Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is a magnificently imposing edifice built on a fin of rock projecting almost parallel with the nearby shore, about a mile west of Noss Head and a little less than three miles (though further by road) north of Wick. The story of the castle is closely associated with the story of the Sinclair family, who became the Earls of Caithness and the Earls of Orkney and had estates and castles as far afield as Kirkwall in Orkney and Roslin, south of Edinburgh, where they built both Rosslyn Castle and Rosslyn Chapel.
In 1379, the Earldom of Orkney passed by marriage to Henry Sinclair. It was probably him who first built a castle here which he called Castle Girnigoe. As originally built, the west end of the castle was where you see the imposing tower house which now stands - rather ironically - near the east end of the main standing ruins. It was accompanied by a long range of buildings (largely now gone) comprising an inner ward which ran further out along the fin of rock. The castle was protected at its western, landward, end by a deep rock-cut ditch and a drawbridge immediately to the west of the tower house. The castle would have been served by a small sheltered harbour in the inlet which is still obvious today. (Continues below images...)
Castle Girnigoe was remodelled and redeveloped in the 1400s. During this period the castle's footprint was extended significantly to the west by the cutting of a new and much deeper rock-cut ditch; and a new outer ward was constructed on the defended land that this made available. This was accessed by another drawbridge at its western end, where the access bridge is today, and a defended barbican was built at the landward end of this new drawbridge.
In the 1500s and the first half of the 1600s the castle continued to be extensively reworked, with major improvements being made to most of it, especially to the tower house. Much of this work was done under George Sinclair, the 5th Earl of Caithness, also known as the "Wicked Earl". He had a habit of engaging in feuds and battles with his neighbours, especially with Clan Gunn. It was as a result of one of the feuds that the Earl of Sutherland burnt Wick in 1588 and besieged Castle Girnigoe for 12 days, without success.
Such were the improvements made to the castle that in 1606 the 5th Earl gained an Act of Parliament allowing him to change Castle Girnigoe's name to Castle Sinclair. What's in a name? Centuries of confusion, apparently. In 1700 the castle was visited by the Reverend John Brand, who was visiting Caithness with the Commissioners of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. He subsequently wrote an account which said: "upon the south side of the bay next to Wick have been two strong castles joined to one another by a draw bridge, called Castle Sinclair and Girnigoe..."
Thus was born the misunderstanding that there had been two different castles here, the original Castle Girnigoe and the later Castle Sinclair: rather than one castle that was extended and then renamed. This misunderstanding extends as far as Ordnance Survey maps produced as recently as 2004 (though not the current ones) and Historic Environment Scotland's online Scheduled Monument designation. The move to refer to the castle as Castle Sinclair Girnigoe seems a good way of clarifying the position, albeit at the cost of a slightly unwieldy name.
In 1651 the castle was occupied by troops of Cromwell's English parliamentary army, who did not treat it well. Its decline continued as a result of a family dispute about a claim to the Earldom of Caithness by Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy in 1677. In 1680 this culminated in the arrival at the castle of a party of men led by George Sinclair of Keiss, who stripped it of roofs, floors and furniture.
It's a pleasant half mile walk from the parking area beside the Noss Head Lighthouse access road to the castle itself. Though it's visible from quite some way off, you only really get a sense of the castle's position atop a fin of rock when you get quite close. There are only low level remains of the original inner ward, so the most obvious structure as you approach is the tower house, whose very substantial remains still stand to at least five storeys in height. Access is via a bridge built in 2008 over the second rock-cut ditch to the outer ward. The remains here are significant, but a little difficult to understand without the help of the excellent interpretative boards. Access is not possible beyond the outer ward to the tower house, but you can get a real sense of just how vertiginous the location is. This would not have been a great place to be a sleep-walker.