Muness Castle is Britain’s most northerly castle, tucked away on the island of Unst, on Shetland’s final frontier. Shetland is not known for its castles but, along with Scalloway, Muness represents the popular style of building tower houses in Scotland.
Muness Castle was built by Laurence Bruce of Cultmalindie (Perthshire), an uncle to the infamous villain, Earl Patrick Stewart, who built the Scalloway Castle at around the same time.
Laurence was appointed tax collector (or Sheriff) in Shetland around 1571 and went on to build his grand castle in Unst. The inscription above the door reads:
Listen you to know this building
Laurence Bruce he was
That worthy man
Who earnestly his heirs and offspring prays
To help and not to hurt this work always.
Perhaps not an accurate description of Laurence, for many Shetlanders, the tax collector was a much-feared and equally hated man – an oppressor. Bruce was investigated by the Privy Council for oppressing the people, however, there are some stories that paint in a more favourable light.
Muness is arguably far grander, or at least more comfortable, than Scalloway although Laurence never got to see it completed before his death in 1617. Despite Laurence wishing that the castle would represent his great legacy, it was attacked and razed by privateers in 1627, a mere 29 years after it was started.
It also faced attack from Patrick too who, in a great rage, sacked his house at Sumburgh before heading north to Unst to ransack Muness Castle, belonging to his uncle. Perhaps his mood lifted on the long journey north but, whatever the reason, a shot was never fired and Patrick returned to Scalloway peacefully.
Both Scalloway and Muness were designed by architect Andrew Crawford, who is buried in the Tingwall graveyard, just a few miles from Scalloway. Crawford was clearly an incredibly skilled architect and there are no other comparable buildings like these in Shetland. Stylistically they draw their inspiration from the Scottish tower houses of this period and both castles would have been an impressive and dominating sight on the skyline.
Both Scalloway and Muness now stand as roofless ruins, representing a period of tyrannical and cruel rule in Shetland. It is little wonder that there was no real effort to save either of these grand buildings from falling into rack and ruin. For those who had endured the suffering under the Stewart Earls, this was a time to be forgotten, not enshrined.
Today Muness is cared for and managed by Historic Scotland and visitors can go inside, free of charge.
Written by Laurie Goodlad