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The Ord of Caithness



Published in Roslin O Roslin Autumn 2001 (Vol 3 No 25), Rory Sinclair, Editor.


by Niven Sinclair


This article was submitted by Niven Sinclair. Aside from being a terrific read, Niven has woven his great historical knowledge with his personal experience to produce this great little story. Those of you who now Niven, will also recognize the feistiness of this Primum Mobile of the Clan Sinclair Renaissance.

Niven Sinclair during a 2002 visit to Norway
- click for more information on that trip

We were making our annual trip to Caithness in Father's old Austin 16 car which had seen better days but which, on the outbreak of war, was considered to be sufficiently suitable to be converted into an ambulance so it was immediately "commandeered" - a term used when the Government wants something without having to pay for it.

We had just passed Helmsdale and already we boys were eager with anticipation as we neared Caithness and our grandfather's croft at Dunbeath where there was always the welcoming smell of a peat fire and, nearby, sea-caves to explore for flotsam and jetsam which assumed the guise of treasure. Such is the imagination and wonder of youth.

"This is the Ord."

My father uttered the words in the sort of hushed reverence which priests use when they say "Let us pray" and, in the old days (as we shall see) that is exactly what people did before crossing the desolate Ord of Caithness.

Unlike the welcome given to the Sinclair Gathering last year, there was no Rory Sinclair to pipe the traveller across the border, no Chief flying his pennant or a bearded Ian Sinclair displaying a banner with the bold words "Welcome to Caithness". The welcome was distinctly of another kind.

This southern border between Caithness and Sutherland; this no-man's-land between the warring Sinclairs and the upstart Sutherlands; this wild stretch of country where the road follows sheer cliffs as it twists and winds its way north from Helmsdale is dangerous terrain. In winter time, the snow can drift over the road making it impassable. A few years ago several people perished as their cars became trapped during a blizzard. There is no help or habitation for miles. It is only recently that "mobile " phone service began to cover this far north and, even now, reception is patchy.

It was even more dangerous in the past when the Ord was quot;guarded" by a Caithness robber-baron known as Grey Steel - a name one would have thought which would have been more appropriate to an Indian Chief than a highwayman. Grey's main objective in life was to way-lay travellers on the Ord and demand payment for passage over it. If he wasn't satisfied with the amount offered, the unfortunate traveller was thrown over the steep cliffs to his death.

Grey Steel lived on a small island in Loch Rangag. The remains of his castle can still be seen today as you drive north from Latheron to Thurso. Grey may have been a Sinclair but, if so, Clan historians have kept quiet about it. There are enough skeletons in the Sinclair cupboard without adding more.

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In medieval times, the people in the north of Scotland were divorced from the mainstream of Scottish life with all its plotting and intrigue. Nevertheless, they carried on with their own personal feuds as this well-known couplet sums it up:

Sinclair, Sutherland, Keith and Clan Gunn,
There never was peace where these four were in.

The couplet doesn't mention the McKays. They were turncoats. They changed sides as often as the Vicar of Bray. They were as vicious and as unprincipled as the rest of the northern Clans as the following sorry tales will tell.

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When King Haakon of Norway was on his way to defeat and disaster at the Battle of Large in 1261, his great fleet rested at Loch Eribol on the North East Coast of Sutherland. As was customary, a foraging party was sent ashore to see what food could be found but they were massacred by the Clan Mackay. Since the Norwegians had no time to exact reprisal before setting sail and, prudently, they probably thought that chasing around the Forest of Reay in pursuit of the Mackays might end up with even more casualties, these killings remained unavenged - that is until 1612 at Kringelen but that is another story.

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The head of the Mackays had a hunting lodge in the Forest of Reay where, on his arrival, it was customary for the tenants to send him gifts of food. One of the tenants, who lived on an island in one of the many lochs, sent his wife with a gift of two fine hares.

However, Lord Reay fancied the wife more than the hares and asked her to "bide a while". The lady replied "Not whilst my husband is still alive," whereupon Lord Reay despatched two of his henchmen to find the husband.

Using cross-bows they fired blazing bolts in to the thatch of the dwelling and, when the doomed man ran out, they shot him through the neck. They then rowed across to the island and cut off his head.

Lord Reay put the head on a platter and showed it to the widow saying: "Now, Madam, will you stay with me?"

She stayed but one wonders what sexual gratification she could have provided in the sad circumstances of her enslavement.

The Loch where this incident took place is still known as Loch a'Mhuirt which means the "murder loch"whilst a neighbouring loch is known as Loch na Mnatha or the "mother's loch" which the Lord of Reay gave to the widow - whether as a consolation for the loss of her husband or for sharing his bed, we do not know. It is doubtful if his conscience entered the equation.

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We are frequently told that "there is some good in everyone", but in the north of Scotland it was hard to find such a quality.

Chiefs ruled their domains with harsh justice and feudal authority. Such a man was George Sinclair, the 4th Sinclair Earl of Caithness, who is said to have arranged to poison the Earl and Countess of Sutherland whilst they were staying at a hunting lodge near Helmsdale.

Isabel Sinclair, a servant in the house and a relative of the Earl of Caithness, was convicted of the crime but escaped execution by hanging herself on the night before she was due to be officially hanged. Was she helped in this act of self-immolation? If she was guilty of administering the poison and if she was a relative of the Earl of Caithness, it showed an amazing lack of caution by the Earl and Countess of Sutherland in allowing her into a position whereby she could add poison to their food.

However, before the Earl died he warned his son, the Master of Sutherland, to avoid supper which fortunately the boy did. Such a timely warning was not given to Isabel's own son, John Gordon, who partook of the meal and died. If the Master of Sutherland had died, he, John Gordon, would have been heir to the Sutherland Estates - such was the intricate pattern of intermarriages between the Clans. Love was not a factor in such marriages. Power was.

Notwithstanding his possible complicity in the murder of the Earl and Countess of Sutherland, George Sinclair moved quickly to obtain the guardianship of the young Master of Sutherland and, ipso facto, to the Sutherland Estates (which had always eluded his machinations) by marrying him off to his thirty-year-old daughter, Barbara.

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Convinced that his avaricious father-in-law was planning to have him murdered, the young man (now the Earl of Sutherland) fled to Morayshire whereupon George Sinclair ordered his son, John, the Master of Caithness, to march into Sutherland and teach the inhabitants of that county a lesson which they would not "forget in a hurry" and to bring the fleeing Earl back to consummate the marriage. Hope lives eternal.

Consequently, in company with the Chief of the Strathnaver MacKays and his men, John marched south to lay Sutherland to waste and to find the young Earl who had sought refuge further south. John laid siege to the town of Dornoch. After many weeks, he was able to extract concessions from the townsfolk and hostages against their good behaviour.

However, on reporting to his father, George Sinclair didn't want hostages or concessions, he wanted Sutherland. He refused to ratify the agreement and ordered his son to put the hostages to death and to burn the town to the ground. John refused to do so and fled to Reay to escape his father's wrath. He married MacKay's sister*.

After some years and many pleading letters from his father, he agreed to return to Girnigoe where his father had him seized and flung into the dungeon where he was "keiped in miserable captivity for the space of seaven yeirs".

Fortunately, John had decided to leave his family at Reay until he had spied the lie of the land in Caithness and ascertained his father's true intentions.

It was during this captivity that John managed to strangle his younger brother who used to visit him to gloat. Eventually, the Earl gave orders for John to be starved. After a week he was given salt pork to eat but, when he begged for water, it was refused.

John Sinclair died in a tormented agony of pain and raging thirst. He was buried in the "Sinclair Aisle" in Wick where the inscription above his gravestone reads: "Here lies entombed ane noble and worthie man, John, Master of Caithness who departed this life the 15th day of March, 1576". Whatever the truth about the manner of his death, he died in unusual circumstances.

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Once more retribution took a hand because, when George Sinclair died, it was John Sinclair's son, another George (who was even more wicked than his grandfather) who became the 5th Sinclair Earl of Caithness.

His first act on becoming Earl was to murder his father's gaolers who were his kinsmen, Ingram and David Sinclair. Blood is not always thicker than water. It is the esssence of intrigue. Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia said: "Akaribi ni akrab" which, other than the beautiful Arabic alliteration, means "relatives are scorpions".

Before his incarceration by his father, John Sinclair had sown his wild oats because, apart from the George mentioned above, who became the Earl of Caithness, he had another son, James, who became the 1st of Murkle and yet another, John, who became the 1st of Greenland and Rattar.

He also had two natural sons: David, who acquired Stirkoke in 1587, and who, in turn, had two sons. The first, named John after his grandfather, met an unfortunate end as he was slain in a fight in Thurso in 1612 whilst the second son, George, met his death when he was ambushed in Norway whilst on his way with 300 men to fight for King Gustav Adolphus of Sweden - also in 1612. Retribution, perhaps, for the massacre of the Norwegian sailors in 1261 referred to above.

The second natural son of John, the Master of Caithness, was Henry who was a member of the jury empanelled to try Robert Stewart, the son of Patrick Stewart, who became the Earl of Orkney after the Sinclairs were deprived of that Earldom by James III when Orkney and Shetland were ceded to Scotland as part of the dowry of Princess Margaret of Norway. This Henry died (mysteriously) in the Castle at Kirkwall which had been built by his ancestor Prince Henry Sinclair. He also (surprise surprise) had a son named John.

* John's "marriage" to MacKay's sister was probably a second "marriage" giving rise to his quot;natural" children because, earlier, he had married Jean, the daughter of the Earl of Bothwell.

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It will be seen that the same names cascade down through the generations which can make the task of the genealogist very confusing. It is made doubly difficult when brothers "german" and brothers "natural" have the same names - especially when the latter were subsequently "legitimised", as so often happened, which is just as well as most of us are descended from those "natural" offspring.

Is it only the names which cascade down through the generations or do we also carry some of those other less desirable traits which seemed to have been such a common factor with our ancestors: avarice, lust for revenge, impetuousity, improvidence, imprudence, tactlessness, premeditated cruelty and even murder? (In my book, to deprive someone of their self-respect is akin to murder).

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Let us return to my boyhood crossing of the Ord where this story began. "This is the Ord" Father had said. We boys looked around to see if we could see anything which gave rise to this unexpected announcement. We looked in vain. We simply saw more and more of the same. Father continued by way of explanation:

"Six hundred Sinclairs crossed the Ord of Caithness on their way to Flodden Field in 1513. They were killed to a man".

"Who were we fighting", I asked.

"The English," Father said.

"We wouldn't have lost if I had been in command", I said. I was seven years of age. My only knowledge of warfare was confined to the school playground where, instead of playing "Cowboys and Indians", we played "Scots and English" i.e. whenever we could find enough boys who could be "persuaded" to be English. It wasn't easy.

We may have had the Union of the Crowns in 1603 but over 300 years later the English were still the "enemy" in the hearts and minds of most Scots. The Scots never lost.

Bannockburn was remembered. Flodden was forgotten. (It was and is the tragic reality of such ignorance which gives rise to the ethnic and religious conflicts which manifest themselves in so many parts of this tormented and troubled World to this very day. So much for progress. So much for civilisation).

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"Even to this day," Father continued, "Sinclairs won't cross the Ord of Caithness on a Monday morning wearing green."

"Why green?" I asked.

"That was the colour of our breeks," Father responded.

"Breeks? Didn't we wear kilts?" I challenged.

"No, we wore breeks. The Campbells had a song which said: The carles wi' the breeks are running before us."

"The Campbells!" I splurted - almost choking myself with indignation.

"Yes, the Campbells," Father explained, "They were the lackeys of the English. They even took over the Earldom of Caithness for a time from the Sinclairs. There was a poem about it:

"Short time, Glenorchy¹ Caithness ruled,
By every rank abhorred,
Whilst Keiss², 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."

By this time, I was almost in tears. Being chased by Campbells and being massacred by the English wasn't my idea of "Oh! For the Sinclairs of old!" which was my battle cry on the school playground where my name had been changed from "Niv" to "Kniv" which, in the Scottish dialect, means a fist.

My fists were always flying. Every day brought a new battle. I was another George Sinclair (from whom I am said to be descended) in the making. It took me many years to discover that the greatest battle I had to fight was with myself.

Niven Sinclair

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Some explanations:

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