Lambaborg Castle, Caithness
Map Ref: ND 3814 6665 Parish of Canisbay

Lambaborg
Michael J Gunn

This was the Broch of Ness near Freswick which is mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga under the Viking name of Lambaborg. The name also appears as Lambeborg, Lambiburg and, in the Latin of Torfaeus, as Lambaburgum.  It has been suggested the name means 'castle of the lamb' but this seems unlikely. It is more probably derived from the Viking personal name Lambi and several notable Vikings with Caithness connections appear in the sagas bearing this name including Lambi Sigfusson and Lambi Sigurdsson, both grandsons of Sigvat the Red.  Lambi Sigfusson was great-great-great-grandfather to Svein Asleifarson and was most probably the one who gave his name to this stronghold. This fortress occupies the landward neck of the promontory known as 'the Ness of Freswick'.  It has a well sunk in the interior court and other constructions of a later date have been added externally.  There have been buildings to the landward and seaward side of the promontory.

It achieved notoriety in the twelfth century when it became one of the lairs of the famous Viking pirate Svein Asleifarson (d.1171). Svein's main stronghold and longhall were on the island of Gairsay in Orkney but he also had possessions at Duncansby and Freswick in Caithness and in Sutherland. Lambaborg is first mentioned in the sagas in the year 1152/3 when it was besieged by Earl Rognvald at the behest of a man called Svein Hroaldsson from Wick.  This man's father, Hroald, was an important nobleman in Wick who had been slain in an argument over rents by Svein Asleifarson's henchman, Margad Grimsson.  Hroald's son complained to Earl Rognvald who came with a strong force to arrest Svein in his longhall at Freswick. But Svein refused to hand over Margad to the earl's justice and went with provisions and sixty of his men and fortified the nearby broch which they called Lambaborg.


The Ness at Freswick, site of Lambaborg. The ruin on the skyline is the remains of a memorial stone gateway erected by John Nicholson in the nineteenth century.
Photo M J Gunn.

There has been much confusion about the actual site of Lambaborg resulting from the fact that there are three strongholds in close proximity to one another at Freswick.  These are Freswick Castle (also known as Freswick House, Freswick Tower and the Fortalice of Burnside at Freswick), the Broch of Ness and Buchollie's Castle of Kingansgeo.  As a guide to which of these might be the site of Lambaborg the description given in the Orkneyinga Saga doesn't give us much to go on, stating simply "There was a good stronghold there [ie. at Freswick] The burg stood on some sea-crags, but at the top on the land side there was a stone wall well built. The rocks went far along the sea the other way".  This is a near perfect, if somewhat brief description of the site of the Broch of Ness.  It does not describe the site of Freswick Castle nor can it easily be equated with Buchollie's Castle at Kingansgeo which in any case is about one mile south of Freswick.  The fact that the Norse word burg or borg is used is also revealing as this is also the Viking term for a broch, whereas the Norse term for a castle is kastali.  The saga goes on to say that, after some words between Svein Asleifarson and Svein Hroaldsson and Earl Rognvald that Rognvald's men "sat themselves down round the burg" - something which can't be done at Kingansgeo but can at the Broch of Ness.  At Kingansgeo the headland juts out and then runs parallel with the mainland, at Ness it sticks out into the sea "the other way" from the mainland. At Ness there has also been a "stone wall well built" between the broch and the mainland, there is no evidence of a similar structure at Buchollie's Castle.

The description in Orkneyinga Saga of Svein and Margad's letting themselves down by ropes on the seaward side out of view of earl Rognvald's men doesn't help much in establishing the location of the site but the next sentence which describes their swimming to land is a help, for it says they "struck out along the rocks till the cliffs broke off. After that they stepped on land ". The only site that fits this exactly is the Broch of Ness. Freswick Castle is already on a beach so can't be the site; Buchollie's Castle of Kingansgeo is high on the cliffs and surrounded by cliffs in either direction; even a strong swimmer would be hard put to reach a spot where he could "step on land" which seems to imply a beach or low rocks.


 Lambaborg. Svein's escape route to the sea.
Photo M J Gunn.

 

The Orkneyinga Saga goes on to say that after they landed Svein and Margad went south to Sutherland and the quickest way to achieve this would be by boat.  Svein's boat was kept in the noust at Freswick Bay.


Plan of Lambaborg or the Broch of Ness showing the wall on the landward side as mentioned in the saga.
Drawing by Mark Franklin after J.Storer Clouston and MJGunn survey.

2003 MJGunn.

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