Published in Roslin O Roslin Autumn 2001 (Vol 3 No 25), Rory
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.
The Ord of Caithness (A Boy Remembers)
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
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
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
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.
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.
A Head on a Platter
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.
The Poisoned Supper, or the Biter Bitten
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.
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.
A Family Hell-Bent on Self-Destruction
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
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
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
Relatives are Scorpions
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'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
Our Tainted Heritage
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).
That which is born in the bone can never be driven out of the blood.
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).
The Campbells add Insult to Injury
"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
"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:
By every rank abhorred,
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.
- ¹ Glenorchy
= Campbell of Glenorchy who, on voluntarily relinquishing the Earldom of
Caithness because (in his own words) "living in Caithness was like
living in enemy territory", was given the Earldom of Breadalbane in
compensation by the King.
- ² Keiss =
George Sinclair of Keiss, son of Francis Sinclair of Northfield, disputed
Campbell's right to the Earldom of Caithness and, more particularly,
his annexation of the lands of Northfield and Tister which he, George,
had inherited from his father. It was this George who bombarded Sinclair
and Girnigoe Castles to evict the Campbells.
- Breeks = trousers. Stems from the English breeches.
- Carles = churls. From the Norse karls.
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