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"Wicked Earl George"
Sinclair's recent note about "A Sinclair defeat at Altgawn" involving George
Sinclair, the 5th Earl of Caithness, and recent discussions about the wonderful
Sinclair heritage, remind me that some of the Sinclairs were less than
honorable people, including George the 4th Earl and his grandson George the 5th
Earl. James T. Calder, in his book "Sketch of the Civil and Traditional
History of Caithness from the 10th Century" writes:
"The late George, Earl of Caithness, was succeeded by his grandson, George, son
of the Master of Caithness, who died in prison at Girnigoe. This George
inherited much of the talents of his grandfather, with, if possible, greater
cruelty of disposition. In the traditional history of the county, he is called
by way of distinction the 'Wicked Earl George;' and his conduct in many
respects shows that the appellation was no misnomer.
He signalized his accession to the earldom by deliberately killing, in broad
day, David and Ingram Sinclair, the two principal keepers of his late father.
David lived at Keiss, and Ingram at Wester. Ingram's daughter was to be
married, and a large party, including his lordship, was invited to the
wedding. On the afternoon of the day fixed for the marriage, as the Earl was
taking an airing on horseback, he met David on the Links of Keiss, on his way
to Wester, and ran him through with his sword. Immediately on doing so, he
galloped over to Wester, and calling Ingram aside--who was at the time amusing
himself with some friends at foot-ball--he drew out a pistol and shot him dead
on the spot. He then coolly turned his horse's head towards Girnigoe, and rode
off with as little concern as if he had merely killed a brace of moor-fowl.
There was, strictly speaking, no law in the county at the time; and being a
great nobleman, and possessed of ample power of 'pit and gallows,' he escaped
with impunity. The crime seems to have been winked at; and, doubtless, from
dread of a similar fate, never made the subject of complaint by the relatives
of the murdered parties.
Sir Robert Gordon's version of the story differs a good deal from the preceding
account, which is derived from the Caithness tradition. He says that 'the
Earl, after dinner, without any other preamble,' slew the two brothers while
they were amusing themselves at foot-ball, having previously secreted their
weapons, so that they might have nothing wherewith to defend themselves. 'And
the reason,' he adds, 'that moved Earl George to kill them, was because they
favored the Earl of Sutherland.' This is not at all likely. The true reason,
beyond a doubt, was revenge for their having been instrumental in the murder of
his father, the late Master of Caithness. This, in his opinion, justified the
deed; and it certainly must be allowed to plead as an extenuating circumstance
in the commission of a crime otherwise the most atrocious and cold-blooded that
can be conceived.
Tradition adds that during the alarm and confusion caused by this shocking
affair, the company dispersed, and the wedding ring was lost. Not many years
since, a finger ring of a curious construction--supposed to be the identical
wedding ring--was found at Wester. It was of pre gold, twisted so as to
represent a serpent coiled, with his tail in his mouth, an emblem of eternity."
Calder continues with other "adventures" of Wicked Earl George, but concludes
on a softer note:
"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 Berriedale, 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 favor.'"
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