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History of Caithness
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IN the course of this same year (1612) a tragical disaster befell a body of Caithness men and their leader, Colonel George Sinclair, in Norway. Sinclair was a natural son of David Sinclair of Stirkoke, and nephew of the Earl of Caithness. Like many other Scotchmen of the period, he was a soldier of fortune, and had entered the service of Gustavus Adoiphus, King of Sweden, who was then at war with Denmark and Norway. Having raised a regiment in his native county, amounting, it is said, to some 900 men, Sinciair embarked for Norway, and after a favourable passage of four days, landed on the coast of Romsdal. As a considerable part of the Swedish coast -- all, indeed, from Nyborg to Calmar -- was in temporary possession of the Danes, and as Stockholm was at the time invested by a large Danish fleet, he could not get to that city by way of the Baltic, and he was therefore obliged to land in Norway. His intention was to march across the country -- in doing which he would have to pass the great chain of the Norwegian Alps -- a difficult and perilous enterprise under the most favourable circumstances, but particularly so when the natives were his enemies. He was encouraged to make the attempt, however, from finding that Colonel Munckhoven, with an army of 2300 Scotchmen1 had not long before landed at Trondheim, and succeeded in forcing his way over into Sweden. Sinclair accordingly pursued his route along the valley of the Lessoe, and, if Norwegian acccounts can be credited, laid waste the country, and inflicted much unnecessary cruelty on the inhabitants.
The King’s troops were at the seat of war, and there was no home militia to protect them. The peasantry, naturally brave, were roused to vengeance. Signal fires were lighted on every commanding height, and the budstick2 was sent round to warn young and old to a general muster. A body of about 500 peasants assembled, armed with rifles, and axes, and under the leadership of one of their own number, named Berdon Seilstad of Ringeboe, resolved, as they had no chance of overcoming Sinclair in open fight, to endeavour to cut him off by stratagem. The mountainous nature of the country, to which the Scots were strangers, was regarded as particularly favourable for an attempt of this kind. Sinclair’s movements, therefore, were narrowly watched by spies appointed for the purpose, and unceasing strategy was practised to lead him into an ambuscade. The part of the country through which he was now conducting his men bordered on the Dovre Field, and in the course of the march he arrived (24th August) at a wild mountain gorge, called the Pass of Kringelen, which he must either go through or take a circuitous route of several miles in extent. The road along the pass, which was little else than a mere footpath, was exceedingly narrow, and overhung the precipitous banks of a deep and rapid stream that flowed underneath. While Sinclair paused, uncertain whether to make the attempt or not, a young man, in the garb of a peasant, came up, and voluntarily offered to be his guide. His seemingly simple and unembarrassed manner was calculated to lull suspicion. After some hesitation, Sinclair unfortunately trusted himself to his guidance. The Caithness corps now proceeded leisurely along the difficult and dangerous defile, the stranger youth leading the way.
When they had nearly reached the middle of the pass, the treacherous guide fired a rifle which he had concealed about his person, and immediately disappeared among the rocks. This was the preconcerted signal between him and the natives. In a moment after the discharge of the rifle, the Boors, who lay concealed in the rocks above, started up like Roderick Dhu’s men from their ambush, and poured down a murderous volley on the unfortunate Caithness men. Others of the natives, who were not provided with fire-arms, hurled down large stones and trunks of trees, which literally crushed them to pieces. The slaughter was dreadful. Colonel Sinclair himself was among the first that fell. Many of the bodies of the killed tumbled into the river below, which was dyed with their blood. About sixty were taken prisoners. They were at first distributed among the neighbouring hamlets; but the savage Boors getting at length tired of supporting them, marched them off to a meadow, and cruelly murdered them in cold blood3. Of the entire nine hundred, only one or two escaped and got home to Caithness. Among these, tradition says, was Colonel Sinclair’s lady, whose adventure on this occasion imparts a strong air of romance to the melancholy story. She was a young and beautiful woman, and being unwilling to part with her husband, to whom she had been but recently united, she accompanied the expedition, at first disguised in male attire, and did not reveal herself until the corps had landed in Norway. Strange to say, she was with them in the Pass of Kringelen, and escaped the fearful massacre. The tradition respecting our Caithness heroine seems to be well founded. Laing, an accurate and trustworthy writer, says, “A youth, who meant to join the peasants in the attack, was prevented by a young lady to whom he was to be married next day. She, on learning that there was one of her own sex among the Scottish troops, sent her lover to her protection: Mrs Sinclair, not understanding his purpose, shot him dead.” The bodies of the unfortunate Caithness men, it is said, were barbarously left unburied, to become a prey to the wolf and the vulture. But some respect was paid to their leader’s remains, which were decently interred. The Norwegians are proud of pointing out to strangers the spot in which he is buried. It lies in a remote solitude near the fatal pass, and over the grave is a wooden cross, with a tablet, on which is the following inscription, in the Norse language - -
“Here lies Colonel George Sinclair, who, with 900 Scotsmen, were dashed to pieces, like so many earthen pots, by the peasants of Lessoe, Vaage, and Froen. Berdon Seilstad of Ringeboe was their leader.” Robert Chambers, who, in his tour through Norway, visited the place, says:- “In a peasant’s house near by were shown to me, in 1849, a few relics of the poor Caithness men, a matchlock or two, a broadsword, a couple of powder-flasks, and the wooden part of a drum.”
The author of a recent work, entitled “The Oxonian in Norway, gives a somewhat different version of this tragical story. The following, slightly abbreviated, is his account of it -
“Colonel Sinclair landed, with 900 Scottish soldiers, at Vibelungsnaest, in Romsdal, and determined upon the hazardous experiment of marching across the country. As soon as the news of this invasion reached Lars Hage, the Lehnsman of the Dovre, he hurried to the parish church, where service was being held. Striding into the building, he struck thrice upon the floor, and cried, ‘Listen the foeman is in the land.’ The congregation upon this immediately broke up, and it was finally agreed to lay an ambush at Kringelen, which, from the precipitous nature of the ground overhanging the road, was well adapted for the purpose. A vast quantity of rocks were loosened, and so placed on the verge of the precipice as to admit of being easily hurled down at a moment’s notice. On the opposite side of the river rode a peasant on a white horse, whose orders were to keep alongside of the advancing enemy.
A peasant girl was stationed on a hill over the water, with her I cow-horn, who was to give a signal, by blowing her instrument, as soon as the Scots had fallen into the snare. These precautions were necessary, as, from their ambuscade, the peasants could not get a sight of what was passing below. Onwards marched the Scots, guided by one Peder Kiunkenes, whom they had violently pressed into their service. Presently the strange and melancholy tones of an Alpine horn resounded from a distant height. At the same instant down thundered a mass of stones and trunks of trees upon the devoted Scots.4 Berdon Seilstad, who had bitten one of his silver buttons into the shape of a bullet, so as to be sure of his man, who was supposed to bear a charmed life, took aim at Sinclair, and hit him over the left eye, killing him on the spot. The peasants were some 400 in number, of whom six only were slain. All the Scots are said to have been butchered but eighteen. But accounts differ.”
There is a pretty long Norwegian ballad on the subject, entitled “Herr Sinclair’s vise af Storm,” that is, literally, Lord Sinclair’s song by Storm, in which the prowess of the peasants is highly extolled. It is sung everywhere throughout Norway, and constitutes one of her great national airs. In it the number of Sinclair’s men is said to have been 1400; but this is evidently a poetic licence, as, from the best accounts, as well as from the inscription on the monumental tablet, the real number was only 900.5 The following is a free translation of the song from the original Norse, which, it may be remarked, has no allusion to the hurling down of the stones, as if the poet thought this was too savage a piece of butchery for the muse:--
THE MASSACRE OF KRINGELEN
Before embarking for Norway, Sinclair was engaged in a piece of business which, we suspect, will not be regarded as having a tendency to exalt his character. The circumstances of the case are briefly these. John, Lord Maxwell of Nithsdale, having, it is said, treacherously slain Sir James Johnstone, a neighbouring Border chief, first fled to France, and afterwards to Caithness, where he lurked for some time. Having, at length, got a hint that his place of concealment was known, and that a price was set on his head, he attempted to make his escape out of the county, but was apprehended near its southern boundary by Colonel Sinclair, sent to Edinburgh, and executed. Before committing the crime for which he suffered, Lord Maxwell had quarrelled with the Government about the Morton peerage and estates, which he claimed in right of his mother, Lady Beatrice Douglas, daughter of the celebrated Regent Morton. This no doubt in the eyes of Royalty aggravated his guilt. His “Good Night,” a pathetic ballad, in which he takes leave of his lady and friends, is printed in the Border Minstrelsy.
1614.-This year, the Earl of Caithness was employed by Government to quell a species of rebellion which had taken place in Orkney. The notorious Patrick Stewart, Earl of Orkney, had been guilty of many grievous acts of oppression and violence both in that county and in Shetland, for which his memory is execrated to this day. He fearfully harassed the poor natives; and in an age remarkable for feudal tyranny, he was one of the worst and most despotic of tyrants. A serious misunderstanding had arisen between him and James Law, Bishop of Orkney. The bishop, at length, urged on by his own grievances and the crying complaints of the people, transmitted to the King a long list of the many crimes and misdemeanors committed by the Earl, who was in consequence imprisoned and divested of his titles and estates ; and collectors were appointed by the Council to levy the rents for the Crown. Patrick, from his prison, sent special instructions to his natural son, Robert, to uplift the rents as usual, and pay no attention to the orders of Council. Robert did so, and forcibly expelled the collectors; while at the same time he took possession of the palace of Birsa, the castle of Kirkwall, the palace of the Yards, and the tower of the Cathedral, which he fortified as strongly as he could.
The Earl of Caithness, who happened to be in Edinburgh at the time, offered to proceed to Orkney, and vindicate the authority of the law, provided he were furnished with sufficient troops for the purpose. Government agreed to give him a requisite force; and the Earl, in the month of August, set sail from Leith with sixty soldiers and two pieces of cannon from the castle of Edinburgh. On arriving on the Caithness coast, the vessel brought up in Sinclair’s Bay; and having procured some additional men from his own property, the Earl, accompanied by his natural brother, Henry Sinclair, sailed directly for Orkney, and disembarked his troops in the neighbourhood of Kirkwall. He then opened the campaign in true military style. He besieged and took in succession the different posts occupied by the insurgents. The last was the castle of Kirkwall, which Robert Stewart, with only sixteen men, bravely defended for the space of three weeks. The King’s cannon made little impression on the iron walls of the fortress; and it was taken at last only through the treachery of a Patrick Halcro, one of the besieged. The prisoners were all brought south and executed, with the exception of Halcro; and very soon after, Earl Patrick Stewart himself was beheaded for high treason at the Market Cross of Edinburgh.
Before leaving Orkney, the Earl of Caithness delivered up the castle of Kirkwall to Sir James Stewart of Kilsyth, afterwards Lord Ochiltree, on whom, in the capacity of farmer-general, the King had conferred a new grant of the county. A few months after the siege, the Government ordered the castle of Kirkwall to be demolished. The work of destruction was set about and it was converted into a melancholy ruin, the more conspicuous and striking from its being situated on the west side of the main street, nearly fronting the Cathedral. This ancient fortress -the walls of which were of immense thickness, and so strongly cemented as to be almost impenetrable -was built in the fourteenth century by Henry Sinclair, the first of that name who was Earl of Orkney. It was called the King’s Castle6, from its being the ordinary residence of the royal governors or chamberlains of the islands subsequent to their annexation to the Crown of Scotland. It was to this castle that Bothwell fled for refuge after parting with the Queen at Carberry Hill. But Balfour, the governor, refused to admit him; and in revenge he plundered the town of Kirkwall. Bothwell’s subsequent history may be told in a few words. Having escaped the pursuit of Kirkaldy of Grange, who followed him to Shetland, he set out in an armed vessel for the North Sea, and there supported himself and his associates for some time by piracy. He was at length captured by the Danes, and imprisoned in the castle of Malmoc, where he died, it is said, a raving lunatic in 1576. Lamartine in his “Mary Stewart” (page 53), states what we have not seen mentioned by any other historian, that Bothwell in his early youth was a corsair on the coast of Denmark. He says also that Byron, whose mother’s ancestry was connected with the line of Lady Jane Gordon, has depicted him in his “Corsair;” but, he adds, “the poet is far behind historic truth, for the sovereign poet, Nature, outvies fiction by reality.”
Among the writers who have related the story of the unhappy Patrick Stewart Earl of Orkney, there is a considerable difference of opinion regarding his criminality. Peterkin, in his “Notes of-Orkney,” while he allows that he was guilty of oppression, contends that he was illegally deprived of his estates, that he got no justice in his trial, and that his punishment was a “judicial murder.” He represents Law,7 the bishop, who collected the grounds of complaint, as a selfish and pliant ecclesiastic, who coveted the episcopal revenues which the Earl had obtained from the Crown, and who fed the insatiable vanity of the King by the most abject and ludicrous flattery. The archbishopric of Glasgow, he adds, was the reward of his services. Sentiments pretty nearly similar are expressed by Malcolm Laing, the historian. “It is probable,” says that ingenious writer, “that Earl Patrick’s oppression was exaggerated in the complaints of the islanders, or aggravated by the acrimonious report of their bishop. The episcopal revenues which he had obtained from the Crown were solicited by the prelates; and the king descended to the mean and unjust expedient of purchasing a large mortgage with which his estates were attached. As he refused to resign his right to the redemption of his property, his estates were seized. He was driven at length to the most desperate extremes. His son surrendered on the pious condition that no torture should be employed to extort a confession of his father’s guilt; and yet the father was convicted on the son’s confession.” Dr. Barry, on the other hand, leans to the unfavourable view of his character; and Mr Worsaae, the Danish writer, has the following strong remarks on the subject:
-“Among those vassals (Crown vassals) none has left behind him a more despised or hated name than Earl Patrick Stewart, who from 1595 to 1608, or about thirteen years, oppressed the islands in the most shameful manner. He violently deprived holders of allodial farms of their right of possession, and converted almost all the freeholders into leaseholders. He arbitrarily changed the weights and measures,8 so that the taxes and imposts were intolerable. Law and justice were not to be procured, for the Earl’s creatures everywhere occupied the judgment-seats. To appeal to Scotland was no easy matter, as Lord Patrick’s soldiers guarded all the ferries. In the Orkneys the Earl compelled the people to build him a strong fortress at Kirkwall, and in Shetland another at Scalloway, from which places armed men ranged over the country to punish and overawe the malcontents. The ruins of these castles form a still existing memorial of the wicked Earl Patrick, who for his tyranny was recalled to Scotland, accused of high treason, and beheaded.”9 His father, Robert Stewart, was also guilty of great oppression, tyranny, and treasonable intercourse with the court of Denmark, and had a narrow escape from the same fate during the regency of the Earl of Morton.
Sir Robert Gordon afforded at this time (1615) a strong proof of the jealous and bitter feeling which he cherished against the Earl of Caithness. Early in the month of January this season, the latter went to London to receive some reward from the King for his services in Orkney. His Majesty happened to be then at Newmarket. As soon as Sir Robert, who was at Salisbury with the Dean, his father-in-law, heard of the arrival of the Earl of Caithness at Court, he hastened thither, in order to prevent his Majesty, with whom he had great influence, from yielding anything to the Earl that he considered would be prejudicial to himself or to the house of Sutherland. In particular, he was most anxious that he should not obtain from James a promise of redress for the slaughter at Thurso of his nephew, John Sinclair of Stirkoke. In spite, however, of all that the malice of the baronet could urge against his lordship, the King granted him a full remission of all by past offences, with an annuity for his services in Orkney. He also appointed him one of his Scottish Privy Council. But all these royal favours and honours the Earl subsequently forfeited by his imprudent and violent conduct.
Not long after, the very serious charge of incendiarism was brought against the Earl of Caithness. As the case is a curious one, a brief detail of the circumstances may not be uninteresting. George Sinclair of Dunbeath, as well as his grandfather, William Sinclair, whom he succeeded, had suffered, it is said, much injury and annoyance at the hands of the Earl of Caithness. George was married to a sister of Lord Forbes; and there being no likelihood of his having any family by his wife, he conveyed the whole of his property, comprehending the lands of Dunbeath, Downreay, and Sandside, to his brother-in-law. Soon after the execution of the deed, he was seized with a fatal illness and died, when Forbes took possession of the estate. He appointed a William Innes, a native of Morayshire, as his chamberlain or factor over the property, who took up his residence at Sandside. Earl George felt highly indignant that his cousin’s lands should go to a stranger in preference to himself, although from his conduct towards him he could have expected nothing else; and under pretence of discharging his duty as sheriff, he took every method of annoying the factor and distressing the tenants. Finding that all the mischief he could do in this way was not sufficient to gratify his spleen, he negotiated with two brothers, John and Alexander Gunn, and a cousin of theirs, named Alexander Gunn, and promised them an ample reward if they would undertake to burn the stackyard at Sandside. It is alleged that he first made the proposal in private to Alexander Gunn, the cousin; but that Gunn indignantly spurned the idea, and told his lordship that to gratify him he would undertake to assassinate William Innes, the factor, but that he would not burn the corn, a piece of work which he considered unworthy of a gentleman! After some hesitation, Alexander, brother of John Gunn, agreed to do the business, and going to Sandside in the dead of night, with two accomplices, set fire to the stacks of corn, and burnt the whole. A report was industriously circulated that some of Mackay’s tenants in Strathnaver had caused the conflagration, which induced that chieftain to use every effort to find out the guilty persons. Strong suspicion rested on the three Gunns, who, a few days before the deed was committed, were seen going to Castle Sinclair. At length, Alexander Gunn, the cousin, in a private interview with Mackay and Sir Robert Gordon, on condition of being leniently dealt with, revealed to them all that he knew of the matter. The three Gunns were cited to appear before the Lords of Justiciary at Edinburgh. John Gunn and and his cousin, Alexander, obeyed the summons, but the other Gunn, the real perpetrator of the crime, did not make his appearance. Both the Gunns, when examined by the Lords of Council, declared that the Earl of Caithness had bribed Alexander Gunn to burn Lord Forbes’ corn, and that the affair had been proposed and discussed in their presence. In the meantime, his Lordship stoutly denied the charge, and accused Sir Robert Gordon and Mackay of a design to bring him within reach of the law of treason, and to injure the honour of his house. After a great deal of legal proceedings, the matter was finally compromised between the parties; and a contract was drawn up, in which, among other things, the Earl agreed to pay Lord Forbes and Mackay the sum of twenty thousand merks Scots, which may be held as tantamount to a confession that he was guilty of the crime laid to his charge. He also received a full remission from the King, but not without two galling and stringent conditions, the one that he should renounce his office of justiciary and sheriff; the other, that he should give up and resign, in perpetuum to the Bishop of Caithness, the house of Scrabster, with as many of the feu lands of that bishopric as should amount to the yearly value of two thousand merks Scots, for an augmentation to the prelate’s income. These were hard terms; but he found himself under the necessity of submitting to them.
On a review of the whole matter, it is hardly possible to avoid coming to the conclusion that the Earl was guilty of the crime imputed to him; and yet there are circumstances in the case which admit of a doubt, and which a skilful pleader would turn to good account. For instance, the Earl had in 1586 hanged the father of John and Alexander Gunn; and as the spirit of revenge was at the time deeply cherished to the third and fourth generation, one would naturally think that his two sons would be the very last persons in the world that his lordship would take in his confidence and engage to perpetrate a crime of such a highly penal nature. Further, it appears that the three Gunns were tenants of Mackay, and that he gave John Gunn (a rather suspicious looking grant) a life-rent lease of the lands of Strathy for his evidence against Earl George at Edinburgh.
During all this time the peasantry of the county were in a most wretched condition. Among other evils, Caithness was overrun with thieves. In 1617 a regularly organised band of these vagabonds infested the borders of Sutherland and Caithness, where they waylaid and robbed travellers, and violated every unprotected female that had the misfortune to fall into their hands. Their principal haunt was the Ord of Caithness, a spot peculiarly adapted for their purpose. Scarce a week passed without the commission of some murder, rape, or robbery, in that quarter. Such, indeed, was the alarming state of matters, that people were afraid to cross the Ord, and all communication between the two counties was in a great measure suspended. The authorities on both sides were at length roused to a sense of the magnitude of the evil, and resolved to put it down. With this view, a strong posse of armed men were sent out to watch the movements of the gang, and to apprehend them. In a few days nearly the whole of the miscreants were seized and imprisoned, and after a summary trial sentenced to the gallows. A gibbet was erected on the highest part of the Ord, where, without benefit of clergy, they were all hanged as a terror to evil-doers. “By this exemplary punishment,” says the historian of the house of Sutherland, “the country was rendered peaceable for a while after.”
The restless and unhappy disposition of the Earl of Caithness was constantly involving him in trouble; and he was no sooner out of one scrape than he was in another. Another serious charge (1621) was now preferred against him, namely, that of being accessory to the slaughter of Thomas Lyndsay, half-brother of Robert Munro, commissary of Caithness. It has been mentioned that the Earl had been compelled to give up to the Bishop of Caithness a part of the Church lands which he held in feu. This forced resignation was a measure which deeply vexed and mortified him. Munro, the commissary, acted as chamberlain to the bishop. One of the first steps which he took, on being appointed factor, was to remove Sinclair of Durran, who was one of his lordship’s tenants, from the lands which he occupied, and to grant a lease of them to his brother, Thomas Lyndsay. Sinclair adopted the Irish mode of revenge, and meeting soon after with Lyndsay in Thurso, he ran him through with his sword, and killed him on the spot. It was generally believed that he did this at the instigation of the Earl of Caithness. Sinclair immediately left the county, and hurried off to London to meet his kinsman, Sir Andrew Sinclair, envoy from the King of Denmark, who interceded with the King for a pardon to him; but his Majesty refused to grant it, whereupon, for better security, Sinclair fled to Denmark. In the meantime, Munro, the commissary, raised a criminal action against the Earl of Caithness and Sinclair of Durran for the slaughter of his brother. The parties were summoned to stand their trial before the Court of Justiciary at Edinburgh; but as neither of them appeared, they were both outlawed, and denounced rebels. Lord Caithness wrote the Privy Council, strongly asserting that he had no participation in the slaughter of Lyndsay, and that his reason for not answering their summons was fear of his creditors, who, if they found him in Edinburgh, would incarcerate him. His lordship was at this time far from being in an enviable situation. Troubles began to multiply around him from every quarter. He had disputed with his son, Lord Berriedale, who had lain five years in the jail of Edinburgh in consequence of engagements he had come under for his debts; and the Earl’s nearest relations, and the principal gentlemen of Caithness, feeling disgusted with his conduct, which had done so much injury to the young nobleman, and kept the county so long in disturbance, warmly sympathised and sided with Berriedale. His
creditors, too, were clamorous for payment; and their repeated complaints to the King respecting the breach of his engagements so incensed his Majesty, that he ordered a commission to be granted to Sir Robert Gordon and others to apprehend the Earl as a denounced rebel, and to take possession of his castles and fortresses for his Majesty’s use. Proclamations were at the same time issued, interdicting all and sundry from having any communication with the Earl; and a ship of war was ordered to proceed to Sinclair’s Bay to prevent his escape by sea, and to batter down his castles in case he should attempt to withstand a siege. The Earl at first resolved to resist the royal commission, and with this view he set about fortifying his castles, especially the strong tower of Ackergill; but on sober reflection, becoming apprehensive of the consequences should he be unsuccessful in his opposition, he despatched a messenger with a letter to Sir Robert Gordon, earnestly soliciting an amicable arrangement. In this document he begged to remind Sir Robert that he was a nobleman and a peer of the realm, who had once been a commissioner himself in his Majesty’s service (alluding to his military services in Orkney); that no crime could be justly laid to his charge; that he was the first nobleman ever pursued as a traitor merely for falling into debt, and that all actions of a criminal nature brought against him were fabrications invented by his enemies, none of which were ever judicially proved. On these grounds he begged, if Sir Robert refused to negotiate with him, that he would at least give him time to represent his case to the Council before he adopted the extreme measure of invading the county. Sir Robert returned a long answer, expressing much affected regret for the unhappy situation in which his lordship had placed himself by his rebellious obstinacy and repeated breaking of his engagements, and concluded with saying that his lordship’s sole object in proposing a negotiation was to waste time, and that if he did not at once submit himself unconditionally to the King’s mercy, he would immediately proceed to execute the commission. The Earl, although he had still a good many friends and adherents in the county, when he saw such a heavy storm gathering round him, went on board a small fishing-boat in the night season, and made his escape to Orkney.
In the meantime, Sir Robert Gordon, his most active enemy, assembled a large body of Highlanders, and accompanied by his brother, Alexander Gordon of Navidale, and the principal gentlemen of Sutherland, crossed the Ord (1623), and proceeded in full military array on his expedition. His account of this bloodless enterprise, to which not the smallest opposition was offered, occupies several pages, and is, unintentionally of course, an amusing specimen of the mock heroic. At Ausdale, near the border, he was joined by Lord Berriedale and James Sinclair, younger of Murkle, one of the commissioners, with about 300 Caithness men, consisting chiefly of the Calders and others who were favourable to Berriedale. At Latheron he was met by Sir James Sinclair of Murkle, Sir William Sinclair of Mey, the Laird of Rattar, Sutherland of Forse, and several other gentlemen of the county, who tendered their submission and obedience to his Majesty’s commission, and offered their services to accomplish the object of the expedition. Sir R.obert, with the Caithness men some half a mile in advance, continued his march to Wick. From Wick he proceeded to Castle Sinclair, thence to Ackergill Tower, and lastly to the Castle of Keiss, all of which, on the first summons, delivered up their keys to him in the name of his Majesty. At Keiss he had an interview with Lady Caithness, his cousin, who entreated him with great earnestness to use his interest to get her husband restored to royal favour, which he promised to do, provided the Earl would follow his advice. The keys of all the castles were delivered to Lord Berriedale, to be kept by him until the further pleasure of his Majesty should be known. A set of instructions was also drawn up at Wick by the commissioners for his future guidance in the government of the county; and the result of the expedition was, that an annuity was settled on the Earl, and Berriedale got the entire management of the property.10 When the storm had blown over, his lordship returned from Orkney, and finding that it was useless to contend any longer with the powers that be, he settled down into a peaceable subject.
The politic Sir Robert, who liked to have his hands full of business, was now entrusted by Government with the duty of putting the law in execution against poachers. It is supposed by some that the laws for preserving game are the growth of modern legislation. It would appear, however, that stringent enactments on this point were in force in Scotland11 more than two hundred years ago; and in the north, persons guilty of poaching were more severely punished than at present. “In the year 1623,” says Sir Robert Gordon, “divers of the inhabitants of Southerland and Catteynes were called to appear at Edinburgh befor the Lords of the Privie Councell for wearing of pistolls, and for shooting of deer and wyld fowl with guns, contrair to the Act of Parliament made thereanent.” To obviate the necessity of attending at Edinburgh, a commission was granted to Sir Robert to summon all transgressors in this way within the diocese of Caithness to Dornoch, where they were severely fined and punished, and security taken for their not killing any game in time to come. “The inhabitants of Catteynes,” says Sir Robert, “did much repyn that they should have been urged to give their appeirance and abyd their tryall in Southerland, considering that within the memories of some of them (during the minority of Earl Alexander) the inhabitants of Southerland did usuallie resort into Catteynes for decyding of their actions and controversies befor George, then Earl of Catteynes. This did they think a great alteration; so changeable and variable is the estate of all human affairs. Blessed are they,” adds the worthy baronet, “that fear the Lord, and remit their vengeance to God.”
In 1626 Sir Donald Mackay (afterwards Lord Reay) raised about 3000 men in different parts of Scotland to assist the Kings of Denmark and Sweden, who were now leagued together against Ferdinand of Austria, for the support of the Protestant cause in Germany. The long-continued sanguinary struggle which followed is known as the Thirty Years’ War, and is eloquently described by Schiller, the famous German poet and historian. A considerable number of Mackay’s auxiliary force belonged to Caithness. Several young men of family in the county volunteered as cadets, and, among others, John Sinclair, natural son of the Earl of Caithness; Francis Sinclair, son of Sir James Sinclair of Murkle; and John Innes, son of William Innes of Sandside. The whole of these cadets obtained commissions, and some of them rose to high rank in the service; Francis Sinclair became major, and John Sinclair and John Innes lieutenant-colonels. Colonel Sinclair was killed in the course of one of the campaigns; and, on the conclusion of the war, so many of the Caithness volunteers had fallen in battle that only a very few survived to return to their native county.
1634. - At this time great distress, occasioned by a famine, prevailed in Orkney and Caithness. Owing to tempestuous weather, the corn of the preceding year had not sufficiently filled, and much of it was cut down green. There was, in consequence, a great scarcity of meal; and from the want of seed nearly a half of the arable land in both counties remained unsown. To add to the prevailing dearth, the fish usually found in such abundance along the northern shores seemed to have wholly deserted them. Many of the poorer sort of the people were reduced to such extremity that to satisfy the gnawings of hunger they killed their very dogs and ate them,
and greedily devoured sea-ware, or whatever would support life. Multitudes died in the open fields, while some, from sheer desperation, it is said, ran into the sea and drowned themselves. To mitigate the dreadful calamity the Bishops of Orkney and Caithness supplicated Government for food to the starving inhabitants. The Lords of the Privy Council at first recommended their case to the charity of their countrymen generally, but they afterwards sent them supplies of victual, “but not in time or quantity to save a deplorable mortality.” 12
Dearth of victual owing to the same cause, the badness of the weather, seems to have been a thing of frequent occurrence in the county. In 1671, the. Presbytery appoint the 11th of October to be kept as a day of solemn fast and humiliation by all the congregations within the bounds, “because,” says the minute, “of the present extraordinarie rains that threaten to consume and rott the fruits of the ground, and because of the abounding of sin that is like to procure us manyfold judgments.” The years 1673 and 1674 were also characterised by a long continuance of tempestuous weather. In the Presbytery records for the latter year occurs the following remarkable entry :-“ No meeting in July, in respect of the great scarcity of victual generally through the land, whereby delinquents are now rendered incapable to travel to the Presbyterie.”
When Charles I. attempted to introduce Episcopacy with its entire ritual into Scotland, the spirit of opposition which broke out against this rash and unconstitutional measure extended to Caithness. John, Master of Berriedale, son of William, Lord Berriedale, warmly espoused the popular cause. After the meeting of the famous General Assembly at Glasgow (1638), he took the National Covenant, and persuaded many of his friends in the county to do the same. He was subsequently one of five commissioners appointed by the States to get the bond subscribed throughout the kingdom. This famous bond was at first subscribed in Greyfriars’ Churchyard, Edinburgh. The original copy, says Arnot, in his History of Edinburgh, is written on a piece of parchment four feet long and three feet eight inches broad. His father and his grandfather, George, the old Earl, who was still living, leaned to the King’s side. Among others who embraced the Covenant was his relative, Sir James Sinclair of Murkle, who raised a company of Caithnessmen, and joined the Covenanters in Moray, where about 4000 of them were assembled under the Earl of Seaforth. The Earl of Seaforth afterwards forsook the Covenanters and joined the opposite party, and for this political backsliding he was excommunicated by the General Assembly, and had to stand in sackcloth in the High Church of Edinburgh. This body of troops formed what was called the army of Covenanters north the Spey, and were intended to keep in check the Royalists under the Marquis of Huntly and his son, the Viscount Aboyne. The Master of Berriedale, who took such an active part in the cause of the Covenanters, died at Edinburgh in the autumn of 1639, and was buried in the abbey church of Holyrood House. The complaint which carried him off is said to have been spotted fever. The death of this young nobleman, who would appear to have been an ardent friend of civil and religious liberty, was much regretted by the people of Caithness. He had married a daughter of Cohn, Earl of Seaforth, and by this lady he had two sons, one of whom succeeded to the earldom. His relict afterwards married Sir Alexander Sutherland of Duffus, who, in 1651, was created Lord Duffus.13
As a curious illustration of the manners of the period and of the violence of spirit engendered by this politico-religious struggle, I may mention the following rather singular case which occurred at John O’Groat’s. In Wodrow’s MS. there is a complaint to the General Assembly of 1639 by Andrew Ogstone, minister of Canisbay, against Sir William Sinclair, laird of Mey, in which Mr Ogstone complains that a solemn fast having been appointed to supplicate a blessing on the late General Assembly at Glasgow (the famous Assembly of 1638), he got none of his congregation except nine or ten to take part in worship; that the rest remained outside in the churchyard all the time, and would not come into church, although he sent his officer repeatedly for them; that, on the conclusion of the service, when he came out himself and rebuked them for their sinful conduct and contempt of God’s word, they all with one voice exclaimed that the laird of Mey had commanded them not to enter the church that day; that Sir William protected all sorts of delinquents, and kept them from satisfying church discipline; that, having sent his officer to cite a servant of his to the Presbytery, Sir William took the summons from the man, beat him, and put him in prison for two nights; and that, in addition to all these grievances, his own horse was this same year stabbed in the stable with a dirk The minister concludes his “pitiful story” by entreating their “godly wisdomes” to seriously consider his case, and “take such order” that he may henceforth be enabled to discharge in peace the sacred duties of his office. The Assembly referred the case to the Commission, but their deliverance is not given by Wodrow. The reason why Sir William bore such antipathy to the worthy minister is not stated in the complaint. According to the tradition of the place, Mr Ogstone had been Episcopal minister of Canisbay, and having conformed to the Presbyterian mode of worship, it is probable that he had thereby incurred the resentment of the laird of Mey, who, like many others in his rank of life, was no friend at heart either to the covenanting cause or to the rigid discipline of the church. He is the same person who, when a boy at the High School, shot the Edinburgh baillie.
Very few of the Caithness gentry embraced the cause of the King in the unhappy quarrel which ensued between him and his Scottish subjects, This was mainly owing to the zealous exertions of the late Master of Berriedale, who, being a great favourite with all classes in the county, was eminently successful in impressing upon them his own political and religious views. One Caithness proprietor, however, Mowat of Freswick, in Canisbay, or, as he was styled, Mowat of Bucholie, stood staunch to the King. When Montrose forsook the Covenanters, and raised the Royal standard, he joined him; and at the battle of Alford, in 1645, his name is mentioned as one of the officers that were killed on the side of the Royalists. The family of Mowat came originally from the south, but in what year is not exactly known. In 1410, William Mowat14 ‘ of Loscragy, by a charter from James the First, made over to his son, John, a wadset of the lands of Freswick and Aukingill, in the parish of Canisbay. This John, nine years afterwards, was killed in the chapel of St. Duffus, in Tam, to which he had fled for refuge as a sanctuary, by Thomas Mackay of Strathnaver. For this murder, and next burning the chapel, Mackay was, by order of the King, apprehended and hanged at Inverness. The Mowat family, of whom none now hold any landed property in Caithness, are of considerable antiquity. In the year 1316, during the reign of Robert the Bruce, the name of William Mowat appears in the list of the Scottish chiefs and nobles who sent a missive to the Pope, firmly maintaining the civil and political independence of Scotland.
The Latinised name in ancient charters is “De monte alto.” On acquiring the property of Freswick, the Mowats repaired and inhabited Sweyn the pirate’s old stronghold, which was then called Bucholie Castle. The patronage of the church of Canisbay belonged to them, and in 1610 it is particularly mentioned that an incumbent who entered on the cure was presented by Mowat of Bucholie.
1643.-George, Earl of Caithness, distinguished by the not very flattering title of the “Wicked Earl George,” died in the month of February this year, aged 79. His son, William, Lord Bcrriedale, died a few years before him. Earl George, by his tyrannical conduct, had procured himself many enemies, and it is quite possible that his faults may have been thereby much exaggerated. Some of the crimes at least with which he was charged were never fully proved against him; and it is clear, from the whole course of his history, that he had a very bitter enemy in Sir Robert Gordon. “The quietness and moderation,” says Mackay, “with which he appears to have conducted himself during the last twenty years of his life plead strongly in his favour.”
The following year, Alexander Irvine of Drum, and his brother, Robert Irvine, who were keen Royalists, to avoid falling into the hands of the Covenanters, fled by sea to Caithness. As Lady Mary Gordon, the wife of Alexander Irvine, was a near relative of the Countess-Dowager of Caithness, the two brothers naturally expected to find a safe asylum in the county, but in this they were bitterly disappointed. Having landed at Staxigoe, where at the time a Committee of Estates happened to be sitting, they were immediately seized, and “put in ward” in the castle of Keiss. They were thence conveyed to Edinburgh, under a strong guard, by Francis Sinclair, son of the late Earl, and lodged in the Tolbooth, where, among other persons of rank, they had Lord Reay as a fellow prisoner. Robert Irvine died in prison; and his brother, the laird of Drum, who was under sentence of death, was liberated by Montrose immediately after his victory at Kilsyth.
1649. In the course of this year the following affair took place in Thurso. A noted freebooter, of Irish descent, from Strathnaver, named Donald Macalister, accompanied by some eighteen or twenty followers, entered the town with the intention of plundering it, and revenging some offence which he had received from the inhabitants. The day chosen for this was a Sunday, when the greater part of the people were at church. The savage resolved to set fire to the building, and burn all that were in it; and on some one remonstrating with him for contemplating such a wicked design on the Sabbath day, he is reported to have said, “In spite of God and the Sabbath both, Donald will spill blood !“ Notice of his presence in the town being communicated to the congregation, they instantly rushed out of the church,15 and, providing themselves with such weapons as came first to hand, attacked the party, headed by Sir James Sinclair of Murkle, who, such was the unsettled state of the county at the time, was in the habit of coming to the church armed. Sir James made a thrust at Macalister with his sword, but without any apparent effect, on which his servant, superstitiously believing that the vagabond was proof against steel, cut a silver button of a triangular shape from Sir James’s coat, and with that shot him through the ear. The bandit staggered, and fell down mortally wounded, exclaiming, in Gaelic- ”My curse upon the creature; he has deafened me!” After a hard contest, the gang were finally overpowered by the town’s people, and the whole of them, it is said, were killed. Neil Mackay, the chief of the Clan Abrach, who happened to be in Thurso at the time, and who would seem to have sided with the Highlanders, was also killed in the fray. He was interred in the burying ground of Thurso, opposite the Murkle aisle of the church, and a stone, with his arms cut on it, was erected over his grave.
1. Chambers’s, in his Domestic Annals of Scotland, says :- "As the King of Great Britain was brother-in-law of Christian IV. of Denmark, the troops were levied in a clandestine manner. The Privy Council fulminated edicts against the proceedings as most obnoxious to the King, but without effect.”
2. “The Norwegian budstick, or message stick,” says Laing, “answered the same purpose as the fiery cross in Scotland. It is of the size and shape of our constable's baton, is painted, and stamped with the royal arms, and made hollow with a head to screw upon one end, and an iron spoke on the other. The official notice to meet, the time, place, and object, are written on a piece of paper, which is rolled up and placed in the hollow. This is delivered from the public office or court-house of the district to the nearest householder, who is bound, by law, to transmit it to the nearest, and so on. The householder to whom it comes last brings it back to the office.”3. The particulars of this horrible tragedy were furnished to the author by a gentleman, a native of Caithness, who had some time resided in Norway, and had visited the scene of the catastrophe.
4. A similar tragedy, on a larger scale, took place at the Potlatzer, in the valley of the Inn, in the year 1809.A whole division of the French and Bavarian army were there crushed under an avalanche of rocks, which tumbled down upon their heads at the Tyrolese signal -” In the name of the Holy Trinity, cut all loose!"
5. The historian of the house of Sutherland says that Colonel Sinclair had only 150 men. As Caithness was then thinly peopled, it is quite possible that this was all the number of men which he had with him belonging to the county, and that the remainder of the force consisted of recruits from other counties. Von Buch, in his “Travels,” however, and all other writers who notice the event, with the exception of Laing, who reduces the number to 600, agree that Sinclair had a body of 900 men under his charge when he met with this sad catastrophe in Norway.
This castle, says a native writer,
was built “with such strength and skill, that the witch-haunted mind
of the seventeenth century believed that only the devil himself
could have been its engineer and architect!”
7. Law, who succeeded
Archbishop Spottiswood, died in 1632. He was interred in the chancel
of the Cathedral of Glasgow, where there is a monument erected to
his memory by his second wife, who was a daughter of Boyle of
Kilburn. He was esteemed a man of learning, and left behind
him, it is said, in MS. a commentary on several parts of the
Scriptures. The Bishops of Orkney would appear to have enjoyed a
pretty considerable revenue. “The bishopric of Orkney,” says an old
writer, ‘ was a greate thing, and lay sparsim throughout the haill
parochines of Orkney and Zetland. Besides his lands, the
Bishop had the tiends of auchteen kirks, and his lands grew daily as
7. Law, who succeeded Archbishop Spottiswood, died in 1632. He was interred in the chancel of the Cathedral of Glasgow, where there is a monument erected to his memory by his second wife, who was a daughter of Boyle of Kilburn. He was esteemed a man of learning, and left behind him, it is said, in MS. a commentary on several parts of the Scriptures. The Bishops of Orkney would appear to have enjoyed a pretty considerable revenue. “The bishopric of Orkney,” says an old writer, ‘ was a greate thing, and lay sparsim throughout the haill parochines of Orkney and Zetland. Besides his lands, the Bishop had the tiends of auchteen kirks, and his lands grew daily as delinquencies increasedin the countray.”
8. Mr Balfour of Trenaby, in his recent interesting work, entitled “Impressions in Orkney and Zetland,” says that the two Earls, Robert and his son Patrick, and subsequent donatories, made an increase of 250 per cent. upon every denomination of weight and measure used at the time in Orkney and Shetland.
9. Earl Patrick maintained great state in his household, both in Orkney and Shetland. He never went from any of his castles to church nor anywhere abroad through the islands without a guard of fifty musketeers. Three trumpeters always sounded as he sat at dinner and supper. On his palace at Birsa was inscribed the following motto:-” Robertus Stuartus, filius Jacobi Quinti, Rex Scotorum, hoc edificium instruxit. Sic fuit, est et erit.” This motto gave great offence at Court; and it has been alleged that the Earl suffered the punishment of death more on account of it than for his so-called rebellion, and the tyranny and cruelty which he exercised towards the natives of Orkney and Shetland. “it is probable,” says Sir Walter Scott, “that the only meaning of the inscription was to intimate that Earl Robert was the son of James V., King of Scotland, which was an undeniable truth; but putting Rex in the nominative, instead of Regis in the genitive, as the construction required, Earl Patrick seemed to state that his father bad been the King of Scotland, and was gravely charged with high treason for asserting such a proposition.”
10. In the bond fixing the annuity for the Earl the trustees stipulate that it shall he continued as long as he behaves himself dutifully to the creditors and their chamberlain. They, moreover, bind themselves to give him, when asked, “17 wedders and 200 poultry, as an augmentation of the rent.” The Earl, on his part, “faithfully binds and obliges himself, upon the pain of perpetual infamy and damnation, never to be ingrate to his said creditors.”
11 In England the game or forest laws reach as far back as the time of the Saxon heptarchy. “William the Conqueror,” says Hume, “enacted new laws, by which he prohibited all his subjects from hunting in any of his forests, and rendered the penalties more severe than ever had been inflicted for such offences. The killing of a deer or boar, or even a hare, was punished with the loss of the delinquent’s eyes, and that at a time when the killing of a man could be atoned for by paying a moderate fine or composition.”
12. Chambers Dom, annals, vol.ii., p73.
13. Kenneth Sutherland, third Lord Duffus, forfeited, in the rebellion of 1715, his title and estates. Having fled to the Continent, he afterwards entered the Swedish navy as a flag officer, and married Charlotte, daughter of Eric de Seeblade, governor of Gottenburgh. The title was restored, in 1826, by Act of Parliament, to Captain James Sutherland, son of Eric Sutherland, son of the attainted Kenneth. On his death, in 1827, Sir Benjamin Dunbar of Hempriggs, second cousin of the restored Lord, assumed the title,
14. In the papers of the Spalding Club, Patrick Mowat of Bucholie is mentioned as being witness to a testamentary deed by Andrew, Earl of Errol, at Slains Castle, 3rd of October, 1585.
15. The church here mentioned, of which only a part of the walls is now standing, is supposed to have been founded by the celebrated Bishop Gilbert Murray. It was dedicated to St. Peter; and the Bishop occasionally ministered in it when he resided in his castle of Burnside, in the immediate neighbourhood of the town. Its appearance was cruciform, and in the pointed style of architecture, with a large window in the eastern end. Inside the walls at the heads of the pews were covered with pannelling, on which were here and there paintings of the very rudest execution. One of these represented the offering of Isaac. Abraham was dressed in something like kilt and hose, with a flowing surtout. A pot with fire stood in one corner, the ram bounded forward in another, while above appeared an angel eyeing the scene with an expression of countenance irresistibly comic. In 1726 [Origines Parochiales Scotiae] the vestry was, by permisssion of the kirk session, used by the magistrates as a court house and a vault connected with the building was made to serve the purpose of a lock up or a prison. From this it would appear that the good town at the period in question was pretty hard up for accommodation in the way of public buildings.