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History of the Castle - Myths and Facts

Daniell's 1821 Illustration of the Castle from the East
Daniell's 1821 Illustration of the Castle from the East

click to enlarge

No Sinclair family papers exist that tell us the history of the Castle. Furthermore, until recently we knew of no written reference to the Castle pre 1700, by which time the Castle was already a ruin it has been discovered that the last three hundred years of history are based on later interpretation without, it can now be proven, proper research. Until Field Archaeology Specialists Ltd (FAS) of the University of York were commissioned to prepare a Conservation Plan of the Castle in 2002 it was commonly held that there were two castles, one built in the mid to late fifteenth century and the other in the early seventeenth and that they had been attacked and destroyed by cannon in about 1680.

One or two Castles?

On the Ordinance Survey maps and in books one will find reference to Castle Sinclair and Castle Girnigoe.

The first record of a visit we have found is from a Reverend John Brand, who visited the site in 1700 whilst on a visit to Caithness with the Commissioners from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. In his “Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland Firth and Caithness” he wrote:

“...upon the south side of the bay next to Wick have been two strong Castles joined to one another by a Draw Bridge, called Castle Sinclair and Girnigoe, the former hath been the strongest House, but the latter they ordinarily had their dwelling in; their situation is upon a rock disjoined from the Land, environed for the most part with the Sea, to which Castles from the Land, they passed also by a Bridge which was drawn up every night, whence there was no access to them. I found the year of God upon the Lintel of a window in Castle Sinclair to be 1607; which hath been the year wherein this castle was built or at least repaired. Some account these two Castles to be but one, because of their vicinity.” (Brand 1701, 155).

The Rev John Brand had started a fashion that a later visitor the Reverend (later Bishop) Richard Pococke followed. He described his visit to the castle in 1760 in a letter to his sister:

“I went to see the castles of Carnigo and Sinclair, the first situated on a rock over the sea, and separated from the land by a deep fossee, over which there was a draw-bridge... The other is close to it, built for an elder son; in both of them are several apartments, and beyond the first are several little courts on the rocks: Sinclair was built in the time of King Charles the Second, and the King's Arms are on it;... This Sinclair was the last of them” (Pococke 188 ,160).

It would seem that the very appearance of the site helped to give rise to the idea that there were two there, rather than one castle, as the two sets of ruins are separated by a dry moat in addition to the larger moat around the property. The main structure is the Tower House, and this became known as ‘Castle Girnigoe’. All that remains of the West Gate House is the structure around the chimney stack, and the construction and appearance gave rise to the idea that this was ‘Castle Sinclair’. ‘Castle Girnigoe’ was deemed to have been built for strength and ‘Castle Sinclair’ for beauty, reminiscent of that other well known Sinclair edifice, Rosslyn Chapel, and its famous pillars.

From the archaeological work carried out by FAS, detailed in their Conservation Plan produced in 2003, it became clear that there had been one Castle on the site from the beginning. Further historical research established that ‘Sinclair’ first came into the name in 1606, when George, the Fourth Earl of Caithness gained an Act of Parliament declaring that Girnigoe should be known as Castle Sinclair: “Oure Souerane Lord ad Estattis of pliamet pntlie convenit for certane Cause and considerationis hes thocht meit and expedient to alter and change the Name of the castell of girnigo in Caithnes And statutis & ordinis that in all tyme comig the said castell sail be callit castell Sinclair.” Furthermore when one looks at Blau’s version of Pont’s map of Caithness printed in 1664 its description of the Castle is ‘Girnigho or Groën gho now called Caftell Sincleer’

Because the two names have been in use for over three hundred years the Trustees have agreed to call the Castle Sinclair Girnigoe although technically, due to the Act of Parliament, it should just be called Castle Sinclair.

When was the Castle built?

The history books tell us that the Tower House that was known as ‘Girnigoe’ was built in the late fifteenth century. There is no evidence for this but we presume that the deduction was made because the title of Earl of Caithness was granted in 1455 and there is a charter signed in Girnigoe in 1496. The newer part, Sinclair, was built in the seventeenth century because of the stone found by the Rev. John Brand with the date 1607 engraved on it. What these writers failed to take into account was that the same Sinclair family who became Earls of Caithness were already Earls of Orkney with a Castle in Kirkwall and had married the daughter of the last Norse earls of Caithness in the mid 1300’s so had been in the north for a hundred years before being granted the title of Earl of Caithness.

The first discovery by FAS was that the “new” part of the structure, referred to erroneously as Castle Sinclair was, in fact, part of a much earlier building. There are strong indications that the lower part formed part of a gate-keep tower of an enclosure castle built in the late fourteenth century. This is nearly one hundred years earlier than we had believed any buildings were erected on site. Other parts of the Castle also date from this time and it has to be assumed that other elements on the site, thus far not identified, also date to this early period. It is now clear that the Tower House known as Girnigoe is a significantly later building, and was probably only completed finally in its current form in the early seventeenth century. Nevertheless, it is erected on a foundation of earlier construction, and the rest of the site contains impressive fabric from this period.

Some of the curtain wall remains, and the best piece adjoins the east of the Tower House, and can be dated to the mid fifteenth century, much earlier than the Tower House. The walling was remodelled then to take account of the increasingly common use of guns and in particular the hagbut. It is now clear that there were a number a periods of rebuilding and alterations to suit the social and/or military fashion of the day but the full extent might only be determined after all the work on the Castle has been completed.

Historic Location Map
Historic Location Map

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The Castle Ruins
The Castle Ruins

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Was it destroyed by cannon?

The history books tell us that the Castle ceased to be inhabited after it was partially destroyed by cannon in about 1680, ironically by a Sinclair, George of Keiss, who was denying the Castle to Campbell of Glenorchy, who had seized the Castle and claimed the title of Earl of Caithness as settlement of the debts of the 6th Earl of Caithness. However the register of the Privy Seal of Scotland vi, 599 states that George Sinclair of Keiss “did throw down and demolish the forts of castle Sinclair and Girnigoe belonging to the said Earle, and broke down the roofe thereof and the doores and windows, drawbridge and iron gates thereof and did pull up the floors and threw to the ground the hewn stone of the battlement. Likeas they did carry with them all the beds, furniture and whole timber work of the severall houses...”. Recent archaeological excavations would support that the Castle did not suffer an attack by cannon but there is substantial evidence of the occupation of the castle by Cromwell’s troops and they might have started the demolition as they did elsewhere.

Was the castle ever properly surveyed?

Academic interest in the castle was first recorded in the “Ordinance Survey Original Object Placename” books from 1871, which describes the ruins in detail. MacGibbon and Ross undertook a full survey of the buildings in 1884 “The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland”. Their plans are the basis for much of the study undertaken in the past century and provide useful information on parts of the structure which have collapsed since. The Royal Commission for the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) visited the castle in about 1900 and their findings are documented in the “Inventory of the Monuments and Constructions of the County of Caithness”" (first published in 1911 and republished 1977). Their plans and elevations were heavily based upon the MacGibbon and Ross' 1884 plans. However these surveys were of the existing structure and did not include an archaeological survey or proper historical research which might have exposed some of the wrong deductions. For instance a sea wall is shown on MacGibbon and Ross’s plan of 1884 but FAS have so far found no evidence that it ever existed and it does not appear on the Daniell print of the Castle dated 1821. The advantage for us is that we are very fortunate that the archaeologists have a ‘virgin’ site on which to work and one of the great assets is that nothing has happened to the castle except continuous ruination for the last three hundred years and thus the correct history has a better chance of being told.

What is the correct history?

We will not obtain the most accurate picture until all the preservation work is complete but one can follow the progress in the archaeological reports.