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View of the Keep
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View from the East
View from the East
Location and Facilities: Lesser Iveagh Castle is located in Caithness in the northeast of Scotland, near the village of Lybster on the North Sea off the A9 highway, the nearest large town being Wick. This is an area with a dramatic coast, several castles, and a large number of prehistoric remains. The castle is privately owned but is a listed ancient monument. It is open to the public from mid-April to early November. In addition to its remarkable status as a historical castle of note, it also provides a youth hostel, a three-room 'mini-hotel', a cafe, a bar, and many interesting displays of local art. For more information, call Wick-34-3400-09 or e-mail Cross Section
Cross-sectional View
Brief History

There was an Iron Age promontory fort on this site that was later reused in the Dark Ages by Picts; little remains of this except for some embankment, although there is a midden heap in the outer-outer ward. Around 1560 a tower-house with a barmkin wall was built on the site of the inner ward. Malachi McDermoth was the second son of the Irish Earl of Iveagh of County Fermanagh. He emigrated to Scotland and joined with the Marquess of Montrose in his Covenanting, later Royalist, activities. But prior to that, as early as 1625, he had restored and expanded the old site, which had been purchased for him by his father, to create what we now see for the most part. He named it Lesser Iveagh to distinguish it from his ancestral home in Ireland. McDermoth came to grief in 1651 after the downfall of Montrose and fled to France to avoid the wrath of the ruling Cromwellians. He returned after the Restoration of Charles II and lived in the castle until his death in 1687. His descendants extended the estate and still have possession of the castle and manor, although they never rose above the rank of Baronet. But, wisely, they remained Loyalist and did not join the followers of the Pretenders.


Lower Floor Plans

Floor Plans: The two wards of the castle are sited on a rocky spit running south with a sea inlet almost separating the two parts. Bridges, the outer of which is a drawbridge, lead to two gate passages that are parts of high towers. The western side is Ivy Bay, into which runs Robb Burn issuing from the slopes of Ben Ivy. A rock-cut ditch protects the northern side of the headland; it also supplied a large part of the stone used to construct the castle. There is another, ward (not shown on the plan), unfortified save for a palisaded embankment, to the north of the ditch. It contains the stable, a barn, and domestic buildings such as a bakehouse and a brewhouse.

The inner ward contained the Earl's lodgings, for when he inhabited the castle. His manor house, where his wife and family dwelled, is located a quarter of a mile to the west along the shore of Ivy Bay.

The outer ward gatehouse tower is guarded by a drawbridge and portcullis, and its lower two floors were assigned to the castle guards. The vaulted room on the west is now the ticket office; the room east of the gate passage is the shop and bookstore. The east side of the ward has four vaulted cellars, now filled with simulated supplies of the sort to be found in the 17th Century. Another guard room and gate passage leads south to the bridge to the inner ward. This guard room is now the public toilet. The southern wing was reconstructed in the 1950s (see below). One climbs to the first floor by an outside stair alongside the main guard room. Here there is an open lobby over which is an arch supporting the passage from the great hall to the solar. From this lobby there is access to the gatehouse, a spiral staircase, and the Great Hall; an open gallery leads south to the kitchen and pantry/larder. The guard room is now the coffee shop, and the rooms west of it are private, staff only. The two-story-high Great Hall has been restored to what is presumed to be its original appearance, including the large dining table, where 'medieval banquets' are held on weekends. Pantry and kitchen have been modernized in the rebuilt wing. Three bedrooms, in what were the guards' sleeping quarters, are available for paying guests. The servants, now the castle staff, reside over the modernized kitchen wing.

The inner ward also contains a kitchen and great hall, which were for the army garrison and the Earl. Ground floor of the keep tower consists of cellarage, two vaulted rooms at courtyard level, one underneath (this was probably originally a prison and is now fitted out as such to amuse visitors). A well in the court is not actually a well but a cistern cut into the rock and lined with clay; it is kept filled by rain water. The kitchen on the west side is now the cooking area for the youth hostel that occupies the garrison quarters. To its south in the projecting tower is a two-storied area for storage, a cellar and a larder. A covered passage leads from the kitchen to the anteroom, an oak-panelled chamber with staircases, one a spiral stair to the soldiers' Mess Hall and to the Great Hall, the other a straight stair to the Officers' Hall in the keep, with the portcullis room serving as its lobby. These rooms have been left intact as part of the historical display, although the mess hall is now a drinking bar. Garrison sleeping quarters are on the first and second floors of the southern section of the ward, with servant accommodation over the kitchen, soldiers barrack above that, and an arms room in the south tower. It is likely the east tower was for the corporals, with the master sergeant under the gun room. The Earl's Solar is located in the keep and entered by a passage from the north side of the Great Hall. There is an oriel window at this level overlooking the entrance, with a machicolation in its floor. See below for the modifications made when the southern wing was converted to a youth hostel.

Upper Floor Plans

The caphouses along the north front of the outer ward, reached from the top of the spiral stair, provide access to the battlements, the eastern of which projects from the wall and has machicolations and a round corner turret or bartizan. The garrett of the gatehouse leads to the western parapet with another bartizan and to the machicolated northern wall-walk. The west segment of the gatehouse has a lean-to roof with a storage area beneath it. Originally guard sleeping quarters, the caphouse rooms are now used for a photographic and watercolor display of the coastline and castle in all seasons and weather. (Many of these are for sale.)

The inner ward has four stories and a basement. Third floor of the keep contains what was the Earl's private bedroom suite, still with its original plain but solid wooden furnishings, including a four-poster bed in the eastern room, which also has a turret. His personal servants (valet, butler, and bodyguard) lived on the floor above. Their quarters give access to the wall-walks, the northern of which is machicolated. The turret has another floor at this level. This turret overlooks the sea inlet that separates the two wards. Northwest and west sides of the keep have thickened walls carried on corbels to accommodate garderobes.

The southern part of the inner ward is purely defensive, with a watch tower and a gun battery for cannons. Ammunition for the guns was stored under the battery and the watch tower. The armory on the third floor was also used as a lounge for the garrison, where they would play cards. It is now a display room for muskets, bucklers, and swords; the 'ammo' room is full of stacked cannonballs and (empty) powder kegs. Five historical cannons from the period have been placed on the gun battery, and the watch room now contains pictures and documents relating to contemporary artillery.


The modernization that took place in the 1950s mostly involved the southern parts of the two wards. A house was constructed in the lower ward in the old service area to accommodate the staff of the castle. This involved extending the old structure to the north (very much restricting the size of the courtyard). Apart from the modernized kitchen and added pantries, larders, etc., it included six bedrooms, a bath, and an additional story. The sectional plan does not show these changes.

The original garrison quarters were converted into a youth hostel with separate dormitories for men and women. Bay windows were added to the old barrack rooms, also fireplaces. At this time, the garrison mess hall was made into a bar -- not open to the public as a 'pub', but available to those who pay the admission charge or are staying in the hostel or in the rental rooms.

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