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John Sinclair, Third Earl of Caithness of the Sinclair Line
By George M. Sutherland FSA Scot, Wick


ON the death of William, at Flodden, he was succeeded by his son, John, in the Earldom of Caithness. Earl John held the Earldom for sixteen years. He was married to Elizabeth, a daughter of Sir William Sutherland of Duffus. Mr. J. T. Calder, in his History of Caithness, gives her name as Mary, but this is evidently a mistake, as her name appears Elizabeth in all deeds written at the time. It is right to observe, however, that some consider that Earl John was twice married, first to Mary Sutherland—not Elizabeth —a daughter of the Laird of Duffus, and afterwards to the fifth sister of Adam, Earl of Sutherland. Mr. Thomas Sinclair, in his interesting Notes to the second edition of Calder's History of Caithness, writes: "Further light is thrown on things if it is true that Earl John of Caithness was married to Adam's sister after the death or divorce of his first wife, Mary Sutherland, daughter of Duffus. The authorities for this are William Gordon in his History oft/ti Gardens to 1690, published in 1726, and C. A. Gordon in his History of the House of Gerston, published at Aberdeen in 1754" There is no evidence of the marriage of Earl John with Mary Sutherland in the charter chest of the Earl of Caithness. If the marriage had taken place, such an important fact would have been mentioned in the proof taken before the House of Lords, in 1791, when the Earldom was contested by competing claimants. But at anyrate, it may not be of much moment whether the Earl was married once or twice, other than in its relation to his connection with the House of Sutherland.

There is very little doubt that when Adam Gordon, Earl of Sutherland, was in course of dispossessing Alexander Sutherland from all title to the Earldom of Sutherland, on the alleged ground of illegitimacy, that he entered into a compact with the Earl of Caithness. Adam had many enemies, and it was necessary that he should secure the powerful influence of the Earl of Caithness. Sir Robert Gordon, in his History of the House and Clan of Sutherland, describes the true position of the parties as follows:-

"Adam, Earl of Sutherland, forseeing great troubles likely to fall forth in his country, he entered in familiarity and friendship with John Sinclair, Earl of Caithness, this year, 15 16, at which time Earl Adam gave unto the Earl of Caithness, who was the near cousin of his wife, Lady Elizabeth, the ten davochs of land that lie upon the east side of the water of Ully (Helmsdale) for assisting him against his enemies as doth appear by some of the writs yet extant." it is clear that the House of Sutherland desired to have the good offices of Earl John, for in 1513, the year in which he succeeded to the title, Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland granted to the Earl of Caithness a charter of the lands of Helms- dale, etc., called Strathuizie. Earl John did not get possession until the year after, when the death of her brother took place. It would appear that Earl John must have given considerable aid to Earl Adam in defeating the claims of Alexander Sutherland, for in 1516 a charter of Helmsdale, etc., was granted by Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, and Adam Gordon, Earl of Sutherland, to John, Earl of Caithness, "for his expenses in recovering the County of Sutherland and Castle of Dunrobin from the Countess's brother, Alexander Sutherland." This would imply that Earl John had given material assistance to the Earl of Sutherland.

King James the IV. of Scotland gw'eda chaiter 'to John, Earl of Caithness, and "Elzabeth Sutheiland, his spouse, and William, their son, of certain lands dated r4th 'July,' 1 5 27, and in this charter there is the following. refimnee to Helmsdale -!' Ac etiam totas et. integraspredictas terms der Helmisdail 'dicto Willmo Sinclaire et heiedibussuis-denobis;'etc Et thetastenias Cathanie in libero comitatu in perpetu,' -etc."

John Mackay, the Chief of the Clan Macky, assisted his brother-in-law, Alexander Sutherland, to obtain possession of the titles and land of Sutherland. Earl John induced Neil Navigirach Mackay to claim the lands of John Mackay on the plea that the latter was illegitimate, and. therefore not entitled to succeed. Niel Navarach invaded Strathnaver with some adherents of a company of Caithnessmen, but Donald Mackay, the brother of John, fell upon them at Lochnaer and defeated them. The Earl of Caithness apparently thought that he had not much interest in the feuds between the Sutherlands and the Makays, and he therefore left the Earl of Sutherland to take care of it by himself. He no doubt saw that if the Mackays were defeated by himself and the Earl of Sutherland that the position of his own house might be endangered afterwards should a stuggle occur between the Sutherlands and Sinclairs. The existence of The Clan Mackay was necessary at the time to preserve the balance of power in the two Northern Counties.

Sir Robert Gordon is indignant that the 'Earl' of Caithness should have withdrawn from the assistance of the Earl of 1Suth, land, although he had received lands from the latter, for defending him against his enemies. Indeed, he alleges that, notwithstanding the consideration given, the Earl of Caithness had actually allied himself with the enemies of the Earl of Sutherland, Sir Robert writes that the Earl of Caithness joyned afterward with Earle Adam his foes, and yet keipt still the lands, until Alexander, Earle of Sutherland, did purchase them bake from Earle John, his successor, by excambion, . for 'certane Church lands within Catteynes, the yeir of God, 1591. These ten davaghs of land within Strathully were given by Earle Adam to John, Earle of Catteynes, upon a reversion to this effect, that wheresoever the Earle of Sutherland should. give unto Earle John or his successors twentie pound 'land'lying withift Catteynes, that then he or they should renounce to the Earle of Sutherland these lands lying within Strathully." Sir Robert moralises over the conduct of the Earl of Caithness in the following manner:—"Thus we sie that usually mercenary friends doe change alwayes with the course of fortune. The follow and favour upon us in floorishing prosperitie; but in pinching adversitie, and when the winter of our happiness does once approach, behold they sudentlie vanish and grow strangers to us, in our  greatest need and necessitie.".

In May 1529 Earl John invaded Orkney with five hundred men. The real cause of the invasion is not exactly known. Several causes have been assigned for it. It has been stated he went to assist Lord Sinclair of Ravenscraig to recover some land of which. he or his predecessors had been deprived. Again that he went to take possession of lands belonging to the Sinclairs: wbich they had got from the King of Denmark. It is. also stated, that. he might have gone to recover the govenorship of Kirkwall Castle, which Sir James Sinclair refused to give up. Mr Worsaac in writing of the matter, says.-"The islanders took up arms under the command of their Governor, Sir James Sinclair to oppose the appointment of a Crown vessal over the islands,".. But whatever led to the expedition the result was very unfortunate to the Caithness men. A desperate battle was fought at Summerdale, a place northeast about four miles from, Stromness. The Orkney men totally routed their opponents. The Earl of Caithness was slain, aid Lord Sinclair of Ravenscraig was taken prisoner. Very few of the Caithness men escaped, and, many of them were killed in cold blood. The. Earl was buried in Orkney; but some say that the few of his clan who had escaped took the Earl's head back with them while others allege that it was sent over in derision by the Orkney men to Caithness, Robert Mackay, in his History of the House and Clam of Mackay, remarks—"This gave rise to an imprecation, which is to this day used in the North Highlands, 'Shuil mhorer Gaol do' Arcu dhuit, gun hian dachi ach en cann,' i.e., 'I wish you Lord Caithness's journey to Orkney, only the head to return."

Shortly after the battle of Summerdale, Sir James Sinclair, the Governor of Kirkwall Castle, committed suicide by throwing himself over a rock into the sea at Linkness. Another version is that he killed himself at Stirling. It is believed that he had no instructions from the Government to fight the battle of Summerdale, and was on that account terrified that he might be prosecuted for the death of the Earl of Caithness. It may be taken for granted that the Earl's invasion had something to do with the interests of Sir James Sinclair; and the disaster in Orkney, coupled with the great loss at Flodden, must have drained the county of Caithness of its best men.

Tradition asserts that the Earl was warned by a Witch on landing in Orkney that the side on which blood would first be drawn would be defeated. The Earl and his men, to ensure victory, slew the first person they met This happened to b a herd boy, a native of Caithness. When it was ascertained that it was Caithness blood that had first been shed, the Earl and his party became dispirited, as they were satisfied victory would go against them. The Earl was accompanied to Orkney by William Sutherland, of Berriedale, a man of great stature and immense strength. Sutherland had a presentiment that he would never return, and, before departing, he went to the church-yard at Berriedale, where he stretched himself on the ground, placing one stone at his head and another at his feet, the difference betwixt the two which was eight feet three inches, was his own height. He was killed in the battle.

On an occasion before Earl John went to Orkney, he had some difference with Robert Gunn, the tacksman of Braemore. He sent his kinsman, John Sinclair, of Stirkoke, to recover the rent which was owing by Gunn, but the latter wounded Sinclair, and made the party beat a hasty retreat without any rent.

Earl John had two sons, named (1) William, who died in 1527, without issue, and (2) George, who succeeded to the Earldom. The Earl had also a natural son, David, who was Bailie to the Bishop of Caithness.

Little is known of the personal character of the Earl. He appears, judging from the scanty information which we have of him, to have been wary and cautious up to the time when he proceeded on his ill-advised expedition to Orkney.


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