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THE SINCLAIRS OF STEMSTER AND DUNBEATH

The estate of Stemster is in the parish of Bower.
In 2002 it was owned by Richard Palmer.
Dunbeath Castle estate of Dunbeath are in the parish of Latheron.
In 2002 it was owned by Stuart W.M. Threipland
Its website is www.dunbeath.co.uk

Gordon, in his "Genealogy of the Sutherland Family", states that "Dunbeath was given to the Sinclairs" by that William, Earl of Sutherland, who died in 1370, at the time when, by the distribution of lands to his friends, he was strengthening his interests in prospect of his son's succession to the Scottish Crown. But there is no evidence either that the Sinclair family had a footing in Caithness at so early a date, or that Dunbeath did at any time belong to the Earl of Sutherland. It is true that the earliest writ concerning Dunbeath supposed to be now extant, is a precept of sasine, dated 24th October 1429, granted by Alexander de Isle, Earl of Ross, for infefting his sister, Mariotta, and her husband, Alexander de Sutherland, in the lands of Dunbeath, and that this Alexander Sutherland was, down to 1771, considered to have been the Master of Sutherland, as the eldest son of John, tenth Earl of Sutherland, but it is now certain that Sutherland of Dunbeath was not a son of the Earl.

In 1507 Dunbeath was in possession of the family of Innes of Innes. On 11th January 1529 on the resignation of Alexander Innes, a Crown charter erecting Dunbeath, Reay, and Sandside into a barony was granted in favour of -

I. ALEXANDER SINCLAIR, son of William, second Earl of Caithness, and Elizabeth Innes, his wife. This lady was no doubt of the family of Innes of Innes, and it is probable that through her marriage to Alexander Sinclair these estates came for the first time into the Sinclair family. In 1507 Alexander Sinclair had obtained a Crown charter of Stemster, and thus he appears to have been the first Sinclair of Stemster and Dunbeath. The Crown charter in 1529 contains the following clause of some antiquarian interest - "cum mulierum merchetis cum furca, fossa, sok, sak, thole, thieme, infangtheif, outfangtheif, pit, et gallous". Various explanations of the "mercheta mulierum" have been given, some of them sufficiently barbarous, but according to Hailes it really seems to have been the right of levying a fine from a serf or villain, on the marriage of his daughter. About 1657 the lands of Inverse of Dunbeath were erected into a burgh of barony, to be called the burgh of Magnusburgh

Alexander Sinclair had two sons and a daughter: -

  1. William
  2. Oliver, no doubt so named after his grand-uncle, Sir Oliver of Roslyn. He is frequently mentioned as the "brother-german" of William; and in a curious document given in the "Account of the Family of Innes", (Forbes, p. 138) entitled "The Maister of Elphinstoun's Letter", he occurs as "Oliephare Syncklare, brother to William Syncklare of Dunbeytht. In the "Topography of Scotland", by John Harding, between 1437 and 1460, there is reference to the "Castel of Dumbeke" as north of the "Water of Suthyrland"
  1. Isabel, daughter of Alexander Sinclair, married Gilbert Gordon of Garty, uncle to John, fifth Earl of Sutherland. She has attained an unenviable notoriety as a murderer, by poison, of the Earl and his lady in 1567, for the purpose of opening the way for her own son's succession to the earldom
Alexander Sinclair seems to have died before 1541. His widow, Elizabeth Innes, appears also to have been dead about 1557, seeing that her son, William, then got a grant of the non-entry dues of Dunbeath and the barony, of which lands his father and mother had been joint fiars.

II. WILLIAM, SECOND OF DUNBEATH, was apparently a minor, and unmarried, when his father died, for, in 1541, Oliver Sinclair of Pitcarnie, styled also of Solway Moss, obtained a grant of his casualty of marriage, and he was not infeft as heir to his father until 1557. (Precept, May 1557).

In 1562 and 1564 William Sinclair obtained from Adam, Bishop of Orkney, charters of Downreay, Brubster, Thura, and others, and in 1557 he got a Crown charter of confirmation. The charters from the bishop are alleged by Gordon to have been obtained through the fraudulent use of the title-deeds, which are said to have been deposited in the hands of William Sinclair, in confidence, by John, Earl of Sutherland, whose sister he had married. This story is repeated in the "Origines Parochiales", but both it and Sinclair's alleged complicity with his sister in the crime of poisoning the Earl, in order to escape the consequences of his fraud, must be ranked among the spiteful assertions so frequently made by Gordon when he has occasion to notice Caithness affairs. The Earl lived several years after William Sinclair had obtained the bishop's charters, and not only were they acquired on the Earl's own resignation of the lands, but there is nothing to show that William Sinclair's title was ever called in question by the Earl.

In 1547 William Sinclair obtained from William Gordon, Treasurer of Caithness, and Rector and Parson of St. Magnus' Hospital at Spittal, a charter of Mybster and Spittal, which was confirmed by Queen Mary in 1565.

William Sinclair was twice married - first (according to Gordon, who is the more reliable authority in this instance), to Beatrix, daughter of Alexander, Master of Sutherland, and sister of John, Earl of Sutherland; or (according to Douglas), to Beatrix, the Earl's daughter. His second wife was Margaret, only child of Alexander Innes of Innes, and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of John, fifth Lord Forbes. After her father's death in 1553, Margaret Innes obtained a Crown charter of the lands of Ogston and others in Morayshire.

Forbes and Douglas concur in saying that Margaret Innes married "a brother of the Earl of Caithness"; and the former states that the Earl had sent over his brother, William Sinclair, to Morayshire, "to woo the lady for him", but that she preferred himself to the Earl; and that he got with her, for tocher, the Dunbeath and Reay estates, and also the lands of Monbeens, Leuchars, Inche, and others, near Elgin. For this story there is no foundation, since Dunbeath, Reay, and Sandside had certainly been acquired by the Sinclairs in 1529. Besides, William Sinclair was not the brother of an Earl of Caithness.

William Sinclair had five sons, and of these it has been supposed that by his first wife, Lady Beatrix Gordon, he had William, Richard, and George, and by his second wife, Henry and David. It is certain, however, that William was a son of the second marriage. In 1540 Margaret Innes had got from her natural brother, James Innes of Elrick, the lands of Over and Nether Monbeens; and in 1575 a precept was granted by her and her husband for infefting therein "William Sinclair of Stemster"; and Forbes, in noticing the infeftment on this precept, mentions him as the eldest son and heir of William Sinclair of Dunbeath and Margaret Innes. Whether any of the other sons were certainly of the first marriage, it is difficult to say. The sons were: -

  1. William, designed "of Stemster" - which, being the original family estate, was most likely to have devolved on his father's actual eldest son and heir, without reference to a first or second marriage - is supposed to have married Janet, eldest daughter of George, fourth Earl of Caithness. He died before his father, leaving a son George
  2. Richard, who got from his father in 1589 a charter of Mybster, Achalipster, and a two penny land of Spittal. In 1620 he was served heir to his brothers, Henry and David, and was styled of Brims. He seems not to have died before 1625. He had two sons, Alexander and Oliver, and a daughter. Alexander, styled also of Brims, died before his father. In 1619 Alexander married Anna, daughter of Hugh McKay of Scourie and Farr, and his wife Lady Jane, eldest daughter of Alexander, Earl of Sutherland, and he had two sons, John and William. John was served heir in Brims to his father Alexander and his grandfather Richard. He married Anna McKay, by whom he had a daughter, Elizabeth, who married her cousin, John McKay, second of Strathy, and was afterwards styled "Mistress of Strathy". There is some uncertainty as to her mother, Anna McKay, but she is believed to have been daughter of Colonel Hugh McKay of Scourie. In 1647 John Sinclair and Hugh McKay of Dirlot and Strathy, who were cousins-german, executed a mutual entail. To this deed one of the witnesses was "James Sinclair of Gallowhill, brother-in-law to Brims 'and Keeper of a Copy.'" About 1660 John Sinclair sold Brims to John Sinclair of Tannach. Of William, second son of Alexander of Brims, no particulars have been learned. Oliver, second son of Richard Sinclair, got, in 1630, a liferent tack of Spittal from his nephew, John of Brims. The daughter of Richard Sinclair married Alexander Bayne of Clyth, a man of some mark in his time, son of Henry Bayne in Mybster. In 1631 her brother Oliver granted a bond for 500 merks, as part of her tocher
  3. George Sinclair in Downreay and in Durran, the third son of William of Dunbeath, is not much noticed. In 1643 he renounced a bond over Brims, in favour of his grand-nephew, John of Brims. He had a son, John, and a daughter, Barbara, who, in 1640, married David Sinclair of Lybster, in Reay, a descendant probably of Henry Sinclair of Lybster, natural son of John, Master of Caithness. It is conjectured that James Sinclair of Borlum, and latterly of Toftkemp, who held Brubster and many of the lands which once belonged to the Dunbeath family, may possibly have been a son of this George Sinclair
  4. Henry Sinclair of Brubster and Brims, who died without issue, probably before 1610, for in that year his brother Richard, who was served heir to him in 1620, is designed "of Brims". This appears in a renunciation signed at Brims by Margaret Innes, widow of their father. In 1586 he got a Crown charter of Ormlie
  5. David Sinclair of Thura, who died also without issue
In reference to the younger children of William Sinclair, Mr. Alexander Sinclair writes as follows (March 1867):-

  1. Henry, son of Margaret Innes, died s.p., and his brother Richard, in 1620, and Richard's grandson, John of Brims, in 1664, were both served heirs to him.
  2. David, whom you call "of Thura", another son of Margaret Innes, also died s.p., as Richard was served heir to him in 1620 in Thura and Borlum.
  3. Richard's history is difficult. He is son of William in 1569, in contradistinction to the sons of Margaret Innes, who were minors in 1588. He is styled lawful son, and put after Henry and David in 1598, when he is designed of Mybaster (Mybster). Then he is of Browmes (Brims), in 1620. His oldest son, Alexander, is only married in 1619 to the first Anna McKay, leaving John and William, 1617; and Richard had also a son, Olypher, of Spittal, 1647. Richard had also a brother, George of Downra, 1643. But in all this there is no opening for James of Thura or his sons. When Brims comes off Dunbeath in Henry and Richard, and when the mutual settlement of Brims and Strathy takes place in 1647, the only younger branches possible seem to be John's brother, William, and his uncle, Olypher.
William Sinclair of Dunbeath, who led a long and active life, was much harassed in his old age by his relation the Earl of Caithness. Among other acts of violence the Earl "wasted Dunbeath by fire and sword, and besieged him in his house at Downreay"; until at length he retired to Morayshire, among his wife's friends, and there died in 1608. In the register of Confirmed Testaments, 1606-13, there is an entry of the "Testament Testamentar, latter will and legacie and inventar of ye gudes and gear of umql an honle man William Sinclair of Dunbeath". He was succeeded by his grandson,

III. GEORGE SINCLAIR OF DUNBEATH, who married Margaret, daughter of John, eighth Lord Forbes, and died in 1624, leaving an only child Margaret, of whom no further notice is found.

George Sinclair's grandfather had resigned the estates in his favour in 1590, and, in May 1591, he obtained a Crown charter of confirmation. He was either facile, or a spendthrift, for, in 1602, he put himself under "Interdiction". In 1610 he resigned the barony in favour of his brother-in-law Arthur, Lord Forbes; and in 1624, Alexander, Master of Forbes, sold Dunbeath for 28,518 merks, or about 1550 sterling, to John Sinclair of Geanies, son of George Sinclair of Mey, who thus became the first of the second family of Sinclairs of Dunbeath; "and thus", writes Gordon in 1630, with apparent satisfaction, "God in His just judgment hath not left the authors of the Earl of Sutherland's death unpunished; for Dunbeath, his house and familie, is now perished as we see, and his estate is come into a stranger's hand".

The remainder of the barony, and the lands of Spittal and Mybster, were acquired by Sir Donald McKay, first Lord Reay. In 1624 he was infeft, on a charter by the Bishop of Orkney, in Thura, Borlum, Downreay, and Brubster; and about the same time Sandside was purchased from Lord Forbes by William Innes, ancestor of the family of Innes of Sandside.

The only known existing descendants of the family of Sinclair of Stemster and Dunbeath are the descendants of Hugh and William, the elder and younger sons of Elizabeth, only child of John Sinclair of Brims by her marriage to John McKay, second of Strathy. For these reference is made to McKay's "History of the House and Clan of McKay".

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