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General History of the Highlands
Battle of Torran-Dubh & Alexander Sutherland the Bastard


In the year 1516, Adam Earl of Sutherland, in anticipation of threatened dangers in the north, entered into bonds of friendship and alliance with the Earl of Caithness for mutual protection and support. The better to secure the goodwill and assistance of the Earl of Caithness, Earl Adam made a grant of some lands upon the east side of the water of Ully; but the Earl of Caithness, although he kept possession of the lands, joined the foes of his ally and friend. The Earl of Sutherland, however, would have found a more trustworthy supporter in the person of Y-Roy-Mackay, who had come under a written obligation to serve him the same year; but Mackay died, and a contest immediately ensued in Stratbnaver, between John and Donald Mackay his bastard sons, and Neill-Naverigh Mackay, brother of Y-Roy, to obtain possession of his lands. John took possession of all the lands belonging to his father in Strathnaver; but his uncle Neill laid claim to them, and applied to the Earl of Caithness for assistance to recover them. The Earl, after many entreaties, put a force under the command of Neill and his two sons, with which they entered Strathnaver, and obtaining an accession of strength in that country, they dispossessed John Mackay, who immediately went to the clan Chattan and clan Ronnie, to crave their aid and support, leaving his brother Donald Mackay to defend himself in Strathnaver as he best could. Donald not having a sufficient force to meet his uncle and cousins in open combat, had recourse to a stratagem which succeeded entirely to his mind. With his little band he, under cloud of night, surprised his opponents at Delreavigh in Strathnaver, and slew both his cousins and the greater part of their men, and thus utterly destroyed the issue of Neil. John Mackay, on hearing of this, immediately joined his brother, and drove out of Strathnaver all persons who had favoured the pretensions of his uncle Neil Naverigh. This unfortunate old man, after being abandoned by the Earl of Caithness, threw himself upon the generosity of his nephews, requesting that they would merely allow him a small maintenance to keep him from poverty during the remainder of his life; but these unnatural relatives, regardless of mercy and the ties of blood, ordered Neill to be beheaded in their presence by the hands of Claff-na-Gep, his own foster brother

In the year 1517, advantage was taken by John Mackay of the absence of the Earl of Sutherland, who had gone to Edinburgh to transact some business connected with his estates, to invade the province of Sutherland, and to burn and spoil every thing which came in his way. He was assisted in this lawless enterprise by two races of people dwelling in Sutherland, called the Siol-Phaill, and the Siol-Thomais, and by Neil-Mac-lain-Mac-Angus of Assynt and his brother John Mor-Mac-Iain, with some of their countrymen. As soon as the Countess of Sutherland, who had remained at home, heard of this invasion, she prevailed upon Alexander Sutherland, her bastard brother, to oppose Mackay. Assisted chiefly by John Murray of Aberscors, and Uilleam MacSheumais-Mhic-Chruner, chief of the clan Gun in Sutherland, Alexander convened hastily the inhabitants of the country and went in search of the enemy. He met John Mackay and his brother Donald, at a place called Torran-Dubh or Cnocan-Dubh, near Rogart in Strathfleet. Mackay’s force was prodigious, for he had assembled not only the whole strength of Strathnaver, Durines, Edderachillis, and Assynt, with the Siol-Pbaill and Soil-Thomais; but also all the disorderly and idle men of the whole diocese of Caithness, with all such as he could entice to join him from the west and northwest isles, to accompany him in his expedition, buoyed up with the hopes of plunder. But the people of Sutherland were nowise dismayed at the appearance of this formidable host, and made preparations for an attack. A desperate struggle commenced, and after a long contest, Mackay’s vanguard was driven back upon the position occupied by himself. Mackay having rallied the retreating party, selected a number of the best and ablest men he could find, and having placed the remainder of his army under the command of his brother Donald, to act as a reserve in case of necessity, he made a furious attack upon the Sutherland men, who received the enemy with great coolness and intrepidity. The chiefs on both sides encouraged their men to fight for the honour of their clans, and in consequence the fight was severe and bloody; but in the end the Sutherland men, after great slaughter, and after prodigies of valour had been displayed by both parties, obtained the victory. Mackay’s party was almost entirely cut off, and Mackay himself escaped with difficulty. The victors next turned their attention to the reserve under the command of Donald Mackay; but Donald dreading the fate of his brother, had fled along with his party, which immediately dispersed. They were, however, closely pursued by John Murray and Uilleam Mac-Sheu-mais, till the darkness of the night prevented the pursuit. In this battle, two hundred of the Strathnaver men, thirty-two of the Siol-Phaill, and fifteen of the Siol-Thomais, besides many of the Assynt men, and their commander, Niall-Mac-Iain-Mac-Aonghais, a valiant chieftain, were slain. John Mor-Mac-Iain, the brother of this chief, escaped with his life after receiving many wounds. Of the Sutherland men, thirty-eight only were slain. Sir Robert Will Gordon says that this "was the greatest conflict that hitherto has been foughtin between the inhabitants of these countreyes, or within the diocy of Catteynes, to our knowlege."

Shortly after the battle of Torran-Dubh, Uilleam Mac-Sheumais, called Cattigh, chief of the clan Gun, killed George Keith of Aikregell with his son and twelve of their followers, at Drumrnoy, in Sutherland, as they were travelling from Inverugie to Caithness. This act was committed by Mac-Sheumais to revenge the slaughter of his grandfather (the Cruner,) who had been slain by the Keiths, under the following circumstances. A long feud had existed between the Keiths and the clan Gun, to reconcile which, a meeting was appointed at the chapel of St Tayr in Caithness, near Girnigoe, of twelve horsemen on each side. The Cruner, then chief of the clan Gun, with some of his sons and his principal kinsmen, to the number of twelve in all, came to the chapel at the appointed time. As soon as they arrived, they entered the chapel and prostrated themselves in prayer before the altar. While employed in this devotional act, the laird of Inverugie and Aikregell arrived with twelve horses, and two men on each horse. After dismounting, the whole of this party rushed into the chapel armed, and attacked the Cruner and his party unawares. The Clan Gun, however defended themselves with great intrepidity and although the whole twelve were slain, many of the Keiths were also killed. For nearly two centuries the blood of the slain was to be seen on the walls of the chapel, which it had stained. James Gun, one of the sons of the Cruner, being absent, immediately on hearing of his father’s death, retired with his family into Sutherland, where he settled, and where his son William Mae-Sheumais, or Mae-James otherwise William Cattigh, was born.

As John Mackay imputed his defeat at Torran-Dubh mainly to John Murray of Aberscors, he resolved to take the first convenient opportunity of revenging himself, and wiping off the disgrace of his discomfiture. He, therefore, not being in a condition himself to undertake an expedition, employed two brothers, William and Donald, his kinsmen, chieftains of the Sliochd-Iain-Abaraich, with a company of men, to attack Murray. The latter having mustered his forces, the parties met at a place called Loch-Salchie, not far from the Torran-Dubh, where a sharp skirmish took place, in which Murray proved victorious. The two Strathnaver chieftains and the greater part of their men were slain, and the remainder were put to flight. The principal person who fell on Murray’s side was his brother John-Roy whose loss he deeply deplored.

Exasperated at this second disaster, John Mackay sent John Croy and Donald, two of his nephews, sons of Angus Mackay, who was killed at Morinsh in Ross, at the head of a number of chosen men, to plunder and bum the town of Pitfour, in Strathfleet, which belonged to John Murray; butt they were equally unsucceessful, for John Croy Mackay and some of his men were slain by the Murrays, and Donald was taken prisoner. In consequence of these repeated reverses, John Mackay submitted himself to the Earl of Sutherland on his return from Edinburgh, and granted him his bond of service, in the year 1518. But, notwithstanding this submission, Mackay afterwards tampered with Alexander Sutherland, the bastard, and having gained his favour by giving his sister to Sutherland in marriage, he prevailed upon him to rise against the Earl of Sutherland. All these commotions in the north happened during the minority of King of James V., when, as Sir R. Gordon says, "everie man tbought to escape unpunished, and cheiflie these who were remotest from the seat of justice"

This Alexander Sutherland was son of John, third of that name, Earl of Sutherland, and he pretended that the Earl and his mother had entered into a contract of marriage, he laid claim, on the death of the Earl, to the title and estates, as a legitimate descendant of Earl John, his father. By the entreaties of Adam Gordon, Lord of Aboyne, who had married Lady Elizabeth, the sister and sole heiress of Earl John, Alexander Sutherland judicially renounced his claim in presence of the sheriff of Inverness, on the 25th of July, 1509. He now repented of what he had done, aud, being .instigated by the Earl of Caithness and John Mackay, mortal foes to the house of Sutherland, he renewed his pretensions. Earl Adam, perceiving that he might incur some danger in making an appeal to arms, particularly as the clans and tribes of the country, with many of whom Alexander had become very popular, were broken into factions and much divided on the question betwixt the two, endeavoured to win him over by offering him many favourable conditions, again to renounce his claims, but in vain. He maintained the legitimacy of his descent, and alleged that the renunciation he had granted at Inverness had been obtained from him contrary to his inclination, and against the advice of his best friends.

Having collected a considerable force, he, in absence of the earl, who was in Strathbogio, attacked Dunrobin castle, the chief strength of the earl, which he took. In this siege he was chiefly supported by Alexander Terrell of the Doill, who, in consequence of taking arms against the earl, his superior, lost all his lands, and was afterwards apprehended and executed. As soon as the earl heard of the insurrection, he despatched Alexander Lesley of Kinninuvy, with a body of men, into Sutherland to assist John Murray of Aberscors, who was already at the head of a force to support the earl. They immediately besieged Dunrobin, which surrendered. Alexander had retired to Strathnaver, but he again returned into Sutherland with a fresh body of men, and laid waste the country. After putting to death several of his own kinsmen who had joined the earl, he descended farther into the country, towards the parishes of Loth and Clyne. Meeting with little or no opposition, the bastard grew careless, and being observed wandering along the Sutherland coast, flushed with success and regardless of danger, the earl formed the design of cutting him entirely off. With this view, he directed Alexander Lesley of Kinninuvy, John Murray, and John Scorrigh-Mac-Finlay, one of the Siol-Thomais, to hover on Sutherland’s outskirts, and to keep skirmishing with him till he, the earl, should collect a sufficient force with which to attack him. Having collected a considerable body of resolute men, the earl attacked the bastard at a place called Aid-Quhillin, by East Clentredaill, near the sea side. A warm contest ensued, in which Alexander Sutherland was taken prisoner, and the most of his men were slain, including John Bane, one of his principal supporters, who fell by the hands of John Scorrigh-Mac-Finlay. After the battle Sutherland was immediately beheaded by Alexander Lesley on the spot, and his head sent to Dunrobin on a spear, which was placed upon the top of the great tower, "which shews us" (as Sir Robert Gordon, following the superstition of his times, curiously observes), "that whatsoever by fate is allotted, though sometymes forshewed, can never be avoyded. For the witches had told Alexander the bastard that his head should be the highest that ever wes of the Southerlands; which he did foolishiye interpret that some day he should be Earl of Southerland, and in honor above all his predicessors. Thus the divell and his ministers, the witches, deceaving still such as trust in them, will either find or frame predictions for everie action or event, which doeth ever fall out contrarie to ther expectations; a kynd of people to all men unfaithfull, to hopers deceatful, and in all cuntries allwise forbidden, allwise reteaned and manteaned."

The Earl of Sutherland being now far advanced in life, retired for the most part to Strathbogie and Aboyne, to spend the remainder of his days amongst his friends, and intrusted the charge of the country to Alexander Gordon, his eldest son, a young man of great intrepidity and talent. The restless chief John Mackay, still smarting under his misfortunes, and thirsting for revenge, thought the present a favourable opportunity for retrieving his losses. With a considerable force, therefore, he invaded Sutherland, and entered the parish of Creigh, which he intended to ravage, but the Master of Sutherland hastened thither, attacked Mackay, and forced him to retreat into Strathnaver with some loss. Mackay then assembled a large body of his countrymen and invaded the Breachat. He was again defeated by Alexander Gordon at the Grinds after a keen skirmish. Hitherto Mackay bad been allowed to hold the lands of Grinds, and some other possessions in the west part of Sutherland, but the Master of Sutherland now dispossessed him of all these as a punishment for his recent conduct. Still dreading a renewal of Mackay’s visits, the Master of Sutherland resolved to retaliate, by invading Strathnaver in return, and thereby showing Mackay what he might in future expect if he persevered in continuing his visits to Sutherland. Accordingly, he collected a body of stout and resolute men, and entered Strathnaver, which he pillaged and burnt, and, having collected a large quantity of booty, returned into Sutherland. In entering Strathnaver, the Master of Sutherland had taken the road to Strathully, passing through Mackay’s bounds in the hope of falling in with and apprehending him, but Mackay was absent on a creach excursion into Sutherland. In returning, however, through the Dine Moor and the Breachat, Alexander Gordon received intelligence that Mackay with a company of men was in the town of Lairg, with a quantity of cattle he had collected in Sutherland, on his way home to Strathnaver. He lost no time in attacking Mackay, and such was the celerity of his motions, that his attack was as sudden as unexpected. Mackay made the best resistance he could, but was put to the rout, and many of his men were killed. He himself made his escape with great difficulty, and saved his life by swimming to the island of Eilean-Minric, near Lairg, where he lay concealed during the rest of the day. All the cattle which Mackay had carried away were rescued and carried back into Sutherland. The following day Mackay left the island, returned home to his country, and again submitted himself to the Master and his father, the Earl, to whom he a second time gave his bond of service and manrent in the year 1522.

As the Earl of Caithness had always taken a side against the Sutherland family in these different quarrels, the Earl of Sutherland brought an action before the lords of Council and Session against the Earl of Caithness, to recover back from him the lands of Strathully, on the ground, that the Earl of Caithness had not fulfilled the condition on which the lands were granted to him, viz., to assist the Earl of Sutherland against his enemies. There were other minor points of dispute between the earls, to get all which determined they both repaired to Edinburgh. Instead, however, of abiding the issue of a trial at law before the judges, both parties, by the advice of mutual friends, referred the decision of all the points in dispute on either side to Gavin Dunbar, bishop of Aberdeen, who pronounced his award at Edinburgh, on the 11th March, 1524, his judgment appearing to have satisfied both parties, as the earls lived in peace with one another ever after.


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