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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin
1979 - April

Bulletin Index


9 . Dunbeath Castle - The Sutherlands & Sinclairs of Dunbeath

D. B. Miller

Perched high on a cliff top overlooking the sea at Dunbeath on the east coast of Caithness stands the historic and magnificently picturesque castle of Dunbeath. The white and massive structure, easily seen by the wayfarer passing along the A9 road, perfectly combines in its structure the architectural blend of ancient and modern.

Dunbeath was first mentioned in historical records as far back as 1428, but it may well be considerably older. The first known laird was Alexander Sutherland of Dunbeath who was believed to have been a scion of the Dunrobin family Earls of Sutherland but this genealogical connection has never been proved. Neither is it known whether or not he or his immediate ancestors built the Castle.

The Will and Testament of this Laird of Dunbeath can be read in the appendix to Calder's History of Caithness. From this will it is known that he had five sons end five daughters. One of the daughters, Marjory, married William 1st Earl of Caithness of the Sinclair line as his second wife. She was the mother of the 2nd Earl and ancestress of all the subsequent Earls of Caithness and of their innumerable branches. History is silent as to what happened to Alexander Sutherland's sons but none of them succeeded to Dunbeath.

The next Laird of Dunbeath was Sir George Crighton a younger son of the ancient Scottish house of Crighton of Crighton, Mid Lothian. He was appointed Lord High Admiral of Scotland and in 1452 was created Earl of Caithness by James II. With the Earldom he received also a charter of Braal Castle then the principal seat of the Earldom.

It is stated by MacGibbon and Ross that Sir George Crighton succeeded to Dunbeath from his mother. If this is so, then his mother must have been one of the daughters of Alexander Sutherland. Three years after receiving the Earldom, George Crighton died leaving a daughter only, and as the title was entailed in the male line only it became extinct. That same year King James restored it to the true heir of the ancient Norse line in the person of William Sinclair of Roslin. Dunbeath Castle not being part of the heritage of the Earldom, passed into other hands. The next owner on record is Malcolm Culquhone of Dunbeath who is said to have resigned the lands in 1507 on which date King James IV granted a charter of confirmation to Alexander Innes sone and heir of Alexander Innes of that Ilk. In 1529-30 Alexander Sinclair of Stempster second son of William 2nd Earl of Caithness received a Crown charter of the lands of Dunbeath on his marriage to Elizabeth Innes daughter of Innes of Innes. A romantic story is told of how John 3rd Earl of Caithness sent his younger brother Alexander as emissary to the 18th Laird of Innes to ask for the hand of his daughter in marriage, but the young lady indicated that she preferred Alexander himself to his lordship and so they married bringing to her husband all the lands which her father possessed in Caithness.

Thus was started the first family of Sinclair of Dunbeath. The couple, in addition to a son William who became the next laird, had a daughter to whom Sir Robert Gordon (not the most accurate of historians) gives the name Isobel although some authorities give her name as Elizabeth. She had married Gilbert Gordon of Garty near Helmsdale, fourth son of the Earl of Sutherland, and her son a boy in his teens was the next heir to that Earldom. She was a member of a house party at the Earl of Sutherland's hunting seat Helmsdale Castle (the then Earl being her husband's nephew) when she contrived by preparing a poisonous drink to murder both the Earl and Countess and their only son Alexander also a boy in his teens. Her plot was successful as far as the Earl and. Countess were concerned but the young heir had not returned with the others from a hunting expedition and so escaped, but her own son John also a member of the party had come in complaining of thirst and was given a drink by a servant who had not known of the deadly nature of it and he too died. Isobel Sinclair was apprehended and sent to Edinburgh for trial but after being tried and condemned she committed suicide on the morning of her execution.

William Sinclair of Dunbeath 2nd Laird was so harassed by his cousin the 5th Earl of Caithness who coveted his lands that he retired to Morayshire. Among other acts of violence, the Earl "wasted Dunbeath by fire and sword". His son also William died before his father leaving a young son George who became the next Laird. He is described as being facile or a spendthrift and in 1610 two years after his grandfather's death he resigned the barony in favour of his brother-in-law Arthur Lord Forbes. About 1624 the latter's son the Master of Forbes sold Dunbeath to John Sinclair of Geanies 2nd son of George Sinclair of Mey a younger brother of the 5th Earl. It was this John who having founded the 2nd family of Sinclair of Dunbeath began the first large scale addition to the Castle about 1633. He was knighted in 1631 and it was during his time that the memorable events occurred around this ancient stronghold.

In February 1650 the great Marquis of Montrose had landed in Orkney from the continent with an army in order to effect the restoration of Charles II. Having collected more men in Orkney and being joined by other levies he crossed the Pentland Firth in a number of boats collected among the Orkney Islands, landing with opposition in the vicinity of John o' Groats. After the preliminary of stating his authority as the King's Lt. Governor he proceeded towards the Sutherland border at the Ord of Caithness dispatching 500 men southwards to obtain possession of this historic pass. The next step he took was against the Castle of Dunbeath. Sir John Sinclair on hearing of Montrose's arrival in Caithness set off on horseback to Edinburgh to acquaint the Estates of the facts leaving his wife, a daughter of the 7th Lord Lovat, in charge of the Castle. The castle was strong and well supplied with provisions and the possession of it was important to Montrose in case he should be obliged to retreat. The Castle was bravely defended by Lady Sinclair and a few servants against General Hurry Montrose's deputy commander but after a siege of several days she was compelled to surrender on condition that persons and property would be respected. General Hurry placed a strong garrison in the Castle under Major Whiteford. The story of Montrose's defeat at Carbisdale and his subsequent hardships has already been told in this series. General Leslie the Cromwellian commander accompanied by the Earl of Sutherland entered Caithness and laid siege to Dunbeath defended by Major Whiteford's garrison and by cutting off the water supply effected their surrender.

Sir John Sinclair of Dunbeath died the following year. Leaving a daughter only he left Dunbeath to his nephew William Sinclair of Latheron who in turn was succeeded by his son John also of Latheron and Dunbeath, but on his death the estates separated, Latheron passing to his son James while Dunbeath passed by some family settlement to the late laird's brother James Sinclair of Stemster who by patent of Queen Anne was created in 1704 first Baronet of Dunbeath. Sir James was succeeded by his son Sir William Sinclair 2nd Baronet of Dunbeath who however having purchased the Keiss estate from the Glenorchy family sold Dunbeath to Sinclair of Freswick. Sir William made his home at Keiss and later built the new mansion there. He was one of the most noted swordsmen of his day and has his own special niche in history as the founder of the Baptist Church in Scotland. The Baronetcy of Dunbeath, now separated from the lands, passed through different male heirs to the Sinclairs of Barrock whose representative Sir John Sinclair of Barrock enjoys it today.

With the sale of Dunbeath to the Sinclairs of Freswick a third family of Sinclair of Dunbeath (though all from the same original stock) reigned there. William Sinclair of Freswick was the builder there of the large and spectacular tower shaped House of Freswick erected about 1760 but having purchased Dunbeath soon after, the family made it their chief residence leaving Freswick to become eventually the farm house of Freswick Mains. During the last century a massive reconstruction and modernisation programme transformed Dunbeath Castle making it one of the most splendid seats in the North of Scotland. The late Mr. Thomson-Sinclair of Freswick towards the end of last century built the equally spectacular House of the Northern Gate on the hill above Dwarwick Head - a well known landmark in the North and known locally as Sinclair's Folly. He was succeeded by his nephew the late Vice-Admiral Sir Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair upon whose death shortly after the last war the large Freswick estates were broken up and sold. Dunbeath Castle for the last number of years is in American ownership

The Castle Today

The original structure built previous to 1428 can still be traced inside the modern architecture. It was an elongated oblong plan, but rather singularly unusual in that it was not quite rectangular, one gable not being parallel with the other, there being a difference of two feet in the length of the building at front and back. The ground floor only is vaulted and the walls are five feet thick. At one end was the kitchen with a large arched fireplace and the rest of the ground floor is taken up with the original entrance and two cellars one opening from the other. From one a spiral stairway winds up in the thickness of the wall to the great hall above. A second very narrow stairway goes upwards in the back wall at a point opposite the main entrance. The great hall on the first floor measures 32 feet by 19 feet. It and another private room occupies all the space of the original first floor. These rooms have the windows facing the sea, being the area from which attack was least likely to come.

The castle stands on the landward end of a narrow peninsula projecting out into the sea and has been greatly enlarged over the centuries towards the sea and sides although much of the original structure remains, especially on the lower two floors. At one time, and at least until 1650 or later, a moat cut off the castle from the land.

Underneath the castle is a great cave into which the sea enters at certain heights of tide and within the castle steps cut out of the rock formed a narrow spiral stair descending into the vault. This stair is now cemented up. It would seem that Dunbeath, like many other Scottish maritime castles, had its seagate. The approach to the castle from the A9 road is by a half mile long avenue through an area of fine woodland.


CALDER History of Caithness Rae 1887
CURLE Inventory of Ancient Monuments of Caithness HMSO 1911
ANDERSON The Scottish Nation (3 vols.) Methuen 1867
MACGIBBON & ROSS The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland Douglas 1889
See Also
Dunbeath Castle