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Caithness Field Club


Vol. 1. No. 6. October, 1975.


Ring of Castlehill (ND 282618)
One of the most distinctive hallmarks of the Normans in Scotland is the earthwork castle. Most of them are motte-and-bailey form but occasionally the Norman knight built himself a more basic defence - a 'ringwork' which consisted of a circular or oval bank and ditch. Such a site is the one

under consideration - it lies half a mile to the south of Barrock Farm in the parish of Bower.

In a recent article on Scottish earthwork castles('Early Scottish Castles of Earth and Timber - Recent Field-work and Excavation'; Scottish Archaeo- logical Forum, 6(1974),48-57) I included the Ring of Castlehill in a list

of ringwork castles with some reservations since I had not visited it. The Royal Commission Inventory description (pp 2-3) did suggest, however, 'a site of this kind. A recent visit (30.7.75) confirmed my view that a medieval earthwork was in evidence. The ring bank has a diameter internally, of about 28.5m. A massive ditch about 10.5m wide, has outside it a counterscarp bank which may well have been defensive rather than the upcast from ditch clearance. There is a causeway across the ditch at the north side of the site. The Inventory entry states that 'There is no stonework visible ...' but at this north side the worn-down counterscarp bank has on its outer side traces of stone wall. This may be a stone entrance defence or the remnants of a revetment to the counterscarp bank. The bank is slightly higher on its outer side possibly indicating that it was externally revetted for its total length.

For obvious reasons earthwork castles are rare in the north of Scotland. If the site is to be seen as a Norman influenced form then a function as a campaign castle during William the Lion's activities in Caithness (Orkneyinga Saga (1813),165) would seem reasonable. Recently I have also considered, in print, Scandinavian fortification (principally of stone) as a result of my involvement in the excavation of Scrabster castle ('Scandinavian Fortification in the British Isles', Scottish Archaeological Forum 6 (1974), 37-45). I discussed Cubbie Roo's castle, on Wyre in Orkney, which consists of a stone tower and ancillary buildings set within an encircling stone-revetted earthen bank. This form of defence should be sought elsewhere in northern and western Scotland as possible evidence for Norse fortification. Consequently there is a dilemma, in my mind, concerning the Ring of Castlehill. Could the castle of Borve at Farr, in Sutherland, be another example of this kind of fortification?

The setting of the site indicates the use of boggy ground as a natural

defensive element. No aid can come from an assessment of this siting. The earthwork lies close to a routeway which may have led from Huna to Watten but this does not bring us closer to an answer to: Scottish campaign castle? a Norse fortification of the Earls of Orkney? or . . . . ?

Loch More (ND08346i)
David Miller, in a recent discussion 'The Castles of Caithness' (The Caithness Book (1972), 153-162) stated that "No vestige of it (Loch More castle) now remains". Calder (History of Caithness (1887), 89) recounted a local tradition that Sir Reginald de Cheyne had a castle, or hunting lodge, by the point where Thurso river issues from Loch More. There is no obvious ruin here but a slight mound in the curve of the road, where it crosses the river, may indicate its former presence. The mound. which has been dug into for road material, consists of much tumbled stone. I have found no worked stone but at the south side a line of stones may be a foundation.

The site deserves archaeological investigation to clear up the problem of Loch More castle. There is no sound historical evidence for its existence. Dr. Barbara Crawford (in litt. 19.8.74) has pointed out to me that it would have been strange for Sir Reginald to have built a castle at Loch More when he appears to have had a perfectly good residence at Dirlot only three miles downstream.

Although the mound, above mentioned, is a prominent feature in a flat landscape it could, on investigation, prove to be natural or, a humble shelter.