Keiss Castle (Scotland)

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Keiss Castle occupies the very edge of a low cliff above a rocky shoreline on the Caithness coast a few miles north of Wick. To the south is the long sandy shore of Sinclair’s Bay, which provides an extensive area suitable for beaching small boats, and at the southern end of this is Ackergill Tower. The site is defensive, but doesnt appear to have a wider strategic purpose. As with all these Caithness castles, their location is reflective of the fact that the principal method of travel in this part of Scotland was by boat.

Keiss Castle is a rectangular tower house of the 16th century with two projecting round towers at diagonally opposed corners. The longer axis of the central block runs NW-SE, and the northern corner of the tower has completely collapsed, revealing the vaults and inside of the building. On the SE gable a round tower has been added which projects only slightly to the east, restricted by the shape of the section of cliff the castle is built on. The other round tower is built at the western end of the SW wall, and does not project at all to the north, with the wall at this point a continuation of the gable. The basement of the tower is vaulted, and it rises to four storeys with an attic above. The building above the vault is a shell since all the internal floors have been lost. The entrance to the castle was at ground floor level, and unusually was not protected by the flanking towers, instead it was in the collapsed NE section. There are a number of decorative features within the masonry including chequered corbelling and a herladic panel at the top of the SE gable. Parts of the clifftop adjacent have been stabilised with masonry of uncertain date, and it is possible that the tower was at one time associated with a courtyard of buildings to shoreward, the cliff-masonry reflecting this along with a possible back door to the shore.

The castle is said by a prominent 19th century Caithness historian to have been built on the site of an earlier fortification known as Raddar by the 5th Earl of Caithness, George Sinclair, although no evidence for this structure or other reference to it is known today; and it may be that the earlier fortification was one of the two brochs on the shoreline to the south. The construction date is believed to have been towards the end of the 16th or early 17th century, but the exact date is unknown as Earl George was in power for over 60 years! The first mention of the castle is in 1623, when Earl George is reported to have strengthened his three castles of Sinclair, Ackergill and Keiss prior to the arrival of Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun on a punitive expedition ordered by James VI, who was annoyed at the consistent unruly behaviour of the earl. However, he thought better of resistance and fled to Orkney, leaving the Countess to hand over the keys to Gordon. When Earl George died in 1643, Keiss Castle – and the rest of his estates were inherited by his grandson, another George. However the 6th earl preferred to live in his new home at Thurso, and granted Keiss to his cousin George. When Earl George died, the earldom was heavily in debt, and he had disponed the title and estate to John Campbell of Glenorchy, his principal creditor. However George of Keiss disputed this, and in 1681 judgement was found in his favour, and he was declared 7th earl. When he died in 1698 at Keiss Castle, he was succeeded by his second cousin John Sinclair of Murkle, but Keiss appears to have been in the possession of Glenorchy, now Earl of Breadalbane. In 1700 the castle was described as “ruinous” by a visitor, and in 1710 Keiss was sold by the ninth earl to William Sinclair of Dunbeath, who sold Dunbeath in 1752 and moved to Keiss, which was in use again by 1726. Finding it inconvenient and outdated once in residence permanently, he built himself a new home shortly afterwards, which forms the core of the new building, also called Keiss Castle, a short distance away. There is no evidence that the building was plundered for materials to build the new house, but it seems quite possible that the slates were reused, which would have exposed the inside of the old castle to the elements, leading to an inevitable decline. The date at which the northern corner collapsed is unknown, but continued fall of masonry within the building means that it is fenced off for safety reasons.

Images of the castle

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Useful infos

Latitude: 58.5380236
Longitude: -3.1063224
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Map of Keiss Castle