Berriedale Castle, Caithness
Berriedale, South-West of Wick
Berriedale Castle, meaning rocky ground, is situated on a tongue of rock projecting across the mouth of the Berriedale River, where we found the most picturesque setting of what looked like a set of terraced cottages, but was once the local hospital. You can park here with consideration and find opposite a rope bridge to a couple of small cottages on the bay, where we met a lovely lady who happens to be the local historian. Very helpful for any Castle Finder!
The Castle was developed from a 14th Century stronghold of Sir Reginald Cheyne who possessed so many of these structures in Caithness at that time that his influence on the county was very considerable. There may have been an even earlier fortification on the site.
We found that the whole site is best viewed from the graveyard at Berriedale where there is a convenient lay-by as the main road twists and turns up out of the village going North. From here you can clearly see the natural defensive position upon which the castle was built. It is protected on the Western side by the confluence of the Langwell and Berriedale waters and on the North East and South by the sea. The landward approach, from the lower slopes of Inver Hill, is cut off by a deep man-made ditch 20 feet wide, cut through solid rock across the neck of the peninsula. By all accounts this was a difficult route in and great care had to be exercised in reaching the bridge - even in peaceful times.
The ditch would be crossed by a bridge and drawbridge to a gatehouse on the Northern side. There seems to have been an inner gate, beyond which may have been a killing zone and it is only once you have passed this point that you enter what was the courtyard of the castle dominated by a substantial keep. Buildings abutting the keep were probably a lean-to hall and kitchens and on the other side of the courtyard a stable block and other offices. The Northern end of the promontory seems to have been a yard in which other temporary timber buildings would have existed and the whole complex would have been enclosed within a defensive wall of some 8 feet thick in places.
The name is probably derived from the Norse birka-dalr, meaning valley of the birches or borgar-dalr, meaning valley of the fortress and the castle is almost certainly built on the site of an earlier Viking stronghold.
~ History ~
1330 ~ Reginald More, Chancellor of Scotland, is put in possession of the castle and lands by Malise, eighth Earl of Strathearn. Malise of Strathearn had succeeded to the earldom of Caithness in right of his great-grandmother Matilda, daughter of Gilbert, Earl of Orkney/Caithness.
1337 ~ Berriedale is granted to William of Crichton at £40 paid annually before St Martin's Day (11th November).
King David II allows Reginald More, his Chamberlain, to charge William of Crichton the sum of £40.
1340 ~ Reginald More returns to Berriedale shortly before his death. Berriedale reverts to Earl Malise.
1344 ~ The castle and lands pass briefly into the hands of Reginald le Chen III on the forfeiture of Earl Malise.
1345 ~ Reginald dies and once more the castle is back into the hands of Earl Malise of Stathearn.
1359 ~ William Earl of Ross (Uilleam III) is accused of trespassing, without good cause, the lands of Berriedale in Caithness belonging to Malise of Strathearn.
1400's ~ The castle and lands are brought into the hands of the Sutherlands by the marriage of Reginald le Chen's daughter, Marjorie le Chen to Nicholas Sutherland, son of Kenneth fourth Earl of Sutherland. This brings the Clan Sutherland unprecedented power in the area as it gives them control of a huge swathe of lands in north east Scotland.
1433 ~ Nicholas is succeeded by his eldest son, John Sutherland of Berriedale who dies without an heir.
He in turn is succeeded by his younger brother, Henry Sutherland who marries Margaret de Moravia. Their son, Alexander Sutherland succeeds as third Lord of Duffus and of Thorboll.
1484 ~ Alexander Sutherland dies in and is succeeded by his grandson, also called Alexander. Towards the end of the fifteenth century the castle came into the possession of William Oliphant, second son of Laurence, first Lord Oliphant.
1494 ~ William Sinclair, Earl of Caithness uses an opportunity to over disputed inheritance of Berriedale to plot the seizure of Berriedale, together with the other disputed castles of Auldwick, Dunbeath and Forse. The earl orders his two foster-sons, together with Sir Alexander Sutherland of Dirlot to forcibly take these castles. They are opposed in this action by Sir William Keith, Younger of Inverugie, and the Clan Gunn, leading to a series of battles and fights which engulfs the whole area for the next fourteen years.
1507 ~ The case ends in a compromise of lands by both sides. During this period the castle is held for the Oliphants by a family of Sutherlands known as the MacEachain's.
Head of the family is Hector mor who has two sons, William and Rory. The eldest son William Sutherland marries a beautiful woman. Robert Gun of Braemore with his hunting party arrive from over the hills to Langwell where he falls passionately in love with Williams wife. The following day Robert Gun returns with his men and as William Sutherland walks out to greet him and his men, Robert murders him by firing an arrow, killing him instantly. Robert, and his men abduct William's wife and her new-born child, returning them to Braemore, where she later gives him two sons.
1529 ~ Robert Gun captures Berriedale Castle. He evicts Hector mor, who has grown old and feeble, and installs Hectors grandson in his place.
1540 ~ Robert's son, Donald mor Gun of Braemore, invades Berriedale taking the castle for himself, killing Hector's grandson.
Berriedale Castle remains a possession of the Oliphants throughout the remainder of the century. During this time they are obliged to employ the Sutherlands of Langwell and the Gunn's of Braemore in order to garrison the castle against rival claims by rival Caithness families. Most prominent among these are the Sinclair earls. Years of skirmishes and feuds follow which sees the castle taken and retaken several times.
1593 ~ The fourth Lord Oliphant dies at Wick. The Sinclair earls have reached the height of their power in Caithness.
1604 ~ Laurence, the fifth Lord Oliphant has had enough of this constant warring and feuding, so he finally capitulates and sells his numerous lands to George Sinclair, fifth Earl of Caithness.
1672 ~ George Sinclair's son and heir, also named George, runs up debts to more than 1,000,000 marks. His entire estates are awarded to his principal creditor Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy.
1678 ~ Sir John marries George's widow Mary, Countess of Caithness. He later marries for a third time to Mrs Mildred Littler.
1681 ~ Sir John's claim to the title of Earl of Caithness is challenged by George's son and heir, George Sinclair of Keiss. Parliament rule in George's favour. Sir John relinquishes the title and is created Earl of Breadalbane and Holland. He does however retain the lands and property of George Sinclair, including Berriedale castle.