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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin
Vol. 1 No. 5 April 1975

1. Bucholie Castle - The Swansons and Mowats
D.B. Miller

Bucholie as Lambaborg
On a grim and forbidding site on the south side of Freswick Bay, and about five miles south of Duncansby Head at ND382658 are the gaunt ruins of Bucholie Castle, the first of seven medieval castles which dot the next twenty miles or so of the Caithness coastline making it the most castellated stretch of coast in Britain.

It was here, about 1140, that Sweyn (Norse "Svein", a youth) Asliefson, the Caithness-born scion of a noble Norse family built his fortress - then known as Lambaborg. He was one of the most colourful, resourceful and daring of the many heroes who flit across the pages of the Norse sagas. On one occasion he was besieged in Lambaborg by Earl Rognvald - the builder of St. Magnus Cathedral - whose displeasure he had incurred. When his provisions were almost exhausted he and his companion-in-arm, Margad Grimson, got themselves lowered to the sea from the hundred foot high castle rock by means of a rope and then swam along the shore to safety. Sweyn was a pirate and robber, but these occupations were regarded as honourable in his Viking world and he could claim the genuine friendship of the saintly King David I. During his career he menaced the whole western coast of Scotland, the Isle of Man, and Ireland until finally ambushed and killed while leading a raid on Dublin.

The Swansons
After Sweyn's death a curtain of complete silence falls on Lambaborg. It is not known whether the property was transmitted to his immediate descendants but the evidence would appear to be that it was not. His descendants, the Swansons, multiplied greatly in the North, but never achieved clan status notwithstanding the fact that in ancient and honourable lineage they equalled many other families who did, and especially their kinsmen, the Gunns, who were descended from Gunn an elder brother of Sweyn. They had no territorial designation, no clan chief, and no coat of arms. The inference is undoubtedly that they never possessed lands, being recognised merely as a sept of the clan Gunn throughout the course of their history.

The Mowats
It was not until the early part of the fourteenth century that Lambaborg came to life again in history, but then under its new name of Bucholie. We have no definite date as to when the Mowats came to Freswick bringing the name Bucholie with them from their estate of the same name in Aberdeenshire, although we do know that in the reign of king Robert the Bruce, that monarch granted them a charter of the lands of Freswick. However such charters were sometimes merely confirmatory, stamping the Scottish Royal Seal on possessions of a particular family who might have already inherited them through intermarriage with a Norse family whose previous legal titles were held from the Norwegian crown.

Norman Descent
The Mowat family derive their name from Mont Hault (meaning High Mount) in Normandy, but later latinized to de Monte Alto. Like many other noble families who followed the Conqueror they settled in England and were given the task of keeping the Welsh marches. Their first castle built by Robert de Monte Alto was Molde or Moulde from their own surname. The modern town of Mold in Flintshire grew up around the site of this castle. By 1260 their seat was Howarden castle on the Cheshire side of the border, but in 1329 the 1st baron of the line died without a male heir and the title became extinct. Branches of the family had spread in England and are now known by the surname of Maude.

Arrival in Scotland
The first of the name to settle in Scotland was another Robert de Monte Alto who was invited to do so by King David I. He was a younger son of one of the barons of Mold, Flintshire. King William the Lion granted Sir William de Monte Alto the lordship of Fern in Angus and his descendants for the next two centuries were prominent landowners and justiciaries in that county, holding many appointments and offices under the crown. Another Sir William de Monte Alto fought with King Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn, was a member of the Scottish parliament, and was one of the signatories of the famous Declaration of Arbroath in 1320. By the thirteenth century some members of the family were spelling their surname as De Mohaut, evolvinq towards the present spelling. After 1410 there is no further mention of the De Monte Altos of Fern, and the representation of the family devolved on the Mowats of Bucholie, Aberdeenshire, who had sprung from the Fern family. This was the branch, who by means unknown acquired the landed estates of Freswick and Harpsdale in Caithness. They restored and reconstructed the old castle of Lambaborg and changed its name to Bucholie, but the change of name affected the castle only and not the lands which continued to be known as Freswick.

Mowat Branches in Caithness
There were many offshoots of the Mowats of Freswick. One important branch was the Mowats of Brabstermire and Slickly who in turn had a branch in possession of Swinzie (now Lochend). Members of the Mowat family migrated both from Aberdeenshire and Caithness into Orkney and Shetland, where several Mowat families appear as landholders; others as merchants and traders. In Shetland the name is often spelled Mouat. The name also appears at an early date in Norway - son of Andrew Mowat of Hugoland, Shetland, became a distinguished Admiral in the Norwegian Navy with large estates in that country.

In 1661 Magnus Mowat of Bucholie sold the family estates in Caithness and sixty-six years later the then laird John Mowat disposed of the Aberdeenshire Bucholie castle, later largely rebuilt by the Duff family, and renamed Hatton.

Landless and Chiefless
The Mowats are unhappily both landless and chiefless. Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, the late Lord Lyon King of Arms has said that "a chiefless clan, like an orphan family is an imperfect group." That the Mowats of Bucholie were Chiefs of their name is signified in their coat of arms with their "supporters" - a distinction only given in Scotland to Chiefs of their name and peers of the realm. The Mowats do not have a clan association - nowadays a first requirement in the tracing of a Chief. That there is someone walking the earth today who unknown to himself and his clansmen is entitled to the "undifferenced" arm of Bucholie there cannot be the slightest doubt.

The Castle Today
Looking at the castle today it would appear that there is little left of Sweyn's original structure. The earliest Norse strongholds were square box-like buildings three or four storeys in height. With extremely thick walls of about eight feet with the doorway on the first floor level facing the sea. The site is almost an island stuck onto the mainland by a very narrow strip of land cut through at the neck by a dry ditch. The old Norse keeps rose straight up from the far side of the ditch but slightly offset from the line of the drawbridge to allow access past the building to the rear. Today's ruins have an entrance facing where the drawbridge stood and a vaulted passage leads through the keep to the courtyard beyond. It may well be that at Lambaborg extremely thick walls were unnecessary for its defence owing to the natural impregnability of the site, as in a similar position at Castle Gunn in Clyth of about the same date the walls were only three feet thick. An unusual feature of the ruins is that the ground and second floors were vaulted while the intermediate first floor was of wood. At the second storey level facing the landward side there are the corbelled remains of a projecting turret. The narrow courtyard behind the castle has the remains of outbuildings on either side of it. There are no signs of how the castle was supplied with water. It is clear that the present buildings for the most part date from the Mowat occupation, the main keep being fifteenth century architecture, closely resembling Girnigoe which is known to date from somewhere between 1475 and 1494.



Caithness Family History



McGibbon & Ross The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland



Curle Inventory of Ancient Monuments of Caithness



St. Clair The St. Clairs of the Isles