Girnigoe Castle as it may have been in the 1590's. Girnigoe/Sinclair Castle and the Earls of Caithness: In the far north of the Scots kingdom some ten miles south of John O' Groats and one mile east of Ackergill castle, perched on a semi detached rocky promontory jutting out into Sinclairs Bay, stands the desolate ruins of Girnigoe castle. Not one but in fact two distinct castles. The first being the 15th century adapted L-plan crow-stepped gabled towerhouse of Girnigoe and the second building inland on the site of the earlier courtyard a 17th century cluster of towers known as Sinclair castle. The latter though is in a very ruined state.
These two castles were separated by a rock cut ravine spanned by a collapsible
wooden bridge below the ornate oriel window added to Girnigoe in the 16th
century. On the side of the L-plan tower is the suggestion of a postern entrance
probably reached by a collapsible wooden stair case. Above this entrance at
gable level are several corbels which may indicate a defensive overhang. Not
only to defend the postern but to ensure the destruction of the stair case to
prevent access by hostile forces during times of siege.
The reconstruction painting shows Girnigoe castle as it may have been in
1590 with the oriel window and outer courtyard
prior to the building of Sinclair castle. Girnigoe castle was one of many
castles throughout Scotland and the Islands (Orkney and Shetland) held by the
ancient "Lordly line of high
St. Clair" (Sinclair). In particular the Sinclairs, Earls of
William Sinclair was created Earl of Caithness in 1455 by
King James II
of Scots (1437-1460). By 1470 William reluctantly resigned his title Earl of
Orkney with his encompassing Island estates, including his castle of Kirkwall to
King James III of Scots (1460-1488) in exchange for the incomplete castle of
Ravenscraig on the Fifeshire coast and other token lands. The resigned Orkney
estate was then used as a dowry for the King's marriage to Princess Margaret of
Denmark. In effect Orkney became a Stewart interest much to the dismay of the
disinherited Sinclairs, who continued to interfere in the Orkney estates.
Notably in 1529 at the battle of Summerdale north of Kirkwall when George 3rd
Earl of Caithness was slain along with all of his men while fighting his own
distant kin the Sinclairs of Orkney on behalf of King James V of Scots
(1513-1542) and again during the reign of King James VI of Scots (1567-1603)
when George 5th Earl of Caithness sent another Sinclair army which successfully
routed the Stewart rebels led by Patrick Stewart Earl of Orkney.
William as 1st Earl of Caithness and Earl or 'Jarl' of Orkney is most
noted in history for the construction of Roslin castle and the ornate Rosslyn
chapel in Mid Lothian in the 1440's. His son, also William, 2nd Earl of
Caithness, built Girnigoe and the castle of Knockkinnan near Dunbeath some time
after 1470 and before his death at the battle of Flodden in 1513 along with King
James IV of Scots (1488-1513). His son John then became 3rd Earl of Caithness
and he too, as already noted, was slain in battle in 1529, leaving his son
George to inherit Girnigoe as 4th Earl of Caithness.
Anciently a third of the lands of Caithness, including the future site of
Girnigoe were held by the Cheyne family.
Around 1350 (some accounts claim 1354) Reginald Cheyne, the Clan head, died
ending the male line of descent, leaving two daughters to inherit the Cheyne
estates. One of his daughters married on to the Keiths while the other is
alleged to have married on to the Sinclairs, dividing the estate into two. Which
would explain why the Keith tower of Ackergill is only one mile away from the
Sinclair fortalice of Girnigoe. However this alleged marriage appears false
since the Sinclair claim to Caithness was based on the original Jarldom of
Orkney and Caithness so in theory they also had rights to the lands of Ackergill.
The two castles of Ackergill and Girnigoe held by two rival families so close
together was bound to lead to violence. Not only between the Keiths and
Sinclairs but with the Sunderlands, Oliphants and Mackays who also held lands
around Caithness. In fact, these feuds got so out of hand that even the
Campbells from further afield got involved. It is also stated that Reginald
Cheyne's second daughter in actual fact married Nicholas Sutherland since this
was how the Sutherlands obtained the Cheyne castles of
Old Wick and Berriedale which then passed to the Oliphants and Forse
castle which passed to the Keiths. Interestingly both Old Wick and
Berriedale were later annexed by the belligerent Sinclairs in their attemps to
rule the whole of Caithness.
I544 George, 4th Earl of Caithness, seized the Episcopal fortress of
Scrabster castle, north of Thurso, from Alexander
Gordon, a son of the Earl of Sunderland who had been installed as a temporary
Bishop while the Bishop of Caithness was banished. Later when the Earl of
Sunderland was made hereditary keeper of Scrabster castle it was described as
being "situated among the wild and uncivilised Scots". This phrase
though directed at the Caithness area in general surely sums up the lifestyle of
the Sinclairs of Caithness.
In 1547 George sallied forth from Girnigoe to attack and seize Ackergill
castle, taking Alexander Keith said captain and his servant John Skarlet
hostage. Detaining them not only at Girnigoe but at the moated, oblong
towerhouse of Braal near the river Thurso, which had only recently passed to the
Sinclairs from the Crichton family. Why Keith and Skarlet were moved between
these two strong castles and other unspecified locations is unclear. Likely it
was in case the Keiths mounted a rescue attempt. Or it may be that any assault
on Ackergill by the Keiths would result in the deaths of the hostages. So
Keith and Skarlet were bargaining chips.
Despite his high handed behaviour George was given remission for his
actions by Queen Mary the Regent (Mary Queen of Scots mother). By 1549
Queen Mary installed Lord Oliphant as keeper of Ackergill possibly to separate
the feuding Keiths and Sinclairs until a more permanent solution regarding
ownership of Ackergill could be arranged. Also in 1549 George was distracted
from this feud, for a time, while be began building the long Z-plan towerhouse
of Barrogill castle near John O' Groats, known today as Castle Mey, held by
Elizabeth The Queen Mother. In 1556 George again besieged Ackergill when
it was in the hands of William Keith Earl Marischal. This time though he appears
to have stormed the barmkin wall but been unable to secure the tower house. Yet
again he was given remission for his actions which angered the Keiths.
George's attacks were not only confined to local rival Clans but on his
own kin Sinclair of Dunbeath , descended from a younger brother of
the 3rd Earl of Caithness, noted in possession of Dunbeath castle in 1529, who
built the L-plan towerhouse of Dounreay in the 1560's. As the dispute escalated
Dounreay castle was besieged by a Sinclair army from Girnigoe. The outcome of
the siege appears to be unrecorded.
In 1567 at Helmsdale castle, during a banquet, George arranged for John
11th Earl of Sunderland, his wife Helen and family to be poisoned by Isobel
Sinclair, the Earl of Sunderland's aunt. The plan was that Isobel's son would
inherit the Earldom of Sunderland so these estates could be seized by the
Sinclairs. However, her son was accidentally poisoned and died along with
the other guests aside from the true heir who was able to escape and inherit as
12th Earl of Sunderland.
As time progressed George became so extreme in his activities that by 1571 he, it is alleged, even arrested his own son and heir, John, Master of Caithness, imprisoning him in one of the cells of Girnigoe on suspicion of rebelling against his rule as Justiciar of Caithness. Certainly in 1569 John had clashed with the Oliphants in the village of Wick resulting in him besieging Lord Oliphant in the oblong keep of Old Wick castle for eight days, until Lord Oliphant was obliged to surrender due to lack of food and water as noted in the report sent to the Privy Council. It appears the Sinclairs then continued to occupy Old Wick. And in 1570 John had burnt down Dornoch Cathedral and sacked the town. But there was no suggestion of him trying to seize Girnigoe or Knockkinnan.
Surprisingly other historians have unearthed another reason for John's
imprisonment. On one hand George as Justiciar of Caithness as an official had to
be seen to rebuke his son. But apparently behind the scenes he was furious at
his son's "lenity towards the town folk of Dornoch". John simply
wasn't as ruthless and efficient as his father leaving witnesses behind to
complain to the Privy Council. Because John took too long to die (seven
years) his father had him fed on nothing but "salted beef, and then, with
holding all drink from him, left him to die of a raging thirst".
Although other accounts claim John died at Knockkinnan.
In 1582 John's son George inherited as 5th Earl of Caithness. One of his
first actions as Earl was to kill the two jailers responsible for his father's
murder, for which he received a remission for the Privy Council as such action
was justifiable. He then started a raiding campaign against the Earl of
Sunderland which was unacceptable to the Council and he was bound over to keep
the peace. In 1588 he resisted a 12day siege at Girnigoe by the Earl of
Sunderland who failed to make an real impression so the surrounding lands were
sacked and Keiss castle across the bay from Girnigoe was damaged before the
raiders withdrew. George then repaired Girnigoe adding the ornate oriel window.
Around the same time the Sinclair family as a whole undertook a great building
work. In 1592 they added a new wing to Cadholl castle. In 1600 a cadet branch of
the Dunbeath Sinclairs built the
L-plan tower of Brimms castle at the same time as George rebuilt Keiss as a
Z-plan tower. Also to keep up with his kin George began building the new cluster
of towers infront of Girnigoe known as Sinclair castle as a symbol of his wealth
and power. In 1606 he acquired Berriedale castle adding it to the long list of
Sinclair strongholds throughout Caithness.
With his empire expanding George quickly ran short of funds so he
resorted to minting his own forged coinage at Girnigoe castle to circulate
throughout the North of Scotland to try and cover his many debts. He like his
ancestors before him also interfered in local feuds when he sent Clan Gunn
disguised as Clan MacKay of Dirlot castle (which originally belonged to the
Gunns) to burn Lord Forbes corn. When the MacKays sent witnesses to prove they
were innocent George had them drowned so no links could be traced back to him.
In 1623 Girnigoe/Sinclair castle and Ackergill (which had recently passed
legally to the Sinclairs) were stormed and sacked by Sir Robert Gordon of
Sutherland. The Gordons also appear to have assaulted Braal but were
unsuccessful in taking this tower but damaged the new Manor house which was
under construction nearby.
In 1643 George died, as he was predeceased by his son, Lord Berriedale
and grandson, the Master of Berriedale, his title and debts passed to his great
grandson also George 6th Earl of Caithness. In 1651 Oliver Cromwell's troops
seized and damaged Dunbeath, Dounreay and Ackergill. Cromwell also sent a
garrison of 70 foot and 15 horse to hold Girnigoe/Sinclair castle. Despite
family debts George started building Thurso castle and married a daughter of
Campbell, Marquis of Argyll, perhaps in an effort to cover his great
grandfather's debts as the Campbells were major creditors. But when he died
without issue in 1676, his widow married her own kinsman, Sir John Campbell of
Glenorchy who then claimed Girnigoe/Sinclair castle and estates including the
title Earl of Caithness. Which resulted in the rightful heir, George Sinclair of
Keiss castle storming Girnigoe/Sinclair and Old Wick castles by force of arms in
1679 to contest his right as Earl of Caithness which had been denied him by law.
In reply in 1680 the Campbells marched north in an attempt to seize Old Wick
castle under cover of any early morning mist. Suddenly the fog cleared and the
castle garrison raised the alarm sending riders to Girnigoe/Sinclair castle. The
Campbells appeared to withdraw but split their forces into two to ambush and
rout the Sinclair army from Girnigoe/Sinclair at the battle of Altimarlach some
four miles from Wick. Girnigoe/Sinclair was then stormed by the Campbells and
Keiss castle damaged (today there are still musket holes above the doorway of
Keiss from this assault). In 1690 George Sinclair of Keiss again besieged
Girnigoe/Sinclair castle this time with heavy cannon ironically destroying his
inheritance. The castle though back in Sinclair hands with George as 7th Earl of
Caithness was abandoned as a residence leaving the sad shell that remains today.
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