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Castles Sinclair and Girnigoe and the Origin of the Clan Sinclair
The great stronghold of Girnigoe Castle is the most spectacular ruin in the north of Scotland and is built on a high peninsular rock with precipitous cliffs to the sea on three sides. The word goe derives from the Norwegian and means a cave, a rocky creek or inlet or a deep ravine that admits the sea. The castle was, until the invention of the canon, completely impregnable. Built sometime between 1476 and 1496 by William, the 2nd Sinclair Earl, it was cut off from the mainland by two great dry ditches. Various outbuildings were added over a period of time, and the very fine architectural addition known as Castle Sinclair was built in 1606 and the Castles were integrated and used as one, as in many other cases. Local stone from the site was used in the construction of both Castles and the walls look like an extension of the cliff face. The only exception being the red sandstone lintels and corner stones which were probably quarried and brought over from the isle of Eday in Orkney. This is also true of Keiss Castle, another Sinclair stronghold that stands on the other side of Sinclair Bay. The 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Earls occupied the Castle(s). George Sinclair of Keiss, who later became the 7th Earl, was responsible for the destruction of the Castles in about 1690, by the use of canon, forcing Campbell of Glenorchy, who was occupying them, to withdraw.
They have not been occupied since, and are at present owned by our clan chief The Rt.Hon. Malcolm Ian Sinclair the 20th Earl, and let to the Castle Sinclair and Girnigoe Trust with a view to preventing further deterioration. Various works have been carried out already and there are comprehensive plans to preserve what remains for future generations to admire.
The Sinclair's have been part of Caithness history ever since they were granted land there by the Scottish King David 1 (1124-1153) but, even before that early date, Einer had built a castle at Knockinnon when Caithness and Sutherland were still a part of the Norwegian realm.
Einar was the youngest son of Rogenwald ‘the Mighty’ whose descendant Malise II sired a daughter, Isabel, who married Sir William Sinclair of Rosslyn. The latter was a direct descendant of Hrolf ‘the Ganger’, the eldest son of Rogenwald ‘the Mighty’. So we have the descendants of two brothers uniting in marriage. The first child to be born to Sir William and Isabel (in 1345) was none other than Prince Henry Sinclair who, as we have said before, followed in the wake of his Viking ancestors by voyaging to the New World in 1398
Sir William was granted the Duchy of Normandy, by King Charles ‘the Simple’ of France, by a Treaty signed at Castle St Clair-sur-Epte in 911 AD and from which place the Sinclair’s (St Clairs) take their name.
The Earls of Caithness
The autonomous maritime principality known as the Jarldom of Orkney, and the Earldom of Caithness, are the most ancient in geographical Britain. The first recorded Earl was the Norwegian Rognvald, also Earl of Moeri, who was granted the title by King Harald of Norway in 871. He was of the House of Odin and started the Norse line. The title went to the House of Atholl or Royal Scottish line, the Angus line, the Stratherne line before passing to the St. Clair line in 1455. On this basis Malcolm is the 58th holder of the Earldom.
The Sinclair Lineage
Although Caithness became the stronghold of the Sinclair family, it was Rosslyn that was the cradle of the family in Scotland. First of the 'Lordly' line of the high St Clair was William 'the Seemly' who had accompanied Margaret, the Saxon Princess, from Hungary to Scotland in 1057. She eventually married Malcolm II (known as 'Canmore' or Big Head) whilst William was made her 'cupbearer' because he was ‘perfect in all his members'. The King gave him Rosslyn in life-rent but this was eventually changed to 'in free heritage' because of William's service to the King. (He had been killed whilst defending the Scottish borders against an English attack). His son and successor, Henri de St Clair (the first Sinclair to be born in Scotland) took part in, the 1st Crusade and was at the fall of Jerusalem in 1096.
In succeeding years, the Sinclair’s strengthened their position in Scotland. They took part in the Battle of Rosslyn in 1304, (when three English armies of 10,000 men each were defeated in a single day) and at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. King Robert the Bruce presented a sword to another Sir William Sinclair (of the Hermandston Branch). He made another William Sinclair (of the Rosslyn Branch) Bishop of Dunkeld and took his brother, Henry Sinclair, into his own service. It was to this Henry Sinclair that Bruce entrusted the duty of taking his heart to the Holy Land on his death. However, by the time of Bruce's death in 1329, Henry was too old so he passed on the task to his two sons, William and John and to Sir James Douglas, Sir Robert Logan and Sir William Keith. On their way to the Holy Land, they were persuaded to help the Spanish in their battle against the Moors and, for their pains, were killed at the Battle of Teba in 1330. However, the Moors thought so much of the courage of the Scottish knights that they gave permission for their bodies to be returned to Scotland. Sir William Keith, who had survived the battle, had the historic role of returning the heart of Bruce back to Scotland.
Because of the death of the sons of Sir Henry Sinclair in Spain, the Barony of Rosslyn passed directly to his grand son who was yet another William Sinclair. It was this William Sinclair who married the daughter of Malise II, the 'jarl’ of Orkney, which resulted in the 'jarldom' of Orkney eventually coming to the Sinclair’s of Rosslyn. This occurred in 1379 when King Haakon VI of Norway granted the Orcadian Earldom to William's son, Henry Sinclair. This was really the peak of Sinclair power, They owned large Estates throughout Scotland plus 200 strategically placed islands in the North Atlantic ~ the stepping stones to the New World. Prince Henry, as he became known, was also the premier ‘jarl’ of Norway by virtue of his descent from the House of Moere. He was certainly one of the most powerful men in 14th Century Europe, controlling the northern access to the Atlantic Ocean with a large fleet, when ships represented power.
There is compelling evidence to confirm that in 1398, Prince Henry travelled in the wake of his Viking forebears to the New World . Almost 100 years before Columbus is reported to have discovered America, Prince Henry had sailed with an armada of 12 ships, fully crewed and with 200 hundred men-at-arms on board for better protection of the fleet. There is evidence from early maps and from reading the ‘Zeno’ narrative, that Prince Henry was accompanied by fellow Knights Templar, and by Cistercian (farming) monks. After an unsuccessful attempt to land in Markland (Newfoundland) they decided to sail on to Estotiland (Nova Scotia). Five ships were lost, and another two so badly damaged that they had to be abandoned but not before they had been stripped of all valuable materials-including cannon. As a Venetian cannon of the 14th Century was dredged up from the harbour of Louisburgh on Cape Breton Island, it is likely that this was the place where Henry first landed in the New World. The Zeno map, which was the most accurate of its day, would tend to confirm this conclusion. The ‘Jarldom’ of Orkney remained in Sinclair hands until the Northern Isles were handed over to James III of Scotland, as part of the dowry, of Princess Margaret of Denmark in 1471. Thereafter, the Sinclair influence shifted south to Caithness where Prince Henry’s grandson, William, had already been made Earl in 1454.
Earl William’s real claim to fame lies in the building of Rosslyn Chapel in 1446. It is an architectural mystery as well as being a masterpiece. Its carvings are full of symbolism and of great relevance to Templars and to Masons. Much more research has still to be undertaken before we will be able to understand the full message, which Earl William wanted to leave to the World. Of one thing we are certain. Nothing in the Chapel was designed, made or built by chance. Everything has its appointed place and meaning in the overall scheme.
In particular, the strange cubes, which are attached to the under-side of the arches in the retro-choir, have varying symbols on each of their faces. These symbols have specific meanings and, with the use of computers, we hope to be able to determine the order in which these symbols should be read so that we might discover Earl William’s coded message.
It is a message, which could have great significance for mankind.
However it is to Caithness that most Sinclairs look when trying to trace their ancestry.
Plans for the Future.
We wish to ensure that our history will be preserved and be more readily available for Sinclairs (and others) to study. With this in mind, Ian Sinclair, whose family hails from Thurso, has purchased the 35-acre Noss Head Light House estate, and its associated buildings, which stand on the promontory next to Castles Sinclair and Girnigoe. It is, therefore, ideally placed - historically and geographically.
As some of the buildings come under a Grade A classification, it was necessary to apply for permission for a change of use and to make the desired alterations to change part of the complex into a residential Library, Museum, and Study Centre. A very comfortable three-bedroomed house has already been created with an adjoining twin-bunked self-catering bothy. Another outhouse-stableblock will also be converted into suitable student self-catering accommodation when we have sufficient funds.
The Study Centre has already received over 300 rare historical books, gifted by Niven Sinclair, one of the Trustees of the Sinclair and Girnigoe Castles Trust, and this is to be added to by books which the late James Whittall has donated. Indeed, it is proposed to have a plaque in recognition of the work of James Whittall in identifying Newport Tower in Rhode Island with the voyage of Prince Henry Sinclair in 1398. Many other books and documents have also been promised from our friends and supporters, especially by Guy Jourdan, who has the finest collection of Templar books in France.
When the Centre is up and running we will then turn our attention to the castles where much remedial work has to be done. Although an access road to Castles Sinclair and Girnigoe has already been built it still requires upkeep to keep it in good condition. This is an ongoing project on which we have had valuable assistance from the owner of the land, farmer Andrew Morgan.
It is our intention to invite the local employment agencies to encourage young unemployed people from the area to take part in the maintenance of the many historic sites that stud the Caithness landscape. They will also be invited to assist in the archaeological ‘digs’ working under the supervision of qualified field staff. Tutorials, to capture their enthusiasm about the rich heritage on their doorstep, would also be part of their training.