Dounreay Castle, Caithness
Map Ref:
ND 983670

Dounreay Castle Photo Gallery

Dounreay Castle
H. Gordon Slade

This small L house is a scaled down version of a type more usually associated with N.E. Scotland. Now entirely ruined it was still inhabited in 1863, but had become derelict and roofless by 1889. It was in existence in 1614, the property of William Sinclair of Dunbeath, and the surviving details accord with a building date in the last quarter of the sixteenth century.

It was of three floors with the principal apartments in the long arm of the L, the shorter arm containing the staircases, and an additional chamber. There was additional garret accommodation with freestone dressings, which have weathered very badly. It appears to have had very full lime pointing but there is little or no evidence to suggest that it was ever harled.

Externally most of the openings have chamfered heads, jambs and cills, and some of the larger windows have relieving arches above their flat lintels. Most of the windows originally had bars. On the upper floors are three re-used pieces of dressed freestone with ventilation holes cut in them. These would have admitted air to the night stool closets. There are three apparent shotholes of a very simple nature; one set obliquely at the foot of the staircase covers the entrance in the re-entrant; the others are on the N front, but one of them could be a much weathered slop drain or water intake.

At the NE corner of the main block is the toothing of the barmekin wall, and to the S of the stair tower is a further stretch of barmekin wall forming the rear wall of a range of pentice buildings. Amongst these would have been the kitchen, as there is no sign of one within the main house.

Immediately facing the entrance is a small barrel-vaulted lobby opening off which are two small closets and the cellar passage, all three doors having chamfered heads and jambs. In MacGibbon and Ross (Vol. III, p.630) the ground floor of the main block is shown divided into three cellars with a short access passage on the S side. This standard arrangement presumably survives under the tumble which fills this floor. The cellars were not vaulted except for the passage, which was roofed with stone flags. This provided a fire proof surface in front of the Hall fire-place which was in the S wall on the floor above.

To the left of the entrance - with its draw bar slots - access to the first floor was by way of a straight two-flight stone stair, the whole stair hall being covered by a barrel-vault, and lit by a window, now blocked, looking across the pentice roof. The space between the top of the stairs and the wall above the entrance is now a void but originally it would have been floored over. From the creasing in the wall it is clear that this flooring would have been stone slabs. This would have given access to the loop above the entrance. This loop shows a particularity seen elsewhere in Dounreay - an aumbry below a loop, with a deep stone shelf between the two. This of course is made possible by the nature of the stone which is easily formed into slabs.

The first floor of the main block is divided, as is customary in smaller houses in the N.E. into two rooms, the Hall and the Inner Chamber. At Dounreay, however, there is no access from the Inner Chamber to an upper chamber, so it is safe to say that this Inner Chamber combined the functions of Withdrawing Room, Laird's Room, and Bed Chamber. The provision of a draw bar hole for the doorway between the stair head and the Hall shows that this floor was designed as a self-contained suite.

Immediately within the Hall door, in the W wall, is a small pantry closet, and in the section of the W wall that has disappeared there may have been a further closet for a closed stool. The S wall contains the fire place: this has been contracted at some time, but as originally built it was a wide opening with the normal late sixteenth century roll mould to the head and jambs. The stone apron, formed by the slabbed ceiling of the cellar passage which ran along the S side of the Hall protected the timber floor from the risk of fire. The ceiling of the Hall, which was in fact the floor of the rooms above, was carried on heavy beams spanning N-S and set directly into the walls. However, to give some further architectural interest, into this wall a length of moulded stone in the form of a continuous corbel has been introduced immediately above the fireplace. This also ensured that the beams at this point were not set too deeply into the wall of the flue. In the E jamb of the window in the S wall there are the remains of an aumbry, and there may well have been a salt box in the W jamb against the side of the fireplace.

The doorway to the Inner Chambers is in the NE corner of the Hall. Like the Hall this chamber has a large fireplace, later contracted, with roll mould head and jambs. In the N wall is the night stool closet, and in the NE corner is a blocked window. There is a press in the SE corner with the remains of two aumbries, and the window in the S wall has two more aumbries, the one in the W jamb being checked to take a door. Presumably this was a secure place to store the charters and muniments.

Both these rooms were plastered on the hard.

From the stair landing a semi-circular mural stair gives access to the upper floor. There is a small chamber in the stair tower which acts as a lobby to the rooms in the main block at this level. There seem to have been two chambers on this floor with fireplaces in the E and W gables. Only that in the E gable survives, and then in a very decayed condition. It seems to have had the usual roll mould. The cross wall on the first floor did not rise through to the second floor so it would seem that the partition at this level was of timber with plaster infill. Later alterations and collapse have obscured the arrangements of the closets which would have served these chambers. A further mural stair led up to the cock-loft over the stair tower, but it would seem that as originally built the chambers on the second floor were either open to the roof, or only had storage-lofts above them.

Although Dounreay is not a large house its arrangements are well thought out and the planning is as advanced as any to be found further south, and internally it aims at some architectural distinction. Externally, however, it makes no pretensions, and no attempt is made to embellish it with elaborate upper works or dignify it with heraldic devices. It is an entirely seemly building, and suitable to its setting.

Acknowledgement: This article is reprinted with the permission of R. J. Mercer from Volume II of Edinburgh University's Archaeological Field Survey in Northern Scotland.

This Article Appeared in Caithness field Club Bulletin April 1988