Site History and Significance
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is a complex of ruined stone structures built and modified over a 200-year period by the Sinclair earls of Caithness, historically one of northern Scotland’s most powerful families. Girnigoe Castle was built around 1470 and additions were added through the early 17th century when the castle was renamed Sinclair. Originally thought to be two separate fortresses, recent excavations and research indicate that the complex was in fact one castle with later additions, and so is now known as Castle Sinclair Girnigoe.
The castle was a cultural, artistic, and social center of this region of Scotland until the end of the 17th century, and was of strategic importance as it was situated along cliffs overlooking the North Sea. During the Civil War, Cromwellian troops occupied the complex. It was later damaged by cannon fire during a succession dispute, and has been uninhabited since 1690. The complex passed out of the Sinclair family but was bought back in the 1950s and was donated to a trust set up for its preservation in 1999. Ruined elements of the complex that survive include the massive tower gate built in the 14th century, a large hall and defensive wall constructed in the 15th century, and a tower house designed as the centerpiece of a major 16th century renovation, which transformed the castle into a Renaissance-inspired fortress.
Challenges to the Site’s Continued Preservation
A lack of maintenance combined with exposure to harsh coastal elements over 300 years, as well as vandalism, have left the structures in the roofless complex in varying states of ruin. Most of the section originally called Sinclair Castle was completely ruined; only a chimney, some outer walling, and an access passage remain and were in need of repair to remain standing. The ruins of the tower house, formerly Girnigoe Castle, were in danger of collapsing into the sea. In addition, the cliff walls supporting the castles were actively failing, and the keystones supporting the walls on the precipice were unstable, further threatening the survival of the structures.
2002 World Monuments Watch
WMF listed the castle on the 2002 World Monuments Watch. The listing increased public awareness of the site and concern for its survival. In collaboration with the Clan Sinclair Trust, Historic Scotland, Caithness and Sutherland Enterprise, the Highland Council, and the Heritage Lottery Fund, WMF provided a grant in 2003 through the Kress Foundation and the Wilson Challenge for the survey, documentation, and stabilization of the castle. Work included the stabilization and conservation of the north wall and oriel window of the tower house and the integration of an upper level diaphragm. In 2007, WMF made more funding available for the immediate and long-term conservation of the castle. The work included the building of a bridge to facilitate construction and visitor access to the site, as well as emergency consolidation of the northwest and southwest corners of the complex.
Since the Watch
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, despite its ruined state, is one of the best surviving and unchanged examples of a late medieval/early modern fortified complex to survive in Scotland. Archaeological work undertaken since Watch listing led to an important reinterpretation of the structure, which has assisted historians and archaeologists in better understanding the development of the castle and this time period in northern Scotland. With the archaeological investigations complete and the castle now open to visitors, the public now have access to this fascinating and important historic site in a dramatic, coastal setting.