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History of Caithness
J. T. Calder
Chapter 7 

 Index & Introduction  Chap One  Chap Two  Chap Three  Chap Four  Chap Five  Chap Six

JOHN SINCLAIR, who was slain in Orkney, was succeeded by his son George, who married Elizabeth Graham, daughter of the Earl of Montrose.1  This George was distinguished for talent and political intrigue, and became possessed of greater influence in the north than any of his predecessors.  All his authority, however, was inadequate to suppress the intestine feuds that from time to time broke out in the county.  In the autumn of 1561, William and Angus Sutherland, of Berriedale, committed some gross outrages in Caithness, and killed several of the inhabitants of the name of Clyne, against whom they had a grudge.  For these acts the Earl of Caithness banished them from the county, and took possession of their castle of Berriedale.  But they soon returned again; and being assisted by Hugh Murray of Aberseross, in Sutherland, they retook the castle, and by the admission of Sir Robert Gordon, “brunt and wasted all the country next adjacent, and molested Catteyness with divers incursions.”  John, Earl of Sutherland, it was believed, countenanced these proceedings.  At all events, he threw his protecting shield over the aggressors; and by his interest at Court obtained from Queen Mary, then newly arrived in Scotland, a pardon for William and Angus Sutherland and their accomplices. This interference on the part of the Earl of Sutherland greatly exasperated Earl George, and laid the foundation of that hatred which the two houses of Sutherland and Caithness for a long period after bore to each other.

In the year 1556, the Earl of Caithness obtained an hereditary grant of the office of Justiciary, with full power of life and death over Caithness and Sutherland.  “The charter conferring these rights,” says Sir Robert Gordon, “was obtained by credit and means of the Earl of Bothwell, because the Earl of Caithness was then a plotter with him of King Henry’s death, and was thereafter a partner with him in the execution of that enterprise with the Earl of Bothwell, whose sister2 the Earl of Caithness’ eldest son married.”

Sir Robert loudly accuses Buchanan of prejudice and partiality in his History of Scotland; and there is no doubt of the truth of the charge.  But, unfortunately, the worthy baronet is guilty of the very same fault which he imputes to that historian. He evidently bears no good feeling to the Caithness family, and throughout he makes the most of their misdeeds, and paints them in the very blackest colours.  The first George, Earl of Caithness, was certainly not over-burdened with principle; but it does not appear from the history of the period that he had any participation in the murder of Darnley. It is true that at the trial of Bothwell he was chancellor of the jury that acquitted him; but although there can be no doubt of the guilt of Bothwell, the jury, under the circumstances, could not have given any other verdict. Robertson, the historian allows this, and says that “the Earl of Caithness protested in their name that no crime should be imputed to them on that account, because no accuser had appeared, and no proof was brought of the indictment.”  It is also true that after the mock trial - for it was nothing else - the Earl of Caithness, along with the other Popish and Protestant lords present subscribed the bond3 acquitting Bothwell of the crime with which he was charged, and recommending him as a fit husband for the Queen; but so did John, Earl of Sutherland.  Both were members of the Privy Council, and both were equally friendly to Bothwell.  It further appears, that immediately after the murder of Darnley, the Earl of Sutherland, as well as the Earl of Caithness, signed the letter4 written by the Privy Council (1567) to the queen-mother of France, in which a delusive account is given of this shocking tragedy.  Sir Robert Gordon, however, while he would fain fasten on the Earl of Caithness the serious charge of aiding and abetting Bothwell in the murder of the King, is discreetly silent with regard to the conduct of the Sutherland chieftain throughout the whole of this affair.

Sir Robert’s statement that the justiciaryship was conferred on the Earl of Caithness for plotting against the King’s life is manifestly false as well as malicious.  The grant was bestowed for a very different service.  On this point we have received the following communication, founded on the authority of Miss Strickland and Mignet the French writer, from a gentleman well versed in the history of the period :-“ On the ‘might of the murder of Rizzio, whilst Mary was confined by the brutal ruffians in the private cabinet, and whilst the Earl of Morton, with 500 men, occupied the courtyard of Holyrood Palace and secured the gates, a noise was heard below, caused by the arrival of the Earls of Huntly, Bothwell, Caithness, Sutherland and others, whose followers were fighting with those of Morton and attempting to rescue the Queen.  Ruthven went out to parley with the Lords, and assured them that the plot had been concocted by the King, amid they, finding themselves outnumbered, retired from the contest for that night.  Two days afterwards the Queen and Darnley (to whom she had become reconciled) contrived to escape to Dunbar Castle, and were joined there by several of their friends, amongst whom was the Earl of Caithness with his followers.  Bothwell and Caithness, who had been active in support of the Queen, were both liberally rewarded, the former being made Lieutenant-General of the kingdom, and the latter receiving the appointment of Justiciary of the North of Scotland - his jurisdiction to include the whole of Sutherland and Caithness.  This commission included a power to banish and kill, and to pardon any crime except treason.  It is dated 17th April, 1556, and ratified by Parliament 19th April, 1567.  Sir Robert Gordon is thus quite in error in stating that Caithness obtained the grant by Bothwell’s influence in consequence of his complicity in Darnley’s murder.”  But the truth is, the grant in question was merely the confirmation of an ancient right.  “The Earls of Caithness,” says Dr Henderson, “from an early date enjoyed the heritable jurisdiction of Caithness and Sutherland under repeated grants from the Crown.  In 1455 James II. gave a charter to William Sinclair, Earl of Caithness, of the justiciary and sheriffdom of Caithness, and in 1470 he obtained a Crown charter confirming all gifts and concessions regarding the offices of justiciary, chamberlain, and sheriff of Caithness.  On the resignation of his father, his son William obtained a charter, dated 7th Dec., 1476, of the earldom with offices of justiciary, chancellor, and sheriff within the bounds, from Portnaculter (now the Meikle Ferry) to the Pentland Firth. This was followed by another charter of the jurisdiction in 1480.

In the month of July this same year, the Earl of Sutherland and his lady were both poisoned at Helmsdale, at the instigation, says Sir Robert Gordon, of the Earl of Caithness.  The Earl and Countess, with their son Alexander, were at the time passing a few days at a hunting lodge near the river of Helmsdale, the ruins of which are still to be seen.  The poison was administered to them at supper by Isobel Sinclair, wife of Gilbert Gordon of Garty, and daughter of William Sinclair of Dunbeath.  Alexander, for whom the deadly draught was chiefly intended, had not returned in time from a. hunting excursion in Kildonall to join them at supper, and thus had a very narrow escape.  When he arrived at the lodge, his father, fully sensible of the danger of his situation, would not allow him to taste anything, and sent him home that very same evening to Dunrohin.  By a singular retribution, Isobel Sinclair’s own eldest son, John Gordon, became the victim instead of Alexander.  Happening to call at the lodge, he complained of thirst, when one of the domestics, not aware of the deadly nature of the preparation, handed him some of the poisoned liquid, which he drank.  He died in the course of two days after; and the appearance of the body, along with other circumstances, afforded a clue to the discovery of his mother’s guilt.  The Earl and his lady, after a lingering illness of eight days, expired at Dunrobin.  Isobel Sinclair was apprehended and sent to Edinburgh, where, after being tried and condemned, she died, or as it was generally believed, committed suicide on the morning of the day appointed for her execution.  Although she accused, it is said, her relative, the Earl of Caithness, of having instigated her to commit the horrid crime, her mere assertion in this case is no proof, arid cannot be credited. The ambitious and cruel woman had a sufficient motive of her own. Her eldest son was the next male heir to the earldom, and had she succeeded in her diabolical scheme, he would have become Earl of Sutherland.5

Influenced no doubt partly by political motives, the Earl of Caithness managed to become curator or guardian of the young Earl of Sutherland, then only fifteen years of age.  He brought his ward to Girnigoe, where the latter remained for some time, and married his lordship’s eldest daughter, Lady Barbara Sinclair, a woman past thirty years of age.  The young Earl and his bride then removed to the castle of Dunrobin, where his father-in-law also took up his temporary residence.  By this family alliance and his office of Justiciary of Sutherland, the Earl of Caithness acquired immense power in that county, which he exercised, it is alleged, in a very oppressive and tyrannical manner.  He was cordially detested by the inhabitants and by some of the principal families, who took every method of thwarting his schemes and resisting his authority. 

The Murrays of Dornoch, in particular, were his inveterate enemies.  By representing to the young Earl, who was still a minor, that his father-in-law had a design upon his life, and intended to make his son William Earl of Sutherland, they made him hurriedly quit Dunrobin, and fly to Strathbogie, that he might be under the protection of his relative, the Earl of Huntly.  His escape is said to have been effected thus.  One, Alexander Gordon of Sidoray, came to Dunrobin in the evening disguised as a pedlar, and drawing the young Earl aside, whispered in his ear that a party of his friends would be waiting for him next morning at a certain spot near the burn of Golspie, for the purpose of conveying him away out of the county. Accordingly the Earl rose betimes, and telling the servants, in order to lull suspicion, that he was to take a short stroll before breakfast, he went direct to the place the party lay concealed; and on his coming up, they immediately set off with their charge, and stopped not until they had lodged the young nobleman in safety with his friends in Aberdeenshire.  When Earl George heard of the flight of his ward, and how it was caused by the malicious counsel and insinuations of the Murrays, his rage knew no bounds, and he resolved to inflict a signal chastisement on them and their adherents.  With this view he solicited assistance from Mackay of Strathnaver, which that chieftain readily agreed to give.  The Earl’s eldest son, John, commonly called the Master of Caithness, was forthwith despatched from Wick with a strong body of men.  He and Mackay joined their respective forces on the borders of the county, and then marched to Dornoch, where the Murrays and their confederates had assembled. After some hard fighting, the assailants set fire to the town, when the Murrays betook themselves for safety, some of them to the castle, and others to the steeple of the Cathedral.  After holding out in both places for nearly a week, the besieged at length agreed to surrender on certain conditions, for the due performance of which they delivered up three of their principal young men as pledges.

Earl George, however, refused to ratify the agreement, and because the Murrays would not yield to his terms, he ordered the three hostages to be put to death.  The Laird of Duffus, his son-in-law, whose lands the Murrays had lately ravaged, superintended the execution.  The Master of Caithness and Mackay, with a humanity of spirit not very common at the period, would have nothing to do with such a cruel affair.  This highly incensed the Earl of Caithness, and from that time he contracted a deep rooted prejudice against his son, who, in order to avoid his father’s displeasure, went with Mackay to Strathnaver, where he continued to reside. At length certain rumours reached the Earl, that his son and Mackay were in conspiracy against him, and were devising schemes to put an end to his tyranny and oppression.  Nay, it was even hinted that his life was in danger from them. Suspicion and jealousy were now added to anger, and he secretly resolved to inveigle them to Girnigoe, and if they could not clear themselves of the alleged conspiracy, to punish them by imprisonment.  In order to accomplish his purpose, he sent repeated messages to Mackay, to come to the castle with the Master, and visit him, professing the utmost anxiety to be reconciled to his son, and to be on the usual friendly terms with Mackay himself.  They at last, after some hesitation, agreed to pay him a visit, and accordingly set off on horseback without any escort. On their arrival at Girnigoe, they were met by the Earl himself, who saluted them with a show of much kindness.  On passing the draw­bridge, however, Mackay observed - what struck him as somewhat singular - a more than usual number of armed men about the castle.

Suspecting treachery, he immediately turned round, set spurs to his horse, dashed across the bridge, which was still down, and galloped away as fast as the animal could carry him. In the meantime the Master was seized - though not without a severe struggle, being a man of great bodily strength-fettered, and east into a dark and noisome dungeon, where he lay for several years. There were three keepers appointed over him, namely, Murdoch Roy, and two brothers, Ingram and David Sinclair.  Roy was the person who regularly attended him, and did all the menial services connected with the office. The other two, who were kinsmen of the Earl, and had a bend sinister in their escutcheon, might be said to be inspectors or head jailers.  Roy, it would appear, was not altogether a hardened miscreant and steeled against the ordinary feelings of humanity. His heart was touched with pity for the unfortunate nobleman, and at the earnest and oft-repeated solicitations of the latter, he agreed to endeavour to set him at liberty.  Unfortunately, the scheme was discovered by John’s brother, William, who bore him no good will, and who informed his father of the meditated escape.  The Earl immediately ordered Roy to be executed; and the poor wretch was accordingly brought out and hanged on the common gibbet of the castle, without a moment being allowed him to prepare for his final account.  Soon after, in revenge of Roy’s death, and of his brother William’s unnatural enmity towards himself, the Master, whose mind was affected by the long confinement and the bad usage which he had received, managed to seize William on the occasion of a visit to the dungeon, and strangled him. This deepened the father’s antipathy towards his unhappy son.  He had now been nearly six years in confinement; and his keepers, tired of watching him so long, resolved, with the concurrence, it is said, of his inhuman parent, to hasten his death. The plan adopted was such as could have entered only into the imagination of fiends. They withheld food from the poor man for the space of five days. They then set before him a piece of salt beef, of which he ate voraciously.  soon after, when he called for water, they refused to give him any, and he died of a raging thirst. 

Another account says that they gave him brandy, of which he drank so copiously that he died raving mad. There can be no doubt, however, that he was barbarously murdered.6  His remains were interred in the “Sinclair aisle,” in the churchyard of Wick, which his father had built some years before. The inscription on the stone over his grave is still legible.  It says, “Here lies entombed ane noble and worthie man, John, Master of Caithness, who departed this life, the 15th day of March, 1576.”  By his lady he had three sons, namely, George, who succeeded to the earldom, James Sinclair of Murkie, and John Sinclair of Greenland and Rattar.

The tragic event which we have just described was not the only misfortune which, about this period befell the family of the Earl of Caithness.  The marriage of his daughter, Lady Barbara, with the young Earl of Sutherland, as might have been anticipated from their great disparity of age, turned out unhappily.  Independently of this, the conduct of the Countess herself was far from being correct.  On the flight of her husband to Strathbogie, she carried on an improper intercourse with Mackay of Strathnaver, and indeed for some time openly lived with him. Accordingly, when Earl Alexander came to his majority, he divorced her, and curiously enough, afterwards married Lady Jean Gordon,7 the sister of the Earl of Huntly, whom Bothwell had divorced to pave the way for his marriage with Queen Mary. It is not a little remarkable that his father, Patrick Earl of Bothwell, also divorced his wife, Agnes Sinclair, daughter of Henry, Lord Sinclair, in order to attempt a marriage with the Queen Dowager, Mary of Guise. Inordinate ambition and want of moral principle would thus seem to have been hereditary in the family.

George, Earl of Caithness, died at Edinburgh in 1582, and was buried in the Chapel of Roslin, where there is a monument to his memory, with the following inscription, in Latin -
“lie jacet nobilis ac potens Dominus Georgius quondam Comes Cathanensis, Dominus Sinclair, Justiciarius hereditarius, Diocesis Cathanensis, qui obt Edinhurgi, 9 die mensis Septembris, anno Domini 1582.” (Here lies a noble and potent lord, George, formerly Earl of Caithness, Lord Sinclair, hereditary justiciary of the diocese of Caithness, who died at Edinburgh the 9th day of September, 1582.) His heart, which was extracted and put in a casket of lead, was sent to Caithness, and deposited in the church of Wick.  This was done at his own dying request.  He had been fifty-four years Earl of Caithness, and being of an avaricious and grasping turn, had amassed much wealth, and greatly enlarged his hereditary property.  The whole of his money he bequeathed to his youngest son, George Sinclair of Mey.8

The deceased earl was undoubtedly a nobleman of high standing and influence in his rank, and possessed of very considerable talents.  He was a member of the Privy Council, and one of the Lords of Articles, and was much at Court, especially during the brief and troubled reign of the unfortunate Mary.  Tytler says - and its truth cannot be denied - that “he was of accommodating principles both in politics and religion.”  There were, indeed, few intrigues of the day in which he did not bear more or less a part at one time supporting the Reformers, and at another the abettors of popery but ill this respect his conduct was not worse than that of many of his brother peers. At heart, however, he seems to have been attached to the Church of Rome, and in 1560 he dissented, along with the Earls of Athole, Borthwick, Somerville, and Cassillis, from the confession of the Reformers, when it was laid before Parliament.  One league into which he entered does credit to his memory.  In 1567 he joined the lords who had banded together and taken up arms for the young prince against Bothwell, and he was thus so far instrumental in driving out of the kingdom a man who had disgraced Scotland, and rendered himself odious to all parties by the enormity of his crime.  In 1581, the year before his death, he was one of the principal leaders in the confederacy against Morton.

The great object of this Earl had been to aggrandise his house; but with all his policy and intrigue, he was not successful in some of his most ambitious schemes. The heaviest charge against him is the long imprisonment and death of his son, the Master of Caithness, in the Castle of Girnigoe.  I have given the account of this shocking crime, as it is handed down by tradition, and recorded in the history of Sir Robert Gordon.  But atrocious and unjustifiable as was the deed, there would appear to have been some extenuating circumstances in the case.  It is contrary to human nature that the Earl, unless he was a perfect monster of wickedness, totally devoid of the usual parental feeling, could have been guilty of such barbarous cruelty towards his son, without having what he at least considered a sufficient cause.  Now, it appears that while the Master of Caithness resided with Mackay, information, which the Earl believed to be correct, reached him that they were plotting against his life.  Nor can this alleged conspiracy be considered at all improbable.  Mackay was, from every account, a most unprincipled man. He had been guilty of two crimes of the deepest dye -murder and adultery. Having conceived a violent passion for the wife of a neighbouring chief, named Mac Ian More, he seduced her and slew her husband.  An improper intimacy, as has been already mentioned, existed between him and the Countess of Sutherland; and the better to carry on the criminal intercourse he repudiated his own wife, Christina Sinclair, daughter of the Laird of Dunn.  Now, we think, that a man who could unblushingly do all this was capable of anything; and, therefore, it is not at all unlikely that he might have counselled the son to take away the life of his father, whereby he would rid the county of a tyrant, and thus become earl himself.  There is, indeed, every reason to conclude that it was not so much the disobedience of orders in the affair at Dornoch, as the apprehension of a conspiracy against his life, which he regarded as an unpardonable offence, that made Earl George visit his son with such a cruel and barbarous punishment.

1. In Barrogill Castle, the seat of the present Earl of Caithness, there is a wood carving of Caithness and Montrose. At the upper side are the initials G. S. and E. G. One supporter is a crane, the other a griffin, with the mottoes “Commit thy wish to God,” and “Ne oublie” (Don’t forget), and the arms of Montrose are impaled on the escutcheon with those of Caithness. These arms see no doubt those of George, fourth Earl of Caithness of the Sinclair family, and of his Countess, Elizabeth Graham, daughter of William, Earl of Montrose, Barrogill Castle was built about the year 1606.

2.  The lady that John, the Earl’s eldest son, married is by otber writers said to have been Jean Hepburn, the niece, and not the sister of BothwelL  But Laing, in his dissertation on the murder of Darnley, states explicitly that she was Bothwell’s sister. She had been first married to John Stewart, Prior of Coldingham.  On the acquittal of Bothwell, she came to reside at Holyrood, and when Mary was carried off to the castle of Dunbar she accompanied her thither.

3. There is a copy of this bond in the State paper office. It was signed by the Earls of Argyle, Morton, Caithness, Huntly, Sutherland, Cassillis, and Rothes; by Lords Boyd, Seton, Sinclair, Sempill, Oliphant, Ogilvy, Ross, Carlyle, Home, and Innermeath; and by the Archbishop of St. Andrews and the Bishops of Ross, Dunblane, Aberdeen, Brechin, Galloway, Orkney, and the Isles.

4.  See a duplicate of this letter in the Appendix No. 5 to Laing’s History of Scotland.

5.  Isobel Sinclair's husband, Gilbert Gordon of Garty, was fourth son of Adam Gordon, the late Earl.

6  The history of Scotland records an instance of similar atrocity, even still more revolting, in the case of the Duke of Rothsay, son of Robert III., who was starved to death in the castle of Falkland in 1402.  He was fifteen days without food; and Tytler says that in the extremities of hunger “he had gnawed and torn his own flesh.”

7 She is said to have been a beautiful and altogether a very superior woman. She was one of the heroines of the fine old ballad (admired by Burns) called “The Lord of Gordon’s Daughters,” and commencing thus
“The Lord of Gordon had three daughters-
Elizabeth, Margaret, and Jean.
They would not stay at bonny Castle Huntly,
But they would go to bonny Aberdeen.”
After the death of the Earl of Sutherland, she married Sir George Ogilvie of Boyne, in Banffshire. Her father, George, fourth Earl of Huntly, was killed at the battle of Corichie in 1562.

8  The Earl’s second son, William, who was slain by the Master of Caithness in Girnigoe, was first Laird of Mey, and ancestor of the IJlbster family.  He was succeeded in the property by his brother George, the founder of the family of Mey.  George’s son William (afterwards Sir William Sinclair of Mey) acquired some notoriety by shooting an Edinburgh bailie in a mutiny of the boys of the High School in the month of September, 1595.  For a particular detail of this affair, taken from Robert Chambers’s “Domestic Annals of Scotland,” see Appendix No. 7, in which the pedigree of the Mey family, and of one or two other collateral branches, is also given.

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