Kirkwall’s Castle

Kirkwall Castle 1

Despite the rain and the wind archaeologists from Orkney Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) were scraping and shovelling at the top of Castle Street Kirkwall.

Kirkwall Castle 2

On Tuesday 2nd of April road works revealed the remains of Kirkwall’s castle and some very fine cobble stones.

Canmore states:

“A fragment of red freestone from Kirkwall Castle has been built into the S gable of Messrs. W T Sinclair’s premises at the corner of Castle Street. The shield is charged, for Sinclair; Quarterly, 1st, a galley with sails furled; 2nd, a cross engrailed; over all a cross engrailed. The 3rd and 4th quarters are obliterated. Cf. H L Norton Smith, Armorials of the County of Orkney, p125.

King’s or Kirkwall Castle was built by Henry St. Clair in the 14th century and destroyed on an order from the Privy Council date 26th October, 1614. In 1742 the Earl of Morton granted the stones to the Town Council for building a town house and jail. The last surviving fragment- a wall 55 ft long 11ft thick and irregular height, was demolished to improve access to the harbour in 1865 and a stone to commemorate this, dated 1866, is built into the Castle Hotel. (Name Book 1880.) Visited by RCAHMS 19 March 1935″

The Castle of Kirkwall was built by Henry, Lord Sinclair, one of the Scottish earls of Orkney, in the late fourteenth century. The likelihood is that there had been a residence for the earls at an earlier period, but there is no evidence for such. Built facing the Cathedral, the Castle stood on the corner of Albert street and Castle S.Street.

Its strength is attested to by the Earl of Caithness, who laid siege to it in 1614. ‘It is one of the strongest houses in Britain’, he wrote, ‘for I will bring with me to your lordship cannon bullets broken like golf balls upon the Castle and cloven in twahaffis’ (Hossack, 1900, 25).

The castle was taken and orders for its demolition were issued in October 1614, although the destruction of the castle was not carried out until the following year. James Wallace in 1700 observed that the Castle was now demolished ‘but by the ruins appears to have been a strong and stately fort’ (1700, 79).

The last surviving fragments of the castle – principally a wall 55 feet (17m} long and 11 feet (3m) thick, of irregular height – were removed in 1865 by the Town Council with a view towards improving the route to the harbour (Hossack, 1900, 27). Information from ‘Historic Kirkwall: The Archaeological Implications of Development’ (1977).

Henry Sinclair (St Clair) Earl (Jarl) of Orkney (c1345- c1400)

We have to go back to a time long after the first Norse invaders but before the Stewarts when the Sinclairs, St Clairs, were the dominant family in Orkney. Henry Sinclair was the Earl of Orkney and also  Baron of Roslin, Pentland and Cousland, and various other places in Lothian. The connections are both Norse and Scottish. It is also said that Henry was a successful explorer and voyaged to Nova Scotia. There are more stories with Rosslyn Chapel and the Knights Templar. Rosslyn Chapel was built by Sir William St Clair, last St Clair Earl of Orkney, who was the grandson of Henry.

William Sinclair 3rd Earl of Orkney (1455 – 1476)

William Sinclair became Jarl (Earl) of Orkney in 1434 by King Eric of Norway. Jarl of Orkney was an important position to both Scots and Norse and for a time William was a protector of James, later to be crowned James I of Scotland. He also held offices of  Lord High Admiral of Scotland and Lord Chancellor of Scotland. Finally  in 1449 he became Lord Sinclair. This was still a time when Orkney was not part of Scotland. That was not to happen until 1472. William then becomes 1st Earl of Caithness.

The archaeologists will take what measurements they can and add to the data about what was once Kirkwall’s Castle. Although it is a time of recorded history so much of that period is still shrouded in myth and legend. It was a time when Orkney was strongly influenced by both its Norse and Scots connections which remains the case even today.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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