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


The late Earl, some time before his death, in 1675, having no male heir to succeed him, and being greatly embarrassed in circumstances, sold his property, title and all, to Lord Glenorchy, who was one of his principal creditors. Glenorchy married his widow—the Countess Dowager, a daughter of the Earl of Argyle, and relation of his own, and assumed the title of the Earl of Caithness—the deed by which he acquired the estate and title having been confirmed by Royal charter under the Great Seal. In order to secure one influential friend in the county, he appointed Sir John Sinclair of Murkle sheriff and justiciary-depute of Caithness, as well as bailie of all the baronies on the Caithness estate. In the meantime, George Sinclair of Keiss, son of Francis Sinclair of Northfield, disputed Glenorchy's right to the title, and more especially to the lands of Northfield and Tister, which he inherited from his father. The claims of both were submitted to the four most eminent lawyers of the time in Scotland, namely, Sir George Mackenzie, Sir Robert Sinclair of Longformacus, Sir George Lockhart, and Sir John Cuningham. (This Sir John Cuningham was a native of Caithness. His father, John Cuningham, was admiral-depute of Caithness and Sutherland, and rented the lands of Gise and Ormly, in the neighbourhood of Thurso, under William, Lord Berriedale, after he had got the management of his father's estate.) Their decision was in favour of Glenorchy, and forwarded to the King, who thereupon sent a letter to the Privy Council, ordering them to issue a proclamation prohibiting George Sinclair of Keiss from assuming the title of Earl of Caithness, etc., etc. Sinclair paid no attention to the interdict, and not only retained possession of the lands, which he claimed as his own by inheritance, but annoyed Glenorchy's chamberlains so much that they found it extremely difficult to collect his rents. Almost the whole of the gentlemen in the county espoused the cause of Sinclair of Keiss; but two of his warmest and most active supporters were David Sinclair of Broynach, and William Sinclair of Thura. They gave him all the aid in their power, and even went so far as to assist him in demolishing the castle of Thurso East, of which Glenorchy had taken possession. The common people were everywhere friendly to George Sinclair; and, in short, Glenorchy was generally looked upon as a usurper who had taken advantage of the necessities of the late Earl, and cheated him out of his title and property.

At length the Privy Council (November 11, 1679) passed an Act charging the "haill kin, friends, and followers of John, Earl of Caithness, to concurr and assist" in recovering the disputed lands. To carry this into effect, Glenorchy next summer (1680) invaded Caithness with 700 men. This is the number generally stated, but Colonel David Stewart of Garth (History of the Highland Regiments.) says that Glenorchy's force amounted to 1100 men, including the followers of the immediate descendants of his family, namely, Glenlyon, Glenfalloch, Glendochart, and Achallader, together with those of his neighbour and brother-in-law, the Laird of Macnab. Sinclair of Keiss, as soon as he heard that the Campbells were passing through Braemore, on the confines of the county, resolved to meet Glenorchy in open field, and for this purpose hastily collected about 800 followers. Some accounts say that he had 1500. Many of them, however, it is added, were old men, while the whole were untrained and totally destitute of any knowledge of military tactics. The hostile parties met near Stirkoke, but as the day was far spent, and the Highlanders were fatigued with a march of near thirty miles, Glenorchy declined battle, and withdrew to the hills of Yarrows. The place to which he retired was long known by the name of "Torran na Gael," or the Highlanders' Hill. The Sinclairs inarched into Wick and celebrated their supposed advantage in a deep carousal, being liberally supplied, it is said, with drink by a secret agent of the Campbells. Pennant says:— "Glenorchy thought proper to add stratagem to force. He knew that in those days whisky was the nectar of Caithness, and in consequence ordered a ship laden with that precious liquor to pass round, and wilfully strand itself on the shore. The Caithnessians made a prize of the vessel, and in indulging themselves too freely, became an easy prey to the Earl." Such seems to have been the current tradition in the county at the time of Pennant's visit; and it is most likely founded in truth. Be that as it may, the Sinclairs spent the night in riot; but the Campbells acted more prudently. Glenorchy appointed a strict watch, and took every necessary precaution against a sudden surprisal. The men that were not on guard wrapped themselves in their plaids, and lay down to sleep on the bare heath. About eight o'clock next morning (July 13), Glenorchy quitted his bivouac, and crossed the river of Wick below Sibster, nearly opposite Stirkoke Mains. His men are said to have leaped across; and from the narrowness of the stream at one particular spot in this quarter, the feat would not seem impracticable to an agile, long-legged Highlander. The news speedily reached Wick, where it excited the utmost consternation and alarm. The Sinclairs, from the state in which they were found, were mustered with great difficulty, and then hastily led up the river side to meet the enemy. Glenorchy's intention was to proceed to Keiss, but as soon as he saw the Sinclairs advancing, he prepared for battle by drawing up 500 of his men on the haugh, some 200 yards farther up the river than the point where it is joined by the burn of Altimarlach. [Altimarlach is a Gaelic compound, and has been usually rendered "Thieves' burn;" but the author was informed by the Rev. Hugh Macalman of Latheron, an excellent Gaelic scholar, that it is a corruption of Altnamarbh clach, which literally signifies the burn of the stones of the dead, or the burn of the gravestones.] This burn, or rather water-course, which in the summer season is quite dry, has steep banks on each side, and may be described as a huge gully. It lies about two miles to the west of Wick. Nothing could be better adapted for an ambuscade, of which Glenorchy with great tact availed himself. He accordingly ordered the remainder of his men to lie down and conceal themselves in this deep gorge, and not to stir from the spot until their officers should give them the word to rise. As the Sinclairs advanced, they made a detour to the right at some little distance from the head of the ravine, and of course did not see the ambuscade that was laid for them. Their object in this movement was to have the advantage of the higher ground, and thus to place the enemy between them and the river. When the two hostile bodies were within a few yards of each other, Glenorchy gave his men the signal for the attack, and the deadly strife commenced. The onset of the Campbells was so furious, that the Sinclairs, enfeebled as they were with the debauch of the previous evening, instantly gave way, and fled with precipitation in the direction of the burn of Altimarlach. At this moment, the reserve corps of the Highlanders, starting up from their ambush with a savage shout, met the fugitives in the face, and being thus pressed in front and rear, and at the same time outflanked on the left, the Sinclairs in desperation made a rush for the river. The Campbells chased them into the water as they attempted to escape to the other side, and committed such dreadful havoc, that it is said they passed dry shod over their dead bodies. Not a few of the Sinclairs were drowned in the deeper part of the stream; and nearly the whole of those who endeavoured to save their lives by running for the open plain were cut down by the murderous battle-axe and broadsword of the infuriated victors. Sinclair of Keiss himself, and the other leaders of his party, who Were all on horseback, owed their safety to the fleetness of their chargers. The engagement did not last above a few minutes, and was as bloody as it was brief. Such was the issue of the famous battle of Altimarlach, so disastrous to the county, and so humiliating to the pride of the Sinclairs. It was the last great fight of the kind—originating in a family quarrel—in Scotland, and in this respect it possesses a general as well as local interest.

Glenorchy quartered a part of his troops in Caithness for some time, levying rents and taxes as in a conquered country, and subjecting the people to the most grievous oppression. The remainder of his men he sent home immediately after the battle in detached companies. With the last company was his chief bard and piper, Finlay MacIvor, who composed on this occasion the two well-known airs—"The Campbells are Coming," and "Lord Breadalbane's March." The latter was played for the first time at Altimarlach. "In the heat of the battle," says Colonel Stewart, "and when the Caithness men were beginning to give way, Glenorchy's piper struck up a voluntary—the inspiration of the moment—when the sounds of the instrument seemed to express, in a very remarkable manner, the words bodach na briogais." This Gaelic phrase may be rendered the "bodies wi' the breeks," and is a sarcastic allusion to that part of their dress worn by the Sinclairs in this unfortunate fray. The Campbells, as genuine Highlanders, wore the kilt, and, like Dundee's men at the battle of Killiecrankie, were mostly all barefooted.

Glenorchy's piper, Finlay MacIvor, would appear to have been a man of more than ordinary talent in his vocation; and the following anecdote is related of him while on his way out of the county:—The weather, it seems, was warm, and Finlay was afflicted with a disease very common among pipers, namely, an unquenchable thirst. Before crossing the Ord, he and his party adjourned to a public-house at Dunbeath—then famed for the superior quality of its ale. The Highlanders were delighted with the drink, and did it ample justice in a sederunt of nearly two days. The third morning found Finlay there alone—his purse empty, and his pipe pledged for the scores of the previous evening. Mine hostess was inexorable, and the poor man was in an exceedingly disagreeable plight. Had he and his countrymen been thrashed by the "bodies wi' the breeks," the disgrace to him would have been nothing, compared with the loss of his pipes in such circumstances. Fortunately, at this distressing conjuncture, a friend unexpectedly came to his rescue. William Roy MacIvor, a countryman of his own, and one of Glenorchy's factors, who lived near Dunbeath, having heard of the dilemma in which Finlay had placed himself, called in just as he was making his last appeal to the landlady. The tally board was produced, and the factor having glanced it over, generously paid the whole reckoning, and ordered the pipe to be restored to its rightful owner. "Now, my good fellow," said the factor, clapping him on the shoulder, and handing as much money as would defray his expenses home, "I hope you'll be a little more moderate in your potations in future, and not get into such a fix again, at least before you reach the braes of Glenorchy; for mind you, I will not always be at hand to redeem your pipes." The overjoyed bard could not express his gratitude in words; but he called to his aid his peculiar talent, and rewarded his benefactor by composing a song in his praise, and wedding it to a beautiful Gaelic air, named— "Failt clan Ibhair." The factor, a kind-hearted, hospitable man, was not a little gratified with a strain which so happily recorded his good qualities. But it was like to have cost him too dear; for it is said the tune was never played in his hearing, without his treating the company to half an anker of brandy! He was the chief of the MacIvors in this county; and his name, embalmed in imperishable song, still lives in the Highlands of Caithness. Such is the immortalising power of genius, when it is aided by that most expressive and delightful of all the sciences—music.

To return to the civil affairs of the county. Nothing daunted by the reverse at Altimarlach, George Sinclair of Keiss continued his opposition, and finally laid siege to Castle Sinclair, which he took after a feeble resistance on the part of those who had been left in charge of it. Fire-arms, or some kind of artillery, would seem to have been employed on this occasion by the besieging party. For this affair he, and his three friends who assisted him, Sinclair of Broynach, Sinclair of Thura, and Mackay of Strathnaver, fell under the ban of Government, and were declared rebels.

At length, through the influence of the Duke of York, afterwards James II., George Sinclair finally secured his claim to the title of Earl of Caithness, and also obtained full possession of his patrimonial property. [The lands of Keiss, Northfield, and Tester, which Sinclair claimed as his own by inheritance, are represented by him in a petition to Parliament (1681) as not exceeding 300 merks of yearly rent. They have been since purchased at upwards of 30,000.] The sale of the earldom was manifestly an illegal transaction, and the decision of the Scotch lawyers in favour of Glenorchy is not a little strange. "The earldom of Caithness," as is observed by Mackay, "was a male fee by the original grant, which would seem a bar in the way of its being gifted or disposed of to a stranger, and even of the King's altering its tenure, where there was no previous forfeiture."

Glenorchy was for about six years Earl of Caithness. As a compensation for the loss of his title, he was created Earl of Breadalbane, and Baron of Wick. The Baron had little enjoyment in his Caithness property. He was universally detested by the natives, who regarded him as a military butcher, and never forgot the slaughter of their friends at Altimarlach. They accordingly took every method of annoying him. They waylaid and thrashed his factors; they burned the corn, and houghed the cattle of his tenants; and, even after his death, they vexed his successor so much, that, despairing of bettering his affairs in the north, he divided the lands into separate portions, and sold the whole in 1719. The Ulbster family purchased the greater part of the Caithness estate. It was a princely property, and at the present day would be valued at not less than from six to seven hundred thousand pounds. The whole debt lying on it, when it was sold to Glenorchy, does not appear to have exceeded twenty thousand pounds.

From a curious old document dated 1750, and entitled "Observations by Harry Innes of Sandside upon the writs he has seen, and the information given him relative to the differences betwixt the deceased Sir James Sinclair of Dunbeath, and John Sinclair of Ulbster," etc., Glenorchy would seem to have claimed, as his purchased property, the greater part of Caithness. In the paper in question, an inventory extending to about twelve pages folio is given of the various lands, etc.; and these comprise nearly all the principal townships, mills, multures, castles, towers, fishings, etc., etc., with the very hawks and hawks' nests on the Ord and Holburn-head. By all accounts, Glenorchy would appear to have been a grasping and unprincipled man, and there is no doubt that he claimed property to which he had no right by purchase.

I may here also mention, that he was the Earl of Breadalbane so deeply implicated in the massacre of Glencoe. For this horrible deed, a process of high treason was afterwards raised against him, and he was committed to prison, where he remained for some time, but was at last discharged without trial. He received 12,000 from Government to keep the Highlands quiet after the Revolution, the greater part of which he appropriated to his own use. And when the Earl of Nottingham wrote to him requesting him to account for the 12,000, which was given in order to be divided among the chiefs, his answer to that minister was, "My Lord, the Highlands are quiet, the money is spent, and this is the best way of accounting among friends."

In a note appended to a memoir of the celebrated General Hugh Mackay, [Memoir by John Mackay of Rockfield, pp. 108, 109. The General Mackay above mentioned was the same who fought Dundee at the battle of Killiecrankie. He was a native of Sutherland, and nearly related to the Reay family. When a young man, he entered the Dutch service, in which he greatly distinguished himself. He also displayed great military talent and bravery in Ireland during the Rebellion which took place there to restore King James II. He was killed at the battle of Steinkirk in 1692. His two elder brothers, Hector and William, were waylaid and murdered on the sands of Dunnet, "at the instigation, it was supposed," says the writer of the memoir, "of persons of distinction in Caithness, against whom criminal letters were in consequence issued, yet so wretched was the administration of justice, and so impotent the arm of the law, that though the preliminary forms were gone through, the criminals were never brought to justice." The arm of the law was no doubt weak enough at the time, but the truth is, the case seems to be involved in mystery, and no tangible charge, such as the law could take hold of, was brought against the individuals supposed to have been implicated in the atrocious crime.] Glenorchy is spoken of in the following terms: "Returning to his own country of Breadalbane, and being a man of intrigue, he contrived to sow the seeds of dissension among his neighbours, and engaged them in expensive law suits, which ended in their finding it necessary to sell their estates to him at an under-value, thus greatly enlarging his already extensive territories. Though at heart no friend to the Revolution Settlement, he never avowed any hostility to it till 1715, when in the 80th year of his age, and last of his life, he sent 500 of his vassals to join the Earl of Mar." The writer of the note, Tacitus-like, thus sums up the character of Glenorchy: "He was grave as a Spaniard, wise as a serpent, cunning as a fox, and slippery as an eel!"

George, Earl of Caithness, so famous for his dispute with the Breadalbane family, and the noble stand which he made for his title and his patrimonial rights, died at Keiss in 1698, and was succeeded in the earldom by his second cousin, Sir John Sinclair of Murkle.


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