The Out About Scotland complete guide to Castle Sinclair Girnigoe in Caithness, North Scotland
Suitable for ages: 5 to 10 years, 11 to 18 years, 18+ years, 65+ years
Ideal for: Couples, Families, Groups, Solo travellers
I rate it: 7 out of 10
About Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe can be found roughly three miles north of Wick on the far north-east coast of Scotland.
This is a region that’s sparsely populated and generally considered to be less tourist-worthy than many other parts of Scotland, but I reckon that’s a shame as the area has a lot to offer visitors, especially when it comes to historic sites.
This castle (actually castles – more on that later) stands on one of the most dramatic viewpoints in Scotland (in my humble opinion) with a wild and windswept coastline that instantly brings to mind a scene from Game of Thrones rather than a tourist attraction thanks to its near-impenetrable cliff-face setting.
If there really were a King of the North, he could do a lot worse than make this fortress the seat of his kingdom.
As a defensive location it’s hard to beat, sitting on a peninsula that juts into Sinclair Bay with steep cliffs below that would have made a seaward attack almost impossible, while the narrow landward side would have been easy to defend.
The history of the castle is pretty interesting and it’s something you’ll learn about during your visit thanks to the information boards installed throughout the site.
Unlike most Scottish castles, the visitor facilities here haven’t been installed by Historic Environment Scotland and are instead part of a restoration programme run by the privately-managed The Clan Sinclair Trust.
The trust has done a magnificent job of reversing the effects of erosion caused by the high winds coming off the bay and they’ve also installed a sturdy bridge so that visitors can cross the dry moat that surrounds Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, along with safety barriers that prevent the public from getting too close to the cliff edge.
Considering the trust totally relies on donations it’s amazing to see what they’ve accomplished so far.
Not all of the damage to the castle walls has been caused by nature though, as a long and turbulent history has resulted in a lot of man-made destruction caused by in-family quarrelling.
The ruins that we see today are actually comprised of two structures. The first is that of Castle Girnigoe which was built in the 15th-century while the second is the later 17th-century Castle Sinclair, but both are part of the legacy of the Earls of Caithness.
Girnigoe was originally built on the foundations of an even earlier fortification that’s believed to have been used since neolithic times so it’s not really surprising that the Sinclair’s chose this location as their seat of power.
The earlier defensive structure was transformed in the Renaissance period of the 1600s into a grand mansion with the second structure – Castle Sinclair – adding a gatehouse and a curtain wall. Both buildings were connected via a drawbridge that crossed a dry ravine that protected the sumptuously decorated rooms inside.
The decline of the castle came about when the 6th Earl sold it to Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy in an attempt to repay a series of crippling debts, with the Campbells then taking the title of Earl of Caithness.
In an attempt to stop the Campbells using the castle it was sieged and partially destroyed by the Sinclair’s in 1677, after which it passed to the Dunbar family who took ownership but never repaired it.
The continual erosion from the sea was the final nail in the coffin for the fortress and by the early 1700s it had been completely abandoned, at least until the Sinclair Trust started to slowly but steadfastly repair it for modern-day visitors to enjoy.
Read on to discover why you should visit this historic attraction.
Things to do at Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
So what can you expect to see at this ruined Scottish castle when you visit it today?
Quite a lot actually, as aside from the castle ruins there’s a beautiful coastline that looks out over the Noss Head marine conservation area along with lots of peaceful coastal trails around the peninsula.
The walk to the castle is the first thing that hits you when you visit the site as it’s exceptionally pretty, with the sea glinting away in the distance and expansive fields of wild grasses acting as a home for a variety of birds.
I’m no twitcher but I have to admit I enjoy whipping my binoculars out to watch the odd bit of wildlife and I certainly wasn’t disappointed as I made my way along the rough path that leads from the car park outside of Noss Head lighthouse.
Skylarks, lapwings, fulmars, curlew, oystercatchers and many more species can be seen if you stop to look for them while the coastline is a haven for otters and grey seals.
If you’ve got kids they’re going to love exploring the wee coves that have been carved into the cliffs along the promontory while dogs will have a field day nosing around in the tumbling grassland. As a place to take the family, this is a first-class location.
The walk to the castle is a short one – maybe half a mile or so – but it’s absolutely glorious with the silhouette of the castle in the distance adding just a touch of drama to the whole experience.
Once you reach the ruins you can either follow a narrow track down to the sea or cross the bridge that takes you into the castle interior – though bear in mind the place is pretty much just a collection of ramshackle walls so don’t go there expecting to see an equivalent of Edinburgh Castle or anything.
Even so, there’s a special atmosphere about the place that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it was the gloomy skies casting an eery light over the scene but I found myself transfixed by the view once I walked into the middle of the castle grounds, with the ancient walls providing a remarkable foreground to the crashing waves behind them.
It doesn’t take long to walk around the ruins but there are loads of nooks and crannies to explore which kids are going to love, but as the cliffs below are so sheer-sided I’d make sure you’ve got an eye on them at all times.
As I mentioned earlier the Sinclair Trust has installed barriers along the cliff edges but there’s a section on the north side of the castle where you can get down onto the rocks below that have quite a steep drop into the sea. Dramatic, yes, but I’d keep youngsters and animals on a short leash if you decide to go down there.
After you’ve seen the castle you can continue further west along the coastline by following a winding path that hugs the water’s edge or you can head in the opposite direction to explore the eastern side of the Noss Head peninsula on a path that’s harder work but arguably prettier.
One thing you can’t visit though is the Noss Head lighthouse which is off-limits to tourists, but at least Wick is only a 10-minute drive away if you decide you’ve had enough of history and wildlife for the day.
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is a bit of a hidden gem in my opinion so if you’re in the area and looking for something to do you should definitely consider taking a drive there.
What I liked about this attraction
- What a dramatic clifftop setting. Don’t forget your camera!
- It’s a great spot for marine wildlife watching
- This place absolutely oozes with history
My top tips
- Explore the wee inlets that cut into the cliffs as you approach the castle – but don’t get too close to the cliff edges
- Take a packed lunch with you as there are no conveniences at all at the castle
- Wick is just three miles away so also visit the Wick Heritage Centre which is a lovely independent museum
Photos and video
Address and map
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe,
The Castle is located about three miles north of the town of Wick on the east coast of Caithness, Northern Scotland.
Click the map for directions
Prices and opening times
There is currently no fee to visit the castle, though car parking charges may apply.
The castle is open to the public from the beginning of May to the end of September. It might be closed to the public occasionally due to health and safety for the ongoing conservation and preservation works.
- Telephone: NA
- email: NA
- Website: Castle Sinclair Girnigoe official website
Getting there: Car park on-site
Getting around: Disabled access, Easy-access paths, Pushchair access
On-site conveniences: Nearest conveniences are in Wick
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