The Battle of Altimarlach and the Last Clan War, 1680
From: "Neil Sinclair/Peggy Rintoul"
Date: Fri, 12 Mar 1999 14:41:50 -0500
Dear list members and those concerned with clan wars;
I glanced through my personal emails from the list this afternoon and
noted some confusion around the Campbell-Sinclair and castle side.
Perhaps a restatement would be helpful.
I am satisfied from most of the clan histories of Scotland that the last
clan war was between Campbell of Glenorchy (The Duke of
Argyll Line) and
the Sinclairs of Caithness. But before everyone starts frowning let me
share the rest of the Story.
The Sinclair estate was (prior to any clan war), virtually bankrupt.
George borrowed from the Campbells among others to shore up the estates.
You must remember because of changing economic conditions many clans
were no longer surviving economically. In fact by the end of 1600 the
country was 6 years away from the Act of Union and 45 years from the
legal abolishment of the clan system. This all said the Campbells came
to differences over this amount of debt owed to them and marched to
collect it from George. That was quite a hike. There was a
battle but if
you are thinking along the Braveheart lines you may be mislead. We have
a handful on each side not every man available at arms. The Sinclairs
plainly lost according to every history. The Campbells claimed Caithness
and the Sinclair Estates as security and legal entitlement. They were
after the rents naturally.
Having no other recourse George approached the Court of Scotland, I
believe it was then the Privy Council equal to the House of Lords at the
time. It was the only court that could address the matter and the
highest court in the land. It turned out that the force of arms was
dimly looked on by the court (quite rightly just as they do today) and
the Estate was awarded back to Sinclair. (I have yet to find what
happened to the debt.) This completed (it took some 3 years) the old
feudal system could revert back to Sinclair again, but here too there
was difficulty. The rent system was in disarray, the economy around
Scotland collapsing and many clansmen were leaving to seek their fortune
elsewhere. This was not limited to the Sinclairs, it occured commonly
with many Clan Chiefs actually paying their clansmen to leave to the
cities and join the cotton making rush. Others were simply told to
leave. For that manner many clan chiefs were not living in Scotland, but
in London ready to educate their children at the best schools and live
in a civilized manner away from the drafty castles of Scotland.
I wonder how the castle
fell into ruins, it was not I believe done
primarily by the Campbells but after a slow decline over 200 years of
abandonment. There are sketches about 1800 of it and it was not nearly
the ruin it is today.
One further irony, there was a new need for jobs and able workers to
replace the many families now leaving for the Colonies and
This being the case there was a turn around of the more prosperous
estates. Workers, tacksmen, crofters and the tradespersons were sought
from the cities and elsewhere. One such individual advertising was
indeed, none other than our Duke of Argyll - John of Glenorchy.
And you might guess around 1700 who applied for the jobs of working on
the farms near Auchindrain located in Inveraray. But a hardy band of
Sinclairs. This was the forerunner of the Sinclair blood line in
for the next 300 years. Oh and don't bad mouth the Campbells, not only
were they our employers but they were also our lovers and many Sinclairs
came to carry the Campbell blood line as well. Feuds between the Lairds
really did not affect the more common folk, either then or now. That is
the rest of the story.
Enough history for a Friday afternoon, keep up the reasearch
constructive dialogues and have fun;
Yours aye yours
Neil Sinclair Toronto-PEI-Argyll
PS If you missed it, this summary was provided by Karen Matheson who has
also studied the topic and popped this from the Tartan site.
"The direct line came to an end with
George, 6th Earl
who through debt
granted the title and estates to Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy. In
1676, after Sir John assumed the title, George Sinclair of Keiss
disputed the claim and seized the Caithness estates, only to be defeated
in 1680 by the Campbells near Wick. Although the claim was lost by the
sword, the Privy Council rendered his claim in 1681 and he became the
7th Earl of Caithness."
Note: The above is almost correct, but legally the grant of the lands
was security for moneys, not a grant of title, but more along the lines
of what many places consider a mortgage. I do not believe he moved away
from the estate and hence the Campbells sought forceable possession. He
resisted rather surprised I imagine that the Campbells were enforcing
[Actually, the 6th Earl died before the
Campbells tried to take posession.]
I picked up the following description of the Battle of Altimarlach at the
Dunbeath Heritage Centre in Dunbeath. No author or source is noted.
The Battle of Altimarlach
Gaelic: Uilt na Muirleachthe Burn of the Thieves
(so called because of the plunder taken from the bodies of the dead)
The battle of Altimarlach was fought on 13th July 1680 between Sir John
Campbell of Glenorchy and George Sinclair of Keiss over ownership of the
Estates. A dispute arose over money alleged to have been borrowed
by the 6th Earl of Caithness from Sir John who consequently laid claim to
the estate and in 1677 was granted the title of Earl of Caithness, Lord
Sinclair of Berriedale and Glenorchy. George Sinclair of Keiss, a close
relative of the
contested his claim and a series of disputes
resulted in Glenorchy obtaining royal permission to invade Caithness to
uphold his claim. He was also provided with several companies of the
This army marched from Perth and arrived in Caithness on 18th May and set
up camp at Braemore, near Morven, which at that time was on the Berriedale
estate which Glenorchy claimed as Earl of Caithness. On 12th July he
marched his army to the Hill of Yarrows, and the site was long known as
Torran nan Gael, the Highlanders Hill. From there he had a commanding view
of the area and decided to approach Wick under cover of a sudden mist. The
mist lifted as he was coming down the Haster Burn and the alarm was raised
by Sinclair's forces who were deployed in and around Wick.
Reports are confused but it seems that Glenorchy headed for Stirkoke and
Altimarlach where he divided his force. Half were deployed on the haugh
west of the burn and the others were concealed in the gully. When the
Sinclairs came up Wick River to meet them, they were attacked by the group
on the haugh, just where the burn met the river, and at the same time the
ambush was sprung by the force in the gully. The Sinclairs were trapped
against the river which is quite deep at this point and many men were
drowned, or killed by the reserves if they managed to struggle to the
opposite bank, on the Moss of Bronsie.
There is no accurate record of the number of men involved, but Glenorchy
would have had about 800, and the Sinclairs a similar amount. Sinclair
casualties were high with possibly 300 men killed. Many of the dead on the
Campbell side were buried where the commemorative cross now stands. Peace
was made between the sides the following day and was signed in the old Wick
Town Hall which stood on the east side of the present Market Square.
The battle is notable for being the last major clan battle in Scotland and
for the fact that two famous pipe tunes
were composed by Glenorchy's piper
Finlay Ban MacIvor, while the army was marching to Caithness. One was
'Breadalbane Gathering' and the other 'The Campbells are coming.' Until
comparatively recently it was a gross insult to play these tunes in Wick."
Note that, in this account, there is no mention of the Sinclairs being drunk.
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
From: Niven Sinclair <email@example.com>
Date: Mon, 12 Jul 1999 23:16:42 +0100
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
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
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
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
This was part of the Berriedale Estate which
Glenorchy had laid claim to when he was made the Earl
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 and take 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
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
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
The battle is notable for being the last major Clan battle in
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
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
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
when the Sinclairs of Caithness
and the Sinclairs of Orkney slaughtered each other 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
It has brought about a spiritual re-awakening
of the Clan which is a pleasure to behold and a privilege to take part
Last changed: 00/05/22 13:09:54