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Varrich Castle (Scotland)

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Castle ruins located near Tongue in northern Scotland

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      21.09.2010 07:45
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      The remains of a 1,000 year old castle

      The remains of Varrich Castle stand in an elevated position on the lower slopes of Ben Loyal overlooking the village of Tongue in northern Scotland.

      When I visited Tongue recently (July 2010) I knew about the existence of the castle as it is marked on most local maps but I wasn't sure if there would be a way to reach it or not. Therefore I was pleased when I spotted the footpath sign opposite the village stores that said "Footpath to Castle Varrich". The footpath drops down to a river where there is a wooden bridge to cross it and then it starts to climb up through Varrich Woods. It isn't a particularly difficult walk and the footpath is of quite a good standard but it is probably about a two-mile walk before you reach the castle. I think it took about 30 minutes walking at a steady pace. The castle is visible perched on a rocky outcrop throughout the walk so you can see it getting closer and there is no danger of getting lost. A certain level of fitness is however required to complete the walk as there are a couple of wooden fence stiles to clamber over.

      There isn't a lot left of the castle today but it is thought to be over 1,000 years old. We know that it was once the seat of the chief of the Clan Mackay but its precise origins are not known. During the 14th century the Mackays occupied the site and most of the remains originate from around this time but it seems that they probably built their castle on the site of an old Norse fort. It was also used by the Bishops of Caithness as a place where they stopped over whilst travelling between their main residences at Balnakiel near Durness and Scrabster. It is one of the oldest surviving stone buildings in mainland Scotland and has been designated as a protected Ancient Monument for over a century.

      The best things about Varrich Castle is that the walk as it is very tranquil. The woods are full of birds and other wildlife and there is a good chance that you might spot some Red Deer on the surrounding hills. I saw quite a few. The other highlight is the fantastic view once you finally reach it. Looking back the way that you have come you will see Tongue in the distance and a little to the left you can look right out across the Kyle of Tongue towards the sea and the rocky coastline. Looking the other way there is more water as the Kyle of Tongue makes its way inland. The Kyle of Tongue is a large tidal estuary that reaches inland for about 30 miles. When I visited the tide was out exposing vast areas of sandbanks. The downside of this place is that the midges can be quite bad and I received quite a few bits from the nasty things.

      It is possible to scramble right up the ruin and you can even go inside it. Parts of the outer walls are quite well preserved and you can look through the slits in the wall but there is no roof. I was surprised how small it was inside but originally the castle would have two floors plus an attic. The odd thing is that there is no door into the interior at ground level so it is necessary to climb up the structure about a metre or so and scramble through a gap. This is probably explained by the fact that what we see today as ground level was actually the basement of the castle, which would have been used to stable horses and cattle. Underneath the castle there are several caves, none of which are now accessible. The walls are constructed out of local stone and are 1.5 metres thick and the shape of the building is roughly square measuring about 7 metres by 7.5 metres.

      The origins of the name are not clear although its Gaelic name Caisteal Bharraich has given rise to its anglicised name as the "Bh" in Gaelic is always pronounced like the English "v" when it is at the front of a word. It is possible that the root of the name might be from the Norse word "Beruvik" but another possibility is that it is from the Gaelic for "Castle of the Lochaber Man". This is most likely as the caves beneath the castle are known locally as "Leabaidh Eoin Abraich" or "Ian of Lochaber's bed" and it is thought that "Abraich" could have become "Bharraich" over the years. Iain Abraich was the son of a Mackay chief, he was born in Lochaber but is known to have frequented the castle.

      Varrich castle is free to visit and is accessible at all times. If you are in the area and fancy a nice walk I would recommend a visit.

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