Malcolm Sinclair, 20th Earl of Caithness

Malcolm Sinclair, 20th Earl of Caithness, will be giving a talk about the extraordinary story of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. The Castle is situated on a long narrow peninsula of rock projecting into Sinclair Bay and the North Sea and rising seamlessly from sheer sixty-foot sides down to the sea on three sides. There is a deep ditch separating it from the mainland and another moat dividing the Castle into the inner and outer baileys. This dramatic setting rendered it impregnable and it withstood every siege. Being so large in comparison with other castles it had an importance second to none in the medieval history of the north of Scotland and is the most spectacular ruin in this part of Britain. Here battles were planned; expeditions to Europe, Greenland and the New World worked out, and besides the intrigue and plotting, times of great merriment and laughter.


The earliest date for building work at the Castle is the late 1300’s and, as was often the case, the accommodation offered by the Keep, outbuildings and underground dungeons was altered by successive generations to meet changing social and military requirements. Parts were built for strength and defence but the alterations in the 1500’s and 1600’s which included finely carved corbels for supporting angle windows and turrets, in particular the lovely oriel windows, were designed for beauty and more comfort. Cromwell’s troops occupied the Castle in the 1650’s and it was deliberately partially ruined in 1680.

The builders and owners of the castle were the Sinclair family, later created Earls of Caithness, and chief of ‘the Lordly line of high St Clair’. They have been associated with the area ‘even before the time of Christ’. Not surprisingly there is a long and distinguished history attached to the family not only in Scotland and England but also in Europe and America. “No family in Europe beneath the rank of Royalty boasts a higher antiquity, a nobler illustration, or a more romantic interest than that of St. Clair”. Descended from the Norse Jarls (Princes) in the ninth century, the earliest recorded involvement of the name in Scottish history dates from 1057 when William ‘The Seemly’ St Clair was given Rosslyn near Edinburgh in Life rent. It was his descendent that inherited the ancient Jarldom of Orkney and Caithness, which had come down another branch of the family, descended from the same Norse Jarls. The Jarldom at one time included the Shetland Isles, the Faroes, Iceland, part of Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Western Isles of Scotland and Sutherland (the southern land of Caithness).

The castle has the highest conservation status in the UK and is the only castle in Scotland to be listed by the World Monuments Fund. It is owned by the Clan Sinclair Trust and one of its great advantages is that nothing has been done to the castle for over three hundred years. Most buildings of this period have been added to and altered so the original is no longer there. Through archaeological research we are preserving what remains and rewriting its history in the process. Walls and staircases which have not been seen for hundreds of years have been revealed in the first phase of work giving us a unique historical perspective.

A Study Centre and Library has been created at the nearby lighthouse complex at Noss Head, in property also owned by the Trust. It is a grade A listed building that was designed in the Egyptian style by Alan Stevenson, the uncle of Robert Louis Stevenson. A new interpretation centre is planned to be built nearby to enhance visitor’s enjoyment of the area and for educational purposes.

Background on the Earl of Caithness


Having completed the three-year course at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, Malcolm worked for a firm of land agents in Oxfordshire. In 1984 his career changed when Mrs Thatcher, the Prime Minister, invited him to join her  government. He started as a Whip and Lord in Waiting to The Queen before progressing to an Under Secretary of State at the Department of Transport and then Minister of State at, successively, the Home Office, Department of the Environment, the Treasury, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and back to the Department of Transport. He is the only hereditary peer during the last century to have served in the three important Departments of State (Foreign and Home Offices and Treasury) and while in the Treasury was also Paymaster General. He was created a Privy Councillor to Her Majesty The Queen in 1990.

As one of the 92 hereditary peers still in Parliament, as a backbencher, he is serving on the European sub-committee considering legislation from Brussels on Agricultural and Environmental matters. He is hereditary chief of the Sinclairs, and chief executive of the Clan Sinclair Trust, a heritage charity, and is also involved with other heritage and charity work in the north of Scotland.

Date: 30 October 2013

Time: 6:30 p.m. for 7:00 p.m.

Member Ticket Price: Talk & dinner with Haggis £ 35. Talk and a glass of wine £ 20.

Non-member Ticket Price: Talk & dinner with Haggis £ 45. Talk and a glass of wine £ 25.

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