|Latheron Castle, Caithness
Map Ref: ND 199334
A short piece of wall 7 feet thick on a bank of the Latheron burn, quite near the main road is all that is left of the castle. The castle ruins were apparently much larger in 1726. The New Caithness Book by Donald Omand says that there is very little information about the castle. He refers to "a legend the King William (the Lion) stayed there early in the 13th century when he cam north with a large army to deal with Earl Harold who was in open rebellion"
The estate was in the possession of the Sinclair family of Latheron, cadets of Mey as early as 1623.
The name is said to derive from the Gaelic lathair-ròn, meaning 'company of seals' because so many seals congregate on this part of the Caithness coastline. Watson, however, gives the derivation from Norse hlaða, 'a barn'. Its various spellings are Lagheryn, Lairn, Ladroun, Laderoun, Laterne, Lathairn, Latharn, Latherin, Latheroune, Lathrune, Laythryn, Letherin, Lethrin, etc. This small fortress was also once known as 'Harald's Tower' suggesting that it may have been raised by Harald ungi Eiriksson when he was created earl of South Caithness by William the Lion in 1184.
The castle was sited on a high rocky outcrop on the right bank of the Latheron Burn and only fragmentary ruins remain. It has been a once powerful stronghold with walls some 7ft (2m) thick. After Harald ungi's death in 1198 the building may have been converted into a 'Spittal' or Hospital, a resting place for pilgrims making the journey north to the shrine of St. Magnus at Kirkwall in Orkney. Harald was St. Magnus's great-grand-nephew and miracles were associated with his death in battle near Wick. When the Maid of Norway died in Orkney in 1290 the English commissioners sent north to fetch her evidently stayed at a place called 'Spital' roughly halfway between Helmsdale and Wick. It was originally believed this was the Hospital of St. Magnus (qv) at Spittal, inland near Halkirk but recent research has suggested it might be a previously unknown Hospital at Latheron.
In the medieval period the castle may have been occupied by the Vicars of Latheron. These prelates had the distinction of also holding the office of Official of Caithness, an ecclesiastical judge who had jurisdiction in matters of divorce, bastardy and offences against the church. In 1438 Sir John of Strabrock is noted as 'Efficinal' or Official of Caithness, and his designation suggests he may have been a member of the family of Keith who inherited the barony of Strathbrock (now Broxburn) from the Cheynes. In 1472 the town of Laythrynkirk was among those Caithness lands held by Mariota, daughter of Sir Alexander Sutherland of Dunbeath.
The Latheron lands were certainly among those estates which came into successive possession of the Cheynes, Keiths, Sutherlands and Oliphants. It is mentioned in 1541 when it was tenanted by Isobel Sutherland. In 1549 Latheron was among the many "castellis, towris and fortalices" in Caithness granted to Laurence, third Lord Oliphant. The latter's grandson, Laurence fifth Lord Oliphant was served heir in 1604 but could no longer maintain his clan's resistance to the power of the Sinclairs. In 1606 Latheron, together with other lands, was erected into a new barony of Berriedale and granted to George Sinclair, fifth Earl of Caithness. That same year the earl made a grant of these same lands to his eldest surviving son, William Sinclair, Master of Caithness, who was raised to the peerage as first Lord Berriedale. On 11th February 1632 Latheron and other earldom fortresses and lands were granted to John Sinclair, Master of Berriedale. There was confirmation of this grant under the great seal in 1633. In 1635 the Latheron lands were wadsetted to Alexander Sinclair, brother of Sir John Sinclair of Geanies, a wealthy merchant who had purchased Dunbeath (qv) in 1624.
The castle was still standing in 1726 but a large section was blown down in a storm in 1911. Much of the stone-work has been removed and all that remains is a piece of walling.
ND 1991 3345 Parish of Latheron
© 2003 M J Gunn.