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The Family Tree - June/July 2003
Castle myth laid to rest after 400 years

From the Scotsman Sat 12 April 2003

HIGHLAND history is being re-written after archaeologists made new discoveries about a landmark stronghold that was once the seat of the earls of Caithness.

They found the site had been built on a century earlier than previously thought, and that two ruins - Castle Sinclair and Girnigoe Castle - are, in fact, part of the same structure.

A trust working to preserve the remains has adopted the amalgamated title of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, as both names have been well known for so long.

Work has started on the first repairs to the castle in 300 years after it was named on a World Monuments Fund list of the world’s most endangered heritage sites - the list also included the Great Wall of China and the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.

It has long been thought that Castle Sinclair was built in the 17th century as an annexe to the 15th-century Girnigoe Castle, near Wick. However archaeologists now say a castle was built on the site in the late 14th or early 15th century - nearly 100 years earlier than thought.

It is believed the West Gatehouse - mistakenly called Castle Sinclair - formed part of a gate-keep tower of an earlier building. The archaeologists also believe the Tower House - or Girnigoe Castle - was completed in the 16th century.

Malcolm Sinclair, the 20th Earl of Caithness, who put the buildings in the care of a trust and has been promoting an international appeal to raise more than £1 million to preserve them, said the information would "heave a boulder into the history of the north".

The study, costing £80,000, was undertaken by specialists at York University as part of a conservation plan for the buildings. It was funded by the Clan Sinclair Trust whose patron is Prince Charles, after he agreed to succeed his grandmother, the Queen Mother.

Lord Caithness said: "The drafting of such a plan for the castle is not only a major step forward in securing its long-term future but also has revealed just how much of its history that we have accepted is inaccurate and has to be rewritten.

"The identification of at least three major phases of development makes that history and the importance of this site much greater than had been previously thought. We now have evidence of a castle on the site about 100 years earlier than was thought and it was a much more important site than originally thought.

"The myth that there were two castles on the site has been laid to rest. It was always one castle."

The report says it is likely that confusion over the castle’s name arose in 1606, when George, the fourth Earl of Caithness, obtained an act of parliament to change the name from Castle Girnigoe to Castle Sinclair.

As this was one of the periods of remodelling, only the new part became known as Sinclair. The report says: "To be correct, that is what the castle should be called but, as Girnigoe has stuck this long, Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is the name the trust have chosen."

Girnigoe Castle was said to have been built in the late 15th century by William, the second Earl of Caithness, whose father founded Rosslyn Chapel, Midlothian, in 1446.

George, the fifth earl, later added a new building, known as Castle Sinclair, to create what was described as the finest nobleman’s seat in the north of Scotland.

The castle survived a series of attacks during the tempestuous Caithness clan feuds during medieval times, but it was ruined in 1690 when it was hit by cannon fire and was never inhabited again.

Following the attack, the Sinclairs shifted the clan seat to Barrogill Castle, which later became known as the Castle of Mey when it was bought by the Queen Mother in 1953.

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