Sinclair Girnigoe Castle

Sinclair Girnigoe Castle, Caithness

~ History ~

1455 - William Sinclair is made Earl of Caithness by King James II.

1470 - King James III orders William to surrender his title of Earl of Orkney.

1571 - The 4th Earl, George, suspects his heir John of an assassination plot against him and has him kept prisoner in the castle for seven long years. He explains his reasons for imprisoning his heir to the confines of his dungeons was John's 'lenity towards the townsfolk of Dornoch' the previous year. This explanation fools nobody as it is well known to all that John had burned Dornoch Cathedral and plundered the town.

The Earl grows impatient that over the following years John continues to survive his imprisonment and cruel treatment. He therefore orders that he should be fed only 'on a large mess of salt beef, and then, withhold all drink from him, to leave him to die of raging thirst'.

1578 - John dies whilst still prisoner to his father, having gone mad from his torturous treatment.

1582 - John's son George succeeds as the 5th Earl.

He inherits his grandfathers cruel streak. He has two Sinclair soldiers who had been his fathers gaolers murdered.

1584 ~ George receives a remission from the Privy Council for the murder of the two soldiers.

He quarrels with his neighbouring Earl of Sutherland, conducting acts of brutality and cruelty. He is eventually bound over to keep the peace on pain of outlawry.

His cruelty remains unchanged. When servants of the new Earl of Orkney, son of one of Queen Mary's half-brothers, are driven ashore near the castle during a storm, he gets them drunk and then has one side of their hair and beards shaved off, before sending them back into the storm. He is later created Commissioner of the Peace, and as such hands over to King James VI one of his guests who is staying with him at the castle.

He later leads an armed expedition to Orkney to put down a rebellion by the Earl of Orkney, Patrick Stewart, for which King James summons him to London to award him a pension of 1,000 crowns a year.

Upon return to Sinclair Girnigoe he turns his vindictive attention to the tenants of the neighbouring Lord Forbes, who has been acquiring lands within the area against his wishes. He gets Clan Gunn to burn the Forbes corn and let it be known that this has been done by Clan Mackay.

When the Mackay's bring forward witnesses to the crime to the Commissioner of the Peace, himself, he has the witnesses drowned.

For this he has his pension withdrawn.

1642 - Before his death, the penniless George has remodelled the castle and built a complete new range of dwellings within the outer court called Castle Sinclair. His great-grandson George, the weak-willed 6th Earl, wills his estates to Campbell of Glenorchy in lieu of his inherited debts.

Oliver Cromwell sends troops to take and then garrision the castle.

1679 - George Sinclair of Kiess claims Girnigoe as the righful heir and forcibly occupies the castle. He is subsequently forced to forfeit both Girnigoe and Kiess, which are then allowed to decay.

1700 - The Reverend John Brand describes the castles as being ruinous.


3 miles North of Wick


Off A99



The dramatic ruins of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe are gradually falling into the sea. The castle was the home of the Sinclair family, Earls of Caithness.

Built in the late 14th century on a rocky promontory, the inner court of the castle lies on a long vertical sided peninsular with a sea-inlet on the south side. This court could only be approached by a drawbridge over a chasm descending to sea-level and then via a passage through the north end of a tower house occupying the entire width of the promontory. On the south side of the court was a curtain wall over four feet thick.

The outer court is wider and more oval in shape. It is protected on the west and south sides by a wide rock-cut ditch.

Access to the castle is a short walk from the car park. It's not until you arrive at the cliff edge opposite the castle do the ruins dramatically come to life, rising out of the crashing waves far below with cliff rock and castle merging into spectacular view. This is simply a stunning location of real beauty.