Old Wick Castle Index

Caithness Castles Intro


 4. Oldwick and Berriedale Castles - The Cheynes, Sutherlands of Duffus, and the Olpihants
D B Miller

The Castles
On the rugged east coast of Caithness, standing approximately twenty four miles apart are the ruins of two of the most ancient castles in the north of Scotland having their origins in the Norse, occupation era Oldwick and Berriedale castles are dealt with together in this article as throughout almost the whole period of their occupation they were under the ownership of the same families. The lairds of Oldwick were also the lairds of Berriedale and many other large estates, which covered about a quarter of Caithness. No documentary evidence exists regarding the very early history of the castles but Wick is frequently mentioned in the Sagas and we know that often many of the prominent personages of the Norse ruling class spent the winter months in Wick which would appear to have been the Norsemen's Riviera.

The Second Sir Reginald de Cheyne
Oldwick and Berriedale first cross the pages of documented history in the middle of the fourteenth century when both strongholds came into the possession of Sir Reginald de Cheyne, variously known as Le Cheyne and Lord Chien. The Cheyne family are of Norman descent. The second Sir Reginald de Cheyne - there were three of the same name in a row, which has confused historians - was a nephew of John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch who was killed by King Robert the Bruce at Dumfries in 1305. Sir Reginald (II) was one of the great Magnates of Scotland taking the fullest part in the affairs of state during the troubled times following the death of the young Maid of Norway and the aggressive wars of King Edward I of England. He held the office of Great Chamberlain of Scotland. His brother Henry de Cheyne was Bishop of Aberdeen and whilst adorning that ecclesiastical office also made his name in more secular activities, for among his achievements was the building of the famous bridge over the Don - the celebrated Brig o’ Balgownie which still stands.The Cheynes, by most fortunate Marriages and extensive grants of land from King Robert the Bruce, were the owners of immense estates which stretched into the counties of Moray, Aberdeenshire and Caithness. Of the latter county, at one stage, they owned about half. The vast northern properties were inherited by the second Sir Reginald whose wife was Mary of Duffus, daughter and heiress of line of Freskyn de Moravia whose seats were Duffus (Dove-house) Castle in Morayshire and Inverugie Castle in Aberdeenshire. The mother of Mary of Duffus, the wife of Freskin, was Lady Johana of Strathnaver believed to be daughter or grand-daughter of Earl John 24th Earl of Caithness of the old Norse line who lived principally at Braal Castle and who was murdered in 1231 at Thurso. The large properties in Caithness were her share of the lands of the Earldom. It was the third Sir Reginald who, despite the fact that he had great estates further south to administer, spent most of his time in Caithness where, as well as owning Oldwick and Berriedale, he is credited with building two new ones, Dirlot and a hunting castle or lodge at Loch More. Earlier he had been taken prisoner fighting for King David II at Halidon Hill in 1333. King David confirmed by a royal charter his Caithness possessions.

The Third Sir Reginald de Cheyne
The third Sir Reginald de Cheyne had no sons but left two daughters who were his co-heiresses. There is a story of how he was so terribly anxious to have a son that when he was told of the birth of his daughters he ordered each to be destroyed in turn. However, his wife had them conveyed to a safe place and years later at a great public festival he noticed two young ladies of singular beauty. On asking who they were he was surprised to be told that they wore his own two daughters. He was overcome with joy and constituted then heiresses of his great possessions. The story however, does not have the ring of truth about it as Sir Reginald had a reputation of being a highly civilised man - a signatory of the famous Declaration of Arbroath and a close friend of both King Robert the Bruce and of his son David II. He died in 1350, and lies buried in the old chapel at Olgrinbeg, Scotscalder. ('The Early Ecclesiastical Remains of Halkirk Parish', Caithness Field Club Bulletin Vol. 1, 58p 1975). At his death Sir Reginald owned the whole modern estate of Langwell and most of the parish of Latheron, and Wick up to Keiss Bay and beyond Ackergill and Reiss; in Watten Lynegar, Dunn, Bilbster, and others; in Halkirk, Sibster, Lieurary, Gerston, Baikcaik (Harpsdale), Scotscalder, North Calder, and Banniskirk; in Reay Lybster, Borrowston, Forss, and part of Skaill and Brawlbin; in Thurso Clairdon, Murkle, Sordale, Aimster, Ormlie, and Thurso fishings; in Dunnet Rattar, Haland, Hallandmaik, Corsback, Ham and Swiney (Lochend) and in Canisbay Brabstermire, Duncansby and Sleiklie (Slickly). These lands were equally divided between his daughters. Miarieta, the elder, married first Sir John Douglas and, after his death without issue, John de Keith Great Marishal of Scotland, and her portion was Inverugie Castle, Aberdeen, and Ackergill and Forse and other estates in Caithness. Marjory the younger daughter became heiress to Duffus Castle, Moray, and Oldwick and Berriedale Castles in Caithness. She married Nicolas Sutherland second son of Kenneth, third Earl of Sutherland and thereby founded the ancient and famous Scottish family of Sutherland of Duffus, afterwards the Lords Duffus who had added to their Sutherland coat of arms that of Cheyne as well. Although the Cheynes became extinct in the male line in Caithness offshoots had earlier branched off to found the lines of the lairds of Arnage, Esselmont, Straloch, Dundarg, Pilfichie etc..

The Line of Marjory de Cheyne
For the purpose of this article we shall follow only the fortunes of the line of the younger daughter Marjory. She and her husband had two sons, the older of whom died before his father. Henry the second son succeeded to the estates. Henry's sons Alexander third laird of the family married Morella daughter and heiress of Chisholme of Chisholme in Berwickshire with whom he got the barony of Quarrelwood in Nairn. They had two sons and a daughter. Alexander the elder son, had a daughter only, Christian. Wi11iam the second son succeeded to his mother's estate of Quarrelwood and when his brother Alexander died seized the barony of Duffus as heir-male, but after protracted proceedings both in Scotland and in Rome a compromise was reached whereby the properties were divided between the claimants. William got Duffus and the Tarboll estates in Sutherland while his niece Christian inherited the Caithness estates. William was the laird of Duffus who was killed in Thurso in 1529. Christian Sutherland married William Oliphand afterwards designated of Berriedale.

The Oliphants
The first Oliphant, originally spelled Olifard, was David de Olifard, believed to be of Norman descent who was a god-son of King David I. He saved the King’s life at the siege of Winchester Castle when it was attacked by the array of King Stephen. He was rewarded with grants of land in Roxburghshire and the office of justiciary of Lothian, the first to hold that office. There followed a distinguished line of nine generations until about 1458. Laurence Oliphant was created the first Lord Olipliant by James II. It was the second son of this first peer who married the heiress of Oldwick and Berriedale castles. The couple had one son, Andrew, who was the next laird, but he having three daughters only, resigned his Caithness estates to his cousin and chief, the third Lord Oliphant on condition that his lordship should provide suitable matches and tochers for his daughters. This was in 1520. Laurence, fourth Lord Oliphant spent most of his time in Caithness at his seat of Oldwick where he was in constant feud with the fourth Earl of Caithness. He died there in 1593 and was succeeded by his grandson Laurence, fifth Lord Oliphant. This nobleman dissipated his extensive lands, the fifth Earl of Caithness purchasing his Caithness properties in November 1604. At this time the Oliphant lands in Caithness consisted of Berriedale, Auldwick, Ulbster, Cambuster (Camster), Thrusbuster (Thrumster), Hasbuster (Haster), Bulbuster (Bilbster), Stanergill (near Castletown), Sower (Sour), Grestan (Gerston), Brawlbynd (Brawlbin). Thurdistoft, Greenland, Duncansby, and other pendicles, over which he obtained a royal charter of confirmation. The Sutherlands.

Shortly after this the castles of Oldwick and Berriedale fell to separate owners. The Earls of Caithness retained Oldwick but as it was situated within a few miles of their chief stronghold of Girnigoe it fell into disuse. Berriedale was acquired by a junior branch of the Sutherlands of Forse, also descended from the ancient Earls of Sutherland. Afterwards it became the property of the Sinclairs of Ulbster and later still it passed to the Horne family of Langwell and Stirkoke. With the building of the splendid new mansion of Langwell House the old castle fell to ruin and decay.

After the death of the weak sixth Earl of Caithness and the usurping of his estates and titles by his creditor Campbell of Glonorchy about 1680 Oldwick eventually passed by sale to the Dunbars of Hempriggs who had about the same time built Hempriggs House nearby. They were a branch of the Sutherlands of Duffus who had changed their name to Dunbar on inheriting the baronetcy of Hempriggs of that family. Sir George Sutherland-Duff-Dunbar the seventh baronet handed over Oldwick to the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, now the Department of the Environment.

Oldwick Castle
Oldwick Castle ruins stand 30m or so above the waves on a spectacular seagirt rock about 1.5km south of Wick. A peninsula formed by two "geos" or inlets of the sea had to be cut through at the neck by a dry ditch 7m wide. Rising sheer from the far side of the trench the castle rises to a height of four storeys. Rectangular in form with only one room on each floor, with no chimneys or windows except a slit here and there as observation loops, and with walls about 2.5m thick, it has all the hallmarks of an early Norse structure. The doorway was as always in these twelfth century structures facing the sea at first floor level. A spiral stairway in the thickness of the wall gave access to the various floors as it ascended. Both doorway and stairway have long since gone. The floors were of wood resting on wooden joists, which in turn rested on ledges ferried by withdrawing the wall by about 150mm at each storey level. The great hall or living room of those castles was always on the first floor (at doorway level) and a great stone slab laid on the wooden floor close to one wall held the fire, the smoke finding its way out through vents in each floor and, finally through the roof. At Oldwick marks of burning on the stonework would suggest a crude fireplace of this kind was used on the second floor as well.

A drawbridge originally crossed the ditch to the north side of the building, and a lane passing there, after turning right to the castle door carried on towards the point of the peninsula serving a row of retainer’s quarters and other offices on either side. It is said there was once a garden at the seaward end of the rock.

In 1569 the castle was besieged for eight days by John, Master of Caithness when lord Oliphant was forced to capitulate for want of "viveris speciellie watter". This same Lord Oliphant on an earlier occasion was the hero of a legend that has survived in Wick to this day. When out hunting among the Yarrows hills he was surprised by some of the Earl of Caithness men who chased him to Oldwick. On approaching his home he found that the drawbridge was up, so putting his horse to the moat the animal cleared its 7m in one gigantic leap carrying his master to safety.

Berriedale Castle
At Berriedale, the castle there is only fragmentary. The ruins stand on a long tongue of land at the mouth of the River Berriedale and are protected on the north by a deep pool of that river. The sea on the south side and a deep ditch at the neck of the peninsula completed the natural defences. There had been a drawbridge and also a gatehouse, and the remains of an enclosing wall of enciente can still be traced in parts around the perimeter of the rock.

An old writer referred to the castle of Berriedale thus - “Upon a rock at the mouth of the water stands the castle, to which they entered by a drawbridge, and the entry to the bridge was so sloping from the top of the high brae, that only two could go abreast. The entry was very dangerous, the son being on the right hand, and the water on the left and the rock very high on both sides, especially to the north".

Anderson, The Scottish Nation, Methven, 1927
Brown, History of the Highlands and the Highland Clans, Fullerton, 1850
Curle, Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Sutherland, HMSO, 1910
McGibbon & Ross, The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland, Douglas, 1889
Mackenzie, The Medieval Castle in Scotland, Methven, 1927
Published October 1976 Bulletin