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October 1979 Index

Bulletins Index

Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin
1979 - October

Bulletin Index


10. The Castle of Mey - The Sinclairs of Mey, later Earls of Caithness

D. B. Miller


Six miles west of John o' Groats near the road leading from that place to Castletown and Thurso (the A836) stands the Castle of Mey the Scottish home of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Although originally known by its present name it was nevertheless throughout the greater part of its long history called Barrogil Castle, and the home farm the fields of which surround the castle is still known as Barrogil Mains. The transactions of few estates are better documented, for the Sinclair lairds kept voluminous records of all their main managements and agricultural projects which were the basis of the late J. E. Donaldson's very interesting book "Caithness in the Eighteenth Century".


These Mey papers now in Register House in Edinburgh tell us that at Barrogil there was lack of nothing needed to rejoice the human heart. This was a golden age for Caithness and Barrogil was at the heart of it. Exports of bere and barley by the shipload - imports of sugar, teas of all sorts, oranges, lemons, spices, nutmeg, walnuts, raisins, candy. soaps of the rarest and the best, gold lace, coloured satins and silks, stiff taffetas, muslins, ruffles and cravats, scarlet nightgowns and white waistcoats.

The name Mey is believed to be from the Norse - meaning "middle" "Township at the Middle of the Pentland Firth" Barrogil could also be from the Norse - Borg-gil although Christina Keith gives it a Gaelic root meaning "cille" or cell of St. Bar.

The traveller on the A836 will first see the profusion of towers and turrets which adorn with striking effect the outline of the castle above its sheltering screen of trees which almost hide it from the main public road. From there one gets the impression that the castle stands much nearer the ea than it actually does. There is a tradition that a tunnel once connected the castle to the sea and a story has been told that during the Second World War an army truck sank into what was believed to be a part of an underground passage. However, the distance from the sea - a good quarter-mile and a very rocky nature of the fore-shore make the possibility of a tunnel highly unlikely.

It seems incredible now that this ancient and historic place was faced with abandonment and even demolition, being only saved from this dire fate by the timely intervention by the Queen Mother who became enamoured with it while visiting the nearby House of the Northern Gate.


The lands of Mey, styled a barony, were previous to 1566 held by the church, and in that year the Bishop of Caithness granted the property to George Sinclair fourth Earl of Caithness, who proceeded almost immediately with the erection of the Castle. The site had previously been built upon by the Bishops of Caithness as a fortified storehouse where the tiends in the form of meal and the other produce of the land due to the church were kept. A few years later, in 1572 a charter dated March of that year was granted by the Earl in favour of his second son William Sinclair who thus became the first laird of Mey. William did not survive long to enjoy his heritage. He was unmarried although he left two illegitimate sons one of whom became the ancestor of the Sinclairs of Ulbster. Mey, with its by then partially built castle was passed by special gift to the Earl's next and youngest son George who held the office of Chancellor of the diocese of Caithness.


To this son the fourth Earl left all his considerable fortune in cash but not the estates of the Earldom which passed to the next Earl, his grandson by his eldest son John, Master of Caithness who predeceased his father. George of Mey died about 1610 being followed in the lairdship by his eldest son, afterwards Sir William Sinclair (Knighted 1631). He it was as a young boy attending the Royal High School of Edinburgh who shot and killed Bailie John MacMoran a wealthy merchant of the city. Some boys including young Sinclair, all the sons of gentlemen had barricaded themselves in the school as a protest against curtailment of their holiday period and the Bailie was leading the magistrates in breaking down the door when the unfortunate episode occurred. Although taken to court the boy was eventually pardoned as well as all his accomplices.

In later life Sir William was the subject of a complaint by the minister of Canisbay to the General Assembly in 1639. It seems that the laird was greatly offended by the attitude of Mr. Andrew Ogstone then parish minister who had about that time changed from being an Episcopalian to embrace the Presbyterian form of worship, and so he had instructed his tenants not to enter the church of Canisbay on a specially appointed Sunday to fast and supplicate a blessing on the work of the Assembly. The people had congregated in the churchyard but only about nine or ten people came into the service. After Mr. Ogstone sent his sexton out repeatedly to bring them in he went out himself only to be told that Sir William not only gave protection to all sorts of delinquents in the parish but he also kept his tenants from satisfying church discipline, that on one occasion when a servant of Sir William had been cited to appear before the Presbytery the laird himself took the summons from the bearer, beat him, and put him in prison for two nights. The minister concluded his complaint by entreating their "Godly wisdomes to seriously consider the case that he might henceforth be enabled to discharge the sacred duties of his office". Unfortunately no record exists of how the Assembly dealt with the matter. Mr. Ogstone's descendants afterwards changed their surname to Houston and became the well known Caithness family of millers a branch of which still operates the only meal mill in the North.


Sir William Sinclair of Mey had two brothers one of whom was Sir John Sinclair of Dunbeath (Caithness Field Club Bulletin, April 1979) and the other Alexander Sinclair of Latheron who was ancestor of both the Barrock and Brabster lines. Sir William is often styled of Cadboll (Ross-shire) which he also owned. His title was a knighthood only, and it was his eldest son Sir James who became the first Baronet of Mey created as such in 1631 with remainder to male line only. His son and successor Sir William found himself so heavily in debt that his estates including the castle were judicially sold to pay them. The second Baronet's brother Robert Sinclair became laird of Durran and ancestor of the present Earl of Caithness. A sister Anne Sinclair married the Earl of Cromarty and her son Lord Tarbat purchased the Mey estates from the creditors and placed them in trust for the benefit of the next heir, his cousin the third Baronet Sir James. This laird was succeeded by his son another Sir James fourth Baronet who in turn was followed by yet another Sir James fifth Baronet. His son the sixth Baronet Sir John, was yet another laird who became insolvent but this time the estates which included Snottergill (now known as Shielton) in the parish of Watten, were protected from seizure by a strict entail. However his son and heir Sir James was a man of great energy and resource, and not only restored the estates to solvency but eventually carried out great improvements both to the lands and the castle.


He it was who in 1789 succeeded his distant cousin as twelfth Earl of Caithness. No other estates but his own came to him with the title as the previous Earl's lands of Rattar and Greenland passed to a sister whose husband James Trail purchased them thus founding the family who later became so well known in Caithness.

Barrogil Castle thus became the seat of the Earldom a position it hold for the next hundred years through the reigns of four successive Earls in line, the thirteenth Earl, Alexander, the fourteenth, James, and the fifteenth, George. Of these the fourteenth was a man who distinguished himself as an inventor and scientist. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Lord in Waiting to Queen Victoria, whose inventions included a steam carriage in which he and Lady Caithness travelled from London to Mey over the primitive roads of that time, a loom and a gravitating compass. He was twice married, the second time to a Spanish Duchess. The connection between the Sinclair family and the castle ended with the death of the young fifteenth Earl unmarried. He was a strange youth in life - in death he was also strange, for he left Mey and all its landed heritage to a stranger - a college friend named Heathcote who on inheriting added the name Sinclair with a hyphen to his own. The next and sixteenth Earl for the first time in the long history of the ancient title had no land in Caithness. So it remained until the father of the present Earl bought back Girnigoe just before the last War.

No marriages and no births ever again brought joy to Barrogil and after being owned for a number of years by a member of the Terry (chocolate) family it passed by purchase to the Queen Mother.


Of the distinguished travellers who during the centuries have visited the Castle of Mey there was Lithgow who stayed there on his way to Orkney in 1629. So hospitably was he entertained by Sir James the first Baronet that he left us the following grand description in verse:-

"Yet with good lucke, in Februar, Saturnes prey

Have I not sought, and found out Fruitfull May,

Flankèd with the Marine Coast, prospective stands,

Right opposite to the Orcade Iles and Lands;

Where I for floures, ingorg'd strong grapes of Spaine

And liquor'd French, both Red and White amaine:

Which pallace doth containe, two foure-squarèd courts,

Graft with brave Works, where th'Art-drawn pensile sports

On hals, high Chambers, Galleries, office Bowres

Cells, Roomes, and Turrets, Platforms, sately Towres"

Macfarlane in the "Geographical Collections" 1726 the castle is described as "a good building with a tower ..... built by the Earle of Caithness 120 years ago, but is going to ruin". This corresponds with one of the periods of strict economy owing to the petitions of creditors.

Pennant writes in 1769 - "a beautiful strong castle belonging to Sir John Sinclair".

In the Statistical Account of 1793 the Rev. John Morrison relates that Barrogil Castle is an old aristocratic pile, but renewing its age under the additions and embellishments it is daily receiving from its noble owner.

Bishop Forbes visited the castle in 1762. It delighted him for he wrote - "One of the best houses in all Caithness with eighteen Fire-rooms two of which being large dining rooms and hall" and of the gardens he wrote "I went into the gardens of Mey where I saw apples, strawberries, and some cherries".

Then that indefatigable artist Daniel strolled along to Mey in 1821 or so and this time the impression of the traveller are not in words but in pictures - and a bare place it looked then.

But Barrogil really came into its own on that day in 1876 when the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) stayed there as the guests of the fourteenth Earl and Countess of Caithness. They had come to Caithness to open the new bridge over the river at Wick and to open an Exhibition in Thurso. Both royal guests planted a tree in the grounds to commemorate their visit, and it is said his tree has grown better than hers!


The gardens of the Castle of Mey have long been famous as we have already seen. In a booklet entitled the "Castle of Mey" published shortly after its purchase by the Queen Mother the late Christina Keith M.A. (Oxon) describes in full detail and in vivid language the beauty of the gardens of old Barrogil.


An excellent ground plan of the Castle is shown in the Inventory of Ancient Monuments of Caithness (1911). It shows in lighter shade the modern additions as well. In form it is a very typical example of the Scottish Z plan castle of the sixteenth century. The original doorway faced the sea and on that side of the house there is a large courtyard measuring sixty seven feet by forty two feet, also original with a round arched entrance. The ground floor of the main block comprises two cellars and the kitchen all of which are vaulted. The kitchen has a massive fire-place measuring twelve feet six inches wide and six feet in depth.

As always the great hall is on the first floor above the two cellars and extends to forty feet by eighteen. A private room opens off it which is over the kitchen. The upper floors are devoted to bedrooms. Of the two tower "jambs" of the Z plan one on the north west corner contains the spiral stairway which is a large and roomy one with vaulting at the top. The south east tower begins at ground level as a vaulted cellar with rooms thereafter as it rises upward. It is in the north west tower at the foot of the spiral stair that the original entrance was. A porch now shelters this entrance and another large porch on the south front of the castle now contains the main entrance and hall. All the original windows have been enlarged.


CURLE Inventory of Ancient Monuments of Caithness HMSO 1911
CALDER History of Caithness Rae 1887
MACGIBBON & ROSS The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland Douglas 1889
ANDERSON The Scottish Nation (3 vols.) Methuen 1867
INNES Tartans of the Clans and Families of Scotland Johnston 1938
ROSS The Castles of Scotland Letts & Co. 1973
MUNRO Kinsmen and Clansmen Johnston& Brown 1971
DONALDSON Caithness in the Eighteenth Century Moray Press 1938
HENDERSON Caithness Family History Douglas 1884