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


During the time John Earl of Caithness governed the county, our local annals do not furnish us with any public events of much interest or importance. He died in 1705, and was succeeded by his son Alexander, who married Lady Margaret Primrose, daughter of the Earl of Roseberry. He was present at the last Scots Parliament in 1707, when the Treaty of Union was discussed, but he appears to have declined voting. About three years afterwards an occurrence took place in Caithness which created a considerable sensation in the county at the time. This was a duel which was fought by two of the proprietors—Alexander Sinclair of Olrig, and Captain William Innes of Sandside. Sinclair of Olrig, who, it is said, was proud of his strength, and moreover a man of a quarrelsome disposition, insulted Captain Innes at a public meeting in Thurso, and the result was a challenge from the latter gentleman. The principals, with their seconds, met at a place called Tongside, about seven miles south from Thurso. Their weapons were swords; and after fighting for some time, Captain Innes, who was an expert swordsman, gave his antagonist a wound, of which he died in the course of a few hours. On this he and Sinclair of Dunn, his second, immediately fled the country. Innes went to France. Donald Sinclair, son of the deceased, raised a criminal process against them before the Sheriff of Caithness, for murder; but in consequence of the absence of the parties, it was not brought to any decision. After the lapse of a few years, Innes and Sinclair of Dunn both received a remission of the crime for which they had fled, and returned to Caithness. Captain Innes, however, was so much afraid of his life from the relatives of the man whom he had unfortunately slain, that he ever after kept a strong muscular Highlander as a life-guard, who accompanied him wherever he went.

The exiled Stuarts had many friends among the better class of families in Caithness, and in 1745 not a few of them warmly espoused the cause of "bonnie Prince Charlie." Circumstances, however, prevented them from giving him any effective aid. Alexander Sinclair, Earl of Caithness, who then lived at Haymar, and George Sinclair of Ulbster, the sheriff of the county, were both staunch friends to Government, and gave no countenance to the rebellion. Early in the spring of 1746, Lord Macleod, son of the Earl of Cromarty, entered the county with a body of the rebels under his charge, for the purpose of procuring men. They fixed their head-quarters in Thurso, where they billetted themselves on the inhabitants. From thence they went in detached parties through the several parishes, beating up and down for recruits, and endeavouring to enlist the sympathies of the people in behalf of the prince, whom they represented as the rightful heir to the throne. They wore white cockades in their bonnets, and were all armed. Their conduct was inoffensive, and they offered no violence to any one. Notwithstanding their peaceable deportment, the inhabitants in general, and particularly the women, unaccustomed as they were to the sight of armed men, and those armed men rebels, were greatly alarmed at their first appearance in the county. Several families hid themselves in caves and subterranean recesses along the coast; while others deposited their little money underground, and fled, some to Lord Reay's country, and some to the Orkneys. In order to expedite matters, Cromarty himself set out for Caithness; but he had scarcely reached the entrance into the county, when he heard of the advance of the Duke of Cumberland, and at the same time received instructions to hasten forward with all his available force to Inverness, where the main body of the Highlanders were assembled.

Lord Macleod, with the party he commanded, hastily marched from Caithness to join his father in Sutherland, and both, in a day or two after, partly by treachery, were taken prisoners in the castle of Dunrobin. It would appear that on this occasion Cromarty, so far from exhibiting any tact as a leader, did not exercise even ordinary prudence and circumspection. Sir Walter Scott says: [Tales of a Grandfather.]—"The Earl and his son remained at the castle witnessing the tricks of a juggler; while his men, 350 in number, were marched under the command of subaltern officers, and with little precaution, on to the ferry, where they were to embark. Thither they were chased by comparatively a mere handful of the Sutherland militia, and the greater part of them were destroyed." If the defeat at Culloden had not occurred so soon, it is believed that a considerable body of Caithness men would have joined the rebels; but the news of this unexpected disaster came like a thunderbolt on the principal Jacobites in the county, and blasted all their hopes. "Many in Caithness," says Mackay, "had purposed to join the rebel standard, were at considerable pains to persuade others, and several of them assumed the rank of captains, lieutenants, ensigns, etc.; but a fear of being interrupted by the Royalists, prevented them from marching southwards." About 45 men joined Lord Macleod in Caithness; and before leaving the county, the only compulsory measure he used was that of obliging the landholders to pay a part of the land tax. One of our Caithness proprietors, John Sutherland, Esq. of Forse, was a staunch friend of Government. This gentleman, grandfather of the present Mr Sutherland of Forse, raised a company of men on his own estate, had them enrolled among the " Loudon Highlanders," and was with them as their captain in the celebrated battle of Culloden. Caithness, therefore, may be justly said to have had her share in the achievement of that field which happily and at once placed on a firm foundation the civil and religious liberty of the country.

Alexander Sinclair, Earl of Caithness, died in 1765, leaving only one daughter, Lady Dorothea Sinclair, who married the Earl of Fife. He was succeeded in the property by Sir John Sinclair of Stevenson (Haddingtonshire), as heir-substitute under the entail executed by the Earl of his lands of Murkle and others. The estate is at present possessed by Sir John's grandson, Admiral Sir John Gordon Sinclair. On the demise of the late Earl, two claimants appeared for the title, namely, James Sinclair [James Sinclair of Broynach, who claimed the earldom in preference to William Sinclair of Rattar, was son of David Sinclair of Broynach, brother of Alexander, the ninth Earl. As a lineal descendant of Sir James Sinclair of Murkle, the eldest brother of George, the fifth Earl, he had undoubtedly a better claim to the title than William of Rattar, who was only a lineal descendant of Sir John Sinclair of Greenland, the Earl's second brother. Broynach's claim, however, would seem to have been vitiated by his father's marriage with Janet Ewan not having been found valid.] of Broynach, and William Sinclair of Rattar. A long process took place. The case was finally brought before the British Parliament, and in that last court of appeal, Rattar carried the peerage in 1772.

About this time a band of robbers, consisting of some ten or twelve of the strongest men in the county, carried on a regular system of burglary by breaking into houses, shops, and granaries, and abstracting therefrom, money, goods, and meal, to a large extent. They were mostly all individuals in good circumstances; and it would appear to have been nothing but sheer covetous-ness that prompted to this dishonest course. They resided in different parishes, but they kept up a secret correspondence, and had certain places where they met from time to time, and concocted their villanous schemes. The county was then entirely destitute of anything in the shape of police. It had not even a sufficient prison or lock-up for malefactors; and such of the inhabitants as were possessed of any little means or money, lived in constant dread of a visit from the gang. There was a large granary at Murkle well stored with victual, belonging to the proprietor of the district. The robbers had forcibly entered it and carried off a rich booty in meal. Not long after this, one Swanson, an inhabitant of Thurso, nicknamed Canny, was returning home in the evening along with some other persons from a market in Olrig, and the conversation turning on the recent robbery, he happened to say that if he chose, he could tell who they were that broke into the storehouse at Murkle. This being reported to some of the band, he was decoyed out one night after he had gone to bed, and the next morning was found lying dead at a short distance from the town, with seemingly the mark of a joiner's hammer on his forehead. In order to make it appear as if his death had been the result of accident, the body was laid to an old stone fence, with the feet uppermost, and the forehead resting on a sharp stone. This clumsy attempt at disguise excited the public suspicion more strongly. From the appearance of the wound and other circumstances, there could be no doubt that the poor man was foully murdered. A precognition was made, but it failed in bringing out any positive proof of guilt against the parties suspected.

The villains now laid a desperate plot to murder William Sinclair, the Laird of Freswick, who was believed to have a considerable sum of money in his repositories, which they resolved to seize on and divide among themselves. . Mr Sinclair, who was a man of peculiar habits, resided, at the time, in a large house which he had lately erected on the south side of the Bay of Freswick. The following minute account of the discovery of the plot, and of the punishment of the robbers, is given by Robert Mackay:—"This gentleman (Mr Sinclair) had got into a habit of lying in bed awake all night, during which one of his numerous tenants alternately sat beside him. The murder and robbery were to be perpetrated on the night on which Donald Rugg, one of his tenants, who was one of the band, was to sit up with him, of which he was to give previous notice to his accomplices. A few days before it came to Rugg's turn to attend his landlord—the latter having had occasion to send a bearer with a letter to Mr Henderson of Stempster on some business—Rugg sent a letter by the same bearer, addressed to John Swanson, joiner in Thurso, another of the band, to whom he was to deliver it. When he arrived at Stempster, as he could not read, he gave both letters to Mr Henderson, who, on being informed that the one to Swanson had come from Rugg, both of whom were suspected to belong to the band, desired the bearer to return home, saying that he would convey the other letter to Thurso by a runner he was sending there. He broke open the letter, the import of which was that the 'black ox' was to be killed on a certain night. He sent the letter to Mr John Sinclair, sheriff-depute of the county, who was son of Mr Sinclair of Freswick, with a list of the suspected persons. Mr Sinclair immediately despatched a party of twenty-four Highlanders from Dunbeath, who seized most of the band, some of whom afterwards turned evidence, by which and other means the plot was discovered. They were tried by a jury, and having been publicly whipped, were banished the county. Some of them had fled, and escaped punishment." Swanson, the joiner in Thurso, who was considered the leader of the gang, and was commonly known by the appellation of "Achgillan," was a tall, handsome, fine-looking man, and connected by marriage with a respectable family in the county. His mother-in-law, a woman of a proud spirit, felt very deeply the disgrace which he had brought upon them, and on the day on which he was to be whipped, came purposely to Thurso to witness the punishment. The town was full of people from all parts of the county, attracted thither by the novelty of the spectacle. While the culprit was being flogged, the old lady, his mother-in-law, stood looking on with much apparent satisfaction, and is said to have called out to the man with the lash, "Lay it well into the scoundrel, and don't spare; he richly deserves all that he can get." Being a determined character, and possessed of more than ordinary talent, Swanson was transported to the Plantations; and his success in after life was not a little remarkable. When the Colonies rebelled against the mother country, in 1775, he heartily espoused the cause, volunteered into the service, and rose, it is said, in the revolutionary army, to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Rugg, the Canisbay robber, escaped punishment by flight. He went to America, also, but of his future career in that part of the world, whether he became a reformed man, or committed deeds which brought him to the gibbet, there is no account. His relatives in Caithness were very respectable people; and he had a nephew, David Rugg, who was many years an elder in the Church of Canisbay.

While on this subject, I may give some account of a celebrated bandit, named David Marshall, who flourished in the county some time before the event which has just been described, and who was in many respects an extraordinary character. Marshall lived at a place called Backlas, in the parish of Watten. His real name was Sutherland, and he was a native of Kildonan, on the borders of Sutherlandshire. In the traditional annals of Caithness, he is styled, par excellence, the Robber of Backlas. This daring vagabond, who supported himself entirely by robbery, was upwards of six feet in height, stout in proportion, and possessed of extraordinary bodily strength. It has been truly said that "none are all evil." Nature rarely produces monsters in the moral world any more than in the animal kingdom. The very worst characters have often some good points about them; and the Robber of Backlas was not without some redeeming qualities also. To the poor he was uniformly kind and generous, and seldom meddled with anything belonging to them. It was the rich only, or such as could spare a portion of their means, that he robbed. His creed was that this world's goods were very unfairly divided, and that the man who had not enough was perfectly justified in taking from him who had a superabundance.

Marshall openly attended all the country markets in the neighbourhood, equipped in full Highland costume, with dirk and broadsword; and when any of the small farmers or cottars of his acquaintance disposed of any of their live stock, they had such perfect confidence in his honesty in this matter, that they handed him their money as to a banker, in order to be kept for them until it was called for. Without this precaution, they ran the risk—such was the condition of the county at the time—of having their cash taken from them by other thieves before they reached home. In "Guy Mannering" the notorious Dirk Hatteraick is represented as saying that he always acted honestly by his employer's, and never cheated them of a stiver. The Robber of Backlas could have made a similar averment in regard to his conduct as banker for the poor. He never proved unfaithful to his trust, or appropriated to his own use a single farthing of their money.

Of the various anecdotes which tradition has preserved respecting Marshall, the following is perhaps one of the most curious and interesting. The proprietor of Pennyland sent one day for one of his tenants, named John Tait, whom he was in the habit of employing on confidential errands.

"John," said the laird, "there is a very particular business which I wish you to do for me. I have some money in the hands of a friend at Inverness, and you will have to go there for it."

John at first hesitated. He was willing, he said, to do anything in his power to serve his Honour, but the journey was long and dangerous; and, should he meet with no accident in crossing the several rivers and ferries on the road, he was sure to be robbed on his way home, as soon as he came into Caithness, by David Marshall or some of his gang. David would to a certainty hear of the journey and its object, for there was nothing that he did not hear of.

"Nonsense," said the laird, "there is no fear of that; only don't tell your wife where you are going, or anything about it. Women are so fond of gossiping, that not one in a hundred can keep a secret. Here is a good pocket-pistol to carry with you for a protection. Keep it well charged, and if any villain should attempt to rob you, use no ceremony with him, but draw the trigger, and give him the contents in his stomach."

John at length consented to go, and the necessary credentials were delivered to him.

"Now," said he, "if anything should happen to me, I hope your Honour will look to my poor wife and family."

The laird promised that in such an event he would show them all the kindness and attention in his power. John arrived safe in the Highland capital, got the money, and was now on his way home ascending the steep mountain pass of the Ord, when whom should he see advancing towards him with a smile on his countenance but the dreaded David Marshall.

"Hollo! John, is this you?" cried David. "How are you? You have been at Inverness, I understand."

John saw that it would be of no use to deny it, and replied in the affirmative.

"And you have got the money?" He said he had.

"And none attempted to relieve you of it by the way?" "None," said John.

"Well, I'm glad of that. Come, let us sit down and rest us here for a little."

John, although a man of more than ordinary nerve and courage, felt exceedingly uncomfortable. The old road, or rather foot-path, across the Ord at this time ran along the face of a sheer precipice over-hanging the sea in a terrific manner. They were in the middle of this fearful pass; and if the robber was inclined to take the money, and dispose of the bearer, he had nothing to do but give him a push down, and he would be precipitated three hundred feet to the bottom. It was a dreadful situation for one to be in, and at the same time completely at the mercy of a determined outlaw. John instinctively put his hand into his coat-pocket to take out his pistol, but on second thoughts he drew it back again, as he knew this would only serve to hasten his fate. Besides, the robber never went without a sword and a brace of pistols himself, and he was not a match for him in any way.

"I see, John," said Marshall, "that you would rather have met any one than me on the Ord, but don't be alarmed, my good fellow. I have no intention of taking a farthing of the money from you. You are a decent trustworthy chap, and though I am a villain myself, I have a respect for an honest man. Now, when I think of it, we will be no worse of a little refreshment."

So saying, he drew out of his pocket a flask of brandy and a small drinking-horn, and, treating himself to a bumper, he filled another to John.

"This is not bad stuff, friend," said he, smacking his lips, "I had it from the Laird of Stangergill's cellar."

After chatting together for half-an-hour, they rose to depart.

"I'm on my way to Helmsdale," said Marshall, "and as it is possible you may meet some of my friends on the road, show them this (handing him a bit of soiled paper with the initials ' D. M.' rudely scrawled on it), and they will allow you to pass on without the least molestation. By the bye," added he, "one of my firelocks is getting rather the worse of the wear. If you please, I will relieve you of the one you have belonging to the laird, your master, and you may tell him, with my compliments, that I will keep it for his sake."

John gave him the weapon, very glad to get off so easily. They then bade each other good bye, shook hands at parting, and continued their respective journeys. John fortunately met with none of Marshall's associates, and had no occasion to make use of his passport. On reaching home, he repaired immediately to the residence of his master, delivered him the full sum of money, and astonished him not a little with an account of his adventure with David Marshall at the Ord.

In his more daring exploits as a robber, Marshall generally availed himself of the aid of accomplices. With their assistance he had twice broken into the castle of Keiss, and once into the castle of Dunbeath. In a second attempt on the latter castle a desperate encounter with fire-arms took place between the domestics and the robbers. The latter were in the end obliged to take to flight. One of the gang was killed by a musket shot; and Marshall, it is said, carried the dead body on his back all the way from Dunbeath to Dirlet, in the parish of Halkirk, where the man resided.

Many attempts were made for a long time to seize Marshall, but he either beat off the parties sent to apprehend him, or dexterously eluded their search. At length Sir William Sinclair of Keiss, who suffered much from his predatory visits, was determined, if possible, to take him, and put a stop to his lawless proceedings. With this view he got together twelve of the strongest men on the estate, and, heading the party himself, set off one night for the residence of the robber. They reached Backlas a little after daylight; and, having ascertained that he was at home, Sir William ordered six of the party, to keep watch outside, while he with the other six forced open the door of the hut, and rushed in with loaded pistols in their hands. Marshall had just risen from bed, and was in the act of combing his hair, which, not having been subjected to the scissors for years, was of great length.

"If you stir a foot, or make the least resistance," cried Sir William, presenting a pistol to his breast, "you are a dead man."

The robber for once appeared utterly confounded and paralysed. He made no attempt to resist the party, but quietly allowed himself to be handcuffed; and in this state he was marched off to Wick, and lodged in jail. His malpractices and deeds of robbery were so notorious that it was deemed quite unnecessary in his case to go through the formality of a trial. After remaining in durance for a few days, he was taken out, publicly whipped, and banished from Caithness. He retired to his native county, but, as he still continued to follow his old profession, the authorities in Sutherland subsequently managed to get him transported to America.

William Sinclair, Earl of Caithness, died in 1782. His son John, Lord Berriedale, was at the time in America. He entered the army when a young man, and rose to be major of the 76th regiment, or, as they were called, the Macdonald Highlanders. It was the hottest period of the unfortunate war in the colonies. The Macdonald Highlanders were ordered to America; and the command having devolved upon his lordship, he embarked with his regiment for New York, where they landed in the month of August, 1779. He was present at the siege of Charlestown, and was severely wounded on that occasion. Having on the death of his father become Earl of Caithness, he returned to Britain, and died unmarried soon after in London. The earldom then descended to Sir James Sinclair of Mey, in whose family it still remains.

During the first burst of the French Revolution, which threatened to overturn every kingdom in Europe, the national defences became a subject of anxious consideration to Government. At this fearful crisis, rendered still more alarming by the state of matters in Ireland, several patriotic noblemen and landed gentlemen throughout Scotland, prompted by a high spirit of loyalty, offered to Mr Pitt to raise fencible regiments for the general safety in their respective counties, as auxiliaries to the line, and to take the command of them themselves. This offer was gladly accepted by the Premier, who issued letters of service accordingly. Among the first who nobly came forward in this emergency, was the celebrated Sir John Sinclair. In the course of a few months he raised a body of 600 men—chiefly from his own estate in Caithness—and was invested with the full rank of colonel. They were appropriately named the Caithness Fencibles; but as Caithness and Bute then united in sending alternately a member to Parliament, and the Prince of Wales was pleased to grant permission that Rothesay, his chief seat in Scotland, should be added, they were subsequently called the Rothesay and Caithness Fencibles. Their uniform differed from that of the other fencible corps. It consisted of a bonnet and feathers, with a plaid thrown across the shoulders, tartan pantaloons, surmounted with a stripe of yellow along the seams, a fringe of tartan on the outside of the thigh, and the same around the ankle. The regiment was embodied at Inverness in the month of October, 1794, and passed a highly favourable inspection before Lieutenant-General Sir Hector Munro. In their handsome uniform they had a remarkably fine appearance; and the tallness of the officers, nineteen of whom exceeded six feet in height, attracted particular notice. The first station of the regiment was at Aberdeen, where they lay encamped for six months. They were ordered there by the Commander-in-chief for the purpose of defending that city, in the event of an invasion (which was then much apprehended) of the French army in Holland. After doing duty in different quarters through Scotland, this battalion was reduced in 1799. In 1795, Sir John raised a second battalion, of 1000 effective men, under the designation of the "Caithness Highlanders," whose service was extended to Ireland. Their uniform was the same as that of the first battalion. Captain Benjamin Williamson of Banniskirk, was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel. After being inspected by Lieutenant-General Hamilton at Forfar, the Caithness Highlanders were immediately sent over to Ireland, where they did duty, in camp and barracks, during the whole period of the Rebellion. In 1798 an address was presented to the lieutenant-colonel of the regiment by Viscount Gosford, in name of the magistrates of Armagh, thanking the officers, non-commissioned officers, and men, for their excellent conduct and efficient services. In 1802 the regiment returned to Scotland, and was disbanded in Edinburgh. "Sir John Sinclair," says the writer of a memoir of his life, "made them a farewell speech in front of his house in Charlotte Square, where refreshments were liberally served out to the regiment; and after three enthusiastic cheers for their much-honoured colonel, the soldiers then dispersed, though many of them enlisted immediately afterwards to serve abroad."

But the patriotic conduct of Sir John Sinclair was not the only instance of the kind evinced by the remote county of Caithness, at a period so fraught with impending danger to the country. In 1795 the late Lord Duffus, then Sir Benjamin Dunbar of Hempriggs, raised another fencible corps of about 700 strong, under the title of the "Caithness Legion." Their uniform consisted of the usual red coat, with white facings, white breeches and leggings, and a helmet covered with bear-skin. The acting colonel, when Sir Benjamin himself was not present with the regiment, was Lieutenant-Colonel William Munro, afterwards Lieutenant-General Munro. William Innes of Sandside was major. The legion went to Ireland soon after they were embodied, where they did duty for seven years, and were disbanded at Inverness in 1802. About 200 men from the two fencible corps, volunteered into the 78th, 92d, and 42d regiments, and went with them to Egypt. Not a few of the Caithness common soldiers in this expedition, by their good behaviour and personal gallantry, rose to be commissioned officers. Among others, the meritorious conduct of Sergeant Alexander Waters, a native of the parish of Olrig, who had volunteered into the 78th or Boss-shire Highlanders, is deserving of particular notice. At the battle of El Hamet, which proved so disastrous to the small detachment of troops engaged in it, he saved, at a critical moment, and with great risk to himself, the life of Major Colin Mackay of Bighouse, then a captain in the 78th. The circumstance is thus described by Colonel David Stewart of Garth. "At length, when there were only eleven of the Highlanders, and an equally small number of the 35th left standing, Captain Mackay, seeing that further resistance would only expose the whole to speedy destruction, determined to make a desperate push to join the centre. He charged through the enemy, when several succeeded in gaining the position, but others dropped on the way either killed or wounded. Captain Mackay was wounded in two places before he pushed off to the centre. When he had nearly reached the post, an Arab horseman cut at his neck with such force, that had it not been for the cape of his coat, and a stuffed neck-cloth, both of which were unusually thick, his head would no doubt have been severed from his body. As it was, the sabre cut to the bone, and laid him flat to the ground, when he was taken up and carried into the post by his sergeant, now a lieutenant in the regiment, the only individual who escaped unhurt." On his retiring on half-pay Lieutenant Waters married, and took up his residence in his native parish. He was a fine soldierly-looking man, and was much respected by all classes of the community. He died in 1830.


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