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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin
1978 - April


7. Girnigoe Castle - The First to Sixth Earls of Caithness

D. B. Miller

Although the massive ruined complex of Girnigoe Castle has an importance second to none in the medieval history of the north of Scotland, with its powerful owners the earls of Caithness dominating the pages of that period, and although its gaunt remains have an apparent appearance of being sited on its rugged sea-girt rock since the beginning of time, yet in fact the castle was inhabited for a period of only about one hundred and eighty years. In that time only five earls of the Sinclair line ruled there, although this represented eight generations of that noble family, for one earl, the fourth, outlived his son and was succeeded by his grandson. He in turn outlived both his son and grandson being succeeded by his great-grandson.

The Sinclairs
The Sinclairs - "the lordly line of high St. Clair" - came to Caithness by way of Normandy and England, descending from Woldernus or Walderne, Count of Santo Claro, who had married a daughter of Richard, Duke of Normandy. Their son, William de Santo Claro, who was of course a first cousin of William the Conqueror, was one of the many Anglo-Norman barons who settled in Scotland in the reign of David I, by whom he was granted a charter of the lands and barony of Roslin, or Rosslyn, in Midlothian. The Sinclairs were great castle builders, having erected several such strongholds both in Normandy and in England, including Colchester in Essex. In Scotland they built the great castle of Roslin, still a possession of the representative of the family in the female line, St. Clair, Erskine, Earl of Rosslyn.

Sir Henry St. Clair of Rosslyn, supporter and friend of King Robert the Bruce, was one of the signatories of the Arbroath Declaration, and his son was the "kind and true" St. Clair whofell in Spain beside the good Lord James Douglas while carrying the Bruce's heart to the Holy Land. His grandson Sir William St. Clair married Isabella the daughter of Malise, Earl of Strathearn, Orkney, and Caithness, and their son Henry St. Clair, on the death of his mother's cousin Alexander de la Arde found himself heir to the great northern provinces and their titles, at that time held as a fee of the Norwegian-Danish crown. He already held the office of Hereditary Lord High Admiral of Scotland, and this for him was no empty title for he was one of the great navigators of all time, being the discoverer of Greenland. In 1379 he went to Norway where he was formally invested by King Haakon IV with all the hereditary dignities and honours of the ancient jarls of Orkney and Caithness and the lordship of Zetland.

William the First Earl
Henry's grandson, William, third of the St. Clair line to hold the Norwegian dignities was one of the greatest baronial magnates ever to hold sway in Scotland. His vast estates included Roslin and Pentland in Midlothian, Ravenscraig in Fife, Newburgh in Aberdeenshire, Nithsdale in Dumfriesshire, much of Caithness and the Orkney and Shetland Islands. The Norwegian writ of sovreignty had long since ceased to run in Caithness had been recovered by the Scottish crown. James II of Scotland, jealous of the fact that one of his greatest barons owed allegiance to a foreign power, offered the Earl a new Scottish earldom of Caithness under a charter dated 28th August 1455. In 1470, as the northern islands had come to Scotland under a marriage settlement between James III and the Princess Margaret of Denmark the titles were surrendered to the Scottish crown and from henceforth the Earldom of Caithness was the only title used.

William, first earl of the Scottish creation, although holding lands in his new Earldom, never so far as is known resided there. He lived in princely style at his great castle of Roslin where he had built alongside the fabulous church with its famous "prentice pillar" and its marvellous designs and tracery. Father Hay, a member of the earl's household, speaks of him "as a Prince who maintained his state at his palace of the castle of Roslin where he kept a great court and was royally served at his own table in vessels of gold and silver; Lord Dirlton being his master of the household; Lord Borthwick his cupbearer, and Lord Fleming his carver, in whose absence they had deputies to attend - viz. Stewart laird of Drumlarrig; Tweedie Laird of Dunfermline; and Sandilands Laird of Calder. He had his halls and other apartments richly adorned with embroidered hangings. His Princess, Elizabeth Douglas, daughter of the fourth Earl of Douglas and Duke of Touraine, was served by 75 gentlewomen whereof 53 were daughters of noblemen, all clothed in velvet and silks, with their chains of gold and other ornaments, and was attended by 200 riding gentlemen on all journeys, and if it happened to be dark when she went to Edinburgh where her lodging was at the foot of Blackfriars wynd, 80 lighted torches were carried before her".

The Earl was also hereditary Grand Master Mason of Scotland, being created thus by James II. This honour followed the Roslin branch for several centuries.

William the Second Earl
The first Earl, on his death, decreed in his settlement that his vast properties throughout Scotland be divided among three of his sons. He had been married twice, first to Elizabeth Douglas, by whom he had one son William who inherited his father's barony of Sinclair and all the estates in Aberdeenshire, Orkney and Shetland. This son and his descendants were the Chiefs of the Name of Sinclair until they failed in the male line in 1677. By his second wife Marjory Sutherland, daughter of Alexander Sutherland of Dunbeath, the earl had four sons and three daughters. The eldest son of this marriage was also named Wllliam and received the Earldom of Caithness by special resignation of his father in 1475. The second son of the second marriage, Oliver Sinclair, received Roslin and continued that Lairdship.

William, second Earl of Caithness, came to reside on his Caithness estates and proceeded to build the stronghold of Girnigoe completing it sometime before 1496. He also began the erection of the Castle of Knockinnon near Dunbeath on a strategic situation barring the way to invaders to Caithness from over the Ord. He did not live to see the project fulfilled for he volunteered to fight for his King James IV and fell along with his men on the bloody field of Flodden. The Earl had married Mary Keith the daughter of his neighbouring laird, Keith of Inverugie and Ackergill and left two sons John and Alexander Sinclair of Stemster.

He was, according to Calder, a gallant and high spirited nobleman.

John the Third Earl
John, the third earl, had entered into bonds of friendship for mutual protection and support with Adam, Earl of Sutherland, from whom he got a grant of certain lands on the east or Caithness side of the Helmsdale river. In 1529, the Earl, along with his cousin Lord Sinclair, invaded Orkney with a numerous force in order to assert some claim which they had in these islands. They wore met by a force of Orcadians under one of their own clan James Sinclair, Governor of Kirkwall castle, and at the battle of Summerdale near Stenness sustained a most disastrous defeat. The Earl of Caithness and five hundred of his men were slain and lord Sinclair and the survivors were taken prisoner.

John had, by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Sutherland of Duffus, two sons, William who died young and George his successor.

George the Fourth Earl
During the reign of George the fourth Earl of Caithness the Sinclair family reached the zenith of their power. He lived in the period of which Sir Robert Gordon wrote so copiously, but as Sir Robert was so biased against the Caithness Earls, the hereditary foes of his own family, most of what he wrote about them must be treated with great caution. Only such notices which appear in official documents or government sources can be relied upon.

On 17th April 1566 and on 14th February 1567 two separate charters were granted to the Earl appointing him justiciary for the north of Scotland from Meikle Ferry to the Pentland Firth. This was ratified by the Scots parliament on 19th April 1567. In the same month of that year he was Chancellor of the jury at the trial of the Earl of Bothwell for the murder of Lord Darnley where the verdict was one of acquittal.

The Earl built the old church of Wick (St. Fergus), the remains of which are known as the "Sinclair aisle". Here his heart was deposited in a leaden casket by his own wish. He had died in Edinburgh in 1582 and was buried in St. Giles Cathedral, where a monument was erected to his memory. His eldest John, Master of Caithness had predeceased him, his body being laid to rest in the vault below his father's recently built church at Wick. The inscription on the slab enclosing the tomb reads as follows,

"Here lies entombed one noble and worthie man, John Master of Caithness, who departed this life, the 15th day of March 1576".

The story told by Sir Robert Gordon of the inhuman treatment and death of the Master in the grim dungeon of Girnigoe castle is not now believed, although it is possible that he may have been imprisoned for some time. Two very eminent Caithness antiquaries, the late John Nicolson of Nybster, and the late D. G. Henderson of Tannach, have stated that the Master died in his bed at Knockinnon castle. Quoting from the writings of D. G. Henderson,

"Here (at Knockinnon) John Master of Caithness died after having lived a strenuous and comparatively peaceful life. The three hostages he brought from Dunrobin to Girnigoe, I fear met a sudden death at his father's command, but John passed on to Knockinnon to be apart from his father, as well as from his son, who was in character and spirit a replica of his grandfather. Doing his father's bidding or being accountable for his son's wickedness were equally displeasing to John who in the later years of his life at all events made amends for his past follies, He was a devoted worshipper at the chapel of Clasgag, as well as at the private chapel at the castle".

The three hostages referred to by Mr. Henderson were three prisoners taken as hostages by the Master in 1570 when leading an expedition on behalf of his father against the Murrays of Abercross and others, allies of the Earl of Sutherland. The Sutherland men had taken refuge in the town and castle of Dornoch which was besieged by the Master and his men. After burning the Cathedral in which there was a garrison, and reducing the town the Master then attacked the castle. The Murrays were obliged to capitulate and agreed to depart from Sutherland within three months and delivered the three hostages against that fulfilment. The Earl of Caithness apparently, or so wrote Sir Robert Gordon, refused to ratify the treaty concluded by his son, and beheaded the hostages.

The fourth Earl had married lady Elizabeth Graham, a daughter of the second Earl of Montrose and had three sons and five daughters. His second son, William of Mey, who died a young man and unmarried left two illegitimate sons by different mothers, the eldest of whom, Patrick, was the first laird of Ulbster. He also died unmarried and was succeeded by his brother John Sinclair of Ulbster who thus became the ancestor of the Sinclairs of Ulbster. The Earl's third son, George, was given the lands of Mey on the death of his elder brother, William. He became the ancestor of the Sinclairs Baronets of Mey who in 1789 inherited the Earldom on the extinction of the senior line descended from the Master. For

George of Mey the fourth Earl began building the castle of Mey about 1560.

George the Fifth Earl
George, the eldest son of the Master succeeded his grandfather as fifth Earl. The Master had married Lady Jean Hepburn, sister of the notorious Earl of Bothwell, and the couple had three other sons two of whom were respectively lairds of Murkle and Rattar. Both of these lines in turn succeeded to the Earldom eventually.

In 1588 there was an invasion of Caithness by the Earl of Sutherland accompanied by Mackay of Strathnaver and MacLeod of Assynt with a very strong force. The young Earl prudently shut himself up as Calder puts it "within the iron walls of Girnigoe Castle". Lord Sutherland burnt the town of Wick, then a collection of small houses roofed with thatch, and whilst it was burning a Highlander with plunder in mind, entered the church, the only building spared, and finding the leaden case containing the heart of the fourth Earl, burst it open and flung the contents away in disgust at finding no treasure. The Sutherland confederacy then laid siege to Girnigoe but after twelve days in which no impression was made, set to plundering the county as far as its extremity at Duncansby killing several people and then proceeded homeward driving before them "a great spoil of cattle". Continuous feuds and battles with his neighbouring potentate of Sutherland characterised the whole career of the fifth Earl. Nevertheless he had time to build the great new wing on the outer ward of Girnigoe which he completed by 1607. It was a fine architectural achievement which together with the old castle made the whole structure the greatest nobleman's seat in the north. The Earl also rebuilt Keiss castle on the site of an earlier fortalice and the family often resided there. In 1604 he had purchased Oldwick castle from Lord Oliphant (Caithness Field Club Bulletin Vol. 1 No. 8), and in 1612 he added Ackergill tower to his estate, by purchase. (Caithness Field Club Bulletin Vol. 2 No 1). The Earl's expenditure had been much more than he could afford and according to Sir Robert Gordon he engaged a coiner by the name of Arthur Smith and placed him in a special room called the "gate" under the rock of his new addition at Girnigoe. There a secret passage lead from the Earl's own bedroom to the coiner's retreat. For seven or eight years he plied his trade there and the north was, according to Sir Robert Gordon, inundated with base coin. Afterwards Smith removed to Thurso continuing to ply his trade there ostensibly as a blacksmith. There was a public outcry and Sir Robert himself laid the case before the King and a commission was granted to him to apprehend Smith, together with all his apparatus for coining along with a quantity of "bad" money. The entry of a force of Sutherland men alarmed the citizens of Thurso and an affray started in which several people were killed including the Earl's nephew, Sinclair of Stirkoke. Smith was killed by his captors who feared he would escape during the melee. The Earl of Caithness instituted a criminal prosecution against Sir Robert, the Earl of Sutherland and others for the slaughter of his nephew but after endless litigation the proceedings came to nothing. One point should be made - as far back as 1549 Arthur Smith was apprehended in Sutherland for making counterfeit money in his native Banff for which he was tried and convicted in Edinburgh. The Thurso episode took place in 1610, sixty one years after his first conviction. Presuming he was in his twenties at that time, he must have been between eighty and ninety years of age at the latter date. There is obviously a great deal of truth still to emerge regarding the life and times of the fourth and fifth Earls of Caithness.

In 1623 Sir Robert Gordon, again armed with the King's commission, led a large force into Caithness. The Earl rightly or wrongly had been accused principally at the instigation of Sir Robert himself of various offences and lawless behaviour. Lord Caithness diplomatically boarded a boat for Orkney where a few years before, in 1614, he had been sent with the King's commission to quell a rebellion against the crown by the notorious Patrick Stewart, Earl of Orkney. So successful was he in this expedition that he was given a pension of 1,000 crowns and was made one of the Privy council of Scotland.

While the Earl was away Sir Robert was given the keys of all his castles around Sinclair bay, and in the King's name handed them back to Lord Berriedale the Earl's oldest son, who was granted the administration of the estates, which was at this time very deeply in debt and the Earl was hard pressed by his creditors. After his return from Orkney he lived in seclusion on an aliment from the creditors out of his dilapidated estates. He died in 1643 at the advanced age of 78.

George the Sixth Earl
As already stated, the fifth Earl's eldest son Lord Berriedale and his grandson the Master of Berriedale both predeceased him and the heir was his great grandson George who became the sixth Earl of Caithness. This Earl lead a rather uneventful life compared to his predecessors. Inheriting large but greatly encumbered estates he was all his life in financial difficulties, caused to some extent by the unsettled times and the rebellions of that era. He had to suffer the acquisition of his homes by the Cromwellian troops by whom much damage was done with no compensation paid. Nevertheless he built an entirely new castle at Thurso-east where he lived most of the time. His wife was Lady Mary Campbell a daughter of Archibald Marquis of Argyll, but there was no issue. His principal creditor was the grasping Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy who prevailed upon him in 1672 to grant a disposition of his titles and estates and heritable jurisdictions in his favour in return for an annuity out of the estates.

Glenorchy and the Battle of Altimarlach
Four years later, in 1676, the Earl was dead and Glenorchy seized the estates and assumed the title. Almost unbelievably his right was upheld by the Scottish courts in face of the intense opposition of the rightful heir George Sinclair of Keiss the son of Francis, second son of the fifth Earl. Not only did Glenorchy take possession of the estates of the Earldom but also of George Sinclair's private property which included Keiss which had been transferred to him as his portion by the previous Earl, but which by some error had been included in the disposition of 1672. Sinclair of Keiss took no notice of the legal ruling and forcibly seized his own estates of Keiss, Northfield and Tister. Glenorchy applied to the privy council and obtained an order dated 7th January 1680 for the famous General Tam Dalyell (who the following year formed the Scots Greys) to assist with troops in an invasion of Caithness. The invading force who met the Sinclairs at the bloody field of Altimarlach numbered well over a thousand men including the well trained troops under Dalyell, won an overwhelming victory over the raw and slender forces of Sinclair many of whom were elderly.

Despite his defeat, George Sinclair did not give up. He engaged in a campaign of guerilla tactics and laid siege to Girnigoe castle where Glenorchy had placed a garrison when most of his troops had returned home. Firearms or artillery were used in Caithness for the first time and the castle capitulated. The new portion was very badly damaged as a result and the castle was never again occupied. Glenorchy, tired of the harassment of his lands sold Girnigoe and the Wick portion of the estates to Dunbar of Hempriggs about 1700. During agricultural improvements in the middle of last century much stone work was demolished and carried away to build farm houses and steadings in the surrounding area.

The Castle Today
Girnigoe stands on a peninsular rock on the east coast of Caithness, near Noss Head and facing Sinclair bay. The peninsula is a long and narrow one and had been cut away from the mainland at two places by dry ditches, one at the neck of the peninsula and another about half way along. Behind the second ditch stands the old keep. The building occupies the full breadth of the rock with the stonework rising sheer from the rock face on each side. Opening off the drawbridge, which once operated there, the entrance goes right through the castle from back to front by way of a high vaulted passage - high enough to accommodate a man on horseback. From behind the castle a lane with ruined buildings on each side went downwards to the point of the peninsula where a built stair-way with access through a hatch went down to sea level. This was the sea gate of the castle. The tower consists of a squire block of masonry vaulted on two floors with small wings behind at both ends. There are two underground dungeons beneath the ground floor, one a prison and the other, now completely filled up, contained the castle well. In the smaller wing, behind the building, a circular stone stairway, now removed, gave access to the upper floors. On the first floor the great hall, which extended the full width and breadth of the building, had a very fine oriel window fitted by the fifth Earl by French masons about 1600, but which has now fallen off into the sea leaving a large and rugged hole in the front wall. The upper floors, which were of wood, have disappeared although the walls still stand. Above the front entrance is a recess where once reposed the coat of arms of the Earldom. Behind the main block the second wing consists of the kitchen with an enormous fireplace where a whole ox could be roasted, and in the thick vaulting of its roof there is a small secret room with its window looking out to sea. A trapdoor from the room above gave access to it. At this first floor level a doorway opened out on the seaward side which gave access to a balcony overhanging the water. This was known as a breteche and consisted of a roofed apartment stuck on to the castle wall by means of two rows of stone corbels which supported both the floor and the roof. Gunloops had been provided on the ground floor, even behind the castle where it was most improbable that danger would come. Prior to 1607 the "outer ward" - the area between the first and second ditches - had only contained the first drawbridge with its entrance fortifications, the guardrooms, the portcullis and some other buildings. In that year the fifth Earl, completed building over and around these structures the great new wing. So little is left of it today that one can hardly know how it was planned. Indeed most of what is left today is of the older buildings which had been there prior to 1607. The mortar used in building the new extension was so firm that as parts of the outer walls fell they came down all in one piece and can still be seen lying there.

The names castles Sinclair and Girnigoe, still erroneously used, do not make sense. The structure was not two separate buildings. Both were parts of the same castle.

In recent years the ruined castle returned to ownership of the Earls of Caithness after more than two hundred and fifty years in alien hands.


Anderson The Scottish Nation (3 vol.)



Bramman et. al. Visits to Ancient Caithness

Caithness Field Club


Calder History of Caithness



Curle Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Caithness



Innes of Learney Tartans and Clans of the Families of Scotland



Munro Kinsman and Clansman

Johnston & Bacon


Omand (Ed.) The Caithness Book

Highland Printers


McGibbon & Ross The Castellated & Domestic Architecture of Scotland



See Also
Girnigoe Castle In Caithness.org Castles

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