Notes: The castle is found just to the south of Wick. It is accessed via March Road, off the A99 and is not sign-posted. If coming from the south and you pass the retail park, you have gone too far and missed the turning. There is an area for car parking near the castle.
WHAT IS THERE TO SEE?
The remains of a Norse fortification including a stone tower that is one of the oldest in Scotland. Set on top of stunning cliffs, the castle’s setting is second to none.
1. The Castle of Old Wick is one of the oldest castles in Scotland.
2. The castle was used a visual navigation marker by the seamen who worked the turbulent North Sea. They called it the "Old Man of Wick".
Tower House. This structure was originally four storeys tall and would have been the centrepiece of the castle. There is no stone staircase evident suggesting access to the upper floors was via wooden ladders.
Sited on top of high cliffs on a finger of rock, the Castle of Old Wick had formiddable natural defences. Built at a time when the King of Norway held sway over Caithness and Sutherland, the fortification has been attributed to Harald Maddadson, Earl of Orkney. It later passed to Sir Reginald le Cheyne who garrisoned it for Edward I.
HISTORY OF CASTLE OF OLD WICK
The Castle of Old Wick was built in the twelfth century. At this time, the remote northern coasts of Caithness and Sutherland - along with many of the islands along Scotland's North and West coasts - were under the control of the King of Norway. Some authors attribute the castle to Harald Maddadson, Earl of Orkney and Caithness which would place its construction to circa-1160. Harald was half Scottish - his father being Matad, Earl of Atholl - and it is presumed he sought a family seat on the mainland.
On its isolated promontory the castle was protected on three sides by the cliffs, towering above sea level and was further protected by an almost superfluous barmkin (curtain wall). The thin neck of land connecting the site to the mainland was defended by a gatehouse, ditch and drawbridge. The centrepiece of the castle was the Tower House - originally a four storey structure accessed from the first floor on the seaward side. Much of this once grand structure has now been lost but the configuration consisted of storage on the ground floor, the hall on the first floor and accommodation above. A lack of a stone staircase suggests access to the upper levels was via a timber ladder. Various other buildings, invariably including all the domestic support buildings associated with such a settlement, were built along the length of the promontory. Below the cliffs on the north side is a small beach which would have been ideal for sheltering the small ships in use during the medieval period.
Little is known about the castle during the thirteenth century but, by the time the Wars of Independence commenced in 1296, it was one of numerous castles owned by Sir Reginald le Cheyne, Lord of Duffus. He supported John Balliol and Edward I during the conflict - perhaps reflecting the greater maritime strength of that side - but there is no evidence any action took place at the castle. Wick then passed to his son, also called Reginald, and after his death in 1345 it passed through his daughter Mary to Nicholas, Earl of Sutherland.
In the mid-fifteenth century Old Wick Castle passed through marriage to William Oliphant of Berriedale. It then passed to his son, Andrew Oliphant, and then his son, Laurence. During their ownership tensions increased with the Earls of Caithness and in 1569 the castle was besieged for eight days ultimately surrendering due to a lack of fresh water. The dispute came to an end in November 1604 when it was sold to George Sinclair, Earl of Caithness but, as it was situated just a few miles from his primary seat at Girnigoe, Old Wick went into disuse. It ceased being used as a residence entirely in the eighteenth century.