Noltland Castle is intriguing. From a distance it looks just like any other Scottish tower house of the 1500s. But as you approach you begin to count the number of gun holes in its walls – 71 in total, far more than any other Scottish castle! Who built the castle – and what was the builder afraid of?
The original owner was Gilbert Balfour, son of Balfour of Mountquhanie, in Fife. In 1560 his brother-in-law, Adam Bothwell, Bishop of Orkney, granted him lands in Westray. Balfour also became sheriff of Orkney and constable of Kirkwall Castle, to add to his prestigious position as Master of Queen Mary’s Household.
Balfour was no angel. In 1546 he helped murder Cardinal Beaton in St Andrews. In February 1567 he helped murder Mary’s second husband, Henry, Lord Darnley.
Following Mary’s arrest four months later, Balfour judged it prudent to retire to Noltland. Those 71 gun holes would have offered him some reassurance. He subsequently returned to the mainland to campaign for his exiled queen but fled from Scotland in 1572. He died in Sweden in 1576, fighting for King Johan III.
The inscription he placed over the outer entrance into Noltland Castle is drawn from Exodus, the second book of the Bible. But somehow it sums up his character: ‘WHEN I SEE THE BLOOD I WILL PASS OVER YOU IN THE NIGHT’.
A real fortress-residence
Gilbert Balfour’s castle is a strange combination – part artillery fortress and part noble residence. It seems that it was never completed.
The main building stands on the north side of a walled courtyard. It is laid out in a Z-plan, with an oblong central block and two diagonally opposed square corner towers. The lower two storeys are stark and dark: light enters only through those 71 gun holes (there were probably more when the castle was more complete).
The ground floor has the usual kitchen and stores, but the upper floor, now missing its floor, seems barrack-like. The upper storeys are lighter and more welcoming, more in keeping with Scottish tower houses elsewhere.
But Gilbert’s wife, Margaret Bothwell, may have found the gun holes commanding the entrance into the great hall somewhat disconcerting. There are nice flourishes here and there, particularly the main spiral stair, whose great newel, or central post, ends in a tapered round capital.
- The exterior – with its tiers of gun holes. Noltland has been described as looking like an antique ‘man o’ war’ ship.
- The interior – dark and sinister, just like its builder.
- The spiral stair – a rare feature of elegance in this ‘bolt-hole’ of Balfour’s.