Notland Castle – Swopping Hands

The ruins of the Noltland Castle dominate the harbor at Pierowall about a mile from Westray. It was built on land granted by the Bishop of Orkney, Adam Bothwell, to his brother-in-law, Gilbert Balfour, when Bothwell was made Sheriff of Orkney by Mary Queen of Scots in 1560. A fine example of a 16th-century fortified Z-plan tower house, its massive walls are pierced with 60 embrasures for firing weapons. The lower floors are pierced by 71 gunloops, designed to ensure that every approach to the castle would be covered.

The castle was both defensive and a residence, almost as if two floors of a grand mansion were placed on top of two floors of a heavily defended fortress. In the 1600s a range of buildings was built that enclosed a courtyard to the south of the castle. The south west tower was converted to create a grand spiral staircase up to the hall level. The hall however was never completed and is partially roofed. The vaulted ground floor contained storerooms and a massive kitchen, with a service staircase leading up to the first floor.

Noltland Castle was the work of different hands at different times. The north east tower was raised to its full four storeys to provide accommodation for the lord and his family, as was the east end of the main block. The castle however was never finished and the west end of the main block of the castle and the south west tower were built only to second floor level.

In 1572 Gilbert Balfour had to flee Orkney for Sweden and the notorious Lord Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney took possession of Noltland Castle for James VI. The Balfour family regained possession of the castle in 1574, but Gilbert Balfour remained in Sweden. Noltland Castle was then passed to Balfour’s nephew, Michael and the family held Noltland Castle until the late 1600s.

It was besieged and taken by Patrick Stewart forces in 1598 but the castle was probably in the hands of the Balfour’s by 1606. It was sold by them to Sir John Arnot, who became Sheriff of Orkney in 1611. The fine castle was however destroyed by Covenanters in 1650. Today Noltland Castle is managed by Historic Scotland.

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