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General History of the Highlands
Earls of Caithness and Sutherland


In the year 1587, the flames of discord, which had lain dormant for a short time, burst forth between the rival houses of Sutherland and Caithness. In the year 1583, Alexander, Earl of Sutherland, obtained from the Earl of Huntly a grant of the superiority of Strathnaver, and of the heritable sheriffship of Sutherland and Strathnaver, which last was granted in lieu of the lordship of Aboyne. This grant was confirmed by his Majesty in a charter under the great seal, by which Sutherland and Strathnaver were disjoined and dismembered from the sheriffdom of Inverness. As the strength and influence of the Earl of Sutherland were greatly increased by the power and authority with which the superiority of Strathnaver invested him, the Earl of Caithness used the most urgent entreaties with the Earl of Bimtly, who was his brother-in-law, to recall the gift of the superiority which he had granted to the Earl of Sutherland, and confer the same on him. The Earl of Huntly gave no decided answer to this application, although he seemed rather to listen with a favourable ear to his brother-in-law’s request. The Earl of Sutherland having been made aware of his rival’s pretensions, and of the reception which he had met with from the Earl of Huntly, immediately notified to Huntly that he would never restore the superiority either to him or to the Earl of Caithness, as the bargain he had made with him had been long finally concluded. The Earl of Huntly was much offended at this notice, but he and the Earl of Sutherland were soon reconciled through the mediation of Sir Patrick Gordon of Auchindun.

Disappointed in his views of obtaining the superiority in question, the Earl of Caithness seized the first opportunity, which presented itself of quarrelling with the Earl of Sutherland, and he now thought that a suitable occasion had occurred. George Gordon, a bastard son of Gilbert Gordon of Gartay, having offered many indignities to the Earl of Caithness, the Earl, instead of complaining to the Earl of Sutherland, in whose service this George Gordon was, craved satisfaction and redress from the Earl of Huntly. Huntly very properly desired the Earl of Caithness to lay his complaint before the Earl of Sutherland; but this he declined to do, disdaining to seek redress from Earl Alexander. Encouraged, probably, by the refusal of the Earl of Huntly to interfere, and the stubbornness of the Earl of Caithness to ask redress from his master, George Gordon, who resided in the town of Marle in Strathully, on the borders of Caithness, not satisfied with the indignities which he had formerly shown to the Earl of Caithness, cut off the tails of the earl’s horses as they were passing the river of Hehnsdale under the care of his servants, on their journey from Caithness to Edinburgh, and in derision desired the earl’s servants to show him what he had done.

This George Gordon, it would appear, led a very irregular and wicked course of life, and shortly after the occurrence we have just related, a circumstance happened which induced the Earl of Caithness to take redress at his own hands. George Gordon had incurred the displeasure of the Earl of Sutherland by an unlawful connexion with his wife’s sister, and as he had no hopes of regaining the earl’s favour but by renouncing this impure intercourse, he sent Patrick Gordon, his brother, to the Earl of Caithness to endeavour to effect a reconciliation with him, as he could no longer rely upon the protection of his master, the Earl of Sutherland. The Earl of Caithness, who felt an inward satisfaction at hearing of the displeasure of the Earl of Sutherland with George Gordon, dissembled his feelings, and pretended to listen with great favour to the request of Patrick Gordon, in order to throw George Gordon off his guard, while he was in reality meditating his destruction. The ruse succeeded so effectually, that although Gordon received timeous notice, from some friends, of the intentions of the earl to attack him, he reposed in false security upon the promises held out to him, and made no provision for his personal safety. But he was soon deceived by the appearance of the earl and a body of men, who, in February, 1587, entering Marie under the silence of the night, surrounded his house and required him to surrender, which he refused to do. Having cut his way through his enemies and thrown himself into the river of Helms-dale, which he attempted to swim across, he was slain by a shower of arrows.

The Earl of Sutherland, though he disliked the conduct of George Gordon, was highly incensed at his death, and made great preparations to punish the Earl of Caithness for his attack upon Gordon. The Earl of Caithness in his turn assembled his whole forces, and, being joined by Mackay and the Stratlhnaver men, together with John, the Master of Orkney, and the Earl of Carrick, brother of Patrick, Earl of Orkney, and some of his countrymen, marched to Helmsdale to meet the Earl of Sutherland. As soon as the latter heard of the advance of the Earl of Caithness, he also proceeded towards Helmsdale, accompanied by Mackintosh, Roderick Mackenzie of Redcastle, Hector Monroe of Contaligh, and Neil Houcheonson, with the men of Assynt. On his arrival at the river of Helmsdale, the Earl of Sutherland found the enemy encamped on the opposite side. Neither party seemed inclined to come to a general engagement, but contented themselves with daily skirmishes, annoying each other with guns and arrows from the opposite banks of the river. The Sutherland men, who were very expert archers, annoyed the Caithness men so much, as to force them to break up their camp on the river side and to remove among the rocks above the village of Easter Helmsdale. Mackay and his countrymen were encamped on the river of Marie, and in order to detach him from the Earl of Caithness, Macintosh crossed that river and had a private conference with him. After reminding him of the friendship which had so long subsisted between his ancestors and the Sutherland family, Macintosh endeavoured to impress upon his mind the danger he incurred by taking up arms against his own superior the Earl of Sutherland, and entreated him, for his own sake, to join the earl; but Mackay remained inflexible.

By the mediation of mutual friends, the two earls agreed to a temporary truce on the 9th of March, 1587, and thus the effusion of human blood was stopped for a short time. As Mackay was the vassal of the Earl of Sutherland, the latter refused to comprehend him in the truce, and insisted upon an unconditional submission, but Mackay obstinately refused to do so, and returned home to his own country, highly chagrined that the Earl of Caithness, for whom he had put his life and estate in jeopardy, should have acceded to the Earl of Sutherland’s request to exclude him from the benefit of the truce. Before the two earls separated they came to a mutual understanding to reduce Mackay to obedience; and that he might not suspect their design, they agreed to meet at Edinburgh for the purpose of concerting the necessary measures together. Accordingly, they held a meeting at the appointed place in the year 1588, and came to the resolution to attack Mackay; and to prevent Mackay from receiving any intelligence of their design, both parties swore to keep the same secret; but the Earl of Caithness, regardless of his oath, immediately sent notice to Mackay of the intended attack, for the purpose of enabling him to meet it. Instead, however, of following the Earl of Caithness’s advice, Mackay, justly dreading his hollow friendship, made haste, by the advice of Macintosh and the Laird of Foulis, to reconcile himself to the Earl of Sutherland, his superior, by an immediate submission. For this purpose he and the earl first met at Inverness, and after conferring together they made another appointment to meet at Elgin, where a perfect and final reconciliation took place in the month of November, 1588.


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