Ackergill Tower, Caithness

Ackergill Tower - the Keiths and Dunbars of Hempriggs
by D B Miller
(written in about 1976)

As the reader may remember from the previous articles in this series, (CFC Bulletin Vol. 1, 128, 1976), about half the county of Caithness in the middle of the fourteenth century was owned by the Cheyne family, the last of whom in the male line died in 1350. These lands they had inherited by marriage with an heiress of the old Norse line of Jarls. It will be remembered too that on his death his vast properties were divided between his two daughters. The elder daughter Mariota, married first Sir John Douglas with no issue, and secondly John de Keith, second son of Sir Edward Keith hereditary Great Marischal of Scotland (In Bulletin Vol. 1, 129, 1976, owing to a typographical error it was erroneously stated that her husband was himself the Great Marischal.)

The Dating of Ackergill
Although Ackergill was listed among the properties of Sir Reginald de Cheyne, it was only the "lands of Ackergill" that were mentioned. There was no mention of a castle there at that time, and certainly the present castle does not go back as far as that, as the architecture is undoubtedly late fifteenth century throughout. Not even a small part of the structure can be said to be remnants of an early fortification. There are, however, some puzzling aspects, such as the story of Helen Gunn, the beauty of who having been abducted from her home in Braemore on her wedding eve, was kept prisoner in the tower, the victim of the brutal captain of the castle. Rather than submit to the indignities of her situation she flung herself to her death from the battlements. Her grave is believed to be somewhere close to the tower, and her ghost, "the green lady", they say, still haunts the place. This episode is known to have taken place sometime prior to 1426. It is doubtful if the present structure is as old as that, so perhaps an earlier castle on the site may be suggested. The earliest recorded date is 1510 when it was mentioned in a legal instrument, but there is circumstantial evidence that its foundation goes back somewhat beyond that of its near neighbour Girnigoe, known to have been finished before 1494. William the second Earl of Caithness of the Sinclair line, the builder of Girnigoe, who succeeded his father in 1475, married Lady Mary Keith the daughter of his neighbour Keith of Inverugie and Ackergill. 25 he left a grown up family when he was killed at Flodden in 1513, it is clear that the Keiths were firmly seated at Ackergill before Girnigoe was completed.

The Keiths
Regarding the genealogy of the Keiths, there is an ancient tradition that they came to Scotland from the province of Hesse in Germany, original home of the "Catti", until they were conquered by the legions of Rome.. "Landing in the north of Scotland, they gave the name of Caithness to the territory they settled, land of the Catti. Their chief married the daughter of the Pictish king Brude. Robert, the chief of the Catti, in 1010 fought against the Norsemen and slew Comus, the leader of the invaders, and thus gained a complete victory for which Malcolm II gave the lands of Keith in East Lothian (Keith - British "Caith", "confined" or a "narrow", such as a channel hemmed in by steep banks) from which they took their surname. How much of this is fact or fiction one cannot say, but certain it is that a baron named Herveius, believed to be a grandson of the above. Robert owned the estate of Keith and also the island of Inchkeith in East Lothian in the reign of David I, and his son Herveius de Keith held the office of Kings Marischal under Malcolm IV which office became hereditary in the family. There followed a long line of marischals, variously known as Kings marischals, Great marischals, Knight marischals and finally from 1457, Earl-Marischals. The office was similar to that held by the Dukes of Norfolk hereditary Earl-Marshals of England, Marischal being the Scottish spelling for Marshal. Their duty being the arranging of the state ceremonial occasions, the most important of which was the coronation of the Scottish sovereigns. So great was the prestige of the Keith family that on several occasions they married daughters of Scottish kings. The tenth Great Marischal, Sir Edward Keith, who succeeded in 1346, in the reign of David II had two sons, William, his heir and John who as already indicated, married Mariota Cheyne, and with her he obtained the barony of Inverugie in Aberdeenshire as well as all her lands in Caithness. Sir John Keith and his wife had at least two children, a son, Andrew Keith their heir, and a daughter whose Christian name cannot now be traced. Andrew succeeded to all the family estates with the exception of Forse Castle and its lands in the parish of Latheron, Caithness, which was bestowed by Mariota in her lifetime, with Andrew’s consent, on her daughter on the occasion of her marriage to Kenneth, second son of William, fifth Earl of Sutherland and grand-nephew of Nicolas Sutherland of Duffus, husband of Marjory Cheyne, Mariota’s sister.

It is clear that the Keiths of Inverugie and Ackergill spent little of their time in Caithness; Ackergill being administered by Captains, often of their own surname of Keith, and these were often referred to as if they were the lairds, thus causing some confusion. However there were exceptions to this rule for in 1510 the legal instrument already referred to, mentions Gilbert Mowat of Brabister Myer (Brabstermire) as "captain of the house of Ackergill".

On Flodden field - the greatest disaster that ever struck Scotland - Sir William Keith of Inverugie and Ackergill fell, along with the two elder sons of his Chief the Earl Marischal. And then happened one of the genealogical twists that are so baffling in tracing lineage - the heiress of the junior Invorugie branch of the Keith who had continued in direct descent from John Keith and Mariota Cheyne for seven or eight generations, married the heir to the senior branch of the future fourth Earl Marischal. Thus was combined in one person the large possessions of both branches. The principal seat of the Earl-Marischals was the famed impregnable fortress of Dunnottar Castle Kincardineshire held to be the strongest in all Scotland. At this time the Keiths enjoyed the zenith of their power and prestige and wealth, second to none of the noble families of Scotland. It was said the time of George the fifth Earl Marischal, the founder of Marischal college, that his estates were so extensive that he could travel from Berwick to the far north of Scotland without requiring ever to take a meal or a night’s rest other than in his own house.

The Misfortunes of Ackergill
It obviously became increasingly difficult for the Earl Marischals to maintain and safeguard their remote stronghold in the far north. In 1547 Queen Mary granted a remission to George, Earl of Caithness, and numerous dependants for treasonably taking and holding the castle, and for taking Alexander Keith the captain and John Skarlet his servitor, and detaining them against their will in the place of Girnigoe, Browall, (Brawl) and other places.

In 1592-3 a complaint was made to the Privy Council by George Earl Marischal, that Robert Keith the earl’s brother had taken his house of Ackergill with the intention of molesting the neighbourhood, with the result that Keith was pronounced a rebel.

In 1598 the Earl again laid a complaint before the Lords that John Keith in Sibster and his two sons, with other persons came by night "and ledderit the walls of his place of Ackergill" and entered and spoiled the castle, wounded his servants and now "keeps the place". It is not surprising that shortly after this in the year 1612 the Earl Marischal disposed of Ackergill and his Caithness estates to George fifth Earl of Caithness who had long coveted this stronghold on his doorstep. The next notice of Ackergill came with the expedition of Sir Robert Gordon armed with the King’s commission leading a force to chastise the fifth earl for his misdeeds, real and imaginary. The Earl had discreetly retired to Orkney and the keys of the three castles of Girnigoe, Ackergill and Keiss were delivered to Sir Robert who returned them to Lord Berriedale the Earl’s eldest son. Just before this incident Ackergill had been strengthened and provisioned by the Earl. The fifth earl was succeeded by his great-grandson George, sixth earl who built himself a new castle at Thurso-east, the result being that Ackergill was neglected partly owing to its proximity to Girnigoe and also because as the years passed the earl suffered serious financial embarrassment as a result of the civil wars and the unsettled conditions of that time. He had complained that his castles had been occupied by the military, suffered much damage as a consequence and had received no compensation whatsoever Cromwellian troops garrisoned Ackergill Tower in 1651 and an interesting letter from one of the troopers is, or was, preserved at the tower. The weak Earl George, because of his financial trouble had got himself involved in debt to the unscrupulous Campbell of Glenorchy who prevailed upon him, as he had no children to will his title and estates in his favour in lieu of payment. On the death of the earl in 1676 Glenorchy took possession of the lands of the Earldom including Ackergill Tower. The long struggle of the rightful heir to the Earldom need not be told here. Suffice to say that the title was restored to him but not the estates which remained with Glenorchy. However the people of Caithness so harassed his factors and generally made the administration of his estates impossible that eventually the properties were put up for sale. In 1699 Ackergill Tower and its lands were purchased by Sir William Dunbar of Hempriggs, Baronet. Thus after a break of eighty-seven years the descendants of Sir Reginald de Cheyne once again reigned at Ackergill. Sir William had in 1691 purchased Telstane three miles south of Wick, built a new mansion there, and renamed it Hempriggs after their original estate in Morayshire. Within a few years this branch of the ancient family of Dunbar became the largest landowner in the east of Caithness.

The Dunbars
The descent of the Dunbars is very well authenticated, being directly descended from the old Royal line of Scotland. King Duncan I had a younger brother Maldred whose son Gospatrick was confirmed in the Earldom of Northumbria by "William the Conqueror" in 1067, but was deprived of it in 1072.  Fleeing to Scotland he was given the Earldom of Dunbar by his first cousin Malcolm III, and from the earldom they took the surname. From that time the name of Dunbar featured in most of the stirring episodes of Scottish history, but eventually James I in 1435 thinking that the family had got too powerful, forfeited their earldom with the person of George the eleventh earl. The family then moved to Morayshire where they acquired that Earldom by marriage with an heiress of the Randolphs but it too passed from them after being held by two heiresses.

The Dunbars of Hempriggs are directly descended from these lordly lines. Sir William Dunbar was created first Baronet of Hempriggs in 1700 with remainder restricted to heirs-male, but on later reflection, as he had an only daughter Elizabeth but no son, and as he wished her and the children of her second marriage to succeed to his new acquired possessions, he executed an entail of his lairds in her favour and also asked Queen Anne for a new baronetcy in favour of his son-in-law. Elizabeth had married Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstone, grandson of the historian, by whom she had seven children. After his death she married the Hon. James Sutherland, advocate, second son of the second Lord Duffus. As the children of the first marriage were already well provided for, Sir William wished the landless heirs of the second marriage to come into the succession. Accordingly, on Sir William’s death, his son-in-law was created Sir James Sutherland Dunbar of Hempriggs with remained to heirs-general. The first baronetcy passed to Sir William’s brother Robert, and still exists although now known as Northfield. Sir James Dunbar (previously Sutherland) was succeeded by his son and heir Sir William Dunbar (the couple had six children). During the lairdship of Sir William a writer in 1726 says Ackergill Tower was then "a strong tower and yet in repair and betwixt it and the sea is a good new house lately built". Bishop Forbes visited the tower in 1762; He mentions that the vaulted chamber on the ground floor was ‘then used as a kitchen and that Sir William Dunbar had cut out some large windows and was doing up the tower in a very pretty and elegant manner’.

It is possible that it was during these renovations that the ancient cap-house and battlements were removed and a flat roof substituted, perhaps as they were cracking up and were unsafe. The next laird was Sir William’s son, Sir Benjamin Dunbar, and with his a new genealogical twist appears. The main line of the ancient family of Duffus was forfeited by the actions of Kenneth the third Lord Duffus, eldest brother of James Sutherland, husband of Elizabeth, when he took the wrong side in the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. He was the lord of the famous portrait by Richard Waitt in the Scottish National Portrait gallery, where he is depicted in full Highland dress of that period. His son Eric de jure fourth baron, married his first cousin Elizabeth, daughter of his Uncle Sir James, and thereafter lived at Ackergill Tower. His son James was restored to the title but riot the estates in 1326 but died unmarried the following year. Sir Benjamin Dunbar then became heir-male of the ancient Duffus line and became the sixth baron, although there were doubts as to whether or not the remainder was to heirs-male. The Rev. Eric Rudd, a nephew of the last lord Duffus claimed the title also, but was not successful. Benjamin, Lord Duffus married in 1785 Janet lackay, eldest daughter of George Mackay of Bighouse, and a story is still well known in the Wick area that on the night of their wedding they spent the night in a thatched cottage, the ruins of which can still be seen near the Lochshell-Georgemas road on the farm of Winless Mains on the Ackergill estate. The bridal couple were making their way from the bride1s home of Bighouse to spend their honeymoon at Hempriggs House, almost certainly journeying on horseback when at Sibster they found the River Wick in spate and the ford there impassable. As darkness was falling they sought and found shelter in the cottage. Lord Duffus died in 1843 and was succeeded by his elder son Sir George Sutherland Dunbar fourth Baronet who never used the title of Lord Duffus contenting himself with the lesser Hempriggs Baronetcy. It was Sir George who carried out great improvements on his estates, creating all the well-built and finely laid out farms one sees all around the Sinclair bay area. Ackergill Tower, with the help of well known Edinburgh architect David Bryce, he turned into one of the first gentleman’s seats in the north of Scotland. The ancient medieval tower was modernised and an extension which includes fine state rooms and other quarters attached to the south side and round to the back, or sea side, but the old tower still stands out to the front, its caphouse and battlements restored to it, its grandeur and character undiminished. Sir George died unmarried in 1876. He was predeceased by his only brother Capt. the Hon. Robert Dunbar of Latheronwheel and the next heir to the baronetcy under the remainder was his nephew, the son of his sister, Mrs. Duff of Hatton, Aberdeenshire. He was Captain Benjamin Duff, who before he succeeded had become a recluse, retiring from the world. He would have nothing to do with either the title or estates. The former remained in abeyance during his lifetime and the estates were passed on to his son Garden Duff who took possession under the name and arms of Duff-Dunbar of Hempriggs. Garden Duff-Dunbar Predeceased his father leaving two young sons, George, afterwards Sir George Duff-Sutherland-Dunbar sixth Baronet, and Lt. Cdr. Kenneth Duff-Dunbar who fell in the first world war and whose only son Capt. Kenneth Duff-Dunbar fell in the second world war. Lt. Cdr. Kenneth Duff-Dunbar’s widow still resides at Hempriggs House. The widow of Garden Duff-Dunbar, Mrs. Louise Duff-Dunbar during a long lifetime spent at Ackergill administered the estates and became a much loved and venerated figure in the county. She was, among other things, keenly interested in archaeology on a world scale and travelled extensively in pursuit of it. She died just after the second world war. Her eldest son, Sir George, succeeded as sixth Baronet on his grandfather’s death (Benjamin Duff) about 1898, but took no part in the administration of the estates spending most of his life in India as an administrator, where he became well known as one of that vast country’s greatest historians. His "History of India" is a standard work. On his death his only son Sir George Gospatrick Duff-Sutherland-Dunbar who had been a barrister in London for some years succeeded as seventh Baronet. He died comparatively young and unmarried in 1963. His first cousin and heir Capt. Kenneth Duff-Dunbar had, as already indicated, fallen in the Second World War, and in terms of the remainder his second cousin, a lady, Maureen Daisy Helen Blake, great grand-daughter of the aforesaid Capt. Benjamin Duff de jure fifth Baronet, by the only one of his daughters to leave issue, succeeded to the honours and estates under the title of Lady Dunbar of Hempriggs. She is the present owner.

The Castle Today
A 1km long private drive leading from the A9, about 2km north of Wick leads to Ackergill Tower which stands close to the sea on the low shore of Sinclair bay. Typically Scottish baronial in style, it towers to five storeys in height, a total of 26m to the top of the chimneys. The walls throughout are from 2.5 to 3m thick, and the medieval building, almost square in form, measures on the outside 14.5m by 10.5m.

Originally, it is thought the building would have been protected by a series of walls, and at one time a moat with water flowing in from the sea surrounded it.

The early doorway, like that of the old Caithness coastal castles, faced the sea, but during the first of two major reconstruction’s of the tower it was brought round to the land-ward side by cutting through the 3m thick wall into what was the original vaulted kitchen, under the floor of which was the 7.5m deep castle well still containing water. Sir William Dunbar, during his renovations, was the first to build some additions to the seaward side covering up the original doorway. The original stone stair to the great hall on the first floor was removed. Nowadays one proceeds upwards by means of a fine modern stairway in the new addition, returning into the medieval vaulted hall at the top. The great hall is twice the height of a normal room being 7m high to the roof and covers the whole extent of the tower. There is a fireplace at each end, and halfway up the wall is a minstrel’s gallery approached by a stone stairway. The room is now beautifully panelled - the work, as was the whole of the second great renovation iii Sir George the fourth baronet1s time, of David Bryce, R.S.A., the well known Edinburgh architect. above the great hall there are two more storeys with two rooms in each and here, all around, there are arched intramural passages and closets. These storeys are approached by intramural stairs spiralling up the centre of the wall. On the walls of one of these upper bedrooms the wallpaper put there during the Davie’ Bryce reconstruction well over a hundred years ago is still in excellent conditi6n, perhaps the oldest wallpaper known. The rooms in this part are still furnished in mid-Victorian fashion. As already mentioned, the cap-house and battlements approached by a continuation of the spiral turret stair through the walls of the upper storey was restored to the castle by David Bryce.

Two dove-cots of early eighteenth century style are in the grounds, possibly put there in the time of Sir William Dunbar second baronet.

The house is full of interesting heirlooms, pictures and family treasures, and altogether is one of the most entrancing homes in the north of Scotland. It is not open to the public, but Lady Dunbar is extremely kind to those who have a genuine interest in, and love, these historic places.

The general public, even yet, does not seem to be aware that places like Ackergill Tower are in deadly jeopardy. The criminally penal taxation done in our name is bringing their complete destruction nearer every day. Already, in Britain, over a thousand stately homes have been demolished and their priceless contents scattered to the four winds - mostly abroad. Many more are simply falling into decay and ruins the capital from the estates surrounding them is viciously drained away.

Anderson - The Scottish Nation (3 vol.) - Methuen 1867
McGibbon & Ross - The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland – Douglas 1889
Mackenzie - The Mediaeval Castle in Scotland Methuen
Innes of Learney - Tartans of the Clans and Families of Scotland – Johnston 1938
Munro Kinsmen and Clansmen - Johnston & Bacon 1971
Curle - Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Caithness HMSO 1911

Note :Hempriggs House is now an Old Peoples Home

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