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Caithness Field Club Bulletin
HISTORIC CASTLES AND FAMILIES OF THE NORTH
7. Girnigoe Castle - The First to Sixth Earls of Caithness
D. B. Miller
Although the massive ruined complex of Girnigoe Castle has an importance second to none in the medieval history of the north of Scotland, with its powerful owners the earls of Caithness dominating the pages of that period, and although its gaunt remains have an apparent appearance of being sited on its rugged sea-girt rock since the beginning of time, yet in fact the castle was inhabited for a period of only about one hundred and eighty years. In that time only five earls of the Sinclair line ruled there, although this represented eight generations of that noble family, for one earl, the fourth, outlived his son and was succeeded by his grandson. He in turn outlived both his son and grandson being succeeded by his great-grandson.
Sir Henry St. Clair of Rosslyn, supporter and friend of King Robert the Bruce, was one of the signatories of the Arbroath Declaration, and his son was the "kind and true" St. Clair whofell in Spain beside the good Lord James Douglas while carrying the Bruce's heart to the Holy Land. His grandson Sir William St. Clair married Isabella the daughter of Malise, Earl of Strathearn, Orkney, and Caithness, and their son Henry St. Clair, on the death of his mother's cousin Alexander de la Arde found himself heir to the great northern provinces and their titles, at that time held as a fee of the Norwegian-Danish crown. He already held the office of Hereditary Lord High Admiral of Scotland, and this for him was no empty title for he was one of the great navigators of all time, being the discoverer of Greenland. In 1379 he went to Norway where he was formally invested by King Haakon IV with all the hereditary dignities and honours of the ancient jarls of Orkney and Caithness and the lordship of Zetland.
William the First Earl
William, first earl of the Scottish creation, although holding lands in his new Earldom, never so far as is known resided there. He lived in princely style at his great castle of Roslin where he had built alongside the fabulous church with its famous "prentice pillar" and its marvellous designs and tracery. Father Hay, a member of the earl's household, speaks of him "as a Prince who maintained his state at his palace of the castle of Roslin where he kept a great court and was royally served at his own table in vessels of gold and silver; Lord Dirlton being his master of the household; Lord Borthwick his cupbearer, and Lord Fleming his carver, in whose absence they had deputies to attend - viz. Stewart laird of Drumlarrig; Tweedie Laird of Dunfermline; and Sandilands Laird of Calder. He had his halls and other apartments richly adorned with embroidered hangings. His Princess, Elizabeth Douglas, daughter of the fourth Earl of Douglas and Duke of Touraine, was served by 75 gentlewomen whereof 53 were daughters of noblemen, all clothed in velvet and silks, with their chains of gold and other ornaments, and was attended by 200 riding gentlemen on all journeys, and if it happened to be dark when she went to Edinburgh where her lodging was at the foot of Blackfriars wynd, 80 lighted torches were carried before her".
The Earl was also hereditary Grand Master Mason of Scotland, being created thus by James II. This honour followed the Roslin branch for several centuries.
William the Second Earl
William, second Earl of Caithness, came to reside on his Caithness estates and proceeded to build the stronghold of Girnigoe completing it sometime before 1496. He also began the erection of the Castle of Knockinnon near Dunbeath on a strategic situation barring the way to invaders to Caithness from over the Ord. He did not live to see the project fulfilled for he volunteered to fight for his King James IV and fell along with his men on the bloody field of Flodden. The Earl had married Mary Keith the daughter of his neighbouring laird, Keith of Inverugie and Ackergill and left two sons John and Alexander Sinclair of Stemster.
He was, according to Calder, a gallant and high spirited nobleman.
John the Third Earl
John had, by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Sutherland of Duffus, two sons, William who died young and George his successor.
George the Fourth Earl
On 17th April 1566 and on 14th February 1567 two separate charters were granted to the Earl appointing him justiciary for the north of Scotland from Meikle Ferry to the Pentland Firth. This was ratified by the Scots parliament on 19th April 1567. In the same month of that year he was Chancellor of the jury at the trial of the Earl of Bothwell for the murder of Lord Darnley where the verdict was one of acquittal.
The Earl built the old church of Wick (St. Fergus), the remains of which are known as the "Sinclair aisle". Here his heart was deposited in a leaden casket by his own wish. He had died in Edinburgh in 1582 and was buried in St. Giles Cathedral, where a monument was erected to his memory. His eldest John, Master of Caithness had predeceased him, his body being laid to rest in the vault below his father's recently built church at Wick. The inscription on the slab enclosing the tomb reads as follows,
"Here lies entombed one noble and worthie man, John Master of Caithness, who departed this life, the 15th day of March 1576".
The story told by Sir Robert Gordon of the inhuman treatment and death of the Master in the grim dungeon of Girnigoe castle is not now believed, although it is possible that he may have been imprisoned for some time. Two very eminent Caithness antiquaries, the late John Nicolson of Nybster, and the late D. G. Henderson of Tannach, have stated that the Master died in his bed at Knockinnon castle. Quoting from the writings of D. G. Henderson,
"Here (at Knockinnon) John Master of Caithness died after having lived a strenuous and comparatively peaceful life. The three hostages he brought from Dunrobin to Girnigoe, I fear met a sudden death at his father's command, but John passed on to Knockinnon to be apart from his father, as well as from his son, who was in character and spirit a replica of his grandfather. Doing his father's bidding or being accountable for his son's wickedness were equally displeasing to John who in the later years of his life at all events made amends for his past follies, He was a devoted worshipper at the chapel of Clasgag, as well as at the private chapel at the castle".
The three hostages referred to by Mr. Henderson were three prisoners taken as hostages by the Master in 1570 when leading an expedition on behalf of his father against the Murrays of Abercross and others, allies of the Earl of Sutherland. The Sutherland men had taken refuge in the town and castle of Dornoch which was besieged by the Master and his men. After burning the Cathedral in which there was a garrison, and reducing the town the Master then attacked the castle. The Murrays were obliged to capitulate and agreed to depart from Sutherland within three months and delivered the three hostages against that fulfilment. The Earl of Caithness apparently, or so wrote Sir Robert Gordon, refused to ratify the treaty concluded by his son, and beheaded the hostages.
The fourth Earl had married lady Elizabeth Graham, a daughter of the second Earl of Montrose and had three sons and five daughters. His second son, William of Mey, who died a young man and unmarried left two illegitimate sons by different mothers, the eldest of whom, Patrick, was the first laird of Ulbster. He also died unmarried and was succeeded by his brother John Sinclair of Ulbster who thus became the ancestor of the Sinclairs of Ulbster. The Earl's third son, George, was given the lands of Mey on the death of his elder brother, William. He became the ancestor of the Sinclairs Baronets of Mey who in 1789 inherited the Earldom on the extinction of the senior line descended from the Master. For
George of Mey the fourth Earl began building the castle of Mey about 1560.
George the Fifth Earl
In 1588 there was an invasion of Caithness by the Earl of Sutherland accompanied by Mackay of Strathnaver and MacLeod of Assynt with a very strong force. The young Earl prudently shut himself up as Calder puts it "within the iron walls of Girnigoe Castle". Lord Sutherland burnt the town of Wick, then a collection of small houses roofed with thatch, and whilst it was burning a Highlander with plunder in mind, entered the church, the only building spared, and finding the leaden case containing the heart of the fourth Earl, burst it open and flung the contents away in disgust at finding no treasure. The Sutherland confederacy then laid siege to Girnigoe but after twelve days in which no impression was made, set to plundering the county as far as its extremity at Duncansby killing several people and then proceeded homeward driving before them "a great spoil of cattle". Continuous feuds and battles with his neighbouring potentate of Sutherland characterised the whole career of the fifth Earl. Nevertheless he had time to build the great new wing on the outer ward of Girnigoe which he completed by 1607. It was a fine architectural achievement which together with the old castle made the whole structure the greatest nobleman's seat in the north. The Earl also rebuilt Keiss castle on the site of an earlier fortalice and the family often resided there. In 1604 he had purchased Oldwick castle from Lord Oliphant (Caithness Field Club Bulletin Vol. 1 No. 8), and in 1612 he added Ackergill tower to his estate, by purchase. (Caithness Field Club Bulletin Vol. 2 No 1). The Earl's expenditure had been much more than he could afford and according to Sir Robert Gordon he engaged a coiner by the name of Arthur Smith and placed him in a special room called the "gate" under the rock of his new addition at Girnigoe. There a secret passage lead from the Earl's own bedroom to the coiner's retreat. For seven or eight years he plied his trade there and the north was, according to Sir Robert Gordon, inundated with base coin. Afterwards Smith removed to Thurso continuing to ply his trade there ostensibly as a blacksmith. There was a public outcry and Sir Robert himself laid the case before the King and a commission was granted to him to apprehend Smith, together with all his apparatus for coining along with a quantity of "bad" money. The entry of a force of Sutherland men alarmed the citizens of Thurso and an affray started in which several people were killed including the Earl's nephew, Sinclair of Stirkoke. Smith was killed by his captors who feared he would escape during the melee. The Earl of Caithness instituted a criminal prosecution against Sir Robert, the Earl of Sutherland and others for the slaughter of his nephew but after endless litigation the proceedings came to nothing. One point should be made - as far back as 1549 Arthur Smith was apprehended in Sutherland for making counterfeit money in his native Banff for which he was tried and convicted in Edinburgh. The Thurso episode took place in 1610, sixty one years after his first conviction. Presuming he was in his twenties at that time, he must have been between eighty and ninety years of age at the latter date. There is obviously a great deal of truth still to emerge regarding the life and times of the fourth and fifth Earls of Caithness.
In 1623 Sir Robert Gordon, again armed with the King's commission, led a large force into Caithness. The Earl rightly or wrongly had been accused principally at the instigation of Sir Robert himself of various offences and lawless behaviour. Lord Caithness diplomatically boarded a boat for Orkney where a few years before, in 1614, he had been sent with the King's commission to quell a rebellion against the crown by the notorious Patrick Stewart, Earl of Orkney. So successful was he in this expedition that he was given a pension of 1,000 crowns and was made one of the Privy council of Scotland.
While the Earl was away Sir Robert was given the keys of all his castles around Sinclair bay, and in the King's name handed them back to Lord Berriedale the Earl's oldest son, who was granted the administration of the estates, which was at this time very deeply in debt and the Earl was hard pressed by his creditors. After his return from Orkney he lived in seclusion on an aliment from the creditors out of his dilapidated estates. He died in 1643 at the advanced age of 78.
George the Sixth Earl
Glenorchy and the Battle of Altimarlach
Despite his defeat, George Sinclair did not give up. He engaged in a campaign of guerilla tactics and laid siege to Girnigoe castle where Glenorchy had placed a garrison when most of his troops had returned home. Firearms or artillery were used in Caithness for the first time and the castle capitulated. The new portion was very badly damaged as a result and the castle was never again occupied. Glenorchy, tired of the harassment of his lands sold Girnigoe and the Wick portion of the estates to Dunbar of Hempriggs about 1700. During agricultural improvements in the middle of last century much stone work was demolished and carried away to build farm houses and steadings in the surrounding area.
The Castle Today
The names castles Sinclair and Girnigoe, still erroneously used, do not make sense. The structure was not two separate buildings. Both were parts of the same castle.
In recent years the ruined castle returned to ownership of the Earls of Caithness after more than two hundred and fifty years in alien hands.
R E F E R E N C E S
Girnigoe Castle In Caithness.org Castles