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General History of the Highlands
Doings of Mackay and the Earl of Caithness


On the release of Mackay from his confinement in the castle of Edinburgh, he was employed in the wars upon the borders, against the English, in which he acquitted himself courageously; and on his return to Strathnaver he submitted himself to the Earl of Sutherland, with whom he lived in peace during the remainder of the earl’s life. But Mackay incurred, the just displeasure of the tribe of Slaight-ean-Voir by the committal of two crimes of the deepest dye. Having imbibed a violent affection for the wife of Tormaid-Mac-Iain-Mhoir, the chieftain of that tribe, he, in order to accomplish his object, slew the chief, after which he violated his wife, by whom he had a son called Donald Balloch Mackay. The insulted clan flew to arms; but they were defeated at Durines, by the murderer and adulterer, after a sharp skirmish. Three of the principal men of the tribe who had given themselves up, trusting to Mackay’s clemency, were beheaded.

In the early part of the reign of the unfortunate Queen Mary, during the period of the Reformation in Scotland, the house of Huntly had acquired such an influence in the north and north-east of Scotland, the old Maormorate of Moray, as to be looked upon with suspicion by the government of the day. Moreover the Lords of the Congregation regarded the earl with no friendly feeling as the great leader of the Roman Catholic party in the country, and it was therefore resolved that Mary should make a royal progress northwards, apparently for the purpose of seeing what was the real state of matters, and, if possible, try to overawe the earl, and remind him that he was only a subject. The queen, who, although Huntly was the Catholic leader, appears to have entered into the expedition heartily; and her bastard brother, the Earl of Murray, proceeded, in 1562, northwards, backed by a small army, and on finding the earl fractious, laid siege to the castle of Inverness, which was taken, and the governor hanged. The queen’s army and the followers of Huntly met at the hill of Corrichie, about sixteen miles west of Aberdeen, when the latter were defeated, the earl himself being found among the slain. It was on this occasion that Mary is said to have wished herself a man to be able to ride forth "in jack and knapskull." This expedition was the means of effectually breaking the influence of this powerful northern family.

George, Earl of Caithness, who had long borne a mortal hatred to John, Earl of Sutherland, now projected a scheme for cutting him off, as well as his countess, who was big with child, and their only son, Alexander Gordon; the earl and countess were accordingly both poisoned at Helmsdale, while at supper, by Isobel Sinclair, wife of Gilbert Gordon of Gartay, and sister of William Sinclair of Dumbaith, instigated, it is said, by the earl; but their son, Alexander, made a very narrow escape, not having returned in time from a hunting excursion to join his father and mother at supper. On Alexander’s return the earl had become fully aware of the danger of his situation, and he was thus prevented by his father from participating in any part of the supper which remained, and after taking an affectionate and parting farewell, and recommending him to the protection of God and of his dearest friends, he sent him to Dunrobin the same night without his supper. The earl and his lady were carried next morning to Dunrobin. where they died within five days thereafter, in the month of July, 1567, and were buried in the cathedral church at Dornoch. Pretending to cover himself from the imputation of being concerned in this murder, the Earl of Caithness punished some of the earl’s most faithful servants under the colour of avenging his death; but the deceased earl’s friends being determined to obtain justice, apprehended Isobel Sinclair, and sent her to Edinburgh to stand her trial, where, after being tried and condemned, she died on the day appointed for her execution. During all the time of her illness she vented the most dreadful imprecations upon her cousin, the earl, who had induced her to commit the horrid act. Had this woman succeeded in cutting off the earl’s son, her own eldest son, of John Gordon, but for the extraordinary circumstances of his death, to be noticed, would have succeeded to the earldom, as he was the next Earl male heir. This youth happening to be in the house when his mother had prepared the poison, became extremely thirsty, and called for a drink. One of his mother’s servants, not aware of the preparation, presented to the youth a portion of the liquid into which the poison had been infused, which he drank. This occasioned his death within two days, a circumstance which, together with the appearances of the body after death, gave a clue to the discovery of his mother’s guilt.

Taking advantage of the calamity which had befallen the house of Sutherland, and the minority of the young earl, now only fifteen years of age, Y-Mackay of Far, who had formed an alliance with the Earl of Caithness, in1567 invaded the country of Sutherland, wasted the barony of Skibo, entered the town of Dornoch, and, upon the pretence of a quarrel with the Murrays, by whom it was chiefly inhabited, set fire to it, in which outrage he was assisted by the Laird of Duffus. These measures were only preliminary to a design which the Earl of Caithness had formed to get the Earl of Sutherland into his hands, but he had the cunning to conceal his intentions in the meantime, and to instigate Mackay to act as he wished, without appearing to be in any way concerned.

In pursuance of his design upon Alexander, the young Earl of Sutherland, the Earl of Caithness prevailed upon Robert Stuart, bishop of Caithness, to write a letter to the governor of the castle of Skibo, in which the Earl of Sutherland resided, to deliver up the castle to him; a request with which the governor complied. Having taken possession of the castle, the earl carried off the young man into Caithness, and although only fifteen years of age, he got him married to Lady Barbara Sinclair, his daughter, then aged thirty-two years. Y-Mackay was the paramour of this lady, and for continuing the connexion with him she was afterwards divorced by her husband.

The Earl of Caithness having succeeded in his wishes in obtaining possession of the Earl of Sutherland, entered the earl’s country, and took possession of Dunrobin castle, in which he fixed his residence. He also brought the Earl of Sutherland along with him, but treated him meanly, and he burnt all the papers belonging to the house of Sutherland he could lay his hands on. Cruel and avaricious, he, under the pretence of vindicating the law, for imaginary crimes expelled many of the ancient families in Sutherland from the country, put many of the inhabitants to death, disabled those he banished, in their persons, by new and unheard-of modes of torture, and stripped them of all their wealth. To be suspected of favouring the house of Sutherland, and to be wealthy, were deemed capital crimes by this opressor.

As the Earl of Sutherland did not live on friendly terms with his wife on account of her .licentious connexion with Mackay, and as there appeared no chance of any issue, the Earl of Caithness formed the base design of cutting off the Earl of Sutherland, and marrying William Sinclair, his second son, to Lady Margaret Gordon, the eldest sister of the Earl of Sutherland whom he had also gotten into his hands, with the view of making William earl of Sutherland. The better to conceal his intentions the Earl of Caithness made a journey south to Edinburgh, and gave the necessary instructions to those in his confidence to despatch the Earl of Sutherland; but some of his trusty friends having received private intelligence of the designs of the Earl of Caithness from some persons who were privy thereto, instantly set about measures for defeating them by getting possession of the Earl of Sutherland’s person. Accordingly, under cloud of night, they came quietly to the burn of Golspie, in the vicinity of Dunrobin, where, concealing themselves to prevent discovery, they sent Alexander Gordon of Sidderay to the castle, disguised as a pedlar, for the purpose of warning the Earl of Sutherland of the danger of his situation, and devising means of escape. Being made acquainted with the design upon his life, and the plans of his friends for rescuing him, the earl, early the following morning, proposed to the residents in the castle, under whose charge he was, to accompany him on a small excursion in the neighbourhood. This proposal seemed so reasonable in itself, that, although he was perpetually watched by the Earl of Caithness’ servants, and his liberty greatly restrained, they at once agreed; and, going out, the earl being aware of the ambush laid by his friends, led his keepers directly into the snare before they were aware of danger. The earl’s friends thereupon rushed from their hiding-place, and seizing him, conveyed him safely out of the country of Sutherland to Strathbogie. This took place in 1569. As soon as the Earl of Caithness’s retainers heard of the escape of Earl Alexander, they collected a party of men favourable to their interests, and went in hot pursuit of him as far as Port-ne-Coulter; but they found that the earl and his friends had just crossed the ferry.

Shortly after this affair a quarrel ensued between the Monroos and the clan Kenzie, two very powerful Ross-shire clans. Losley, the celebrated bishop of Ross, had made over to his cousin, the Laird of Balquhain, the right and title of the castle of the Canonry of Ross, together with the castle lands. Notwithstanding this grant, the Regent Murray had given the custody of this castle to Andrew Monroe of Milntown; and to make Losloy bear with the loss, the Regent promised him some of the lands of the Barony of Fintry in Buchan, but on condition that he should cede to Monroe the castle and castle lands of the Canonry; but the untimely and unexpected death of the Regent interrupted this arrangement, and Andrew Monroe did not, of course, obtain the title to the castle and castle lands as he expected. Yet Monroe had the address to obtain permission from the Earl of Lennox during his regency, and afterwards from the Earl of Mar, his successor in that office, to get possession of the castle. The clan Kenzie grudging to see Monroe in possession, and being desirous to get hold of the castle themselves, purchased Lesley’s right, and, by virtue thereof, demanded delivery of the castle. Monroe refused to accede to this demand, on which the clan laid siege to the castle; but Monroe defended it for three years at the expense of many lives on both sides. It was then delivered up to the clan Kenzie under the act of pacification.

No attempt was made by the Earl of Sutherland during his minority, to recover his possessions from the Earl of Caithness. In the meantime the latter, disappointed and enraged at the escape of his destined prey, vexed and annoyed still farther the partisans of the Sutherland family. In particular, he directed his vengeance against the Murrays, and made William Sutherland of Evelick, brother to the Laird of Duffus, apprehend John Croy-Murray, under the pretence of bringing him to justice. This proceeding roused the indignation of Hugh Murray of Aborscors, who assembled his friends, and made several incursions upon the lands of Evelick, Pronsios, and Riorchor. They also laid waste several villages belonging to the Laird of Duffus, from which they carried off some booty, and apprehending a gentleman of the Sutherlands, they detained him as an hostage for the safety of John Croy-Murray. Upon this the Laird of Duffus collected all his kinsmen and friends, together with the Sioll-Phaill at Skibo, and proceeded to tbe town of Dornoch, with the intention of burning it. But the inhabitants, aided by the Murrays, went out to meet the enemy, whom they courageously attacked and overthrew, and pursued to the gates of Skibo. Besides killing several of Duffus’ men they made some prisoners whom they exchanged for John Croy-Murr‘ay. This affair was called the skirmish of Torran-Roy.

The Laird of Puffus, who was father-in-law to the Earl of Caithness, and supported him in all his plans, immediately sent notice of this disaster to the earl, who without delay sent his eldest son, John, Master of Caithness, with a large party of countrymen and friends, including Y-Mackay and his countrymen, to attack the Murrays in Domoch. They besieged the town and castle, which were both manfully defended by the Murrays and their friends; but the Master of Caithness, favoured by the darkness of the night, set fire to the cathedral, the steeple of which, however, was preserved. After the town had been reduced, the Mastor of Caithness attacked the castle and the steeple of the church, into which a body of men had thrown themselves, both of which held out for the space of a week, and would probably have resisted much longer, but for the interference of mutual friends of the parties, by whose mediation the Murrays surrendered the castle and the steeple of the church; and, as hostages for the due performance of other conditions, they delivered up Thomas Murray, son of Houcheon Murray of Aberscors, Houcheon Murray, son of Alexander Mac-Sir-Angus, and John Murray, son of Thomas Murray, the brother of John Murray of Aberscors. But the Earl of Caithness refused to ratify the treaty which his son had entered into with the Murrays, and afterwards basely beheaded the three hostages. These occurrences took place in the year 1570.

The Murrays and the other friends of the Sutherland family, no longer able to protect themselves from the vengeance of the Earl of Caithness, dispersed themselves into different countries, there to wait for more favourable times, when they might return to their native soil without danger. The Murrays went to Strathbogie, where Earl Alexander then resided. Hugh Gordon of Drummoy retired to Orkney, where he married a lady named Ursula Tulloch; but he frequently visited his friends in Sutherland, in spite of many snares laid for him by the Earl of Caithness, while secretly going and returning through Caithness. Hugh Gordon’s brothers took refuge with the Murrays at Strathbogie. John Gray of Skibo and his son Gilbert retired to St. A.ndrews, where their friend Robert, bishop of Caithness, then resided, and Mac-Mhic-Sheumais of Strathully went to Glengarry.

As the alliance of such a powerful and warlike chief as Mackay would have been of great importance to the Sutherland interest, an attempt was made to detach him from the Earl of Caithness. The plan appears to have originated with Hugh Murray of Aberscors, who made repeated visits to consult with the Earl of Sutherland and his friends on this subject, and afterwards went into Strathnaver and held a conference with Mackay, whom he prevailed upon to accompany him to Strathbogie. Mackay then entered into an engagement with the Earl of Huntly and the Earl of Sutherland, to assist the latter against the Earl of Caithness, in condideration of which, and on payment of 300 Scots, he obtained from the Earl of Huntly the heritable right and title of the lands of Strathnaver; but Mackay, influenced by Barbara Sinclair, the wife of the Earl of Sutherland, with whom he now publicly cohabited, broke his engagement, and continued to oppress the earl’s followers and dependents.

From some circumstances which have not transpired, the Earl of Caithness became suspicios of his son John, the Master of Caithness, as having, in connection with Mackay, a design upon his life. To put an end to the earl’s suspicion, Mackay advised John to go to Girnigo (Castle Sinclair), and to submit himself to his father’s pleasure, a request with which the Master complied; but, after arriving at Girnigo, he was, while conversing with his father, arrested by a party of armed men, who, upon a secret signal being given by the earl, had rushed in at the chamber door. He was instantly fettered and thrust into prison within the castle, where, after a miserable captivity of seven years, he died, a prey to famine and vermine.

Mackay, who had accompanied the Master to Girnigo, and who in all probability would have shared the same fate, escaped and returned home to Strathnaver, where he died, within four months thereafter, of grief and remorse for the many bad actions of his life. During the minority of his son Houcheon, John Mor-Mackay, the cousin, and John Beg-Mackay, the bastard son of Y-Mackay, took charge of the estate; but John Mor-Mackay was speedily removed from his charge by the Earl of Caithness, who, considering him as a favourer of the Earl of Sutherland, caused him to be apprehended and carried into Caithness, where he was detained in prison till his death. During this time John Robson, the chief of the clan Gun in Caithness and Strathnaver, became a dependent on the Earl of Sutherland, and acted as his factor in collecting the rents and duties of the bishop’s lands within Caithness which belonged to the earl. This connexion was exceedingly disagreeable to the Earl of Caithness, who in consequence took a grudge at John Robson, and, to gratify his spleen, he instigated Houcheon Mackay to lay waste the lands of the clan Gun, in the Brea-Moir, in Caithness, without the knowledge of John Beg-Mackay, his brother. As the clan Gun had always been friendly to the family of Mackay, John Beg-Mackay was greatly exasperated at the conduct of the earl in enticing the young chief to commit such an outrage; but he had it not in his power to make any reparation to the injured clan. John Robson the chief, however, assisted by Alexander Earl of Sutherland, invaded Strathnaver and made ample retaliation. Meeting the Strathnaver men at a place called Creach-Drumi-Doun, he attacked and defeated them, killing several of them, and chiefly those who had accompanied Houcheon Mackay in his expedition to the Brea-Moir. He then carried off a large quantity of booty, which he divided among the clan Gun of Strathully, who had suffered by Houcheon Mackay’s invasion.

The Earl of Caithess, having resolved to avenge himself on John Beg-Mackay for the displeasure shown by him at the conduct of Houcheon Mackay, and also on the clan Gun, prevailed upon Neil-Mac-lain-Mac-William, chief of the Sliochd-Iain-Abaraich, and James Mac-Rory, chief of the Sliochd-Iain-Mhoir, to attack them. Accordingly, in the month of September, 1579, these two chiefs, with their followers, entered Balnekill in Durines during the night-time, and slew John Beg-Mackay and William Mac-lain-Mac-Rob, the brother of John Robson, and some of their people. The friends of the deceased were not in a condition to retaliate, but they kept up the spirit of revenge so customary in those times, and only waited a favourable opportunity to gratify it. This did not occur till several years thereafter. In the year 1587, James Mac-Rory, "a fyne gentleman and a good commander," according to Sir Robert Gordon, was assassinated by Donald Balloch-Mackay, the brother of John Beg-Mackay; and two years thereafter John Mackay, the son of John Beg, attacked Neil Mac-lain-Mac-William, whom he wounded severely, and cut off some of his followers. "This Neil," says Sir R. Gordon. "heir mentioned, wes a good captain, bold, craftie, of a verie good witt, and quick resolution"

After the death of John Beg-Mackay, and William Mac-lain-Mac-Rob, a most deadly and inveterate feud followed, between the clan Gun and the Sliochd-Iain-Abaraich, but no recital of the details has been handed down to us. "The long, the many, the horrible encounters," observes Sir R. Gordon "which happened beetween these two trybes, with the bloodshed, and infinit spoils committed in every pairt of the diocy of Catteynes by them and their associates are of so disordered and troublesome memorie, that, what with their asperous names, together with the confusion of place, tymes, and persons, would yet be (no doubt) a warr to the reader to overlook them; and therefor, to favor myne oune paines, and his who should get little profite or delight thereby, I doe pass them over."

The clan Chattan, fifty years earlier, must have been harassing the surrounding districts to a terrible extent, and causing the government considerable trouble, as in 1528 we find a mandate addressed by King James "to our shirreffs of Kincardin, Abirdene, Banf, Elgen, Fores, Name, and Invernyss; and to our derrest bruthir, James, Erle of Murray, our lieutenant generale in the north partis of our realme, and to our louittis consingis [ ] Erle of Suthirland; John Erie of Cathnes," &c., commanding them that inasmuch as John M’Kinlay, Thomas Mackinlay, Donald Glass, &c., "throcht assistance and fortifying of all the kin of Clanquhattane duelland within Baienach, Petty, Brauchly, Strathnarne, and other parts thereabout, commits daily fireraising, slaughter, murder, heirschippis, and wasting of the cuntre," to the harm of the true lieges, these sheriffs and others shall fall upon the "said Clanquhattane, and invade them to their utter destruction by slaughter, burning, drowning, and other ways; and leave na creature living of that clan, except priests, women, and bairns." The "women and bairns" they ordered to take to "some parts of the sea nearest land, quhair ships salbe forsene on our expenses, to sail with them furth of our realme, and land with them in Jesland, Zesland, or Norway; because it were inhumanity to put hands in the blood of women and bairns". Had this mandate for "stamping out" this troublesome clan been carried out it would certainly have been an effectual cure for many of the disturbances in the Highlands; but we cannot find any record as to what practical result followed the issue of this cruel decree.


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