Forse Castle
Perched on top of a high and precipitous cliff on the East coast of Caithness about three kilometres south of the village of Lybster are the ruins of Forse Castle (ND 224338). Its structure is so similar to that of Oldwick Castle (Caithness Field Club Bulletin Vol 1. No. 8) that one cannot doubt it was built in the same period; that is during the later Norse occupation era, 1150-1250 AD.

The Sutherlands of Forse.
As stated in an earlier chapter in this series, Forse was one of the great properties inherited by the Cheynes by a marriage to an heiress of the Norse ruling family. On the death of the last Sir Reginald de Cheyne about 1350 AD, Forse passed along with many other properties in Caithness and Aberdeenshire to the elder of his two daughters and co-heiress, Mariota, who had married as her second husband Sir John de Keith (Caithness Field Club Bulletin Vol. 2, No. 1).  Her first marriage to Sir John Douglas produced no children. Mariota’s only son, Andrew Keith, eventually inherited all her great estates with the exception of Forse which by special agreement between Mariota and her son, was gifted to Andrew’s only sister (whose Christian name the writer cannot trace) on the occasion of her marriage about 1400 AD to Kenneth Sutherland, second son of William, 5th Earl of Sutherland. Thus was founded the historic line of Sutherland of Forse which for eighteen generations thereafter reigned there.

 With the ancient family have descended many oral traditions, superstitions, legends, speculations and not a little scandal which are still alive, and which older people can still relate in the Forse and Latheron areas. These have never before been recorded in writing. Like the great Mackenzie of Seaforth family whose doom of extinction was correctly predicted by Coinneach Odhar, the Brahan Seer, so likewise was the doom of the Forse family predicted, and like the Seaforths, a sign given by which the extinction would be known.

The Lands of Forse
Let us return to the lady whose marriage founded the family.  There is a tradition, still alive in the Forse district, that in the agreement by the Keith family giving the daughter of the house the lands of Forse on her marriage, there was a provision that she could have all the land from Forse Castle inwards that she could reach in a day’s ride. According to tradition she fell off her horse as she reached what are now the hill farms of Tacher and Halsary, which to this day are the innermost extremity of the Forse Estate. This tradition would account also for the curiously elongated shape of the estate which points like a great cigar deep in the heart of Caithness.  The length from the sea inland is about 15km while in width it varies from about 2.5km at the seashore to 4km at some parts further inland.

The Eighteen Lairds of Forss
Kenneth, the first laird of the Sutherland line, as well as receiving Forse on his marriage, also received from his brother Robert, 6th Earl of Sutherland, a charter of the lands of Drummy, (Drumay), Backies and Torrish in Sutherland.

Kenneth was succeeded by his son John the second laird, who in turn was succeeded in 1441 by his son Richard the third laird. Richard was confirmed that year as heir to his father in the Sutherland-shire lands. The next laird was Richard’s son John the fourth laird, to whom King James v confirmed by charter the farm and tiends of Backies. John’s son Robert died before his father and was so succeeded by his grandson Richard as fifth laird. He in turn, dying without issue, was succeeded by his brother William, sixth laird, who had married Janet Sinclair of Olrig, but also dying without issue was followed by another brother Alexander, seventh of the line. To William, sixth laird, Mary Queen of Scots granted certain lands in the Glen of Dunrobin.  Following Alexander was his son Donald, eighth laird. And following him his son Alexander, ninth of the line, who is again mentioned as proprietor of Drummuy, Backies and Torrish as well as Forse.  He died before 1645 and was succeeded by his son James, tenth laird, who had married Janet Gordon of Ballone near Dornoch, eleventh laird, who married Jean, daughter of Robert Gray of Skibo. They had a son, George, twelfth laird of Forse, and several other sons, the second of whom, Robert, married the heiress of Langwell, inheriting that estate. George was succeeded by his second son, (the eldest, Francis, dying young) John, thirteenth in succession. In 1738 he received arms as chiefest (or eldest) cadet in the House of Sutherland. The next laird was his elder son Captain George Sutherland, fourteenth laird, who succeeded in 1765. One year later, his distant kinsman William eighteenth Earl of Sutherland, died leaving an only daughter, Elizabeth, a child of one year old. Captain Sutherland contested the succession on the grounds that as heir-male he had a better right, (see Caithness Field Club Bulletin Vol 1, No. 7). The case became one of the most famous peerage law cases of all time, generating enormous public interest, but in 1771 the House of Lords decided in favour of Elizabeth. Local tradition has it that the great expense of the prolonged lawsuit cost the Forse family much more than they could afford and that it was the first step towards their ultimate ruin.

The case, however, did establish that “Forse Sutherland”, the sobriquet by which the head of this ancient family was always known, was the heir-male of the Sutherland line and as the Earls of Sutherland had used the surname and arms of Gordon since 1514, was the Chief of the name of Sutherland.

George the fourteenth laird, died comparatively young and unmarried in the year 1773 and was succeeded by his brother John Campbell Sutherland, fifteenth of Forse. The new laird was also a bachelor, but when he was getting on in years there came to Forse House, which by this time had become a family seat, a young woman named Margaret Munro to be his housekeeper. She was the daughter of a crofter at the neighbouring hamlet of Benchielt.  Before long rumours were rife in the surrounding district that the laird and his housekeeper had a relationship much more intimate than that of master and servant – that in fact she was sharing his bed. Soon she was expecting the laird’s child.  The old laird wishing to do “the right thing”, and no doubt being influenced by the fact that he had no heir, went out of his way  to consult several of his neighbouring lairds in the county as to whether or not he should marry her. The consensus of opinion was in favour of the marriage, and marry her he did, although in those days for a great landowner to marry one so much below his station was unheard of.

To the couple was born a son John, afterwards the sixteenth laird of Forse. Some time after the birth of John in 1820, and as the old laird became more enfeebled, there came as a gardener to Forse House a young man also named Munro who was in fact a cousin of the laird’s wife. Again gossip vibrated around Forse as news spread that an affair existed between the gardener and the lady of the house. Eventually another son, afterwards George the seventeenth laird of Forse was born, but no one familiar with the circumstances at the time believed, or indeed has ever since believed, that he was really a Sutherland at all. Later, with this affair behind her, the lady of Forse, so it was said, formed still another attachment with a man described a s a “medical man” but whether he was actually a doctor or not is not known to the writer. This man, it was rumoured locally, was the father of the third son born to Mrs Sutherland. The child grew up and was known as Captain Francis Sutherland, but before then the life of his strange and unhappy mother had come to an end by her own hand.

Her husband, John the fifteenth laird, had died in 1828 when his heir was only eight years of age.

At this point the most astonishing of all the legends associated with the Forse family must be told. The writer has probed the evidence, has had it verified from many different sourced including the handed down traditions told to him as a boy by his maternal grandfather and other members of the family who have had a long association with the Forse estate over several generations.

The legend is that many centuries ago while the family still lived at Forse castle, a mentally deficient daughter had been born to the laird of the time. The proud laird looked on the affliction as a stigma on himself and his house and resolved that the poor creature would never be allowed to see the light of day, or allow her presence to be known outside. She was thus kept incarcerated either in the keep itself, or in one of the buildings adjoining it on the castle rock. In course of time the trouble of keeping her hidden and of looking after her became too tedious and so she was put to death. At the time, whether it was by the victim herself, or by some Celtic mystic is not clear, a terrible curse was pronounced. For this hideous crime it was said, sooner or later, the house of Sutherland would become extinct, and as a sign that this had come to pass, two standing stones, one on the upper Forse estate and Rangag, and another at the lower estate at Forse, would fall to the ground at the time of the death of the last “Forse Sutherland”.

Returning to the line of lairds, the young sixteenth laird embarked on a military career becoming a Cornet in the ninth Lancers, and later a Lieutenant in the fifty sixth Foot Regiment. He attended on one occasion a leave at which Queen Victoria was present. On seeing Cornet Sutherland at the head of his men the Queen turned to the Duke of Sutherland who was in attendance and said “There is your Chief”. Unfortunately the young laird died when only twenty-six years of age. He stood well over 2m and

weighed 170 kg at the time of his death. He is still spoken of as the “big laird”. His death took place during the night of 28th February 1846 so it will never be known whether or not the two standing stones fell at the moment of his death, but at this point we leave legend and speculation behind and write only of unassailable facts. The next morning the two standing stones were lying prostrate. There was no wind or any unusual occurrence to account for their falling. The stone at Rangag still remains where it fell and was noted in 1910 by Dr Curle in his “Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Caithness”. It is close to the ditch beside the Causwaymire road, but in recent years has been covered over with the ditch cleanings. The stone at Forse was close to the cliff and some years ago disappeared by erosion of the rocks around it.

On John’s death George became seventeenth laird. Legally he was born in wedlock and thereafter entitled to the inheritance, although the tenants and local people never accepted him or his younger brother or their descendants as representatives of the ancient family. George married a Miss Shepherd from Ireland and had three sons, John, William and George. He carried out the extensive improvements to Forse estates including the enlargement of Forse House, and planting many of the trees around it. It is strangely ironical that it was he, who by all the evidence was not a Sutherland, put the “Cat”, - the badge of the Chiefs of the Clan Sutherland – on the gate lodge where it can still be seen today. 

His eldest son, John William Sutherland, eighteenth and last laird of Forse, succeeded George. He became hopelessly insolvent and the bondholder finally seized the estate in 1905. Stories are still told in the area of how he lived by being sheltered by some of his former tenants.  He died in 1909 leaving daughters only, the eldest of whom was granted the undifferentiated arms of Sutherland in 1928. All the daughters are now dead without issue.

So where does the Chieftainship of the Sutherlands lie? Whether any male heirs of the Sutherland of Forse still exist whose lines branched off prior to the death of John in1846 is not known, although it is not outside the bounds of possibility that the male descendants of the line of Robert of Langwell (1700) may exist. There are no male heirs of any later branch.

The Countess of Sutherland being the direct heiress of line of High, founder of the Clan, enjoying as she does the titles and honours of the race, heretrix of the lands and “duthus” or hearthstone of the clan, bearing again the surname and undifferenced arms of the name is undoubtedly the person most entitled to the supreme position a clan can give.

The Castle Today.

The rock on which Forse Castle stands is like many other examples of castellated sites in Caithness, a peninsula surrounded on all sides except for the narrow approach strip, by steep and very high rocks. The approach has been cut by a trench over which originally there would be a drawbridge, but more recently a causeway has been built over it. The keep is a rectangle measuring 6.5m x 3.5m with walls 2m thick. It stands two storeys in height and its doorway, like Oldwick, is positioned one floor up and facing the sea. Unlike Oldwick the approach was through a fortified gatehouse after the drawbridge was crossed. Prior to 1892 there was a vaulted chamber above the gatehouse with an arched window. This might have been used for operating a portcullis. There are now no signs of a stairway or vaulting. Wooden joists originally rested on wall scarcements formed by drawing back the wall about 150 mm at each storey level. On the ground floor there is on the seaside a splayed gun loop and on the first floor one window.

The courtyard behind the castle contains several ruined buildings, which were the usual offices in connection with a castle. They range in different directions and contours following the rugged nature of the surface of the rock.

It is believed that the castle was abandoned about 1660, which was the time of James the tenth laird, or of his son George, the eleventh laird. Anew house was built at Nottingham, about a mile inland. The first house was later demolished and a greater new mansion was begun on a new site somewhat behind the old one. This was the nucleus of the present mansion of Forse, which is now a nursing home.


Anderson                     The Scottish Nation (3 Vol.)      Methuen, 1867

McGibbon & Ross          The Castellated & Domestic

                                   Architecture of Scotland           Douglas, 1889

 Innes of Learney          Tartans and Clans of the          Johnston, 1938

                                    Families of Scotland               

 Munro                         Kinsman & Clansman              Johnston &  Bacon, 1971


 Curle                           Inventory of the Ancient          HMSO, 1911

                                     Monuments of Caithness