Berriedale Castle Index

Reconstruction Index

Berriedale Castle, Caithness

Berriedale Castle
Michael J Gunn

Sited on a great rock at the mouth of the Berriedale Water, this fortress seems to have been the caput of the old earldom of South Caithness which existed from 1184 until 1206. It originally included the lands of Berriedale, Langwell, Ousdale and the mountain of the Ord as far south as the Water of Helmsdale, together with many lands to the north as far as the Water of Wick. The name is probably derived from the Norse birka-dalr, meaning valley of the birches or borgar-dalr, meaning valley of the fortress and the castle is almost certainly built on the site of an earlier Viking stronghold. Nicolaisen prefers an origin from borg-dalr, 'valley at the rock', whilst Watson suggests bjarg-dalr, 'stony dale'. Borgar is also a Viking personal name and was the name of the son of Ogmund Crow-dance, last Norse governor of the Orkneys. Borgar Ogmundsson was a messenger to Scotland and involved in the negotiations which led to the Treaty of Perth in 1266 but there is no evidence to link his name with the fortress. It has been wrongly identified with a place called Beruvik mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga but this seems more likely to refer to North Berwick on the Firth of Forth. The name appears under various guises, eg. Baridail, Beridale, Berrendaill, Berridale, Berridaill, Berydaile, Borradale, etc.

Berriedale is first mentioned in records in 1330-1 in which year Reginald More, Chancellor of Scotland, was put in possession of the castle and lands by Malise, eighth earl of Strathearn. Malise of Strathearn had succeeded to the earldom of Caithness in right of his great-grandmother Matilda, daughter of Gilbert, Earl of Orkney/Caithness. It seems that Malise was happy to appoint others to act as stewards of his northern lands as in 1337 Berriedale was granted to William of Crichton. King David II allowed Reginald More, his Chamberlain, for his lands in Berriedale granted to William of Crichton the sum of £40 reckoned at the King's pleasure for the two years ending the previous Martinmas, on the condition that he was able to let the lands at the same yearly rate for the future. Thus William of Crichton was merely lessee or castellan and in 1340 Reginald More was again infeft of Berriedale. He died before 21st May that same year and Berriedale reverted to Earl Malise. It passed briefly into the hands of Reginald le Chen III (d.1345) on the forfeiture of Earl Malise which occurred in June 1344. There is mention again in 1359 when William Earl of Ross is accused of intromitting, without good cause, with the lands of Berriedale in Caithness belonging to Malise of Strathearn.

The castle and lands were brought into the hands of the Sutherlands by the marriage of Reginald le Chen's daughter, Marjorie le Chen to Nicholas Sutherland of Forbat, first Lord of Thorboll and a son of Kenneth fourth Earl of Sutherland. This brought the Clan Sutherland unprecedented power in the area as it gave them control of a huge swathe of lands from Dornoch in the south of Sutherland, to Wick in Caithness.

Nicholas was succeeded by his eldest son, John Sutherland of Berriedale who died without issue before 1433. He was succeeded by his younger brother, Henry Sutherland who married Margaret de Moravia. Their son, Alexander Sutherland succeeded as third Lord of Duffus and of Thorboll, his right to the succession and lands being upheld by the Caithness crowner Magnus Gun in an inquest held at Wick in 1438. During his time the lands of Berriedale and Langwell were held (presumably on a wadset or mortgage) by Sir Alexander Sutherland of Dunbeath who was Sutherland of Thorboll's uncle.

Alexander of Thorboll married Muriel or Morella, daughter of John Chisholm of that Ilk and by this marriage acquired the lands of Quarrelwood in heritage. The castle was held during this time by Alexander's eldest son, William Sutherland of Berriedale who died before his father. William's sister Isabella, or Isobel, married Alexander Dunbar of Westfield, a marriage that would bring Dunbar claims to the Thorboll and Duffus inheritance and which would lead to a blood-feud between the two families. Alexander Sutherland died in 1484 and was succeeded by his grandson, also called Alexander. Towards the end of the fifteenth century the castle came into the possession of William Oliphant, second son of Laurence, first Lord Oliphant.

This William Oliphant, who is usually styled 'of Berriedale', had married c.1489 Christian or Christine, daughter and heir of line of Alexander Sutherland of Duffus. There was a long lawsuit between the couple and Christian's kinsman, the heir male, who disputed her legitimacy. William Sinclair, second Earl of Caithness, used the opportunity to plot the seizure of Berriedale, together with the other disputed castles of Auldwick, Dunbeath and Forse. In the summer of 1494 the earl ordered his two foster-sons, Andrew and William Keith, together with Sir Alexander Sutherland of Dirlot to forcibly take these castles. They were opposed in this action by Sir William Keith, Younger of Inverugie, and the Clan Gunn and a series of battles and fights ensued which engulfed the whole area between Latheron in the north and Helmsdale in the south for the next fourteen years.

The case ended about 1507 in a compromise by which Christian and William Oliphant obtained the Caithness lands and those of Strabrock in Linlithgow but relinquished all claims to the Duffus lands in Moray. During this period the castle was held for the Oliphants by a family of Sutherlands known as the MacEachains, or Hectorsons. They were descended from John beg Sutherland who erected one of the keeps at Langwell. The first to come to notice was Eachain mor or Big Hector. He had two sons, William and Rory. The eldest son William Sutherland married a beautiful woman whom Robert Gun of Braemore (qv) fell passionately in love with. Robert Gun murdered her husband and abducted the lady and her new-born child, also named William Sutherland. Robert Gun carried her and her son back to Braemore where she bore him four sons. When William Sutherland grew up he quarrelled much with his half-brothers. Robert Gun forced the young man to marry his sister and their son, also named William Sutherland, was raised by the Clan Gunn. The father died at the battle of Summerdale in 1529 and shortly after Robert Gun captured Berriedale Castle. He evicted Hector mor, who had grown old and feeble, and installed the latter's grandson, Robert's foster-son, in his stead. This William's cousin, Hector na-pollaig mac-Ruaridh Sutherland, was killed by Robert's son, Donald mor Gun of Braemore, who invaded Berriedale in 1540-1.

William Oliphant of Berriedale died c.1508 and was briefly succeeded by his eldest son George who died without issue before April 1511. William's second son Charles Oliphant succeeded, also briefly, being slain by the Gunns and Sutherlands before 17th March 1517-18. He was succeeded by his brother Andrew Oliphant of Berriedale who entered into a contract with John Sinclair, third Earl of Caithness on 16th July 1520 by which he undertook to marry any one of the earl's three sisters whom the earl should choose! This plot by the Caithness earl to gain control of Berriedale and the other Oliphant castles also failed and on 30th March 1526 Andrew Oliphant made over his lands to his Chief and kinsman Laurence, third Lord Oliphant. Andrew died before 19th March 1529-30, leaving three daughters, Margaret, Catherine and Helen, as heirs portioners. The eldest daughter, Margaret, married her cousin William Oliphant of Newton, younger brother to Laurence third Lord Oliphant.

In 1541 the third Lord Oliphant gave a charter of the lands of Hisbestir, Beridaill and Auldweik to Alexander Innes of that Ilk, his heirs and assigns. This seems to have been as a result of Alexander's father having married in 1526 Christian, the widow of Alexander Sutherland of Duffus and acquiring thereby some rights of heritage.

Berriedale Castle remained a possession of the Oliphants throughout the sixteenth century. During this time they were obliged to employ the Sutherlands of Langwell and the Gunns of Braemore in order to garrison the castle which was the subject of claims by rival Caithness families. Most prominent among these were the Sinclair earls. During the time of George Sinclair, fourth Earl of Caithness (d.1588) and his grandson, George Sinclair fifth Earl of Caithness (d.1643), there were constant skirmishes and fights around the Oliphant's castles of Auldwick, Berriedale and Latheron.

On 23rd December 1566 the castle was taken and this feud continued to erupt in the years 1567,1569, 1587 and 1591. In 1582-3 there was a supplication made by George Keith Earl Marischal, Laurence Lord Oliphant and Robert Stewart Abbot of Deer requesting that George Sinclair earl of Caithness be denied a renewal of his powers of Hereditary Justiciary in Caithness as it would allow him to "tak thair landis … and mak thair rowmes to be possest be the Clan Gun and utheris, agains thair will, contrair justice, law, and ressoun…"

When the fourth Lord Oliphant died at Wick in 1593 the Sinclair earls had reached the height of their power in Caithness. Laurence, the fifth Lord Oliphant, was served heir in 1604 but had had enough; he finally capitulated and resigned his numerous lands in favour of George Sinclair, fifth Earl of Caithness. Accordingly, on 18th June 1606 the lands of Berriedale and others were erected into a new barony of Berriedale with the manor of Berriedale as the principal messuage. George granted them to his son, William Sinclair, who was raised to the peerage as first Lord Berriedale.

William Sinclair died before his father in 1633-5 and was briefly succeeded by his son, John Sinclair, Master of Berriedale, who died in 1639. He had a grant of Berriedale and other earldom fortresses under the great seal on 11th February 1632 with confirmation in 1633. He was succeeded by his son, George Sinclair, sixth Earl of Caithness, who died without issue in 1676, shortly after which the lands were seized on a writ of apprising by John Campbell of Glenorchy.

It appears on Pont's map of Caithness as published by Blaeu in 1654 as 'Berry dale' and nearby, on the north side of the river is a place marked 'Burgh Beredach' which seems to indicate the site of an iron-age hill fort. Calder (1887:110) quoting an old writer describes the castle thus: "Upon a rock at the mouth of the water stands the castle, to which they entered by a drawbridge, and the entry to the bridge was so sloping from the top of a high brae that only two could go abreast. The entry was very dangerous, the sea being on the right hand, and the water to the left, and the rock very high on both sides, especially to the north." The castle was resurveyed by RCAHMS in 1980 (No.45, OSA, Vol.17, 27).

Berriedale is castle of enclosure with no definable separate keep; the bawn measures 67ftx42ft (20.4mx12.8m).

ND 1210 2243 Parish of Latheron