Skelbo Castle

Written by Chris Thornton | 13th of September 2021
Castles / Ruins Dornoch Highland History Lochs Sutherland
Skelbo Castle overlooking Loch Fleet | early Norman fortress

On our many trips to Sutherland in north Scotland, my wife and I spotted the ruin of Skelbo Castle while visiting Loch Fleet. It is a great little 14th-century castle ruin perched on the southern edge of the Loch with commanding views for miles in every direction.

Geographically not far from Dunrobin Castle (home of the Earls of Sutherland), it was likely the 2nd most important fortification in the local area.

It is not currently easily accessible, but you do get a nice view of it from the road. You could get to the castle remains, but only by crossing fields and jumping over fences. Skelbo Castle is potentially dangerous even though work has been carried out to stabilise it, there is a lot of fallen rubble freely lying around the buildings and over the whole site.

It's not the most impressive ruin but definitely one to visit on your bucket list of Scottish castles.

Skelbo Castle - Motte and Bailey

Skelbo Castle was a classic motte and bailey type castle, with the keep being placed on the hill and a triangular walled enclosure bailey/courtyard area with a protective curtain wall. The best-preserved side of the castle stands to the north.

A gatehouse existed at the southeast corner and the entire fortification had a surrounding defensive ditch.

There is a ruined house two storeys high to the southwest of the site, connecting to the boundary wall. This dates from the 17th century.

Skelbo Castle appears in the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland as it is one of the many historic buildings in Scotland worthy of preservation.

Skelbo Castle in Sutherland, Highland, on a beautiful day.

History of Skelbo Castle

Here is a very brief history of Skelbo Castle.

1124 - 1153 - Skelbo established

The early castle at Skelbo was likely built under the reign of David I by Norman and Flemish settlers. They were known for their excellent castle building skills and the king wanted to bring order and control to the more lawless areas of Scotland.

The construction of the castle may be directly related to a rebellion in Moray in 1130.

1211 - Gilbert de Moravia

Gilbert de Moravia (whose family owned Duffus Castle in Moray) holds the Castle. It's possible his relation Hugh de Freskin was the original builder of the castle being a Flemish mercenary. Gilbert de Moravia is famous for building Dornoch Cathedral as Bishop of Caithness.

1290 - Royal Commissioners

Royal Commissioners stayed at Skelbo Castle on their journey north to meet Margaret - Maid of Norway. Margaret, unfortunately, died from seasickness. Upon hearing the news of her death the Scottish commissioners rode north to obtain proof of the passing of poor Margaret.

1308 - Attack by Robert the Bruce

The castle was burned down by Robert the Bruce when the Moravia family supported England in the Wars of Scottish Independence. The keep and curtain wall was rebuilt in stone.

1350

Kenneth de Moravia the Earl of Sutherland is now the owner of the castle and was his primary residence.

1529

Thomas Kynnard receives Skelbo Castle through marriage to the daughter of Walter Murray. The castle is sold to William Sutherland of Duffus for 2300 merks who further developed the structure throughout the 16th century.

1715 - Eric Sutherland stripped of Skelbo Castle and titles

Eric Sutherland owns the castle but it was removed from his possession after he supported a Jacobite uprising in the 18th century.

1745 - Jacobite occupation

A Jacobite army lead by the Earl of Cromarty occupied Skelbo Castle before capturing Dunrobin Castle.

1769 - Abandoned

From this point onwards the castle was abandoned, left to ruin and decayed over the next few hundred years.

1960 - Michael Alexander & Sarah Wignall

Adventure writing and Colditz survivor Michael Alexander married Sarah Wignall who was now the owner of the derelict Skelbo Castle. Together they worked on repairing the castle but unfortunately, Sarah suffered from ill health and died. Alexander retained ownership of the castle until he sold it in 1996.

1996 - The Russian Billionaire

Skelbo Castle was purchased by a Russian billionaire named Mikhail de Buar for £75,000. It was thought he acquired the castle to attain the title of Baron. Unfortunately, he took little interest in the castle and Historic Scotland had to do work on the site to stabilise it using £60,000 of public funds to carry out the work.

Mikhail de Buar died in 2010 leaving no will. I can't seem to find who currently owns Skelbo Castle and it could still be subject to ongoing litigation with his estate in Russia.

Loch Fleet

Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve is an area of outstanding natural beauty and home to a wide variety of wildlife. The main attractions here are osprey hunting for fish, and harbour seals basking on the sandbank during low tide. If you are really lucky you may spot otters here too.

Wildfowl feed and roost on the estuary - mainly wading birds and ducks. The road just off the A9 follows the shore of the loch and is a great little drive with many passing places and photo opportunities.

The Grey Seal colony at Loch Fleet, Sutherland, near Castle Skelbo
The Seal colony at Loch Fleet, Sutherland.

Conclusion - Skelbo Castle

Skelbo Castle is a great ruin to visit if you are travelling to Golspie, Dunrobin Castle or just Loch Fleet to see the seals and other wildlife. If you stop at the passing place on the road below near the seal signage it is a lovely spot for a picnic.

Location map of Skelbo Castle

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