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Caithness Field Club Bulletin
Castle Varrich By Tongue
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.
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.
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 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?
Reasons for the Castle's Existence
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?
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
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.