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THE ST. CLAIRS OR SINCLAIRS, EARLS OF CAITHNESS

Photos of Castle Sinclair and Girnigoe Castle are available on www.caithness.org/caithness/castles/sinclairgirnigoe

I. WILLIAM ST. CLAIR, EARL OF ORKNEY, obtained a grant of the Earldom of Caithness in 1455 from James II. He was the first of this family who enjoyed the dignity. He held many high public offices, possessed extensive landed property, and had in his time great influence; and he appears to have lived in his castle at Roslyn in almost regal splendour. In personal appearance he is described as having been "a very fair man, of great stature, broad bodied, yellow haired, and well proportioned", and to be "much given to policy, as building of castles, palaces, and churches", among which were Roslyn Castle and its celebrated Chapel.

He was twice married - first, to Margaret, daughter of Archibald, fourth Earl of Douglas. (She was widow of John Stewart, Earl of Buchan, and of Sir Thomas Stewart, natural son of Alexander, Earl of Mar), by whom he had a son, William, named "Williame the Waster", ancestor of the Lords Sinclair, and a daughter, Catharine, married to Alexander, Duke of Albany. He married, secondly, Marjorie, daughter of Alexander Sutherland of Dunbeath. In Gordon's "History of the Family of Sutherland", this Alexander Sutherland is stated to have been the eldest son of John, Earl of Sutherland; and down to 1771 this was the general opinion of Scottish genealogists. But it was then proved in the Sutherland peerage case, by the production of his original will, that he was alive in 1456, and that he had several sons and daughters, whereas Alexander, Master of Sutherland, appears to have died about 1444, when the earldom went to his younger brother. It is uncertain of what family Alexander Sutherland of Dunbeath was, but it is probable that he was of the Thorboll or Duffus branch of the family of Sutherland. It is on the supposed descent of Sutherland of Dunbeath from the Earl of Sutherland, and on the belief that his daughter Marjorie was the Earl's granddaughter, that the close blood connection, assumed by Douglas and others to have existed between the Earls of Caithness and Sutherland, is founded.

By his second marriage Earl William had issue: -

  1. Sir Oliver of Roslyn
  2. William, his successor in the earldom
  3. Sir David of Swinburgh
  4. Robert, mentioned in a Crown charter in 1506
  5. John, Bishop nominate of Caithness
William Sinclair of Warsetter in Orkney, who married a daughter of George, Earl of Huntly, was probably a son or grandson of Earl William.

His daughters, by the second marriage, were: -

  1. Eleanor
  2. Marion
  3. Elizabeth
  4. Marjorie
The seniority of Sir Oliver, and his brother-german William, has been a matter of controversy. The unequal distribution of their father's large succession has been considered to support the seniority of Sir Oliver, "for" - as observed in Father Hay's account of the family of Roslyn - "while the second Earl does not seem to have inherited anything beyond the barren domains belonging to the earldom, Sir Oliver received Roslyn and other extensive properties, anyone of which was worth the fee-simple of the northern estates made over to his brother".

Nisbet, whose work was written about the beginning of last century, says, "To clear the seniority of these sons, I have seen a contract of the date the 9th of February 1481, betwixt William Sinclair (William the Waster), son and heir of the deceased William, Earl of Orkney, Lord Sinclair and Zetland, and Henry Sinclair, son and apparent heir of the said William Sinclair, on the one part, and Sir Oliver Sinclair of Rosline, on the other part, whereby the said Sir Oliver freely resigns and gives over to the said William and his son and apparent heir, Henry, the lands of Causland, Dysart, and Ravensheugh, with the castles; and, on the other part, William and his son Henry renounce all right to the barony of Rosline, Pentland Mure, etc., in favour of Sir Oliver and his heirs; and the said Oliver obliges himself that he shall in time coming do worship and honour to the said William as accords him to do to an elder brother, and if it happen any plea or debate to be betwixt the said William and his younger brother" (William, afterwards second Earl of Caithness) "for the earldom of Caithness, the said Sir Oliver shall stand evenly and neuter betwixt them as he should do betwixt his brothers, and take no partial part with either of them".

Mr. Burnett, Lord Lyon, who had the perusal of these notes, writes on 4th November 1873, to Principal Campbell, Aberdeen, "I observe he (Mr. Henderson) takes Nisbet's view of the respective seniority of Sir Oliver of Roslyn and his brother William, Earl of Caithness. My own belief is quite the other way; the document quoted by Nisbet is equally capable of either interpretation, and the Sinclairs of Roslyn having in all the older MSS., Sir David Lindsay's included, which was close to that period, a mullet for difference, is to me very convincing proof that Sir Oliver was the third son of his father. This markof cadency seems first to have been allowed to be dropped in 1672, probably in consequence of both Lord Sinclair and the Earl of Caithness having their arms otherwise differenced.

II. WILLIAM, SECOND EARL, obtained a charter from King James III, on his father's resignation in 1476, of the earldom, including the patronage of the Hospital of St. Magnus, at Spittal. In 1505 he sat in Parliament as Earl of Caithness, and in 1513 he fell at Flodden.

By his wife Mary, daughter of Sir William Keith of Inveruggie, he had: -

  1. John, his successor
  2. Alexander, ancestor of the first family of Sinclair of Stemster and Dunbeath
He had also a natural son, William, who was legitimised in 1543, but of whose descendants, if any, no account has been discovered.

III. JOHN, THIRD EARL, was slain in an expedition to Orkney in 1529. He married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir William Sutherland of Duffus, by whom he had: -

  1. William, who died in 1527, without issue
  2. George, his successor
He had also a natural son, David, who held the office of Bailie to the Bishop of Caithness. In 1556, David's brother, Earl George, obtained a remission for imprisoning him in Girnigo Castle. See Dun

IV. GEORGE, FOURTH EARL, was Justiciar of Caithness by grant, in 1566, from Queen Mary; and he was one of the peers who sat on the trial of Bothwell.

He married Lady Elizabeth Graham, daughter of William, Earl of Montrose, and had: -

  1. John, Master of Caithness
  2. William, who was first Laird of Mey, and ancestor of Ulbster
  3. George of Mey, Chancellor of Caithness
  1. Barbara, who married Alexander, Earl of Sutherland, and was divorced by him in 1573
  2. Elizabeth, married first to Alexander Sutherland of Duffus, and thereafter to Hutcheon McKay of Farr, ancestor of the Lords Reay
  3. Another daughter, married to Alexander Innes, of Innes
Douglas mentions Janet St. Clair, a daughter of this Earl, as third wife of Robert Munro of Foulis, said by him to have died without issue. In 1582 Janet Sinclair, Lady Foulis, had a Tack of the Parsonage of Spittal, which belonged to the Caithness family.

John, Master of Caithness, died at Girnigo Castle in 1576. In 1543 he had obtained a charter from Queen Mary, by which the earldom became a male fee, to him and his heirs-male. He married Jean, daughter of Patrick, Earl of Bothwell; and had three sons and a daughter: -

  1. George, afterwards Earl of Caithness
  2. James, first of Murkle
  3. John, first of Greenland and Rattar
  1. Agnes
Douglas gives the Master a legitimate son David, but this is an error. In August 1587 David Sinclair obtained a charter of Alterwall from Henry Keir of Greenland; and in a Crown charter which followed thereon he is designated "filio naturali quond. Joannis Magistri Cathanensis". In 1588 he obtained Letters of Legitimation. He had two sons, John, killed at Thurso in 1612, and Colonel George, who perished in the same year in the luckless expedition to Norway, of which full details are to be found in Calder's "History of Caithness", and elsewhere. In Chambers's "Domestic Annals" (vol. i. pp. 445-6), it is stated that in the Pass Kringelen there is a tablet with the following inscription: - "Here lies Colonel Sinclair, who with nine hundred Scotsmen were dashed to pieces like clay-pots by three hundred Boors of Lessoe, Vaage, and Froen; Berdon Segelstadt Ringeboe was the leader of the Boors". See Stirkoke

The Master had also a natural son, Henry, who got a conveyance from his brother, Earl George, of part of the lands of Borrowstown and Lybster, with "the miln and fishings", and in a reversion by him in favour of the Earl dated 23d September 1606, he is designed as his "brother naturall". By his wife, Janet Sutherland, he had a son John, and he is probably the ancestor of a family of Sinclairs of Lybster, who occur as Wadsetters of these lands down to 1670.

In 1614, Henry Sinclair accompanied Earl George in an expedition to Orkney, and it is related by Gordon that, while besieging the Castle of Kirkwall, he "went to bed at night in health, but before the morning he was benummed in all his sences, and remained so until his death", - an event evidently considered by the historian as a judgment on the Earl's proceedings.

V. GEORGE, FIFTH EARL, succeeded his grandfather in 1583. (1583-1643). He married Jean Gordon, daughter of George, fifth Earl of Huntly, and had two sons; and a daughter Elizabeth, named in Douglas's Peerage Anne, who married George, Lord Lindsay, afterwards Earl of Crawfurd, and died without issue. - Inventory of Caithness titles.

  1. William, Lord Berriedale, who married Mary, daughter of Henry Lord Sinclair. He died before his father, leaving a son, John, Master of Berriedale, who married Jean, daughter of the Earl of Seaforth, and died in 1639. John had three sons; - George, afterwards sixth Earl; and John and William, who died before him
  2. Francis of Northfield, who married Elizabeth, daughter of Lord Fraser, and had a son, George Sinclair of Keiss, afterwards seventh Earl, and a daughter "Jean, Lady Mey", who died in 1716. Francis Sinclair had a natural daughter, Margaret, who in 1653 married John, son of Alexander Sutherland in Lybster, to whom her father promised a tocher of 700 merks, which, however, the cautioners in the contract of marriage, Patrick Sinclair of Ulbster, and John Smart, Minister of Wick, were compelled to pay.

Earl George had two natural sons, Francis, who, about 1621, (Gordon, p. 450) fought a duel with his relative, Sir William Sinclair of Mey; and John, who attained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the German wars. From Francis Sinclair are descended the Sinclairs of Stirkoke.

VI. GEORGE, SIXTH EARL, married Mary, daughter of the Marquis of Argyle, and died at Thurso Castle in 1676, without issue.

The earldom being much involved in debt, Earl George disponed the estates and title to his principal creditor, John Campbell of Glenorchy, who, on the Earl's death, married the Countess, and was created Earl of Caithness by patent. Glenorchy's right to the title was challenged by George Sinclair of Keiss, son of Francis Sinclair of Northfield, and after a proclamation in favour of the latter by the Privy Council in 1681, Glenorchy was created Earl of Breadalbane and Holland.

VII. GEORGE SINCLAIR OF KEISS, SEVENTH EARL OF CAITHNESS (1681-98) and grandson of the fifth Earl, died in 1698 without issue.

With George Sinclair the heirs-male of the body of the fifth Earl came to an end, and the succession to the dignity opened to the descendants of James Sinclair, first of Murkle, in the person of his grandson, John Sinclair, then of Murkle.

VIII. JOHN, EIGHTH EARL (1698-1705) was eldest son of Sir James Sinclair, second of Murkle, and married Jean Carmichael of the Hyndford family.

[So designed in Douglas's Peerage, 1764. Crawfurd, nearly a contemporary, calls her simply "Jean Carmichael". Mr. C. H. E. Carmichael's almost exhaustive researches in Carmichael genealogy have failed to affiliate her.]

In March 1644 his father resigned the lands of Murkle in favour of himself and of John, styled his eldest lawful son, and the heirs of his body, whom failing, to other heirs male of his body.

Earl John died in 1705, leaving four sons and a daughter: -

  1. Alexander, his successor
  2. John, Lord Murkle, one of the Senators of the College of Justice, who left no issue
  3. Francis, of Milton of Lieurary, who left no issue
  4. Archibald
  1. Lady Janet, who married, in 1714, David Sinclair of Southdun, and had several children

IX. ALEXANDER, NINTH EARL, (1705-65) married Lady Margaret Primrose, daughter of the Earl of Rosebery, and died in 1765, leaving an only child, Lady Dorothea, who married James, Earl of Fife, and died in 1819, without issue.

In 1761 the Earl executed an entail of his estates, in virtue of which, on failure of his heirs therein mentioned, they passed to the Sinclairs of Stevenson, - a family not related to that of Murkle.

Earl Alexander resided at Haimer Castle, which after his death was allowed to fall into disrepair, and now no vestige of it remains.

Haimer seems to have been a square building, like a tower or fortalice, and to have contained some eight or nine rooms, including dining-room, drawing room, tea-room, two "pavilions", a few bedrooms, with sundry closets, cellars, etc. From an inventory of the plate, the establishment would appear to have been on a very moderate scale, the Earl having apparently possessed but a dozen and a half of silver spoons of all kinds, an old tea-kettle and lamp, sugar-tongs and spoon, a couple of small salvers, a tankard, and some plated candlesticks, and the like. Sumptuary laws were less required in Earl Alexander's days than in our time.

On the death of Earl Alexander the male issue of John the eighth Earl, and of his father, Sir James Sinclair, and of his grandfather, James, first of Murkle, became extinct, and the succession of the title devolved on William Sinclair of Rattar, as the lineal descendant of Sir John Sinclair of Greenland and Rattar, third son of John, Master of Caithness, and younger brother of James, first of Murkle.

Sir James of Murkle had a son, David of Broynach, whose male descendants would have succeeded to the dignity in preference to the Greenland and Rattar branch, but his grandson, James, who claimed the title, failed to establish the legitimacy of his father, David, son of David Sinclair of Broynach, and William of Rattar was served heir-male; (1 November 1768) and in May 1772 the Committee of Privileges adjudged the title to him. This was the second instance in which a remote heir-male had succeeded to this peerage, to the exclusion of the heir of line, for Lady Fife did not claim the title.

X. WILLIAM, TENTH EARL, married Barbara, daughter of John Sinclair of Scotscalder, and died in 1779. He had five sons and two daughters: -

  1. John, his successor
  2. William, an officer, who died in America, unmarried
  3. James died young and unmarried
  4. Alexander died young and unmarried
  5. David died young and unmarried
  1. Lady Isabella, who died unmarried
  2. Lady Janet, who married James Traill of Rattar
XI. JOHN, ELEVENTH EARL, succeeded in 1779, and died unmarried in 1789, in his thirty-third year; and with him ended the direct male line of the family of Greenland and Rattar.

The Sinclairs of Freswick, descended from that William Sinclair of Ratter; who died in 1663, were the only collaterals of the family of Greenland and Rattar; and had John of Freswick survived John, the eleventh Earl, he would have succeeded to the earldom. He died, however, in 1784, without surviving male issue, and the title devolved on Sir James Sinclair of Mey, the lineal descendant of George, one of the younger sons of George, the fourth Earl.

XII. SIR JAMES SINCLAIR OF MEY, TWELFTH EARL, was served as nearest lawful heir-male of William, second Earl of Caithness, in May 1790, and his claim to the peerage was sustained by the House of Lords. He married Jane, daughter of Alexander Campbell of Barcaldine and his wife Helen, daughter of George Sinclair of Ulbster, and had issue.

It is to be hoped that the dignity will long remain in the present line; but in the possibility of the failure of an heir-male, the next in succession would seem to be the heir-male of Robert Sinclair of Durran, whom failing, the heir-male (if any) of George Sinclair, first of Olrig, and whom failing, the heir-male of George Sinclair, first of Barrock. These exhaust the elder branch of the Caithness family, and failing them the title would apparently become extinct, unless an heir is to be found in the descendants of Alexander Sinclair of Stemster and Dunbeath, second son of William, the second Earl.

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