Sinclair of Caithness
The Wicked Earls
The Sinclair family, which claims descent from the Saint-Clair family of Normandy, at first settled at Roslin in Midlothian, where a branch remains to this day. It was the marriage of Sir (Prince) Henry St Clair to the heiress of the Earl of Stratherne, Caithness and Orkney that brought it the northern lands with which it is more commonly associated. Sir Henry conquered the Faeroe Islands in 1391 and explored Greenland, and it is also claimed that he sailed as far as North America, landing in what became Nova Scotia and Massachusetts long before Columbus was born. In 1455 William Sinclair was created Earl of Caithness, and it was around this time that the northern branch of the family adopted that spelling.
The Sinclairs were long a warlike clan, for, through marriage, they had Viking blood in them. George Sinclair, fourth Earl of Caithness, was a noted warmonger, described in William Anderson s The Scottish Nation (1859—63) as ‘a cruel and avaricious nobleman, who scrupled not at the commission of the greatest crimes for the attainment of his purposes . He succeeded as the earl and clan chief in 1529, when his grandfather was killed trying to claim his right to the Orkney Islands, and in 1545 resigned his earldom of Caithness to James V, who granted a new charter in favour of George s eldest son, John, Master of Caithness, with remainder to his heirs male and assigns.
When the Bishop of Caithness was banished to England, George Sinclair and his friend Donald Mackay of Reay laid claim to the bishop s lands, and collected rent from the tenants (they claimed to be collecting it on the bishop s behalf, but he was never to receive a penny of it). Mackay also appropriated the bishop s residence of Skibo Castle, and Sinclair his other castle of Strabister. When the Bishop was later restored to office, both Mackay and Sinclair refused to give up the castles, and they were summoned to the court .at Helmsdale, where the Lieutenant-General for northern Scotland the Earl of Huntly) and the Earl of Sutherland were to question hem. Mackay refused to attend, and was subsequently arrested and held prisoner in the Munros castle of Foulis until his escape in 1549, but George Sinclair seems to have acted out of character, for not only did he go to Helmsdale, he risked life and limb to do so. The Helmsdale River was in full spate, but Sinclair forced his way across n foot against water that came as high as his chest. His attendance meant that he was able to come to an arrangement with the two Earls, and he was free to return to Caithness.
ln July 1555 Mary Queen of Scots came to Inverness to try to establish order among the northern clans. George Sinclair was commanded to appear before her, along with many of his clansmen, in order to swear loyalty to her. Sinclair went alone and, for failing to bring his men with him, was imprisoned as a possible nuisance at Inverness. He was later transferred to Aberdeen, then Edinburgh, before finally being freed on payment of a large fine. On 15 December 1556 he was granted a remission for his ‘crime .
In 1566 Sinclair became justiciar of Caithness, which gave him the power to condemn or pardon any crime committed in that county, apart from treason, and in 1567 he was the Chancellor of the jury that tried the Earl of Bothwell and acquitted him of murdering Lord Darnley. (It is worth noting that Bothwell s sister, Lady Jean Hepburn, was Sinclair s daughter-in-law!). Between 1566, when he acquired the Barony of Mey from the Bishop of Caithness, and 1572 George built the Castle of Mey four storeys high and virtually square in plan, with a flat roof and bartizans at the corners. The castle now belongs to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.
George Sinclair s summons to Helmsdale had given him a deep hatred of John Gordon, Earl of Sutherland. He had long planned revenge, and it is claimed that he instigated his cousin to poison the Earl. In July 1567 the Earl and his wife were invited by Gilbert and Isobel Gordon to a meal at Helmsdale Castle, or hunting lodge. During the supper wine was brought from the cellars, and Isobel made sure the Earl and Countess drank plenty. They fell ill during the night, and next morning, were taken back to Dunrobin Castle, where they died within five days.
The Earl s heir, Alexander, who had returned late from hunting, was thus lucky enough to escape the poisonings but Gilbert Gordon s heir was not so fortunate. He was in the kitchens of the castle and asked for a drink; a servant, unaware that poison had been added to the wine, gave him some — and he died within two days.
The similarity in the appearance of the three corpses raised the suspicions of the Earl s family, and Isobel Gordon was apprehended and sent to Edinburgh where she was tried and found guilty of the murders. She was sentenced to be hanged on the gallows, but died on the morning the execution was due to take place.
Some say that George Sinclair was the real culprit. This seemed to be confirmed when he took young Alexander Gordon, the heir to the Sutherland estates, into his guardianship and forcibly married him to his daughter, Barbara Sinclair — who, at 32, was more than twice the lad s age. He also took up residence in Dunrobin Castle, but paid no respect to the Sutherland belongings, burning their old papers. If Alexander Sutherland was poorly treated by his wife and father-in-law, at least he was not subjected to the treatment that Sinclair meted out to the Sutherland tenants; many were banished from their homes, and not a few were put to death. Ultimately, though, the Murrays of Dornoch persuaded the young Sutherland to flee to Aberdeen — they suspected that George Sinclair was planning to murder Alexander also, and marry off his sister, Lady Margaret Gordon, to George s second son William Sinclair.
When George Sinclair found out who had persuaded Alexander to escape from Dunrobin a feud with the Murrays ensued. In 1570 George and his eldest son, John Garbh (or ‘strong John ), the Master of Caithness and husband of Lady Jean Hepburn, took a large party of men to attack Hugh Murray, the chieftain of that family, at Dornoch. With them was lye (or Y) Dubh, 13th Chief of Mackay. They made their way into the town, destroyed a number of buildings, plundered the town s riches, and set fire to the cathedral; the Murrays took refuge in Dornoch Castle, where they managed to hold out for a week. In the end an agreement was reached — the Murrays gave up three hostages in return for their safe passage out of Sutherland and John Sinclair and lye Mackay allowed them to retreat across the Moray Firth.
George Sinclair, however, refused to accept his son's treaty with the Murrays, and in his anger had the three hostages beheaded. He thought that John had let him down, for he had every opportunity to kill all the Murrays. Realising how furious his father was, John made his escape and went to live with the chief of Mackay. George thought this was suspicious and began to think that his son was plotting to overthrow him — which may have been true. He sent messengers from Caithness to the Mackay s castle with requests for a reconciliation, but most of these were ignored. At length, though, the Master of Caithness decided it was safe enough to return home. He met his father at Girnigoe Castle, near Wick, but while the pair were talking armed men rushed in and captured John. He was locked up in the lowest vault of the castle. Not only did his father lock the vault door, but he had his heir fastened to the walls with iron chains, locked with padlocks. Above this dungeon vault were two other vaults, used as guard-rooms.
The Master of Caithness knew that his father was a wild man, and realised that he was angry with him for making peace with his enemy behind his back, but he did not reckon on just how long his father s anger would last. He thought that after a day or two he would be set free, having been taught a lesson, but his father kept him imprisoned for six years!
George s second son, William of Mey, seems to have spent a good deal of his time in the vault, tormenting his elder brother. One of his spells of goading was so evil that the Master of Caithness managed to reach his brother and kill him. He was then kept prisoner at Girnigoe by other relatives, David and Ingram Sinclair, who brought about his death. At first they kept him without food for a number of days, while tormenting him with the smell of cooking coming from another vault. After a few days they offered their famished prisoner some beef —but beef that had been salted in barrels ready for winter consumption. John Garbh, not unnaturally, ate the beef, but was then refused water. He died on 15 March 1576 and was buried in Wick church.
George Sinclair died in Edinburgh on 9 September 1582, and was interred in the ancient burial vault of Roslin Chapel. His heart was removed from his corpse before the burial and carried north to be buried in a lead casket in the kirk at Wick, in much the same way as Robert the Bruce s heart was buried at Melrose Abbey. The story did not end there, however, for in 1588 one of his old enemies of the Sutherland clan broke into the church and had the heart, which had turned to dust, scattered in the strong winds which blow across the flat moors of Caithness. George was succeeded by John Garbh s son, George (d. 1643) who became the fifth Earl. The violent streak in the Sinclairs seems to have touched him too, for he was known as ‘the wicked earl . He had the gaolers who imprisoned his father executed — although in 1584 he received a remission under the Great Seal of the Privy Council, so the Council must have felt that his act was at least partially justified. The fifth Earl was the man behind the minting of illegal coinage.