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Issue 96 - Warden of the Clifftops

Scotland Magazine Issue 96
December 2017


This article is 13 months old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Warden of the Clifftops

Charles Douglas celebrates the remarkable survival of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe

The dramatic ruins of a castle stand  on the cliffs' edge three miles from  the town of Wick. It is a formidable  reminder of distant times when invasion from  the sea was commonplace and the Pentland  Firth was a major trade route - the only one  around Britain other than the Dover Straits.

Currently undergoing major conservation and  preservation work, Castle Sinclair Girnigoe  is the only castle in Scotland to be listed by  the World Monuments Fund.

The St Clairs of Rosslyn, who are of  Norman, Scottish and Norse descent,  were among Scotland's wealthiest and  most powerful families. They were not just  substantial landowners in Caithness but in  Midlothian too and it was Sir William St Clair,  1st Earl of Orkney and 3rd Jarl of Orkney,  who began to build the iconic Rosslyn Chapel  in the mid-15th Century.

In his house he was royally served in gold  and silver vessels, in most princely manner,í  wrote Sir William's descendant Father Hay.

From two marriages and elsewhere, he  fathered no less than 18 children and, as  a result, his family wealth rapidly became  somewhat overstretched. It was through  marriage a century earlier that the family had  become Jarls of Orkney, a Norwegian feudal  dignity with its origins in the Viking period,  and acquired land in Caithness, Orkney and  Shetland. Although Kirkwall Castle in Orkney  was their main residence in the far north at  this time.

Archaeological research indicates that  they also had a fortalice with a moat in front  and a curtain wall protecting the peninsula  of land where the tower house of Sinclair  Girnigoe now stands. In 1471, when Orkney  transferred to the Scottish Crown from the  Norwegian Crown as part of the marriage  treaty of Princess Margaret of Denmark to  King James III of Scotland, Sir William St  Clair swapped this latter distinction with  the King in favour of Ravenscraig Castle in  Kirkcaldy, Fife.

Five years before his death in 1481, Sir William resigned the Caithness earldom in favour of his son from his second marriage, another Sir William, from whom the Caithness line of Sinclairs descend. His other son by the marriage received Rosslyn Castle and the lands there.

It is likely that Sir William, the 1st Earl, knew that he would have to forfeit Kirkwall Castle when Orkney became part of Scotland. As a result, his son William, the 2nd Earl, extended the then existing fortalice by Wick into a substantial castle with an outer and inner moat. This castle was known as Girnigoe - the ruins of which you see today. However, the 2nd Earl died fighting for his monarch James IV at the Battle of Flodden in 1513 and, under the circumstances, the succession of the 3rd Earl of Caithness was extremely fortunate.

You see, the 2nd Earl had somehow succeeded in incurring the King's displeasure and, as a result, James had declared the Sinclair titles forfeit. Nevertheless, when Sir William turned out to support James in Edinburgh with his Caithness men all dressed in green, he was pardoned. No parchment being available, the King had his instructions inscribed on a drumhead that was cut out and handed to the Earl. A rider was rapidly despatched to the Countess in the north so that should her husband not survive the forthcoming battle, the family's inheritance would be secure. The courier was the only member of the Sinclair clan to return home alive.

The earls of Caithness owned a number of castles in Caithness and built more - including Barrogill Castle, now renamed Castle of Mey (See: Scotland Magazine #33) - but their main home was always Castle Girnigoe. Just as happens today, successive generations altered the castle as trends and necessities changed. The fortalice was enlarged and adapted into the current tower house, windows were changed and modern comforts of the time were installed such as a long gallery and closets.

However, these were cruel and violent times in the north of Scotland and the Sinclair chiefs were no exception to the rule. Charged with rebellion in 1577, John, the Master of Caithness, was incarcerated at Girnigoe by his own father, the 4th Earl, for a number of years.

The 5th Earl, ëWicked Georgeí as he became known, turned out to be a bit of a profligate disaster. Despite this, it was he who successfully petitioned the Scottish Parliament in 1606 for Girnigoe to have a name change to Castle Sinclair, in keeping with his family surname.

Unfortunately, since Castle Sinclair and Castle Girnigoe were both recorded in 1700, both names have been retained ever since. In the meantime, George carried on the building work and transformed Sinclair into rather more of a grand mansion than a fortress but, probably as a result of his arrogance, he was constantly at odds with his neighbours - especially Clan Gunn. In 1588, the castle withstood a 12-day siege from followers of the 12th Earl of Sutherland.

Plagued by creditors, 'Wicked George' was eventually forced to mortgage his estates and retreat into exile on Orkney. However, his grandson, the next earl, was living in the castle when Oliver Cromwell invaded Caithness in 1652 and requisitioned it as his major far northeastern garrison on the mainland    for the English army. Although in financial difficulties, this Earl built another castle for himself - Thurso East Castle. He complained about the damage Cromwell's troops did to Castle Sinclair but was never recompensed.

With large and increasing debts, he forfeited his lands on his death in 1676 to his main creditor (and fourth cousin) Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy. He also passed him the earldom, whereupon the inevitable family squabble over inheritance took place.

This led to Sir George Sinclair of Keiss, a first cousin, raiding both Thurso East and Sinclair castles, removing the furniture and stripping the roofs from the latter.

Sir John, with a warrant from the King, duly marched north to claim his inheritance and there followed a clan battle at Altimarlach, which the Campbells won. However, the next year, George Sinclair succeeded in winning back the earldom through an appeal to the Privy Council that allowed the Campbells to retain the land, while Sir John was made Earl of Breadalbane in compensation. George repaired and lived for some time in the more modern Thurso East Castle, while Sinclair Castle was abandoned and allowed to succumb to the fierce winds and coastal erosion of the North Sea.

Today, more of a problem for the structure are the stones and timber that were removed by neighbours for nearby building projects, and the fabric of the western section of the castle continued to be undermined. The eastern part was fortunately denied the same fate by the removal of the drawbridge over the original (and now inner) moat.

The property was eventually bought back by the 19th Earl of Caithness in 1953 and, in 1999, it was handed over by his son Malcolm, the 20th Earl of Caithness, to the Clan Sinclair Trust, a limited company with charitable status for conservation and restoration work.

Historians for the last 300 years have always called the castle Sinclair Girnigoe and although research has revealed the Act of Parliament changing its name to Castle Sinclair, the Trustees have agreed to continue to use the name everyone knew it by.

Today, the Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is a scheduled monument listed since 2002 in the World Monuments Fund in its Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World. As such, only the conservation and preservations works areas are open to the public all year around.

Immediately before the Noss Head lighthouse there is a car parking area and a path which is signposted to the shore. But be careful when you approach the ruins, as some of the masonry in its present state is dangerous. Once the work is completed, however, the various walls and buildings of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe will hopefully emerge.

Perhaps not in their former inhabitable state, but at least as a stable, secure and spectacular reminder of another way of life in a distant corner of Scotland during the turbulent centuries of long ago.

Visitor Information

Castle Sinclair Girnigoe

Noss Head, Wick, Caithness, KW1 4QT


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