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Dirlot Castle

Caithness Field Club

Historic Castles & Families of The North
D B Miller

Dirlot Castle,
The Cheynes, Gunns, Sutherlands and Mackays 

Dirlot Castle
Site of Dirlot Castle

Few counties of Scotland can boast of as many strikingly rugged and grand castellated sites as Caithness. These ancient Viking strongholds perched precariously on their inaccessible coastal cliffs fill the visitor with awe and wonder. But even more strangely unique is the situation of a lone Caithness castle deep in the very heart of the county. Nowhere else in Scotland can be found another castle built in a similar situation.

Four miles upstream from the small picturesque village of Westerdale the River Thurso on its way to the sea through the boundless moorland of the western marches of Caithness flows along a narrow alluvial valley with high banks on either side. The valley ends abruptly as the river pours into a deep and rocky ravine, its steep sides rising from the waters edge clothed with trees and scrubs. At this point amid the most wild and beautiful scenery a massive and rugged stack of rock rises up from the floor of the valley to a height of 30-40 feet and on top of it the ancient castle of Dirlot, variously spelt Dilred and Dilril in history, towered its three or four storeys towards the sky. A deep and dark pool of the river washes the base of the rock on its south side, its deep hidden recesses, tradition asserts, contains a pot of gold. The sides of the rock are virtually perpendicular and access to the top is extremely difficult. What method of ingress was used during the castle's occupation is now a mystery. A theory that a drawbridge connected the castle to the cliff opposite on the north side can be dismissed as the distance is too great. A possibility is that a rope scaling ladder was lowered as required and pulled up when not in use.

Cheyne Lairdship
The accredited builder of this extraordinary strong-hold was Sir Reginald de Cheyne already often mentioned in this series having owned about six castles in Caithness and several further south. He died in 1350 after which Dirlot was occupied by several different families in turn.

Gunn Ownership
The next known possessors of which there were any records were the Gunns, in the person of George Gunn of Halberry seventh Chief of the Clan who flourished about the middle of the fifteenth century. He hold the office of Crowner or Coroner of Caithness. (Caithness Field Club Bulletin, Vol. 1, No. 6).

Battle at Altnagawn
One of the earliest traditions that has come down to us in regard to Dirlot concerns a fight between the Keiths and the Gunns about 1470 which took place according to Calder in his History of Caithness at a burn called Altnagawn in Strathmore. In this version George Gunn and two of his sons fell, as well as five clansmen while two other sons were wounded. By a prior agreement the long standing dispute between the clans was to be settled by a fight in which twelve horses and riders from either clan took part, but the Keiths arrived at the appointed place with two riders on each horse with disastrous consequences for the Gunns. The story goes on to tell of how Henry Gunn the Crowner's son although wounded, along with a brother followed the victorious Keiths to Dirlot Castle which by this time was in the hands of a Chieftain of the name of Sutherland. looking through a window on the ground floor the brothers saw the Keith Chieftain and his party quaffing bumbers of ale around a blazing fire and boasting how they had vanquished the Gunns. Henry Gunn who saw the Keith approaching the window instantly dispatched an arrow which pierced the Keith leader to the heart killing him instantly saying as he did so in Gaelic "The Gunns compliments to the Keiths". There is also a different version, also told by Calder which puts the venue of the affray at St. Tear's Chapel at Shorelands, Ackergill.

The Sutherlands in possession
How, or exactly when, the Sutherlands became possessed of Dirlot is unknown, but they were believed to be near relatives of the Dunrobin family although no mention of them can be found in the geneaology of that House. Alexander Sutherland apparently the second laird of this line was a man noted for his turbulent and lawless behaviour. Being pressed for payment of a debt by Sir James Dunbar of Cumnock he happened to meet Sir James' brother, Alexander Dunbar who had married as her second husband the Dowager Countess of Sutherland and after an argument a combat ensued in which Alexander Dunbar was killed. The matter was taken to King James the Fourth who caused Alexander Sutherland to be declared a rebel and promised his 1ands to anyone who would apprehend him. The Dirlot estates at that time were extensive for as well as Dirlot they included such places an Armadale, Strathy, Golspie Tower, Kinald and Kilcolmkill. Alexander Sutherland's mother - the wife of the previous Laird of Dirlot - was a daughter of Angus MacKay of Strath-naver Chief of his clan - which explains perhaps the fact of the Dirlot estate including some of these places deep in Mackay country. At this time the laird of Dirlot's uncle Y-Roy MacKay now Chief of MacKay paid a visit to Dirlot Castle. It seemed to be a friendly family gathering and accepted as such by Sutherland who was known by the sobriquet of the "Red Knight" or in Gaelic "Ruder Dearg".

MacKay Trickery
The Mackays seated themselves at the table in the great hall to a sumptuous feast provided by their host having each a Sutherland retainer on their left and right side when by a prearranged signal each of the ten MacKays present drew a dirk and stabbing right and left in a matter of seconds slew all twenty Sutherlands present. Strath-naver immediately apprehended his powerless nephew and sent him under strong guard to Edinburgh where he was executed for his crime. In this perfidious manner the MacKays were rewarded with Dirlot and all the other lands listed above. King James granted a charter dated at Inverness November 1499 confirming the ownership to the MacKays.

The line of succession of the MacKay lairds are not well defined in historical records being only mentioned spasmodically as one or the other crossed the pages of history. John MacKay of Strathy and Dirlot, a brother of the first lord Reay (the MacKays of Strathnaver was raised to the peerage in 1628) held the lands of Dirlot until his death in 1670. An interesting reference to this laird appears in the diary of Samuel Pepys. It is contained in a letter published there - one of a series which had passed between the famous diarist and the third Lord Reay in 1699. It referred to the incidence of second sight in the Highlands of Scotland. Lord Reay a nobleman of culture and learning and a Fellow of the Royal Society writes "I have from a sure author, a friend of my own of exceptional honesty, to whose father the thing happened and he was himself a witness to it all. John MacKay of Dirlot having put on a new suit of clothes, was told by a Seer that he did see the gallows upon his coat which he never noticed; but some time after, gave his coat to his servant William Forbes to whose honesty there could be nothing said at the time; but he was shortly after hanged for theft with the same coat about him my informant being an eye witness of his execution and one who heard what the Seer said before."

Montrose in Caithness
In 1650 Hugh Mackay of Dirlot presumably the son mentioned above as an eye witness in the strange tale of second sight was one of the two Caithness lairds who pledged support to the Marquis of Montrose on his landing in Caithness. The other laird was his first cousin Sinclair of Brims. He was probably the last laird to inhabit Dirlot Castle.

Although the lairds of Dirlot were MacKays for the space of two centuries the great mass of people in that once heavily populated area were Gunns and the old cemetery on the brae above the castle rock which includes the site of an ancient chapel dedicated to St. Columba contains many tombstones of that clan. About 300 yards south west of the castle on a rounded heather clad knoll is a prehistoric setting of stone rows about thirteen or fourteen in number in the shape of a giant fan. Part of the complex includes two mounds or cairns.

Sir Reginald de Cheyne has been credited with having an inventive and ingenious mind and great mechanical ability. At another castle he had built higher up the river at Loch More he had a machine constructed for trapping salmon as they entered the river from the loch or vice versa and each time this happened a bell would ring within the castle. At Dirlot, according to tradition he contrived by some means or other to flood from the river the base of the rock on which the castle stood thus isolating the castle during a time of siege.

The Castle To-day
The castle was a rectangle consisting - like all castles of that age - of one room on each floor. The interior dimensions were only 18 feet by 10 feet. The walls were 6 feet 6 inches in width. It is unlikely that because of its small dimension and its position on the top of such a high perpendicular rock that it would have risen to more than three storeys but its height can only be a matter for conjecture. The keep occupied the whole north end of the rock with the remainder of the space forming a courtyard which had been surrounded by a parapet wall. This court-yard measured 40 feet by 24 feet. The accommodation for the laird, his family and retainers in such a place must have been severely restricted there being no visible signs of outbuildings as in most other Caithness castles of this kind, although there could have been some hutted accommodation within the courtyard.

Only a fragment of wall now remains on the north side. In 1911 Dr. Curle noted then that the walls were three to four feet in height. Hardly any outline of the courtyard wall now exists. Dr. Curle also noted that thirty feet out from the base of the rock on the side away from the river were the remains of a stony rampart or wall about six feet in height.

For many years now the remains of the castle and all the land around it has been owned by the Sinclairs of Ulbster.


Curle Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Caithness HMSO 1911
Calder History of Caithness Rae 1887
McGibbon & Roes The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland Douglas 1889
Anderson The Scottish Nation Methuen 1867
Cordiner Antiquities and Scenery of the North of Scotland 1780
Gordon The Earldom of Sutherland

Published in October 1980 Bulletin