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Dunbeath Castle


Dunbeath Castle is situated on the east coast of Caithness, dramatically positioned on a cliff-top promontory. The designed landscape comprises a rectangular strip of land some 200m in width, aligned northwest to southeast and extending 1km in length. The central, longitudinal axis of the design is formed by an avenue, bounded on each side by perimeter tree belts, and terminated by the Castle to the south and the Doocot to the north.

The following is from the Historic Environment Scotland Gardens and Designed Landscapes Inventory. For the most up-to-date Inventory entry, please visit the Historic Environment Scotland website:

Type of Site

Late 17th (or earlier)/early 18th century formal landscape focused on Dunbeath Castle.

Location and Setting

Dunbeath Castle, situated on the east coast of Caithness, midway between Wick and Golspie, lies 2km south of Dunbeath village and c 26km south west of Wick. It lies immediately adjacent to the former A9, now realigned further inland. It can be seen from the A9, Wick-Berriedale road which lies on higher ground 1.6km to the south.

The Castle sits dramatically on a cliff-top promontory. The approach drive from the north west lies in a deep cutting and is lined by tree belts which channel views to focus on the Castle. On this approach 'key-hole' views of the Castle gradually give way to a full view of the north façade. The Castle's clifftop location commands views along the Caithness coast and across the North Sea. The designed landscape is laid out within an earlier pattern of flat, regular, fields. These fields with their associated walls, hedgerows and shelter belts comprise the immediate setting of the Dunbeath designed landscape and form an important landscape context.

The open space and dominance of the sky on this coastal area means that the Castle is highlighted in the landscape, which is particularly emphasised by the clarity of the northern, coastal light. In addition the improved grass parks appear as bright pockets of grassland which further emphasise the designed landscape character.

The designed landscape comprises a rectangular strip of land some 200m in width, aligned northwest to southeast and extending 1km in length. The central, longitudinal axis of the design is formed by an avenue, bounded on each side by perimeter tree belts, and terminated by the Castle to the south and the Doocot to the north.

The designed landscape with its avenue and enclosed fields was established by the mid 17th century (Roy, 1747-55). It has remained unaltered in extent since the 19th century when parallel strips of ground were taken into the design.

Landscape Components

Architectural Features

The core of Dunbeath Castle dates from the 15th century, with later additions and alterations. The main phase of remodeling is by D. & J. Bryce, c 1881. The castle has a symmetrical northeast front, unusual for Bryce and probably influenced by the strong, axial, approach drive. The Castle has two-storeys and an attic with angle bartizans, conical roofs and a central round-headed, moulded door piece between bowed stair turrets projecting at first-floor level supporting square gabled caphouses above. Ornate dormers break the wall heads. The building is harled with ashlar margins and dressings. Bryce's work includes an extensive crenellated retaining terrace wall, with occasional bartizans and round terminal piers, forming a U-shaped enclosure to the Castle. To the north of the Castle, two Walled Gardens flank the approach drive. That on the south side of the drive incorporates various carved stones, including a 17th century chimney piece, while the one to the north houses a late 19th century laundry, a single storey 5-bay wide building, of rubble with tooled dressings.

The Stable Court is a late 19th/early 20th century, 2-storey, U-plan range opening onto a walled courtyard. Two drum towers project from the building, which is of rubble with tooled dressings. The Gate Lodge is an L-plan single-storey building over a basement with a semi-circular porch in the re-entrant angle rising as a round tower with a conical roof. Two pairs of squared, ashlar gate piers and low-coped quadrant walls with iron spearhead railings flank carriage and pedestrian entrances. The Doocot is an 18th century plain, rubble building. Other minor architectural components include Rockery Garden Walls, the perimeter field walls and the embankment steps leading to the Walled Gardens.

Drives and Approaches

The main drive is the key feature of the designed landscape, forming the major design axis, some 800m long. It extends southwards from the lodge to the Castle forecourt along an even gradient, achieved by a deep cutting and embankment. The latter was probably constructed from the upcast made by cutting through the hill, which is up to 5m at its deepest point. The grassed side-slopes are very steep and frame the approaching view of the Castle. To the north of the cutting, a secondary drive crosses it at right angles. The southern part of this drive leads to the stable court and South Walled Garden offices. The northern leads to the North Walled Garden and onto a track along the north perimeter of the policies.


To the north of the Walled Gardens, two rectangular paddocks flank the drive. The southern is now the larger. A plant nursery was developed in the north paddock in the early 20th century (1905, OS 6"). Lines of mature trees and shrubs still survive, leaving a reduced area of open ground.


The principal woodland lies at the northern point of the policies, thereby screening the Castle and gardens from the public road. Extending from the woodland are perimeter tree belts, which define the north and south site boundaries. They act as shelter belts, enclosing the paddocks and Walled Gardens, so that wind/salt tolerant species predominate. Consequently sycamore and whitebeam are the major species with some beech, larch and ash. Highly destructive storms in the 1950s and 1960s caused damage, and replanting was minimal until the early 1980s, since when there has been an ongoing programme of woodland planting and management.

The Gardens

An old quarry adjacent to the Doocot was developed as a Rock Garden in the 1930s by exposing further rock faces. Planting areas were created, linked by minor winding paths. Some evergreen shrub planting survives in part from this scheme. Considerable restoration work was undertaken to the garden and Doocot in 1998, when the garden was restocked with plants and shrubs to a scheme by the Glendoick Garden Centre.

Walled Garden

The southern garden appears to have been the more ornamental, and is furnished with viewing turrets at its corners and a sculpture niche. Few garden plants survive from earlier phases of activity, only several fruit trees and two Clematis against the walls; two Pelargonium cultivars in the glasshouses and Sanguisorba Canadensis in the herbaceous borders.

In 1985 the garden was re-established with a framework of eight compartments accessed by a network of grassed paths. The compartments are planted with vegetables, fruit, ornamental shrubs and herbaceous plants. The central path was retained and the herbaceous borders lining it were replanted with its 19th century, mirror image, planting scheme. A new gazebo was constructed at the northern end of these borders. The main glasshouses at the north end of the garden have been fully restored. Other, freestanding glasshouses that occupied one of the eight compartments were demolished in the early 20th century.

The northern Walled Garden is less architecturally ornate than the southern garden. The walls have been restored (1990s) but the garden is disused (1998). The estate plans to cultivate it in the near future. The Laundry Cottage, in sound condition and now used as a store, stands in the garden. The northern Walled Garden probably served as a drying green and vegetable garden.

Visitor Access, Directions & Contacts

Access contact details

The gardens are open by appointment only. Please see:


The following is from the Historic Environment Scotland Gardens and Designed Landscapes Inventory. For the most up-to-date Inventory entry, please visit the Historic Environment Scotland website:

Reason for Inclusion

An imposing, late 17th / early 18th century formal landscape design on a dramatic cliff-top setting, with a long and well recorded history.

Main Phases of Landscape Development

Dunbeath Castle dates from the medieval period. The designed landscape was laid out in the late 17th (?)/early 18th century. There were some landscape additions during the 19th century, but the strong, early, formal landscape framework was respected.

Site History

Dunbeath is likely to have been a defensive site since prehistoric times. It has been suggested that it could be 'Duin Baitte' mentioned in the Annals of Ulster, besieged in AD 680. The 19th century historian W. F. Skene identified Dunbeath as the site of a battle fought by Brude, the Pictish King. While there is little evidence for either corresponding directly to Dunbeath itself, the place-names of the area indicate widespread Norse influence, if not settlement of the area (Morrison, 1996, pp.64-9).

The Castle dates from the medieval period, and was subsequently largely rebuilt and modified. The earliest certain reference to Dunbeath is a charter granting land to John de Barclay in the late 14th century. An early reference to the Castle in the early 15th century indicates that it was the focus of a Kirktown of its own parish.

In the late 16th century, 'Dun Beth', was encircled on its landward side by a moat (Pont, 1654). A description of 1726 mentions that the Castle 'stands upon a rock, the S. point of it is always washen with the sea and some parts of the E. and W. sides of it are also washen therewith.' (Morrison 1996, p.68).

In 1610 George Sinclair sold the lands and barony of Dunbeath to Arthur, Lord Forbes. James VI then granted the Dunbeath Barony, by a charter of 1619, to Alexander, Master of Forbes, son of Arthur, Lord Forbes. The barony lands included the manor, fortalice, pools, lakes, salmon and 'white fish', fishings, woods and forests as well as towns and extensive lands throughout Caithness. Forbes sold the Dunbeath estate to a wealthy merchant, John Sinclair of Geanies, in 1624. The Sinclairs extensively rebuilt the Castle during the early 17th century. Despite being besieged, captured and garrisoned by General Hurry for the Marquis of Montrose in 1650, the castle survived intact.

The structure of the designed landscape had been laid out by the mid 17th century when the formal avenue was established, focussing on the Castle and cutting across a pre-existing field pattern. The Doocot was built so as to terminate the northern end of the avenue and two square enclosures were laid out on either side of the main approach to the north of the Castle, on the site of the existing Walled Gardens (Roy, 1747-55). It was perhaps at this period, that the moat was filled, so as to connect the Castle on its rock promontory with the mainland.

The Sinclair family undertook significant changes to both Castle and landscape in the 1850s and the 1880s. Ground was enclosed along the length, and to either side, of the avenue to provide shelter belts. The Walled Gardens were developed above the cutting and, to the north, tree belts were planted for shelter. On the northeast perimeter of the formal approach, an existing woodland belt was extended and rough quarried ground around the Doocot was planted up.

Drawings of Dunbeath Castle were exhibited by D. & J. Bryce at the Royal Society of Arts in 1881. It was probably John Bryce (d.1922) who was responsible for a new stable court, gate lodge and entrance. He was certainly employed to remodel the Castle in the baronial style in 1907 and further alterations to the designed landscape, particularly the addition of the crenellated parapet wall on the seaward side of the Castle, may date to this period.

During the mid to late 20th century, the ownership of the Castle changed. The Currie family bought the estate in 1946, and sold it to the Sinclair-Blythes in 1965. When the Avery family bought the estate in 1977, they undertook a substantial restoration programme, including a new land drainage system for the southern walled garden. Its earlier subdivisions of eight compartments were re-established with the assistance of the Highland Lilium Nursery. Dunbeath is now owned by the Dunbeath Partnership.

Features & Designations


  • Historic Environment Scotland An Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in Scotland



Key Information





Principal Building

Domestic / Residential





Open to the public




  • Historic Scotland