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Sketch of the Civil and Traditional History of Caithness from the Tenth Century
By James T. Calder (1861)


I had long cherished a desire to draw up something like a regular history of Caithness, but on making the requisite investigation, I found that neither the public records of the county, nor yet family papers, afforded sufficient materials for the purpose. The present work, therefore, is merely a Sketch or outline mostly drawn from other sources, and in some measure aided by local tradition. The writer to whom I have been chiefly indebted for information regarding what may be called the ancient history of Caithness, is Torfaeus, whose authority on this point is justly entitled to credit from the following circumstance:—When the Orkney islands, of which Caithness formed a part of the earldom for so many hundred years, had from increase of population and proximity to Scotland become valuable as an appendage to the crown of Norway, an historiographer was appointed to reside in the island of Flota, and to record all transactions of any public moment that took place in the two counties. These were regularly entered into a diary or journal, entitled the "Codex Flatensis," or Book of Flota. The work, which was one of national importance, was, for better preservation, afterwards deposited in the royal library at Copenhagen; and from it, and the "Orkneyinga Saga"—the latter a compilation of Jonas Jonnaeus, an Icelandic scholar—Torfaeus drew the materials of his history. "Torfaeus," says Chambers, "sustains the character of a faithfill historian, and the facts which he details are probably as authentic as the early records of any portion of the British empire, while he has enabled us to correct several errors in the commonly-received accounts of Scotland." And Samuel Laing, a still higher authority on this point, says that "his history may be regarded as the only authentic record of affairs in the North for many ages."

The following are a few of the leading particulars of his personal history. Thormod Torfeson (Torfaeus being the Latinised name) was a native of Iceland. His father, Torfe Erlendsen, was a person of some consideration in that country. The son was born in 1636, and educated at the University of Copenhagen. While attending this seminary, he became distinguished as a student; and his classical acquirements were such that they afterwards procured him the honourable situation of historiographer to the King of Denmark. His great work, which he composed in Latin, was published about the year 1690, under the title of "Orcades, seu rerum Orcadiensium Historiae." He died, according to the best accounts, in 1720, at the advanced age of 84.

With regard to the more modern history of Caithness, my information has been chiefly derived from Sir Robert Gordon's elaborate work, entitled a "Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland," which contains a full account of the various feuds, etc., which for so long a period existed between the two rival houses of Caithness and Sutherland. Sir Robert, however, with all his industry and research, cannot be considered an impartial historian. He everywhere discovers a strong prejudice against the Sinclair family; and his statements in regard to them and to Caithness matters in general, must be received with large deduction. The continuator of his history, Gilbert Gordon of Sallach, in a eulogy of his many virtues and talents, candidly admits that he was a man of a passionate temper, and a "bitter enemy."

Among other works which I consulted, and which supplied me with some important facts and details, may be mentioned Mackay's History of the House and Clan of Mackay, Henderson's Agricultural View of Caithness, Barry's History of Orkney, Peterkin's Notes of Orkney, Balfour's Odal Eights and Feudal Wrongs, Brand's Description of Orkney, Shetland, and Caithness, Pennant's Tour, the "Origines Parochiales Scotiae," and a most interesting volume entitled, "An Account of the Danes and Norwegians in England, Scotland, and Ireland," by J. J. Worsaae, Royal Commissioner for the preservation of the National Monuments of Denmark.

For much interesting information connected with the rentals, roads, and pedigrees of some of the principal families in the county, I am indebted to Sir John Sinclair of Dunbeath; James Sinclair, Esquire of Forss; John Henderson, Esq., Banker, Thurso; Mr James Mackay, Messenger-at-Arms, Thurso; and Mr George Petrie, Clerk of Supply for the county of Orkney. Mr Sinclair of Forss furnished me with the valuable paper on the Caithness roads, and Mr Mackay with the curious document entitled the "Liberties of Thurso." I would have gladly given, had they been sent me, some more pedigrees of Caithness families, as genealogical details of this kind are to many persons exceedingly interesting. The two woodcuts representing Ackergill Tower, and Castles Sinclair and Girnigoe, are from photographs taken on the spot by an ingenious friend, Mr John F. Sutherland, a native of Thurso, who follows the profession of teacher in Edinburgh.

I have not, from my slight acquaintance with such subjects, touched on the geology, botany, or ornithology of the county. In this respect, however, Caithness presents a wide and varied field, and one which, in skilful hands, I have no doubt would afford materials for a highly interesting volume.

The work which I have ventured to publish is, as I have said, merely an imperfect Sketch. Such as it is, however, it may afford some interest to local readers; and with the help of additional sources of information, should any such cast up, it may prove useful to some future writer in supplying materials for a fuller and more connected history of the county.

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  • Chapter I
    General description of the county, state of agriculture and roads—-Origin of John O'Groat's House—Wick—The herring fishing—Thurso—Harold's Tower—Population—Appearance and characteristics of the people—Clannishness —Glasgow Caithness Association—Ancient military spirit of the youth, etc.,

  • Chapter II
    The original inhabitants of the county—Subdued by Sigurd, the Norwegian Earl of Orkney—Battle of Clontarf— Death of the Earl of Orkney and Caithness—Remarkable prodigy—Legend of the Piper of the Windy Ha'—Thorfin, the celebrated Viking,

  • Chapter III
    Cruel death of the Norwegian Governor at Duncansbay— Tale of the "poisoned shirt"—Sweyn, the famous Freswick Pirate—Siege of Bucholie Castle—Escape and adventures of Sweyn—Earl Ronald, founder of the Cathedral of Kirkwall, murdered at North Calder, in the parish of Halkirk,

  • Chapter IV
    Battle on the Hill of Clairdon—Barbarous usage of the Bishop at Scrabster by Wicked Earl Harold—William the Lion comes to Caithness to punish Earl Harold—Adam, the Bishop of Caithness, burnt to death in his own palace at Halkirk—Alexander II. hastens from Jedburgh, enters the county, and executes nearly the whole of those that were implicated in the burning of the Bishop—Adam succeeded by the celebrated Bishop Gilbert Murray—Haco, King of Norway, on his way to Largs, levies an impost on the natives of Caithness,

  • Chapter V
    Reginald Cheyne—Tradition respecting him and his two daughters—The Keiths of Ackergill—Ackergill Tower— The ancestor of the Gunns settles in Caithness—Story of Helen Gunn, the "Beauty of Braemore"—Battle of Harpsdale—Battle between the Keiths and Gunns at Tannach—Treachery of the Keiths at the Chapel of St Tayre— Revenge of the Gunns,

  • Chapter VI
    The rule of the Norwegian Earls in Caithness terminates— The Sinclairs of Roslin—William Sinclair, the Chancellor, invested with the earldom of Caithness—His son William, second Earl of Caithness, killed at Flodden—Tradition respecting what is termed the "drum head charter"—John, Earl of Caithness, invades Orkney—Battle of Summerdale —Earl and all his men slain—Curious Orkney tradition— Sutherland of Duffus assassinated in Thurso,

  • Chapter VII
    George Sinclair, fourth Earl—Banishes William and Angus Gunn of Berriedale, and seizes their castle—The Earl of Sutherland and his lady poisoned at Helmsdale—The Earl of Caithness becomes curator of Alexander, Earl of Sutherland then a minor—Alexander marries his Lordship's daughter—Flies afterwards to Strathbogie—Siege of Dornoch by the Master of Caithness and Mackay of Strathnaver—The Sutherland hostages cruelly put to death-Master of Caithness imprisoned and starved to death at Girnigoe—George, Earl of Caithness, dies at Edinburgh— His character,

  • Chapter VIII
    George, the fifth Earl of Caithness, kills with his own hand Ingram and David Sinclair, the keepers of his late father—Series of fights and raids between him and the Earl of Sutherland—Town of Wick burnt—Battle of Clyne— Story of Arthur Smith the Coiner—Desperate skirmish in Thurso between the Sutherland Commissioners and the friends of the Earl of Caithness, in which John Sinclair of Stirkoke is slain — Criminal process instituted by both parties—Meleé in the High Street of Edinburgh,

  • Chapter IX
    Tragical disaster which befel Colonel George Sinclair in Norway—The Earl of Caithness employed by Government to quell a species of rebellion got up by Patrick, Earl of Orkney, and his natural son Robert—Takes the different posts occupied by the insurgents, and sends the prisoners to Edinburgh—Two serious charges, the one of incendiarism, and the other of being accessory to the slaughter of Thomas Lindsay, brought against the Earl—He is outlawed and denounced as a rebel—Escapes to Orkney—Sir Robert Gordon, who is commissioned to apprehend him, has the keys of Castle Sinclair, etc., delivered up to him— Lord Berriedale gets the management of the property, and an annuity is settled on the Earl—Great distress in Caithness and in Orkney occasioned by famine—The Master of Berriedale (son of William, Lord Berriedale) takes the National Covenant—Sir James Sinclair of Murkle raises a body of Caithness men and joins the Covenanters—Mowat, the Laird of Freswick, espouses the royal cause, and joins Montrose—Death of the old Earl—Affair between Macalister, the Freebooter, and the inhabitants of Thurso,

  • Chapter X
    George, sixth Earl of Caithness, not distinguished by any remarkable qualities—Landing of Montrose in Caithness —He takes up his head quarters in Thurso—Compels the heritors and ministers to sign a bond of allegiance, which they all do except the minister of Bower—Is joined by Sinclair of Brims, Hugh Mackay of Dirlet, and Hutcheon Mackay of Scoury—Lays siege to the Castle of Dunbeath, which soon surrenders—Is defeated on the confines of Ross-shire, apprehended by Macleod of Assynt, sent to Edinburgh, and executed—Castle of Dunbeath re-taken— Henry Graham, the brother of Montrose, makes his escape to Orkney—Cromwell plants a garrison in Ackergill Tower—Curious extracts from the Session records of Can-isbay regarding some of his troops that were stationed there—Raids in Caithness by the Mackays of Strathnaver —Severe reprisal by the Laird of Dunbeath—The Earl of Caithness a supporter of the Government in suppressing Conventicles—Appears before the Presbytery in that capacity—His death,

  • Chapter XI
    The late Earl, before his death, sells his property and title to John Campbell of Glenorchy—Glenorchy marries the Countess Dowager—George Sinclair of Keiss disputes the title—Battle of Altimarlach—The Sinclairs lose the day— Anecdote of Glenorchy's piper—Glenorchy hated by the inhabitants of Caithness—His estate in the county ultimately divided into separate portions and sold,

  • Chapter XII
    John Sinclair of Murkle succeeds to the earldom—Duel between Sinclair of Olrig and Innes of Sandside—Lord Macleod, son of the Earl of Cromarty, enters the county with a party of rebels for the purpose of procuring men— Head quarters in Thurso—Several of the proprietors in the county keen Jacobites—Alexander, now Earl of Caithness, and George Sinclair of Ulbster, staunch supporters of the Hanoverian dynasty—Lord Macleod, having got only a few men to join him, leaves the county—Achgillan and his band of robbers—Plot to murder and rob the Laird of Freswick—Story of Marshall, the Robber of Backlas— French Revolution and rebellion in Ireland—The Caithness Fencibles,

  • Chapter XIII
    Prelature of Caithness—Bishop's lands—Tradition regarding the Lewis chieftain and the Bishop's daughter—Caithness intensely Popish before the Reformation—Dr Richard Merchiston of Bower, long after the Reformation, falls a martyr to his zeal against popery—State of education in Caithness—Edinburgh Caithness Association,

  • Chapter XIV
    Memoirs of distinguished Caithness clergymen—Different religious persuasions in the county—Anecdote of Sir William Sinclair of Keiss,

  • Chapter XV
    Memoirs of distinguished laymen, natives of the county,

  • Appendix
    Ancient state of husbandry, handicrafts, etc., in Caithness-Memoranda connected with public roads in the county of Caithness—Extracts from old inventories of the titles of the estate of Malcolm Groat of Warse—Valuation of the county in 1760 and 1798—Earls of Caithness of the Sinclair family after Caithness was disjoined from Orkney, and erected into a separate earldom—Armorial bearings of the Earls of Caithness—Pedigree of the Mey family— Pedigree of John Sinclair, Esq. of Barrock—Letter of Mr Sinclair of Forss to the Author—Pedigree of the Forss family—Testimony of Alexander Sutherland of Dunbeath, in Caithness—Mutiny of the High School Boys—Young Sinclair of Mey,

  • Postscript
    Colonel George Sinclair—Caithness proprietors and wadsetters in 1668—Liberties of the Town of Thurso—The Caithness Fencibles—Lord Caithness's steam carriage—The Battle of Artimarlach—Gleanings from Douglas Peerage of Scotland, and other sources.

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