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General History of the Highlands
Strife between the Earls of Caithness and Sutherland


The truce between the Earls of Caithness and Sutherland having now expired, the latter, accompanied by Mackay, Macintosh, the Laird of Foulis, the Laird of Assynt, and Gille-Calum, Laird of Rasay, entered Caithness with all his forces in the beginning of 1588. In taking this step he was warranted by a commission which he had obtained at court, through the influence of Chancellor Maitland, against the Earl of Caithness for killing George Gordon. The people of Caithness, alarmed at the great force of the Earl, fled in all directions on his approach, and he never halted till he reached the strong fort of Girnigo, where he pitched his camp for twelve days. He then penetrated as far as Duncansby, killing several of the country people on his route, and collecting an immense quantity of cattle and goods, so large, indeed, as to exceed all that had been seen together in that country for many years. This invasion had such an effect upon the people of Caithness, that every race, clan, tribe, and family there, vied with one another in offering pledges to the Earl of Sutherland to keep the peace in all time coming. The town of Wick was also pillaged and burnt, but the church was preserved. In the church was found the heart of the Earl of Caithness’s father in a case of lead, which was opened by John Mac-Gille-Calum of Rasay, and the ashes of the heart were thrown by him to the winds.

During the time when these depredations were being committed, the Earl of Caithness shut himself up in the castle of Girnigo; but on learning the disasters which had befallen his country, he desired a cessation of hostilities and a conference with the Earl of Sutherland. As the castle of Girnigo was strongly fortified, and as the Earl of Caithness had made preparations for enduring a long siege, the Earl of Sutherland complied with his request. Both earls ultimately agreed to refer all their differences and disputes to the arbitration of friends, and the Earl of Huntly was chosen by mutual consent to act as umpire or oversman, in the event of a difference of opinion. A second truce was in this way entered into until the decision of the arbiters, when all differences were to cease.

Notwithstanding this engagement, however, the Earl of Caithness soon gave fresh provocation, for before the truce had expired he sent a party of his men to Diri-Chatt in Sutherland, under the command of Kenneth Buy, and his brother Farquhar Buy, chieftains of the SiolMhic-Imlieair in Caithness, and chief advisers of the Earl of Caithness in his bad actions, and his instruments in oppressing the poor people of Caithness. The Earl of Sutherland lost no time in revenging himself for the depredations committed. At Whitsunday, in the year 1589, he sent 300 men into Caithness, with Alexander Gordon of Kilcalrnekill at their head. They penetrated as far as Girnigo, laying the country waste everywhere around them, and striking terror into the hearts of the inhabitants, many of whom, including some of the Siol-Mhic-Imlieair, they killed. After spending their fury the party returned to Sutherland with a large booty, and without the loss of a single man.

To retaliate upon the Earl of Sutherland for this inroad, James Sinclair of Marlde, brother of the Earl of Caithness, collected an army of 3,000 men, with which he marched into Strathully, in the month of June, 1589. As the Earl of Sutherland had been apprehensive of an attack, he had placed a range of sentinels along the borders of Sutherland, to give notice of the approach of the enemy. Of these, four were stationed in the village of Liribell, which the Caithness men entered in the middle of the day unknown to the sentinels, who, instead of keeping an outlook, were at the time carelessly enjoying themselves within the watch-house. On perceiving the Caithness men about entering the house, they shut themselves up within it; but the house being set on fire, three of them perished, and the fourth, rushing through the flames, escaped with great difficulty, and announced to his countrymen the arrival of the enemy. From Strathully, Sinclair passed forward with his army to a place called Crissalligh, on the height of Strathbroray, and began to drive away some cattle towards Caithness. As the Earl of Sutherland had not yet had sufficient time to collect a suficient force to oppose Sinclair, he sent in the meantime Houcheon Mackay, who happened to be at Dunrobin with 500 or 600 men, to keep Sinclair in check until a greater force should be assembled. With this body, which was hastily drawn together on the spur of the occasion, Mackay advanced with amazing celerity, and such was the rapidity of his movements, that he most unexpectedly came up with Sinclair not far from Crissalligh, when his army was ranging about without order or military discipline. On coming up, Mackay found John Gordon of Kilcalmekill at the head of a small party skirmishing with the Caithness men, a circumstance which made him instantly resolve, though so far inferior in numbers, to attack Sinclair. Crossing therefore the water, which was between him and the enemy, Mackay and his men rushed upon the army of Sinclair, which they defeated after a long and warm contest. The Caithness men retreated with the loss of their booty and part of their baggage, and were closely pursued by a body of men commanded by John Murray, nicknamed the merchant, to a distance of 16 miles.

This defeat, however, did not satisfy the Earl of Sutherland, who, having now assembled an army, entered Caithness with the intention of laying it waste. The earl advanced as far as Corriclioigh, and the Earl of Caithness convened his forces at Spittle, where he lay waiting the arrival of his enemy. The Earl of Huntly, having been made acquainted with the warlike preparations of the two hostile earls, sent, without delay, his uncle, Sir Patrick Gordon of Auchindun, to mediate between them, and he luckily arrived at the Earl of Sutherland’s head-quarters, at the very instant his army was on its march to meet the Earl of Caithness. By the friendly interference of Sir Patrick, the parties were prevailed upon to desist from their hostile intentions, and to agree to hold an amicable meeting at Elgin, in presence of the Earl of Huntly, to whom they also agreed to refer all their differences. A meeting accordingly took place in the month of November, 1589, at which all disputes were settled, and in order that the reconciliation might be lasting, and that no recourse might again be had to arms, the two earls subscribed a deed, by which they appointed Huntly and his successors hereditary judges, and arbitrators of all disputes or differences, that might thenceforth arise between these two houses.

This reconciliation, however, as it did not obliterate the rancour which existed between the people of these different districts, was but of short duration. The frequent depredations committed by the vassals and retainers of the earls upon the property of one another, led to an exchange of letters and messages between them about the means to be used for repressing these disorders. During this correspondence the Earl of Sutherland became unwell, and, being confined to his bed, the Earl of Caithness, in October, 1590, wrote him a kind letter, which he had scarcely despatched when he most unaccountably entered Sutherland with a hostile force; but he only remained one night in that country, in consequence of receiving intelligence of a meditated attack upon his camp by John Gordon of Kilcalmekill, and Neill Mac-lain-MacWilliam. A considerable number of the Sutherland men having collected together, they resolved to pursue the Caithness men, who had carried off a large quantity of cattle; but, on coming nearly up with them, an unfortunate difference arose between the Murrays and the Gordons, each contending for the command of the vanguard. The Murrays rested their claim upon their former good services to the house of Sutherland; but the Gordons refusing to admit it, all the Murrays, with the exception of William Murray, brother of the Laird of Palrossie, and John Murray, the merchant, withdrew, and. took a station on a hill hard by to witness the combat.

This unexpected event seemed to paralyze the Gordons at first; but seeing the Caithness men driving the cattle away before them, and thinking that if they did not attack them they would be accused of cowardice, Patrick Gordon of Gartay, John Gordon of Embo, and John Gordon of Kilcalmekill, after some consultation, resolved to attack the retiring foe without loss of time, and without waiting for the coming up of the Strathnaver men, who were hourly expected. This was a bold and desperate attempt, as the Gordons were only as one to twelve in point of numbers, but they could not brook the idea of being branded as cowards. With such numerical inferiority, and with the sun and wind in their faces to boot, the Sutherland men advanced upon and resolutely attacked the Caithness men near Clyne. In the van of the Caithness army were placed about 1,500 archers, a considerable number of whom were from the Western Isles, under the command of Donald Balloch Mackay of Scourie, who poured a thick shower of arrows upon the men of Sutherland as they advanced, the latter, in return, giving their opponents a similar reception. The combat raged with great fury for a considerable time between these two parties: thrice were the Caithness archers driven back upon their rear, which was in consequence thrown into great disorder, and thrice did they return to the conflict, cheered on and encouraged by their leader; but, though superior in numbers, they could not withstand the firmness and intrepidity of the Sutherland men, who forced them to retire from the field of battle on the approach of night, and to abandon the cattle which had been carried off. The loss in killed and wounded was about equal on both sides; but, with the exception of Nicolas Sutherland, brother of the Laird of Forse, and Angus Mac-Angus-Termat, both belonging to the Caithness party, and John Murray, the merchant, on the Sutherland side, there were no principal persons killed.

Vain as the efforts of the common friends of the rival earls had hitherto been to reconcile them effectually, the Earl of Huntly and others once more attempted an arrangement, and having prevailed upon the parties to meet at Strathbogie, a final agreement was entered into in the month of March, 1591, by which they agreed to bury all bygone differences in oblivion, and to live on terms of amity in all time thereafter.

This fresh reconciliation of the two earls was the means of restoring quiet in their districts for a considerable time, which was partially interrupted in the year 1594, by a quarrel between the clan Gun and some of the other petty tribes. Donald Mac-William-Mac-Hennc, A]ister Mac-Iain-Mac-Rorie, and others of the clan Gun entered Caithness and attacked Farquhar Buy, one of the captains of the tribe of Siol-Mhic-Imhenir, and William Sutherland, alias William Abaraich, the chief favourite of the Earl of Caithness, and the principal plotter against the life of George Gordon, whose death has been already noticed. After a warm skirmish, Farquhar Buy, and William Abaraich, and some of their followers, were slain. To revenge this outrage, the Earl of Caithness sent the same year his brother, James Sinclair of Murkle, with a party of men, against the clan Gun in Strathie, in Strathnaver, who killed seven of that tribe. George Mac-lain-MacRob, the chief, and Donald Mac-William-MacHennic narrowly escaped with their lives.


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