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Sketch of the Civil and Traditional History of Caithness from the Tenth Century
Chapter X


The late Earl, who had outlived his son William, Lord Berriedale, and his grandson John, Master of Berriedale, was succeeded by his great-grandson George, son of the latter. This George, the third of that name, was not distinguished by any remarkable qualities.

Passing over a few years unmarked by any incident of much moment, we come now to narrate an event which created a great sensation in the north. This was the landing in Caithness (1650) of the celebrated Marquis of Montrose from Orkney with a body of troops, for the purpose of making a last effort in behalf of the Royal cause. But before relating his proceedings in this county, it may be interesting to give a brief account of the circumstances which induced him to go first to Orkney, and of his reception and success in that quarter. Robert, Earl of Morton, who, on the death of his father, William, had succeeded to the government, etc., of Orkney, warmly espoused the cause of Charles II., and hailed with great satisfaction the intelligence of a contemplated invasion of the north of Scotland by the Marquis in support of the exiled prince. He invited him to make his first landing in Orkney, and promised him every assistance in his power. Montrose had collected on the Continent about 1200 men, the greater part of whom were from Holstein and Hamburgh. Early in September, 1649, the first division, consisting of a third part of the force raised, were embarked at Gottenburgh for the Orkneys; but the two vessels which conveyed them were wrecked in a storm on the Orkney coast, and all on board perished. Other two transports that were despatched with the second division, together with 1500 stand of arms and other munitions of war, arrived safely at Kirkwall about the end of the month. On board of one of the ships was the Earl of Kinnoul, his brother, and several officers. The Prince of Orange, who was friendly to the cause, had furnished most of the vessels. Kinnoul, on landing, was kindly received by the Earl of Morton and the county gentlemen. He took up his head-quarters in the castle of Birsay, and immediately proceeded to raise levies. Meeting with every possible encouragement from the proprietors, he soon got together a considerable body of young men from the different islands. Latterly he was somewhat checked in his progress by an unfortunate difference which took place between himself and the Earl of Morton. Morton died soon after, on the 12th November, and was speedily followed to the grave by Kinnoul. The temporary command now devolved on his brother, who assumed the title of Earl of Kinnoul. As Montrose himself was not expected in Orkney till spring, the troops were quartered in the mainland during the winter, and maintained chiefly at the expense of the landed proprietors. A writer (George Petrie, county-clerk.) well acquainted with the civil history of Orkney gives the following graphic description of the arrival of Montrose:—"A sharp look-out was kept as the appointed time for his arrival drew near; and one day early in March the beacon-fires gave warning that ships were in sight, and approaching the islands. The town of Kirkwall presented a busy scene as the levies hurried in from the neighbouring parishes; and the soldiers laboured hard to give the good old town somewhat of a warlike appearance, by mounting some great guns on the towers of the bishop's palace, and on the rampier at the shore. This was absolutely necessary, as the town had been frequently attacked and plundered by English cruisers. The fears entertained as to the character of the approaching ships were set at rest when they entered the bay and made the preconcerted signals." The Marquis himself was on board a small frigate which had been presented to him by the Queen of Sweden. He was accompanied by several officers, among whom were his own brother, Henry Graham, Lord Fendraught, General Urry, Colonel Hay, Majors Dalgetty and Whitford, and Sir George Drummond of Balloch. Having landed with the residue of his troops, numbering about 200 Dutch volunteers, Montrose proceeded to the "Palace of the Yards," where he and his companions took up their residence. The month of March was spent in raising additional men. In the beginning of April, the Marquis mustered all his followers at Kirkwall, and then marched them to Holmsound to be embarked for Caithness. The whole amounted to about 2000 men, including a number of gentlemen's sons in Orkney. A Major Sinclair, a native of that county, interested himself very much in the cause, and accompanied the Marquis in the expedition. The weather fortunately happened to be favourable. The troops were transported across the Pentland Firth in boats, and disembarked at Duncansbay, in the immediate vicinity of John O'Groat's. "On landing at Duncansbay," says Dr James Brown, (History of the Highland Clans.) "the Marquis displayed three banners, one of which was made of black taffeta, in the centre of which was exhibited a representation of the bleeding head of the late King, as struck from the body, surrounded by two inscriptions—'Judge and avenge my cause, O Lord,' and 'Deo et victricibus armis.' Another standard had this motto—'Quos pietas, virtus, et honor fecit amicos.' These two banners were those of the King. The third, which was Montrose's own, bore the words 'Nil medium'—a motto strongly significant of the stern and uncompromising character of the man." The unusual sight of so many troops at first greatly alarmed the inhabitants of the district, many of whom fled from their houses, and hid themselves among the rocks. The news of the landing spread like wildfire through the county; and as soon as the report reached Dunbeath, Sir John Sinclair took horse, and posted off direct to Edinburgh to communicate the alarming intelligence to the Convention of Estates, leaving his castle to be defended by his lady and servants.

Montrose proceeded to Thurso, (The house in which Montrose lodged was situated near the old church, in that part of the town called the "Fisher-biggins." It was, like most of the other domestic habitations of the place at the time, a mean, thatched hovel, which has long since disappeared.) where he issued a manifesto strongly appealing to the patriotism of the people of Caithness, and exhorting them to rise along with him, and free the country from the tyranny of its present rulers in Church and State. But the call was not responded to. The proprietors, as a body, were indifferent or lukewarm in the cause, and made no efforts to induce their tenantry, or rather serfs—for they were little better at the time—to join Montrose. In this respect they acted very differently from their brother proprietors in Orkney. The only gentlemen in the county who came openly forward and tendered their services were Alexander Sinclair of Brims, and Hugh Mackay of Dirlot. They were soon after followed by Hucheon Mackay of Scoury, in Strathnaver, who repaired to Thurso, and expressed his readiness to embark in the Royal cause. Montrose subsequently compelled the heritors and ministers to swear obedience to him as the King's lieutenant-governor, etc., by signing a bond to that effect. The only recusant was Mr William Smith (At the Restoration, when a sort of modified Episcopacy was established, Mr Smith was, on account of his opposition to the measure, ejected from Bower. He retired to Thurso, where he lived till the time of his death, being chiefly supported by his numerous friends and admirers. The other members of the Presbytery conformed to the new order of things, and stuck to their livings.) of Bower and Watten (then one parish), whom neither threats nor flattery could induce to sign the oath. Montrose, it is alleged, was so exasperated at the obstinacy of this clergyman, that he caused him to be brought to Thurso, and in way of punishment, to be tied to the stern of a boat in the river, and dragged through the sea with only his head above the water, to Scrabster Roads and back again! After undergoing this bath, it is added, that he was fettered and thrown into prison, where he lay till the news arrived of the defeat and capture of Montrose. He was then liberated, and returned to his charge. There is proof that the worthy clergyman was confined, but there seems to be great doubt as to the truth of the story about his being trailed through the sea. The authority on which it rests is not given. The tradition is not common in the county; and it looks very like a pure fabrication invented by an enemy to blacken the character of the gallant Marquis. Such a piece of unmanly cruelty, which would only tend to injure his cause, was not in keeping with the noble and chivalrous spirit of the man.

The arbitrary way, however, in which Montrose dealt with the gentlemen of the county, does not appear to have advanced the object which he had in view, namely, the raising of additional men in Caithness; and having failed in this point, he resolved to proceed on his march southwards without any further delay. Indeed, he had remained too long already in the county, at a time when delay was full of danger. A consultation or council of war was therefore held as to the best route he should take. Sinclair of Brims and the two Mackays strongly advised him to march by the heights of Strathnaver, where the ground was inaccessible to cavalry, and possessed other natural advantages. But Montrose declined the proposal, assigning as a reason that his troops would be knocked up by a march through those trackless and rugged wilds, and he resolved on the eastern route by the Ord of Caithness. After instructing his brother Henry to raise what men he could in the highlands of the county, and then to follow him without loss of time, the Marquis set off for Latheron, and having arrived at Dunbeath, laid siege to the castle.

This is one of the few ancient edifices in the county which is still inhabited. Like most of the other castles along the coast, it is situated on a narrow, precipitous rock, projecting into the sea, which surrounds it on all sides, except towards the land. The neighbouring cliffs are from eighty to a hundred feet high; and when the sea is roughened by a breeze, the scene produced by the waves dashing against them, and boiling at their feet, is exceedingly wild. A tourist who visited the county about the year 1783, gives the following description of a cave connected with the castle:—"Underneath," says he, "is a large cavern below the foundation of the castle, running up from the sea, and into which the sea enters at a certain height of the tide, and approaches near to a dark, dreary vault—the bottom of which is about 50 feet deep from the surface of the rock on which the castle stands. From within the castle, the approach to this dismal place is by steps cut in the rock, formed like a narrow stair, twisting round and round as it descends into the vault. The entry to this stair is curiously covered from the sight of those who are not acquainted with it; and at one side, within the vault, is a door, but concealed so nicely that a stranger could not perceive it, which opens to a passage that leads to the subterraneous cavern mentioned above. It is difficult," he adds, "to conceive what might be the original intention of it. It could not serve for a prison in times of barbarism, nor as a place of safety to retreat to when an enemy approached the castle, because the free ventilation of the air is so much excluded, that no person could live in it for any length of time. Most probably it was used as a passage to the sea, in order to escape in boats when the castle was besieged by an enemy. It was admirably adapted for concealing contraband goods." There is little doubt that it was used for both purposes. The precipice on which the castle stands, slopes down nearly to a point. Between this point and the fortress, at the head of the rock, the remaining portion of ground was anciently occupied as a garden. It was a perilous-looking spot, unprotected by any wall, with the billows beating on three sides. The castle seems to have undergone frequent repairs and alterations; and is now completely modernised with a protecting wall or parapet built round the entire rock on which it stands. It appears in record as far back as 1439. In 1650 it was surrounded by a moat filled from the sea.

Montrose vigorously attacked the garrison; and the result was just such as what might have been expected in the circumstances. Lady Sinclair, who had neither the warlike spirit of the celebrated Countess of March, nor yet her means of defence, after holding out for a few days, surrendered on the condition that person and property should be respected. This was readily granted; and the lady, in the military phrase, came out with ail the honours of war. The possession of this stronghold was deemed by Montrose to be of the utmost importance, in case he should meet with a reverse, and be obliged to retreat to Caithness. A garrison was accordingly placed in it, and left in charge of Major Whitford. Montrose now pursued his march towards the Ord—of which he had taken previous possession by some 500 men sent forward for that purpose. This step was absolutely necessary to secure his entrance into Sutherland, as the Earl of that county had espoused the opposite side, and was in arms against him. During the siege of Dunbeath Castle, the Earl of Sutherland met the advanced division of Montrose at the formidable defile of the Ord, whose passage a few brave men—such as Leonidas had at Thermopylae—could have disputed against a host; but finding himself unequal to the contest, and deeming discretion the best party of valour, he beat a quick retreat to Dunrobin, and not considering himself safe even there, he fled to Ross-shire, where he remained till the Marquis was a captive in the hands of his enemies.

The Committee of Estates, when they heard of the invasion of Montrose, were greatly alarmed, and immediately ordered General David Leslie to proceed to the north with 4000 men. Strahan was sent on before, with a body of cavalry, to check his progress. Montrose met with no serious interruption until he arrived at Carbisdale, on the confines of Ross-shire. Here he was unexpectedly attacked by Strahan, and, having no cavalry to oppose to that of the enemy, his raw and undisciplined foot soon gave way, and the issue was a disastrous defeat. Montrose made his escape to Assynt, a wild and mountainous district in Sutherland, where he wandered for several days without any food or shelter. At last he was apprehended in the disguise of a peasant by a party of men sent out for the purpose by Macleod of Assynt, and brought to his castle of Ardvrack. Montrose appealed to his humanity, and begged him to save his life, but the sordid wretch, for the sake of twenty thousand pounds Scots—some say four hundred bolls of meal— delivered him up to Leslie. He was forthwith sent south, and, after a formal trial, was condemned and executed on a gibbet thirty feet high, at the Cross in the High Street of Edinburgh, By a barbarous sentence of the court, his head was ordered to be fixed on the Tolbooth of Edinburgh, his body to be quartered, and his limbs to be placed on the gates of Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee, and Stirling. "Such was the fate of a man," says Hume, "whose military genius shone forth beyond any that have appeared during those civil disorders in the three Kingdoms. The fine arts, too, in his youth, he had successfully cultivated; and whatever was sublime, elegant, or noble, touched his great soul."

After the battle, Captain William Gordon of Dunrobin was despatched to Caithness in pursuit of Henry Graham, but he had the mortification to find that he had come a post too late. Just as he arrived at Thurso, Graham, who had been apprised of his brother's defeat, was setting off in a vessel from Scrabster Roads for Orkney. From Orkney he fortunately made his escape to Holland. General Leslie soon after, accompanied by the Earl of Sutherland, entered Caithness, and laid siege to the castle of Dunbeath, which was bravely defended by the few adherents of Montrose that were left in charge of it, and only taken at last by cutting off their supply of water. Leslie summoned before him the principal gentlemen of the county, and, after a brief examination, sent some of them to Edinburgh to be dealt with by the Convention of Estates. The Church took into her own hands the punishment of the ministers, who, with the exception of Mr Smith of Bower, were all summarily deposed by the General Assembly. In the presbytery records of Caithness it is minuted that they were thus punished for "yr complyance with James Graham excommunicate in his rebellion, and shedding the blood of the country." The deposing of the ministers was manifestly harsh, as there is hardly any doubt that they, as well as the proprietors, subscribed, through intimidation, the written oath or bond which Montrose had tendered them.

The county of Orkney suffered severely for the assistance which it had given to Montrose. In a statement of grievances drawn up by the heritors, it is said that, immediately after the defeat of the Marquis, "one Captain Collace, by warrant of General Leslie, came to the country, and violently quartered his troop of horse and men through the country, destroying and eating, trampling and abusing, the growing corn in the fields, and threatening for money, would not remove their quarters till of some persons they got 500 merks, some 100, some 54, some more, some less, amounting to the sum of 5000 pounds Scots, or thereby. That in 1651 the county suffered great prejudice by several English men-of-war, which plundered several houses and islands to the value of 10,000 merks; and that, during the Usurper's abode in Orkney, they uplifted and violently took the sheep, cattle, and other victuals, as if it had been their awin, for little or nothing to pay, to the great ruin of the land," etc.

There was a double hardship in the case of the poor islanders. They were first punished by Leslie for the aid given to Montrose, and, after the Restoration, they were refused any compensation for the spoil committed through the country, and the large sums of money extorted from them during the time of the Commonwealth. This was quite in keeping with the careless and ungrateful character of Charles the Second. Mr Balfour, referring to this subject, says, "The islanders gave Montrose 2000 men and £40,000, and the Commonwealth (1650) exacted 300 horse and £60,000. Again, they raised another regiment and contribution to Charles II. (1651); and he rewarded their loyalty and their sufferings by a further exaction of £182,000 in 1662, and then surrendered the islands to the tender mercies of the Earl of Morton, the worst King Stork of all the Donatories." (Odal Rights and Feudal Wrongs.)

1651.—Sir John Sinclair of Dunbeath, who had taken such an active part against Montrose, died in the month of September this year. His lady, who defended the castle in his absence, was a daughter of Lord Lovat, and sister of the Countess of Sutherland. Her name was Catharine Fraser, and she was his second wife. Having no male heir, the baronet divided his estate, says the writer of the continuation of Sir Robert Gordon's history, "betwixt his brother Alexander's son and his own daughter's children; which daughter was married to the Baron of Kilbrake." His nephew succeeded to the title, and became also Laird of Dunbeath.

In the course of this season Cromwell's troops crossed the Spey, when Caithness, as well as the other northern counties in Scotland, received a visit from them. They planted a strong garrison in the Tower of Ackergill; and parties of them would seem to have been distributed here and there over the county, and to have remained in it for some time. From the following entries in an old session record of Canisbay, it would appear that a portion of those troops were, on three separate occasions, stationed in that remote parish. Thus, March 29, 1652—"No session holden by reason the Inglishe were quartered in the bounds; the congregation was few in number, and ther was not a sederunt of elders, nather was ther any delinquents." Again, May 2, 1652—"Ther not being a sederunt, by reason of a party of Inglishe horsemen being in our fields, whilk made the congregation fewer in number, and severall of the elders to be absent." And again, December 30, 1655— "Adam Seaton convict of drinking on the Sabbathe, and having masking plays in his house for the Inglishe men, he was ordained to make publick confession of his fault next Sabbathe." The record does not say why those troops were stationed in the immediate vicinity of John O'Groat's. It has been supposed that, on the three occasions referred to, they were on their way to Orkney. But the most curious thing is what is mentioned about the Englishmen devoting the Sabbath to drinking and the amusement of masques. Cromwell's soldiers are represented in history as rigid sectaries of the most austere cast, to whom everything in the shape of amusement, and especially on the Lord's-day, was a heinous sin and an abomination, but it would seem that such of them at least as came to John O'Groat's were not so very strict.

The old register which I have mentioned throws not a little light on the condition of Canisbay at the period in question; and, judging from what is therein stated, great ignorance, superstition, and immorality, prevailed in the parish. The minister, whose name was William Davidson, appears to have laboured indefatigably to correct this state of things. The kirk-session, of which he was the head, pursued a most rigid system of discipline. That ecclesiastical judicatory met regularly every Sunday after divine service, for the despatch of business; and in addition to old scores not finally disposed of, they had seldom less than two or more fresh cases of delinquency at every sederunt to deal with. But the poor minister had much trouble, not only with his congregation, but with his elders. He had great difficulty in getting them to attend to their duty; and there are many grievous complaints interspersed through the manuscript respecting their absence from church, and from meetings of session. Nay, on one occasion one of those worthies had to appear before his own church court, and to be rebuked for a gross act of Sabbath breach,

(This mistake of the elder of Canisbay would appear not to have been an uncommon one. An amusing story is told of a few families resident in a sequestered spot, called Dalvahn, in the highlands of the county, who were so thoroughly "obfuscated" in intellect, and careless as to the flight of time, that they frequently did not know when the Sabbath came, and were reminded of it in the following manner:—One of their neighbours, a man of some little substance and superior intelligence to the rest, who kept a correct reckoning of the time, had acquired among them the high title of Lord of Dalvahn. This personage, every Sunday morning, regularly donned a long-tailed scarlet coat, and repairing to a small eminence near his dwelling, stood there for some ten minutes, to indicate to the community that the day of rest had come, when all labour, even to the grinding of grain on their querns, should be suspended. As soon as the signal was observed by his neighbours, they would run in, exclaiming in Gaelic, "Make haste, and lay aside your work. It is Sabbath; his lordship is out in his red coat!")

namely, drying malt on the Lord's-day! His apology was, that he had entirely forgotten that it was Sunday! One crying evil, the parent of many others, was intemperance. Whisky was then a rare beverage in the county, but there was a capital substitute for it in strong ale. Ale-houses, as they were called, were plentifully scattered over the parish. There, old and young congregated, got drunk, and quarrelled and fought; and as these breaches of the peace were also all brought before the kirk-session, the minister and elders had always plenty of business on hand. Nor was Canisbay morally and intellectually worse than any other parish in the county. In this respect all the parishes were on a par. Education, with its civilising effects, had as yet made but small progress; and Caithness, despite the labours of the clergy, was in a state of semi-barbarism, with the spirit of superstition and Popery clinging to her with desperate tenacity. Never was there a greater fallacy than the common saying—the good old times.

1668.—Mutual depredations, and those too on a more than usually large scale, were carried on even at this time between the two counties of Sutherland and Caithness. During the year 1667, the Mackays of Strathnaver made three separate raids into Caithness, and carried off a great number of cows, sheep, and horses. Early next year, in way of reprisal, "William Sinclair of Dunbeath, on whose lands the harrying had chiefly been committed, invaded Strathnaver with 1200 men, and returned home with 900 head of cattle! The parties on both sides raised actions at law before the Court of Justiciary at Edinburgh; but the lairds of Dunbeath and Murkle having failed to appear before the Court or to find caution for their appearance, were declared rebels, and a commission was granted to John Campbell, younger of Glenorchy, to pursue them with fire and sword. Glenorchy came to Caithness for the purpose. But the two Sinclairs betook themselves to the castle of Dunbeath, which was strongly fortified; and Glenorchy being unable to reduce it, or to apprehend the parties, failed in the execution of his commission. William Dunbar of Hempriggs, however, for "intercommuning" with Sinclair of Dunbeath, was imprisoned in Castle Sinclair, and was only set at liberty on finding caution to the amount of 5000 merks Scots. Dunbeath and Murkle, by the mediation of friends, soon after obtained a reversal of their sentence of outlawry. This was the first time that Campbell of Glenorchy, who afterwards figures so largely in the annals of the county, came to Caithness.

The Earl of Caithness of this period, although he gave no assistance or countenance to Montrose when he landed in the county, became a decided Royalist at the Restoration, and manifested great zeal in supporting the rigorous policy of the Government with regard to suppressing conventicles. He obliged all the principal persons in Caithness to sign a bond against these meetings, and the clergy were the individuals whom he appointed to see it subscribed in the different parishes. This appears from the following minute in the presbytery records of Caithness, dated Thurso, 4th November, 1674:—"The said day compeired the Earl of Caithness as one of his Majesties honourable privie councill, and by veirtue of ane commission granted to his lordship by the said honourable councill, enquired if yr was any conventicles keeped within the presbrle and shyre of Caithness, and the brethren of the presbrie showed his lorp yr was none, neither did they fear any to be, for qlk they blessed God. And the noble lord presented ane bond from the councill qlk should be subscribed by all considerable persons within the diocese of Caithness for preventing conventicles, and entrusted the brethren of the presbrie yr with to see it subscribed." This was one of the last things which his lordship did in his official capacity as member of the Privy Council, and lord-lieutenant of the county. He died at the castle of Thurso in the year 1676.


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