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Scotcrest Blog

Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, Caithness – Clan Sinclair

castle sinclair - clan sinclair

Occupying a dramatic setting on the northeast coast of Scotland, Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is the ruined seat of the historic Sinclair Clan.

Associated with Caithness for centuries, the Sinclairs would first become involved in the area in 1379, when the Earldom of Orkney passed by marriage to Henry Sinclair. Therefore, it made sense for the family to construct a castle in the far north of the country, settling on the location of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, just to the north of Wick. It here that Henry Sinclair would build the original castle, then known as Castle Girnigoe, which would be extended in the early 15th century.

Eventually, the castle would full under the ownership of George Sinclair, the 5th Earl of Caithness. Like his ancestors, George would enjoy expanding the castle, but he would also engage in numerous feuds and battles with his neighbours, leading to the castle being besieged for 12 days by the Earl of Sutherland in 1588. It was then that the castle would prove its effectiveness as a defensible structure, easily repelling the attacks that were thrown at it. Now famous around the country for its size and scale, the castle would soon be renamed Castle Sinclair by an act of parliament, marking the beginning of hundreds of years of confusion, as patrons and owners alike struggled to decide on the structure’s real name.

This myth of the castle’s name would be extended further in 1700, when a visit from the Church of Scotland led to an account stating there were ‘two strong castles joined to one another by a draw bridge, called Castle Sinclair and Girnigoe’. This myth would remain for centuries, even featuring in an Ordnance Survey map as recently as 2004 – and it is for this reason that the structure has now come to be known as ‘Castle Sinclair Girnigoe.

Now using a name that most people can agree on, the castle is once again an important landmark of the northern Scotland.  It can be visited via a bridge built in 2008 and features a plethora of interactive boards, guiding visitors around the ruins of this once grand castle.

Visit the Clan Sinclair Shop

Castle Fraser, Aberdeenshire – Clan Fraser

Castle Fraser - Clan Fraser

Originally given to Clan Fraser during the 15th century, Castle Fraser would slowly evolve from a medieval tower into a dominating and expansive castle.

Granted to the Frasers in the aftermath of the King’s destruction of the former Earldom of Mar into several smaller baronies, the family would waste no time in exerting their influence over the area, constructing a three-storey rectangular house. They would later expand the building further, carrying out more work in 1570. This second expansion reflected the architecture of the time as the castle was turned from a defensible position into a grand mansion – as clan chiefs and families began to project their status through the prestige of their homes.

It is after the completion of this renovation in 1618 that the reputation of the Fraser clan would reach its zenith, as Andrew Fraser would be made 1st Lord Fraser. To celebrate this new title, Andrew would complete further work on the castle, adding two new wings to enclose a courtyard as it would finally resemble the building we see today

Sadly for the Frasers, their fortunes would eventually decline, as the castle was attacked by Royalist Forces after the 2nd Lord Fraser became an avid Covenanter. Capturing the castle at the second time of asking, the Royalists would sack the building, leaving it in disrepair. Attempts to restore the building to its former glory would drain the accounts of the family, leaving them on the verge of bankruptcy by the time of the 3rd Lord Fraser.

This debt would sadly be passed to the 3rd Lord’s son, who would clear the debts that his family had accrued, however, he would do so by transferring ownership of the castle to John Erskine, Earl of Mar, who would only allow him to remain living there if he agreed to be bound to him for life. Sadly for Fraser, this meant supporting Mar at every opportunity, including during the Act of the Union debates in 1707 and the Jacobite uprising of 1715. Defeat during the 1715 rising would eventually cost the Lord his life as he was forced to become a fugitive, passing away a year later when he fell over a cliff whilst on the run.

As the 4th Lord passed away without an heir, his titles would then pass to his wife’s heirs, eventually leading to the castle’s ownership being taken up by Miss Elyza Fraser in 1787. Beginning a further modernisation of the structure, Elyza would pass it to her nephew’s son, Charles Mackenzie Fraser, who would complete the renovation before the castle was abandoned in the subsequent years. It would eventually be purchased in 1921 by the 1st Viscount Cowdray, who would work to restore the Castle, as the job was eventually completed by his relatives in 1976. It would then be given to the National Trust for Scotland, who would turn the castle into a monument and attraction like the one we see today. It now dominates the Aberdeenshire countryside in the same way it did hundreds of years ago, finally restored to its former glory after so many failed attempts.

Innis Chonnel Castle, Loch Awe – Clan Campbell

innis chonnell

Before the construction of the more well-known Inveraray Castle, the home of Clan Campbell would be Innis Chonnel, a rocky island in the middle of Loch Awe.

Becoming their stronghold by the year 1308, the castle would be passed to the family by the MacDougalls – the original owners and likely builders of the structure. This transfer of power would occur after the MacDougalls opposed the rule of the new king,  Robert the Bruce, holding the island against him in 1308. Eventually, the MacDougalls would be defeated, with the castle and the Lordship of Loch Awe given to the Campbells, as the free barony was confirmed to Sir Colin Campbell in 1315.

The Campbells would then use the castle as their base for over a century, refusing to move until the time of Colin Campbell, 1st Earl of Argyll, in the late 15th century. The Duke would make Inveraray his primary residence, constructing a new clan seat for one of the largest clans in the country. Meanwhile, the condition of Innis Chonnel would start to deteriorate, as it was used by the Campbells as a place of confinement for political and criminal prisoners.

Sadly, the castle would continue to deteriorate over the subsequent years, eventually becoming overgrown and unrecognisable from its original state, it remains under the ownership of the Campbells of Argyll and is sadly not open to the public because of its poor condition, however, anyone looking for a closer look is welcome to hire a kayak and explore the surrounding waters on their own.

Bannockburn House, Bannockburn – Clan Paterson

bannockburn house - clan patterson

Gaining control of the Bannockburn Estate in 1672, the Paterson family would quickly establish themselves as the main family in the area, constructing the impressive Bannockburn House a decade later.

This is not to say that the Patersons were the first family to call this area their own – as Bannockburn is, of course, an important site in Scottish history.  However, they would be the first to truly establish themselves there, purchasing the estate from Andrew Rollo in 1672 to build Bannockburn House.

The Patersons would choose to settle at Bannockburn as it was close to the location of their coal mines, the business that would allow them to accrue a large fortune. This would also increase their reputation throughout the country, something that would be rewarded when Bonnie Prince Charlie chose the house as a place to stop on the way to the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

It is here that he would meet Clementina Walkinshaw, the Baronet’s niece and the future mother of his child. The prince would recuperate from illness at Bannockburn for three weeks before continuing north to the Jacobites’ ultimate demise at Culloden, however, he would also give Bannockburn one of its most famous assets as he would store the ‘Key of Stirling’ there upon his victory in the city. The Key would remain missing for over 150 years  – until it was recovered from the house in 1902.

After Charlie’s demise, the house would pass from the Patersons’ control, being sold to William Ramsey of Barton and Sauchie in 1787. The Ramsays would keep Bannockburn for almost 100 years, selling it to the famous Wilsons of Bannockburn, a family known for their weaving business which produced much of Scotland’s tartan. The Wilsons would add many additions to the house, creating extensions to the building and a new porch at the entrance, they would then sell the property in 1910 to the Sheriff Substitute of Stirling, James Mitchell.

Bannockburn House has since passed between a number of different owners and was most recently put up for sale in 2016, selling for around £800,000 to a team of volunteers known as the ‘Bannockburn Trust’. Working with the Scottish Land Trust, the group would complete the largest community buyout of a property ever seen in the UK. It remains under their control today, as they have worked tirelessly to restore the interior to its former glory. The Trust now offers tours of the house for a small donation in return, a must-visit for anyone with a deep interest in Scottish history – particularly the Jacobites.

 

Caisteal Maol, Skye – Clan MacKinnon

caisteal maol - clan mackinnon

Holding a commanding position overlooking the straight of Kyle Akin, Caisteal Maol was once one of the most strategically placed castles in all of Scotland.

An ancient seat of Clan MacKinnon, the castle’s closeness to the straight would be highly beneficial to the family, as it meant they had control over the safest sea passage between the Isle of Skye and the mainland. Such was the family’s control over the straight, it is said that the 4th MacKinnon chief, Findanus, would run a heavy chain across the water, levying a toll on any shipping vessel that wanted to pass through.

Although interesting, this story about the chain is likely a myth, as the castle was not constructed until a few hundred years later. By this time, the Isle of Skye was under the nominal control of the Kingdom of Norway, with King Haakon IV said to have assembled his fleet of longships in the straight before the Battle of Largs in 1263. Luckily for the Scottish, this battle would be an unmitigated disaster for the Norwegians as their strength in Scotland was crushed in the aftermath of the engagement.

The MacKinnons would remain in ownership of the castle throughout the subsequent centuries as they expanded their land holdings on the Isle of Skye through gifts given by Robert the Bruce after the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. The structure would eventually be rebuilt towards the end of the 15th century and it is these ruins that are still visible today. Originally a rectangular tower house with three stories, it would be an important meeting place for the nobility of the islands, as it is here that the clan chiefs of the Hebrides would gather to sign an agreement in support of Donald MacDonald as Lord of the Isles. Sadly, the power of the Lords of the Isles would soon wane after this meeting and by 1601, the site was abandoned in favour of more comfortable lodgings.

This would not be the end of the site as an important asset for the MacKinnons, however, as they would continue to use it as a key source of revenue, returning to their roots to control a ferry across the strait of Kyle Akin in the early 17th century. Sadly for the castle, while the MacKinnon’s would prosper with their income from the ferry route, their former home would fall into disrepair as it was left abandoned. A sad end for a castle that was once one of the most important in Scotland, it is now no more than a ruin, blending into the rocky landscape that the clan used to call home.

Further sections of the castle have since broken off during storms in 1949 and 1989 and although the structure has now been properly secured, more damage occurred in 2018, as a lightning strike further destroyed the ruins. Despite this turmoil, the castle is still worthy of a visit for anyone with a connection to the MacKinnon Clan or simply a love for Scottish castles. It can be reached by car from the Scottish mainland across the impressive Skye Bridge and is only a short hike from the Village of Kyleakin, with which the straight shares its name.

 

Dornoch Castle, Sutherland – Clan Sutherland

dornoch castle - clan sutherland

Built around 1500 by the Bishops of Caithness, Dornoch Castle is a former possession of the powerful Clan Sutherland and an iconic building within the town of Dornoch.

The castle would sit on the site of the original Bishop’s Palace of St Gilbert, founded as accommodation for Bishops serving at the nearby Dornoch Cathedral. It would be gifted to John Gordon, 11th Earl of Sutherland, in 1557 but would then be set alight in 1570 as a feud between the McKays and Murrays spilled over into an altercation that left the town of Dornoch in ruins.

Despite leaving a scar on the entire town, the troubles of 1570 would leave only minor damages to the Castle itself, and it was then home to the Earls of Sutherland for over 150 years. It would finally see the last of its Sutherland tenants leave in 1715 as William, Lord Strathnaver, would abandon the castle due to its poor state. This would lead to Lord Strathnever spending 2,300 marks on renovations in 1720 – a very significant sum of money at the time. However, the building would soon fall into disrepair and was said to be in a derelict state by the year 1760.

As Dornoch began to reinvent itself as a potential seaside resort for 19th-century travellers, the castle’s terrible state would eventually become a nuisance to individuals in the area – who were set on improving the overall layout of the town. Sitting in the heart of Dornoch, much of the surrounding area was demolished as the castle was given a new lease of life, first as a courthouse and then as a jail. It would also serve as a school during this period as the once derelict structure now had a variety of new tenants.

Eventually passing into private hands in 1922, the Castle would be modernised as it was transformed from a jail into a hotel. Opening in 1947, it is still a tremendous place to stay for anyone visiting the northern highlands of Scotland and a unique way to say that you’ve stayed in one of Scotland’s historic castles.

Fetteresso Castle, Stonehaven – Clan Keith

fetteresso Castle - Clan Keith

Originally held by Clan Strachan, Fetteresso Castle would pass under the control of Clan Keith during the 14th century.

Although the Castle would eventually become the home of two of the northeast’s greatest clans, its history would go back much further, as it is thought to have been used as a prehistoric settlement. While it is unknown exactly how old the settlement actually is (or exactly what it was used for) it has been speculated that it could have been used as an athletics venue or a site connected to the Romans.

Whatever the use of the original site, it is known that the property would eventually come under the control of the Strachan clan until it was taken from them in the early 14th century by Robert the Bruce. This loss of the castle would occur after the clan fought on the side of Bruce’s great rival, John Comyn, as it was eventually given to the Frasers. The property would then be sold to its most famous owners, the Keiths,  and the family would use the stronghold as their seat, extending it by adding a tower house as they incorporated the castle into their barony, along with the nearby fortress, Dunnottar Castle.

While the Keith family were all-powerful in northeastern Scotland, the castle would be inhabited by other families in the subsequent years, as Jean Hunter lived there in 1659. Sadly for Jean, she would be accused of witchcraft and hanged at the castle, a sad and undeserved end to her life.

After this gruesome act, the castle would pass between a number of different owners until it fell under the control of the Duffs – who would expand the structure, adding a building around the tower house. Eventually, the castle would fall into disrepair during the 20th century and it would spend years without a roof after its final owners, the Simpsons, moved out. It would eventually be restored towards the end of the 20th century by a local landowner and was slowly rebuilt. It is currently without an owner and was on the market as recently as 2020 for a sum of £475,000, making it one of the cheapest castles in Scotland to purchase.

 

Why not configure your own clan crest plaque HERE?

Lee Castle, South Lanarkshire – Clan Lockhart

lee castle - clan lockhart

Originally falling under the control of the Lockhart Clan during the 13th century, Lee Castle would be rebuilt many times before assuming its final form in the 1840s.

Originally given to William Locard in 1272, the area upon which the castle sits has been home to numerous different versions of the building, The first of these would be constructed around the time the land was given to the clan and the area would quickly rise in importance, becoming the traditional seat of the Lockharts.

As the family made the seat their own, they would begin to grow their reputation as a clan of great nobility and were fierce supporters of Robert the Bruce during the Scottish Wars of Independence. Following Robert’s death, they would also play a big part in the trip to carry out his final wishes, as they attempted to take his remains to the Holy Land, eventually turning around and settling for burial at Melrose Abbey instead. Despite this failure, being trusted to take part in this trip shows the high reputation the clan had at the time as they cemented themselves at the top of Scottish nobility.

Continuing to live on their estates at Lee, the family would eventually grow their land holdings as they gained the estates of the Earl of Carnwath in the mid-17th century. This only further illustrated the size of the clan as they were expanding the land around their castle, creating a buffer against any neighbouring enemies.

Fighting for the Jacobite cause during the 18th century, the clan chief would be forced into exile as his younger brother returned to reclaim the estates of Lee, staging his death in the process. Eventually, the castle would be refurbished by the clan, as the parklands around the structure were laid out and it was redeveloped into a larger, more modern castle. This would be the last work done by the Lockharts, though, as they eventually gave up control of their clan seat in 1948.

Since then, it has passed under new ownership and was refurbished in the late 20th century. It would be put up for sale on the internet site, eBay in 2004 and, although this sale was unsuccessful, it would be sold for an all-time record price for a private Scottish house as it was sold to American buyers later that year.

 

Mugdock Castle, Strathblane – Clan Graham

Mugdock Castle - Clan Graham

Under the control of the Grahams since the mid-13th century, Mugdock Castle would remain the family’s seat for a large portion of their history.

Originally part of the medieval region of Lennox, the lands on which the castle would be built were originally granted to David de Graham of Dundaff. Wasting no time in constructing a fortification, the early structure of the castle would be completed by 1372 and would be erected into the Barony of Mugdock in 1458.

Rising up through the ranks of Scottish nobility, the Grahams would soon be created Earls of Montrose and would extend their castle to reflect this standing. This would continue throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, as the clan sought to make their seat a reflection of their high power. Sadly, the castle would be sacked in 1641, with the chief of the clan, James Marquis of Montrose, languishing in prison. Thankfully, James would soon be released and he would be able to repair the damaged castle.

This would not be the end of the castle’s involvement in war though, as it would again be sacked after the Grahams raised the royalist standard in 1644. After this, the Marquis of Montrose would be captured and the castle passed under the control of the Campbell Marquis of Argyll as Montrose was executed in 1650. Thankfully, the family would regain control of their seat in 1661 as Argyll was also executed and, in the aftermath of this return, the family would spend two years building a new mansion within the old castle walls, creating a more modern living space for them to enjoy.

Using the mansion as their home for a further 100 years, the Grahams would eventually abandon Mugdock in the 18th century with the old mansion demolished and replaced by another. This mansion would also fall into disrepair and was demolished before the castle was passed to public control in the 1980s. Today, it and the surrounding lands can be visited by the public as part of a country park.

 

 

Moy Castle, Mull – Clan MacLaine of Lochbuie

moy castle - maclaine of lochbuie

Owned by the MacLaines, an unruly branch of the larger MacLean Clan, Moy Castle is one of the Isle of Mull’s most iconic sites.

Perhaps overshadowed on the island by the home of their larger cousins, Duart Castle, it is nonetheless a spectacular part of the local landscape and a worthwhile place to visit for anyone in the area.

Acquired in the mid 14th century from the MacDonald Lords of the Isles, the castle’s main tower would be built in 1450 by Hector MacLaine, brother of Lachlan Lubanach MacLean of Duart. It would be fought over by the MacLeans and the MacLaines in the subsequent years, with MacLean of Duart imprisoning Iain ‘The Toothless’ MacLaine to prevent him from producing an heir to pass the property to. Unfortunately for MacLean, Iain would still manage to find a companion to make an heir and although he was later murdered, she would survive and produce a son, Murdoch the Stunted, who eventually regained control of the castle.

A later Murdoch MacLaine would go on support the Marquis of Montrose in the 1640s but would forfeit his lands in the aftermath of the fighting as he was convicted of besieging and blocking his own castle.

Also falling under the control of the Campbells, the castle would always return to the MacLaines until its abandonment in 1752. After this date, any visitors to the area of Lochbuie would stay in the nearby Lochbuie House, a large Georgian mansion built to replace the ageing castle.

The MacLaines would eventually sell the property in the 20th century and, although it has suffered many years of neglect, it is now being restored and consolidated under the watchful eye of the Mull Historical and Archaeological Society.