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Issue 55 - Standing Defiant

Scotland Magazine Issue 55
February 2011


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Standing Defiant

Charles Dpuglas visits Ackergill Tower, Wick

It stands defiantly on a headland overlooking Sinclair’s Bay in the far north east corner of Scotland.

Spectacularly sited on the coastal plain next to the Caithness town of Wick, Ackergill Tower is a magnificent example of a 14th century fortress which, over the past 20 years, has been transformed into a popular five star retreat for corporate events, weddings and open house parties.

But it was not always so. Ackergill Tower’s original purpose was as a defensive stronghold to protect against attack from the sea. It might seem a trifle paranoid in this day and age, but the thick stone walls still carry memories of the continual and bitter clan skirmishes that wracked this coastline for more than three centuries.

No record exists as to when the first fortification was built, although the ‘lands of Ackergill’ are first mentioned in print in the 14th century as belonging to Sir Reginald de Cheyn. This in itself is a notable association since Sir Reginald’s grandfather had occupied the office of Lord Chamberlain and was married to a niece of King John Baliol. And so it was that for three generations, the de Cheynes were involved in the struggle for the Scottish throne.

The direct male line, however, came to an abrupt end in 1350, leaving two heiresses. But all was not lost. Far from it. Mariota, the eldest, married, as his second wife, John de Keith of Raven’s Craig, second son of Sir Edward Keith, Hereditary Great Marischal of Scotland.

And it is believed, although not proven, that Ackergill Tower was built by their son and through him, their descendants continued as a separate branch of this prominent family for eight generations until Sir William Keith of Ackergill was killed at the Battle of Flodden in 1513.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, the territories of the far north east were repeatedly fought over by three major clans, the Gunns, the Keiths, and the Sinclairs, and from this period, derives the apocryphal story of Helen Gunn.

A marriage had been arranged between the beautiful Helen and another suitor, but on the eve of her wedding she was snatched from her home at Braemore, near Dunbeath, by the notorious Dugald Keith who took her to Ackergill. What transpired within those walls we shall never know but determined not to succumb to his advances, Helen flung herself from the battlements. A commemoration stone on the shoreline marks the spot where she fell.

Across the bay can also clearly be seen the remains of Girnigoe Castle, sometimes known as Castle Sinclair, a stronghold of comparative age, and it was therefore inevitable that two castles in such close proximity, should lead to strife.

The crunch came in 1547 when the wealthy and headstrong George Sinclair, fourth Earl of Caithness, seized Ackergill, taking Alexander Keith hostage. Quite what this was all about remains uncertain, but the matter was temporarily resolved when the Regent Queen Mary, mother of Mary Queen of Scots, intervened and, having returned Ackergill to the Keiths, installed the fourth Lord Oliphant as keeper and mediator.

Alas, the relative peace did not last. Seven years later, with Ackergill held by William Keith, fourth Earl Marischal, the Sinclairs were back to lay siege.

Once more they were reprimanded and told to go home, but, in the half-decade that followed, it was the Keiths themselves who began squabbling over their inheritance. Then as now, it must have been a frustrating time for absentee landlords. In 1593, Ackergill was inherited by the sixth Earl Marischal, whose stronghold was Dunottar Castle in Kincardineshire. But Robert Keith, his brother, had other ideas. He wanted Ackergill, so he seized it and occupied it by force.

As was to be expected, his act was declared illegal and he was obliged to retreat, but five years later the tower was claimed and once again attacked by his kinsman, John Keith of Subster. With their interests largely focussed further south on a series of altruistic projects such as the building of Marischal College in Aberdeen, the Keiths finally sold their Caithness estates in 1612 to the fifth Earl of Caithness. Known as the “Wicked Earl”, this unruly individual occupied a string of north coast castles, principally Girnigo, and constantly embarked upon feuds with his neighbours, not least the 11th Earl of Sutherland who naturally retaliated. Having at one stage had a Commission of Fire and Sword issued against him, he resigned his earldom in favour of his son and grandson, both of whom predeceased him.

By then his profligate lifestyle was reaping its consequences. At one stage, he had even resorted to minting his own forged coinage and, as a result, the inheritance of his great-grandson, the sixth Earl, was beset with debts.

Unsurprisingly, the sixth Earl made little effort to maintain Ackergill and, in 1676, used his estates and titles as collateral to borrow from Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy. When he died that same year, Campbell not only married his widow, but, assuming the dignity and lands, invaded Caithness to assert his rights.

To thwart him, Girnigo was destroyed by its occupants, but Ackergill remained intact.

Eventually, following the intervention of Charles II, Sir John was compensated with the earldom of Breadalbane and Holland while the Caithness earldom was confirmed on the late Earl’s kinsman George Sinclair of Keiss.

Ackergill was nevertheless retained by the Campbells who, in 1699, sold it to Sir William Dunbar of Hempriggs. It remained thereafter with his descendants who, in the 1850s commissioned the architect David Bryce to turn the tower into “a fine gentleman’s seat.” When the last of the direct line of Dunbars of Hemprigg died in 1966, the estate passed to a relative. Ten years later, the Trustees were instructed to sell.

By this stage, it was generally thought that the fine old tower house was beyond repair. Then, as fate would have it, the sale notice was spotted by businessman John Banister and his wife Arlette, who immediately recognised its potential. Within weeks of their first visit, they had put in an offer not just for the castle but for 85 per cent of its contents.

A major programme of renovation next ensured and, in 1989, Ackergill Tower welcomed its first guest. In the ensuing 20 years, it has achieved the status of a much loved international retreat.

In 2009, Clarenco LLP purchased Ackergill Tower from the Banisters, and, five minutes from Wick Airport, it continues to thrive, managed by Helen Mackenzie-Smith as the flagship venue of the ‘Amazing Retreats’ portfolio.

I once wrote that this far north eastern corner of Scotland was remote, a statement for which I was severely reprimanded by a local resident. But that instant sense of being away from it all appealed to me. I fall easily under the spell of open seas, seemingly endless, empty beaches, and big skies.

I can therefore, like its current owners and the Banisters, immediately grasp the romantic possibilities for a glamorous wedding or a private house party, or the potential for summoning my international executives to a hush-hush seminar.

I would then let them get on with it and be perfectly content to sit at a window and watch the tides of the North Sea come and go.