The massive stone walls of Kirkwall Castle were recently revealed during a road infrastructure project. (IMAGE: ORCA)

The remains of a long-destroyed medieval castle have been unearthed by the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) during a watching brief for a road infrastructure project in the centre of Kirkwall, Orkney.

Known as Kirkwall Castle, the fortification was built in the 14th century – without royal consent – by Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, during a period when Orkney was still ruled by Norway. Historical documents indicate that it was known as one of the strongest castles in the region, so much so that cannonballs were said to have ‘split like wooden golf balls against the walls’.

It is perhaps for this reason that, during the 17th century, the Stewart Earls used the castle as their stronghold during their rebellion against James VI. Leading the king’s forces, the Earl of Caithness laid siege to the castle and succeeded in inducing the rebels to surrender. This ultimately led to the castle’s destruction as, following the siege, the king ordered its dismantling in 1615 so that it could not be used as the centre of a rebellion again. Despite the order, though, the castle was not completely destroyed until 1865, when it was removed to make way for Castle Street.

So far, three walls have been discovered, including a possible curtain wall and two main castle walls. Attesting to the strength of the castle, one of the walls appears to have been built using immense stone blocks and lime mortar. Cobbled surfaces were also discovered. Previous excavations in the 1980s also revealed massive stone walls that were probably part of the castle’s foundations.

As no sign of the fortifications now survives above ground, this excavation has provided invaluable insight into the castle’s layout, and while the infrastructure works continue ORCA will be recording the entirety of the site – before it is covered over again by road.

This article appeared in CA 352.

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