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An uplift for a saggy pair

What do the adjacent castles of Sinclair and Girnigoe, on the outskirts of Wick, Caithness, have in common with The Valley of the Kings and the Great Wall of China?

Well, they’re all on the World Monuments Fund’s Watch List for 2002. And these ancestral seats of the Earls of Caithness are one of only two designated sites in Scotland, and rank with Catherine the Great’s Chinese palace in Russia, the old city of Damascus in Syria, and famous historic places in India, Guatemala, Albania, Japan, and more.

Exclusive company indeed for these sagging ruins.

Inclusion on the list will raise the profile of these monuments, and will hopefully aid the fund-raising already underway by the Clan Sinclair Trust to raise the necessary money for desperately-needed restoration work.

The north wall of Girnigoe is in imminent danger of collapse, and this work is the first priority. Later phases will include restoration work at Sinclair, and establishing a clan centre, a nature reserve, and visitor facilities.

Girnigoe dates from around 1475. It was built by William Sinclair, the Second Earl of Caithness, and was the seat of government for Caithness for two hundred years. It is situated on a promontory on the coast north east of Wick. The accommodation became insufficient, and in 1606, a new wing was constructed, which became known as Castle Sinclair.

The last clan battle to be fought on Scottish soil took place near Wick in 1680. The Sinclairs were forced to give up their lands to Campbell of Glenorchy, Argyll, in payment of debts, and thus Campbell became Earl of Caithness. This didn’t go down too well with Caithness folk, whose rebellious ways led to Campbell bringing a force north to sort them out, ultimately taking Girnigoe.

The Castles were re-taken by George Sinclair in 1690, and have lain empty ever since.

Girnigoe is protected by two dry ditches, behind the second of which stands the old keep. A passage emerges onto a courtyard, where there were many minor – now ruined – buildings. Beneath the main building is a dungeon, carved from the rock below, and there is a sea entrance with steps leading through a cave to the shore near the outer point of the promontory.

Castles Girnigoe and Sinclair played an important role in the history of Caithness, and Scotland generally. It is sad indeed to see them gradually crumbling into the sea, and their inclusion on the WMF Watch List, with the prospect of restoration work, is truly good news.

© Mike Clark 2002

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