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 makes up the Orkney Islands. Having passed through numerous families and been involved in historical events it is now a sad reminder of the past.

Noltland Castle with grey sky

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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 is 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 mast of Mary Queen of Scots’ household and 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 south west 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 Balfours nephew but seized it in lieu of a debt. During the 17th century various additions were made before becoming a retreat for some of Montroses 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 getting to this remote location.

Photography Notes

Noltland Castle is fantastic for photography. From across Loch of Burness the castle can be photographed with Noltland Bay behind and the deep turquoise of the sea. It is quite difficult to distinguish it from the (relatively) modern farm buildings but it gives a good overview of the location.
From the parking area a track leads down the side of the castle and this provides a good view of the castle. In the field here there are sometimes highland cattle that are friendly and inquisitive and worth a few moments of photography and conversation!
Inside the castle there are various options. The staircases and fireplaces make for interesting subjects and the textures are beautiful. The kitchen and inside areas are very dark with no lighting so to get proper noise free photographs a tripod and longer exposure times are needed. However there is more than enough areas to make memories.

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 in to 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 taking an island tour.

other Places to Visit on Westray

  • Noup Head Lighthouse – a working lighthouse on high cliffs home to gannets in the summer
  • Pierowall – the main village on Westray with shops and a small museum
  • Links of Noltland – 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 – a sweeping sandy beach with stunning views
  • Castle o’ Burrian – sea stack which is home to puffins in the summer months