Testing time at Castle of Old Wick, Caithness

As the Old Wick project gets underway, the project lead Rachel Pickering of Historic Environment Scotland explains what they are trying to find out and how.

In the far northeast of mainland Scotland, on a narrow promontory, surrounded by cliffs on three sides, stand the ruins of Castle of Old Wick. The castle is one of Caithness’ most striking medieval sites due to its rugged location. But time has not been kind to the castle, and all that survives above ground is the stark stone skeleton of a once grand tower, within low-lying earthworks on the promontory behind. There are many unanswered questions about this castle, not least ‘when was it built?’.

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Castle of Old Wick in its dramatic coastal setting. © Crown Copyright HES

Very little is known about the castle’s origin and development – there is limited documentary evidence relating to its earlier history and no diagnostic architectural features survive, making it very difficult to date. It was once thought to have been one of the earliest stone castles in Scotland, associated with Norse earls of Orkney and Caithness. However, more recently, scholars have questioned this, suggesting a 14th century date is much more likely for its construction.

Reconstruction illustration showing how the castle and its surrounding outbuildings may have looked at its height. © Crown Copyright HES.

One tantalising clue survives that may shed light on its construction history – a single fragment of timber within a joist socket of an upper floor. The image below shows these joist sockets which indicate the tower had timber floors throughout. The sole surviving timber is increasingly at risk of decay as it is exposed to the elements. Our aim is to remove the timber and assess it for dendrochronological analysis – or tree-ring dating, before conserving the remains. From this we may be able to get a scientific date to indicate when the castle was built. At the very least, such a date may provide an age and provenance for the timber joist which provides an insight into phases of the castle’s development.

Interior of Castle of Old Wick showing joist sockets indicating the location of first and second floors. © Historic Environment Scotland.

Thanks to generous grant funding from the Castle Studies Trust, HES and specialist contractor Dr Coralie Mills of Dendrochronicle will be carrying out new research this autumn, with the hope of recovering dating evidence.

The timber is believed to be oak, making it suitable for dendrochronological analysis, though it is in a very fragile state. It will be accessed using a scaffold and very carefully removed and wrapped before being transported to the laboratory in Edinburgh for detailed examination. Its condition and suitability for dendrochronological analysis will then be assessed. If it is not possible to analyse the rings of the timber due to its condition, then an alternative method will be undertaken using radiocarbon ‘wiggle matching’. This would involve taking several samples for high precision radiocarbon dating, allowing for a more accurately calibrated radiocarbon date for the timber.  

We hope this research will shed light on the construction and development of Castle of Old Wick, by providing valuable scientific dating evidence. The project will also potentially support the on-going development of dendrochronological analysis within Scotland, as every new analysis can help to add to and refine existing tree-ring chronologies, which in turn supports future research.

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Castle Studies Trust 2021 Grant Awards

The Castle Studies Trust is delighted to announce the award of six grants, totalling a record £31,000 not only covering a wide geographic area but also a wide range of different types of research:

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Caerlaverock new castle with old behind it and the coastline Crown Copyright Historic Environment Scotland

Caerlaverock, Dumfriesshire

The aim is to understand the chronology and geography of extreme weather events in the high medieval period, and the effects they wrought on archaeological features that led to the abandonment of the old castle built in c.1229 in favour of the new built 200m away in c.1277. The latest thinking is that it was a series of extraordinary storm surge events which pushed a series of storm driven gravel ridges across the River Nith.

The methodology to find this out is interdisciplinary, using scientific methods to enhance understanding of archaeological fieldwork. The fieldwork will involve the establishment of a series of transects across the site and surrounding landscape from which cores and samples will be extracted for sediment description, stratigraphic analysis, and Carbon 14 dating.

Depending on Covid restrictions, the aim is to start doing the work in May this year with the receipt of the final data in the autumn.

Greasley_Castle from air copyright Neil Gabriel

Greasley, Nottinghamshire

The production of an interpretative phased floor plan for Greasley Castle in Nottinghamshire.  The castle, built in the 1340s, has an obscure history and the understanding of its architectural phasing is at best very cloudy. The site is now a working farm and a number of post-mediaeval structures have been conglomerated around the remains of what is suspected to be a fourteenth century courtyard house with projecting corner towers.

The survey will act as baseline research data for a site which has not previously received serious fieldwork or publication and provide a basis for further research but also for any future conservation needs.

Work on the project will start in the early summer when covid restrictions ease.   

Laughton-en-le-Morthen motte and bailey castle and church

Laughton-en-le-Morthen, South Yorkshire

To provide professional illustration and reconstruction which will also be integrated into a co-authored academic article based on the two previous research projects carried out on the site by Dr Duncan Wright and funded by the Trust. A geophysical survey and then small-scale excavation which give a strong indication that the Normans had built a motte on the site of a high-status Saxon dwelling.

Part of the monies will be used to produce phase plans of Laughton during key stages of its development, and a small percentage will pay for a line drawing of the 11th century grave cover incorporated into the fabric of the nearby church. The aim will be to start the work as soon as possible.

Old Wick Tower copyright Historic Environment Scotland

Old Wick, Caithness

Dendrochronological assessment of timber at the Castle of Old Wick, Caithness thought to be one of the earliest stone castles in Scotland dating from the12th century and the period of Scandinavian ascendency. Current thinking though ascribes the date to the 14th century. Analysing these samples will hopefully provide an answer.

With no architectural features or physical “independent” evidence analysing the remains of a timber joist-end (in poor condition) in one of the joist ends remains the best chance of being able to find an answer. 

The taking of the samples is likely to take place in September when conditions are still going to be favourable as the castle is situated next to the North Sea and the sample can only be found 8 metres above ground level. 

Richmond Castle copyright English Heritage

Richmond, North Yorkshire

Co-funding a three-week excavation of Richmond Castle, one of the best preserved and least understood Norman castles in the UK. The aim is to understand better the remains of buildings and structures primarily along the eastern side of the bailey including near the 11th century Robin Hood tower and near Scolland’s Hall.

Subject to the scheduled monument consent being granted the excavation will take place in late July.

Warkworth Castle, copyright William Wyeth

Warkworth, Northumberland

Geophysical survey to explore evidence for subsurface features in and around the field called St John’s Close in a field adjacent to the castle with the aim to establish the location and eastern extent of the castle’s deer park in the 16th century as well as its entrance way. It also hoped to find evidence of a routeway running parallel to the possible park boundary which could represent an early route to the castle’s gatehouse from the south-west.

The plan is to do complete the geophysical survey by the end of March.

To keep up to date with how these projects progress over the coming months you can:

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And if you donate at least £50 here and be invited to our exclusive visits to these projects: https://donate.kindlink.com/castle-studies-trust/2245 

Featured image: Old Wick Castle, Caithness, copyright Historic Environment Scotland