Satisfied with my “Heilan coos” encounter, my journey took me to the Castle & Gardens of Mey previously known as Barrogill Castle. Originally built in the 16th century by the Sinclairs, ownership passed out of the family to a Scotting zoologist, Frederick G Heathcote. He inherited the castle on the condition that he would legally change his name to Sinclair. The castle was sold to a Captain in 1929 and then sold again to the Queen Mother in 1952.
The story told was that the castle was in a tragic state and pretty close to demolition when the Queen Mother saw it. The owner at the time desperately wanted to get rid of the castle and just wanted to give it away, however, the Queen Mother wouldn’t agree to that and they settled on the purchase price of 100 pounds.
Restoring the property was a significant project as this was the first time that electricity, water and bathrooms were installed. Many of its 19th century additions were removed, the original name of Mey was reinstated and most of the works were supplied by local townspeople.
The Queen Mother visited the castle every year as part of her summer holidays. She would picnic on the beach each afternoon and collect shells which she would bring back to the castle and place in a bowl at the front door. The castle is now in the care of a Trust, helmed by Prince Charles and it is open to the public except for when the Prince and the Duchess are in residence.
Lying on Great Britain’s northeastern tip is the village of John o’Groats and it may be mistaken as the northernmost point but that credit goes to Dunnet Head not far from Thurso. The village is famous for its long distance route across the length of Britain – named Land’s End to John o’Groats – with the other end being at the southwest corner in Penzance. It is also known for its long-distance walking route called John o’Groats Trail which begins in Inverness and travels north along shorelines, cliff tops and back lanes. The iconic signpost found near the local hotel marks the Journey’s End and a great place to wrap your arms around when a strong wind blows through the wide open space.
This marks the end of the northern portion of NC500. Now I start the east coast portion of the route travelling south towards Wick. A few stops were needed along the way to see several coastline castles. Best do a quick roundup as I’m sure each has a long and distinguished piece of history.
Freswick Castle was built by the Sinclairs in the 16th century on the site of an old Viking settlement. As typical with many castles various alterations took place through the following centuries and the castle remained in the family until the 20th century when it entered a period of decline. Located on the shores of Freswick Bay, the castle was purchased in the 2000s to serve as a family home. Following extensive renovations the property was opened for overnight stays.
A mere 1.3mi (2km) away are the ruins of Bucholie Castle. Located on a promontory that is accessed by a very narrow isthmus with sheer drops on either side, the site originally had a fortress called Lambaborg that was built around 1140 by the notorious Viking pirate and robber, Sweyn Asliefson. Castle ownership moved to the Mowat family around the 13th century and remained in the family until 1661 when it was abandoned and fell into disrepair. Not much is left of the castle but for a daring adventurer crossing the isthmus and then climbing up to the entrance to explore the remains on the promontory would be quite the experience.
Standing on sheer cliffs overlooking Sinclair Bay is the partially ruined Old Keiss Castle. Initially built as a square tower house with towers on diagonal corners, the castle had four floors, an attic, a vaulted basement and tall chimneystacks. Built around the turn of the 17th century by the Sinclairs it seems the castle fell into ruins within a century and instead of repairing it the family moved and built the nearby Keiss House. Sadly a portion of the old castle collapsed when the cliff below it fell. What remains of it seems to be on borrowed time.
Making my way into Wick I went out and explored the last two castles that were both within very close proximity to the town. To the north of the town located on a rocky promontory is Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. It was a 15th century five storey building with a walled courtyard, a gatehouse and drawbridge (now replaced by a footbridge) to cross the ditch that cuts off the promontory. The size of the original castle was significant and at one point it was thought to be two separate castles near each other, one called Sinclair and the other Girnigoe. This assumption was a result of another drawbridge that was located between two main buildings and a dry moat that separated them. Those who visited just simply assumed they were two castles. However, following archaeological studies it was concluded that it was indeed just one castle. It is not clear what happened to the castle in the end but an archaeological survey is ongoing and perhaps one day the puzzle will be solved.
South of Wick is the very ruinous state of Castle Wick. Very little is left of it but it is one of the oldest structures in Scotland having been built in 1160 at the height of Norse power. Sitting on a narrow promontory the castle was a single tall tower or keep and the surrounding grounds would have had several buildings to accommodate servants, workshops, stables, kitchen and what was necessary to manage the needs of the lord and his family. Whilst not much remains a meander gives way to expansive views across Wick Bay and the North Sea and somewhere in the distance is the coastline of Norway.
Scotland is renowned for its vast collection of castles. Somewhere upward of 2,000 castles existed. Of course many have perished by now. Primarily built for defense against invasion the castles were built in strategic locations. However, their ability to remain a stronghold was decimated when gunpowder was invented and their defensive capability diminished. With time and changing needs their original designs as fortified castles gave way to luxurious mansions of which many continue to exist today and are inhabited by the descendants of their original clan owners.