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KEISS CASTLE, KW1 4XB

GETTING THERE

WHAT IS THERE TO SEE?

The ruined remains of a Tower House sited on cliffs overlooking Keiss beach. Also visible are various defences of WWII origin including pillboxes and anti-tank obstacles.

NO OFFICIAL SITE

New Keiss Castle. This structure was built from 1755 and took the name of the older fortification. It was rebuilt in the Baronial style in 1860.


POSTCODE

LAT/LONG

Car Parking Option

High Street, KW1 4XB

58.532580N 3.118806W

Keiss (Old) Castle

N/A

58.538194N 3.106391W

Keiss (New) Castle

N/A

58.539003N 3.108558W

Notes:  The castle is found at the northern end of Keiss beach immediately to the rear of the mansion house known as Keiss (New) Castle. On-road car parking is available on High Street and there is a footpath/coastal path to the ruined castle although its crumbling state means there is no access to the interior. The new castle is private but can be seen from the public rights of way.

Pillboxes. During WWII, pillboxes were situated at 400 yard intervals along the beach. These augmented the minefield., anti-tank obstacles and flame barrage.

Scotland > Highlands KEISS CASTLE

Keiss Castle was a ‘Z’ plan Tower House built in the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century by George, Earl of Caithness but was seized when he defied the King. The structure was ruinous by the eighteenth century and was replaced by an ellobate mansion house. The beach and grounds were heavily fortified during WWII.

HISTORY OF KEISS CASTLE


Keiss Castle stands at the northern end of Sinclair Bay overlooking a long beach and was one of three fortifications that controlled this territory (the others were Ackergill Castle and Girnigoe Castle). Allegedly built over the site of an earlier fortification, known as Reddar, it was built in the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century by George Sinclair, Fifth Earl of Caithness. It was configured as a 'Z' plan Tower House that was four storeys tall with an apex roof and attic.


The first record of the castle dates from 1623 when George defied King James VI (I of England). In response the King dispatched Sir Robert Gordon to raid Caithness and, although the rebellious Earl provisioned his castles for a siege, he withdrew to Orkney. All three castles surrendered without a fight to Sir Robert but were eventually returned to the Earl's son - George, Lord Berriedale. Little is known about his tenure other than in 1638 when he wrote to his own son, scalding him for his support for the National Covenant.


In 1643 the castle passed to George Sinclair, Sixth Earl of Caithness. He built Thurso Castle which he used as his main residence with Keiss being allowed to decay. This was only exacerbated when the Sinclairs found themselves embroiled in a bitter dispute over land and title with the Campbells of Glenorchy. First the courts then the King supported the latter, prompting Sinclair to mount a protracted guerrilla campaign against his rivals. Girnigoe and Thurso Castles were occupied by Campbell's men but both were attacked and badly damaged. It was only intervention by James, Duke of York (later James VII and II) that the Sinclairs were restored and even then it took much longer to physically get control of Keiss and the other castles in Sinclair Bay. By this time, Keiss Castle itself was ruinous although some repairs were made over the following decades for some form a dwelling, presumably a lean-to structure, was built at the foot of the Tower.


The castle and surrounding grounds were purchased by Sir William Sinclair in 1710. His primary land holdings were in Dunbeath but he sold this in 1752 and soon after commenced building a new mansion house at Keiss. The new structure, which became known as Keiss Castle, changed hands several times and was extensively rebuilt into its current form by David Bryce in 1860.


World War II saw Keiss rapidly resume a military function as, despite its remote location, the defence of Caithness became a defence priority. The coastline's proximity to the Orkney Isles - where the large anchorage at Scapa Flow was the wartime home to the larger warships of the Royal Navy's Home Fleet - made the coastline strategically important. Furthermore, with the German occupation of Norway in April 1940, Caithness seemed particularly vulnerable to a small scale invasion that would be extremely difficult to dislodge and would have disrupted Naval movements and Merchant shipping. The long flat beach was the recipient of a large minefield - allegedly the UK's longest in 1940 - augmented with anti-tank obstacles plus machine-gun pillboxes spaced at 400 yard intervals. A flame barrage around the mouth of the Burn of Wester was also added which was capable of flooding a significant portion of the beach area with a flammable mixture of oil and petrol which would have been ignited as an anti-personnel measure. An additional physical barrier consisted of large wooden poles - aimed at stopping gliders - which doubled as posts to hold a barbed wire barrier in place. RAF airfields, with their own defences, were constructed at Castletown and Wick. Finally substantial land forces were based in the area with the grounds of Keiss Castle being converted into a military camp (along with Thurso Castle, Braal Castle, Barrogill Castle and numerous other large houses). Only as the threat of invasion receded were the defences cleared - many by German POWs.

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