Old Wick Castle Index

Caithness Castles Intro

Auldwick Castle
Michael J. Gunn

Although now generally referred to as Oldwick Castle its name is derived not from the Scots word auld, meaning old but from the Gaelic allt, meaning a burn or stream, its correct name being Caisteal Allt-na-Uig, or the castle of the burn of Wick. The name is important because at the time of its erection, ie. the late twelfth century, the town of Wick stood only on the north bank of the river of Wick (Amhain-na-Uig) whereas the Castle of Auldwick lies to the south of the river. It appears in records in a variety of spellings including Aldewik, Aldwik, Auldewik, Auldweik, Auldwyck, etc. It was almost certainly built at the order of William the Lion both as a stronghold for his protégé, Earl Harald ungi Eiriksson, and to deter Earl Harald Maddadarson of Orkney from ravaging the lands south of the Wick river. Earl Harald ungi's sister, Ingibjorg, married Magnus II, Earl of Caithness who died 1239 and the lands descended to his great-niece Johanna of Strathnaver who married Freskin de Moravia. Their eldest daughter, Mary de Moravia, married Reginald le Chen II (d.1305x1313).

Reginald le Chen II's granddaughter, Mary le Chen, married Nicholas Sutherland of Forbat, first Baron of Torboll (1363) and a son of Kenneth fourth Earl of Sutherland. This Nicholas, or Neill Sutherland received a charter of Auldwick from Robert III and it is likely that the castle was strengthened and enlarged during the spate of castle building which occurred in Caithness during the 1380s. Auldwick was created a burgh of barony between 1390 and 1406. One of Nicholas's granddaughters, Christine Sutherland, married c.1489 George Oliphant and the couple had a charter of the lands and castle of Auldwick from James IV on 12th August 1497. On 9th July 1498 there was action by Christine Sutherland and her Oliphant spouse against Sir James Dunbar of Cumnock, who, it was alleged had wrongfully retained the rents and profits of the lands of Auldwick and Berriedale for three years. Both the Sinclair earl and Keith of Inverugie challenged Oliphant's rights to Auldwick and other Caithness lands and castles, including Berriedale, Forse and Dunbeath, and the rival claims were the source of much feud and bloodshed. The Clan Gunn supported Sir William Keith of Inverugie and Ackergill against the rival claims of the Sinclairs and Oliphants.

The feud continued and for a while both the Caithness earl and Sir William Keith were outlawed, the latter being re-instated in 1508. Bodies of the Clan Gunn were set to wait between Helmsdale and Langwell in order to ambush the Caithness earl should he attempt to cross the Ord. He was not able to travel south until 1513 when most of the Gunns and the earl of Sutherland had already joined King James's army on its way to the fateful field of Flodden. William Sinclair and his men crossed the Ord in time and joined with the king who pardoned him. This earl died at Flodden and was succeeded by his son, John Sinclair who continued the feud with Sir William Keith.

The Caithness earl was summoned to court in 1515-16 but claimed he could not answer the summons "for fear of his life". Some time before March 1517-8 George Oliphant's younger brother, Charles Oliphant, was slain by the Gunns and the earl of Sutherland's men and when George Oliphant himself died childless his younger brother, Andrew Oliphant of Berriedale became the senior heir to the Duffus inheritance which included the castle of Auldwick. Andrew 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 failed and on 30th March 1526 Andrew Oliphant made over his lands to his kinsman, Laurence, third Lord Oliphant. This right was challenged by William Sutherland of Quarrelwood, who crossed the Ord with a strong bodyguard in 1529-30. The Clan Gunn were apprised of his intentions and William Sutherland's men were caught in Thurso when a running street fight ensued. Sutherland's bodyguards were put to flight and he was slain. Andrew Oliphant of Berriedale died about the same time (before 19th March 1529-30) leaving behind three heiress daughters, Margaret, Catherine and Helen, who each succeeded to the Duffus inheritance. These events were the cause of a blood-feud between the Sutherlands and the Oliphants which succeeding earls of Caithness subsequently exploited to their own advantage.

The eldest daughter, Margaret Oliphant, married her second cousin, William Oliphant of Newton whose elder brother was Laurence, third Lord Oliphant. His son, Laurence, fourth Lord Oliphant was besieged and taken in the Castle of Auldwick in July 1569 by John Sinclair, Master of Caithness, the siege having lasted eight days. It was in his time, and that of his brothers, Peter and William Oliphant, that the great riot occurred in Wick in which the latter and their followers barely escaped with their lives back to the safety of the castle. Some time later Lord Oliphant himself was surprised whilst out hunting near the Loch of Yarrows. He was chased all the way back to Auldwick Castle and only saved his life by leaping on horseback across the chasm dividing the promontory from the mainland. Calder (1887:36-7) incorrectly ascribes this story to "George, Lord Oliphant" but there was no Lord Oliphant of that name. However, his description of the event is probably based on folk-memory and worthy of recording here:

"Oliphant, it appears, was fond of the chase; and, as he happened to be out one day hunting, in the vicinity of the hill of Yarrows, he was attacked by the Earl [of Caithness] and some of his retainers. Oliphant was without any attendants; but fortunately for him he had a fleet horse. He immediately set spurs to the animal, and galloped home towards Auldwick, hotly pursued by the Earl and his dependants. On approaching the castle he found that the drawbridge was not lowered. His pursuers were close behind him, and he had not even time to wind his hunting horn, and warn the inmates of his return. It was a critical moment, and the noble animal on which he rode seemed fully to understand the danger. No application of spur or whip was needed. Exerting his full power, the horse leaped across the terrific chasm - clearing at one bound twenty-five feet - and landed his rider safe on the other side! Lord Oliphant's leap was long talked of in Caithness, and was a familiar saying among the people."

In 1582-3 Lord Oliphant and others petitioned the King not to renew the grant of hereditary justiciary to George Sinclair, fifth Earl of Caithness, claiming that the earl would order their castles and lands to be "possest be the Clan Gun and utheris". The feud continued and flared up again in 1587 and 1591. Laurence fourth Lord Oliphant died 16th January 1592-3 and was buried in the Old Parish Kirk of Wick. He was succeeded by his son, Laurence, fifth Lord Oliphant who was served heir in 1604 but claims to the lands and castle of Auldwick were taken up by George Sinclair, fifth Earl of Caithness, who was a descendant of Mary Keith of Inverugie. Lord Oliphant resigned his rights to Auldwick and Berriedale and in 1606 they were granted to the Earl of Caithness.

The castle was visited by Pennant's correspondent, the Rev. Alexander Pope, in 1769 who says it was then called "Lord Oliphant's Castle". The castle is a four-storey unvaulted keep of massive construction. The four walls are up to 2.15m (7ft) thick at the base, narrowing slightly towards the top; on the interior face of each wall there are narrow indentations or ledges which indicate the floor levels. There are very few windows, and these mostly very small, giving the keep an almost tomb-like appearance. The ground floor, which had no external access, was probably used as a storeroom. The main entrance was by means of a seaward-facing door at first floor level accessed by a wooden staircase which may have had partially retractable elements. The first floor probably consisted of the main hall where most of the public business relating to the castle estates was conducted. The second floor probably provided the main living area and bedroom. The upper storey may have been used as a private retreat and may have incorporated a chapel. Access to all the floors would have been by means of wooden stairs run through apertures cut in the floorboards at convenient points. There is evidence on the interior faces of the remaining walls of sockets for floor joists and niches which indicate the position of fireplaces. In its heyday most of the interior walls of the castle would have been lined either with wood panelling, some of which may have been painted, or hangings of cloth. It is unclear whether the roof was pitched or flat. A wall at one time completely enclosed almost all of the promontory and there are the remains of numerous outbuildings along both sides of a long narrow courtyard. Some of these would have provided stabling for a limited number of horses as well as byres for cattle, sheep and goats. At least one building is likely to have been dedicated to the brewing of ale, the standard drink for most of the castle's inhabitants, although the lord and his immediate family probably drank the more expensive wine. Other buildings may have provided limited accommodation for some of the castle's garrison and retainers. Towards the end of the promontory, on the southern side, is a deep depression which may mark the site of the castle well. Externally the castle was protected by a man-made ditch at the landward side of the promontory which was crossed by means of a drawbridge. There was once a wall and entrance gate to the northern side of the keep but this has long since collapsed into the Castle Goe. At a later date a barbican, or external gate-house seems to have been built on the landward side of the ditch in order to provide a further obstacle for unwelcome invaders.

Auldwick Castle stands on an isolated promontory some two and a quarter miles south-east of the town of Wick. It may be reached by taking the narrow coast road which runs along the south of Wick Bay past the old Coastguard Lookout Station. Cars may be parked near the Grey Boulds, a fantastical rock formation, and the ruins are then a short walk past the Grey Boulds, Longberry, the old quarry and the Rifle Range. Visitors should note there is no access by this route if the red flag is flying as this means the rifle range is in use. The castle has suffered from the vicissitudes of time and the inclement Caithness weather; over the centuries it has been battered by storm-force winds up to one hundred and fifty miles per hour and a not inconsiderable part of the fabric has been lost forever. Had it not been for the timely intervention of local man, Donald Sutherland, more would have been lost. Some years ago, at the request of Historic Scotland, he valiantly undertook the dangerous task of repointing much of the fabric and his hard work has been instrumental in preventing more of this grand old building from falling down. Auldwick Castle is in the care of Historic Scotland and they have created a safe pathway for visitors. They are currently carrying out a project to renew the pointing and further consolidate the fabric and to add new visitor information panels.

The castle is known locally, and affectionately, as "the Old Man of Wick" ("Owld Man o'Week" in the local dialect), a nick-name which first appears in the eighteenth century and which was apparently bestowed on it by the Caithness fishermen and other mariners who used its gaunt features as a landmark.

ND 3692 4883 Parish of Wick

©2003 Michael J. Gunn