“ PENINSULA / LANDMARK. Noss Head, Nr Wick, Caithness. „
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. Travel northwards from the harbour area of Wick, taking the unclassified road through the villages of Papigoe and Staxigoe. Follow the signs for Noss Head. You can’t go wrong. The road goes nowhere else. When you have gone as far as you can, you will find a large car park, and a gate in front of you bearing the sign “No Unauthorized Visitors Beyond This Point”. And another, just to reinforce the point, stating “Beware of the Bull”. Beyond this gate is the Nosshead Lighthouse complex, now in the ownership of the Clan Sinclair, and developed as holiday accommodation and a Clan study centre. The lighthouse itself is still fully operational, but it is all done remotely, with the wonders of modern technology. However, to the west, along the wild clifftops, you will see some imposing ruins at the cliff edge. A clear, marked path leads to these adjacent castles of Sinclair and Girnigoe. 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 to 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 good news indeed. 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 these desperately-needed works. 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. Of course, there is far more to this wild place than a lighthouse and ruined castles. The views west and north from this elevated position are superb. One mile west along the coast is the restored Ackergill Tower, now a renowned international conference centre. Beyond Ackergill, the eye is drawn along the vast sweep of Reiss sands, and ultimately across Sinclair Bay to Keiss Castle. And for the birdwatcher, this is a place not to be missed. I
n the summer breeding season, these cliffs teem with Guillimots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes and Puffins. Fulmar petrels lurk in every cranny, and Shags nest on the ledges. In late summer, sea-watching can throw up passages of Skuas, Sheerwaters and Gannets. When visiting the castles, and the cliffs in general, remember that these are not in official care. Although there is a marked path, there are as yet no visitor facilities, and no safety measures. Take great care. The cliffs are very dangerous, as are the ruins, and a slip on the wet clifftop could be all too easy. At all times, dogs, children and drunks should be kept on a lead. Sinclair and Girnigoe Castles can be found three miles north of Wick, at map reference ND379 550. © Mike Clark 2001
Do not go to this place! I have found heaven, in Scotland, and I want this bit of it all for myself. We spent a week in a beautiful cottage at Noss Head and it is the most idyllic place that I have ever found in this country, for me it was just so difficult to return home after this week, that I know that soon I shall be returning there. Noss Head is a remote peninsula three miles north of Wick (about 20 miles south of John O’Groats) in the beautiful county of Caithness and has very little there except an enormous amount of beautiful natural surroundings and an awful lot of history. At the end of the peninsula there is the Noss Head lighthouse, surrounded by the now unused cottages that used to be the homes of the lighthouse keepers before the lighthouse was automated. The lighthouse continues to warn ships of the rocks and steep cliffs that surround this peninsula. If you take a walk along the cliffs it is so peaceful to watch the beautifully clear sea water beating against the rocks below. If you climb down the cliffs it will not be long before an inquisitive seal pops up in the water in front of you. As you watch the sea and the seals, the seals watch you. The brave ones will get out of the water and lay on the rocks, but if you get too close they will just slip back into the water and quickly disappear. On the edge of the cliffs on the west side of the peninsula are the ruins of two castles, these are Castles Grinigoe and Sinclair. There is no gift shop, there is no guide, there are no people, just a great big piece of history waiting to be explored. The castles were built into the cliff face and now defy the elements by standing proud for future generations to see and admire. You can explore the ruins, but be very careful, there is a sheer drop down to the water below and no guard rails. This does make the castles very spectacular, but potentially dangerous. You can find out more information about th
e lighthouse and the castles at the web site: http://website.lineone.net/~girnigoe/onelrest.htm On the east side of the peninsula you can watch the lobster fishermen out at sea going about their business, unhurried but efficient, checking their catch and replacing the lobster pots ready for the next days fishing. Every day the boats come along following the same route and you can imagine that the techniques are probably unchanged for many generations of fishermen who have worked these waters. In the distance to the north the Orkney Isles can clearly be seen and at night the lighthouses on the distant islands seem eerily spooky as if in the middle of nowhere, a signal to fishermen and sailors who may be passing by. In the dark of the night all you can hear is nothing. All you can see is nothing, apart from the stars and the lighthouses there is no light, no neon glow from any nearby town. There is no noise, except perhaps a distant sheep, no traffic, no aircraft, no people. This place is about as distant as you can get from the normal hustle and bustle of everyday life in the United Kingdom. If you enjoy really getting away from it all then this is the place to go, but please don’t tell anybody, the beauty of this place is the lack of people, so keep this secret to yourself.