There was a blizzard on its way. The radio told us so, not that we hadn’t noticed the blanket of white forming on the hillsides around us, or the fact that the windscreen wipers were now on full speed just to allow me the occasional peek at the road ahead. I turn to look at Prue who is grinning from ear to ear.
Watching her dancing and laughing as she caught snowflakes was a joy. It was our first year anniversary, until now we had enjoyed glorious weather as we entreated further and further north. Mesmerised by the Scottish countryside the hours slipped by. Deep valleys lined with coniferous trees standing proud against the cold winter, trickling streams that combine in numbers and courage to leap from outcrops as waterfalls and the stark silhouettes of giant oaks waiting for spring. Stunning. Now the snow was mounting and daylight hours lacking for one ambitious journey.
With bright shining eyes Prue would repeat stories told to her by her Grandpa, as a child she was familiar with the Sinclair clan, that they had their own tartan design, motto ‘Commit thy work to God’ and, best of all, owned a castle in Scotland.
I could not have imagined the colourful history of Girnigoe castle. The Sinclair clan, recognised for their wild and ruthless behaviour towards their closest rivals, kept a healthy attitude towards betrayal and blood-lust (what am I getting myself into?!). George Sinclair (George 4th Earl of Caithness) in particular, seemed to inherit more rage than title. In the 1560’s he plotted to poison the nearby Earl of Sutherland and his family at a communal dinner. Fate, or a miscalculation, resulted in the Sinclair heir receiving the dish that was schemed for the Sunderland heir, so despite the death of all other Sunderland’s the Earldom evaded Georges grasp. George treated his own clan with similar suspicion, sending troops to attack his Uncles fortress in 1529. Embarrassed by his son (John) for his leniency towards others he allowed him to die in Girnigoe dungeon.
Georges death resulted in his grandson (John’s son) becoming the 5th Earl of Caithness. Named George, this Earl was also preoccupied with harassing the Sunderland clan and expanding his estate. In 1588 Girnigoe survived a twelve day retaliation attack. The cost of the repairs merely increased George’s outstanding debts, he secretly began forging coins from within the castle walls. Still, he could not arrest from interfering with other clans. The castle was eventually sacked and removed from Sinclair ownership in 1623.
I could go on and on. It suffices to say that the final action upon Girnigoe castle was in 1690. In an attempt to regain his rightful inheritance George Sinclair of Keiss (7th Earl of Caithness) besieged the walls. Needless to say that the brute force with which he won back his estate was the same brute force which destroyed it to ruin. Unable to provide adequate shelter to more than a flock of seagulls it was abandoned.
On her first visit to England this was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a great surprise. But while searching for Keiss and the Sinclair castle what I found was something almost impossible for our small land mass, it was a ten hours drive from central England. Skirting Scotland’s most northerly point we could not have had a bigger challenge on our hands over two days. But then, the hire-car did not come with limited kilometres, it would be a dream come true and we had the sense of adventure to give it our all. Less than an hour away and with the blizzard behind us, we were plunging and soaring with the undulating landscape.
Stone fences and wilderness to our left, steep cliffs and the raging Atlantic to our right. Since the road had already dwindled to a single lane we had great views of both, and the ever infrequent stone settlements left to the mercy of the elements. As the sun began its slow descent a single street slate-grey town appeared upon the horizon. Keiss. A hundred metres or so to the right, abruptly and imperfectly perched upon the cliffs edge sat Prues family castle. With the light dwindling we ran towards the ruins that embraced so many stories and so much family history.