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


IT has been stated already that the first Earl resigned the Earldom in 1476. William Sinclair, the Second Earl, obtained a charter of the Earldom from King James the III. of Scotland. This charter is dated 7th December, 1476, and it narrates that William, the Second Earl, is the lawful son of William, the Earl of Caithness, and Lord "de Sancto Claro," and of his spouse, Marjory, Countess of Caithness. The Charter included "omnes et singulas terras, comitatus Cathanie, cum tenentibus, tenandriis, et annexis earund' cum pertinen', una cum donatione Hospitalis, Sancti Magni in Caithania, jacen' infra Vic', nostrum de Inverness; Et cum Officiis Justiciarie Camerarie, et Vice-comitatus, infra limites et bondas, Extenden' a Portnaeulter ad Pentland Firth, et a mari onientali ad mare occidentale, prout limites episcopatus Cathanien extendunt." It will be thus seen that the King not only conferred on William, the son of the First Earl, the honour and dignity of the Earldom, but also that the grant included the patronage of the Hospital of St. Magnus at Spittal, as well as the heritable office of Justiciar in the Diocese of Caithness, from Portinculter to the Pentland Firth, and from the East Sea to the West Sea.

Notwithstanding the terms of the Charter in question, it would appear that there were some differences as to the Earldom between the members of each of the two marriages of the First Earl—the two Williams—or at least some misapprehension was anticipated; for in a contract quoted by Nisbet it seems that should any plea or debate arise about the Earldom between William (the Waster, or the Spendthrift) and William (the Second Earl), Sir Oliver Sinclair "shall stand evenly and neuter betwixt them as he should do betwixt his brothers, and take no partial part with either of them." It does not appear, however, that any dispute arose regarding the Earldom, and it was left in the undisturbed possession of William Sinclair of the second marriage.

William sat in the Scottish Parliament as Earl of Caithness on the i6th day of February, 1505. His name appears in the Rolls of the Parliament of Scotland.

The principal residence of the Earls of Caithness was at Girnigoe Castle, situated on Sinclair's Bay. The date of its erection is unknown. It was a most extensive pile, and for a long time impregnable. It was surrounded by the sea, and its ruins even to-day manifest something of its old grandeur and strength. Once within the massive walls of the castle, and the drawbridge drawn, the old Earls of Caithness—Chiefs of the Clan Sinclair some centuries ago—bade defiance to all enemies whether on land or by sea. The Chief was then an absolute ruler, and had the power of "pit and gallows," and being so far removed from the seat of government, indeed at a time when royal or constituted authority was rather unstable and weak, the ruler of Caithness could almost do what pleased himself without the slightest responsibility to anyone.

The Earl was married to Mary Keith, a daughter of Sir William Keith of Inveruggie and Ackergill. Their family consisted of two sons, (1) John, who succeeded to the Earldom, and who was afterwards killed at the battle of Summerdale in Orkney; and (2) Alexander, the ancestor of the Sinclair families of Dunbeath and Stemster. It may be noted that the Earl had a natural son named William. In 1543 he was legitimised. It is not known if he had any issue, or even what became of him, only it may be safely assumed that his legitimation must have been for some specific purpose.

There is reason to believe that, on account of certain crimes and offences committed by the Earl, he incurred the displeasure of King James the III., and, as a matter of course, forfeiture followed. The Lord Lyon of Scotland, Sir James Balfour, wrote:-" This Earl William was forfaulted by King James the Third, in anno , the Earldom of Orkney and Lordship of Zetland being annexed to the Crown." At the same time, it may be stated that the forfeiture referred to has been doubted by some authorities. Mr. James Trail Calder, the historian of Caithness, states that he called on Dr. Joseph Robertson, an eminent Scotch antiquarian, to ascertain if the statement was correct. Dr. Robertson, however, "had no reason to think that the Earl of Caithness was at the time under forfeiture."

Judging from all the circumstances, as well as from tradition and the gleanings of history, the weight of evidence is in favour of the forfeiture. James the Fourth, apprehensive that he would have to face in battle array the forces of England, issued his Royal mandate to the feudal barons to assemble their forces for the defence of Scotland. The barons and chiefs responded, and the Earl of Caithness, who was a brave and gallant nobleman, collected about 300 of his clan, and proceeded to join the Royal forces in the Autumn of 1513. The Sinclairs, who were a brave set of men, were clad in green, and it has been stated that shqrtly before the fatal battle of Flodden, when the Scotch King was in much need of men, a body of stalwart heroes was seen approaching the camp. The King anxiously enquired who they were, whereupon some one close by replied: "They are the men of Caithness, with the Earl of Caithness at their head." The King at once remarked: "Well, if that be William Sinclair, I will pardon him." The Earl, on coming up, was immediately pardoned, the forfeiture was removed, and, as there was neither parchment nor paper at hand, the pardon was written on a drum head, and signed by the King. The Earl had it cut out, and, with the view of having his titles and lands preserved to his family, in the event of his death in the battle that was so soon to take place, he placed the drum-head charter, as it was called, in the custody of one of the Clan Gunn, with instructions to carry it to the Countess of Caithness at Grinigoe Castle.

The battle of Flodden took place with results very disastrous to Scotland. The Earl of Caithness took a conspicuous part in the battle, he and his men forming a part of the right wing of the army, along with the Earl of Sutherland and the laird of Gightall under the Earl of Huntly. The Scotch right wing defeated the English opposed to them, and drove them off the field; but on returning found that the remainder of the Scots army was routed, and the King slain. The Earls of Huntly and Sutherland fled, but the Earl of Caithness and the laird of Gight stood their ground. Suffice it to say that at the end of the battle, the Earl and all his men lay dead on the field of battle, excepting the man entrusted with the safe keeping of the drum-head charter.

Flodden brought home sorrow and grief to Caithness, as it did to all Scotland. Sir Robert Gordon, in his "History of the House and Clan of Sutherland," wrote:-" This William Sinckler, Earl of Catteynes, was the nephue of John, the third of that name, Earle of Southerland, and was the first of the surname of Sinckler that was Earle of Catteynes, whose bond of service this Earl of Huntley had obtained not long before this battell, wherein he perished, leaving his sone, John Sinckler, to succeed him." What the "bond of service" referred to by Sir Robert Gordon as having taken place between the Earl of Huntly and the Earl of Caithness means, is not exactly known. It must refer to some compact or arrangement between the Earls, but then this theory would undermine, to a certain extent, the usually received version of the appearance of the Earl of Caithness and his men at Flodden.

The Earl and his men crossed the Ord of Caithness on a Monday, and for generations afterwards a Sinclair hesitated to cross the Ord on a similar day—a Monday—or to be clad in any green clothing. The solitary survivor belonging to Caithness from Flodden's gory field duly arrived in Caithness, and presented himself to the Countess at Grinigoe Castle. The Countess was drowned in grief at the sad intelligence; and the bearer delivered to her ladyship the Charter he was ordered to give her, and which secured to her and family the titles and possessions belonging to the Earldom. James Trail Calder, the well-known Bard of Caithness, as well as its historian, wrote some touching verses on "Lady Caithness and the messenger from Flodden." It may be interesting to give a few of these-

'Twas a gloomy eve in autumn,
Clouds o'er heaven lay dense and still;
And the sun no smile shed round him,
As he sank behind the hill.

All without seemed full of sadness.
Not a sound on earth or sky,
Save the wild wave's hollow murmur,
And the sea-fowls piercing cry.

In her tapestried princely chamber,
Lonely, uttering not a word,
Pensive sat the Lady Caithness
Brooding o'er her absent Lord.

And on the arrival of the survivor the poem proceeds—

I alone the sole survivor
Of our brave lamented band,
Bear thee home this precious charter,
Written with the Royal hand.

It restores thee all thy titles,
Every privilege and right;
'Twas the last deed of the monarch
Ere the trumpet blew to fight.

Worthless now to me and empty,
Said the lady with a sigh,
All the rank the world can give me,
All the honours 'neath the sky.

Then withdrawing from the chamber,
Whelmed in sorrow passing deep,
To her widowed couch she hurried,
There in solitude to weep.

The drum-head charter is said to be in the charter chest of the Earls of Fife, but this is exceedingly doubtful. It is believed that it remained in the possession of the Earls of Caithness until the death in 1766 of the Earl of Caithness named Alexander. The then Earl of Fife, being the son-in-law and executor of Alexander, is reported to have taken away the interesting document. The story of the "drum-head charter" is referred to by Pitcairn in his "Tales of the Scottish Wars." Sir James Balfour, the Lord Lyon, does not give the date of the alleged forfeiture, neither does he mention the cause that led to it.

Mr. Robert Mackay, in his "History of the House and Clan of Mackay," evidently countenances the fact of the forfeiture. In support of this he alludes to certain articles in an inventory, as follows:-" Remission, George, Apostle of the Isles, to William, Earl of Caithness, for all murders and crimes committed by him from the year 1501-1510." "Sasine following on the retour of John, Earl of Caithness, 1513." Mr. Mackay writes that "to the article, as to the remission, these words are added: 'Wherein the murder of the Bishop is thought to be comprehended, dated anno 1510." It appears from Keith's "Catalogue of Bishops" that George—an uncle of the Earl of Bothwell—was Bishop of the Isles from 1510 to 1513, and it is supposed that the remission was granted by this bishop. There is little doubt, however, that it was in respect of crimes of murder and such like that the forfeiture took place. But, assuming that the King removed the forfeiture in the accidental manner alleged, was the ecclesiastical anathema removed, which was an indispensible requisite before the forfeiture could be removed? Did the remission by the Apostle of the Isles occur before the King removed the forfeiture, or was the fact of the remission communicated to the King? The Earl's brother (John Sinclair) was Bishop of Caithness, but was never consecrated, and during his time the affairs of the See were managed by the Dean of Caithness of the time—Adam Gordon, a son of the first Earl of Huntly. Mr. Mackay suggests that the bishop who was murdered—if such an event took place might have opposed the consecration of John Sinclair. It may not be of much interest to continue this enquiry, more especially when the facts cannot be ascertained with any degree of exactness.

William held the Earldom for the long period of thirty-seven years. His administration or his conduct in general is not sufficiently recorded to enable a person to form a just estimate of his character. The distinguishing point in his career is that he fought and died at Flodden. Having suffered death for his country, with the bravest of his men, his faults and shortcomings, if he had any, were alike forgiven and forgotten.


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