Things to do in Caithness - Visit the Castle of Old Wick
On the day I visit the Castle of Old Wick, the sky is stormy and brooding, the wind is howling and the sea is boiling and frothing.
Luckily, living in Orkney, I'm used to these conditions and exploring the coast of Caithness in the winter requires the same hardiness and thick layers of clothing to withstand the North Sea forces. The masochist in me actually enjoys being outdoors when the elements are at their harshest as it often means witnessing Mother Nature at her most dramatic.
After a short gusty walk along the cliff trail from the car park, during which I just about manage to stay upright, I get my first glimpse of one of Scotland's oldest castles, thought to date back to the 1100s.
I've seen some people comment that there isn't much to see, but I'm surprised that so much of the walls of the squat square tower are still standing. Let's not forget it is around 900 years old and sits in an exposed position on a narrow headland being battered by wind and water on a regular basis. I know I look pretty rough after just a couple of hours outside in those conditions!
As the waves crash against the rocks below I can imagine that this could be a bleak place to stay in the winter. However, as defensive positions go, building on a location that has sheer craggy sea cliffs on three sides is a smart choice. The remaining side on the mainland was defended by a gatehouse, two defensive ditches and drawbridge, just to make sure it was pretty much impregnable.
The castle's prominent coastal position also made it a good navigational marker and sailors referred to it as 'The Old Man of Wick'.
The history of the castle is not fully known but it is thought to have been built by the half-Norse Earl Harald Maddadson who became the Earl of Orkney and Caithness in 1159.
In the early 1300s it was held by Sir Reginald le Cheyne during the Wars of Independence. It later passed to the Sutherlands of Duffus and the Oliphants of Berriedale in the 15th century. In 1569 it was besieged by the Sinclairs, sold to the Campbells of Glenorchy in the 1670s and then to the Dunbars of Hemprigg who held it until 1910 although it had ceased being a residence in the 18th century.
Today it is in the care of Historic Environment Scotland and is free to visit at any time.
The square tower was once four storeys high and would have been the residential part of the castle which included a hall, living room and private chambers. Surrounding the tower are remains of other structures which would have included servant's quarters, workshops, bakehouse, brewhouse and stables. Indeed, the extensive fortress would have covered much of the headland it sits on.
Standing within the tower I could see the supports for the timber floors and the space for a fireplace further up one of the walls. It does require a bit of imagination to visualise how it would have once looked. However, if you have been to some of the Scottish castles with preserved interiors, it is a little easier to envisage how lavish it could have been.
If you look closely at the walls, you will discover some historic graffiti left by past visitors but please don't feel the need to add any contemporary inscriptions as you will be breaking the law!
The Castle of Old Wick is located about a mile south of the town of Wick in Caithness which is situated on the north-east coast of the Scottish mainland.
It is one of several ruined coastal castles in the area including Castle Sinclair Girnigoe and Old Keiss Castle which are nearby and also worth a visit.
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