We’ve already looked at the Castles in Sutherland in a recent blog. This week’s blog looks at the Castles of Caithness.
Caithness is a region of Scotland that neighbours Sutherland to the north east, so isn’t too far away from NC500Pods. Where Sutherland turns west at Melvich on the north coast, Caithness turns east. From here the many miles of rugged coastline eventually turn south at John o’Groats the northern tip of the country and back down towards Helmsdale. This coastline is strewn with Castles!
Flag of Caithness
Our list of Caithness castles will trace a rough anti-clockwise loop, starting from Helmsdale.
First on our list of Castles of Caithness is Dunbeath Castle. It sits precariously above cliffs on a peninsula near the town of Dunbeath. The building of today was built in the 1700s but a previous building beloning to the Earl of Caithness is recorded as far back as the mid 1400s.
Dunbeath Castle with the North Sea behind
In 1650 the castle was attacked by James Graham in the ‘war of the three Kingdoms’. He was a busy boy – read more here in our blog on Ardvreck Castle. The castle was remodelled after the attack.
Gunn’s Castle was another sea cliff stronghold. It was built and occupied between the 1300s & 1500s by the Gunn clan, who were of Norse decent. It appears that the castle constantly faced one threat or another. Orcadian raids, independence battles or even attack by the Norwegian King are said to have have contributed to the castles being destroyed.
Most of the stone from the castle was removed for other buildings, so that little is left today. It is also difficult and a little dangerous to access due to the cliffs.
Castle of Old Wick
Sometimes known as the old man of Wick, this sea cliff ruin is the oldest on our list. The castle is thought to have been built in the 1100s when the area was under Norwegian rule.
Castle of Old Wick
Who doesn’t like a buy-one-get-one-free!? The Sinclair family built Castle Girnigoe on these rugged cliffs sometime in the 15th century. Castle Sinclair came to be in the 17th century by means of additional building & protective walls, joined to the 15th century structure by means of a drawbridge.
The castle was ruined in typical Scottish fashion – quarrelling families. The Sinclair family found themselves in financial trouble and owed money to the Campbell family, who were relations. The Campbells took control of the castle but also claimed the title of Earl of Caithness. This enraged the Sinclairs, who attacked the castle, ultimately turning it into today’s ruin.
Old Keiss Castle
Anyone else thinking that all of the castles of Caithness are ruins, perched precariously on sea cliffs. Old Keiss Castle follows the same formula. The castle dates back to the 1600s. It was another victim of the Campbell/Sinclair squabble and was never fully restored after sustaining damage.
The ruin can be reached via a costal path from the car park near Keiss town.
Yet another sea cliff ruin, just south of John o’Groats. History is sparse for this castle, but was home to the Mowat family as far back as the 1400s. It is believed that the castle was abandoned rather than battle damaged. The result is the same however and the ruined gatehouse is all that remains today.
Not built on a cliff & not a ruin!! The history of the castle is a typical mix (for the area) of dealings between Norsemen, Sinclairs & Mowats. The castle is just south of John0’Groats & has been receiving restoration in recent years.
Castle of Mey
Also known as the Barrogill Castle, the Castle of Mey was built in the mid-1500s by George Sinclair (4th Earl of Caithness) and extended several times in the proceeding centuries. The castle has several towers featuring gun slots, so was clearly intended to be a strong fortress. Strange then that it doesn’t seem to have features in many battles (if any).
The castle was falling into disrepair in the middle of the 20th century, when it was purchased by the queen mother. She restored the castle and used it as her holiday home, before gifting it to a trust. The trust now operates the castle and have opened it to the public (May to the end of September).
Castle of Mey & Gardens
The castle is great to visit with opulent decor & a charming walled garden.
An interesting one for Marvel fans. Thurso was named ‘Thor’s river’ by Vikings many centuries ago. The castle was built in the 1800s, although a much earlier structure is believed to date back to the 1100s.
The castle is a partial ruin, but is still residence for the Viscount Thurso.
From Thurso, we turn south & inland toward Braal Castle (aka the Castle of Brathwell). The castle is another ruin and is believed to have been built in the 1400s.
The castle was a defensive fortress above the River Thurso.
The last of our list of Castles of Caithness is Dirlot Castle. Iw was another fortification built in the 1400s. It was abandoned in the 1600s and as was normal at the time, much of the stone was removed & reused.
Continuing south from Dirlot Castle takes you back to the coast, where we started just north of Helmsdale.
If you love Castles, then caithness is for you. Are you planning to visit any of these sites? Let us know on our Facebook page.