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Field Visit

Date March 2016

Event ID 1040025

Category Recording

Type Field Visit


The castle of Old Wick occupies a flat-topped rocky promontory overlooking the North Sea. It comprises a peninsular of land extending c100m NE by 20m transversely that falls vertically to the sea to the NW and SE and by steps on the NE. The castle occupies the greater part of this promontory and comprises a rock-cut ditch, a tower, two ranges of outbuildings on either side of a passage or yard with a garden at the NE end. Outside the castle there are two small buildings inside an earthen bank that runs across the neck of the promontory.

The rock-ditch is 9m in breadth and 3m in depth and encloses an area 85m in length which is defended by a rectangular tower, measuring 11m from NW to SE by 9m transversely and standing to three stories in height that is offset to the SE cliff-edge The entrance to the castle was confined to the space between the tower and the cliff edge to the NW and was protected by a wall, 2m in thickness, now reduced to footings that ran from NW cliff-edge SE towards the tower in line with its NE side. This wall appears to overlie two earlier phases of wall along the cliff-edge on different alignments, which extended to the rock-cut ditch and perhaps along it, although this could not be confirmed at the date of survey. The line of the ditch edge describes a curved arc slightly forward from the tower. Traces of walling were observed along both cliff-edges on the NW and SE outside the line of the current structures.

The tower has lost much of its upper floors on the NE and SE, but survives to what appears to be parapet level on the NW and to second floor on the SW. There has been considerable conservation work carried out on the structure some of which has been rebuilt, especially on the SW to landward, SE of the slit window. No entrance is visible but the large gap in the stonework on the NE is most likely to have been where the tower was accessed. The basement was lit by a slit window on the SE, part of the splay of which still survives. Joist holes in the NW end indicate that the first floor was supported by timber, but these have been lost in remedial work on the SE. The first floor is featureless apart from an ingo for a garderobe in the SE. The second floor is supported by a scarcement and there is a small slit window on the SW overlooking the ditch and slightly offset to the NW. In the NW wall there are a pair of joist holes for a lum above a shallow recess for the back of a fireplace. The third floor is supported by a timber floor set on a scarcement in the NW and presumably SE ends. A possible window opening on the NE was suggested by a straight edge in the broken stonework, but could not be confirmed. A joist hole was noted on the NE face at first floor level about 1m from the N corner, suggesting a timber platform, which was confirmed on a postcard of c 1925 (SC1149267), which also shows a joist hole at the same level at the break in the wall where it has collapsed.

The NW range of buildings comprises two individual buildings which overlies an earlier structure in between the two. The SW of the two is 25m in length by 8m in breadth at its widest, over stony banks, 2m in thickness and up to 1m in height. It is divided into two parts; the NE part is narrower at 6m in breadth and is 13m in length. The NE building is 19m in length by 7m in breadth over stony banks up to 1m in height. It is subdivided into three compartments. The SE range is 30m in length and comprises a small two compartment building overlying two earlier structures. Traces of a curtain wall in the form of a low spread bank extend from the building to NE and SW. The garden beyond is enclosed by an earthen bank, 1m in thickness and up to 0.4m in height. A shallow ditch, possibly modern, was noted that runs across it from NW to SE.

The tower at the Castle at Old Wick has been suggested as another example of a 12th century Norse tower to match Cubbie Roo’s Castle on Wyre. However, simple late medieval rectangular towers of this kind are to be found elsewhere in Caithness at places like Forse, and there is no intrinsic dating in the architecture to suggest Old Wick dates to the 12th century. The RCAHMS Inventory suggests a 14th century date and places reliance on Old Wick being the possession of Reginald Cheyne in c 1350 as was Forse Castle (RCAHMS 1911, No 495; p. 137-9). Like Forse it was accessed at first floor level, on the basis of earlier descriptions of the structure, the NE wall having fallen away to ground level over subsequent years. The window openings, such as they are or were before collapse took most of them away, appear to be late medieval in style rather than Romanesque, with flat Caithness stone lintels. This is a very simple tower in its features and has few of the features that grace larger towers, such as garderobes, stairs or intramural cells, like Braal for example, so that it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing its simplicity as indicating a much earlier date. Structurally the tower looks secondary in its alignment with the ditch, and early images show that there was an adjacent building beside it on the N that guarded access, probably via a drawbridge into the castle of which no trace now survives. Be that as it may, the promontory site could well have been occupied prior to the tower and there are clearly earlier phases of walling along the cliff edge that predate the present structures.

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