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  Noltland Castle, Westray

Picture Sigurd TowrieDating from the 16th century, Westray's Noltland Castle stands testament to a troubled period of Scottish history.

The heavily fortified castle lies approximately half a mile from Pierowall Bay and was built by a Scotsman, Gilbert Balfour from Fife.

Balfour was up to his neck in the political intrigues common during the time of his sister-in-law, Mary Queen of Scots, and as a result had made some powerful enemies.

In 1546 Balfour, along with two of his brothers, was implicated in the murder of Cardinal Beaton. Afterwards, they underwent the siege of St. Andrew's Castle and upon its surrender were sentenced to a period at the oar of a French galley. Balfour's chaplain and partner in crime, John Knox, later described the three brothers as "men without God" who had "neither fear of God nor love of virtue further than their present commodity persuaded them".

In June 1560, Balfour received land from his brother-in-law Adam Bothwell, the Bishop of Orkney. It is thought that work on Noltland Castle began soon after this.

Built from local, grey sandstone, the castle follows as a typical "Z" plan layout, with a rectangular central structure with a square tower position at diagonally opposite corners.

With 7 ft thick walls, Balfour's castle was a stronghold in every sense of the word. The lower floors, have no accessible windows that could be exploited in an assault and are peppered with gunloops - 71 in total.

The two towers covered the flanks of the central building, which in turn provides ample opportunity to counter-attack anyone assailing the towers. Built on a slope overlooking Pierowall Bay, anyone approaching the castle, from any direction, would be spotted easily, the multitude of gunloops providing the opportunity to shoot at enemies from any angle.

The main block was designed to have three storeys but was never completed. Although the east end of this structure was roofed, with evidence pointing to prolonged use of the kitchen, the west end was only completed to the second storey and the hall left unroofed. In this respect, the hall probably looks much the same today as it did in the castle's heyday.

The vaulted ground floor contained storerooms and a massive kitchen, with a service staircase leading up to the first floor.

The castle's massive kitchen, with an access staircase to the upper levels on the right hand size.

But although the castle was obviously built with defence in mind, it was not entirely spartan, with some more comfortable quarters constructed on the upper floors. The four-storey high north-east tower was completed and served as the residence for the owners, but the south-west tower was left at two floors.

But Balfour's involvement in Mary Queen of Scots' cause was to prove his undoing. In 1571, when support for Mary was on the wane, Balfour was found guilty of treason.

Seeing his opportunity, Lord Robert Stewart, who was later to become Earl of Orkney, then seized Noltland Castle. But Stewart did not hold the property long before he was ordered to hand it back.

But Balfour's problems continued and eventually he was forced to flee to Sweden. There, in 1576, he was executed for his part in an attempt on the King of Sweden's life.

Noltland Castle was then passed to Balfour's nephew, Michael.

The Balfours held Noltland Castle until 1592, when Earl Patrick Stewart, Robert Stewart's son, seized the stronghold as payment for an alleged debt.

In 1606 it became the property of Sir John Arnot, who, after the downfall of Earl Patrick Stewart in 1611, became Sheriff of Orkney.

In the 17th century a range of buildings enclosing a courtyard was added on the south side of the castle. These structures at least were still in use in 1761 when Jerome Dennison of Noltland settled them on his wife, Helen Traill, as part of her marriage contract.

Additions and alterations continued throughout the centuries the castle was in use. Among the most spectacular is the grand staircase, built into the south-west tower, that leads up into the Great Hall. This is thought to have been added by Earl Patrick Stewart.

Today, access to the castle is via this courtyard, the arched entrance of which remains today. On the right hand side of the arch, and barely visible, is inscribed the cryptic message: "When I see the blood I will pass over you in the night."