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The Battle of Altimarlach

                                                      THE BATTLE OF ALTiMARLACH
Gaelic: Uillt na Muirleach: the Stream of the Thieves
(so called because of the plunder which was taken from the bodies of the dead)

We usually think of the Massacre of Glencoe when we hear the name of Campbell being mentioned but it wasn't only
the Macdonalds who had reason to fear and despise the Campbells.

The Sinclairs, too, had reason to hate the Campbells.

The Battle of Altimarlach was fought on 13th July, 1680 between Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy and George Sinclair
of Keiss over the ownership of the Girnigoe Estates.

The dispute had arisen over money which the 6th Earl of Caithness was alleged to have borrowed from Sir John who
laid claim to the Sinclair lands and, in 1677, was actually granted the title of the Earl of Caithness with the subsidiary
title of Lord Berriedale by which the son of the Earl was invariably known.

George Sinclair of Keiss, a close relative of the 6th Earl, contested the claim which resulted in Glenorchy obtaining
royal permission to invade Caithness - a strange situation as he was already in possession of Girnigoe Castle which
Keiss proceeded to batter into ruins.

Glenorchy i.e. Campbell even obtained several Companies of the King's forces.  This army marched from Perth and
arrived in Caithness on the 18th May and set up camp at Braemore which lies snugly below Morven, the highest hill
in Caithness.  This was part of the Berriedale Estate which Glenorchy had laid claim to when he was made the Earl
of Caithness.

On the 12th July he decided to move his army towards Wick and took possession of the Hill of Yarrows from where he
had a commanding view of the road to the North.  When a sudden mist came down he decided to approach Wick andtake the town by surprise.

The mist lifted as his army came down the Haster Burn and the alarm was raised by Sinclair's forces which were deployed
in and around Wick.  Reports are confused but it would seem that Glenorchy headed for Stirkoke and Altimarlach where he
decided to split his forces with half of them being positioned at the haugh* whilst the others were hidden in a convenient gully.

When the Sinclairs came up the Wick River to meet them they were attacked by the group in the haugh just where the burn
meets the river and, at the same time, the others emerged from the gully.  The Sinclairs were trapped against the Wick River
which is quite deep at this point.  Many of them were drowned and those who did manage to struggle to the opposite bank
were killed by Glenorchy's reserves.

There is no accurate record of the number of men involved but it is thought that Glenorchy commanded some 800 men
and the Sinclairs would have a simlar number.  The Sinclair casualties were said to number 300 whilst the Campbells lost
a mere handful.  The Campbell dead were buried where the commemorative cross now stands.

Peace was made on the following day and was signed in the Old Wick Town Hall which stood on the East side of the Old
Market Square.

The battle is notable for being the last major Clan battle in Scotland.

On the way North, Glenorchy's piper, Finlay ban McIvor, composed two tunes.  One was called "Breadalbane Gathering"
and the other was the notorious "The Campbells are Coming - the carls wi' the breeks are running before us".  Needless
to say, the "carls wi' the breeks" were the Sinclairs who had not yet taken to the kilt.

Until comparatively recently, these tunes were banned in Wick and, even today, it would be a brave man who tried his luck
by whistling them!!

As a boy, I would recite the following poem:

"Short time, Glenorchy Caithness ruled
        By every rank abhorred,
  Whilst Keiss, who firm upheld the claim,
  Obtained the Sinclair's coronet,
  Which was his own by right
  And with that brave devoted band
  On fatal Flodden fell".

Again a few words of explanation might be necessary.  Earls and other nobility are invariably known by their titles
rather than by their family name, hence: Glenorchy = Sir John Campbell whilst Keiss = George Sinclair.

When the Campbells sang "the 'carls' wi' the breeks are running before us", it was particularly insulting to the
Sinclairs because 'carl' means a churl, a peasant or a low-bred person.  The only other word which may cause
difficulty is 'haugh' which is a flat piece of land along a river bed.  The Sinclair Castle at Ravenscraig was once
known as Ravenshaugh but the word 'haugh' fell into disuse.

Incidentally, as the battle of Flodden Field took place in 1513, the composer of the above poem was taking a bit
of poetic licence when he suggested that the George Sinclair who took part in the Battle of Altimarlach fell at
Flodden.  True a George Sinclair of Keiss did fall at Flodden (along with 600 other Sinclairs) but he must have been the g.g.g.grandfather of the one who took part in the debacle of Altimarlach.

Other debacles in which the Sinclairs took part were the Battle of Summerdale (1528) when the Sinclairs of Caithness
and the Sinclairs of Orkney slaughtered eachother at the instigation of a Stewart monarch who feared Sinclair power
and, once again, at Kringellen in Norway (1612) when a whole regiment of Caithness men were wiped out in an ambush.
Paradoxically, Kringellen was the very area of Norway where we originated from in the first place.

Three disasters in a row.  In less than 100 years, we lost nearly 2,000 men in futile battles.  We were further weakened                
by our family feud with the Sutherlands.  No wonder, we began to lose our pre-eminent position in the North of Scotland.
No wonder so many Sinclairs escaped to find a new life in America and Australasia and, today, it is from those Continents
that the Sinclair renaissance is taking place.

I believe the internet has provided us all with a 'springboard of opportunity'.   It has brought about a spiritual re-awakening
of the Clan which is a pleasure to behold and a privilege to take part in.

Niven Sinclair

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