MHG417 - Castle Sinclair Girnigoe


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Type and Period (1)

  • CASTLE (Medieval to 17th Century - 1058 AD to 1700 AD)

Protected Status

Full Description

Castle Sinclair Girnigoe (as of 2007)

NOTE: Castle Sinclair Girnigoe previously had two records in the Highland HER (MHG417 and MHG2063 – also previously recorded as ND35SE0048 and ND35SE0015 respectively), as it still does in RCAHMS Canmore and Pastmap. Given the historical references to a change of name from Castle Girnigoe to Castle Sinclair, the statement issued by the Earl of Caithness in 2007 that the monument and site be known by a single combined name to avoid confusion, and the investigative work carried out by FAS since 2002, it is clear that the surviving monument represents a series of additions to an original castle (albeit with a major phase in the early C17), and not two castles per se. As a consequence the two original HER records have been combined as of 18/03/2015 although all original data and interpretations have been retained ‘as is’. Until such time as RCAHMS reassess their records, links to both existing records on Canmore and relevant database cross-references will be retained in the single unified record.

Girnigoe, the earlier and better preserved of two castles (see also ND35SE 48) occupying a narrow, rocky peninsula, 400ft long and 40ft to 60ft high, which has been crossed at its neck by a partly rock-cut trench about 10ft wide and 14ft deep. About a third of way along peninsula is another rock-cut trench, 14ft in width and depth. Castle Girnigoe stands on inner side, its outer ward comprising area between the two trenches. This was defended by gatehouse with a draw-bridge across outer trench and a curtain wall to S. Northern side was naturally defended by cliffs. The castle, late C15th in date, belonged to Sinclair Earls of Caithness and was originally L-plan, the main block running N-S and rising to a height of five storeys, with stair tower forming the second element. To this an E-W wing was added on N, forming an E-plan. Lesser buildings occupied area E of the main structure. The castle was defended against assault from the sea by a strong wall built across the geo to the S.

Castle Sinclair, successor to Castle Girnigoe (ND35SE 15) and erected in its outer ward in 1606.

Reflecting changing taste of its period, a building of some architectural pretension, 3 storeys high in part, with apartments forming N range and offices along S curtain. The castle belonged to Sinclair Earls of Caithness, and it was dispute about succession which led to attack 1679 which so damaged castle that it was abandoned. <1> <2> <3>

The keep of Castle Girnigoe still stands 14-17m high, the walls being 1.2-1.7m thick. The range of buildings to NE is now a turfed-over foundation, 1.5m maxi height. The outer ditch appears to have been a natural gully utilised as a defence. Of Castle Sinclair, one fragment stands to roof height but the other walls have a max height of 5m and some are turfed-over foundations, 0.4m high. The outer walls are generally 1.5m thick, but some to SW reach 3m in thickness. Visited by OS 21 April 1963.

Plate XLVI - Carved stones from Castle Sinclair now at Ackergill Tower
Plate XLIX - Supporters of Arms from Castle Sinclair now at Ackergill Tower

Article on Castle Girnigoe in Caithness Field Club Bulletin (April 1978). <4>

The site was visited by the University of Durham during the Caithness Coastal Survey at some point between April and May 1981. The project had been commissioned by The Scottish Development Department (Ancient Monuments Branch). The castle was featured on the cover of the final project report. <5> <6>

A Conservation Plan for the castle was produced by Field Archaeology Specialists (FAS Ltd) in 2003 for the Clan Sinclair Trust. Work for this included a full measured survey, incorporating rectified and computer rectified photography and a topographic survey, carried out in 2002. This included the creation of ground plans, floor plans, elevations and a site cross-section. The resulting drawings were enhanced on site, providing a detailed archaeological study which includes particulars of construction and phasing. The resulting document was presented in two volumes. Volume 1 is split into two parts, providing a historical and archaeological narrative of the site from the development of Caithness to the present day in Part 1 with Part 2 taking a zone-by-zone approach to the castle in which the description of each zone utilises all available archaeological, historical and structural evidence and is accompanied by a series of drawings and plans. Volume 2 is presented in four parts, following on from the historical, archaeological and structural background presented in Volume 1. Part 3 examines the cultural significance of the castle as a whole and for individual elements, and identifies the issues and vulnerabilities which threaten the site. Part 4 contains policies for the retention of significance; change and enhancement of significance; access, presentation and use; and management and implementation. Part 5 consists of the Implementation Statement for the site, outlines the options available for the future conservation and treatment of the site, and the vision for each element. The final part of the Conservation Plan is formed by a Gazetteer of individual elements which describes each element, its history, legal status, and its associated historical or secondary sources. It also refers to the relevant policies presented within Volume 2. <7> <8>

Three evaluation trenches were excavated by Field Archaeology Specialists (FAS) in August 2003. The primary aim of evaluation was to provide access to selected parts of the fabric and foundations of the West Gatehouse, and to evaluate the nature of archaeological remains concealed by collapsed building material in its vicinity. In order to establish the causes of problems with the structural integrity of the buildings, and to define methods to avoid further deterioration, the exposure of parts of the fabric of the walls, and their foundations was necessary. This allowed for structural assessment of the building to be undertaken, prior to the construction of scaffolding in 2004. In two phases during July and August and October and November 2004 a further 16 trenches were excavated. These were designed to further define the extent and nature of buried structural remains, to characterise primary archaeological deposits sealing these structural remains, and to provide access to selected parts of the building fabric for structural assessment. The results of these investigations were to be used to inform the excavation strategy for further archaeological work, and engineering and conservation solutions for future phases of conservation and access work to the Outer Bailey area. Specific areas of the Outer Bailey were targeted for investigation, with the intention of addressing predefined questions. Five main objectives were outlined prior to evaluation: definition of the extent of the East Range of the Outer Bailey; assessment of the condition of the staircase areas to the south of the east wing of the North Range; characterisation of the deposits sealing the latest surface of the Outer Bailey courtyard; characterisation and definition of the level of the latest use horizon in the West Barbican and determination of the height of the latest floor level of the Gatehouse passage. The majority of archaeological deposits revealed during excavation in all trenches represented collapse and disuse of the castle structure, and a large quantity of masonry, including identifiable architectural fragments, was excavated. This provided access to previously concealed elevations and surfaces, and also revealed occupation deposits in some trenches, which provided evidence for activity within the castle. In contrast to the relatively complicated structural remains, the archaeological deposits encountered were found to be much more limited in terms of depth, complexity and scope for preservation. The vast bulk of the accumulated layers comprised homogenous clay deposits containing mortar, slate and sandstone, representing collapse from adjacent structures. Generally, the underlying archaeological deposits were found to be shallow in depth, and were related primarily to the mid-C17 occupation of the site. Only in some internal areas were significant stratigraphic deposits relating to occupation identified, potentially representing pre-Civil War remains, and these reached a maximum depth of only 0.60m before bedrock was encountered (Intervention 18). Material indicative of waterlogged deposits or high levels of organic preservation was not encountered during the evaluation. The presence of peat suggested by uncharred organics can be attributed to the importation of peat for use as a fuel source, rather than in situ formation or waterlogged preservation. <9>

A programme of archaeological excavationwas undertaken by Field Archaeology Specialists (FAS) Ltd on behalf of the Clan Sinclair Trust in six phases, in June 2005, July to August 2005, October 2005, March 2006, August 2006 and March to April 2007. It formed part of an ongoing programme of conservation works at the castle, and was concentrated on the area of the Outer Bailey, specifically the West Gatehouse, North and West Ranges, and courtyard. The excavation revealed significant evidence for the layout and organisation of space within the castle. The first floor of the West Gatehouse was found to represent an ornately decorated area, the architectural detailing of which has led to its interpretation as a high status room, possibly a chapel. Beneath this room, excavation within the gatehouse passageway reinstated the original means of access into the Outer Bailey, and provided evidence for a portcullis, possible bridge arrangement, and visitors’ bench. In the West Range, what was previously perceived as a single-room ground floor was found to comprise two separate rooms, one of which formed a small Porter’s Room, accessed from the main passageway. The second, larger room has been identified as the ‘Steward’s Room’, and represents a higher-status space, with sockets suggesting the presence of timber panelling, a large fireplace, and several windows, including two flanked by window seats. To the north of this room, an irregular-shaped room was encountered, accessed via an archway from the North Range, and was found to contain a large subterranean feature, such as a cistern or sallyport entrance, which was not excavated. The layout of the North Range was also further elucidated. Previously identified as a West Tower and Central Range, the structure was found to comprise a single, two-storey building with three rooms at ground-floor level. These were served by a series of garderobes, which issued directly into the sea to the north, and fireplaces. The ground floor of the North Range is now thought to represent a service area. A staircase was identified in the northern corner of the courtyard, which would have provided access to the first floor of the North Range. Further structural evidence relating to a small Porter’s Lodge in the East Range was revealed, but the buildings defining this edge of the courtyard await further investigation. The courtyard itself was found to have been formed from the natural bedrock; the laminating slate would have degraded naturally to form a coarse gravel surface. Excavation ceased at the latest archaeological horizon, characterised in many areas by the upper surface of occupation deposits, which produced ceramic of C16 to C18 date, providing evidence for the latest phase of occupation within this area of the castle. These deposits had been sealed throughout by deep rubble layers, occasionally containing fragments of partially articulated masonry which attest to dramatic episodes of collapse, and fragments of red sandstone architectural elements, which have provided useful information on the form and appearance of the West Gatehouse prior to collapse.

In 2006 Intervention 25, located in the West Barbican, was carried out as part of a programme of public archaeology excavation as a means of investigating structural remains encountered during the evaluation, and inviting supervised volunteer participation in the project. Intervention 26, an evaluation trench, was located on the headland adjacent to the Inner Bailey. It was opened up as a response to reports of a Roman coin hoard in the area, and to investigate the possible context of these finds.

In March 2007, a further trench was excavated in the North Range. Intervention 27 saw the excavation of rubble deposits within the North Range. The layout of the range was elucidated and architectural features within the rooms were defined. Three rooms were included in this: the south western room known as G5, the central room known as G6 and the north eastern room known as G7. A range of architectural features were recorded including windows, doorways, hearths, fireplaces and staircases. Finds included fragments of C17 clay pipe and six sherds of a Dutch Red Earthernware bowl of post-medieval date from rubble deposits in G5 as well as a sherd of a Westerwald-type stoneware panel jug dated to the C17 and a worn copper turner of Charles I in G7. <10>

A series of excavation trenches and a watching brief were carried out by Field Archaeology Specialists Ltd (FAS) in August-September 2007. Two excavation trenches and a watching brief were carried out in the location designed for a new access path (Interventions 28, 29 and 30) intended to provide pedestrian access into the castle. The work encountered a number of stone-built structures associated with the West Barbican. At the eastern end of the new access path, a substantial area of cobbled surface was encountered, forming part of a metalled roadway. This migt have been the original access road to the castle. Next to the West Gatehouse, a small length of wall was exposed, representing the lower courses of the southeast wall of the gatehoiuse passage., which would originally have projected out into the moat. This would suggest that the front (west) elevation of the gatehouse projected further into the moat than the surviving fabric would suggest. An excavation designed for public participation was carried out in the South Barbican (Intervention 31) and three further interventions (32, 33 and 34) were carried out in the location of proposed pier bases for a new bridge in the dry moat, West Barbican and the West Gatehouse. <11>

As of 2007 the correct name of the present castle is Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. <12>

Four sessions of fieldwork were undertaken, from March–November 2008, continuing the excavation of the Outer Bailey. In the first session the NE tower of the north range was excavated. Rubble collapse was removed, the work being halted upon contact with the mid-C17 deposits associated with Commonwealth troops’ use of the castle. The basement room was shown to have been furnished with a fireplace with storage cupboards on either side. A connecting staircase linking the tower with an adjacent lodging to the west was also revealed. The east quadrant of the Outer Bailey and the basement level passageway were excavated during the second session, revealing two areas of slate flagstone floors and the foundations of structures belonging to the earliest layout of the Outer Bailey. During the third session rubble collapse from the bakehouse was excavated from the south range. This revealed a bee-hive shaped bread oven with collapsed roof and integral door opening and a slate flagstone floor beneath Commonwealth midden deposits. Excavation of the upper levels of the gatehouse lodgings was completed and an architectural stone bearing the cockerel emblem of the Sinclair family was recovered from the rubble. This may have been set in an internal wall in the gatehouse lodgings or represent a boss from a vaulted ceiling. During the fourth session excavation of the stair turret revealed two intact flights of stairs beneath rubble collapse deposits including an under stair area. The original doorway into the ground floor gatehouse lodging was revealed with the southern jamb still furnished with its red sandstone quoins, with niches for door locks and bolts. <13>

Three sessions of fieldwork were undertaken by Field Archaeology Specialists (FAS) during 2009. The first, during April and May, saw the completion of the excavation in the buildings of the Outer Ward. The excavation of the ground floor West Gatehouse was completed, revealing a number of window openings and recesses. Excavation ceased at the mid-C17 deposits associated with Commonwealth troops using the castle. The surface finds recovered from this deposit suggested the room had been divided into separate, intensively occupied living spaces. The second session during June and July saw the reinstatement of the Outer Ward courtyard in preparation for its public opening in 2010. The final session in August saw the initiation of the Moat Project, which is designed to explore the archaeology of the dry moat on the south side of the castle. Excavation focused on two main areas, the south entrance and the area beneath the bakehouse. Excavation beneath the bakehouse allowed an investigation of the area of structural failure in the castle’s fabric, and a possible fault in the bedrock was found to be responsible. Excavation around the south entrance revealed late C16 formal landscaping features. Visible on early photographs, this series of terraces, walls and a formal path had been buried and partially robbed. The removal of rubble collapse deposits from the area of the S entrance revealed the original height of the opening, remains of an earlier entrance and finds associated with the stripping of the castle in the late C17, including ornate architectural stone fragments, window glass and lead cames. <14>

Continued excavations were carried out by Field Archaeology Specialists (FAS) in June-July 2010. These involved excavation around the south entrance and revealed the continuation of features encountered in 2009 (Intervention 31). The excavation of the area immediately within the south entrance allowed the definition of middens relating to the occupation of the of the castle by Cromwellian troops. The middens partially overlay a slate floor and these deposits were left in situ. Rubble collapse deposits overlay this horizon. Fragments of stone, window glass and lead cames were recovered from the collapse deposits. <15>

A final season of excavations in the area of Intevention 31 (the south entrance and an adjacent area within the dry moat beneath the bakehouse) was carried out by Field Archaeology Specialists (FAS) with assistance from staff and students of Sinclair Community College, Ohio, USA, in August 2011. A full data structure report covering investigations from 2005 (Int. 25), 2006 (Int. 25 and 26), 2008 (Int. 36), 2009 (Int. 27 and 31), 2010 (Int. 31) and 2011 (Int. 31) was produced by Field Archaeology Specialists (FAS) in 2020. <16>

A cannon ball and 2 musket balls from Castle Sinclair were submitted to Treasure Trove (TT 130/12). These were allocated to Dunbeath Heritage Museum where they are on display. <17> <18>

Sources/Archives (21)



Grid reference Centred ND 3784 5493 (95m by 84m) (2 map features)
Map sheet ND35SE
Civil Parish WICK
Geographical Area CAITHNESS

Finds (5)

  • CLAY PIPE (SMOKING) (Post Medieval - 1560 AD to 1900 AD)
  • SHERD (Medieval to 19th Century - 1058 AD to 1900 AD)
  • ROOF SLATE (Post Medieval - 1560 AD to 1900 AD)
  • CANNON BALL (Medieval to 19th Century - 1058 AD to 1900 AD)
  • MUSKET BALL (Medieval to 19th Century - 1058 AD to 1900 AD)

Related Monuments/Buildings (0)

Related Investigations/Events (13)

External Links (4)

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