MHG2036 - Castle of Old Wick


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Type and Period (1)

  • CASTLE (Medieval to 19th Century - 1058 AD to 1900 AD)

Protected Status

Full Description

Castle of Old Wick (NR) (Remains of). Moat (NR) (Remains of). Lord Oliphant's Leap (NAT). Castle Walk (NAT)
OS 6"map, Caithness, 1st ed., (1872)

Old Man of Wick (NAT) Castle (NR) (remains of) OS 6"map 1970

The Castle of Old Wick, by sailors called the Aul' Man o' Wick (NSA 1845) (but see ND34NE12) is a plain, rectangular keep set near landward end of 100 yds long narrow promontory; and is flanked by 100 ft high cliffs and fronted by a 'moat'. An outer rampart crosses landward end of promontory.
The keep stands to a height of 25-30 ft and measures 24 ft by 16 ft 3 ins within walls 7 ft thick. It has consisted of 3 storeys and a basement, all unvaulted; doorway has been in seaward-facing NE wall, probably at first floor level. Each floor has had a window in SE wall, and on second floor single aperture overlooks landward approach. In S corner wall is riven and bulging.
The low outer rampart has crossed promontory about 30 yds from keep. In rear of it, on either side of approach, is foundation of a small rectangular building.
The rock-cut 'moat', 30 ft wide and 10 ft deep, adjoins keep and may have been crossed by a drawbridge. It is known as "Lord Oliphant's Leap". To rear of keep 2 rows of building foundations flank a roadway, 174 ft long, running along centre of promontory to an open area, 70 ft by 47 ft, at the tip, which is said to have been the castle garden, and is now known as Castle Walk. The whole appears at one time to have been enclosed by a wall. Small portions of foundation can still be traced round cliff-top (Name Book 1872). Steps lead down to sea (NSA 1845).
Previously considered to be prob 14th century, keep is now ascribed to 12th century by both MacKie (E W MacKie 1975) and Lamb (R G Lamb 1980), latter comparing it with towers in Orkney and Scandinavia, a diagnostic feature being its standing to one side of approach rather than forming a gate-house as in later medieval castles. The first known owner of property was Reginald Cheyne in mid 14th century. Thereafter it passed by marriage to Sutherlands in14th century, then to Oliphants in 15th century. It came to Sinclairs in 1644, then to Lord Glenorchy, who sold it in 1690 to Dunbars of Hempriggs, with whom it remained in 1910.
NSA (C Thomson, written 1841) 1845; Name Book 1872; RCAHMS 1911, visited 1910; E W MacKie 1975; R G Lamb 1980.

The remains of Castle of Old Wick, its outbuildings and rock-cut ditch, are generally as described.
Published surv (1:2500) revised. Visited by OS (WDJ) 22 4 1963.

'Castle of Old Wick' (SDD nameplate) is as described by previous authorities, and is now under guardianship. Steps lead seaward from Castle Walk, but sea is inaccessible. The name 'Old Man of Wick' published by OS is erroneous, and probably confused with an unlocated natural feature in the vicinity (see ND34NE 12).
Revised at 1:2500. Visited by OS (N K B) 17 January 1983.

Castle close condition to earlier descriptions. Walling of buildings within promontory are over 1m high in places, but start of burrowing animal damage in odd places. External wall around promontory not visible as structure, but growth of sea pinks along edge may indicate preferential growth on old walling. Moles are disturbing area, upcast on area indicates good quality soil, one odd iron find. Main keep PiC repairs internally on upper SW corner. But external area at top of SE wall indicates a different phase of build to main lower keep - HAW 24/05/2005

A preliminary photographic record and assessment was made by Kirkdale Archaeology in 2009 of surviving masonry structures on the northwest edge of the promontory to the northeast of the square tower under the terms of its PIC call‐off contract with Historic Scotland. This was intended to provide a baseline assessment of the general condition and extent of the masonry, and to produce an elevation drawing to aid more detailed recording intended to be carried out during subsequent works. <1>

The second phase of recording by Kirkdale Archaeology involved a closer examination made possible by rope access provided by a specialist contractor. Although the date and phasing of the structures seen could not be ascertained with any certainty, it was thought that their primary function was as a revetment, with defence perhaps a secondary consideration due to the natural defences provided by the near vertical cliffs. The two areas of masonry identified at the southwest end of the cliff seem to have a close spatial relationship with the castle’s remaining tower, while the main central section of the masonry examined seems to end near the midpoint of the range of buildings extending along the promontory, which may suggest it predates the construction of at least some of those structures. <2>

The site was visited and photographed by C Jones in June 2011. <3>

The castle is included in the Atlas of Hillforts of Britain and Ireland online database. See link below for site entry. <4>

A collection of finds were discovered in Historic Scotland stores. There is no record of the circumstances of discovery, but it is likely that these finds, comprising pot sherds, worked bones and stone objects (some possibly predating the medieval castle), were discovered by HS staff during maintenance work at the castle. They were submitted to Treasure Trove (TT 12/07) and allocated to Dunbeath Heritage Museum. See attached TT report. <5> <6>

Finds assemblage from HS has not as yet been received by Dunbeath Heritage Museum. GW 28/02/2020

In 2021-2 C Mills of Dendrochronicle led a project focused on retrieving, analysing and dating the sole surviving weathered timber fragment within a socket in the fabric of the tower at the Castle of Old Wick. The work was undertaken for HES through support from the Castle Studies Trust. The context was a socket on the interior of the northwest wall at approximately second floor level but at intermediate height between the floor levels. It was recorded photographically before, during and after extraction and its location had also been recorded in a 2016 RCAHMS survey. The timber fragment was retrieved by Dendrochronicle staff on 22/23 Sept 2021 and was brought back to Dendrochronicle’s base in Edinburgh where it was carefully examined, recorded and then sub-sampled for dendrochronology, species identification and onward Bayesian radiocarbon dating (‘wiggle match’ dating) at SUERC. Given the species was identified as alder, it became clear that it would not be possible to provide a dendro-date and that ‘wiggle match’ radiocarbon dating would be required. The Sub-samples from the alder timber provided a Bayesian radiocarbon ‘wiggle match’ date of cal AD 1515–1550 (95% probability), with highest single-year probabilities in the range cal AD 1515–1535 (68% probability). The results are calculating the date of the bark edge position (ie Ring 80) to represent the felling date of the timber. Thus, this alder timber was felled in the first half of the 16th century, almost certainly (95% probability) between AD 1515-1550 and, with 68% probability, in the twenty years between AD1515 and 1535. There is also a possibility this is naturally storm-thrown material being used rather than a stem being felled for the job, in which case the date is the death date of the stem, but either way it is unlikely this stem was dead for long before it was worked. <7>

Sources/Archives (20)



Grid reference Centred ND 3692 4885 (243m by 108m) (2 map features)
Map sheet ND34NE
Civil Parish WICK
Geographical Area CAITHNESS

Finds (1)

  • ASSEMBLAGE (Medieval - 1058 AD to 1559 AD)

Related Monuments/Buildings (1)

Related Investigations/Events (1)

External Links (4)

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