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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

Castle Varrich By Tongue
by Colin McKay

Castle Varrich (Caisteal Bharraich) stands on the foot slopes of Ben Loyal in Sutherland, on a local high point of rock, overlooking both the Kyle of Tongue and the village of Tongue. Its origins and age is unknown. Possibly it was built by the Vikings, possibly it was not.

The plan dimensions of the outside of the building vary, the east and west walls are 6.7m long, whilst the north wall measures 6.9m, and the south 7.6m. More details of the dimensions and sketches are given in the diagrams. The present-day height varies considerably around the wall perimeter on account of the sharply varying levels of the ground around the base of the walls, and the dramatic variation of the wall tops caused by falls of masonry over the years.

The walls are generally 1.4m thick, or thicker, and have been built from roughly squared blocks of metamorphosed sandstone rock of varying thickness, laid in rough courses of random depth. The stones seem to have been laid without the use of mortar, and have suffered little from weathering, considering the possible 1000-year age of the structure, and the nature of the local weather. From places where parts of the walls have fallen away it appears that the construction seen on the wall faces is consistent throughout their thickness; as distinct from the type of walling where the faces have been constructed in a tidy fashion, but between them is a core of rubble.

There are features of the construction that are interesting to consider.
The Site
Was there was an overriding reason to site this building on this particular spot? And to align it in this particular direction? Finding a reason for the location is not easy, because, apart from its obvious topographical prominence, the purpose it served is not clear. All suggestions for practical uses can raise counter arguments, and some suggestions are no more than guesses. There is the possibility that it could be the place that marked an event unrelated to practical usage, e.g. where someone died. Even the orientation of the building raises questions. Was it that the four walls faced the directions of magnetic north, as it then existed? Magnetic north moves about as time passes, and in an erratic manner. Would the builders have known of the existence of magnetic north? It is impossible to trace its direction back into time. Another possibility is that the walls were set out to align with a celestial feature.

The Walls
The four walls approximately face the four points of the compass, but only approximately. There is in the north wall a doorway that looks out over the Kyle and the opposite shore of the water, but there appears to be no benefit to be gained from surveying this view. Had the building been rotated more towards the east then the view from the doorway would have been towards the sea entrance of the Kyle, and in the days of murder, treason, rape, and arson, such a view could have been advantageous to warn of the approach of sea invaders.

Three corners of the building rise vertically out of the ground, as is normal, but the northwest corner has been corbelled (i.e. built overhanging) off a rock. Three walls are straight in plan, but not the west wall. It has a slightly outward curvature at ground level. What are the reasons for the corbelled corner, and the curved wall?

The northeast comer has the highest foundation level on top of the exposed rock. Ground contours suggest that the opposite (southeast) corner has the lowest foundation level. When men build they start almost universally at the lowest point, and progress outwards and upwards from it. So perhaps as the builders laid course upon course of stonework, expanding outwards and upwards, as their work progressed towards the northwest corner they realised that a mistake had been made, that would result in the north and west walls meeting not on the exposed rock, but at a point over its edge. To have constructed the corner just in front of, and partly on, the rock would have given them difficulties in providing a strong foundation for a vertical corner, so they corrected the situation by slightly curving the west wall, and adopting corbelled construction at the difficult corner?

The vault could have been tied in with this situation, because if it is assumed that the south wall was already built up to a level approaching that of the ground on the north side of the building, before the difficulty with the north west corner was realised. The internal length of the south wall would have been committed; and the builders could have reasoned that a vault ought to have springings of equal length, therefore the internal length of the north and south walls ought to be the same, come what may. Therefore the internal length of the north wall was committed, and the only way out of the situation was to curve and taper the west wall, then corbel at the last corner to be set out. The plan below has been drawn from an insufficient number of dimensions, but it indicates there are further irregularities in the construction.

Another reason for the corner and the curve could have been that there were difficulties with the rock surfaces that were available for the wall foundations, and what we see today, only above ground level, is the result of a compromise in overcoming difficulties with these surfaces?

The doorway is tall. Far taller than the height of men who lived approaching a thousand years ago. However its threshold is missing, and the internal floor is of sand with levels varying up to half a metre, so it could have had a lesser height when built Towards the tops of the jambs the stonework has again been corbelled, presumably either for appearance, or to reduce the span of the four flat slabs of stone that form the lintel. Another feature of the opening is a recess constructed inside the west doorway jamb. There appears to be no explanation for this.

Adjacent to the doorway there is an area of slightly lighter coloured stonework, and it has been suggested that this part has been reconstructed1. One never knows what people did, but an area of different colouring by itself could mean nothing more than a change in the source of the stone - it is evident that the building is made of a mixture of local stones. More may be gained from examining the shape of the top of the supposed reconstructed area, and reasoning out how a wall of many small and un-jointed, or weakly jointed, stones was supported above the opening whilst the new wall area was built under it, seemingly with no marked inconsistency in joint width. Further clues could come from 'burrowing' into the thickness of the wall where the supposed new stonework meets the old, in an attempt to discover whether there is a join in the construction, because cutting and placing new stones to suit the shapes and joins in the old stones would necessitate very careful work to leave no physical irregularity, other than a change in colour, at the join. It would be expected that to avoid tedious trimming of stones within the thickness of the wall there would have been extensive packing of smaller stones to fill inconveniently shaped spaces. In which case the join ought to be obvious.

The east wall has lost more fabric than any other. The entire vertical middle third has disappeared above the internal floor level. However it is reasonable to assume that there was a window opening in this wall, from the existence of stones that appear to be the remains of a cill and of a lintel, also from the existence of a 'finished' vertical wall face between these two on the south side of the opening. A very good view of the present village of Tongue can be seen from this opening. It also looks out over the only convenient approach route to the castle.

The Vault
Inside the building there is on the face of the north and south walls, at approximately head height, a projecting horizontal overhanging band of stonework that appears to have a curved underside, and a steeply sloping top surface. These bands could have been the ends of a semi-circular vaulted ceiling. Indeed it is difficult to imagine what other purpose they would have served. Assuming that originally there was a vault, then the general character of the stonework in the building would suggest that wedge shaped stones were not used to construct this vault. Instead it is probable that parallel-sided stones were set on edge to follow the radial lines needed to form an arch, and that smaller stones were wedged into the tapering gaps between them in order to maintain the larger stones in radial formation. It would then follow that the semi-circular shape would be more reliably maintained if earth, or sand, or stone chippings were deposited over the arch, at least up to its highest point at the crown of the extrados.

What was the method of constructing the vault? The obvious, and most commonly used method would have been to build off a timber centring. i.e. a curved timber surface would have been built to temporarily support the stones being laid to form the vault. It would have been removed once the arch was complete. From this follows the observation that, if there was sufficient timber available for the centring, also there were available men with sufficient skill to construct it, then why did they not build a timber floor instead of the stone vault?

Another method of constructing the vault could have been to fill the inside of the building with earth, shape its top to the profile required for the arch, and lay the vault stonework on the earth. Then after completion of the vault the earth would have been removed. This is obviously a labour intensive method, and it would not be favoured if timber were available.

Was there access through the vaulted ceiling into the space under the roof? And why has the vault disappeared? It could be that there was a hole through the vault for access. In which case it would have weakened the arch construction, and with use, also deterioration, it possibly would have initiated collapse of the vault. Collapse could have been localised, and in more recent times the vault was intentionally demolished because it was unsafe? It is improbable that any vertically acting load on the vault, or any movement of the walls, would have been sufficiently large as to cause collapse. Certainly the walls show no signs of sufficiently large movement. The foregoing assumes that the profile of the vault was based on a circle, but there are other forms, e.g. elliptical and parabolic.

The Roof
Above the bands of stonework in the north and south walls, that are thought to be the remains of a vault, there are evenly spaced vertical slots. There are four in the more complete north wall, and two in the remains of this level of the south wall. From inspection, the bottoms of the slots are about at the same level as where the crown of the vault could have been. The bottom ends of roof rafters could have been housed in these slots. In which case it would be expected that the form of the roof was a simple ridge. However a ridge must have ends, and the stonework now standing shows no trace of any higher walling where the gable ends could have been. The alternative to gable ends is the pitched ends of a hipped roof, but if this were the case it would be expected that more rafters would have been used to form the pitches above the east and west walls, and there ought to be slots that housed these, but there are none.

The nature of the roof probably was dependent on the original purpose of the building. Peaceful usage could be associated with a soft roof, i.e. one that would not sustain stones being hurled at it, or resist being set on fire. In contrast military usage would suggest the need for strong, and possibly fire resistant, construction. Between these two is a hybrid construction that externally was weak in defensive terms, but was necessary for diverting rainwater away from the lower stronger incombustible vault which probably leaked like a sieve.

At the southeast corner, above the level of the vault, there is an exception to the general 1.4m thickness of the walls. Here the thickness, as assessed by eye, appears to be closer to 0.8m. i.e. more space has been created inside of the building for some purpose. Another feature of this corner is the that the wall is higher than elsewhere, which raises the question as to whether this height indicates that all of the walls stopped at the same higher level, or whether there was at this corner a higher feature?
At the bottom of two of the slots in the north wall there are recesses that penetrate further into the thickness of the wall. They give the impression of having housed the ends of horizontal timbers. These would have been at approximately the same level as the crown of the vault, but their purpose is not obvious because they would not have been necessary for supporting a floor if the vault was surrounded by earth. Could they have been used to support a weight? For example a wooden tower? Or the equivalent of a warning bell?

Reasons for the Castle's Existence
The building is sited on a local mound of rock, with steep ground slopes on all sides. To the north and west sides these slopes change to cliffs standing at the water's edge (Kyle of Tongue). Further to the east the ground is less steeply inclined, and provides a footpath to Tongue. On the south side the immediate steep slope changes to a low cliff, at the foot of which there is a more-or-less level area approximately 50m wide. On the south side this is bounded by a higher vertically faced cliff, beyond which is an expanse of higher sloping ground.

The possibility that the castle and the immediate surrounding ground formed a defensive position does not appear to be tenable. There is no water supply, unless 1000 years ago non-saline water could have been hauled up by bucket from the Kyle. The cliff on the south side of the level area provides a good attacking position for firing arrows at the tower. There seem to be no traces of a perimeter defensive fence if the tower was a command post for a small force of defenders.

There have been suggestions that the structure was one of a number of watchtowers provided to give warning of attack, particularly from the Sutherlands, who would have approached from the east, and this explains the eastward facing window opening2. However a man watching out from this site, without a tower to assist him, would appear to be no worse off for carrying out his duties man if he had a tower to watch from. So what reason could there have been for the builders to have taken the trouble of constructing a substantial tower just for look-out purposes?

The introduction of the lookout concept brings the idea that the upper part was used for watchmen, who climbed up to it via an external ladder, whilst the lower part was used for living purposes. By modern ideas the space contained within the four walls is just one average modern room size less than 4m square, and it does seem to be small to have housed a family, even if there were other less substantial buildings around it. Even so, why should people choose to live on a rock outcrop (seemingly without a convenient water supply) when there was more fertile land, also a watercourse, on nearby lower ground?
Another suggestion for the existence of the building is that it was built to provide lodging for the Bishops of Thurso3 when travelling to and from Durness. The possibility of these gentlemen using it as a hunting lodge has also been put forward.

The orientation of the building could indicate that it had a religious use. Possibly as the cell for a holy man, and a place from which he preached?

There have been suggestions that it was built by Angus Dhub (1403 -1433) who was killed at the battle of Drum na Cub, and that his son Iain Abrach Mackay used it as a house.

Letting the imagination roam, another reason for its existence could have been that it marked a gathering point. Perhaps where community decisions were taken.

Another possibility is that the tower was a landmark for ships, to mark the existence of an organised settlement.

Use as a grain store has been suggested. Beyond the basic requirements of containment have to be considered the means by which the grain was kept dry from damp rising up the walls by capillary attraction (a height of 0.6m above the outside ground level if the joints between the stones were filled), or from rain penetrating through the walls. There is also the consideration of transporting the grain up the steep hill.

The building could have had more than one use.

Present Condition of the Castle
Essentially it is the ruin of a small building that has very thick walls. Whatever the construction was at the top of the walls, it has gone, as has the roof and the assumed vault. The walls in general have lasted for so long because the stonework is very strong and has a low porosity. The four corners have resisted the forces of deterioration, because in structural terms a corner is stronger than a straight length of wall, thus the corners have reinforced the connected short lengths of straight wall. Give or take a few tens of millimetres the corners are straight and vertical. The weakness of the walls is that the stones are not positively bonded. There is some mortar pointing, mostly it contains fragments of shells, which indicates that the sand in the mix was taken from the sea shore. It is also hard, which indicates that it has been made with cement, and not with lime, therefore it is modern. If it is assumed that the original construction the stones were laid with a lime mortar, or clay, bedding, then it has disappeared. This being so, then if it is assumed that the average depth of a stone is 200mm, and the depth of a joint was 5mm, then the walls have lost 2.5% of their original height, or a 6m high wall has shortened 150mm. In these circumstances it is remarkable that the corners have remained plumb, and mostly straight, as far as the eye can assess.

Ignoring the possibility that stonework has been taken from the structure to assist in the construction of buildings in Tongue (transporting them would have been a slow and wearisome task), then the wind appears to have been the most likely vandal. It is noticeable that there are virtually no fallen stones to be seen around the tower.

The east wall is not in a good state. Not only has it lost the vertical middle third, and one side of the assumed window opening, but also there is a wide vertical crack at the north end of this wall, close to its juncture with the north wall, but on the inside only. Thus the north vertical third of this wall is tending to separate from the north wall. At the base of this third the stonework has been partially undercut, apparently by the removal of stonework that took away the wall under the window cill. The result is that the vertical third of the wall between the window opening and the crack appears to be ripe for at least partial collapse.

The south wall has four patches where the outer skin of stonework has fallen away. In addition there is another area where stones have moved outwards, but have jammed against each other before falling, thus creating a local bulge. This area is near the top of the wall, and the situation can be assessed only visually from ground level, thus it is possible that only the outer skin is affected by this defect. However when these stones fall they could well bring down others with them.

Apart from a large stone cantilevering from the top of the highest part of the east wall, the remaining defects are of a lesser nature.

It should be kept in mind that although the potential for stonework to fall appears to be small, as far as the existence of the building as a relic is concerned, the volume of walling in existence is small.

Colin McKay
Clan Mackay Society

1. George Watson
2. William Alexander Mackay
3. Royal Commission on Historic & Ancient Monuments of Scotland
4. Hugh Cheap

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