Scottish Castles Association

Preserving the Past for the Future

SCA Castle Tour To Tain - Apr 2006

Loch Slin Castle
Loch Slin Castle


Location: OS Map 21 - NH 849 806

Loch Slin - Ross and Cromarty: About 4.5 miles east of Tain, on minor roads north of B9165, east of Loch Eye, about 0.5 miles east of Lochslin village.

Martin Coventry (1995): Loch Slin Castle consists of the ruinous remains of an L-plan castle, made up of two towers which adjoined at one comer with a stair, and outbuildings. It incorporates work from the 14th century. There were considerable remains at the end of the 19th century, and the castle stood some 60-feet high. It was held by the Munros in the 17th century, then the Mackenzies.

We had great difficulty locating Loch Slin Castle as it did not appear to be where the books and maps said it should be. We asked the at the local farm and discovered that the ruins of the castle had been demolished. We were directed to the location and found a raised mound of stonework debris which was all that remained. Apparently an earlier attempt at demolition during World War II was halted when both the Admiralty and the Air force objected. The ruins were at that time used as a prominent sighting point by the military.

Ballone Castle - Ross & Cromarty

Ballone Castle - Ross & Cromarty


Location: OS Map 21 - NH 929 838

Ballone - Ross and Cromarty: About 10 miles east of Tain, on minor roads and foot east of B9165, just west of sea, 0.5 miles north of Rockfield, at Ballone Castle.

Nigel Tranter (1962): Ballone Castle is set in a strong cliff-edge position on the coast of the long, low, hammer-headed peninsula which projects between the Cromarty and Dornoch Firths, about ten miles east of Tain and one from Portmahomack, Ballone is a handsome example of a commodious Z-planned castle of the late 16th century, with a number of re finements and unusual features. It is now, unfortunately, in a very bad condition, the more sad in that it has been a very fine place indeed, particularly well built, with considerable ashlar, dressed stone finishings, fluted and carved window-surrounds and many gunloops and shot-holes. The main block lies north and south, rising to three storeys and a garret, with a circular tower projecting to the north-west and a square stair-tower to the south-east. Two slender stair-turrets rise in the south-facing re-entrant angles, though these are now much shattered. Corner turrets grace the other angles, and these are interesting, being of good ashlar work, notably well supplied with shot-holes which slant downwards for better shooting, and having stone roofs which are so built that they do not rise higher than the eaves course of the main roofing, an unusual provision. They are corbelled out on elaborate in dividual corbels, not the usual continuous variety. There has been a courtyard, with subsidiary outbuildings including a bakehouse and other domestic offices, to the north. The original arched doorway lies in the foot of the south-east stair-tower, with a weatherworn panel above, in the re-entrant angle. There is a squint nearby in the stairway, to observe the approach, and another at the other side, from the main block wall. The principal staircase is a wide turnpike and rises only to the first floor, above which the turret stairs continue the ascent. Sharing the floor of this square tower with the stairway is a guardroom with a small vaulted prison. The main block basement is vaulted and divided into three chambers, the largest, to the south, being the kitchen, formerly with a great arched fireplace in the gable, which has fallen in leaving a yawning gap. The kitchen is also provided with an interesting pair of 'plumbing' arrangements a water inlet and duct, with external basin, and nearby but lower, an outlet duct with internal basin. These are in the west wall, near the back door which would of course have opened into the courtyard-and have been indicated in the sketch. The central ground-floor apartment was the wine-cellar, with the usual private straight stair in the thickness of the west wall, leading to the Hall above, permitting private access by the laird to his wine. The small chamber in the foot of the north-west tower is square, despite the circular exterior, and is not vaulted. The Hall, on the first floor, measures 30 by 19 feet, and has a private room off in the circular tower. The northernmost turret-stair opened from this room and evidently provided private access for the laird's family to the sleeping accommodation higher. Ballone is said to have been built by the Earls of Ross. Since this earldom, which merged with the Lordship of the Isles, was forfeited and vested in the Crown in 1476, it seems unlikely that any of the present building was actually erected by any of the line. It may well have been built by a collateral branch of the Rosses, however, the main stem of which was settled at Balnagown not far away. Later it was occupied by the Mackenzie Earls of Cromarty.

Martin Coventry (1995): Ballone Castle is a large late 16th century Z-plan tower house. It consists of a main block of three storeys and a garret, and a round tower and square stair-tower pro jecting from opposite comers. There are two ruined stair turrets. Corbelled-out bartizans crown the comers, and have shot-holes and stone roofs. A courtyard enclosed ranges of buildings, including a bakehouse. The arched entrance, at the foot of one stair-tower, leads to the main turnpike stair, which climbs only to the first floor. The upper floors are reached by the turret stairs. In the square tower is a guardroom and small adjoining vaulted prison. The main block basement is vaulted and contains the kitchen, which had an arched fireplace; and wine-cellar, with a small stair up to the hall above. The hall, on the first floor, had a private chamber off the main block. The lands were a property of the Earls of Ross, but passed to the Dunbars of Tarbat in 1507, then to the Mackenzies in 1623, who were made Earls of Cromartie in 1703 and changed the name to Castlehaven. It was abandoned in favour of Tarbat House, a three-storey classical mansion, in the late 17th century, and was ruined by 1680. Although long unroofed, the castle is being restored. The Restoration was carried out by Lachlan (Lachie) Stewart and is now complete.

Lachie was awarded the Nigel Tranter Memorial Award 2006 for his work on Ballone.

Little Tarrel

Little Tarrel


Location: OS Map - NH 911 819

Ross and Cromary: About 8 miles east of Tain, on minor road south of B9165, about 2 miles south of Portmahomack, south of Rockfield House, at little Tarrel.

Nigel Tranter (1962): Little Tarrel - This small fortalice, now unfortunately in a bad state of repair, stands beside the modern farm-steading of Rockfield, in Tarbat parish, nine miles east of Tain, and approximately midway between Cadboll and Ballone Castles. It is an L-shaped structure, apparently of the early 17th century, although possibly containing older work, with typical steep roofing, crowstepped gables and substantial boulder foundations. The walling rises on a wide plinth to north and east, and has been harled, though this is flaking off. There are only two storeys beneath the eaves course, and a garret above, with no stair-tower or turret. The main block lies east and west, with the wing extending southwards at the east end. There are wide splayed gunloops in the west gable and the north front, and a circular shot-hole guards the arched doorway in the re -entrant angle. A modern forestair has been erected in the re-entrant, to a modern doorway at first-floor level, replacing the original internal turnpike, no doubt for access when the building was used as a farm-workers' tenement. It now stands derelict. The basement has two vaulted chambers and a vaulted access passage, but the eastern portion of the main block has lost its vaulting and been much altered, probably when the turnpike stair was removed. The kitchen, in the south wing basement, has had a large arched fireplace, now blocked up, a stone water basin, and a large aumbry or wall-cupboard. The other vault to the west is only a cellar, lit by slits and the gunloop. The upper floor has suffered much alteration, save in the chamber over the kitchen, which retains two aumbries, a garderobe with its own small window, now blocked, and a moulded stone fireplace. The only features of interest elsewhere are the position of the northern gunloop, placed high, just under the eaves -course, giving the impression that the roof must have been lowered; and the sill of the first-floor window on the south of the main block, which has an inscription now weatherworn, lichen-covered and indecipherable.

The history of this little castle is difficult to trace, owing to confusion in the naming. It has been called Tarol and Tarradel, as well as Little Tarrel or Rockfield; moreover, there is a Meikle Tarrel nearby. To add to the confusion, there is another Tarradale in Ross, in Urray parish. In 1587, Tarradel in Ross is mentioned in the Register of the Great Seal, amongst other lands, in a charter to William Keith of Delny; and in 1591 George, Earl of Huntly, had the barony of Delny, including 'Tarrel'. Delny is only some dozen miles from Rockfield, whereas it is double that to the other Tarradale, in Urray; so it seems likely that this was the property referred to. In 1595, George Munro had the property of Tarrel, but this may have been Meikle Tarrel. He was a member of the Scots Parliament from 1617-21. Despite the inference of Meikle and Little, in an early 19th century gazeteer, Little Tarrel is described as one of the two chief mansions of Tain parish not Tarbet parish, as now, whereas the farm of Meikle Tarrel was not mentioned.

Martin Coventry (1995): Little Tarrel is an altered 16thcentury L-plan tower house of two storeys and a garret. The walls are pierced by gunloops and shot-holes. The entrance, at first-floor level, is reached by an external stone stair. The basement has been vaulted, and contained the kitchen with a sealed arched fireplace. It may have been a property of the Gordon Earl of Huntly or the Munros. The ruinous house was restored in the 1980s.

Cadboll Castle

Cadboll Castle


Location: OS Map 21 - NH 879 776

Cadboll - Ross and Cromarty: About 7 miles east and south of Tain, on minor roads south of B9165 or north of B9166, 1 mile north of Hilton of Cadboll, at Cadboll.

Nigel Tranter (1962): Cadboll Castle - Situated within the modern farm-steading overlooking the Moray Firth 10 miles south-east of Tain, the fortalice of Cadboll poses a number of problems. Ruinous enough to make inclusion in this volume questionable, it has unique features which make it especially interesting. It is a strongly built L-shaped structure with main block lying north and south, the wing extending to the east and a circular tower projecting at the north-west angle. Part of the wing has now disappeared, but the main block and tower remain to the wall-head. There has been a squared projection within the re -entrant angle facing south-east, in which, at first-floor level, was the doorway, but this is now ruinous. A roofless angle-turret. crowns the south-east corner of the main block. The masonry is good coursed rubble. There are a number of circular shot-holes, and a splayed gunloop protects the doorway in the re-entrant. The original windows are tiny, most of those at first-floor level being merely cruciform slits for defensive purposes. The topmost window in the circular tower has a fluted moulding. The door in the foot of this tower is modern. Especially interesting at Cadboll is the fact that there appear to be no windows or apertures for the ground-floor accommodation. Unfortunately, when visited, there was no access thereto either, for a great strawstack piled against the north side of the castle hid all features, and there seemed to be no access elsewhere to the basement, from within or without. Presumably it contained a range of vaulted cellars, unlit, something most unusual. The first floor is equally out of the ordinary. It is reached by the afore-mentioned door in the re -entrant by a stone forestair, formerly no doubt of timber and removable. There is a slot for a draw-bar, and an empty panel-space above. On this floor are three vaulted chambers in the main block, two lit only by the slit windows, again a highly unusual arrangement. The northernmost apartment's vault lies at right angles to the others, and it has rather larger windows. None of these chambers contains a fireplace. Altogether this first floor has the aspect of a typical vaulted basement. Unfortunately it was impossible to gain access to the upper storey. The impression given by this high range of vaults and slit windows is of an early-type castle which has been added to and altered in the late 16th or early 17th century, when the angle-turret and entrance front have been built; possibly the wing also. A much closer inspection than the author found possible would be required to establish Cadboll's architectural history. It would look as though an early castelled structure had been destroyed, and a late 16th or early 17th century laird's house erected on the foundations. A good Lshaped three-storeyed house of the late 17th or early 18th century adjoins to the east. Early references to Cadboll, or Catboll as it was formerly spelt, link the lands with the nearby Abbey of Fearn. In fact one division of the lands was called Catboll-Abbot. In 1592 we read of William Sinclair, son and heir of George Sinclair of Mey, in Caithness, as being in possession. And in 1610, in the Register of the Great Seal, King James the Sixth confirms a Charter of David, Bishop of Ross to William Sinclair, as above. Another division of Cadboll came to a family named Denoon, descended from a Campbell who took that name on having to flee from Dunoon in Cowal for some misdeed. One of this line became Abbot of Fearn, and his nephew got a grant of lands in 1534, his descendants retaining possession until the early 18th century.

Martin Coventry (1995): Cadboll Castle is a ruined strongly built L-plan tower house. It consists of a main block and wing, part of which has been demolished. It was built in the 14th century, but much modified in the 16th and 17th centuries. A roofless bartizan crowns one corner of the main block. The walls are pierced by shot-holes and gunloops, and the original windows are very small. The basement was vaulted as are three first-floor chambers. The entrance at first floor le vel, is reached by an external stone stair. It was a property of the MacLeods of Cadboll, but passed to the Sinclairs. The building was apparently destroyed by Alexander Ross of Balnagown as he was ordered to repair the damage in 1572-4. Cadboll was abandoned for the nearby house in the early 18th century. Part of the old castle is used as a farm store.

Dunrobin Castle

Dunrobin Castle


Location: OS Map 17 - NC 852 008

Dunrobin - Sutherland and Caithness: About 1 mile north-east of Golspie, on minor roads south of A9 (signposted), at Dunrobin Castle.

Nigel Tranter (1962): Dunrobin - Famous for centuries as the principal seat of the great Sutherland family, Dunrobin, sited commandingly on a height above the narrow coastal plain a mile or so north-east of Golspie, at first glance looks to be an enormous 'sham castle' of the Rhineland. But closer inspection reveals that its nucleus, in the north-east angle, is a quite large 17th century mansion of traditional Scots construction, with the usual stair-towers, corbelling and crow-stepped gables. Inspect still further and it is discovered that this again is only an extension of a still earlier nucleus, an ancient square keep, with walls over 6 feet thick, finishing in a parapet and walk with open rounds, this last being now wholly surrounded by later work. This early tower is said to date from 1401, in which case it is by no means the original stronghold, for the family was based here before the 12th century. It is vaulted on each floor, an early feature, and its iron yett is still preserved. The large 17th century mansion was added to south and west round a courtyard measuring 50 by 25 feet, and is on an E-shaped plan of three storeys and a garret, with slender stair-towers at the outer angles, that to the south apparently having been somewhat heightened. Another and larger circular stair-tower connects this work with the old keep, and this has pedimented windows bearing the initials of John, 14th Earl of Sutherland and his Countess. The walls are harled. The later additions were erected in 1785 and 1851. Descended from the famous Freskin of Moravia, Hugh Freskin got a grant of territory in Sutherland from William the Lyon and came north to found this family. A descendant was created Earl of Sutherland in 1235. Although not of Celtic origin, they adopted the Gaelic style, and their chief became known as The Great Cat, adopting the cat as crest, allegedly on account of the prevalence of wild-cats in these parts, the origin of the name of Caithness, or Cattu-ness. The line persisted, playing a major role in Scots history for three hundred years, until it ended in an heiress, who married the second son of the 2nd Earl of Huntly, and so carried the Sutherland earldom to the Gordons. For the next two centuries the Earls bore that name. Her grandson was forfeited for his share in Huntly's rebellion of 1562, and was exiled in Flanders. He came home five years later, however, but was poisoned at Helmsdale Castle by Isobel Sinclair, wife of his uncle, Gordon of Gartay, his wife with him. Their only son survived, however, but was seized at Skibo Castle by the Sinclair Earl of Caithness, still a child, and forced to marry that Earl's daughter, the profligate Lady Barbara Sinclair, twice his age, Caithness meantime taking up residence at Dunrobin. However, on attaining his majority he managed to divorce the lady, and married instead the Lady Jean Gordon, whom Bothwell had just divorced in order to marry Mary Queen of Scots. Their son was the 13th Earl, whose son built the 17th century extensions. He was much involved in the religious wars, opposed Montrose in his campaigns, and with 1,000 men arrived just too late to take part in the Battle of Dunbar against Cromwell. The 18th Earl died young in 1766 leaving only a year-old daughter, the greatest landowner in Britain. She it was who later married the Marquis of Stafford, and they were created Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, the instigators of the notorious Sutherland Clearances. Today, although still in the possession of the Countess of Sutherland in her own right, Dunrobin is used as a school.

Martin Coventry (1995): Dunrobin Castle consists of an altered 15th century keep, parts of which may date from the 1300s - and 17th century courtyard mansion, with round comer turrets, which was greatly enlarged in the 18th and 19th centuries. The keep is vaulted on all floors, and still has its original iron yett. With the keep, the 17th century L-plan block of three storeys and a garret formed a courtyard. A large round tower joins up this block and the keep.

The castle was remodelled and enlarged between 1845 and 1851, and again in 1915-21 by Sir Robert Lorimer. The Sutherland family were created Earls of Sutherland in 1235, and had a castle here in the 13th century: Dunrobin may be called after Robert or Robin, the 6th Earl. The property passed by marriage to the Gordons. The family were forfeited for their part in Huntly's rebellion of 1562. At Helmsdale Castle, Isabel Sinclair poisoned John, the 11th Earl, and his wife hoping to secure the succession of her son, but the future 12th Earl escaped, and she managed to poison her own son. The young Earl of Sutherland escaped to Domoch Palace or Skibo Castle, where he was eventually captured by the Earl of Caithness and forced to marry Lady Barbara Sinclair, who was twice his age. When he came of age he divorced her. The family supported the government in the Jacobite Risings, although in 1746 the castle was held briefly by troops of Bonnie Prince Charlie. The lands passed by marriage to the Trentham Marquis of Stafford in the 18th century. They were involved in the Clearances, burning cottages and throwing people out of their homes so that the land could be cleared for sheep. During the World War I the castle was used as a naval hospital, and as a boy's public school between 1963 and 1972. It is still held by the same family.

Dornoch Castle

Dornoch Castle


Location OS Map 21 - NH 797 897

Dornoch Castle - Sutherland and Caithness: In Domoch, near Cathedral, on minor roads west of A949.

Nigel Tranter (1962): Dornoch Castle - Rising impressively, and with the cathedral across the street, dominating the little capital town of Sutherland at the mouth of the Dornoch Firth, this tall and massive tower was the seat of the Bishops of Caithness and by its character indicates that these prelates required to be strong in more than spiritualities. The building belongs to three main periods, the keep, the major portion of which is of early date; the late 16th century alterations and additions thereto; and the large extensions of the early 19th century. The keep is a lofty five storeys, with a circular stair-tower added at the south-east angle in the 16th century, this finishing in a conical roof and being enhanced by stringcourses. Its other angles are finished with typical 16th century open rounds, and the gabled roof ornamented with crowsteps in the ecclesiastical style. Many of the windows have been enlarged, and some surmounted by relieving arches. The tower is defended by crosslet slits and shot-holes.

A moulded 16th century doorway opens in the base of the stair-tower. The wing to the east, partly 16th century and partly later, is a storey lower, and notable for the enormous kitchen chimney-stack which dominates the east end of the south front. A secondary stair-tower, of ashlar, projects on the north front, rising from a squared base, and nearby is a picturesque buttress. A courtyard has extended to west and south, the arched gateway of which survives. The main entrance to the tower is at first-floor level on the south front, the original access to which would be by a removable timber stair. The building has had a chequered history, having been a bishop's palace, long a ruin, a courthouse and gaol, then the county buildings, and now is used as a hotel. The internal accommodation therefore has undergone considerable alteration and adaption. But the usual original arrangement of vaulted basement, hall on first floor and sleeping accommodation higher, would prevail. Just when the oldest part of the castle was built is not clear although the cathedral across the road dates from 1245, when it was erected by the patriot Bishop Gilbert Murray. In 1567, George the turbulent 4th Earl of Caithness claimed the wardship of the young Earl of Sutherland, then a minor. This was contested by the local people, although Caithness was apparently supported by the nearby Sutherland of Skelbo, Lord of Duffus. The Master of Caithness, aided by Skelbo and Hugh Mackay of Strathnaver, then attacked and burned the town and cathedral of Dornoch, but the castle itself managed to hold out against this force for a month. The defenders eventually capitulated on terms and the provision of three hostages, who were treacherously murdered. The castle was then burned, and remained in a ruinous state until 1814, when it was restored for municipal purposes.

Martin Coventry (1995): Dornch Palace or Castle consists of an altered 13th or 14th century keep of five storeys with a round 16th century stair-tower. The keep has two open rounds, and a gabled roof. Many of the windows have been enlarged, but the walls are still pierced by shot-holes. Adjoining this is a four-storey 16th century wing with its own stair-tower. The castle has a courtyard and garden, and was extended and altered in the 19th century. The entrance was at the foot of the stair-tower. The basement is vaulted, the hall would have been on the first floor, with private chambers on the floors above. The building has been very altered inside. Dornoch Palace was built by the Bishops of Caithness, and the cathedral is close by. It passed to the Gordon Earls of Sutherland after the Reformation. In 1567 George Sinclair, 4th Earl of Caithness, had the town and cathedral burned and the castle besieged to secure possession of the young Earl of Sutherland, although he is also said to have been abducted from Skibo. The castle held out for a month, but eventually surrendered on fair terms, although hostages given by the garrison were subsequently murdered. The castle was then burned, and left a ruin until restored in the 19th century as a courthouse and jail. It is now a hotel.

Skelbo Castle

Skelbo Castle


Location - OS Map 21 - NH 792 952

Sutherland and Caithness: About 3.5 miles north of Dornoch, on minor roads east of A9, just south of shore of Loch Fleet, at Skelbo.

Nigel Tranter (1962): Skelbo Castle - The gaunt and battered remains of the ancient and powerful stronghold of the Sutherlands, Lords of Duffus, stands on a defensive rocky site above the south shore of the tidal Loch Fleet, four miles north of Dornoch. There is however an early 17th century house still standing within the broken curtain-walling of the old castle, and although this is in a bad state of repair, the proprietor is at least considering restoration. Dating from so much later than the rest of the castle-which may be of the 14th century, and on a lower level of the uneven site, this building would seem to have been a more or less new construction, erected against the old curtain wall, rather than merely a wing added or altered. It is a lengthy oblong block of two storeys and a garret, lying approximately north and south, containing a range of vaulted cellars in the basement. The first floor now contains only the one large chamber, though it pro bably was subdivided originally, and the garret floor above has gone. There are signs that there may have been further building to the south. The masonry is of rough red sandstone rubble. The building has obviously been greatly altered and adapted at various periods, most of the windows having been enlarged or built up, with new doorways opened. But certain original features remain. The arched doorway towards the north end still retains its slot for a massive door-bar. A relieving arch surmounts the window immediately to the south, and a small loophole window survives between the doors at the south end. The walling is topped by an eaves course, and the north-eastern skewputt is decorated by a carved mask. Internally, little of interest remains, but there has been a large arched fireplace in the north gable, presumably the kitchen. The Sutherlands of Skelbo were a branch of the same family as the Earls of Sutherland, who likewise sprang from the famous Freskin de Moravia, founder of the Moray or Murray family. They seem to have gravitated north from Moray at an early date, no doubt marrying heiresses. The Skelbo line, however, in due course went back, or at least re-established contact with Moray, for they inherited the great lordship of Duffus in the 14th century. They seem to have continued to make Skelbo their main domicile, however, and a turbulent line they were. William Sutherland, Lord of Duffus, was killed by Clan Gunn, at Thurso, in 1530, in a squabble over the Bishopric of Caithness, and his son and heir was thrown into prison by the Privy Council for the scale of his reprisals. His son, Alexander, attacked and sacked the nearby town of Dornoch in 1567, and again in 1570. Oddly enough, we read that the next year, having put to death certain sureties who had surrendered to his ally the Earl of Caithness, he became overcome with remorse and pined away to his grave. The laird who succeeded in 1616 was rash enough to carry off the tiend-sheaves already paid to the young Earl of Sutherland, depositing them in his own barns at Skelbo, until forced by the Sheriff to disgorge. The part of the castle with which we are concerned seems to have been built by the son of this laird, created a peer by Charles the First.

Martin Coventry (1995): Skelbo Castle - Skelbo Castle is a ruined much-altered 14th century keep and castle, consisting of a rectangular block of two storeys and a garret. A triangular courtyard had a curtain-wall. The basement was vaulted. It was a property of the Sutherlands of Skelbo. A castle here was captured by Robert the Bruce in 1308, during the Wars of Independence. This branch of the Sutherlands acquired the Lordship of Duffus in the 14th century. William Sutherland, Lord Duffus, was slain by the Gunns at Thurso in 1530. Alexander, his son, sacked and burned the cathedral and town of Dornoch in 1567, and again in 1570. The family was forfeited for their part in the Jacobite Rising of 1715. The property was acquired by the Gordon Earls of Sutherland. The castle may be in a dangerous condition. Old Skelbo House is a long two-storey house with a vaulted basement, and dates from about 1600. The basement contained a byre while the living chamber, on the first floor, was reached by a removable ladder.


Details here are extracted from –
Nigel Tranter – The Fortified House in Scotland – Volume 5 – North and West Scotland
Martin Coventry – The Castles of Scotland - 2nd and 3rd Editions

Added: 28 Apr 2006 Updated: 18 Apr 2022
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