take up too much space. In 1875, the Post office moved in front of the National Bank (current town hall). The new location was much “healthier and more convenient for officials”.
In 1888 Halfpenny’s Glass and China Warehouse opened in the store previously used by draper John Couper. Owned by Patrick Halfpenny and his wife Elizabeth (née Graham), they also bought rags and skins until Patrick’s death in 1892, when Elizabeth gave up that side of the business.
Speaking of drapers, James Shearer (father of Fred Shearer) proudly announced his “telephone communication” through the warehouse. He reminded clients that “short accounts make long friends”. In 1921 there was a suggestion to incorporate Rotterdam Street into the main street, but this did not materialize.
Just over 50 years later, in 1973, another proposal was made as part of Phase 4 of the city’s redevelopment. It involved building an imposing three-storey block, designed by architect Thurso James Campbell at the corner of Rotterdam Street and Olrig Street. This redevelopment would eventually see Rotterdam Street and part of the High Street pedestrianized.
While Jim Smith, senior planner for the Highlands Regional Council, wanted more Caithness slabs, cost led to the use of cheaper concrete blocks.
As part of the plan, a number of old buildings in the area were demolished. The YMCA was one that met its fate, although some, such as its neighbor Jessie Allans’ gift and toy store, which is fondly remembered, survived. Although the appearance of the street has changed somewhat since these renovations, it still follows the basic plan from before, with commercial premises on the ground floor and residential above.
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