Despite an unpromising weather forecast, a good number of members headed north on the Friday afternoon for a tour of castles in Caithness.
By prior arrangement, we stopped en-route for an external viewing of Balnagown Castle. The castle stands in a strong position, dominating the southern approach into Easter Ross, in land held by Clan Ross long before the first castle was built, around 1375.
This L-plan tower is now subsumed into the west wing of the present mansion. Extended and modernised in the late 17th century, further alterations were carried out by Sir James Gillespie Graham in the early 19th century.
The property remained within the wider Ross family until 1972, when the run-down castle and remaining estate were bought by the Al Fayed family. Since then, a comprehensive and sympathetic restoration of both castle and grounds has been completed.
Helmsdale, the base for our Caithness trip, is an early "planned" town, dating from 1814, and once had its own castle. Sadly, the only memory of this L-plan tower is a plaque near the Tourist Information Office, by the side of the A9, and an old postcard collected by Brian McGarrigle. Unlike most of the castles this weekend, Helmsdale was not a Sinclair property, though not for want of trying.
In 1567 (in a plot said to have been hatched by the 4th Earl of Caithness) the Earl of Sutherland's aunt, Isobel Sinclair, poisoned her nephew, in a bid to obtain the title for her son. Unfortunately, she hadn't told her son, who accidentally also drank the poison.
She killed herself before she could be formally executed.
Our first scheduled destination was a "photo stop" for Berriedale Castle, on a well-protected promontory at the mouth of Berriedale Water. Developed from a 14th century stronghold of the Cheynes, few remains now exist of a 15th century castle of enclosure except parts of the wall and some footings. It was also protected by a gatehouse.
Berriedale passed to the Oliphants and Sutherlands, before it was sold to the Sinclairs of Caithness in 1606.
Our next stop was Halkirk, and the remains of Braal Castle. Although there are traditions that a castle stood here from the 13th century, the present rectangular keep is more likely to date from the mid 14th century. It is of rubble construction, with the original entrance at first floor level at the SW end of the castle. The hall was on the first floor, and access to the upper floors was a straight staircase. The basement is not vaulted, and is accessed from a trapdoor above. The current structure is in poor condition, with some serious cracks showing in the walls.
The castle and lands of "Brathwell" were granted to David Stewart by his father, King Robert II, but by 1547 was held by the Sinclair Earls of Caithness. The "new" Braal castle adjacent to the ruin dates from 1856, and stands on earlier vaults commenced but never completed. It has now been converted into flats.
Heading north, we moved on to Brims Castle, a late 16th century L-plan tower of 3 storeys and an attic, with a projecting stair wing. The stonework of the keep is bound with coarse clay. There is an elaborate chequered corbelling on the open wall-head turret, commanding the entrance at first floor level. The courtyard to the north of the keep is surrounded by a substantial wall, and traces of earlier buildings on the inside of the western and southern walls are intermixed with remnants of 18th century buildings.
As at Braal, access to the vaulted basement is by trapdoor from the first floor. Brims was probably built by Henry Sinclair of Broubster and Brims, around 1564-1590. Extended and altered in the 18th and early 19th centuries, Brims was occupied up to the mid-1970s. Sadly, the roof was deliberately collapsed in the 1980s, leaving the building we see today.
Thurso (East) was the last stop of the morning. The original castle of c.1660 was replaced by the existing mansion in 1872-78, designed by David Smith for Sir Tollemache Sinclair. With its imposing position overlooking Thurso Bay, the ruin today still dominates the skyline. Due to poor construction of the later parts of the castle, it was unroofed and much demolished in 1952 to make it safe. Payment for taking the roof off was in lead – from the roof.
Lunch was taken at the Castle of Mey tearoom, built of local and sustainable materials, and by local labour, and designed by SCA member Lachie Stewart, of Ballone Castle, on the Black Isle.
A Z-plan tower in an exposed location,with commanding views over the Pentland Firth, the castle was built by George Sinclair, 4th Earl of Caithness, between 1566-72. The main block is three storeys and an attic, with a square wing projecting, and a smaller, square stair tower, each rising a storey above the main block. The thick walls are typical of the late 16th century, as are the numerous gun loops at ground and first floor levels, and in the angles of the tower. There is a curtain-walled courtyard entered by a round-arched gateway. Known as Barrogill Castle from the late 18th century, the building was extended and altered in the 18th century, and again by William Burn in the early 19th century. After falling into disrepair, it was bought by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in 1952, and restored to its present condition and its original name.
Heading south, we came to Keiss Castle, an imposing ruin rising 4 stories on a promontory above steep cliffs. It is Z-plan in design, with a rectangular main block, and two round corner towers, one of which is a stair tower, with a caphouse. The basement is vaulted, easily seen from the north-east aspect, where the wall has gone, said to have been deliberately dismantled.
The date of construction is uncertain, but is said to be late 16th /early 17th century.
Ruinous as early as 1700, it says much for the construction given its exposed location.
It was a Sinclair house, superseded in 1755 for the "new" Keiss Castle nearby, itself remodelled and extended by David Bryce in 1860.
Last visit of the day was the Castle of Old Wick, another tower built in an imposing location on a clifftop promontory jutting into the sea. One of the oldest castles in Scotland, Old Wick is a simple rectangular keep of three storeys with an unvaulted basement.
There may have been a fourth storey, and there are traces of other buildings within a barmkin wall. The walls are 7-8ft in thickness. The castle was probably built in the late 12th century by Harald Maddaddson, the Norse Earl of Caithness.
In the 14th century it was a Cheyne and later an Oliphant property, passing later through Sutherland, Sinclair and Campbell hands, until acquired by the Dunbars of Hempriggs, who abandoned it in the 18th century. The castle is now in state care.
Sunday morning took us back up the coast north of Wick to Ackergill Tower. The earliest parts of the tower may date back to the mid-14th century, when a son of the Keith Earls Marischal married a daughter of the last Cheyne owner, and took possession of Ackergill. His son was the probable builder of the current tower, a 5-storey rectangular keep, later surrounded by a barmkin for additional protection. Additions to the south and east and the upper parts of the tower are part of the remodelling of 1850-51 by David Bryce. Throughout the 16th century, Ackergill was the scene of numerous attacks from both Sinclairs and other members of the Keith family. In the early 17th century, it was sold to the Sinclairs of Caithness. Garrisoned by Cromwell in the 1650s, it later passed to the Oliphants, and finally to Dunbar of Hempriggs, whose descendants owned the tower until the 1980s.
Today, it is available as exclusive use luxury accommodation.
Eastwards across the bay from Ackergill is Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. The first castle on the site was a castle of enclosure with a main tower at the west end, erected in the late 14th century. Built on a strongly defensible promontory, great ditches divided the castle into two baileys. The early tower was L-plan, with crow-stepped gables, and known as Girnigoe. The main access was through the west Barbican, over a drawbridge, past a portcullis and through the vaulted pend of the Gatehouse Tower. The buildings in this outer bailey are predominantly 16th -17th century, on earlier foundations, and the curtain walling is mid 15th century. A second drawbridge gave access to an inner bailey, and a 16th century tower house, rising to three storeys. Behind this is the bailey of a courtyard with late 14th -15th century buildings. There was a sally port at the east end of the promontory. In 1606, an Act of Parliament was obtained to change the name from Castle Girnigoe to Castle Sinclair, although both names remained in use, which led to the confusion over whether it was one or two castles.
We were fortunate to be given a guided tour of the castle, and a description of the recent archaeological progress by The Earl of Caithness - Malcolm Caithness, whose ancestors built the first castle here, and in whose family it has remained – though often fought over to remain so. Virtually impregnable, it fell eventually when besieged by cannon in 1680 – the first time cannon were used in Caithness – and thereafter fell into decay.
The first phase of work to preserve the castle, now formally known as Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, started in 2004. Now officially the seat of the Earldom, the castle is owned by the Clan Sinclair Trust, and work continues (as funds permit) on conservation and archaeological investigation to discover more about the castle's history. During lunch in Wick, Malcolm gave us a presentation on the history of the castle, and an update on the progress and future intentions of the Trust.
After lunch, we headed for our final destination at Freswick Castle, also known as Freswick House. The site was occupied by a Norse long hall in the 12th century, later becoming a property of the Earls of Ross, coming into Mowat hands in the early 15th century.
The present building is a 17th century five-storey house, consisting of a main block and wing, with a projecting stair tower on one side. It was extended in the 18th century, and is surrounded by a courtyard and outbuildings. Access is by a stone staircase to first floor level, and the basement is vaulted. The present house replaced an earlier tower of the Mowats, and was sold to the Sinclairs of Rattar in 1661.
It remained a Sinclair property until 1948, and is now owned by Murray Watt, and used as a base for The Wayfarer Trust.
An unusual and interesting feature of the site is in the stone bridge across the stream, built by Sir William Sinclair around 1662.
A small window in the bridge indicates a room built-in, with no visible access. Originally, this was a prison, and there was a trap-door in the road above (now sealed) through which thieves and recalcitrant tenants could be dropped.
At the invitation of the Earl and Countess of Cromarty, we were able to visit Castle Leod on the Monday morning, to see around the castle and give them the benefit of our experience, including ideas on priorities for future restoration and potential uses.
The site has been used by man for centuries, with several Iron Age and Pictish remains in the surrounding area.
The origin of the name is unclear, and may be Celtic or Viking, but it has no connection with the Clan MacLeod.
The earliest stonework, on the lower western façade and in the vaulted basement, is probably 14th century. Most of the present 5-storey L-plan tower is mid-16th century, with some 17th century refinements. The main block is crowned with bartizans, and the older part of the tower has a corbelled-out parapet.
There are numerous gunloops and slits, and some of the windows still have iron yetts.
Behind the tower, to the north, are extensions of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Clan Mackenzie first settled in this area in the early 15th century. John of Killen is the first Chief known to have used Castle Leod as a base. Initially rented from the Mowats, title was granted in 1553, and Spanish Chestnut trees planted to commemorate the occasion can still be seen in the grounds. The Chief was created Earl of Cromartie in 1703, and despite the 3rd Earl being forfeited after 1746, the estates were bought back in 1784.
Castle Leod remains the home of the Chief, and the Clan MacKenzie Charitable trust has been set up to preserve the old part of the castle, and to find ways to ensure its future.
As always, our grateful thanks go to all our hosts for their time and hospitality. Hopefully, we have passed on knowledge as well as gained some ourselves. Thanks also to John Hunter for his hard work in organising the tour.
McGibbon & Ross The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland
Nigel Tranter: The Fortified House in Scotland, Vol 5
Martin Coventry: The Castles of Scotland
Martin Coventry: Castles of the Clans
Maurice Lindsay: The Castles of Scotland
Walkington & Henderson Balnagown Castle A Short History
The Clan Mackenzie Charitable Trust