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History of Caithness
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During the time John Earl of Caithness governed the county, our local annals do not furnish us with any public events of much interest or importance. The event to which most interest attaches was the meeting at Thurso in 1700 of the Commis sioners appointed by the General Assembly to visit Orkney, Shetland, and Caithness. Their names were Messrs John Brand, minister of Borrowstoness; John Sandilands, minister of Dolphington; James Hart, minister of Ratho, and A1exander Lauder, minister of Mordington. They met with the Presbytery of Caithness on the 20th of June, and continued in session, occupied with ecclesiastical business, for the four following days. The principal case that came before them was that of one Arthur Anderson, who is described as “a pretended, preaching deacon,” and who was in the habit of itinerating through Orkney arid Caithness, and of making a trade of marrying and baptising irregularly. Among other parties, he had married David Sinclair of Broynach and a woman Janet Ewen, with whom Sinclair had cohabited for some time. A number of witnesses were cited and examined as to Anderson’s imputed irregularities, and, after a full and lengthened investigation of the several charges brought against him, inc1uding that of drunkenness, he was unanimously found guilty, and deposed. The sentence bore that he was henceforth not to perform any ministerial function within the kingdom, under the highest penalty of the church. The great onus of Anderson’s offence was, that he had married parties and administered the rite of baptism to the children of parties who had proved contumacious and refused to satisfy church discipline. In a paper of his which was handed into the court, for he did not appear there personally or by counsel, he signs himself late minister of Kilmeny, from which it would appear that he had a charge in the south before he came to Caithness. I have been the more particular in noticing this case of Anderson, from the circumstance that his marriage of David Sinclair of Broynach was afterwards pronounced irregular by the highest legal authority in the kingdom, and that it vitiated the claim of his grandson, James Sinclair, for the title of Earl of Caithness. Earl John died in 1705, and was succeeded by his son Alexander, who married Lady Margaret Primrose, daughter of the Earl of Rosebery. He was present at the last Scots Parliament in 1707, when the Treaty of Union was discussed, but he appears to have declined voting. Mr Dunbar, younger of Hempriggs, commissioner for the burgh of Wick, voted for the measure.
In the month of March, 1709, one of the magistrates of Thurso, named Lawrence Calder, was deliberately shot dead, in broad day light, on the principal street of the town, by William Sinclair, son of the Commissary of Caithness. Along with him were two accomplices, Robert Munro and William Macalister, both belonging to the parish of Reay. The three culprits managed to evade the punishment due to their crime by flight. The presbytery took up the case, and after solemn deliberation and prayer, passed on them the sentence of the greater excommunication. This sentence, once so fraught with terror, is engrossed at full length in the minutes of presbytery; and as it may interest the reader to see the terms in which it is couched, we copy it verbatim :-“As by the word of God and the law of nations, the heinous guilt of murder and the shedding of innocent blood, renders the murderers liable to the highest capital punishment, so by the Acts of the General Assembly of this church, such as are guilty of atrocious, horrid murder are appointed to be excommunicated from the society of the faithful, and to be delivered ever to Satan, for the punishment of the flesh, that the soul may be saved in the day of the Lord. And the presbytery finding that William Sinclair, son to the late Commissary of Caithness, did, barbarously, feloniously, and deliberately, murder the body of Lawrence Calder, late bailie of Thurso, by shooting him with a pistol in the back; and, further, finding it proven by witnesses that Robert Munro in Reay, and William Macalister in Fresgo, in Sandside in the parish of Reay, were partakers with the foresaid murderer in this bloody tragedy; therefore the presbytery, after solemn prayer to God for counsel and direction, and being moved with zeal for the glory of God, the uttermost detestation of the foresaid villainy, for the purging the Lord’s house and church of all such rotten, wretched, and corrupt members, did, and hereby do, according to the power committed to them by the Lord Jesus Christ, the great King and Head of this church, Excommunicate and Deliver over to Satan the fore-named persons, William Sinclair, Robert Munro, and William Macalister, obtesting and entreating all and sundry to whose ears this dreadful sentence shall come, to look on them as heathens and infidels, who by their horrid wickedness have cut off themselves from the mystical body of Christ Jesus, and are hereby Declaratively cut off, in His name, from the privileges and benefits of His house, ay and until they repent and abhor themselves, in dust and ashes, for their atrocious crimes, and make application to the judicatories of this church for having this dreadful sentence, so justly inflicted, taken off; and, finally, these are to give warning that none receipt, entertain, or harbour the foresaid murderers, or have any unnecessary correspondence with them, as they would not come under the same guilt, and be in God’s account found liable to the same sentence.”
The same minutes of presbytery also contain a copy of an address to the Queen (Anne) drawn up at the instance of the magistrates and Town Council of Thurso, in which, after setting forth the many murders and atrocities that are being daily committed in the county, it is humbly and earnestly solicited that her Majesty would be pleased to order some soldiers to be stationed within the bounds, so as to strengthen the hands of the magistracy, and enable them to put the law in execution against offenders.
About three years afterwards an occurrence took place in Caithness which created a considerable sensation in the county at the time. This was a duel which was fought by two of the proprietors -Alexander Sinclair of Olrig and William Innes, younger of Sandside. Sinclair of Olrig, who, it is said, was proud of his strength and moreover a man of a quarrelsome disposition, insulted the elder Innes at a public meeting in Thurso, and the result was a challenge from his son. The principals, with their seconds, met at a place called Tongside, about seven miles south from Thurso. Their weapons were swords; and after fighting for some time, Innes gave his antagonist a wound, of which he died in the course of a few hours. On this he and Sinclair of Dunn, his second, immediately fled the country. Innes went to Germany, and having entered the army there was promoted to the rank of captain. Meantime Donald Sinclair, son of the deceased, raised a criminal process against them before the Sheriff of Caithness for murder; but in consequence of the absence of the parties, it was not brought to any decision. After the lapse of a few years, both received a remission of the crime for which they had fled, and returned to Caithness. Captain Innes, however, was so much afraid of his life from the relatives of the man whom he had unfortunately slain that he ever after kept a strong muscular Highlander as a life-guard, who accompanied him wherever he went. He (Innes) died about the year 1747. He is said to have been a very stout man, and from his large stature was called “Captain More,” or the big captain. Having no issue, he left his estate to his cousin, Harry Tunes of Borlum. Since the publication of the first edition of this work, I have received the following additional particulars respecting this famous duel :-“ The meeting at Thurso was that of the Michaelmas court in September. After the business was conçluded, the whole of the gentlemen present dined together and indulged, it is said, very deeply in the bottle. James Innes of Sandside, who was well advanced in life, retired to another apartment of the house in order to take some repose. When the reckoning came to be paid, Olrig, without any ceremony, entered the room in which Sandside was sleeping, and dragged him by force to the drinking table to pay his share of the bill. The old man and his son, William, who was also present, highly resented the indignity, and the latter, on his father’s behalf, challenged Olrig. On the morning of the day appointed for the duel, while on his way to Tongside, Innes called on the minister of Reay, Mr John Munro, and consulted him whether he would fight Olrig or not. The minister, it is said, advised him to go forward, adding that, with the Divine assistance, he would come off victorious! Olrig had slept the previous evening at Dale, the seat of his father-in-law, Mr Budge. He was accompanied to Tongside by his seconds, William Sutherland of Geise and Henderson of Westerdale, and Sandside by his seconds, Alexander Sinclair of Dunn and Donald Gunn, his father’s factor. They fought nearly an hour, when at length, taking advantage of a favourable opportunity, Tunes gave Olrig a stab in the breast which eventually proved fatal.”
The exiled Stuarts had many friends among the better class of families in Caithness, and in l7451 not a few of them warmly espoused the cause of “bonnie Prince Charlie.” Circumstances, however, prevented them from giving him any effective aid. Alexander Sinclair, Earl of Caithness, who then lived at Haymar, and George Sinclair of Ulbster, the sheriff of the county, were both staunch friends to Government, and gave no countenance to the rebellion. Early in the spring of 1746, Lord Macleod, son of the Earl of Cromarty, entered the county with a body of the rebels under his charge, for the purpose of procuring men. They fixed their head-quarters in Thurso, where they billetted themselves on the inhabitants. From thence they went in detached parties through the several parishes, beating up and down for recruits, and endeavouring to enlist the sympathies of the people in behalf of the prince, whom they represented as the rightful heir to the throne. They wore white cockades in their bonnets, and were all armed. Their conduct was inoffensive, and they offered no violence to any one. Notwithstanding their peaceable deportment, the inhabitants in general, and particularly the women, unaccustomed as they were to the sight of armed men, and those armed men rebels, were greatly alarmed at their first appearance in the county. Several families hid themselves in caves and subterranean recesses along the coast; while others deposited their little money underground, and fled, some to Lord Reay’s country, and some to the Orkneys. In order to expedite matters, Cromarty himself set out for Caithness; but he had scarcely reached the entrance into the county, when he heard of the advance of the Duke of Cumberland, and at the same time received instructions to hasten forward with all his available force to Inverness, where the main body of the Highlanders were assembled. Lord Macleod, with the party he commanded, hastily marched from Caithness to join his father in Sutherland, and both, in a day or two after, partly by treachery, were taken prisoners in the castle of Dunrobin. It would appear that on this occasion Cromarty, so far from exhibiting any tact as a leader, did not exercise even ordinary prudence and circumspection. Sir Walter Scott says :2_ "The Earl amid his son remained at the castle witnessing the tricks of a juggler; while his men, 350 in number, were marched under the command of subaltern officers, and with little precaution, on to the ferry, where they were to embark. Thither they were chased by comparatively a mere handful of the Sutherland militia, and the greater part of them were destroyed.” In the Statistical Account of the Parish of Loth it is said that the Earl of Cromarty’s men committed several outrages, and, among others, burnt the mansion-houses of Kintradwell and Crakaig. It is also added that two of his officers who had wandered into the glen of Loth after their return from Caithness were killed by three men who met them there. If the defeat at Culloden had not occurred so soon it is believed that a considerable body of Caithnessmen would have joined the rebels; but the news of this unexpected disaster came like a thunderbolt on the principal Jacobites in the county, and blasted all their hopes. “Many in Caithness,” says Mackay, “had purposed to join the rebel standard, and were at considerable pains to persuade others, and several of them assumed the rank of captains, lieutenants, ensigns, etc., but a fear of being interrupted by the Royalists prevented them from marching southwards.” Not a few of the ladies, to show their zeal in the cause, wore the prince’s miniature suspended by a ribbon round their necks. About forty-five men joined Lord Macleod in Caithness, and before leaving the county the only compulsory measure he used was that of obliging the landholders to pay a part of the land tax. One of our Caithness proprietors, John Sutherland, Esq. of Forse, was a staunch friend of Government. This gentleman, grandfather of the present Mr Sutherland of Forse, raised a company of men on his own estate, had them enrolled among the “London Highlanders,”3 and was with them as their captain in the celebrated battle of Culloden. Caithness, therefore, may be justly said to have had her share in the achievement of that field which happily and at once placed on a firm foundation the civil and religious liberty of the country. After the battle a party of soldiers was sent to apprehend Sinclair of Scotscalder, who had rendered himself particularly obnoxious to Government. Having got notice of their approach, he withdrew, and hid himself in the hills of Dorrery. When the party made their appearance at his house, his lady courteously invited them in, and regaled them with plenty of meat amid drink. They seemed much pleased with their reception, and after a brief search they departed. The visit, happily for the laird, was not renewed; and his “meditation” among the hills is said to have cured him of his Jacobitism.
Alexander Sinclair, Earl of Caithness, died in ] 765, leaving only one daughter, Lady Dorothea Sinclair, who married the Earl of Fife. He was succeeded in the property by Sir John Sinclair of Stevenson (Haddingtonshire), as heir-substitute under the entail executed by the Earl of his lands of Murkle and others. The estate is at present possessed by Sir John’s grandson, Admiral Sir John Gordon Sinclair. On the demise of the late Earl, two claimants appeared for the title, namely, James Sinclair of Broynach4 and William Sinclair of Ratter. A long process took place. The case was finally brought before the British Parliament, and in that last court of appeal Ratter carried the peerage in 1772.
At this time (1772) there occurred a striking instance of the disorderly and lawless habits of the natives of the parish of Reay. A vessel, called the “John,” of Liverpool, laden with iron and deals from the Baltic, was wrecked in a storm near Sandside, and the greater part of the crew were drowned. A Mr James Hogg, a native of the south, who then occupied the farm of Borlum, treated the survivors with every possible kindness, and endeavoured to save as much of the cargo as he could for the behoof of the owners. The country people, as was usual in such cases, poured down in numbers to plunder the wreck. With the assistance of his servants and one or two constables from Thurso, Mr Hogg put a check to the pillage, and, moreover, made a rigid search in the houses of the peasantry for the recovery of what of the property had been carried away. This so exasperated them that they combined to destroy him and his family by setting his house on fire in the night time. The chief agents in this diabolical attempt were Alexander Macdonald, William Elder, George Miller, and Robert Farquhar, tenants in Isauld. They were indicted for wilful fire-raising, and tried before the Justiciary Court at Inverness. After a trial of eleven hours, the jury, with one voice, found the libel proven against William Elder and Alexander Macdonald. The Advocate Depute having restricted the libel to an arbitrary punishment, they were sentenced to be publicly whipped in Wick and Thurso, receiving in each of these places twenty-five stripes on their naked backs, and thereafter to be banished to the Plantations. Mr Hogg, who was in daily terror of his life in a hostile neighbourhood, ultimately threw up his farm, and emigrated with his family to America.
About this time a band of robbers, consisting of some ten or twelve of the strongest men in the county, carried on a regular system of burglary by breaking into houses, shops, and granaries, and abstracting therefrom, money, goods, and meal, to a large extent. They were mostly all individuals in good circumstances; and it would appear to have been nothing but sheer covetousness that prompted to this dishonest course. They resided in different parishes, but they kept up a secret correspondence, and had certain places where they met from time to time, and concocted their villanous schemes. The county was then entirely destitute of anything in the shape of police. It had not even a sufficient prison or lock-up for malefactors; and such of the inhabitants as were possessed of any little means or money, lived in constant dread of a visit from the gang. There was a large granary at Murkle well stored with victual, belonging to the proprietor of the district. The robbers had forcibly entered it and carried off a rich booty in meal. Not long after this, one Swanson, an inhabitant of Thurso, nicknamed Canny, was returning home in the evening along with some other persons from a market in Olrig, and the conversation turning on the recent robbery, he happened to say that if he chose, he could tell who they were that broke into the store-house at Murkle. This being reported to some of the band, he was decoyed out one night after he had gone to bed, and the next morning was found lying dead at a short distance from the town, with seemingly the mark of a joiner’s hammer on his forehead. In order to make it appear as if his death had been the result of accident, the body was laid to an old stone fence, with the feet uppermost, and the forehead resting on a sharp stone. This clumsy attempt at disguise excited the public suspicion more strongly. From the appearance of the wound and other circumstances, there could be no doubt that the poor man was foully murdered. A precognition was made, but it failed in bringing out any positive proof of guilt against the parties suspected.
The villains now laid a desperate plot to murder William Sinclair, the Laird of Freswick, who was believed to have a considerable sum of money in his repositories, which they resolved to seize on and divide among themselves. Mr Sinclair, who was a man of peculiar habits, resided at the time in a large house which he had lately erected on the south side of the bay of Freswick. The following minute account of the discovery of the plot, and of the punishment of the robbers, is given by Robert Mackay :-“ This gentleman (Mr Sinclair) had got into a habit of lying in bed awake all night, during which one of his numerous tenants alternately sat beside him. The murder and robbery were to be perpetrated on the night on which Donald Rugg, one of his tenants, who was one of the band, was to sit up with him, of which he was to give previous notice to his accomplices. A few days before it came to Rugg’s turn to attend his landlord - the latter having had occasion to send a bearer with a letter to Mr Henderson of Stempster on some business - Rugg sent a letter by the same bearer, addressed to John Swanson, joiner, in Thurso, another of the band, to whom he was to deliver it. When he arrived at Stempster, as he could not read, he gave both letters to Mr Henderson, who, on being informed that the one to Swanson had come from Rugg, both of whom were suspected to belong to the band, desired the bearer to return home, saying that he would convey the other letter to Thurso by a runner he was sending there. He broke open the letter, the import of which was that the ‘black ox’ was to be killed on a certain night. He sent the letter to Mr John Sinclair, sheriff-depute of the county, who was son of Mr Sinclair of Freswick, with a list of the suspected persons. Mr Sinclair immediately despatched a party of twenty-four Highlanders from Dunbeath, who seized most of the band, some of whom afterwards turned evidence by which and other means the plot was discovered. They were tried by a jury, and having been publicly whipped were banished the county. Some of them had fled, and escaped punishment.” Swanson, the joiner in Thurso, who was considered the leader of the gang, and was common1y known by the appellation of “Achgillan,” was a tall, handsome fine-looking man, and connected by marriage with a respectable family in the county. His mother-in-law, a woman of proud spirit, felt very deeply the disgrace which he had brought upon them, and on the day on which he was to be whipped, came purposely to Thurso to witness the punishment. The town was full of people from all parts of the county attracted thither by the novelty of the spectacle. While the culprit was being flogged, the old lady, his mother-in-law stood looking on with much apparent satisfaction, and is said to have called out to the man with the lash, “Lay it well into the scoundrel, and don’t spare; he richly deserves all that he can get.” Being a determined character, and possessed of more than ordinary talent, Swanson was transported to the Plantations; and, his success in after life was not a little remarkable. When the Colonies rebelled against the mother country, in 1775, he heartily espoused the cause, volunteered into the service, and rose, it is said, in the revolutionary army, to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Rugg, the Canisbay robber, escaped punishment by flight. He went to America, also, but of his future career in that part of the world, whether he became a reformed man, or committed deeds which brought him to the gibbet, there is no account. His relatives in Caithness were very respectable people; and he had a nephew, David Rugg, who was many years an elder in the Church of Canisbay. Another of the gang, nicknamed “Brunty,” was long known about Edinburgh as a common street beggar. He was a rough featured, dark complexioned man, wore on his head a soldier’s bonnet, and generally took imp his position at the Tron Church, where he might be seen for hours importuning the passengers for money.
While on this subject, I may give some account of a celebrated bandit, named David Marshall, who flourished in the county some time before the event which has just been described, and who was in many respects an extraordinary character. Marshall lived at a place called Backlas, in the parish of Watten. His real name was Sutherland, and he was a native of Kildonan, on the borders of Sutherlandshire. In the traditional annals of Caithness, he is styled, par excellence, the Robber of Backlas. This daring vagabond, who supported himself entirely by robbery, was upwards of six feet in height, stout in proportion, and possessed of extraordinary bodily strength. It has been truly said that “none are all evil.” Nature rarely produces monsters in the moral world any more than in the animal kingdom. The very worst characters have often some good points about them; and the Robber of Backlas was not without some redeeming qualities also. To the poor he was uniformly kind and generous, and seldom meddled with anything belonging to them. It was the rich only, or such as could spare a portion of their means, that he robbed. His creed was that this world’s goods were very unfairly divided, and that the man who had not enough was perfectly justified in taking from him who had a superabundance.
Marshall openly attended all the country markets in the neighbourhood, equipped in full Highland costume, with dirk and broadsword; and when any of the small farmers or cottars of his acquaintance disposed of any of their live stock, they had such perfect confidence in his honesty in this matter, that they handed him their money as to a banker, in order to be kept for them until it was called for. Without this precaution, they ran the risk such was the condition of the county at the time of having their cash taken from them by other thieves before they reached home. In “Guy Mannering” the notorious Dick Hatteraick is represented as saying that he always acted honestly by his employers, and never cheated them of a stiver. The Robber of Backlas could have made a similar averment in regard to his conduct as banker for the poor. He never proved unfaithful to his trust, or appropriated to his own use a single farthing of their money.
Of the various anecdotes
which tradition has preserved respecting Marshall, the following is
perhaps one of the most curious and interesting. The
proprietor of Pennyland sent one day for one of his tenants, named
John Tait, whom he was in the habit of employing on confidential
“This is not bad stuff, friend,” said he, smacking his ljps “I had it from the laird of Stangergill’s cellar.”
After chatting together for half an hour, they rose to depart.
“I’m on my way to Helmsdale,” said Marshall, “and as it is possible you may meet some of my friends on the road, show them this (handing him a bit of soiled paper with the initials ‘D. M.’ rudely scrawled on it), and they will allow you to pass on without the least molestation. By the bye,” added he “one of my flrelocks is getting rather the worse of the wear If you please, I will relieve you of the one you have belonging to the laird, your master, and you may tell him, with compliments, that I will keep it for his sake.”
John gave him the weapon, very glad to get off so easily. They then bade each other good bye, shook hands at parting and continued their respective journeys. John fortunately met with none of Marshall’s associates, and had no occasion make use of his passport. On reaching home, he repaired immediately to the residence of his master, delivered him the full sum of money, and astonished him not a little with an account of his adventure with David Marshall at the Ord.
In his more daring exploits as a robber, Marshall generally availed himself of the aid of accomplices. With their assistance he had twice broken into the castle of Keiss, and once into the castle of Dunbeath. In a second attempt on the latter castle a desperate encounter with fire-arms took place between the domestics and the robbers. The latter were in the end obliged to take to flight. One of the gang was killed by a musket shot; and Marshall, it is said, carried the dead body on his back all the way from Dunbeath to Dirlet, in the parish of Halkirk, where the man resided.
Many attempts were made for a long time to seize Marshall, but he either beat off the parties sent to apprehend him, or dexterously eluded their search. At length Sir William Sinclair of Keiss, who suffered much from his predatory visits, was determined, if possible, to take him, and put a stop to his lawless proceedings. With this view he got together twelve of the strongest men on the estate, and, heading the party himself, set off one night for the residence of the robber. They reached Backlas a little after daylight; and having ascertained that he was at home, Sir William ordered six of the party, to keep watch outside, while he with the other six forced open the door of the hut and rushed in with loaded pistols in their hands. Marshall had just risen from bed, and was in the act of combing his hair, which, not having been subjected to the scissors for years, was of great length.
“If you stir a foot, or make the least resistance,” cried Sir William, presenting a pistol to his breast, “you are a dead man.”
The robber for once appeared utterly confounded and paralysed. He made no attempt to resist the party, but quietly allowed himself to be handcuffed; and in this state he was marched off to Wick, and lodged in jail. His malpractices and deeds of robbery were so notorious that it was deemed quite unnecessary in his case to go through the formality of a trial. After remaining in durance for a few days, he was taken out, publicly whipped, and banished from Caithness.
He retired to his native county, but, as he still continued to follow his old profession, the authorities in Sutherland subsequently managed to get him transported to America. Another account says that Marshall and an accomplice of his, named Donald Miller, were tried before George Sinclair of Ulbster, the Sheriff, as heritable justiciary, and were condemned to be executed. Marshall procured a suspension of his sentence and was ordered to Edinburgh for trial, but contrived to escape from those who had charge of him in passing through Sutherland. Miller was hanged in Thurso; and it is added, he was the last person who suffered capital punishment by the heritable sheriff of Caithness. Nor was burglary confined to the male sex. In a minute of the records of the burgh of Wick (6 Jany., 1710) there are no fewer than eight charges of this nature brought against one Agnes Reilly or Sutherland. One of these charges is entering the Manse of Wick at night, and stealing a guinea and some silver out of the breeches of the minister, the Rev. James Oliphant, while he was asleep! Another of the charges is, in the words of the record, “coming to the dwelling house of Alex. Doull, bailie in Wick, and stealing furth thereof at severall times ane silver tumbler of twall ounces weight, ane pynt and chopin boule full of rum, nine table napkins, ane long muslen gravat (cravat), and certain quantities of meal and other things.” The punishment she received is not known, as one or two of the leaves in this part of the record are torn from the volume.
William Sinclar, Earl of Caithness, died in 1782. His son John, Lord Berriedale, was at the time in America. He entered the army when a young man, and rose to be major of the 76th regiment, or, as they were called, the Macdonald Highianders. It was the hottest period of the unfortunate war in the colonies. The Macdonald Highlanders were ordered to America; and the command having devolved upon his lordship, he embarked with his regiment for New York, where they landed in the month of August, 1779. He was present at the siege of Charlestown, and was severely wounded on that occasion. Having on the death of his father become Earl of Caithness, he returned to Britain, and died unmarried soon after in London. The earldom then descended to Sir James Sinclair of Mey, in whose family it still remains.
During the first burst of the French Revolution, which threatened to overturn every kingdom in Europe, the national defences became a subject of anxious consideration to Government. At this fearful crisis, rendered still more alarming by the state of matters in Ireland, several patriotic noblemen and landed gentlemen throughout Scotland, prompted by a high spirit of loyalty, offered to Mr Pitt to raise fencible regiments for the general safety, in their respective counties, as auxiliaries to the line, and to take the command of them themselves. This offer was gladly accepted by the Premier, who issued letters of service accordingly. The patriotic example of arming in defence of the country was followed throughout the whole of Scotland. Every district had its band of armed citizens. Burns, in his impassioned song of the “Dumfries Volunteers,” has happily expressed the martial spirit of the period -
“Does haughty Gaul invasion
Among the first who nobly came forward in this emergency was the celebrated Sir John Sinclair. In the course of a few months he raised a body of 600 men - chiefly from his own estate in Caithness-and was invested with the full rank of colonel. They were appropriately named the Caithness Fencibles; but as Caithness and Bute then united in sending alternately a member to Parliament, and the Prince of Wales was pleased to grant permission that Rothesay, his chief seat in Scotland, should be added, they were subsequently called the Rothesay and Caithness Fencibles. Their uniform differed from that of the other fencible corps. It consisted of a bonnet and feathers, with a plaid thrown across the shoulders, tartan pantaloons, surmounted with a strip of yellow along the seams, a fringe of tartan on the outside of the thigh, and the same around the ankle. The regiment was embodied at Inverness in the month of October, 1794, and passed a highly favourable inspection before Lieutenant-General Sir Hector Munro. In their handsome uniform they had a remarkably fine appearance; and the tallness of their officers, nineteen of whom exceeded six feet in height, attracted particular notice. The first station of the regiment was at Aberdeen, where they lay encamped for six months. They were ordered there by the Commander-in-Chief for the purpose of defending that city in the event of an invasion (which was then much apprehended) of the French army in Holland. After doing duty in different quarters through Scotland this battalion was reduced in 1799. In 1795, Sir John raised a second battalion of 1000 effective men, under the designation of the “Caithness Highlanders,” whose service was extended to Ireland. Their uniform was the. same as that of the first battalion. Captain Benjamin Williamson of Banniskirk was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel. After being inspected by Lieutenant-General Hamilton at Forfar, the Caithness Highlanders were immediately sent over to Ireland, where they did duty, in camp and barracks, during the whole period of the Rebellion. In 1798 an address was presented to the lieutenant-colonel of the regiment by Viscount Gosford, in name of the magistrates of Armagh, thanking the officers, non-commissioned officers, and men for their excellent conduct and efficient services. In 1802 the regiment returned to Scotland, and was disbanded in Edinburgh. “Sir John Sinclair,” says the writer of a memoir of his life, “made them a farewell speech in front of his house in Charlotte Square, where refreshments were liberally served out to the regiment; and after three enthusiastic cheers for their much honoured colonel, the soldiers then dispersed, though many of them enlisted immediately afterwards to serve abroad.”
But the patriotic conduct of Sir John Sinclair was not the only instance of the kind evinced by the remote county of Caithfless, at a period so fraught with impending danger to the country. In 1795 the late Lord Duffus, then Sir Benjamin Dunbar of Hempriggs, raised another fencible corps of about 700 strong, under the title of the “Caithness Legion.” Their uniform consisted of the usual red coat, with white facings, white breeches and leggins, and a helmet covered with bearskin. The acting colonel, when Sir Benjamin himself was not present with the regiment, was Lieutenant-Colonel William Munro, afterwards Lieutenant-General Munro. William Innes of Sandside was major. The legion went to Ireland soon after they were embodied, where they did duty for seven years, and were disbanded at Inverness in 1802. About 200 men from the two fencible corps volunteered into the 78th, 92d, and 42d regiments, and went with them to Egypt. Not a few of the Caithness common soldiers in this expedition, by their good behaviour and personal gallantry, rose to be commissioned officers. Among others, the meritorious conduct of Sergeant Alexander Waters, a native of the parish of Olrig, who had volunteered into the 78th or Ross-shire Highlanders, is deserving of particular notice. At the battle of El Hamet, which proved so disastrous to the small detachment of troops engaged in it, he saved, at a critical moment, and with great risk to himself, the life of Major Cohn Mackay of Bighouse, then a captain in the 78th. The circumstance is thus described by Colonel David Stewart of Garth. “At length, when there were only eleven of the Highlanders, and an equally small number of the 35th left standing, Captain Mackay, seeing that further resistance would only expose the whole to speedy destruction, determined to make a desperate push to join the centre. He charged through the enemy, when several succeeded in gaining the position, but others dropped on the way either killed or wounded. Captain Mackay was wounded in two places before he pushed off to the centre. When he had nearly reached the post, an Arab horseman cut at his neck with such force, that had it not been for the cape of his coat, and a stuffed neck-cloth, both of which were unusually thick, his head would no doubt have been severed from his body. As it was, the sabre cut to the bones I and laid him flat to the ground, when he was taken up and I carried into the post by his sergeant, now a lieutenant in the regiment, the only individual who escaped unhurt.” On his retiring on half-pay, Lieutenant Waters married, and took up his residence in his native parish. He was a fine soldierly looking man, and was much respected by all classes of the community. He died in 1830.
On the 25th December, 1806, Caithness was visited by a hurricane of unprecedented violence. Its occurrence forms an era in the annals of the county, and is still talked of as the “windy Christmas.” The morning of that day opened without any appearances in the sky to indicate the near approach of such a fearful visitation. The wind began at first to blow from the west, but afterwards it changed to the north-west, and raged with a fury that threatened to carry every thing before it. The bay of Dunnet was tossed into mountains of boiling foam, and latterly its entire surface from side to side presented the appearance of one immense sheet of spray drifting towards the sands at the bottom of the inlet. The damage done to property throughout the county was incalculable. The houses of the peasantry were mostly all unroofed; whole stackyards were thrown down, and their contents scattered and swept away by the resistless element. There were at the time several fishing smacks from Gravesend lying in Scrabster Roads. Most of the skippers and some of the crews had gone ashore to have a jollification in the public house at the “Rings;” and when the hurricane came on, they could not get aboard their vessels. Three of the smacks that, from their position in the bay, were more exposed to the wind than the rest, broke adrift from their moorings, and, being unable to work out, were forced down the bay of Dunnet. One came ashore on the sands, near the burn of Garth, another below the house of Castlehill, and a third at Murkle.
A sloop called the “Fisher,” belonging to Thurso, was driven on the rocks below the castle of Thurso East. To the astonishment of every one, none of the hands in any of the four vessels were lost. But the most remarkable thing was the escape which one smack made by running to Orkney in the very height of the storm, and through a sea in which it was believed no vessel could live for any time. All the crew of this smack were ashore except one man and a boy. The man, whose name was James Mackay, was a native of Mey, in the parish of Canisbay. As the boy could be of no use to him in the circumstances, he shut him down in the cabin to keep him from being washed overboard, and after trimming the craft as well as he could, he lashed himself to the helm, and by an incredible effort succeeded in bringing her safely into Widewall bay - a feats we venture to say, unparalleled in the history of seamanship. The extraordinary exertion, however, which he made seriously injured his constitution, which was naturally strong. He fell into bad health, and died not long after. Mackay was an unmarried man, quiet and reserved in manner, and of an excellent character. At the time of his death, he might be about 27 years of age.
1. In the previous insurrection, in 1715, a similar strong feeling in favour of the Stuarts was manifested by a number of the Caithness proprietors. Sir Robert Dunbar of Northfield appeared with a party at the cross of Wick, and openly drank the health of the Chevalier; while David Sinclair of Brabsterdorran joined the Earl of Mar, and was present at the battle of Sheriffmuir.
2. Tales of a Grandfather
The “London Highianders” were raised in 1745. The regiment consisted
of twelve companies, numbering in all 1250 men. Their colonel
was John Campbell, Earl of London, and their lieutenant-colonel John
Campbell, Duke of Argyle. Only a part of the regiment was
engaged at Culloden. The Earl of Cromarty and his son were
both brought to London and convicted of high treason, but their
lives were spared. Lord Macleod afterwards rose to the rank of
Major-General in the British service in India, and the forfeited
title and estates were
restored to the family. He died in 1789 without issue.
4. James Sinclair of Broynach, who
claimed the earldom in preference to William Sinclair of Ratter, was
son of David Sinclair of Broynach, cousin of Alexander, the ninth
Earl. As a lineal descendant of Sir James Sinclair of Murkle,
the eldest brother of George, the fifth Earl, he had undoubtedly a
better claim to the title than William of Ratter, who was only a
lineal descendent of Sir John Sinclair of Greenland, the Earl’s
second brother. Broynach’s claim, however, would seem to have
been vitiated by his grandfather’s marriage with Janet Ewen not
having been found valid. He died in 1788 without issue.
4. James Sinclair of Broynach, who claimed the earldom in preference to William Sinclair of Ratter, was son of David Sinclair of Broynach, cousin of Alexander, the ninth Earl. As a lineal descendant of Sir James Sinclair of Murkle, the eldest brother of George, the fifth Earl, he had undoubtedly a better claim to the title than William of Ratter, who was only a lineal descendent of Sir John Sinclair of Greenland, the Earl’s second brother. Broynach’s claim, however, would seem to have been vitiated by his grandfather’s marriage with Janet Ewen not having been found valid. He died in 1788 without issue.