Case Study: Sinclair Girnigoe Castle

Cecily Spall and Jonathan Clark

The origins of Sinclair Girnigoe Castle (MHG417) probably lie in the later 14th century, but it became the seat of the Sinclair Earls of Caithness in the mid-15th century until the later 17th century. The castle complex has been interpreted as two separate castles, due perhaps partly to the dual name. The castle was known as Girnigoe until 1607 when it was renamed Sinclair Castle by an Act of the Scottish Parliament. The site is in fact a single castle complex of late medieval origin developed into a Renaissance period house in the 16th and 17th century.

A comprehensive site survey was undertaken to inform a programme of conservation and structural stablisation undertaken between 2005 and 2011 in order to secure the surviving ruins of the outer ward (Figure 1). The tower house and inner ward have not been the subject of archaeological intervention beyond detailed fabric and topographic survey. Across the outer ward, the programme of stablisation works was accompanied by archaeological excavation, which was restricted to the removal of rubble deposits overlying the latest archaeological horizon, which was recorded prior to reinstatement. This archaeological horizon is characterised across the buildings of the outer ward by the accumulation of occupation deposits, which produced ceramic, coins and clay pipes predominately of mid-17th-century date, providing evidence for the latest phases of occupation within the castle. These deposits had been sealed throughout the outer ward and its ranges by deep rubble layers, occasionally containing fragments of partially-articulated masonry which attest to dramatic episodes of collapse. Fragments of red sandstone architectural masonry recovered from the rubble have provided useful information on the form and appearance of the castle structures. The removal of rubble deposits also revealed significant evidence for the layout, development and organisation of space within the castle, and allowed for detailed analysis of the standing ranges and their status and function through time.

Aerial view of the remains of Sinclair Girnigoe Castle perched on a cliff.
Figure 1: Castle Sinclair Girnigoe outer ward under excavation looking north. ©FAS Heritage

The earliest structure encountered during the campaign lies to the west of the dry moat and may represent a lost barbican. Pottery recovered from layers associated with a stone wall suggests a late medieval date. Residual medieval pottery also signals medieval occupation of 14th to 16th century date. Elements of the standing buildings are also interpreted as being late medieval in origin including the buildings of the inner ward (now largely turfed over), the lower levels of the tower house and the sallyport and perhaps the south wall of the outer ward.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the castle was developed by succeeding generations of Sinclair Earls. Associated developments included the ranges of buildings around the outer ward including the gatehouse complex with apartments and service range and the tower house. Architectural masonry fallen from the collapsed buildings provide detailed information on the form and appearance of the castle which included parading platforms, decorative panels and ornate oriel windows. The suite of accommodation within the gatehouse range extended originally to four storeys, though only part of the first floor survives over the pend. Collapse deposits suggest that the main room was provided with a four-pointed vaulted ceiling and the keystone was recovered intact and bears a relief-carved cockerel rampant, being the ensign of the earls of Caithness. Glass fragments and lead window cames recovered from deposits associated with stripping out provide evidence for complex glazing schemes and analysis of the glass points to production in the Flanders region.

The castle was commandeered by Parliamentarian troops during the Civil War and this occupation rendered the castle uninhabitable and by 1680s it had been stripped and abandoned. The troops left behind rubbish middens across the site that date to the 1640s to 1660s. These middens remain intact but evaluation and surface cleaning provided assemblages of animal bone, coins, clay tobacco pipes and personal items. Together these assemblages provide information on the troops’ provisioning and lifeways including a diet based on provisioned food from the local region, and past-times, such as gambling, tobacco smoking and cock-fighting.

The results from the programme of survey, excavation and analysis at Castle Sinclair Girnigoe have provided a detailed record of the monument, significant elements of which remain unstabilised. A revised understanding of the original form of the castle and how it developed through the medieval period and into the early post-medieval period has emerged through the project. The latest horizon of archaeology provides an important if unusual insight into the lifestyle of garrisoned troops and their interaction with the local population and hinterland.

At present, Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is a rare representative of a castle in the far northeastern Highlands that has been the subject of archaeological intervention and detailed fabric analysis. More widely, the castle complex must be understood in the context of other castles and fortified houses in Sinclair Bay and beyond. This group retains significant potential for further research and study.

Further information

Publication of the results is currently being planned.