NameBalquholly Castle in Caithness , 6963
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Notes for Balquholly Castle in Caithness
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Old Buchollie Castle, near Freswick in Caithness, is one of the most interesting ancient buildings in the county both from an architectural and historical standpoint. The Keep, which is one of the oldest lime built structures in the north of Scotland, is of the small, square, almost windowless type, built on the landward end of a precipitous rock or headland, jutting out into the sea, and with a cluster of rude clay built buildings on the protected ground behind. Girnigoe and Old Wick Castles are others of this class. It took its name from the Barony of Balquholly in Aberdeenshire, now Hatton, the former seat of the Mowats, a branch of the family who acquired the lands of Freswick from King Robert the Bruce and confirmed by charter of the Duke of Albany in I406. The name is variably spelled, sometimes Bucholly or Bucholie, and in some old maps and prints " Freswick Castle," or " Old Freswick Castle." As to the definite age of the structure, authorities differ. The Rev. Alexander Pope, T. Pennant, P. A. Munch, Dr. Joseph Anderson, and John Nicolson, well known antiquarian authorities, have identified the site with the Lambaborg of the Sagas, the stronghold of the daring Viking, Sweyn the son of Asleif. This brings it back to the middle of the I2th century, when, about II48, Sweyn fortified the building, and in an historic siege withstood the combined forces of Earl Rognvald and Thorbjorn, and only gave in to save his garrison from starvation.
Even then there was an existing building which he strengthened and fortified. True, an alternate site has been suggested. Mr. A. B. Taylor in his new translation of the " Orkneyinga Saga" gives an illustration of the Ness broch, in the south side of Freswick Bay, and identifies that structure with Lambaborg. This is not a new suggestion. But, after having examined both sites, not once, but many times, from various points of view, and the author now writes in sight of both positions, he is still of the opinion that the evidence is in favour of the Buchollie site. There is a similarity in the situations, and the Ness broch ruins are probably of the Viking period, while the medieval Keep of Buchollie Castle is probably a I5th century superstructure, erected on an older site, by the Mowats of Balquholly, when they acquired the lands of Freswick about I400. But, while the square Keep may be of this later period, there is conclusive evidence of an earlier building in the substructure. The covered passage, which led from the arched entrance to the buildings, was roofed by an arch of flat overlapping stones which betokens a much earlier period and is characteristic of the entrance passages of the early brochs. This passage is described by Dr. Anderson in " Archaeologia Scotia," vol. v, and by MacGibbon & Ross in " Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland " where it is stated: " At the inner end of the passage there occurs an archway with a second gate so that assailants penetrating through the first or outer gate would be stopped by the inner one and being caught in the narrow passage would be easily disposed of from the battlements on each side." This may well be the passage of the Sweyn stronghold, reconstructed and built upon by the lairds of Buchollie two centuries later. The geographical position seems to fit with Torfaeus' description of the historic siege better than that of the Broch of Ness. Both Torfaeus and the Saga account tell us that Sweyn and his1 companion Margad were let down over the cliffs to the beach below by ropes knotted together, and that, in their armour, they swam along the shore to the low land to the south. To anyone surveying the position carefully such a feat would be improbable, if not impossible, from the Broch of Ness. It would first of all entail a swim seaward, then round the Ruff of Freswick with its deep water and strong tidal currents, and then south, double the distance that it would be from Buchollie. From the latter site the feat could be accomplished within reason, and there are several places where the swimmers could make a possible landing.
In a later visit of the Norsemen, made about II53, and described in Chapter XCIII of the "Orkneyinga Saga," when Anakol and Thorstein sailed over to Caithness, they arrived during the night and pulled up their boat into a hidden cove under some cliffs. The translator suggests that these cliffs were on the north side of Freswick Bay. Might not that landing place and " hidden cove " and " cliffs " be on the south side of the Bay, in the vicinity of the Broch of Ness and not on the north side where there are no cliffs. Such a landing place would be near to Lambaborg and to the " thicket " which is most likely to have been in the valley south of the burn of Freswick and the old house of Freswick where there is mossy ground with the remains of brushwood. As to the Hall of Freswick it is more likely to have been further inland than the site of Freswick House at the Burn Mouth. The House of Freswick was built by the Sinclairs of Freswick towards the end of the I7th century, and there might be an earlier building other than the pre-Reformation chapel of St. Moddan on the other side of the burn, but local tradition lends to the suggestion that the Halls of the Freswick Vikings were at Tofts, half a mile inland from the recently excavated Viking settlements at the Links of Freswick. This situation is still locally known as " The Haas " and, until about one hundred years ago, there were considerable stone structures which formed the quarry ground for a number of houses erected by the proprietor of the estate about that period. Wherever situated, there is little doubt but that there were more pretentious Viking settlements on Freswick Bay than those recently excavated, where the crews of the Viking ships wintered and feasted after the close of their summer and autumn cruises in the West, something that would fit the description of the house of Skeggi mentioned in the Burnt Njal Saga.
The ruins of Buchollie Castle are fully described in the " Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in the County of Caithness," I9II, and the late John Nicolson made a careful survey and measurement of the buildings. The front Keep, which measures I4 ft. by 20 ft., rose to a height of 30 ft. and, until a generation ago, the front west wall remained the full height. In " The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland," by MacGibbon & Ross, there is a plan and drawing supplied by the late Rev. Alex. Miller, D.D., of Buckie, which shows this wall complete with battlemented cornice and supporting corbels of sandstone now almost gone. All the stonework of the main building has been quarried out of the adjoining cliff, except for a narrow facing of hewn red sandstone which surrounds the doorway and the upper windows, now much decayed and mostly fallen away. The mortar consists of a strong mixture of lime and seashell sand which, from its composition, has evidence of having been taken from the beach at Duncansby. The foundations about four feet in thickness are grafted on to the solid rock.
The ground floor contains the four feet six inches arched entrance and one arched compartment on the right with one slit window towards the drawbridge entrance. The mid storey chamber, with two small windows facing the land, seems to have been carried on wooden joists the holes of which can still be seen. The upper chamber, of which only one small window remains, had the appearance of being vaulted. The rock on which the castle stands is about IOO feet high at the cliff edge and is connected to the main precipice by a narrow neck of land, eight to ten feet wide, level with the height of the rock. Through this narrow isthmus there has been cut a trench six or seven feet wide and down to some eight or nine feet below the threshold of the entrance door. This entrance must have been at some time spanned by a wooden lifting bridge similar to that used at Girnigoe Castle.
It is difficult to imagine a more dreary or desolate situation for a homestead. And yet it must have been the home and rallying point of many generations of the Mowat family, whose early history is so interlinked between Balquholly in Aberdeen and Buchollie in Caithness, that it is now difficult to unravel. That they were a leading family, with various branches in both Counties, during the I5th, I6th and I7th centuries, is evident from the very scanty records available. The lairds are so often styled sometimes of Balquhollie, sometimes of Buchollie and Freswick and sometimes of Freswick only that it is a problem for the most expert genealogist. They were linked in marriage with the prominent families in Aberdeen and Caithness as well as later in Orkney and Shetland. A daughter of the laird of Buchollie was the mother of the first Sinclair of Ulbster.
The walls of the old Castle, that betoken a turbulent race in turbulent times, are fast crumbling to decay. Yet bound up in its grey ruins, on which must have battered five or six centuries of North Sea wind and spray, are chapters of thrilling history, and we would fain think that not the least of these episodes were the escapades of Sweyn the Viking.


Taken from "Visits to Ancient Caithness" By Caithness Field Club, 1976.

Location: 8km. south of John o'Groats, 300m. from road, not signposted. ND382658.

Built about 1160 AD Bucholie Castle stands on one of the earliest sites in the north of Scotland. Originally known by the Norse name Lambaborg it was built by Sweyn the noted pirate and freebooter. Born in Caithness, descendant of a noble Norse family, friend of the saintly King David I of Scotland, his adventures fill many pages of the Orkneyinga Saga, as during the middle years of the twelfth century he harried the northern and western shores of Scotland, the Isle of Man and the eastern coast of Ireland. His career came to an end when he was ambushed and killed while leading a raid on Dublin.
Sweyn was the ancestor of the Swansons, a family who multiplied greatly in Caithness and the north. His daring and resourcefulness can be judged by the fact that on one occasion when he incurred the displeasure of Rognvald, Earl of Orkney and builder of St. Magnus Cathedral, he was besieged within the castle by the forces of the earl. Having exhausted his provisions, he, along with a companion, had himself lowered by a rope from the 30m. high castle rock into the sea and then swam along the foot of the cliff to safety.
The gaunt ruin stands on a grim, forbidding and inaccessible peninsula about 30m. above the sea, joined to the mainland by a neck of land only 2m. wide and cut through by a ditch 3m. deep, which was crossed by a drawbridge. The keep rises from the far side of the ditch, the doorway being directly opposite where the drawbridge stood. A vaulted passage or pend passes through the building to the rear where a narrow courtyard turns sharply to the right providing access to a double row of outbuildings and retainers quarters.
Very little remains of the first castle - Sweyns original stronghold. The present ruins are of the structure built by the Mowat family who were granted a charter of the lands of Freswick by King Robert the Bruce and were settled there by the fourteenth century. It was the Mowats who brought the name Bucholie with them from their castle and estate of the same name in Aberdeenshire. It remained their principal seat in the north until it was sold to the Sinclairs of Freswick in 1661.
The site had tremendous impregnability but there are no signs of how the castle was supplied with water. The walls have a slight inward batter as they go up and a very unusual feature is that while the ground and second storeys are vaulted the first floor in between was of wood. On a corner facing the front there are the corbelled remains of a projecting turret. This along with the freestone facings on the doorway would denote fifteenth century architecture.

Bucholie as Lambaborg.
On a grim and forbidding site on the South side of Freswick Bay, and about 5 miles South from Duncansby Head at ND382658 are the gaunt ruins of Bucholie Castle, the first of seven medieval castles which dot the next twenty miles or so of the Caithness coastline making it the most castellated stretch of coast in Britain.
It was here, about 1140, that Sweyn (Norse "Svein", a youth) Asliefson, the Caithness-born scion of a noble Norse family built his fortress - then known as Lambaborg. He was one of the most colourful, resourceful and daring of the many heroes who flit across the pages of the Norse sagas. On one occasion he was besieged in Lambaborg by Earl Rognvald - the builder of St Magnus Cathedral - whose displeasure he had incurred. When his provisions were almost exhausted he and his companion-in-arms, Margad Grimson, got themselves lowered to the sea from the hundred foot high castle rock by means of a rope and then swam along the shore to safety.
Sweyn was a pirate and robber, but these occupations were regarded as honourable in his Viking world and he could claim the genuine friendship of the saintly King David 1. During his career he menaced the whole Western coast of Scotland, the Isle of Manm and Ireland until finally ambushed and killed while leading a raid on Dublin.
The Swansons
After Sweyn's death a curtain of complete silence falls on Lambaborg. It is not known whether the property was transmitted to his immediate descendants but the evidence would appear to be that it was not. His descendants, the Swansons, multiplied greatly in the North, but never achieved clan status, notwithstanding the fact that in ancient and honourable lineage they equalled many other families who did, and especially their kinsmen, the Gunns, who were descended from Gunn an elder brother of Sweyn. They had no territorial designation, no clan chief, and no coat of arms. The inference is undoubtedly that they never possessed lands, being recognized merely as a sept of the clan Gunn throughout the course of their history.
The Mowats
It was not until the early part of the fourteenth century that Lambaborg came to life again, but under its new name of Bucholie. We have no definite date as to when the Mowats came to Freswick bringing the name Bucholie with them from their estate of the same name in Aberdeenshire, although we do know that in the reign of King Robert the Bruce, that monarch granted them a charter of the lands of Freswick. However such charters were sometimes merely confirmatory, stamping the royal seal on possessions of a particular family who might have already inherited them through intermarriage with a Norse family whose previous legal titles were held from the Norwegian crown.
Norman Descent
The Mowat family derive their name from Mont Hault (meaning High Mount) in Normandy, but later latinised to de Monte Alto. Like many other noble families who followed the conqueror they settled in England and were given the task of keeping the Welsh marches. Their first castle, built by Robert de Monte Alte was Moldo or Molde from their own surname. The modern town of Mold in Flintshire grew up around the site of this castle.
By 1260 their seat was Howardon castle on the Chesire side of the border, but in 1329 the 1st baron of the line died without a male heir and the title became extinct. Branches of the family had spread in England and are now known by the surname of Maude.
Arrival in Scotland
The first of the name to settle in Scotland was another of Robert de Monte Alto who was invited to do so by King David 1. He was a younger son of one of the barons of Mold, Flintshire. King William the Lion granted Sir William de Monte Alto the lordship of Fern in Angus and his descendants for the next two centuries were prominent landowners and justiciaries in that county, holding many appointments and offices under the crown. Another Sir William de Momte Alto fought with Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn, was a member of the Scottish Parliament and was one of the signatories of the famous Declaration of Arbroath in 1320.
By the thirteenth century some members of the family were spelling their surname as De Mohaut, evolving towards the present spelling. After 1140 there is no further mention of the De Monte Altos of Fern, and the representation of the family devolved on the Mowats of Bucholie, Aberdeenshire,who had sprung from the Fern family. This was a branch, who by means unknown,acquired the landed estates of Freswick and Harpsdale in Caithness. They restored and reconstructed the old castle of Lambaborg and changed its name to Bucholie, but the change of name affected the castle only and not the lands which continued to be known as Freswick.
Mowat Branches in Caithness
There were many offshoots of the Mowats of Freswick. One important branch was the Mowats of Brabstermire and Slickly who in turn had a branch in possession of Swinzie (now Lochend). Members of the Mowat family migrated both from Aberdeenshire and Caithness into Orkney and Shetland where several Mowat families appear as landholders; others as merchants and traders.
In Shetland the name is often spelt Mouat. The name also appears at an early date in Norway - son of Andrew Mowat of Gugoland, Shetland, became a distinguished Admiral in the Norwegian Navy with large estates in that country.
In 1661 Magnus Mowat of Bucholie sold the family estates in Caithness and sixty-six years later the then third laird John Mowat disposed of the Aberdeenshire Bucholie Castle, later largely rebuilt by the Duff family, and renamed Hatton.
Landless and Chiefless
The Mowats are unhappily both landless and chiefless. Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, the late Lord Lyon King of Arms has said that "a chiefless clan, like an orphan family is an imperfect group." That the Mowats of Bucholie were Chiefs of thier name is signified in their coat of arms with their "supporters"- a distinction only given in Scotland to Chiefs of their name and peers of the realm. The Mowats do not have a clan association - nowadays a first requirement in the tracing of a Chief.
That there is someone walking the earth today who unknown to himself and his clansmen is entitled to the 'undifferenced' arms of Bucholie, there cannot be the slightes doubt.
The Castle Today
Looking at the castle today it would appear that there is little left of Sweyn's original structure. The earliest Norse strongholds were square box-like buildings three or four storeys in height. With extremely thick walls of about 8 feet with the doorway on the first floor level facing the sea.
The site is almost an island stuck onto the mainland by a very narrow strip of land cut through at the neck bty a dry ditch. The old Norse keeps rose straight up from the far side of the ditch but slightly offset from the line of the drawbridge to allow access past the buiolding to the rear. Today's ruins have an entrance facing where the drawbridge stood and a vaulted passage leads through the keep to the courtyard beyond.
It may well be that Lambaborg's extremely thick walls were unneccseary for its defence owing to the natural impgregnability of the site, as in a similar position at Castle Gunn in Clyth of about the same date, the walls were only three feet thick.
An unusual feature of the ruins is that the ground and second floors were vaulted while the intermediate first floor was of wood. At the second storey level facing the landward side there are the corblelled remains of a projecting turret. The narrow courtyard behiind the castle has the remains of outbuildings on either side of it. There are no signs of how the castle was supplied with water.
It is clear that the present buildings for the most part date from the Mowat occupation, the main keep being fifteenth century architecture, closely resembling Girnigoe which is known to date from somewhere between 1475 and 1494.
• Henderson - Caithness Family History - Douglas - 1884
• McGbbon & Ross - The Castelleated and Architecture of Scotland -  Domestic Douglas - 1889
• Curle - Inventory of Ancient Monuments  of Caithness -  HMSO - 1911
• St Clair - The St Clairs of the Isles Brett - 1898

Robert Wilson Richmond
28th August 2001

The artistic reconstruction by Andrew Spratt shows how the castle may have looked in 1475.
Bucholie Castle (formerly Lambaborg) lies 5 miles South of Duncansby Head on a narrow promontory and like Halberry Castle is not visible from the road.  Most visitors to the area are therefore quite unaware that this once mighty stronghold exists.  It is perhaps just as well that visitors are not encouraged as the access to the castle site is a dangerous one indeed - the only means of entry being by crossing a narrow isthmus about 4 ft wide to the gate with sheer 100 ft drops on either side; a tangible reminder of the suitability of the site for a defensive structure. It is inadvisable to visit this site unaccompanied.

There was a certain majesty about Bucholie as I approached it on foot with a friend after a half-mile walk from the road; the greater part of the front facade of the keep is still standing to a height of 3 storeys and the whole of the remains still project a feeling of strength and dominance in spite of their dereliction.
The entrance gateway is remarkably complete and once we scrambled safely across the isthmus and climbed up through the entrance doorway the thought crossed our mind that if we were attacking the castle and had managed to get this far it is unlikely that we would have succeeded any further because we would find ourselves in a long corridor about 4 ft wide with another locked gate at the end of the passage and no other way out. This was the killing zone - a very effective means of defence against anyone managing to breach the outer gate. The corridor was protected by the keep and high battlements on either side from which any assailants trapped below were easily disposed of.

Once we negotiated this grisly reminder of the past and entered through the second arched gateway, we found ourselves in the remains of a long narrow courtyard with the remains of buildings on either side of it. These would form the usual outbuildings such as stores, chapel, workhouses, offices, stables, armoury, accommodation etc.
Such was the positional strength of this fortification that an enclosing barmkin wall was not required around the whole site, the sheer cliffs all around extending to 100 ft or so offering sufficient security. The seaward or Eastern side of the promontory therefore afforded open views to sea and after exploring the ruins we were able to sit and soak up the relatively peaceful atmosphere of this flank.
A fortress called Lamaborg was first built on this site by Sweyn Asliefson the notorious pirate and robber in about 1140. Sweyn was the younger brother of Gunni from whom were descended the Clan Gunn.  From Sweyn descended the Swanson family name.
The Mowat family were granted Lambaborg and the lands of Freswick from King Robert the Bruce and they re-modelled it and named the castle Bucholie after their estate in Aberdeen.  Bucholie Castle remained in the Mowat family until 1661 after which it fell into disrepair.
• Henderson - Caithness Family History - Douglas 1884
• McGbbon & Ross - The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland - Douglas 1889
• Curle - Inventory of Ancient Monuments of Caithness - HMSO 1911
• St Clair - The St Clairs of the Isles Brett - 1898
Last Modified 3 Dec 2013Created 17 Nov 2017 using Reunion for Macintosh