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William Sinclair, First Earl of Caithness of the Sinclair Line
By George M. Sutherland FSA Scot, Wick


THE Earldom existed for a long period, and was held by other families before it was acquired by the Sinclairs of Roslin. The St. Clairs of Roslin were Earls of Orkney and Caithness; and the Earldom of Caithness, as a separate Earldom, was conferred on William Sinclair in 1455 by King James the Second of Scotland. The Sinclairs were of Norman extraction, and came over to England with William the Conqueror in 1066. It is said that they belonged to a small village in Normandy named Sanct Claro. They arrived in Scotland in the reign of Malcolm Canmore, as differences had arisen between them and those who held sway in England at the time. They considered that they had not been adequately rewarded for services which they had performed, and that was the reason why they left England and took up their abode in Scotland. There was another cause that might have induced them to settle in Scotland. They knew that it was the policy of Malcolm Canmore to get some of these Norman Barons to his kingdom, and on that account they no doubt calculated that fortune would favour them more in Scotland than in England. It is unnecessary to state that they were well received at the Scottish Court. The first of the name who it is believed took up his residence in Scotland was William de Santo Claro, a son of Waldernus Compte de St. Claro, and Margaret, daughter of Richard, Duke of Normandy. Extensive tracts of land were given to them, and in this way the Barony and lands of Rosslyn came into their possession.

There were three of the St. Clairs of Rosslyn Earls of Orkney —William Sinclair, the subject of our present sketch, being the third Earl. He was the son of Henry, the second Earl, and of Egidia, the only daughter and heiress of William Douglas, Earl of Nithsdale.

This William, Earl of Orkney, and first Earl of Caithness in the Sinclair line, was a very able and distinguished man in his day and generation. He held many important offices in the State, and had considerable political influence; he was a great lover of the beautiful in architecture, and built the far-famed Chapel of Rosslyn; he enjoyed the confidence of Kings James the First and Second of Scotland, and was entrusted by them with several important missions connected with the State, while he encouraged those who were engaged in literature at a time when it was meagre alike in extent as it was in substance. In the "Lives of the Officers of the Crown," by Crawford, he is described as a man of It parts, authority, and power." From all that can be gleaned of him, he appears to have been a man of sound judgment, exquisite tastes, and extensive acquirements—.-a nobleman singularly tolerant, yet firm of purpose, and one who, apparently, in rough and troublesome times, succeeded in a pre-eminent degree, wisely and well in all his undertakings.

He was Chancellor of Scotland, and filled the important office with much acceptance to the sovereign, as well as satisfaction to the lieges. When Lewis the Dauphin, son of Charles VII. of France, was to be married to the Princess Margaret of Scotland, King James the First selected the Earl on account of his qualities of head and heart, to accompany his daughter to the French Court, and witness the marriage ceremony on behalf of the Scottish nation. The Earl would never have been appointed to conduct such an expedition unless he had enjoyed the confidence and esteem of his sovereign, and be able to represent his country in a graceful and becoming manner at the French Court. Tytler in his "History of Scotland," states that the Earl "was accompanied by a splendid train of the nobility," and again, "The Bishop of Brechin, Sir Walter Ogilvy, the Treasurer, Sir Herbert Harris, Sir John Maxwell of Calderwood, Sir John Campbell of Loudon, Sir John Wishart, and many other barons attended in her suite" (that of the Princess Margaret). "They were waited upon by a hundred and forty youthful squires and a guard of a thousand men-at-arms, and the fleet consisted of three large ships and six barges." Father Hay, a scion of the family, in his 'Genealogical History of the Sinclairs of Roslin,' gives a rose-coloured account of the matrimonial expedition, and says that the Earl was accompanied by "ico brave gentlemen, twenty of whom were clothed with cloth of gold, and had chains of gold, and black velvet foot mantles; twenty with red crimson and chains of gold, and black velvet foot mantles; twenty were arrayed in white and black velvet, signifying his arms, which is a cross in a silver field; twenty in yellow and blue coloured velvet, signifying the arms of Orkney, which is a ship of gold with a double tressure of flower de luce going round about in a blue field; and twenty diversely coloured, signifying the divers arms he had with him." Father Hay was no doubt pleased with the gloss and glitter he so accurately delineated; and he then describes the imposing marriage ceremony and the magnificent entertainment which followed, at which the Earl and his suite were all present. In narrating the reception of the Earl in France by the French King, Father Hay writes that "the Earl was honoured of all men in that country, and loved of King Charles, who, on the eve of his (the Earl's) departure for Scotland, conferred on him one of the French Orders of Knighthood."

During the time in which the Earl lived, titles of honour were in great demand, and he had a long list of them. He was Earl of Orkney, Duke of Oldenburg, Earl of Caithness, and Strathearn, Lord St. Clair, Lord Nithsdale, Baron of Rosslyn, Baron of Pentland and Pentland Moor in free forestry, Baron of Cousland, Baron of Cardin St. Clare, Baron of Herbertshire, Baron of Hertford, Baron of Graham Shaws, Baron of Kirkton, Baron of Cavers, Baron of Newborough, Baron of Roxburgh, &c., Knight of the English Order of the Garter, and of the French Order of the Cockle, Lord Admiral of the Scottish Seas, Lord Warden of the Three Marches, Lord Chief-Justice, Great Chancellor, Chamberlain, and Lieutenant of Scotland.

The office of Hereditary Grand Master of the Order of Freemasonry in Scotland belonged to the St. Clair's, and this office was retained in the family until they had parted with nearly all their other honours. It was, however, resigned to the Scottish Grand Lodge. In 16 the Chapel of Rosslyn was founded by the Earl, and it certainly testifies to the wealth and splendour of the family in the olden time. The erection of the Chapel took up much of the Earl's time, and he collected the most skilled masons from every quarter in Europe to finish the building. The Masons of Christendom were then in a society, their principal employment being in the erection of churches and chapels, while they were kept together by oaths and observances, which prevented those uninitated in the mysteries of the craft from a due appreciation of the designs and countless details of the architectural art. The Chapel, even at this day, is proof enough of the taste and love which William Sinclair entertained for the sublime and beautiful in architecture. The situation of the Chapel is excellent, while the surrounding scenery is varied and picturesque. The lyric muse has not forgotten its charms, and the sweet and plaintive air of Roslin Castle is familiarly known in almost every Scottish home. It has been remarked that the Chapel "is one of the most curious and singularly beautiful specimens of Gothic architecture extant," and, further, "that elegance may be considered its predominant characteristic. The extreme beauty and fine proportions of the various clustered pillars cannot be contemplated but with feelings of intense admiration, and everywhere there is that profusion of ornamental carving as if the whole stores of a rich but chastened imagination had been expended on the work." George, Earl of Caithness, who died in 1583, was buried in the Chapel. The Barons of Roslin were buried in their armour without any coffin, and there was an old tradition that on the death of any member of the family that the turrets of the Chapel were supernaturally illumined by fire. Sir Walter Scott, in his Lay of the Last Minstrel, alludes in graphic and pointed lines to this incident:-

O'er Rosslyn all that dreary night
A wondrous blaze was seen to gleam,
'Twas broader than the watch-fire light,
And redder than the bright moonbeam.

It glared on Rosslyn Castle rock,
It ruddied all the copse-wood glen,
'Twas seen from Dryden's groves of oak.
And seen from caverned Hawthornden.

Seemed all on fire that chapel proud,
Where Rosslyn's chiefs uncoffined lie,
Each baron, for a sable shroud,
Sheathed in his iron panoply.

Blazed battlement, and pinnet high,
Blazed every rose-carved buttress fair,
So still they blaze, when fate is nigh,
The lordly line of high St. Clair.

The Earl lived at Rosslyn Castle in princely style—in a manner that no nobleman in Scotland surpassed, or even equalled. Father Hay states:-" He had his halls and chambers richly hung with embroidered tapestry. He was royally served at his own table in vessels of gold and silver— Lord Dirleton being Master of the Household; Lord Borthwick his Cup-bearer; and Lord Fleming his Carver. His Countess had serving her 75 gentlewomen, whereof -53 were daughters to noblemen, all clothed in velvets and silks, and 200 riding gentlemen who accompanied her in all her journeys; and, if at any time she went to Edinburgh, where her lodgings were at the foot of Blackfriars Wynd, she had 8o lighted torches carried before her."

The Earl was twice married. His first wife was Margaret, Countess of Buchan, a daughter of Archibald, fourth Earl of Douglas. Her husband, the Earl of Buchan, was killed in the Battle of Vernuil, while fighting with the French against the English. He held the office of Constable of France for some time. The Earl and the Countess were within the prohibited degrees, and shortly after the marriage took place it was dissolved, but they were married a second time on obtaining the necessary dispensation from the Pope. Two children were born of the marriage, namely (i), William, styled "Williame the Waster." It is believed that this term was applied to him on account of his extravagant and reckless habits. He is called " Waster" in old writs, and it may be safely assumed that it was for some reason of this kind that the Chancellor passed him over in the matter of the title. He married Elizabeth, daughter of the Earl of Rothes, and they had a son, Henry, who was the first Lord Sinclair of Ravens- burgh. He was killed at Flodden. Gavin Douglas, the celebrated Bishop of Dunkeld, at his desire, undertook the translation into Scottish verse of the Ćneid of Virgil; and (2), a daughter, Catherine. She was married to Alexander Stewart, Duke of Albany, a brother of King James the Third of Scotland.

The Earl's second wife was named Marjorie, daughter of Alexander Sutherland of Dunbeath. Sir Robert Gordon, in his "History of the House and Clan of Sutherland," states that this Alexander was the eldest son of John, Earl of Sutherland, but in the Peerage case with Sutherland of Forse, this was disproved. It is now supposed that this Alexander Sutherland of Dunbeath belongs to the Thorboll or Duffus branch of the Clan Sutherland. By his second marriage, Earl William had five sons and four daughters. The sons were named (1) Sir Oliver of Rosslyn; (2) William, who succeeded to the Earldom; (3) Sir David Sinclair of Swinburgh; (4) Robert, whose name appears in a deed in 1506; and (6) John, who was nominated Bishop of Caithness. The daughters were named Eleanor, Marion, Elizabeth, and Marjorie.

Considerable controversy has taken place regarding the seniority of Sir Oliver. Father Hay supports the theory that Sir Oliver was the eldest son from the fact that he succeeded to Roslin and the other valuable properties, whereas the second Earl only acquired "the barren domains" of the Earldom. Others allege that he was younger than William, the second Earl. The charter which James II. granted to the Earl is dated 28th August, 1455, at Edinburgh, and is written in Latin. it conveyed to the Earl "Comitatum nostrum de Caithness cum titulis de Carnoch et Eminavir campertinentiis et aliis pertinentiis dicti comitatus" —the estate was declared a free barony. In 1471 the Earl gave up to the Crown his Earldom of Orkney, in exchange for which he procured a grant of the Castle of Raven's Craig, with the lands of Wiltoun, Dubbo, and Carbarry, together with a pension of 11400 merks from the great customs of the burgh of Edinburgh."

In 1476, the Earl resigned the Earldom in favour of his second son (William) by the second marriage, and King James the IJI., by Charter under the Great Seal, confirmed the same.

It is clear enough that William Sinclair, the ex-Earl of Orkney as well as of Caithness, led a very active and eventful life. He does not appear to have got mixed up in any way in the broils and conspiracies of the times. He must have been exceedingly shrewd, and possessed of great tact, ere he could have kept himself aloof from the network of jealousies and estrangements then so common in the ranks of the nobility. He died in the year 1480, and was buried in the Chapel of Roslin, which he had founded, and to the completion of which he had devoted himself with so much energy, trouble, and perseverance.

An old writer gives the following description of the Earl:-

He was a very fair man, of great stature, broad bodied, yellow hair, straight, well-proportioned, humble, courteous, and given to policy, as the building of castles and churches, and planting of forests, which his works do yet testify." The Sinclairs may feel proud in having such a man the base of their pedigree; and it is very surprising that for upwards of four centuries the clan never was without a male representative to take up the Earldom.


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