On Hogmanay the Folly Flâneuse set off to explore Harold’s Castle on the edge of Thurso. On this festive date a superlative structure was required, and this tower is a visual treat with a great history. It is also the most northerly folly on the British mainland.
Harold’s Tower (aka Harald’s Tower or Harrold’s Tomb) was built by Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster (1754-1835). When remodelling his estate at East Thurso he dismantled a chapel that was said to contain the burial place of Earl Harold of Caithness who died around 1190. The minister of nearby Reay, Alexander Pope, was also an ‘eccentric antiquary’ and wrote to Sir John in the name of Earl Harold, begging that Sir John protect his remains. Sir John took this in good humour and built this monument on the site of the chapel. Retaining the upper hand he added a plaque claiming it was THE BURIAL PLACE OF THE SINCLAIRS OF ULBSTER. An exact year for the building is not recorded, but the Revd Pope announced it was imminent in a work published in 1776 so it was likely soon after that date.
Although it has been said that the mausoleum is a sham, building inspectors reported in 1981 that the vault had been broken into and the ‘coffins displaced’. If there were bodies buried there, they remain anonymous, and Sir John himself is buried in the Royal Chapel at Holyrood, Edinburgh.
Sir John was a politician and pioneer of estate improvement in Scotland. He travelled widely on the continent and in Germany he heard discussion of ‘statistics’, introducing the word to The English language in the Statistical Account of Scotland which he directed from 1791-1799. The annual publication summarised the history and geography of each parish as well as the contemporary economic and social situation. An engraving of Harold’s Tower was commissioned for the 1798 volume:
It is not clear if the gated outer wall was constructed, but the Tower still sits on a prominent circular bastion, despite the best efforts of the cattle who trample the field.
The door is now firmly secured and a second entrance at the rear has been filled in. A photograph in the J. Paul Getty collection shows that the blocked-up entrance was once accessed by steps:
Thurso Castle was rebuilt in the 1870s by a later Sir John Sinclair in an extravagant ‘Scottish baronial’ style. The design is attributed to David Smith. This mansion was largely demolished in the 1950s but remnants remain. The ruins are strictly private but an exuberant arch and lodge can be seen from the road.
The Folly Flâneuse wishes you a happy and healthy 2019.