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


The rule of the Norwegian Earls in Caithness terminated in 1331. At this time, Magnus the Fifth, the last of those Earls, died without leaving a successor in the male line, when Henry St Clair or Sinclair, son of the Baron of Roslin, who was allied to the family by marriage, claimed the earldom, and received investiture of it from Haco the Sixth, King of Norway. The Sinclairs of Roslin, [A descendant of this family, who lived in the reigns of James the First and Second of Scotland, was distinguished above the rest by the princeliness of his mode of living. "He kept," said one who was attached to the household, "a great court in his castle of Roslin, and was royally served at his own table in vessels of gold and silver; Lord Dirleton being the master of the household, Lord Borthwick his cupbearer, and Lord Fleming his carver, in whose absence they had deputies to attend. He had his halls and other apartments richly adorned with embroidery hangings. His princess, Elizabeth Douglas, was served by 75 gentlewomen, whereof 53 were daughters of noblemen, all clothed in velvets and silks, with their chains of gold and other ornaments, and was attended by 200 riding gentlemen in all her journeys; and if it happened to be dark when she went to Edinburgh, where her lodgings were at the foot of Blackfriars' Wynd, eighty lighted torches were carried before her."] from whom all the other chief families of that name are sprung, were originally of French or Norman extraction, and came over with William the Conqueror in 1066. [They are mentioned among the leading chiefs in the roll of Battle Abbey.] But not meeting in England with those rewards to which they considered their talents and services entitled them, they withdrew to Scotland during the reign of Malcolm Can-more. At the Scottish Court they were received with much distinction, and in process of time acquired high rank and extensive possessions. The first of the family who is said to have settled in Scotland, was William de St Clair, second son of Walderne de St Clair, and Margaret, daughter of Richard, Duke of Normandy. He obtained from Malcolm large grants of land in Mid-Lothian. These were increased by the liberality of succeeding monarchs, and comprehended, among others, the baronies of Roslin and Pentland. Roslin Castle is supposed to have been erected by one of the family about the year 1100. It stands on an almost insulated rock overlooking the romantic vale of the Esk, and from the size and appearance of the ruins —for it has partly fallen into decay—it must originally have been a large and massive structure. To the lovers of song it possesses a special interest, from its being associated with the fine old air named "Roslin Castle." Roslin Chapel, the most exquisitely beautiful edifice of its kind in Britain, was founded In 1446 by William St Clair, great-grandson, by the female line, of Robert II., and the third of his name, Earl of Orkney and Caithness. He was also Chancellor of Scotland, and had the foreign title of Duke of Oldenburgh. The principal residence of this illustrious family was at Roslin, one of the loveliest spots in the south; and the family burying vault was within the abbey, where the old Barons were all deposited in their armour. A superstitious belief prevailed that on the night before the death of any of the Barons, the chapel was supernaturally lighted up. Sir Walter Scott makes a fine poetical use of this superstition in the dirge of Rosabelle, in the "Lay of the Last Minstrel:"

"Seemed all on fire that chapel proud,
Where Roslin's chiefs uncoffined lie;
Each baron for a sable shroud
Sheathed in his iron panoply.
Blazed battlement and pinnet high,
Blazed every rose-carved buttress fair;
So still they blaze when fate is nigh,
The lordly line of high St Clair."

After the failure of the Norwegian line of Earls, there is not a little confusion in the history of the earldom, from the circumstance that there were at times two Earls of Caithness, the one appointed by the King of Denmark and the other by the King of Scotland. Of this we have an instance in the case of William Sinclair, chancellor, and Allan Stewart, son of Walter Stewart, Earl of Athole, who was killed at the battle of Inver-lochy in 1428, fighting against Donald, Lord of the Isles, Although Caithness had been long annexed, as a conquered province, to the Norwegian rule in Orkney, it was never acknowledged as such by the Scottish monarch; and nothing but its extreme distance from the seat of government, the divided state of the kingdom, and the difficulty of sending troops so far north and maintaining them there, forced them to tolerate the usurpation. The county was, both geographically and politically, a part of the kingdom of Scotland. The author of the " History of the House of Mackay,"who appears to have directed his attention to the state of matters in the north at the time, has the following remarks on the subject:— "During the period in which the Sinclairs held Orkney, they were under the sovereignty of Denmark, to whom these islands belonged; [The Orkney Islands were disjoined from the crown of Norway and Denmark and annexed to Scotland in 1468. They were pledged by Christian I. of Denmark for 50,000 Rhenish florins, being part of the dowry of 60,000 given with his daughter Margaret on her marriage with James III. of Scotland; and one object of Torfaeus in compiling the "Orcades" was to vindicate the right of Christian V. to redeem the mortgage of the sovereignty of these islands, by re-paying the money for which they were pledged.] and as the Sinclairs also claimed titles and lands in Scotland, the Kings of Denmark were jealous of them, and on that account admitted their claims to Orkney under strict and severe conditions and burdens. On the other hand, because of their subordination to Denmark, and the exorbitancy of their power should they hold both Orkney and Caithness, the Kings of Scotland never admitted their claim to the latter while they held the former, but to which claim they, notwithstanding, adhered as part of their titles." At length William, the chancellor, obtained from King James II. a confirmation by charter of the earldom of Caithness in 1455. [In Appendix, No. 5, see genealogical list of the Earls of Caithness of the Sinclair family.]

Being dissatisfied with certain political changes which took place in Orkney, after it was ceded to Scotland in 1468, he resigned to the crown the earldom of that county, in compensation for which he received the castle of Ravenscraig and sundry adjacent lands in the county of Fife. He was twice married. By his first wife, a daughter of Archibald, fourth Earl of Douglas, he had a son, called William, who was ancestor of the Lords Sinclair. By his second wife, Marjory, daughter of Alexander Sutherland of Dunbeath, [For a very curious document, "The Testament of Alexander Sutherland of Dunbeath," see Appendix, No. 6.] he had a son, also named William, in whose favour he resigned the earldom of Caithness. His son's title was recognised and confirmed by James III. in 1476. William, now second Earl of Caithness of the Sinclair family, married a daughter of Keith of Acker-gill. He was a gallant and high-spirited nobleman. When James IV. made his unfortunate expedition to Flodden, William readily obeyed the royal summons issued for the feudal array of the kingdom, and evinced his loyalty by raising a body of about 300 men, with which he hastened off to his assistance. Among the leaders on this occasion his name is not particularly mentioned by our principal historians, but it ap-pears from Sir Robert Gordon's history that he took a distinguished part in the battle of Flodden. The Earl of Huntly, who led the right wing of the Scottish army, was supported by Adam Gordon, Earl of Sutherland, William Gordon of Gight, and by the Earl of Caithness. Huntly charged with impetuosity the left wing of the English, and after a desperate encounter drove them off the field; but on returning from the pursuit of the enemy, he found that matters were not going on so satisfactorily in the other parts of the field. It is unnecessary, and besides it is foreign to our purpose, to describe a battle, the details of which are so well known to the general reader. Suffice it to say that the Scottish army, after fighting for several hours with the most determined bravery, got at length into complete disorder. The Earls of Huntly and Sutherland saved themselves by flight, but Gordon of Gight and the Earl of Caithness stood their ground, and at the head of their men gallantly yielded up their lives.

There is an interesting tradition current in the county connected with this battle, so disastrous to Caithness as well as to the rest of Scotland. It is said that the Earl of Caithness was at the time under attainder; and when, an evening or two before the engagement, the king saw a fresh body of troops coming up all clad in green, he was much struck with their appearance, and eagerly inquired of those who stood next him whose men they were. They replied that they thought they were the men of Caithness, and that the Earl himself was at the head of them. The king mused a little and then said, "Well, if that be William Sinclair, I will pardon him." There being no parchment in the camp, James ordered the deed of removal of forfeiture, etc., to be extended on a drum head. When the document had received the royal signature, it was cut out and handed to the Earl, who forthwith despatched one of his men with it to Caithness, strictly enjoining him to deliver the same into the hands of his lady, so that in the event of his falling in battle the family might be secured in their titles and lands.

[The above romantic tradition, which tells so honourably to both parties, would appear to be unsupported by any proper basis of historical evidence. On calling at the Register House, Edinburgh, to see if there was in its archives a copy of the deed said to be drawn out at Flodden, Mr Joseph Robertson, a gentleman profoundly versed in Scotch antiquities, assured the writer that the House contained no such document, and that he had no reason to think that the Earl of Caithness was at the time under forfeiture. There are two writers, however, whose statements would seem to give some countenance to the tradition. Pitcairn, in his "Tales of the Scottish Wars," alludes to the story of the "drumhead charter;" and Sir James Balfour, in his "Annals," expressly says that "William, Earl of Caithness, was forfaulted by King James III,," but he does not mention the year when the forfeiture took place, nor the crime which subjected him to the royal displeasure.]

The bearer of it was the only one of the Caithness corps that ever returned—the rest having been all killed in the engagement. The Earl on his way south had crossed the Ord of Caithness on a Monday, and for a long time after, no Sinclair would cross it on that day of the week, or wear any thing approaching the colour of green.

The disaster at Flodden, so serious to Caithness, was the greatest that ever befell Scotland. Tradition, legend, song, and history, have all told the melancholy tale. It has given birth to one of the sweetest and most plaintive of our Scottish airs, the "Flowers of the Forest;" and it afforded a theme of inspiration to Scott, who, in his "Marmion," has described the battle in a strain of poetry that for splendour and animation has never been surpassed.

William Sinclair, who fell at Flodden, was succeeded in the earldom by his son John, who married Mary Sutherland, daughter of the Laird of Duffus. In the month of May, 1529, John invaded Orkney with a body of 500 men. Various causes are assigned for this invasion, which seems to have been rash and ill-judged. Some say that he went to assist Lord Sinclair of Ravenscraig, with the object of recovering certain lands which belonged to the latter in that county; others, that he went to support his relative in enforcing his right to the governorship of the castle of Kirkwall, to which he had been appointed, but which Sir James Sinclair, who then held the situation, refused to give up. Mr Worsaae, in referring to this matter, says:—"The islanders took up arms under the command of their governor, Sir James Sinclair, to oppose the appointment of a crown vassal over the islands." Whatever was the cause, Sir James Sinclair mustered a large body of Orkneymen to repel the invasion. The hostile parties met, and a sanguinary battle was fought at a place called Summerdale, about four miles north-east from Stromness, in which the Earl of Caithness and all his men were slain, and Sinclair of Ravenscraig was taken prisoner. Many of the Caithness men were killed, not in the heat of battle, but in their retreat from the field. The ferocious islanders gave no quarter, and the unhappy fugitives were butchered in cold blood among the rocks and caves to which they had fled for shelter. The body of the Earl of Caithness was buried in Orkney; but tradition says that his savage enemies cut off his head, and sent it over in way of mockery to Caithness. Such a terrible calamity, occurring so soon after that at Flodden, filled the whole county with mourning and lamentation. II was then but thinly peopled, and the two fatal expeditions nearly drained it of all its young and able-bodied men. Among those who accompanied the Earl of Caithness to Orkney was William Sutherland [This William Sutherland was proprietor of Langwell, and ancestor of the Brabster family. Of the castle of Berriedale, which the Sutherlands long inhabited, very little now remains. An old writer speaking of it says, "Upon a rock at the mouth of the water stands the castle, to which they entered by a drawbridge; and the entry to the bridge was so sloping from the top of a high brae, that only two could go abreast. The entry was very dangerous, the sea being on the right hand, and the water to the left, and the rock very high on both sides, especially to the north."] of Berriedale, a young man of gigantic stature. Sutherland, who had some presentiment that he would never return, stretched himself on the ground in the old churchyard of Berriedale before setting out, and caused two stones to be fixed, the one at his head and the other at his feet, which were to be seen for ages after. The distance between the stones is said to have been eight feet three inches. It fell out as he but too truly anticipated: he was slain in Orkney. The following tradition in Orkney of the battle of Summer-dale, which was communicated to the author by a gentleman residing in that county, will be found not a little curious and interesting. It presents a striking picture of the superstition and savage barbarity of the people of the north at the period in question:—

"When the Earl of Caithness and his men landed at Orphir, in Orkney, a witch preceded them on their march, unwinding two balls of thread as she walked before them. One was blue and the other red; and the thread of the latter having first become exhausted, the witch assured the Earl that the side on which blood was first drawn would certainly be defeated. Placing implicit faith on this prognostication, the Earl resolved to slay the first Orkneyman that crossed his path, and so insure victory to himself and his followers in the coming conflict. Soon afterwards, a boy was descried herding cattle; so thinking that if it was Orkney blood, it was no great matter whether it was of man or boy, the Earl and his men with eager haste caught the boy, and mercilessly slew him without a moment's warning. But they had reckoned without their host, for the boy was then recognised by some of them to be a native of Caithness, who had for some time been a fugitive in Orkney, and it speedily occurred to them that if the words of the witch were worth anything, they had, by the cruel murder of a poor helpless boy, now lying a bleeding corpse at their feet, rendered certain their own discomfiture. Prone to superstition as the Earl and his men seem to have been, this untoward circumstance must have had a strong tendency to depress their spirits and unnerve their arm, and this is probably the key to the issue of the subsequent battle at Summerdale, where they were met and completely routed by the Orkneymen.

"The battle, says the tradition, was fought on a piece of smooth grass, where no stones were to be seen previous to the morning of the encounter, but then they were found in such abundance that the Orkneymen threw down the pitchforks with which they were armed, and plied their Caithness foes so effectually with stones that they were unable to get near enough to use their weapons. The incessant and murderous showers of those primitive missiles, soon told with effect on the ranks of the Caithness men, who were at last compelled to betake themselves to an ignominious flight. Throwing their arms into the Loch of Lummagem, they fled pell-mell over the broken ground towards their landing-place; but they were closely pursued, and in a short time only a few survived to continue the hopeless race for life. Amongst these was the Earl of Caithness, who reached the farm of Oback in Orphir, and dashing through the 'close' between the dwelling-house and the offices, in the hope of escaping his merciless pursuers who were close at his heels, rushed unwittingly into the arms of another party of his foes, who slew him on the spot. Not; one of the Caithness men escaped to carry home the tale of their discomfiture. The Earl was amongst the last that fell, and his head, sent back in proud defiance, was the sole relique of the fated band that reached the shores of Caithness.

"Only one Orkneyman fell on that day, which proved so fatal to their adversaries, and his death was a very tragic one. He had dressed himself in the clothes of one of the slaughtered Caithness men, and was coming towards his own house in the evening, when he was met by his mother, who, not recognising him, but believing him to be one of the enemy that had escaped the general carnage, struck him a fatal blow on the forehead with a stone which she had put into the foot of one of his own stockings, and was carrying in her hand.

"The motive which led to the Earl's hostile visit to Orkney is involved in considerable obscurity, but the relentless spirit of the contending parties, as displayed in the murder of the boy, and in the complete slaughter of the invaders, and in the fiendish thirst for vengeance exhibited by the woman, who, in the blindness of her fury, murdered her own son, sufficiently proves that a bitter animosity existed between the inhabitants of Orkney and Caithness, which it has taken upwards of three centuries to extinguish."

Not long after the affair at Summerdale, Sir James Sinclair, the governor of Kirkwall, committed suicide, by throwing himself into the sea from a rock called the "glupe" of Link-ness. Another account says that he died by his own hand at Stirling. It is believed that a fear of being prosecuted for the slaughter of the Earl of Caithness, and a sense of the King's displeasure, whom he had offended by obtaining, on a false representation, a life-lease of the islands of Eday and Sanday, drove him to the act of self-destruction. "The unhappy fate of this, in many respects, deserving man," says Dr Barry, "combined with the influence of his friends, softened the resentment of the King so much that he granted his widow a right to his whole estate, moveable and immoveable, which, on account of his suicide, had been confiscated."

In the course of this same year (1529) Sutherland of Duffus, a descendant of the old Dunrobin family, and a chief possessed of landed property in Moray, Sutherland, and Caithness, was basely assassinated by some of the Clan Gunn in Thurso. The perpetrators of the crime, says Sir E. Gordon, were instigated to it by Andrew Stewart, Bishop of Caithness, "on account of some conceived displeasure which he had received from Duffus." It is strongly suspected, however, that" Adam, Earl of Sutherland, the first of the Gordon line, and who had obtained the earldom by not very justifiable means, was at the bottom of the affair, and that, through the agency of the bishop, he had bribed the Gunns to commit the horrid deed. His lordship, it was well known, entertained a mortal grudge against Duffus for thwarting some of his favourite schemes, and doing what he could to have the earldom restored to the rightful heir. In the meantime, young Duffus, whose uncle, Alexander Sutherland, was Dean of Caithness, prosecuted the bishop for the murder of his father. Caithness was in a state of much excitement, and, for better security, the prelate left the county and retired to Athole. The case was brought before the proper tribunal at Edinburgh, but on one pretence or another, it was put off from time to time, and never thoroughly investigated. The accused had many powerful friends at head-quarters, and through their influence the young Laird of Duffus was finally induced to abandon the charge, and the bishop returned white-washed to his diocese.

It would appear, from "Pitcairn's Criminal Trials," that Bishop Andrew Stewart was not the only churchman in the county implicated in the crime. In that curious collection of Scottish causes celebres, it is mentioned that Thomas Stewart, treasurer of Caithness, Andrew Petre, vicar of Wick, John Thomson, rector of Olrig, and William Murray, David Reid, and Hugh Groat, chaplains, were obliged to find caution for their appearing in court, to answer for being art and part in the slaughter of the Laird of Duffus.


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