THE EARLDOM OF CAITHNESS, although said to be traditionally of great antiquity, does not appear on record until 1129, in which year Mac William, designated Earl of Caithness, occurs in a charter by King David I to the Monastery of Dunfermline. From the period of this Earl's death in 1160, down to 1455, the dignity was held by seven different Earls, the last of whom, Sir George Crichton, Lord High Admiral, was created Earl of Caithness in 1450. Upon his death in 1455, the earldom was granted to William St. Clair, Earl of Orkney, by whose lineal descendants it is still enjoyed.
What territorial rights in the county were possessed by the Caithness Earls before the St. Clairs, it is difficult to say, but it is improbable that the repeated grants of the earldom by the Crown carried nothing except the barren dignity, and it is certain that about 1373 David Stewart, Earl of Strathearne and Caithness, obtained from his father, King Robert II, the castle of Braal and lands thereof; and that in 1452 Sir George Crichton, the eighth Earl, obtained from James II the lands of Braal, Dunbeath, Latheronwheel, and Watten.
William St. Clair's charter from James II. in 1455 conveyed to him generally "Commitatum nostrum de Caithness cum titulis de Carnoch et Eminavir cum pertinentiis et aliis pertinentiis dicti commitatus", and the estate so granted was declared to be a free barony.
In 1476 James III granted to William St. Clair, second Earl of this family, a charter of the lands of the earldom, on the resignation of his father, with the patronage of the Hospital or Church of St. Magnus, at Spittal. A hospital, of what nature is unknown, was connected with this church, of which considerable ruins, together with its cemetery, still remain. The cemetery was the burial-place of the Clan Gunn. The patronage was retained by the Caithness family until at least as late as 1644, when George, Earl of Caithness, was served heir therein to his father, John, Master of Berriedale. The settlement of the earldom by the first Earl was no more than a common conveyance of the lands, and yet the dignity as well as the estate was enjoyed by his third son, although the title is not even mentioned, and no new creation by patent was issued, and both descended to his heirs. On the resignation of his grandson, George, a new Crown charter was granted to John, his eldest son, by which the dignity was limited to heirs-male, to the exclusion of heirs-general.
In 1527 William, eldest son of John, third Earl, obtained a Crown charter of Murkle, Thurso, and adjacent lands. Murkle probably formed part of the earldom before the accession of the St. Clairs, as John, an Earl of Caithness in 1297, there swore fealty to King Edward I.
The lands of the earldom were undoubtedly greatly extended by the family of St. Clair, and included, at one period, either in property or superiority, the larger portion of the county. The prosperity of the earldom reached its climax under George, the fourth Earl, and its decline commenced through the improvidence of his grandson and successor, George, fifth Earl. In the time of his great-grandson, George, sixth Earl, the estates had become so burdened with debt that he sold them in 1672 to his principal creditor, Lord Glenorchy, and by him and his successors all that remained of the family possessions was sold, the then holders of many of the wadsets, with which the earldom was burdened, having become purchasers of the several lands possessed by them. In 1719 the Earl of Breadalbane sold to John Sinclair of Ulbster his remaining claims on and rights in the estates of the Caithness family, and Ulbster thereafter sold one-half of his purchase to Sir James Sinclair of Dunbeath.
George Sinclair of Keiss, the seventh Earl, had a very small estate, and none of the families of Murkle, Rattar, and Mey, to which the succession to the title opened successively after the death of the seventh Earl, had large patrimonial possessions. The barony of Mey was, in 1566, acquired from the Bishop of Caithness by the then Earl of Caithness.
It has been considered unnecessary to trace the ancestry of the family of St. Clair from the period of the Norman Baron, who obtained Roslyn from King David I, and these notes are confined to the descendants of William of Roslyn, third Earl of Orkney and first of Caithness. William, only son of his first marriage, was the ancestor of the family of Lords Newburgh and Sinclair, and his son Henry was, in 1488-89, by a special and singular Act of Parliament, declared to be "chief of his blood". This family had the lands of Dysart and Ravensheugh in Fife, and is now represented, in the female line, by Mr. Anstruther Thomson of Charlton, and the Earl of Roslyn, the male line having ended in the person of John, seventh Lord Sinclair, who died in 1676. The male line of Sir Oliver of Roslyn, eldest son of Earl William's second marriage, terminated in 1778, on the death of William Sinclair, then of Roslyn, and the representation of the family is claimed by the Chevalier Enrico Ciccopieri, a major in the Italian service. The chevalier has been served by the Sheriff of Chancery heir of line of Colonel James St. Clair, who died in 1807, since which time the representation had been in abeyance. Both the elder branches of St. Clair of Roslyn having thus failed, in the male line, the representation is undoubtedly vested in the present Earl of Caithness.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries landholders of the name of Sinclair were numerous, both as proprietors and wadsetters. In Calder's History of Caithness it is said that the family of Sinclair of Dun came into Caithness in 1379; but no evidence has been discovered of any of the name of Sinclair having settled in the county until the accession to the earldom in 1456, of William, Earl of Orkney; nor is there any trace of a Sinclair of Dun earlier than 1540. Between 1508 and 1540 Dun was possessed by the family of Caldell or Calder.
From an early period the Crown had been in use to grant lands, and casualties of superiority, such as nonentry and ward, to persons having neither residential nor family connection with the county; but of these it is not proposed to take notice further than as they may throw light on its family history.
From 1290 to 1350 the Federiths, a Morayshire family, held extensive possessions in Caithness. How these were acquired does not appear. Contemporary with them, and allied by marriage, were the Chens or Cheynes, one of whom - styled in charters "Ranald Lord Chen" - obtained a grant from William Federith "of that Ilk", of a fourth part of Caithness, which was confirmed by David II. The possessions of the Cheyne family were scattered over the various parishes in the county, and on the death of Ranald Cheyne, the one half passed to the Sutherlands, afterwards of Duffus or "Dove-house", through the marriage of one of his two daughters and heiresses, to Nicolas, brother of the Earl of Sutherland; and the remainder to the Keiths, afterwards Earls Marischall, by the marriage of the other daughter to John Keith of Inverruggie about 1380. In 1538 William, Earl Marischal, got a Crown charter of Ackergill and the Tower thereof; while Berriedale and Old Wick fell to the Sutherlands. Ultimately the Caithness holdings of the Duffus family with other lands were acquired by the Oliphants, by the marriage of William, then styled of Berriedale, second son of Laurence, first Lord Oliphant, to Christina, heiress of Duffus.
The Inneses of Innes, another Morayshire family, claim to have had the "third rig in Caithness". Their historian, Forbes, supposes them to have acquired some part of their Caithness possessions as far back as 1260, in place of lands taken from them in Moray, and "given to the Kirk". Mr. Cosmo Innes, who edits Forbes's "Account of the Familie of Innes", says, however, that he had discovered no evidence of their possessions in Caithness previous to 1507. In that year a charter of Dunbeath, Reay, and Sandside was granted to Alexander Innes, son and heir of Alexander Innes of Innes, and these possessions were resigned in 1529 in favour of Alexander Sinclair of Stemster, grandson of the first Earl of Caithness. In 1541 and 1564 the family of Innes of Innes held heritable rights in Wick, Latheron, and Thurso, acquired from the Oliphants; but they do not seem to have been landholders in Caithness for any considerable period. Until comparatively recent dates there were several landholders of the name, all believed to be of Morayshire extraction, such as the Inneses of Thursater and their collaterals; the Inneses, wadsetters, of Oust, of Skaill, and of Borrowstown; and the late family of Innes of Sandside.
The very ancient family of the Muats, or Mowats, or de Monte alto, as they were named of old, occur as early as 1275, when William de Monte alto witnessed an agreement between Archibald, Bishop of Caithness, and William, Earl of Sutherland, and they were connected with the county as landholders from at least the beginning of the fifteenth century. This appears from the fact that "between 1406 and 1413 the Duke of Albany, as Regent of Scotland, confirmed to John Mowat a wadset of Freswick, granted to him by his father, William Mowat of Loscraggy. Down to 1661 the Mowats were proprietors of the estate of Freswick.
The Earls of Ross appear to have had at a remote period land rights in Caithness, but the origin or extent of these has not been traced. There is an original Precept of Sasine, dated 24th October 1429, by Alexander, Earl of Ross, in favour of his sister, Mariota, and her husband, Alexander de Sutherland, granting to them, "omnes et singulas terras nostras Dominii de Dunbeth"; and it is supposed to be the earliest writ extant concerning these lands. Alexander Sutherland of Dunbeath was long believed by all Scottish genealogists to have been the Master of Sutherland, the elder brother of John, third Earl, but in the Sutherland Peerage Case, in 1771, this was proved to be a mistake, his Will, made in 1456, having been discovered, and produced; and it is probable that he was of the Thorboll branch of the Sutherland family. Whatever may have been his descent, he was evidently a person of position and wealth; and his daughter, Majory, having married William St. Clair, first Earl of Caithness, his connection with the county has been perpetuated in her descendants of that family.
Nottingham, the residence of Sutherland of Forse, is the ancient Nothingham and Nodingham, and "Henry of Nothingham", a Canon of Caithness in 1272, was probably so styled from this place. In 1408 it came into the possession of the present family by grant from Mariot Cheyne, with consent of Andrew of Keith, her son, and Sutherland of Forse is thus the oldest of the existing county families.
At one period the Earls of Sutherland held the following lands which belonged to the bishopric, namely, Stemster (Reay), half of Brims, Forss, and Baillie, Lythmore, two-thirds of Oust, Dorrary, Myremeikle, Scrabster, Wick, and Papego, South and North Kilimster, Windless, Myrelandhorn, Ulgrunbeg and Uigrimore, Halkirk, Easterdale, Westerdale, Tormsdale, Subminster, Deren, Alterwall, Stanstill.
Much property now in the hands of the landholders of Caithness belonged at one period to the Bishopric, and was feued out in portions from time to time by various Bishops and other church functionaries to the Earls of Sutherland of Caithness and others. In 1550 Bishop Robert Stuart granted to John, Earl of Sutherland, the hereditary bailiary of the possessions of the Bishopric; and in 1557 and 1559 Bishop Robert gave him a grant of the lands of Forss, Bailie, and Stemster, Lythmore, Wick, South and North Kilimster, and Winless; Myrelandhorn, Scrabster, and fortalice thereof; Skaill, Dorrary, Ulgrunbeg, and Ulgrimore; Halkirk, Subminster, Tormsdale, Deren, Alterwall, Stanstill, Brims, and Oust, etc. The Earl and his heirs were also appointed Hereditary Constables of the Castle of Scrabster and the Palace of Dornoch, "situated among the wild and uncivilised Scots, and in a wintry region". In 1201 Bishop John occupied the Palace of Scrabster, and in 1560 John, Earl of Sutherland, there signed a charter to the first Sinclair of Forss of the lands of Forss and Bailie, formerly part of the bishopric.
Budge of Toftingall dates from at least as far back as 1503, and the Murrays of Pennyland from the same century. Both families are now united and were represented by the late Sir Patrick Murray Threipland Budge. The Sinclairs of Forss have possessed Forss and Baillie since the year 1560.
Much of the information given in these Notes regarding the Earls of the Sinclair line is to be found in the works of Douglas and other genealogists, but, without repetition from these sources, the lines of descent from the principal family of many of the county families would have been incomplete.
It may not be out of place to note some particulars of the state of society in the county in last century, as given in 1786 by Captain John Sutherland of Wester, whose recollection extended beyond the middle of that century. He says the people in general took a great dealt more trouble in other people's business than in their own, which is to be accounted for by the circumstances that the county lies in a remote corner of the island, and that the access to and from it is only by one difficult road (the Ord), so that the people of it have not that free and easy intercourse with other counties as the other and more southerly counties have; and the county is so "interlarded" by marriages among themselves that a multiplicity of questions arise, particulary in the way of succession, which often creates bad blood among relations. The same cause produces a great deal of jaunting and visiting among relations. The Captain goes on to say that it was the general practice in the highland and inward part of the county, previous to and about the middle of the century, to go to markets with arms, such as broad-swords or side pistols; but the "parish of Canisbay", even in those days, "did not seem to be inspired with that warlike genius so much as the other parishes". But he had seen from four to six men, dressed in a sort of uniform, issue from the house of Freswick (then occupied by William Sinclair, who built it), to attend these markets, and with the result of the maltreatment of persons with whom Freswick was at variance.
About 1739 or 1740 a dispute arose between Freswick and George Murray of Clairden in regard to the right of taking a description of sea-fowl, locally called "Layers or Liarts", and supposed to be the Puffin, from the rocks at Craig of Dunnet. Murray, as possessor of Dunnet, under a wadset, proceeded to exercise the privilege, along with a band of followers, armed with Hails, scythes, and suchlike implements. Freswick, as tutor for his nephew, William of Rattar, the proprietor, proceeded to the Craig with eight followers, armed with broadswords and pistols. A scuffle ensued, in which Clairden received some personal damage, and had the worst of the fight.
Many of the lairds of this period, besides indulging largely in the luxury of litigation, passed portions of the year in Edinburgh, accompanied by members of their families, and went into good society, although few of them had incomes exceeding £200 to £300 a year.