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


The late George, Earl of Caithness, was succeeded by his grandson George, son of the Master of Caithness, who died in prison at Girnigoe. This George inherited much of the talents of his grandfather, with, if possible, greater cruelty of disposition. In the traditional history of the county, he is called by way of distinction the "Wicked Earl George;" and his conduct in many respects shows that the appellation was no misnomer. He signalised his accession to the earldom by deliberately killing, in broad day, David and Ingram Sinclair, the two principal keepers of his late father. David lived at Keiss, and Ingram at Wester. Ingram's daughter was to be married, and a large party, including his lordship, was invited to the wedding. On the forenoon of the day fixed for the marriage, as the Earl was taking an airing on horseback, he met David on the Links of Keiss, on his way to Wester, and ran him through with his sword. Immediately on doing so he galloped over to Wester, and calling Ingram aside—who was at the time amusing himself with some friends at foot-ball—he drew out a pistol and shot him dead on the spot. He then coolly turned his horse's head towards Girnigoe, and rode off with as little concern as if he had merely killed a brace of moor-fowl. There was, strictly speaking, no law in the county at the time; and being a great nobleman, and possessed of ample power of "pit and gallows," he escaped with impunity. The crime seems to have been winked at; and, doubtless, from dread of a similar fate, never made the subject of complaint by the rela-tives of the murdered parties. Sir Robert Gordon's version of the story differs a good deal from the preceding account, which is derived from the Caithness tradition. He says that " the Earl after dinner, without any other preamble," slew the two brothers while they were amusing themselves at foot-ball, having previously secreted their weapons, so that they might have nothing wherewith to defend themselves. "And the reason," he adds, "that moved Earl George to kill them, was because they favoured the Earl of Sutherland." This is not at all likely. The true reason, beyond a doubt, was revenge for their having been instrumental in the murder of his father, the late Master of Caithness. This, in his opinion, justified the deed; and it certainly must be allowed to plead as an extenuating circumstance in the commission of a crime otherwise the most atrocious and cold-blooded that can be conceived. To strengthen and extend his influence in the north, George married Lady Jane Gordon, sister of the Earl of Huntly. But all the power he gained by this alliance was more than needed. From the day that he succeeded to the earldom, his restless and turbulent disposition involved him in continual strife and contention. He and the Earl of Sutherland were almost constantly at war. Nothing but mutual foray, rapine, and plunder prevailed in both counties; while the Mackays of Strathnaver, with a trimming and selfish policy, now joined the one side, and now the other, according as they saw hope of acquiring booty, and advancing their own interests. Of the savage ferocity displayed on these occasions, the following traditional anecdote affords a striking instance. In one of those barbarous fights between the natives of Sutherland and Caithness, the Sutherland men were on the point of being routed, when a party of the Clan Mackay very opportunely came to their assistance, and the poor Caithnessians, all but one man, were literally butchered. The greatest havoc was committed by a powerful Highlander belonging to the aforesaid clan, who wielded a huge Lochaber axe. He took up his position in a narrow pass through which the fugitives endeavoured to escape, and cut down every one of them as they came up, with the exception of this one individual, who some way or other evaded his merciless weapon, and got safe home, like one of Job's messengers, to tell the mournful tale. Many years after this, when the Strathnaver warrior was on his death-bed, he was visited by the parish priest, who earnestly advised him to confess his sins, and "make a clean breast," now that he was about to leave the world, and appear in the presence of the great Judge. "Is there anything, Donald," inquired the priest, "that lies peculiarly heavy on your conscience?" "No," said the dying Celt, raising himself up with a great effort from the pillow, and striking the bed with his clenched fist, "No, nothing, but that I allowed that vagabond of a Caithness man to escape!"

1586.—A temporary reconciliation having been patched up between the two potentates of Sutherland and Caithness, they at this time secretly laid a plan to attack the Gunns, and drive them out of both counties. The Gunns fortunately got timely notice of the plot. They prepared for resistance; and being assisted by William Mackay, brother of Hugh Mackay of Strathnaver, they attacked the Caithness men before they could be joined by their allies, at a place called Auldgown, on the borders of Sutherland, and completely routed them. Henry Sinclair, brother of the Laird of Dunn, and cousin of the Earl of Caithness, and about one hundred and forty men, were left dead on the field. The Earl was so enraged when he heard of this affair, that he immediately hanged John Gunn, a leading man among the clan, whom he had some time before got hold of, and who was then a prisoner in Girnigoe.

The hollow friendship between the two Earls lasted for about a year, when a contest, or rather a series of contests arose, from what in legal phrase would be termed a piece of "malicious mischief." It happened that as Earl George's servants were journeying on horseback through Sutherland, on their way to Edinburgh, one George Gordon, a relative of the Earl of Sutherland, and a man of very indifferent character, in order to show his disrespect for his lordship, waylaid the servants and cut off the tails of the horses, desiring them at the same time to tell their master that he had done so! The Earl highly resented this indignity, and on his return to Caithness, finding that he was not likely to get any redress from the Earl of Sutherland, he resolved to take it at his own hands, and to visit the offender with condign punishment. For this purpose, he set out with a picked body of men to Helmsdale, near to which Gordon lived, and arriving in the night-time, surrounded his house with the party. Gordon after a desperate resistance took to flight, and was pursued by Sinclair of Mey, and some half-dozen followers. He then flung himself into the river of Helmsdale, hard by, and tried to make bis escape by swimming across, but a shower of arrows was discharged upon him, and he was slain in the water. The Earl of Sutherland sent a threatening message to Earl George, demanding satisfaction for the slaughter of his kinsman, and insisting on his immediately delivering up the principal actors in that affair. But George, who had Norman blood in his veins, was not to be daunted by any menace of the kind. He desired the messenger to tell his brother of Sutherland that he held him at defiance, and he advised the messenger himself, if he had any regard for his neck, to make home as fast as he could. Sutherland felt highly indignant at this additional provocation and insult to himself in the person of his ambassador, and as a dernier resort, determined to obtain satisfaction by force of arms. His first movement was to despatch two hundred men into Caithness on a predatory incursion. The party, which was commanded by two leaders of the name of Gordon, ravaged and plundered the whole of the parish of Latheron, and then returned home with a large booty in cattle, which was divided among them. This foray was called "Creach larn," that is, the "harship" or harrying of Latheron. In the meantime, having obtained a commission from the Privy Council against the Earl of Caithness for killing George Gordon, the Earl of Sutherland himself, accompanied by Mackay of Strathnaver, the Laird of Assynt, and other chiefs, next entered Caithness with all the forces he could muster, fully resolved to carry everything before him with fire and sword. His great object, however, was, if possible to get hold of the Earl of Caithness (1588), and thus force him to agree to whatever terms he thought proper to propose; but the Earl very prudently on this occasion shut himself up within the iron walls of the castle of Girnigoe. Sutherland's first exploit was burning the town of Wick, an achievement of no great difficulty, as the place at that time merely consisted of a few mean straggling houses thatched with straw. The only building which was spared was the church. While the town was in flames, a Highlander named John Mac-gilli-calum Rasay, intent on plunder, entered the church, when his eye lighted on the leaden case enclosing the heart of the late Earl of Caithness. He broke it open, but finding that it contained no treasure as he expected, he flung it away in disgust, and thus scattered the ashes to the winds. Such was the singular fate which befell the heart of that proud and cruel nobleman. The Earl of Sutherland then sat down before the castle of Girnigoe, but not being able to take it after a siege of twelve days, he proceeded to wreak his vengeance on the unoffending inhabitants of Caithness. He ravaged the county as far as Duncansbay, killed several of the peasantry, and then returned home with a great "spoil of cattle," which was equally divided among his followers. This affair was called "La na creach-more" or the great spoil.

The two Earls now entered into a truce, which, however, was soon broken. The Earl of Caithness, who was burning to be revenged for the injuries done to the county, retaliated by a succession of inroads into Sutherland. His brother, Sir James Sinclair of Murkle, conducted one of those expeditions, and coming unexpectedly on the sentinels or warders appointed by the Earl of Sutherland to watch the borders, he set fire to the watch-house in which they were carelessly amusing themselves, instead of keeping a good outlook. Three of them were killed, and the fourth, escaping with great difficulty, announced to his countrymen the arrival of the enemy. Sinclair pushed on to the heights of Strathbrora, and began to drive away the cattle which he had collected towards Caithness. Hugh Mackay, the chief of Strathnaver, who was at this time on terms of amity with the Earl of Sutherland, and happened to be on a visit at Dunrobin, set off from the castle with 500 men in pursuit of Sinclair. He quickly crossed the river of Brora, and joining his force with that of John Gordon of Kilcolmkil, attacked the army of Sinclair, which they defeated after a long and arduous contest. The Caithness men were forced to retreat with the loss of their booty, and were pursued by a body of the enemy for nearly sixteen miles. Flushed with the advantage gained in this affair, the Earl of Sutherland now assembled in person a large body of men, and entered Caithness with the intention of laying it waste. He advanced as far as Corriechoich, in Braemore, where he encamped. The Earl of Caithness lost no time in mustering his forces, and marched to the hill of Spittal, [In the olden time, Spittalhill, as being in the centre of the county, was the usual rendezvous on occasions of this kind. At the foot of the hill, fronting the west, was the hospital of St Magnus, which is supposed to have been founded by that eminent Orcadian saint. In 1476, King James III. granted to William Sinclair, the son of William Sinclair, Earl of Caithness, by his Countess, Marjory Sutherland, the advowson of the hospital. Its revenues were confiscated at the Reformation. The real nature of the institution is not known; but it is believed to have partaken somewhat of the double character of a modern hospital and poor-house, in which religious instruction was at the same time imparted to the inmates. Closely adjoining was the cemetery of the famous Clan Gunn.] where he resolved to wait the approach of the enemy. The Earl of Huntly, the friend of both, on hearing of these warlike preparations, sent with all speed his relative Sir Patrick Gordon to mediate between the two hostile Earls. He arrived at the head-quarters of the Earl of Sutherland about the very time he was getting ready to march for Spittal. By his mediation an armistice was concluded, and the two Earls agreed to meet at Elgin, in presence of the Earl of Huntly, and refer all their differences to him. A meeting accordingly took place, and the two Earls subscribed a deed, by which Huntly and his successors were appointed hereditary judges and arbiters of all disputes and differences that might thenceforth arise between the two houses. This written agreement was no better than so much waste paper. The whole affair was a farce, and only a few weeks elapsed before the two Earls were again at war.

1589.—The severest battle which was fought during this campaign was at Clyne, in Sutherland. In this engagement the Caithness men were ably supported by a number of archers under the command of Donald Balloch Mackay of Scourie. The Sutherland men were led on by Patrick Gordon of Garty, and John Gordon of Embo; and although numerically inferior to the invaders, they advanced resolutely to the attack. As they came up they were met with a thick shower of arrows; but nothing daunted, they pushed on in true Highland fashion, and drawing their bows, gave their opponents in return a volley that staggered them. The combat raged with great fury for a considerable time. Thrice were the Caithness archers driven back, and thrice did they return to the conflict, cheered on and encouraged by their intrepid leader. At length night put an end to the fight. The loss in killed and wounded on both sides was nearly equal. The principal persons killed in the Caithness army were Nicholas Sutherland, brother of the Laird of Forse, [Ancestor of the present Mr Sutherland of Forse, who is lineally descended from an elder branch of the house of Dunrobin. The family, it is said, have been in possession of the estate of Forse since about the year 1400. In 1767, soon after the death of William, Earl of Sutherland, Robert Gordon of Gordonstone, great-grandson of the family historian, and George Sutherland of Forse, presented separate petitions to the House of Lords anent their respective claims to the earldom of Sutherland. These applications were opposed by the guardians of the young Countess of Sutherland, and the House adjudged her to be the successor to Earl William, who died in 1325. ] and one Angus Macangus, who, on account of his extraordinary activity and swiftness, was commonly known by the strange appellation of "Birlig." During the temporary absence of the Caithness forces in Sutherland, Hugh Mackay, brother of Donald, invaded the county on the Reay side, and having, as Sir Robert says, "brunt and spoiled much of that countrie, even to the gates of Thurso, brought home a great booty, which he divided amongst his countriemen after their custome." One is surprised to find the two brothers on this occasion espousing opposite sides; but the reason for their doing so may be easily explained. Donald Mackay having been banished by his brother from Strathnaver and Sutherland for some misdemeanors, had retired to Caithness, where he found protection from the Earl; and in these circumstances it was natural that he should offer him his services. On the other hand, Hugh Mackay's first wife was Elizabeth Sinclair, aunt of the Earl; and he had incurred his lordship's displeasure by divorcing her, and marrying Lady Jane Gordon, daughter of Alexander, Earl of Sutherland.

1591.—This year an occurrence took place in the county, which, from its connection with a well-known historical personage, possesses some little interest. Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell, had, by his factious and turbulent conduct, rendered himself peculiarly obnoxious to James VI. of Scotland. To avoid being punished for audaciously entering the palace of Holyrood at night with a party of armed men, for the purpose of coercing the King and securing the person of Maitland the Chancellor, against whom he bore a mortal enmity, he fled to the north. Sir Robert Gordon says that he came to Caithness, where he remained for some time in the castle of Girnigoe, under the protection of the Earl of Caithness, to whose lady, it seems, he was related. Some dispute having arisen between the parties, Earl George meditated a plot to deliver him up to the King. In this critical situation, he owed his safety to Sir James Sinclair of Murkle, who informed him of his brother's design, on which Bothwell immediately made his escape out of the county. Not long after, he was obliged, on account of his treasonable practices, to quit the kingdom altogether. He fled to the Continent, and after wandering about for some years in France and Spain, he ultimately took up his residence at Naples, where he died a miserable exile. He was nephew by his mother to the noted Bothwell, murderer of Darnley.

After the battle of Clyne, hostilities between the two rival houses ceased for several years. But Earl George could not be idle; and among other strange doings, he was guilty of a mischievous practical joke, which Sir Robert, like a faithful historian, relates with all due circumstantiality. It happened that a boat, with some of the Earl of Orkney's servants on board, being overtaken with a severe gale while crossing (1608) the Pentland Firth, ran for refuge to Sinclair's Bay. As soon as they landed, the Earl, who had a pique at Earl Patrick Stewart, a man very similar in disposition to himself, ordered the servants to be brought to Girnigoe. After making them drink a good deal of liquor, he then caused the one side of their heads and the one side of their beards to be shaved, and in this condition forced them to take boat, and go to sea before the storm had abated! They fortunately reached Orkney in safety, and told their master how they had been treated. The Earl very naturally highly resented the barbarous usage which his domestics had received at the hands of the Earl of Caithness, and complained thereof to the King. His Majesty ordered the Privy Council to summon before them the two Earls, and have the matter duly investigated. Both parties appeared at Edinburgh, but by the mediation of friends the case was not brought before the Council, and a reconciliation was effected between them. The historian of Sutherland quaintly remarks—"Only one example of this crime I do remember. The servants of David, King of Israel, were so entreated by Hannum, King of the children of Amnion. The Earl of Caithness thus far exceeded Hannum, that not satisfied with what himself had done, he forced the Earl of Orkney his servants to take the sea in such a tempest, and exposed them to the extremity of the raging waves; whereas Hannum suffered King David his servants to depart home quietly after he had abused them."

The Earl of Caithness at this time possessed an extensive and valuable landed property in the county, including nearly the whole of the parish of Wick. By his reckless and extravagant habits, however, he had become deeply involved in debt, and was obliged to mortgage several portions of his estate to satisfy his creditors. To recruit his exhausted finances, he fell, it is alleged, on a desperate expedient, and employed an ingenious vagabond of the name of Arthur Smith to coin money for him. The history of this man is not a little singular. He was bred a blacksmith, and for some time prosecuted his calling in the town of Banff. Being detected there in the act of making counterfeit coin, he fled with an accomplice to Sutherlandshire, but they were not long in that county when they were both apprehended, and sent to Edinburgh to be tried. The accomplice was condemned and executed, but Smith himself, for some reason or other, was remitted back to prison, and kept for further trial. During his confinement, he managed to procure the necessary materials, and made a lock of such an ingenious construction, that it excited the admiration of every one who saw it. It was exhibited to the King, who was so struck with the remarkable ingenuity displayed in the workmanship, that he granted him a respite. At length he was set at full liberty, chiefly through the recommendation of the Treasurer, Lord Elphinstone, who thought it a pity that such an ingenious and skilful workman should be lost to society. Smith then went north, and offered his services to the Earl of Caithness, by whom they were gladly accepted. He was accommodated with a workshop or smithy in a retired apartment of Castle Sinclair, which the Earl had lately built close by the castle of Girnigoe. Sir Robert Gordon says that the workshop was under the rock of Castle Sinclair in a place called the "Gote," to which there was a secret passage through the Earl's own bed-chamber and to which none had access but himself. Here Smith diligently plied his vocation for seven or eight years. At length he removed to Thurso, where he ostensibly prosecuted his calling as a blacksmith. In the meantime, Caithness, Sutherland, and Orkney were inundated with base coin; and the outcry against the iniquitous fraud practised on the public became loud and universal. Smith, whose antecedents were well known, was very generally suspected as guilty of the crime. The case was laid before the King by Sir Robert Gordon; and a commission was granted to him conjointly with Donald Mackay and John Gordon of Embo to apprehend Smith, and bring him once more for trial to Edinburgh. Mackay and Gordon, to whom the business was subsequently entrusted, forthwith proceeded with a sufficient body of men to Thurso, to execute their commission. After a brief search they found Smith, and on examining his house, they also found in it a quantity of bad money, with all the necessary apparatus for coining. He was immediately put under a strong guard, and conveyed some little distance out of the town. In the meantime the alarm-bell was rung to assemble the inhabitants, who, although satisfied as to the guilt of Smith, were yet, from recollection of the past, jealous of the Sutherland authorities, and regarded the commission pretty much in the light of a hostile invasion. They accordingly rushed to the street; and shortly after, John Sinclair, younger of Stirkoke, James Sinclair of Durren, James Sinclair, brother of the Laird of Dunn, and other relatives of Lord Caithness who happened to be in town on a visit to Lady Berriedale, made their appearance. Mackay and Gordon showed their commission, and endeavoured to satisfy them that they were acting under the King's authority; but Sinclair of Stirkoke, in a defiant tone, swore that he would not allow his uncle's servant to be apprehended without his knowledge, and in his absence. The commissioners replied sharply that they were determined to do their duty, and not suffer the Royal warrant to be resisted. High words were exchanged, and a serious scuffle ensued, which was maintained for some time with great obstinacy on both sides. The party that guarded Smith, hearing a great noise in the town, killed him in order to prevent his escape, and hurried in to assist their countrymen. The inhabitants, who were not so well armed as their opponents, finally gave way, and retreated to their houses. John Sinclair of Stirkoke was killed, and James Sinclair of Dunn severely wounded. James Sinclair of Durren saved himself by flight. None of the Sutherland men were killed, but many of them were badly wounded. Sir John Sinclair of Greenland and the Laird of Dunn arrived when the fray was concluded. Dunn proposed to renew the attack, but Sir John Sinclair, considering what had already happened, would not agree to any hazardous attempt of the kind. The Sutherland men withdrew from the town, and soon after proceeded homeward, carrying their wounded along with them.

When the Earl of Caithness, who happened to be in Edinburgh at the time, was informed of the occurrences in Thurso, he immediately instituted a criminal prosecution against the Earl of Sutherland, Sir Robert Gordon, and Donald Mackay, for the slaughter of his nephew, John Sinclair of Stirkoke; while they, on the other hand, raised a similar process against the Earl of Caithness, his son, Lord Berriedale, and their coadjutors, for sundry past outrages, and particularly for resisting, at Thurso, the King's commissioners, and attacking those employed in its execution. On the day appointed for their appearance at Edinburgh, the parties, with the exception of the Earl of Sutherland, met, attended by their respective friends. The Earl of Caithness and Berriedale were accompanied by Lord Gray, Sinclair of Roslin, the Laird of Cowdenknowes, a son of the sister of the Earl of Caithness, and his two brothers, Sir John Sinclair of Greenland, and James Sinclair of Murkle. Sir Robert Gordon and Mackay were attended by the Earls of Winton, Eglinton, and Linlithgow, Lords Elphinstone and Forbes, Munro of Foulis, and the Laird of Duffus. The Council spent three days in hearing the parties, and deliberating upon the matters brought before them; but they came to no decision, and adjourned the proceedings until the King's pleasure should be known. The King proposed that their differences should be submitted to arbitration, and after some discussion, the parties were induced to sign a submission to that effect. Arbiters were accordingly appointed, but finding the parties obstinate, and determined not to yield a single point of their respective claims, they declined to act any further in the matter, and remitted the whole case back to the Privy Council. The dispute, from all that appears, was never settled; and the Earls of Caithness and Sutherland continued to maintain the same hostile attitude towards each other as before.

Connected with this case, I may here notice an occurrence which affords a striking instance of the manners of the period, and of the turbulent and pugnacious spirit of the parties implicated in it. At an early stage of the proceedings, Lord Gordon, son of the Earl of Huntly, who had been on some business in London, returned to Edinburgh. As soon as Sir Robert Gordon learned that he was on his way to Scotland, he went as far as the Borders to meet him, and accompanied him to town. This extraordinary attention on the part of the worthy baronet was not without a special object. He was exceedingly anxious to prepossess him in favour of the Sutherland side of the story before his relative, the Earl of Caithness, could have access to him; and it would seem that he was completely successful in doing so. The Earl was so offended at this that he declined to wait on Lord Gordon after his arrival in Edinburgh. At this time the High Street, one of the most picturesque thoroughfares in Europe, was the Pall Mall of the Scottish metropolis, and the grand promenade of the aristocracy, where they lounged and sauntered about when they had no other amusement or business on hand. It was then also fashionable for the male portion of the upper classes at least, if it was not rendered absolutely necessary by the lawless state of society, to wear defensive armour, and accordingly they seldom appeared in public or in private without their swords. An evening or two after Lord Gordon's return to Edinburgh, he and the Earl of Caithness, each attended by a number of their friends, happened to meet between the Tron Church and the Cross, when they began rudely to jostle and push one another into the strand. High words, as a matter of course, arose. Then swords were drawn, and a general scuffle ensued, which threatened to be attended with serious consequences. In the meantime, Sir Robert Gordon and Donald Mackay, accompanied by several followers, came running forward to the assistance of Lord Gordon. The Earl of Caithness, finding that he was likely to be overpowered by numbers, made a precipitate retreat with his friends from the scene of combat down one of the adjoining closes in which he lodged. Lord Gordon and his party followed them, and for some time paraded up and down before the Earl's lodgings, in order to provoke him to come out, but he very prudently remained inside. This melee, although such scenes were of frequent occurrence in the High Street, created not a little sensation in the city. The next day the two lords were called before the Council, when a reconciliation was brought about between them.

The Earl kept about him at Girnigoe a body of stout retainers, ready for all emergencies. Among others, there was one named William Macangus Gunn, from Strathnaver, a fellow of a resolute spirit, and possessed of extraordinary muscular power and agility. Gunn was in many respects a most useful person to the Earl; but having the organ of acquisitiveness very largely developed, he was in the habit of appropriating to his own use whatever struck his fancy in the course of his visits to the neighbouring peasantry. Latterly he began to make free with property belonging to his lordship, and dreading the consequences of detection, he found it necessary to depart without taking leave. The Earl, as soon as he discovered how matters stood, despatched some of his people in pursuit of the delinquent; but having made a good start, and being thoroughly acquainted with all the fastnesses and hiding-places among his native hills, he completely eluded their search. A few weeks after he was apprehended stealing cattle in Ross-shire, and imprisoned in the castle of Foulis. Not relishing his confinement in this fortress, he jumped from the tower; but having unfortunately broken one of his legs by the force with which he came to the ground, he found himself unable to get up, and was once more taken into custody. The

Sheriff of Tain, a relative of Earl George, had him forthwith conveyed under a strong guard to Caithness, to be lodged in the castle of Girnigoe, and disposed of as his lordship saw meet. On his arrival there he was duly secured and consigned to the prisoners' cell; but his limb having by this time become whole, he managed to free himself from his fetters, leaped from the castle into the sea, swam ashore, and immediately took to his heels, thus making an extraordinary escape for his life.


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