Castle of Mey
An early start and a short drive took us to the CASTLE OF MEY a private home of the Queen Mother. We were greeted by the housekeeper who welcomed us and apologised for the scaffolding which surrounded the old tower and the heavy lifting equipment that was on the driveway. This was being used to carry out refurbishment of the stonework and replacement of the felted roof with a more durable leaded version. The old tower has corner bartizans which have been extended upwards and castellated. A stair-wing projecting from the tower and had an elevator incorporated many years ago. Adjoining this a more recent building provides convenient accommodation and has been extended with further outworks. We enjoyed hearing a little of the history and appreciated having our attention drawn to some of the features of the buildings. Our tour included a guided walk around the well tended and beautiful gardens that surround the castle and extend down to the sea.
We were all impressed at our first sight of FRESWICK HOUSE sitting on a slight rise, overlooking a sandy bay and protected on two sides by a stream. The original approach has been by a narrow stone bridge over the stream to an open area before an arched gateway. This allows passage through a range of deteriorating outer buildings to an inner courtyard. We were met by the new owner who extended a clearly genuine welcome to us. Here he had the opportunity to show the property, describe its known history, speculate at the possible origins, explain his immediate and long term plans and encouraged feedback on these aspects from the group. The tour took us through vaulted basement rooms to the upper main floor where the need to save and restore was apparent. The existing main house is a tall building, one full height stair tower projects from the centre of the main outer face, while another forms the traditional L shape on the courtyard face. A door in the re-entrant corner of the L gives access to the vaulted basement areas, while a main door at first floor level, is approached by a grand stair, and leads to the main halls. This main block initially appears as a complete and single entity, but closer examination shows that it has developed to its current status through many stages of development. The range of two storey outbuildings that create the courtyard seem to join the tall main block at an unusual angle, this ruined section suggests that these buildings, incorporating the main gate, are older. They hint of Hallhouse style, and may reflect the development of the site from earliest times, through Norse occupation to the present structure.
Travelling round the coast we headed for BUCHOLLIE CASTLE. This ruin sits precariously on a high vertically sided promontory sitting out from the high sea-cliffs. The final approach to the castle seems to have been quarried out for several reasons ie. To provide building material for the castle, to create a narrow ramp towards what may have been the position of a removeable bridge/drawbridge, and at one side to create a narrow cleft/stairway down to a natural harbour below the towering cliffs. The main section that remains of the castle is the strong defensive gateway tower with vaulted chamber and shot hole. To enter the castle now one must scramble down into the quarried ditch and then climb up again into the narrow arched gateway. Very little of the remains are visible above ground within the original courtyard area.
Moving along the coast again and after a picnic lunch, we walked along the cliff tops towards KEISS CASTLE. On the way we passed the remains of ancient Brochs and a World War II machine gun post. As we approached our destination the amazing sight of the surviving section of the old towerhouse and the later grand house came into view. Keiss stands precariously on the edge of a huge cliff. Unfortunately erosion by the sea has caused a section of the cliff to fall into the sea, taking a large section of the building with it. This is a beautiful example of Scottish defensive architecture. With proportions and features exceeding the basic defensive needs. Some of the party risked crossing the fence, erected for the safety of the public and livestock, to photograph and explore the accessible sections of the ruin.
Returning to the cars we now made our way to the famous ACKERGILL CASTLE. This large and strong tower stands in open ground on a low cliff by the sea and remains inhabited, it has been enlarged, extended, and restored through Victorian times and is beautifully tended, both inside and out. We were welcomed by the owners who operate the complex of buildings as an up market hotel / corporate entertainment centre. We were hosted to an old outbuilding which has been converted to form an arts, performance and conference venue. Following tea and coffee the owners described the developments at Ackergill prior to taking us on a guided tour of the buildings. The original tower has had its corner bartizans, battlements, and caphouse restored with larger than original windows cut through the walls. The tower dwarfs the later buildings. The complex, and its gardens are impressive, the private helicopter and matching landrovers completed the picture.
There is a marked contrast between the good fortunes of Ackergill and our next visit round the bay to the twin castles of SINCLAIR CASTLE and GIRNIGOE CASTLE. Parking our cars within site of the large lighthouse that is the home of our next host, we followed the path to our destination. Eventually we were able to see the two ruined castles perched on top of a high, narrow and exposed promontory of rock. As we approached the castles we could see our host waiting for us. First we had to descend into the quarried ditch of the defences, and then climb back up again to enter the first of the two castles. Closest to the mainland is the newest but most ruinous – Sinclair, beyond this and growing straight from the rock is the older Girnigoe. This is a most unusual arrangement, and has risen out of the ongoing demands of the occupiers and the nature of the site itself. The stronger most defensive and possibly less comfortable fortress being added to or superseded by the newer more comfortable structure that effectively then formed a screen for the older. During a period of local unrest the newer Sinclair suffered badly from artillery bombardment and never recovered, with the site becoming abandoned. Little of Sinclair remains, although one tall chimney stack continues to defy both gravity and weather. This remnant shows evidence, on both sides, of large oriel and mullioned windows hinting at some grandeur. Girnigoe has several large sections remaining, showing its strength and defensive aspects. An interesting series of features on the outer seaward wall caused much discussion and speculation. Two sets of corbelled projections, the upper forming a row of hooks and the lower row of a normal shape suggest that a suspended projecting platform may have been used here. Another example of the times could be seen in the postern gate arrangement. This exit descends through the cliff to the sea, via steps cut into the solid rock to a gate partly hewn from the rock. This allowed passage to and from the castle for those brave or desperate enough to try.
Castle of Old Wick
Our next visit returned us to Wick where we passed through the town and down again towards the sea. We parked and followed the path for the CASTLE of OLD WICK. On another rocky promontory, the remains of Old Wick defy the elements. A windowless, and floorless lower section is all that remains of the original square keep. At this point the walking, and general efforts of the day, began to take their toll on our group.
Only six people with two cars remained of the group as we set off inland in an attempt to find remote DIRLOT CASTLE. The remaining castle spotters were really tested in this search. Our maps took us to an area seemingly devoid of human habitation. Eventually we took an almost non existent track through an active gravel quarry and discovered an old graveyard. This hinted at some previous occupation of the area. Eventually we discovered the site and the almost invisible remains of Dirlot. Close examination of a rocky crag top, situated in a river cut ravine, showed the foundations of what must have been a small but easily defended site. Further examination around the foot of the crag uncovered more fallen stonework.
As the day finished we turned northwards towards Mey and our hotel. En-route we were able to stop and examine BRAAL CASTLE a ruined tower standing within a heavily wooded area surrounded by the houses of the village. This basically square plan tower has been built with one corner being angled off, there is no obvious reason for this feature.
The final leg of our tour took us past BRABSTER CASTLE. Here an isolated tower standing near a farm seems to have suffered both humiliation and transformation. One wall of the original building has been allowed to remain standing. This wall with its doors, windows and fireplaces blocked up has become the outer wall of a kiln. The other original walls having been demolished and the stonework reused.
Our Saturday evening in the Mey Arms Hotel was enjoyed by all, first we quenched our thirsts in the hotel bar. Here we met our previous afternoons host from Dounreay, this reopened our discussions on the responsibility of the site management and the castle remains. We of course advocated that something should be done to stabilise, secure, protect and possibly restore the historic building. We eventually moved from the bar to have dinner, and were "entertained" by a local band brought in to entertain the guests of a wedding reception taking place in the hotel. Most of our group were able to listen to the "music" and to the songs of the dispersing revellers for several hours after retiring!