Noltland Castle – Orkney Earls and Scottish Queens

Noltland Castle is a 16th Century castle that stands in ruins on the north coast of Westray, one of the islands that make up the Orkney Islands. Having passed through numerous families and been involved in historical events it is now a sad reminder of the past.

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Noltland Castle – A brief history

This unassuming castle sits on a small rise above the village of Pierowall, the hub of Westray just below Couters Hill. As you leave the village and the modern houses behind, the fields open out and ahead is the castle. To the south is the marshy Loch of Burness, a deterrent to anyone attempting to approach the castle across the small stretch of water and to the north is the North Atlantic coast. Ruined and a little sorry for itself its dominance in the past can still be felt as you explore the ruins of this 16th century Z-plan castle.

Before the Current Castle

Before the castle that is seen today was built an earlier castle was built for Thomas de Tulloch who was Bishop of Orkney in about 1420. Bishop Tulloch was appointed by the King of Norway to govern Orkney on his behalf and lived until 1463. This was a tumultuous time and the Bishops and Earls of Orkney did not get on well and so the castle was captured and returned during various disputes through the years.

Balfour Family and the Castle

In June 1560, Bishop Adam Bothwell granted Noltland to his sister and her husband Gilbert Balfour. Gilbert was Sheriff of Orkney, Constable of Kirkwall Castle and master of Mary Queen of Scots’ household. He was implicated in the murder of Cardinal Beaton, the last Scottish Cardinal before the Reformation as well as the murder of Mary Queen of Scots’ second husband Henry Lord Darnley.

The castle started out with a long central hall and square towers at the north-eastern and south-western corners and the original southwest tower remains in place today. The walls are peppered with intentional holes which were used for gun placements.

There are 71 in total, the most shot holes in any castle in Scotland. Security was clearly important and needed, but the castle was never completed. Balfour was accused of treason in 1571 and the Earl of Orkney seized Noltland but was later made to hand it back. However, in 1572 when Mary Queen of Scots was arrested Balfour abandoned the castle and went into exile.

Crumbling Noltland Castle

The castle was then occupied by Balfour’s nephew who seized it in lieu of a debt. During the 17th century, various additions were made before becoming a retreat for some of Montrose’s men and was finally taken by Cromwell in the 1650s. It was damaged in a fire in 1746 and abandoned. By 1881 it was a ruin, crumbling beyond repair.

Noltland Castle Today

Today Noltland Castle is ruined but cared for by Historic Scotland. The main hall and tower are standing with their ornate staircases and fireplaces still in place but weathered by the elements. Outside the main buildings, there are walls and archways, clearly part of the later additions. The views from the towers across Westray are beautiful on a clear day and worth the adventure of getting to this remote location.

Visiting Westray and Noltland Castle

Noltland Castle is located in the north of Westray. The island can be reached by daily ferry from Kirkwall on Orkney Mainland or by a small inter-island plane from Kirkwall Airport run by Loganair.

From the ferry terminal at Rapness, it is a beautiful drive north to Pierowall on the B9066. Once in Pierowall, a road leads out to the castle and the lighthouse.

Flying into Westray will bring you to the small airport north of Pierowall. It is possible to walk to the castle from here but you are much better off taking an island tour.

Entry into Noltland Castle

Noltland Castle can be visited at any time. There are no entry fees. There is a small parking area adjacent to the castle and a small gate with information boards is obvious.

other Places to Visit on Westray

  • Noup Head Lighthouse is a working lighthouse on high cliffs home to gannets in the summer.
  • Pierowall is the main village on Westray with shops and a small museum, this is one of the main places to stay and provides a good central location on the island.
  • Links of Noltland provides a wide sandy beach with seals in the surf if you are lucky and the oldest Bronze Age settlement which is excavated each summer.
  • Bay of Tafts is a beautiful sweeping sandy beach with stunning views that can be reached down a sandy track from the parking areas at the nearby cemetery.
  • Castle o’ Burrian is a sea stack which is home to puffins in the summer months. A short walk along the cliffs will bring you face-to-face with these charismatic seabirds.

Noltland Castle Summary

Noltland Castle on the north of Westray about 15 minutes from the main town of Pierowall is a crumbling ruin.

The castle is a ruined Z-plan tower house built in the 1560s by Gilbert Balfour, Master of the Royal Household to Mary, Queen of Scots. The castle was never finished, and it was abandoned in the early 17th century after being damaged by fire.

The castle is now in ruins but is well worth a visit. It is possible to walk around the outside of the castle. There is also a walled courtyard inside the castle, kitchens and staircases, which can all be explored.

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