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Sutherland


The clan Sutherland, which gets its name from being located in the district of that name, is regarded by Skene and others as almost purely Gaelic. The district of Sutherland, which was originally considerably smaller than the modern county of that name, got its name from the Orcadian Norsemen, because it lay south from Caithness, which, for a long time, was their only possession in the mainland of Scotland.

According to Skene, the ancient Gaelic population of the district now known by the name of Sutherland were driven out or destroyed by the Norwegians when they took possession of the country, after its conquest by Thorfinn, the Norse Jarl of Orkney, in 1034, and were replaced by settlers from Moray and Ross. He says, "There are consequently no clans whatever descended from the Gaelic tribe which anciently inhabited the district of Sutherland, and the modern Gaelic population of part of that region is derived from two sources. In the first place, several of the tribes of the neighbouring district of Ross, at an early period, gradually spread themselves into the nearest and most mountainous parts of the country, and they consisted chiefly of the clan Anrias. Secondly, Hugh Freskin, a descendant of Freskin de Moravia, and whose family was a branch of the ancient Gaelic tribe of Moray, obtained from King William the territory of Sutherland, although it is impossible to discover the circumstances which occasioned the grant. He was of course accompanied in this expedition by numbers of his followers, who increased in Sutherland to an extensive tribe; and Freskin became the founder of the noble family of Sutherland, who, under the title of Earls of Sutherland, have continued to enjoy possession of this district for so many generations". We do not altogether agree with this intelligent author that the district in question was at any time entirely colonized by the Norsemen. There can be no doubt that a remnant of the old inhabitants remained, after the Norwegian conquest, and it is certain that the Gaelic population, reinforced as they were undoubtedly by incomers from the neighbouring districts and from Moray, ultimately regained the superiority in Sutherland. Many of them were unquestionably from the province of Moray, and these, like the rest of the inhabitants, adopted the name of Sutherland, from the appellation given by the Norwegians to the district.

The chief of the clan was called "the Great Cat", and the head of the house of Sutherland has long carried a black cat in his coat-of-arms. According to Sir George Mackenzie, the name of Cattu (originally Cattu-ness), on account of the great number of wild cats with which it was, at one period, infested.

The Earl of Sutherland was the chief of the clan, but on the accession to the earldom in 1766, of Countess Elizabeth, the infant daughter of the eighteenth earl, and afterward Duchess of Sutherland, as the chiefship could not descend to a female, William Sutherland of Killipheder, who died in 1832, and enjoyed a small annuity from her grace, was accounted the eldest male descendant of the old earls. John Campbell Sutherland, Esq, of Fors, was afterwards considered the real chief.

The clan Sutherland could bring into the field 2,000 fighting men. In 1715 and 1745 they were among the loyal clans, and zealously supported the succession of the house of Hanover.

The Earldom of Sutherland, the oldest extant in Britain, is said to have been granted by Alexander II, to William, Lord of Sutherland, about 1228, for assisting to quell a powerful northern savage of the name of Gillespie. William was the son of Hugh Freskin, who acquired the district of Sutherland by the forfeiture of the Earl of Caithness for rebellion in 1197. Hugh was the grandson of Freskin the Fleming, who came into Scotland in the reign of David I, and obtained from that prince the lands of Strathbrock in Linlithgowshire, also, the land of Duffus and others in Moray. His son, William, was a constant attendant on King William the Lion, during his frequent expeditions into Moray, and assumed the name of William de Moravia. He died towards the end of the 12th century. His son, Hugh, got the district of Sutherland, as already mentioned. Hugh's son, "Willielmus dominus de Sutherlandia filius et haeres quondam Hugonis Freskin", is usually reckoned the first Earl of Sutherland, although Sir Robert Gordon, the family historian, puts it three generations farther back.

The date of the creation of the title is not known; but from an indenture executed in 1275, in which Gilbert, bishop of Caithness, makes a solemn composition of an affair that had been long in debate betwixt his predecessors in the see and the noble men, William of famous memory, and William, his son, Earls of Sutherland, it is clear that there existed an Earl of Sutherland betwixt 1222, the year of Gilbert's consecration as bishop, and 1245, the year of his death, and it on the strength of this deed that the representative of the house claims the rank of premier earl of Scotland, with the date 1228.

Earl William died at Dunrobin in 1248. His son, William, second earl, succeeded to the title in his infancy. He was one of the Scots nobles who attended the parliament of Alexander III at Scone, 5th February 1284, when the succession to the crown of Scotland was settled, and he sat in the great convention at Bingham, 12th March 1290. He was one of the eighteen Highland chiefs who fought at the battle of Bannockburn, in 1314, on the side of Bruce, and he subscribed the famous letter of the Scots nobles to the Pope, 6th April 1320. He died in 1325, having enjoyed the title for the long period of 77 years.

His son, Kenneth, the third earl, fell at the battle of Halidon-hill in 1333, valiantly supporting the cause of David II. With a daughter, Eustach, he had two sons, William, fourth earl, and Nicholas, ancestor of the Lords of Duffus.

William, fourth earl, married the Princess Margaret, eldest daughter of Robert I, by his second wife, Elizabeth de Burgo, and he made grants of land in the counties of Inverness and Aberdeen to powerful and influential persons, to win their support of his eldest son, John's claim to the succession to the crown. John was selected by his uncle, David II, as heir to the throne, in preference to the high-steward, who had married the Princess Marjory, but he died at Lincoln, England in 1361, while a hostage there for payment of the king's ransom. His father, Earl William, was one of the commissioners to treat for the release of King David in 1351, also on 13th June 1354, and again in 1357. He was for some years detained in England as a hostage for David's observance of the treaty on his release from his long captivity. The earl did not obtain his full liberty till 20th March 1367. He died at Dunrobin in Sutherland in 1370. His son, William, fifth earl, was present at the surprise of Berwick by the Scots in November 1384.

With their neighbours, the Mackays, the clan Sutherland were often at feud, and in all their contests with them they generally came off victorious.

John, seventh earl, resigned the earldom in favour of John, his son and heir, 22d February 1456, reserving to himself the life rent of it, and died in 1460. He had married Margaret, daughter of Sir William Baillie of Lamington, Lanarkshire, and by her had four sons and two daughters. The sons were - 1. Alexander, who predeceased his father; 2. John, eighth Earl of Sutherland; 3. Nicholas; 4. Thomas Beg. The elder daughter, Lady Jane, married Sir James Dunbar of Cumnock, and was the mother of Gawin Dunbar, bishop of Aberdeen.

John, eighth earl, died in 1508. He had married Lady Margaret Macdonald, eldest daughter of Alexander, Earl of Ross, Lord of the Isles, and by her, who was drowned crossing the ferry of Uness, he had two sons - John ninth earl, and Alexander, who died young, and a daughter, Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland.

The ninth earl died, without issue, in 1514, when the succession devolved upon his sister Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, in her own right. This lady had married Adam Gordon of Aboyne, second son of George, second Earl of Huntly, high-chancellor of Scotland, and in his wife's right, according to the custom of the age, he was styled Earl of Sutherland. The Earl of Sutherland, when far advanced in life, retired for the most part to Strathbogie and Aboyne, in Aberdeenshire, to spend the remainder of his days among his friends, and intrusted the charge of the country to his eldest son, Alexander Gordon, master of Sutherland, a young man of great intrepidity and talent; and on the countess's resignation, a charter of the earldom was granted to him by King James V, on 1st December 1527. She died in 1535, and her husband in 1537. Their issue were - 1. Alexander, master of Sutherland, who was infeft in the earldom in 1527, under the charter above mentioned, and died in 1529, leaving, by his wife, Lady Jane Stewart, eldest daughter of the second Earl of Atholl, three sons - John, Alexander, and William, and two daughters; 2. John Gordon; 3. Adam Gordon, killed at the battle of Pinkie, 10th September 1547; 4. Gilbert Gordon of Gartay, who married Isobel Sinclair, daughter of the laird of Dunbeath.

Alexander's eldest son, John, born about 1525, succeeded his grandfather as eleventh earl. He was lieutenant of Loray in 1547 and 1548, and with George, Earl of Huntly, was selected to accompany the queen regent to France in September 1550.

On the charge of having engaged in the rebellion of the Earl of Huntly in 1562, the Earl of Sutherland was forfeited, 28th May 1563, when he retired to Flanders. He returned to Scotland in 1565, and his forfeiture was rescinded by act of parliament, 19th April 1567. He and his countess, who was then in a state of pregnancy, were poisoned at Helmsdale Castle by Isobel Sinclair, the wife of the earl's uncle, Golbert Gordon of Gartay, and the cousin of the Earl of Caithness, and died five days afterwards at Dunrobin Castle. This happened in July 1567, when the earl was in his 42d year. Their only son, Alexander, master of Sutherland, then in his fifteenth year, fortunately escaped the same fate.

The eleventh earl, styled the good Earl John, was thrice married - 1st, to Kady Elizabeth Campbell, only daughter of the third Earl of Argyll, relict of James, Earl of Moray, natural son of James IV; 2dly, to Lady Helen Stewart, daughter of the third Earl of Lennox, relict of the fifth Earl of Errol; and 3dly, to Marion, eldest daughter of the fourth Lord Seton, relict of the fourth Earl of Menteith. This was the lady who was poisoned with him. He had issue by his second wife only - two sons and three daughters. John, the elder son, died an infant. Alexander, the younger, was the twelfth Earl of Sutherland.

Being under age when he succeeded to the earldom, the ward of this young nobleman was granted to his eldest sister, Lady Margaret Gordon, who committed it to the care of John, Earl of Atholl. The latter sold the wardship to George, Earl of Caithness, the enemy of his house. Having by treachery got possession of the castle of Skibo, in which the young earl resided, he seized his person and carried him off to Caithness, where he forced him to marry his daughter, Lady Barbara Sinclair, a profligate woman of double his own age. When he attained his majority he divorced her. In 1569, he escaped from the Earl of Caithness, who had taken up his residence at Dunrobin Castle and formed a design upon his life.

In 1583, he obtained from the Earl of Huntly, the king's lieutenant in the north, 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. The earl died at Dunrobin, 6th december 1594, in his 43d year. Having divorced Lady Barbara Sinclair in 1573, he married, secondly, Lady Jean Gordon, third daughter of the fourth Earl of Huntly, high-chancellor of Scotland, who has been previously married to the Earl of Bothwell, but repudiated to enable that ambitious and profligate nobleman to marry Queen Mary. She subsequently married Alexander Ogilvy of Boyne, whom she also survived. To the Earl of Sutherland she had, with two daughters, four sons - 1. John, thirteenth earl; 2. Hon. Sir Alexander Gordon; 3. Hon. Adam Gordon; 4. Hon. Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun, the historian of the family of Sutherland, created a baronet of Nova Scotia, being the first of that order, 28th may 1625.

John, thirteenth Earl of Sutherland, was born 20th July 1576. He died at Dornoch, 11th September 1615, aged 40. By his Countess, Lady Anna Elphinston, he had, with two daughters, four sons, namely - 1. Patrick, master of Sutherland, who died young; 2. John, fourteenth earl; 3. Hon. Adam Gordon, who entered the Swedish service, and was killed at the battle of Nordlingen, 27th August 1634, aged 22; 4. Hon. George Posthumus Gordon, born after his father's death, 9th February 1616, a lieutenant-colonel in the army.

John, fourteenth Earl of Sutherland, born 4th March 1609, was only six years old when he succeeded his father, and during his minority, his uncle, Sir Robert Gordon, was tutor of Sutherland. In this capacity the latter was much engaged in securing the peace of the country, so often broken by the lawless proceedings of the Earl of Caithness. By Sir Robert's judicious management of the affairs of the house of Sutherland, his nephew, the earl, on attaining his majority, found the hostility of the enemy of his house, the Earl of Caithness, either neutralized, or rendered no longer dangerous. In 1637, the earl joined the supplicants against the service book, and on the breaking out of the civil war in the following year, espoused the liberal cause. In 1641 he was appointed by parliament a privy councillor for life, and in 1644 he was sent north with a commission for disarming malignants, as the royalists were called. In 1645 he was one of the committee of estates. The same year he joined General Hurry, with his retainers at Inverness, just immediately before the battle of Auldearn. In 1650 he accompanied General David Leslie when he was sent by the parliament against the royalists in the north.

On the Marquis of Montrose's arrival in Caithness, the earl assembled all his countrymen to oppose his advance into Sutherland. Montrose, however, had secured the important pass of the Ord, and on his entering Sutherland, the Earl, not conceiving himself strong enough to resist him, retired with about 300 men into Ross. In August of the same year, the Earl set off to Edinburgh, with 1000 men, to join the forces under General Leslie, collected to oppose Cromwell, but was too late for the battle of Dunbar, which was fought before his arrival. During the Protectorate of Cromwell the Earl lived retired. He is commonly said to have died in 1663, but the portrait of John, who must be this Earl, prefixed to Gordon's history of the family (Ed, 1813) has upon it "Aetatis Suae 60: 1669". This would seem to prove that he was then alive.

His son, George, fifteenth Earl, died 4th March 1703, aged 70, and was buried at Holyrood house, where a monument was erected to his memory. The son of this nobleman, John, sixteenth Earl, married, when Lord Srathnaver, Helen, second daughter of William, Lord Cochrane, sister of the Viscountess Dundee. He was one of the sixteen representatives of the Scots peerage chosen in the last Scots parliament in 1707, and subsequently three times re-elected. His services in quelling the rebellion were acknowledged by George I, who, in June 1716, invested him with the order of the Thistle, and in the following September settled a pension of £1,200 per annum upon him. He figured conspicuously both as a statesman and a soldier, and obtained leave to add to his armorial bearings the double "tressure circumfeur-de-lire", to indicate his descent from the royal family of Bruce. His lordship died at London, 27th June 1733.

His son, William, Lord Strathnaver, predeceased his father 19th July 1720. He had five sons and two daughters. His two eldest sons died young. William, the third son, became seventeenth Earl of Sutherland. The elder daughter, the Hon. Helen Sutherland, was the wife of Sir James Colquhoun of Luss. The younger, the Hon. Janet Sutherland, married George Sinclair, Esq, of Ulbster, and was the mother of the celebrated Sir John Sinclair, baronet.

William, seventeenth Earl of Sutherland, contributed greatly to the suppression of the rebellion in the north. Under the heritable jurisdictions abolition act of 1747, he had £1,000 allowed him for the redeemable sheriffship of Sutherland. He died in France, December 7, 1750, aged 50. By his countess, Lady Elizabeth Wemyss, eldest daughter of the third Earl of Wemyss, he had, with a daughter, Lady Elizabeth, wife of her cousin, Hon James Wemyss of Wemyss, a son, William.

The son, William, eighteenth Earl of Sutherland, born Mar 29, 1735, was an officer in the army, he raised a battalion of infantry, of which he was constituted lieutenant-colonel. He was appointed aide-de-camp to the king, with the rank of colonel in the army, 20th April 1763. He was one of the sixteen representative Scots peers, and died at Bath, 16th June 1766, aged 31. He had married at Edinburgh, 14th April 1761, Mary, eldest daughter and coheiress of William Maxwell, Esq. of Preston, stewarty of Kirkcudbright, and had two daughters, Lady Catherine and Lady Elizabeth. The former, born 24th May 1764, died at Dunrobin Castle, 3rd January 1766. The loss of their daughter so deeply affected the Earl and Countess that they went to Bath, in the hope that the amusements of that place would dispel their grief. There, however, the Earl was seized with a fever, and the Countess devoted herself so entirely to the care of her husband, sitting up with him for twenty-one days and nights without retiring to bed, that her health was affected, and she died 1st June the same year, sixteen days before his lordship. Their bodies were brought to Scotland, and interred in Holyrood-house.

Their only surviving daughter, Elizabeth, born at Leven Lodge, near Edinburgh, 24th May 1765, succeeded as Countess of Sutherland, when little more than a year old. She was placed under the guardianship of John, Duke of Atholl, Charles, Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, Sir Adam Fegusson of Kilberran, and Sir David Dalrymple of Hailes, baronets, and John Mckenzie, Esq, of Delvin. A sharp contest arose for the title, her right to the earldom being disputed on the ground that it could not legally descend to a female heir. Her opponents were Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun and Letterfourie, baronet, and Geoge Sutherland, Esq,of Fors. Lord Hailes drew up a paper for her ladyship, entitled "Additional Case for Elizabeth, claiming the title and dignity of Countess of Sutherland", which evinced great ability, accuracy, and depth of research. The House of Lords decided in her favour 21st March 1771. The Countess, the nineteenth in succession to the earldom, married 4th September 1785, George Granville Leveson-Gower, Viscount of Trentham, eldest son of Earl Gower, afterwards Marquis of Stafford, by his second wife, Lady Louisa Egerton, daughter of the first Duke of Bridgewater. His lordship succeeded to his father's titles, and became the second Marquis of Stafford. On 14th January 1833 he was created Duke of Sutherland, and died 19th July, the same year. The Duchess of Sutherland, countess in her own right, thenceforth styled Duchess-Countess of Sutherland, held the earldom during the long period of 72 years and seven months, and died in January 1839.

Her eldest son, George Granville, born in 1786, succeeded his father as second Duke of Sutherland, in 1833, and his mother in the Scottish titles, in 1839. He married in 1823, Lady Harriet Elizabeth Carlisle; issue - four sons and seven daughters. His grace died Feb 28 1861, and was succeeded by his eldest son, George Granville William. The second duke's eldest daughter married in 1844, the Duke of Argyll; the second daughter married in 1843, Lord Blantyre; the third daughter married in 1847, the Marquis of Kildare, eldest son of the Duke of Leinster.

George Granville William, third Duke of Sutherland, previously styled Marquis of Stafford and Lord Strathnaver, born Dec 19, 1828, married in 1849, Anne, only child of John Hay Mackenzie, Esq, of Cromartie and Newhall, and niece of Sir William Gibson Craig, Bart; issue - three sons and two daughters. Sons - 1. George Granville, Earl Gower, born July 25, 1850, died July 5, 1858; 2. Cromartie, Marquis of Stafford, born 20th July 1851; 3. Lord Francis, Viscount Tarbet, born August 3, 1852. Daughters, Lady Florence and Lady Alexandra; for the latter the Princess of Wales was sponsor.

Another Account of the Clan

BADGE: Bealaidh chatti (Ruscus occiliatus) Butcher’s broom.
PIBROCH: Piobaireachd nan Catach.
SLOGAN: Ceann na Drochaide Bige.

SutherlandONE of the many clans of Scotland which have never been of Celtic blood, or have been so only by marriage, the race of Sutherland has nevertheless always been one of the most powerful in the north, and at the present hour its real leader, if not its actual Chief, the Duke of Sutherland, is the largest landowner and one of the greatest nobles in the kingdom.

The district from which the clan takes its name, and which was then of much less extent than at the present day, was no doubt named Sudrland or Sutherland by the Norwegians by reason of its position with respect to Caithness, for long the only possession of these invaders on the mainland of Scotland. Skene, in his Highlanders of Scotland, supports the theory that Thorfinn, the Norwegian Jarl of Orkney, on overthrowing Moddan, maormar of the region, in 1034, expelled or destroyed all the Celtic inhabitants, and that the Celts who afterwards formed part of its population were chiefly of the Clan Ross, who migrated into it at a later day from adjoining districts. There seems, however, as little reason to believe that the Norwegians drove the Celts out of Sutherland as to believe that they drove them out of other parts of the country which they conquered. Skene’s idea is merely his means of fitting facts to his general thesis, that the Scottish clans are descendants of the ancient Picts, and not of a race of Gaelic invaders from Ireland. It is his way of accounting for the fact that no Highland clans whatever are to be found descended from the ancient inhabitants of this region. The truth, however, as now very well ascertained, seems to be that the Gaelic invasion from the west and the Norwegian invasion from the north went on at the same time, that the people whom the Norwegians submerged in Sutherland in the eleventh century were not Gael but Picts, and that the later Gaelic incomers from the west were the first of that race to set foot on the soil.

In any case, it appears certain that the ancestor of the Sutherland Chiefs was neither Gael nor Pict. That ancestor was the famous Freskin, ancestor also of the Douglases, and said to be a Fleming, who received from David I. the lands of Strathbrock in Linlithgowshire, and afterwards, for his skill and bravery in suppressing the rebellion of the Moray men in 1130, certain fertile lands in that region and those of Sutherland which they also possessed. Freskin’s second son, William. who was a trusted attendant of William the Lion, got the Moray estates on the death of his father in 1171, and became ancestor of the Murrays of Tullibardine, whose Chief is Duke of Atholl at the present day. Freskin’s eldest son, Hugh, succeeded to the greater estate of Sutherland, granted the lands of Skibo to his cousin Gilbert, Archdeacon of Moray and founder of Dornoch Cathedral, and died in 1214. His son William, styled Lord of Sutherland, took an active part with Comyn the Justiciar in suppressing the rebellion of Gillespie MacScolane, who in 1228 burned the crown lands in the North and set fire to Inverness. For this service Sutherland was made an Earl by Alexander II.

William, second Earl of Sutherland, was the hero who overthrew a large force of invading Danes at the battle of Embo in 1259, himself slaying their leader with the leg of a horse, a circumstance commemorated in the name of Dornoch—a horse’s hoof, and by the Earl’s Cross which still stands on the spot. He was one of the Scottish nobles who at Scone in 1284 settled the succession to the Scottish Crown on the Maid of Norway, granddaughter of Alexander III. His son, another William, was one of the eighteen Highland chiefs who fought in Bruce’s army at Bannockburn, and six years later he signed the famous letter to the Pope declaring Scottish independence. This chief’s brother, Kenneth, the fourth Earl, married a daughter of the Earl of Mar, and fell at the disastrous battle of Halidon Hill in 1333.

His son, WIilliam, fifth Earl, married Margaret, daughter of King Robert the Bruce by his second wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, and sister of David II. Following this marriage King David raised the Earldom of Sutherland into a regality, and plotted to make the son of this union heir to his crown instead of Robert the Steward, son of the Princess Marjorie, Bruce’s daughter by his first wife. In support of this plot, Earl William made grants of land in the shires of Inverness and Aberdeen to various powerful individuals, whose goodwill it was desirable to secure. But the plot came to nothing. The son, John, died at Lincoln of the plague while a hostage for the King’s ransom, and the Earl himself, who had been one of the Scottish commissioners for the release of the King, and a hostage for him afterwards, only secured his liberty in 1367, and died at Dunrobin three years later.

His second son, Robert, who became sixth Earl, was present at the surprise of Berwick by the Scots in 1384. He married Mabel, daughter of John, Earl of Moray, and granddaughter of the famous Black Agnes, daughter of Randolph Earl of Moray and Countess of March, who so heroically defended Dunbar against the English. Their son, Nicholas, the seventh Earl, married a daughter of the Lord of the Isles. From his second son are descended the Sutherlands of Berriedale, and from his third the Sutherlands of Forse. In his time began the first of the great feuds between the Sutherlands and the Mackays of Strathnaver. To put an end to the trouble, the Earl in 1395 arranged a meeting at Dingwall Castle, in presence of his father-in-law, the Lord of the Isles, and other witnesses. At the conference, however, the altercation so incensed the Earl that he slew the opposing chief, Hugh Mackay of Fay and his son Donald with his own hand. Sutherland escaped with difficulty to his own country, and prepared for defence; but the Mackays were not strong enough to attack him, and when he died, four years later, his successor, Earl Robert, effected a reconciliation.

A few years later the Earl had an opportunity of still further securing Mackay’s adherence. The latter had married a sister of Malcolm Macleod of the Lewis. On his death his brother, Hucheon Dhu Mackay, became tutor or guardian of his two sons. Macleod, hearing that his sister, Mackay’s widow, was not being well treated by the tutor, invaded Strathnaver, and laid it waste with a great part of the Breachat in Sutherland. The tutor asked help from the Earl, who responded by sending a force under Alexander Murray of Cubin, which, joining with the Mackays, came up with the Macleods on the march of Sutherland and Ross. Here a desperate fight took place. Only one of the Macleods escaped to carry the news to the Lewis, and died immediately afterwards of his wounds.

A little later, Thomas Mackay, a nephew of Hucheon Dhu, burned Mowat of Freshwick and his people in the chapel of St. Duffus at Tam. For this outrage James I. declared Mackay a rebel, and offered his lands to anyone who should kill or capture him. The enterprise was undertaken by Angus, son of Alexander Murray of Cubin, who, securing the help of Mackay’s two brothers by offering them his daughters in marriage, apprehended Thomas Mackay, who was forthwith executed at Inverness. Murray then obtained Mackay’s lands of Palrossie and Spaniziedale in Sutherland, married his daughters to the two Mackays, and, with the consent of the Earl of Sutherland, proceeded to invade the Mackay country in Strathnaver, which his sons-in-law claimed should be theirs. Angus Dhu Mackay, the Chief, their cousin, however, raised his clan, and as he was old and infirm, gave the command to his natural son, John Aberich. The two forces met at Drum-na-Cuip, two miles from Tongue.

Before the battle Angus Dhu sent an offer to resign all his other lands to his cousins if they would allow him to keep Kingtail. This fair offer they rejected. In the fierce fight which followed John Aberich was victorious, though he lost an arm, while Angus Murray and his two sons-in-law were slain. After the battle Angus Dhu had himself carried to the field to seek the bodies of his cousins, and while doing this was killed with an arrow by a Sutherland man from behind a bush.

Earl Robert was, in 1427, one of the hostages to England for the payment of the ransom of King James I. He married a daughter of the King’s cousin, the Earl of Buchan, and died at Dunrobin in 1442. His son, John, the tenth Earl, married a famous beauty of her time, Margaret, daughter of Sir William Baillie of Lamington, a descendant of the Scottish patriot, Sir William Wallace. In the time of this Earl John occurred the life and death struggle between King James II. and the House of Douglas. That struggle reached as far as Sutherland. Upon the overthrow of the last Earl of Douglas by the King, Douglas made an alliance with the King of England and the Lord of the Isles, and while Donald Balloch, kinsman of the Island Lord, invaded the Firth of Clyde with a great fleet and laid waste Arran, Bute, the Cumbraes, and Inverkip, the Lord of the Isles himself made an incursion into Sutherland and besieged Skibo Castle. To raise the siege Earl John sent a force under Neil Murray, son of the doughty Angus slain at Drum-na-Cuip. Murray attacked the Lord of the Isles and forced him to retreat to Ross with the loss of one of his chieftains and fifty men. To avenge this disgrace, Macdonald sent a force to lay waste the Sutherland country. This invasion was met by a force under the Earl of Sutherland’s brother, Robert, and after a bloody struggle on the sands of Strathfleet, the Islesmen were overthrown with great slaughter.

This feud with Clan Donald was ended by a marriage between the Earl of Sutherland’s son John and Fingole, daughter of Celestine, brother of the Lord of the Isles. John succeeded as tenth Earl in 1460. Twenty-seven years later the Sutherlands were drawn into another of the blood feuds which formed one of the strongest motives of Highland life for many centuries. Angus Mackay, grandson of Angus Dhu, having been slain at Tarbert by a Ross, his son, John Riach Mackay, asked the help of his feudal chief, the Earl of Sutherland, to avenge the death. The Earl sent a party under his uncle, Robert Sutherland. This force of Mackays and Sutherlands, with whom was William, son of John Aberich, invaded Strathoykell and laid it waste. They were attacked at Aldicharish, by Ross of Balnagown, chief of that clan, but Balnagown and seventeen of his chief followers being slain, the rest of his force fled and was cut to pieces. An immense booty fell to the victors. This was divided on the same day, but its value excited the greed of the men of Assynt, and they induced John Riach Mackay to agree to a most perfidious and diabolical plot—the murder of the friends who had come to his help. Their scheme was to cut off Robert Sutherland and his party, and give out that they had fallen in battle. When the plot was broached to William Aberich he was horrified, and took means to warn Robert Sutherland, who at once got his men together and prepared for attack. John Riach Mackay, however, finding the Sutherlands prepared, abandoned his disgraceful plan and slunk home to Strathnaver.

Hugh Roy Mackay, brother of this John Riach, played a part in another enterprise which concerned the Sutherlands. A certain Sir James Dunbar of Cumnock had married the beautiful Margaret Baillie, Countess Dowager of Sutherland, and with others of his name had settled in the north. Alexander Sutherland of Dilred had borrowed money from him, and being unable or unwilling to repay, was sued for the debt. Conceiving a grudge at the Dunbars as incomers, he picked a quarrel with Alexander Dunbar, Sir James’s brother, and after a long combat, killed him. Sir James went to Edinburgh and laid the matter before James IV., who was so incensed that he outlawed Dilred and promised his lands to any person who should arrest him. Dilred was arrested with ten of his followers by Hugh Roy Mackay, his uncle, and was duly tried and executed, while MacKay received a grant of his lands from the King.

It seems to have been either the tenth or eleventh Earl, both of whom were named John, who was the chief actor in a tragic occurrence at the family seat of Dunrobin. The Earl had two nephews, sons of a natural brother, Thomas More. These young men often annoyed their uncle, and at last one day invaded the castle and braved him to his face. Their act so enraged him that he killed one on the spot. The other escaped with some wounds, but was overtaken and slain at a spot at hand, afterwards known from the fact as Keith’s Bush.

The eleventh Earl, dying without lawful issue, was succeeded in 1514 by his sister Elizabeth. She had married Adam Gordon, second son of the Earl of Huntly, and he accordingly took the title of Earl of Sutherland.

On this succession of a new family to the Earldom of Sutherland, there began a series of conflicts, first with the Mackays of Strathnaver and afterwards with the Earls of Caithness, which kept the far north in turmoil for three-quarters of a century.

The eleventh Earl had left a natural son, Alexander Sutherland, who, pretending that his parents had been married, laid claim to the title and estates. In July, 1509, however, he was induced by the new Earl to sign a document before the Sheriff of Inverness renouncing his claim. Seven years later, fearing other trouble, Earl Adam engaged the Earl of Caithness in a treaty of friendship, and to secure his goodwill conveyed to him some lands in Strathully. But these transactions only delayed the storm. In 1517, while the Earl was absent in Edinburgh, John Mackay of Strathnaver, a natural son of Hugh Roy Mackay, who had beheaded his own uncle and seized his lands, invaded Sutherland with a prodigious force gathered throughout the north by promise of plunder. In the emergency the Countess of Sutherland induced her bastard brother, Alexander Sutherland, to oppose Mackay. Assisted by John Murray of Aberscors and the Chief of Clan Gunn, Sutherland raised a force, and encountered the Mackays at Torrandhu in Strathfleet. Sutherland’s force was much the smaller of the two, but he attacked vigorously, and after a severe and bloody action entirely defeated his opponents, who lost about three hundred men. Mackay next, attributing his defeat to Murray of Aberscors, sent two kinsmen with a force to destroy him. But Murray met them at Loch Saichie, and cut them to pieces. Mackay, still further exasperated, sent yet another party to burn Murray’s village of Pitfour, but it met the same fate, one of his nephews, who led it, being slain, and the other taken prisoner. The Earl of Sutherland then returning from Edinburgh, Mackay thought it prudent to submit to him and give him a bond of service; but he secretly tampered with the bastard, Alexander Sutherland, to renew his claim to the Earldom and estates. Sutherland, it is said, was further persuaded by a witch’s prophecy that his head should be the highest that ever was of the Sutherlands. In consequence, while the Earl was absent in Strathbogie, Sutherland attacked and took Dunrobin. John Murray of Aberscors promptly raised a force for defence, and, reinforced by a body of men sent north by the Earl, besieged Dunrobin, which surrendered. Alexander Sutherland had retired into Strathnaver, but he now returned with a fresh body of men, wasting the country and putting to death several of his own kinsmen who had joined the Earl’s party. Flushed with success, he grew careless, and was lying at a place called Ald-Quhillin, on the Sutherland coast, when the Earl himself came upon him, took him prisoner, and slew most of his men. Sutherland himself was immediately executed, and his head on a spear placed on the top of the great tower at Dunrobin, thus dramatically fulfilling the witch’s prophecy.

The Earl, being now well advanced in years, retired to his native country of Strathbogie and Aboyne, leaving the conduct of affairs to his son Alexander, the Master of Sutherland. John Mackay, still thirsting for revenge, thought this a favourable chance to retrieve his losses. Twice he attempted to invade Sutherland, but on each occasion was driven out by the Master, who retaliated by dispossessing him of his estates in Sutherland and plundering and burning Strathnaver. Finally, Mackay, attempting a third expedition, the Master came suddenly upon him near Lairg, cut his force to pieces, and recovered the plunder he had taken. Mackay only escaped by swimming to Eilean Minric and submitting once more to the Earl. This was in 1522, and John Mackay himself died in 1529.

These and the subsequent raids and burnings between the Sutherlands and Mackays and the Earls of Sutherland and of Caithness respectively are detailed with much quaintness by Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstown, the historian of the Sutherlands. Only two episodes of the feud characteristic of the time need be noted here.

The Master of Sutherland dying in 1529, eight years before his father, the Earldom was inherited by his son John, known as the Good Earl. He was Lieutenant of Moray in 1547, and along with his cousin George, fourth Earl of Huntly, accompanied the Queen Regent, widow of James V., to France in 1550. For taking part in Huntly’s rebellion in 1562 he was forfeited, and retired to Flanders, but the forfeiture was rescinded in 1565. Two years later he was staying with his countess, then pregnant, and his only son, with Isobel Sinclair, widow of his uncle, Gilbert Gordon of Gartay, at Helmsdale Castle. This lady’s son was next heir to the earldom, and, whether or not she was instigated by her relative, the Earl of Caithness, she conceived the diabolic scheme of opening the way for her son’s succession by poisoning her guests. The poison was mixed with the ale with which the Earl and Countess were supplied at supper, and they died five days later at Dunrobin. The Earl’s son only escaped by the fact that he was late at a hunting party, and on his return was warned by his father not to touch the repast. For this crime Isobel Sinclair was tried and condemned to death, but escaped execution by destroying herself in prison at Edinburgh.

Alexander, the thirteenth Earl, who thus succeeded, was committed by his sister to the care of the Earl of Atholl, who disposed of his wardship to George, Earl of Caithness, the house’s enemy. This nobleman seized the boy in Skibo Castle, carried him off to Caithness, and forced him at the age of sixteen to marry his own daughter, Lady Barbara Sinclair, a profligate woman of thirty-two. Two years later the young Earl escaped from his sinister guardian, who had taken up residence at Dunrobin and formed a design upon his life, and on attaining his majority in 1573 he divorced Lady Barbara. He afterwards married his second cousin, Lady Jean Gordon, sister of the fifth Earl of Huntly, who had been previously married to the Earl of Bothwell, but repudiated when that unscrupulous nobleman wished to marry Queen Mary. It may be mentioned here that when Bothwell married Lady Jean he was already the husband of a wife in Denmark. Earl Alexander died in his forty-third year, and his countess afterwards married Ogilvie of Boyne, whom also she survived. To the Earl of Sutherland she had four sons, the youngest of whom was that Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstown who was created a Baronet of Nova Scotia, the first of the order, in 1625, and became the historian of the family. He was tutor to his nephew, the fifteenth Earl, throughout a long minority, during which, with much wisdom and skill, he kept the peace of the country, greatly improved the fortunes of the Earldom, and completely secured it against the intrigues of the Earls of Caithness.

The line of the Gordon Earls of Sutherland, who afterwards held high offices and honours in the State, came to an end with the death of William, nineteenth Earl, at Bath in 1766. The title and estates were then claimed by Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstown and George Sutherland of Fors, and the case, in which the celebrated Lord Hailes took part, remains among the most famous in our legal annals. It was finally decided, however, by the House of Lords in 1771 in favour of the late Earl’s only surviving daughter, Elizabeth. This lady married, in 1785, George Granville Leveson-Gower, Viscount Trentham, afterwards second Marquess of Stafford, who was, in 1833, created Duke of Sutherland. From that time to this the distinguished holders of the Sutherland titles have been of the Leveson-Gower family, and only distantly related, through the two heiresses named Elizabeth, of the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries respectively, to the original heads of the clan of the name of Murray or Sutherland. Meanwhile the actual chiefship of the clan by male descent was believed to be vested in William Sutherland of Killipheder, who enjoyed a small annuity from the Duchess-Countess, and died at a great age in 1832, and after him in John Campbell Sutherland of Fors, in the county of Caithness. The last-named died about 1917, leaving five daughters but no son. In the course of the intervening centuries the race of the famous Freskin the Fleming has made a mighty record in the history of Scotland.

Septs of the Clan Sutherland: Cheyne, Federith, Gray, Keith, Mowat, Oliphant.


Another account of the clan...

The name Sutherland originates in the county of Sutherland, the Sudrland or South land of the Norsemen of Caithness and Orkney. It has been suggested that the Sutherlands are descended from the pre-Christian tribe of the Catti. The modern counties of Caithness and Sutherland were formally known as the province of the cat or land of the people of the cat and a wild cat is on the Sutherland crest. The chiefly line descends from Freskin, progenitor of both the Murrays and the Sutherlands. His youngest son, Hugh, received the lands of Sutherland from King William the Lion in 1197. The Earldom of Sutherland, claimed to be the oldest in Britain, is alleged to have been granted to William, Lord of Sutherland about 1228 and the line remained unbroken until 1514. William, 2nd Earl, fought for Bruce at Bannockburn. The 4th Earl also William, married a daughter of Robert the Bruce. Over the following centuries, the Sutherlands had many feuds with neighbouring clans, particularly the Mackays. The male line was broken when John, 9th Earl died in 1514 and was succeeded by his sister, Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland. She married Adam Gordon who took the courtesy title of the Earl of Sutherland. During the 1715 and 1745 Risings, the Sutherlands supported the Hanoverian cause, their estimated fighting strength was 2,000 men, many of whom were later enlisted in the Sutherland Fencibles, raised in 1759. William, 18th Earl who died in 1766 was the last of the Gordon Earls of Sutherland. His daughter, Elizabeth, married George Granville Leveson-Gower, later Marquis of Stafford, who was created Duke of Sutherland in 1833. The Duke's ill-conceived "improvements" on his estate caused much misery and led to excessive clearance evictions which took almost the whole population of his lands overseas. When the 5th Duke died in 1963, the Dukedom went to the Egerton Earls of Ellesmere, his niece, however became 23rd Countess of Sutherland whose seat is at Dunrobin Castle.


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