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Castle Sinclair Girnigoe - Malcolm Caithness

29th June 2013

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Photograph of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe - Malcolm Caithness


Much has been written on the history of this spectacular ruin dramatically situated on cliffs projecting into Sinclair Bay about three miles north of Wick. The books basically tell us that this icon the County were two castles one being the tower house built between 1476 and 1496 which was called Girnigoe and the other called Sinclair was built on land to the west in 1606. and that they were partially destroyed by George Sinclair of Keiss who attacked it with cannon in either 1680 or 1690 (depending on the author) to oust John Campbell of Glenorchy to whom it had been given by George 6th Earl of Caithness in lieu of debts. These facts have been embellished and embroidered over time by a number of different authors. Since 1998 archaeological work and research of primary documentation carried out by the Clan Sinclair Trust, which owns the property, has proved that, like so much of our history, the truth is very different and more interesting.

Being such a strategic position, the site has been occupied for thousands of years. We have found a lot of evidence of occupation by Neolithic people (4500 to 2000 BC) and some of Mesolithic people before them. What the original building was we have no idea but the fortification would have been towards the end of the peninsular beyond what is now the inner moat on the land where the current tower house and outbuildings stand. The Trust needs to carry out more work and research to establish a likely date but we do know that it was used in the late 1300s. It would have been strongly fortified with a dry moat at its front and this is our best guess of what the castle looked like then.

It was soon after Sir William Sinclair of Roslin, 3rd Earl of Orkney, was granted the title of Earl of Caithness in 1455 that some major changes took place. He and his son, who was to inherit the title, were well aware that they would have to forfeit the title of Earl of Orkney and also their castle there in Kirkwall when Orkney, which belonged to Norway at that time, became part of Scotland and which happened in 1470. However given the strategic position adjacent to the major trade route of the Pentland Firth they needed to maintain a stronghold in the area to protect the family interests and so started to update Castle Girnigoe, as it was then called, which they already owned. They extended the castle by digging another dry moat which formed a continuation of the goe on the south of the peninsular and connecting it to the sea thus enclosing another parcel of land. They used the excavated stone to build on it and linked it to the original fortification by a drawbridge over what had now become the inner moat. In the early 1500s we believe the castle would have looked like this.

At this stage the castle was still a defensive stronghold to withstand all attacks but times were changing. Weaponry was becoming more powerful and cannons were more reliable, accurate and bigger thus making a building even of stone less secure if attacked and the Renaissance period was in full swing. Throughout Europe social attitudes and architecture were changing. Just like today every family wanted the latest fashion and design. The then wealthy Sinclair family was no exception and the existing accommodation needed to be modernised and adapted. A period of aggrandisement followed which included a new tower house, chapel, banqueting chamber entered by a square un-defendable staircase, closets and larger widows with leaded lights. This was the heyday of the castle which was transformed by the early 1600s into a grand mansion which incorporated all the latest ideas. The artists impression gives a good idea of what it looked like.

t is clear that, far from being built in two periods as the history books tell us it was, the castle was regularly altered to take account of each generations needs and taste in just the same way as we alter our houses today. This is obvious when looking at the ground plan.

Also as part of the upgrading George Sinclair 5th Earl of Caithness had an Act of Parliament passed in 1606 to change the name from Castle Girnigoe to Castle Sinclair as it was a fashion to call your main home after your family name.

Thus the castle should have been known as Castle Sinclair since then but it was written down as two castles with two names in 1700 and as that became the truth which is why the two names are still in use today and it is now known as Castle Sinclair Girnigoe.

The bit in the history books that is correct is that John Campbell of Glenorchy became owner, not only of the castle, but all the family estate in settlement of the debt that had been accumulated through the lavish expenditure by the 5th and 6th Earls on all their castles. This problem was compounded by the Civil War in the 1650s which saw the occupation (and damage) of the castle by Cromwells troops and which became his main garrison in the north. John Campbell was a fourth cousin of George 6th Earl and was also left the title of Earl of Caithness when George died in 1677. This transfer was initially ratified by the Scottish Parliament. However George Sinclair of Keiss, a first cousin, claimed the title and the lands. In January 1680 to thwart John Campbell from occupying the castle he enrolled as many able bodied men from Wick as he could, entered the castle and systematically removed or destroyed the roofs and some of the walls and floors. He did the same at Thurso East Castle but that damage was repaired. In July that year John Campbell and his men slept in the fields adjoining the castle on the eve of the Battle of Altimarlach. In 1681 George Sinclair was granted the title of Earl of Caithness by the Privy Council but it agreed that John Campbell was the rightful owner of the land.
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe was never restored and there is no evidence of an attack by cannon. Robbing of stones by humans is the primary cause of the ruinous state western part of the castle. The eastern part was saved the same fate as the inner moat proved an effective barrier once the drawbridge had been destroyed. It was bought back into the Sinclair family by the 19th Earl of Caithness in 1953 and in 1999 was donated by his son to the Clan Sinclair Trust, a limited company with charitable status that has carried out all the research, conservation and restoration work.

The castle is owned by the Clan Sinclair Trust, a limited company with charitable status. It is a scheduled monument and was listed in 2002 by the World Monuments Fund in its Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World. It is the only castle in Scotland to be so listed. As a result of the conservation and preservation works part of it is open to the public year round.

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