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|Historic Castles & Families of The North
3. Dunrobin Castle
The Sutherland Family
The Clan Sutherland shares a common ancestor with the Clan Murray, both being descended from a Flemish nobleman named Freskin who settled in Scotland in the reign of David I (1122 - 1153). The King had granted him the lands of Strathbrock in West Lothian and Duffus in Moray - the latter for his services in helping to put down a rebellion there. Freskin was succeeded by his elder son William, whose son, another William took, the surname de Moravia, from the province he ruled and his descendants became Morays and Murrays represented today by their respective Chiefs, Moray of Abercairny and the Duke of Atholl.
Freskin's younger son, or some say grandson, Hugh, was granted by King William the Lion the territory of Sutherland which had been rested from the Norse Earldom as the Scottish crown began reasserting itself over, the Norse occupied territories of their kingdom. Hugh was known as the Lord of Sutherland and from henceforth the name of their province became the family surname.
Hugh' s son William was the first Earl of Sutherland with a date of creation believed to be about 1228. Dying at Dunrobin in 1248, the first Earl was succeeded by his son William who was still in his infancy. He attended the parliament of Alexander III at Scone and was one of the eighteen Highland Chiefs who fought at Bannockburn on the side of King Robert the Bruce. He afterwards subscribed the famous letter from the Scots nobles to the Pope in 1320. When he died in 1325 he had been the reigning earl for the long period of 77 years. His son Kenneth, third earl, fell at the battle of Halidon Hill in 1333 supporting the cause of King David II. He had two sons, William who succeeded him as fourth earl, and Nicholas, ancestor of the Sutherlands of Duffus, afterwards Lords Duffus, who as well as their large estates in Moray owned Old Wick and Berriedale castles in Caithness.
William, the fourth earl, married the Princess Margaret, older daughter of King Robert the Bruce by his second wife Lady Elizabeth de Burgh and full sister of King David II. The Earl and Princess Margaret had a son John, Master of Sutherland who was selected by the King his uncle as the heir to the throne in preference to Robert the High Steward, the son of his half sister the Princess Marjory, and the rightful heir. The young man, however, died at Lincoln in England in 1361 while a hostage there for the payment of the King' s ransom. His father, Earl William, who was one of the commissioners treating for the ransom was himself detained, gaining his liberty in 1367. He died at Dunrobin in 1370. It was the marriage of the fourth earl to the Princess Margaret that prompted Sir Robert Gordon to claim that all subsequent earls were descended from the royal line of Bruce. It was on this assumption that in 1719 the Lord Lyon King of Arms quite wrongly granted the Earls of Sutherland double tressure - the mark of royal descent - on their coat of arms. Actually the fourth earl following, the early death of the Princess married a second time, to Joanna Mentieth dowager Countess of Strathearn, and his successor was a son of this marriage. Either Sir Robert did not know, or if he did know he suppressed this fact.
William, fifth earl, took part in several military expeditions over the border into England and was also often at feud with his neighbours the Clan Mackay. He died about 1400 leaving two sons Robert, sixth earl, and Kenneth, ancestor of the Sutherlands of Forse whose representative in 1766 unsuccessfully claimed the earldom as heir-male. Earl Robert fought at the battle of Homildon 1402 and was a hostage for James I in 1427. Like his father he was constantly at war with the Mackays. Dying in 1442 he was survived by three sons the eldest of whom was John, seventh earl. Nothing of special note seems to have taken place during his reign. He resigned the earldom to his son John in 1456 reserving the life-rent to himself and died in 1460. His Countess was the builder of Helmsdale castle but after her husband's death she and her son had a disagreement which resulted in him demolishing the tower.
John, eighth earl, had married Lady Margaret Macdonald the daughter of the Lord of the Isles. She had drowned crossing the ferry at Uness and had one son and a daughter Elizabeth, afterwards in her own right Countess of Sutherland. The son John, ninth earl, died without issue when his sister succeeded. Both the eighth and ninth earls in their latter years were afflicted with mental illness and were declared incapable of managing their affairs.
The Countess Elizabeth had married Adam Gordon of Aboyne, second son of George, Earl of Huntly, High Chancellor of Scotland, and according to the custom at that time took the style of Earl of Sutherland in right of his wife. The countess - the first of three of that name who have held the earldom in their own right - did not succeed without a struggle. Her illegitimate brother Alexander who claimed that his mother and father, the eighth earl, had entered into a contract of marriage which made him the rightful heir, rose in rebellion against her and her husband, aided and abetted by the Chief of Mackay whose sister he married. Initially successful, he actually succeeded in capturing and occupying Dunrobin Castle for a time. He was eventually defeated, captured and beheaded on the spot by Earl Adam. His head was then carried on a spear and placed on top of the great tower at Dunrobin. The eldest son of Adam Gordon and the Countess, Alexander, Master of Sutherland, died before his parents but left a son John who succeeded them. The Earl of Huntly, Chief of the Gordons, decreed at this time that the Sutherland Earldom was to remain a cadet of Gordon and was to henceforth use the name and arms of Gordon only.
There were three other sons born to the Countess of which one was Adam Gordon of Gary whose wife was Isobel Sinclair, of whom later.
John, eleventh earl, had for a time his earldom forfeited, having taken part with his cousin the Earl of Huntly in rebellion against the crown. He had joined the protestant Lords of the Congregation and was wounded while attacking the French auxiliaries near King horn. He and his wife met their deaths by poison at Helmsdale Castle which had been rebuilt. The aforesaid Isobel Sinclair, wife of the Earl's uncle and a cousin of the Earl of Caithness had prepared the deadly draught. Her own, son the next heir to the earldom, died also as a result of poison which had been given him unknowingly by a servant. The Earl's heir, Alexander a youth of fifteen happily escaped by arriving late from a hunting expedition. Succeeding as twelfth earl Alexander was twice married, first to Lady Barbara Sinclair, daughter of the Earl of Caithness - a woman of loose character double his age -and second, to his kinswoman, Lady Jean Gordon of Huntly who had been divorced by Bothwell in order to marry Mary Queen of Scots. There were, with daughters, four sons of this marriage -John , afterwards thirteenth earl; Alexander, Adam, and Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun the family historian, courtier, politician, expert archer, sheriff, soldier and holder of many offices of state packed an incredible amount of work into his 76 years. His weakness for upholding, at all costs the advancement of the family and its good name should not blurr his many great qualities in other spheres. He had married an heiress of his own clan of Gordon, a marriage which brought estates in Scotland and England, and also, inherited from his wife's French mother, large estates in that country. He was a favourite of King James VI and I who had created him the first-ever Scottish Nova-Scotian baronet. His influence with the King was always used to further the family interest and he would often travel hurriedly great distances with the appalling road conditions of that time if he had heard that the Earl of Caithness or anyone whom he considered to be an enemy of his house were likely to get an advantage. But the King was not the "wisest fool in Christendom" for nothing, and Sir Robert was on occasion not as successful as he would have wished. He was, during his minority of his nephew the young fourteenth earl, the tutor and guardian, which made him in everything but name the ruler of the earldom. He managed its affairs with great skill, relieving it of many debts and carrying out great improvements - often to the detriment of his own property about which he cared little so long as the house of Sutherland flourished. He restored during this time, many of the churches in Sutherland including ancient Dornoch Cathedral destroyed by fire in 1570. It had been built by a near kinsman of the first earl Bishop Gilbert de Moravia about 1224.
Sir Robert's brother, John, thirteenth earl, had died aged 40 leaving his young son aged 6 to succeed. Many stirring events took place during his reign. He was fully involved as a covenanter with the wars of that period as well as those of Montrose and Cromwell. His son George, fifteenth earl, was succeeded by his son John, sixteenth earl, who was a privy councillor to King William III and to Queen Anne. He took a prominent part in all the political and military activities of the times including raising of a force for the government in the 1715 rebellion. His son William, Lord Strathnaver, predeceased him and the next earl was his grandson William, seventeenth earl. The young earl's sister the Hon. Janet Sutherland was married to George Sinclair of Ulbster and was the mother of the famous Sir George Sinclair. It was the sixteenth earl who got relief from the necessity of Gordon cadency and assumed the ancient patronymic of Sutherland.
The seventeenth earl, like his grandfather, remained loyal to the government during the '45 rebellion and raised two companies of Sutherland men to join the government forces. He had one son, William, who became the eighteenth earl in 1730. The Earl was like his immediate forbears, one of the sixteen representative peers of Scotland. An officer in the army, he raised a battalion of infantry but dying aged 31 a few days after his wife, he was succeeded by his infant daughter Elizabeth, the second of the name to be Countess in her own right. A contest arose in which George Sutherland of Forse and heir-male of the Sutherland line and sire Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun, great-grandson of the historian, as heir-male of the Gordons, both claimed the earldom, but after much litigation, which at times caused great public interest, a decision of the House of Lords confirmed Elizabeth in the title on the grounds that the ealrdom was vested in heirs-general.
Nineteenth of her line, the young Countess married in 1785 to George Granville Leveson-Gower, Viscount Trentham, eldest son of Earl Gower, afterwards Marquis of Stafford. his mother, the marquis' second wife, was Lady Louisa Egerton, daughter of the Duke of Bridgewater of whom later. Viscount Trentham, successively Earl Gower and second Marquis of Stafford and the Marchioness-Countess carried out great improvements on the Sutherland estates much of which was the cause of great bitterness and resentment which even now persists. The Marquis had a long political and diplomatic career being for a time British ambassador to France, and for his services in passing the Reform Bill he was created duke in 1833 only six months before his death. Strangely he took his new ducal title not from his own county of Stafford but from his wife's domain of Sutherland. Even more confusingly, the patent of creation of his new dukedom had a different destination from his wife's earldom being like his Marquisate and his other English titles confined to heirs-male only. The couple had several children of which only two need to be mentioned, George Granville, the heir, and Lord Francis Leveson-Gower, who on inheriting the great estates of his cousin, the third and last Duke of Bridgewater, changed his name to Egerton and had recreated for him one of the Bridgewater titles, the Earldom of Ellesmere. George, the second Duke, succeeded his father in 1833and his mother as earl in 1839. He in turn was succeeded by his eldest son George Granville, third duke, who married Anne Hay Mackenzie heiress but for the forfeiture of the Earldom of Cromartie, and owner of the vast estates of the Earldom including their ancient seat Castle Leod, Strathpeffer.
In 1861 the Duchess was created in her own right Countess of Cromartie with special remainder to her second son Lord Francis Leveson-Gower and his heirs-general, along with a settlement in his favour of the Cromartie estates. The present earl is her great-grandson through his mother. The third duke married a second time a Mrs. Arthur Blair. This lady, after her husband's death had a serious disagreement with her step-son the fourth Duke and consequently built to spite him, within sight of Dunrobin Castle, the pretentious mansion of Carbisadale Castle with its three hundred and sixty five windows.
Cromartie Leveson-Gower, the fourth duke, was succeeded by his eldest son George Granville, fifth duke. When he died without issue, he was succeeded in the earldom and the Scottish titles by his niece, the third Elizabeth to hold the title, who sits as the twenty fourth holder of the ancient dignity. she also inherited from her uncle both the Scottish and English family estates.
The Dukedom, the Marquisate of Stafford, and the older English titles, which as previously stated have a remainder that follows the male line, passed to John Sutherland Egerton, fifth Earl of Ellesmere, descended from the second son of the first Duke and duchess. the sixth Duke, already owner of large estates has seats at Mertoun House, St. Boswells, and Sketchworth Park, Newmarket.
The countess Elizabeth married in 1946 Charles Noel Janson and they have a family, the eldest son and heir being Alistair, Lord Strathnaver. She resides principally at Uppat House, Brora.
The earliest mention of Dunrobin as a castle was in 1401 in a deed signed by Robert the sixth earl there. The architecture of the ancient tower which still stands intact within the fabric of the present structure would suggest that is was built about that time but could be older. It is certain however, that an earlier structure stood on the site long before then as both the first and fourth earls are recorded as having died there. The site near where the Sutherland hills come down to where they almost meet the sea must always have been of great strategic importance and possibly a motte and bailey castle would have stood there before the time of stone built towers. To the west of the old tower John, the thirteenth earl, built a long narrow house connected by a tower with a staircase and extending on two sides of a courtyard. In 1785 the countess Elizabeth added further buildings which fully enclosed the courtyard. The original yett is still preserved within the tower, the walls of which are 2m thick. An unusual feature is that the old part is vaulted from top to bottom.
Between 1835 and 1850, Sir Charles Barry who designed the Houses of Parliament was responsible for another large extension which was gutted by fire in 1915. After this Sir Robert Lorimer of Scottish War Memorial fame was employed to restore, alter, and improve the castle which has made it one of the most superb mansions in the country.
The castle contains many priceless works of art mainly family portraits and countless items of historic and other importance.
|Anderson||The Scottish Nation (Three Vols.)||Methuen||1927|
|Brown||History of the Highlands and the Highland Clans||Fullerton||1850|
|Inventory of Ancient Monuments of Sutherland||HMSO||1910|
|McGibbon & Ross||The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland||Douglas||1889|
|Mackenzie||The Medieval Castle in Scotland||Methuen||1927|
|Munro||Kinsmen and Clansmen||Johnston & Bacon||1971|
Note From Caithness.org