D B Miller

11. Keiss Castle - the Sinclairs of Keiss

Close by the rocky shore on the north side of Sinclair Day and about a quarter of a mile from the A9 road stand the ruins of Keiss Castle. On its site, Calder points out in his "History of Caithness" once stood an ancient fortalice called "Raddar". If such a place ever existed not a vestige of its history survives. Nor does an examination of the ruined tower or its foundations reveal any evidence of a former structure.

It is known that Keiss Castle was built by George the fifth Earl of Caithness who reigned between the years 1582- 1643 a period of 61 years but the exact date of its erection is unknown. It is recorded that of his three castles ringed round the coast of Sinclair Bay the residence he favoured most was Keiss, spending a great deal of his time there.

It was in 1623 that for the first time Keiss Castle crosses the pages of history. The Earl having because of his unruly conduct so incensed King James I that he commissioned Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun to enter Caithness with an armed force. The Earl, whose first thoughts were of resistance provisioned and strengthened his castle of Girnigoe, Ackergill and Keiss, but second thoughts prevailing he boarded a fishing Vessel in the night and made his escape to Orkney. Sir Robert who had advanced to Wick marched to Girnigoe then to Ackergill and finally to Keiss where in turn the keys of the various castles we re delivered to him.

The Countess of Caithness residing at the latter Castle entreated Sir Robert who was her cousin to use his influence to get her husband restored to favour. In the meantime the keys of all the strongholds were given to Lord Berriedale, the Earls eldest son and heir until such times as the King's pleasure was known. The result of the whole episode was that an annuity was settled on the Earl with the control of all the Caithness estates given to Lord Berriedale. It was from Keiss Castle that Lord Berriedale wrote in 1638 to his son the Master of Berriedale remonstrating with him for his support of the National Covenant, the Master being one of the five commissioners entrusted by the nobility in favour of the measure with obtaining signatures throughout Scotland.

On the death of the Earl in 1643 his title and estates passed to his great-grandson - the son of the Master of Berriedale who had died of a fever in Edinburgh in 1639. This was George the sixth Earl who built himself a new castle at Thurso-East and spent most of his time there. Under some kind of family arrangement the lands of Keiss with its castle as well as the estates of Northfield and Tister passed to the son of Francis Sinclair the late Earl's second son who had predeceased his father in 1598. This was the famous George Sinclair of Keiss afterwards the seventh Earl whose name will forever go down in Caithness history for the gallant fight he put up for his rights against the wily and unscrupulous Campbell of Glenorchy. The whole story of this episode in the history of the county has already been told in this series (See Caithness Field Club Bulletin Vol. 2, No. 3). Suffice to say the rival claims of Sinclair of Keiss and Campbell of Glenorchy were submitted to four of the most eminent lawyers in Scotland. Their decision in favour of Glenorchy shows the utterly corrupt nature of the Scottish legal system at that time. The Caithness Earldom was strictly hereditary in the Sinclair family in the male line, even if the lands could be alienated from it, which was also a doubtful question as it was believed by many that they too were entailed to follow the title.

Almost unbelievably they forwarded their decision to the King who accepted it and order the Privy Council to issue a proclamation prohibiting George of Keiss the undoubted heir from assuming the title. George paid not the slightest attention to the interdict, and despite his defeat by Glenorchy at Altimarlach embarked on a successful campaign of guerilla warfare during which he demolished Thurso Castle and partially destroyed Girnigoe both of which was occupied by Glenorchy's troops.

It was not until six years had passed that through the influence of James Duke of York afterwards James II that George of Keiss was restored to the family honours, but not the estates which remained with Glenorchy. The remainder of George the seventh Earl's life was more or less uneventful and he died unmarried at Keiss Castle in 1698 being succeeded by his second cousin Sir John Sinclair of Murkle.

It would seem that after his death Glenorchy by some means or other at length did get possession of Keiss, and the castle was for a time neglected and even ruinous as the Rev. John Brand when he visited Caithness in 1700 stated. A later writer in 1726 mentioned it as being again in repair.

When the Glenorchy family broke up and sold their large holdings in Caithness from about 1710 onwards Keiss Castle and estate was purchased by Sir William Sinclair second Baronet of Dunbeath. In 1752 some years after acquiring Keiss Sir William sold his interests in Dunbeath from which the family derive their title and thereafter Keiss became his family seat. Sir William was a man of deep piety and having embraced Baptist views was formally baptised in London and admitted a member of that denomination. He founded the first Baptist church in Scotland at Keiss about 1750. Sir William preached regularly to his newly founded congregation often holding the services in the castle. He composed and published a collection of about sixty hymns which were used in praise by his baptist adherents. About 1760 he built a short distance inland from his sea-girt home the new mansion of Keiss, but financial difficulties forced him to part with the estate in 1765 to the Sinclairs of Ulbster. Leaving the county to live in Edinburgh he died there in 1767. He was married to a daughter of Sir James Dunbar of Hempriggs and was succeeded by his only son Sir Alexander Sinclair. This is the baronetcy still held by the Sinclairs of Barrock the present holder being Sir John Rollo Sinclair Bt. Sir William Sinclair who had served in the army in his youth had a reputation of being one of the finest swordsmen of his day. He was the last laird to inhabit the castle.

The Castle Today
The substantial ruins of Keiss Castle are perched dramatically above a high cliff about ten miles south of John o' Groats and about seven miles north of Wick. It is a tall slim elegant tower being a good example of Z-plan architecture of the late sixteenth century. The entrance was at ground level but is now gone alone with a large section of the wall around it. The ground floor only was vaulted and this is still intact. The other floors which had been of wood are all gone. There were five storeys including an attic. The tower which consisted of one room on each floor measured 27 feet 3 inches by 23 feet 6 inches. On the diagonally opposite corners of the tower are two projecting circular wings rising to the same height as the main building. One on the north-west angle contained the staircase to the first floor now also gone. The walls throughout are not thick being only about 3 feet 3 inches. The other corner tower ended in a small turret which also contained a stairway to the attic and roof. At the base of this turret are corbelled mouldings relieve with chequered ornamentation and the same ornamentation appears on a window frame on an upper storey facing south west. These details are a feature of castle architecture of the late sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries which coincides with the known facts of the castle's history.

There had once been a shield containing the Sinclair arms over the now vanished doorway. This had been removed and now reposes over the front door of the present head of the family at Barrock House.

CALDER History of Caithness Rae 1887
CURLE Inventory of Ancient Monuments Of Caithness HMS0 1911
McGIBBON & ROSS The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland Douglas 1889
OMAND The Caithness Book Highland Printer 1972
TRANTER The Fortified House in Scotland Vol. 5 Mercat Press 1962
HENDERSON Caithness Family History Douglas 1884