The following article by George Banks on the history of the Sinclairs in the northeastern most reaches of Caithness, Scotland, is reprinted from "The Highlander." The boxed area of the map of Scotland below is the ancestral home of Clan Sinclair. There is also a detail map of this area of Scotland for viewing.
If you wish to stop or restart the traditional Scot ballad "The Boar and The Fox" which will begin playing in the background, or if you would like to hear a brief bagpipe refrain, go to the sound console at the bottom of this page. If you do not have a sound card on your system or if you are using an outdated browser, you probably received some type of error message when you loaded this page, such as "unable to start midi". That is normal so you don't need to be concerned about it, but you will not be able to hear the sounds available from this page.
"The lordly line of high St. Clair."
Thus did Sir Walter Scott, recounting the legends of the 15th century Roslin Chapel on the River Esk in Midlothian, where many of the name lie, set his seal on the Sinclairs. Some may recall that a Sinclair was among the Scots killed by the Moors in Spain while carrying the heart of Bruce to the Holy Land.
It is not the Lothians, nor Fife, nor even Orkney that is usually associated with the name of Sinclair, however, but Caithness. It was on the northeast tip of the Scottish mainland that this once-Norman family, at long last back among Norse kith and kin, took root and flourished. This triangle of Caithness, lying away beyond the northern peaks and glens, is so different from the Highland country. It is often dismissed as a bleak, treeless plateau; but this is to overlook the quiet valleys, the sheltered burns, the scores of lochs inland, and the sandy bays.
It is a country of wide horizons where the sun rises out of the sea, and the sunsets, seen from flame-coloured cliff-tops, are unforgettable. Night, also, has its splendors, as when above the shoreline of Orkney, where the lighthouses flash their warnings, the aurora borealis weaves in fantastic rhythm across the northern skies. And, in the long days of mid-summer, the afterglow is still there to challenge the sunrise.
The Caithness coastline is magnificent: mile upon mile of layered precipices, bold headlands, caves, geos, and isolated sea stacks. Nowhere does the sea display so readily to the landsman its awesome strength as in the tormented waters of the Pentland Firth. The headlands and bays of Caithness are studded with ancient towers, and every valley and moorland slope seems to have its broch, cairn, "Pict's house" or standing stone.
Such was the impact of the Sinclairs on the history of Caithness that it is possible to devise a tour of the county taking note especially of places and events in which they were involved.
Here, then, is my Caithness for the Sinclairs:
On the southern border the Ord, a 1,000 feet high granite ridge thrust down from the inland hills, stands like a bastion against invaders. The Ord has helped in many ways to preserve the separate identity of the country, and the distinctive character of its people. "Over the Ord" has a special significance for the native of Caithness. To the exile it unlocks the memories of early years; to too many young people it represented opportunity which did not exist at home.
The Ord was a place of terror for early travelers who, making their way along the face, high above the sea, were often grateful for the hand- holds provided by the heather that bordered the path. A fire swept the hillside early in the 18th century, it is said, and this spurred Sir James Sinclair of Dunbeath to cut a track wide enough for three horses abreast, The 19th century roadmakers chose a new route, and this, now further improved, is the modern gateway to Caithness.
There is a superstition that it is unlucky for a Sinclair to cross the Ord on a Monday wearing green, This had its origin in the march southward. in 1515, of William, 3rd Earl of Caithness and 300 men on their way to Flodden Field. One returned. He appears to have left before the battle carrying a ``drum- head charter" granted to the Earl by James IV. The Sinclairs were invariably unlucky in their military expeditions beyond the county. Their invasion of Orkney in 1529 was another disaster. John, 4th Earl, set out to aid William, Lord Sinclair whose family held the Crown lands of Orkney and Shetland, and who had been driven out by a strong faction headed by Sinclair of Sanday. Earl John, with 500 men, landed at Orphir on the shore of Scapa Flow and met the Orkneymen at Summerdale near Stromness. He and his men were slain, many being stoned to death by the islanders as they tried to hide among the rocks on the shore. Another disastrous expedition was that organised in 1612 by Colonel George Sinclair, natural son of Sinclair of Stirkoke, whose force of 900 mercenaries, raised in Caithness, vas ambushed in the mountains of Norway.
Next lies the wooded valley of Berriedale. The descent and the climb on the far side were notorious hazards in the early days of motoring but these too have been tamed. A way up the pleasant strath of Berriedale are the three mountains of Caithness: Mor ven, Scaraben and Maiden Pap. All are under 2,400 feet.
The Master of Berriedale, despite the pleas of his father, William, Lord Berriedale, and his grandfather, the Earl of Caithness, that he would bring ruin on the Sinclairs, in 1638 signed the National Covenant in Greyfriars' Kirkyard, Edinburgh. Caithness did not escape the conflict between the king and the Covenanting Government which was the sequel to that act of protest. John, Lord Berriedale was a major in the 76th (MacDonald) Highlanders. He was wounded in the siege of Charlestown in 1779 and died soon after returning to Britain to inherit the earldom.
Near Dunbeath, where the road again drops to cross a burn, Dunbeath Castle, a Sinclair stronghold, stands on the cliff-top. When Montrose with a fighting force of some 2,000 Orkneymen landed at Duncans - by up the coast in 1650 in a bid to conquer the country for the exiled Charles II, Sir John Sinclair of Dunbeath galloped south to raise the alarm. Lady Sinclair was left to face the king's men. She surrendered the castle on condition that "person and property be respected.'' Montrose left a garrison and hurried south to defeat and his death on the scaffold. General Leslie and the Earl of Sutherland, with a Government force besieged the castle until the garrison, their water supply cut off. were forced to surrender.
Leslie was the Covenanting general who, three years before. at Dunaverty near the Mull of Kintyre, ordered the Royalist garrison to be butchered after they surrendered. This time, with no wild prophet of a churchman at his elbow, he did not repeat that atrocity, alhough at least one of Montrose's staff was captured and shot in Caithness.
A reprisal raid against some Mackays by Sinclair of Dunbeath and Sinclair of Murkle first brought John Campbell of Glenorchy to Caithness in 1667. He came in the cause of justice bearing a commission of fire and sword as his authority. The Sinclairs defied him and he returned south with his mission unfulfilled. But what he saw he evidently liked, for, 20 years later, he came back to stay.
The quiet harbour of Dunbeath sets the pattern for a whole string of havens on this coast: Latheronwheel, Lybster, Scarclet and Staxigoe, "ghosts" of the boom years of the herring fishing industry last century.
At Latheron a cross-country road to Thurso breaks away inland over the lonely, peaty Causeymire. This route was the first large-scale attempt at road-making in the county. Sir John Sinclair, best known for the Statistical Accounts compiled by the parish ministers, a developer even at the age of 18, called out 2,560 men to labour on it. Tradition has it that this road was completed in one day. At Spittal Hill on the Causeymire Sir James Sinclair of Latheron mustered 100 men to fight for Prince Charlie. Where they went, and what they did, is not recorded. The ``harrying" of Latheron by 200 Sutherland men was a grim incident in the long feud between the Earls of Caithness and the Earls of Sutherland.
Lybster was a major herring port last century with 248 boats and over 1,000 fishermen using it as their base. Lieut. General Sinclair of Lybster built the pier. He was one of several "improvers" who, stimulated by the writings and work of the dynamic Sir John Sinclair, did so much to improve the economy of Caithness.
Another fishing village, Whaligoe, is unique in that its landing place is reached by 365 steps down the cliff-face.
Wick, the old county town, owes its charter of 1389 to the influence of the Earl of Caithness who obviously felt the need of royal protection after the town had been destroyed and he had been besieged in Girnigoe Castle by the Earl of Sutherland. The construction of the harbor was an engineering triumpth in its day, and, at the peak of the Caithness herring boom, a fleet of 1,100 boats were fishing from this port. Monuments in the Sinclair Aisle at Wick recall some of the great names of the family.
The battle of Altimarlach outside Wick in 1680, was an unhappy day for the Sinclairs. Campbell of Glenorchy had bought the estate, title, office of sheriff and all, from the 6th Earl of Caithness. He later married the widowed countess, a kins-woman, and then claimed the earldom, His right to the title was disputed by Sinclair of Keiss, who claimed his patrimony the lands of Northfield and Tister. Sinclair had the support of the locals especially Sinclair of Broynach and Sinclair of Thura. They helped him in an attempt to demolish the Castle of Thurso East. Campbell marched north with 1,100 men, and. near Stirkoke, north of Loch Hempriggs, the two forces sighted each other late in the evening. Glenorchy's men were weary and he withdrew to the hills of Yarrow. The Sinclairs marched back to Wick and spent the night in celebration. Next morning, up the river, the Campbells, perhaps reminded that it was "a far cry to Loch Awe," in a brief but bloody charge, swept the Caithnessmen off the field. Sinclair and his friends escaped and retaliated by taking Castle Sinclair. They were declared rebels. After six years, however, Sinclair secured his inheritance. After an uneasy possession the Campbell lands were sold in 1719, most coming into the hands of Sinclair of Ulbster.
On a narrow platform on Noss Head the ruins of Castle Sinclair and Girnigoe Castle look down on the curve of Sinclair Bay. In the dungeon the 4th Earl imprisoned for six years his son who had plotted his death. The prisoner also managed to strangle his brother who came to visit him. He was later starved to death. His son, who succeeded his grandfather to the title, became known as the "Wicked Earl." He killed the two jailers responsible for the death of his father. In 1623, when the king ordered his arrest, he fortified Ackergill Tower around the bay, then escaped to Orkney where, after surrendering keys of his castles into the hands of Lord Berriedale, he ended his days peaceably.
Keiss strikes a new note in this bloodthirsty tale. Its castle, new in 1750, had the first Baptist chapel in Scotland, its pastor, Sir William Sinclair.
A straight road leads to John o' Groats and the last house in mainland Scotland. Within easy reach is Duncansby Head and some superb cliff scenery. Canisbay Church, beautiful in its simplicity, stands near Gills Bay. Beyond, among trees, is the Castle of Mey, the Scottish home of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The earldom of Caithness fell to the Mey family in 1789, and the last of the line, the 15th earl died in 1889. The old house of Barrogill, as it was originally called, was rescued from the hands of the demolishers by its royal owner.
The great promontory of Dunnet Head, rising 346 feet above the sea, the most northerly point on the mainland, stands aloof from the tourist route. The main route passes close to the sand dunes of Dunnet beyond which is Castletown the harbour from which the flagstones were shipped for pavements in towns and cities of the south.
Thurso is the surprise packet of the North. The atomic developments at Dounreay have transformed it: new houses, new schools, new people. Thurso River which flows through the town has always been famed for its salmon. In one day in 1743 from one pool were taken 2,560 salmon. Thurso was the birthplace in 1736 of Arthur Sinclair, a merchant's son, a soldier in the American Revolutionary War, friend of George Washington, President of Congress and Governor of the Northwestern Territory. Around the town are many places with Sinclair associations: Thurso East Castle, now in ruins, rebuilt by Campbell of Glenorchy and again by the Sinclairs of Ulbster; Murkle, home of Sir James Sinclair, a Covenanter; Broynach, whose owner resisted Glenorchy; Ormelie, once owned by Sinclair of Greenland, and Brims. Sinclair of Brims was one of the few Caithness gentry to support Montrose.
Across the Forss Water the eye is held by the great scale of the Dounreay atomic complex. Dounreay's castle was one of the Earl of Caithness's "lodgings." The Sinclair story can be traced along roads that lead into the interior. Scotscalder, on the railway, was the home of a Jacobite hunted by a party sent north. He took to the hills while his wife entertained the soldiers and they went away leaving him to end his days in peace. Sinclair of Assery north of Loch Calder was also in hiding at the same time. Sinclair of Brabsterdorran fought for the Stuarts at Sheriffmuir, Thurso is the home of the Sinclair who opposed Glenorchy. Barrock, to the northeast, is the ancestral home of another branch. South of Loch Watten was the home of Sinclair of Soutdun, an exporter of bere and meal from Staxigoe. He had a chapel at Scouthal where strangers and unbaptised children were buried. A neighbour was Sinclair of Dunn who in 1745, having been prevented from aiding the Stuart cause by his mother, shot himself.
The Sinclair story did not end with the centuries of feuding and fighting. In the political and economic life of Caithness Sinclairs continue to play a leading part.