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The Sinclairs of Caithness


The first inhabitants of the British Islands were cave-dwellers, and lived by hunting and fishing. They were a short, dark, and wiry people, and were apparently of the same race as the Basques and Eskimos. For want of a better name they are sometimes spoken of as Iberians. They were followed by Keltic tribes from Gaul, who conquered them and gradually absorbed them. The Anglo-Saxons began to settle in South Britain in 449 AD, and in the southern part of North Britain about 547 AD.

Until 500 AD, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland were wholly occupied by Keltic tribes. These tribes were divided politically into two peoples, the Picts and the Scots.
The Picts seem to have been partly real Picts - who were a branch of the same stock as the Britons - and partly Gaidels.
The Scots came from Ireland about 506 AD. They settled in Argyll and became mixed up with the people of that district. They were Gaidels, Gael, or Gaelic-speaking Kelts.

About 825 AD, the Norwegians began to form settlements in the Scottish Islands. In 870 or thereabouts, they took permanent possession of the Shetlands, Orkneys, and Western Islands, and in a few years made themselves masters of the Isle of Man, Arran, Bute, Kintyre and the western coast of Argyll, Inverness, and Ross. They began to attack Caithness about 850, and gradually extended their sway over the whole of the northern part of Scotland as far as the Beauly Firth. The Scottish kings kept up a war against them, and finally destroyed their power at the battle of Largs in 1263.

The Keltic tribes, north of the Dornoch Firth, were known to the Norwegians as Cataich or Cattians. It is not to be assumed that the whole of these tribes called themselves by that name; it is certain, however, that their leading tribe must have called themselves by it. The meaning of the word seems to be cat men, or the men who used the wild cat as an emblem on their standard. The Cattians called the Norwegians Gallaich or foreigners. In course of time the term Gallaich came to be applied to all the people north of the Ord of Caithness, whether they were Norwegians or Kelts. Thus, the old name Cataich became restricted to the people of Sutherland proper.

Caithness or Gallaibh contains ten parishes; Dunnet, Cannisbay, Olrick, Thurso, Bower, Watten, Wick, Reay, Halkirk and Latheron.

The parish of Reay was originally partly in Caithness and partly in Strathnaver. About the year 1895, the Strathnaver portion of it, or Strath-Halladale, was united to the parish of Farr.

Sutherland proper includes the parishes of Dornoch, Creich, Lairg, Golspie, Rogart, Clyne, Loth and Kildonan. Duthaich Mhic-Aoidh, or Lord Reay's country, embraces the parishes of Edderachilis, Durness, Tongue, and Farr. It was for a long time known in English as Strathnaver.

Assynt is a parish by itself, and belonged for over 330 years to the Macleods.

In 1601, Sutherland proper and Strathnaver were separated from the Sheriffdom of Inverness and formed into the county of Sutherland. To this new shire the district of Assynt was added in 1631.

Caithness contains 455708 acres, or 712 square miles. Its extreme length is fifty-three miles and its extreme breadth thirty-three miles. The coast is bold and rocky. The interior, except the south-western portion of Latheron is generally low and flat, full of barren moors, and destitute of trees. South-western Latheron abounds in mountains, hills, and vales. Morven rises to a height of 2313 feet, and Scaraben to a height of 2954 feet.

Caithness contains a large number of lakes, but there are only three of them which are more than one mile in length. The principal rivers are the Thurso, the Berriedale, and the Wick. The Thurso is twenty seven miles in length, the Berriedale sixteen miles, and the Wick nine and a half miles.

Sutherlandshire contains an area of 1,297,846 acres, or nearly 2025 square miles. It is sixty-two miles in length and forty-nine miles in breadth. It contains the large straths of the Naver and the Halladale and a number of pleasant glens. Taken as a whole, however, it is a hilly and mountainous country. Ben More is 3431 feet in height; Ben Klibreck, 3164: Ben Hope, 3061; and Foinaven, 3015. The rivers, like those in Caithness, are small. The Oikell, which is the largest, is only twenty-three miles in length.

In 1800 Sutherlandshire and the parishes of Reay, Halkirk, and Latheron in Caithness were almost wholly occupied by Gaelic-speaking Highlanders. The inhabitants of the other parishes in Caithness were a mixture of Kelts, Scandinavians, and Anglo-Saxons. Many of them, especially in the parishes of Thurso and Wick, spoke Gaelic, but as a general rule they spoke English or rather Broad Scotch. It is certain, however, that a large proportion of those who spoke only English were Kelts rather than anything else.

Of the voters in Sutherlandshire in 1885, 547 were Mackays; 237 Macleods; 230 Sutherlands; 177 Rosses; 170 Mackenzies; 126 Munros; 119 Macdonalds; 117 Murrays; 92 Mathesons; 82 Campbells; 62 Gunns; 62 Morrisons; 44 Grants; 41 Gordons; 23 Sinclairs; 19 Macleans; 19 Kerrs; and 18 Bannermans.

Of the voters in Caithness in 1892, 320 were Sutherlands; 202 Mackavs; 171 Sinclairs; 137 Gunns; 105 Hendersons; 102 Campbells; 98 Swansons; and 24 Keiths. The Swansons are of Norwegian origin, and have probably even at the present day a good proportion of Norwegian blood in them.

It is clear, however, from the other names, that the present Caithnessians are to a very large extent a Keltic people.

Many of the Sutherlands and Mackays who were evicted from their own lands between 1812 and 1820 settled in Caithness. It was in consequence of this fact that the Sutherlands and Mackays became more numerous in Caithness than the Sinclairs. There must always, however, have been quite a number of Sutherlands north of the Ord.

The principal clans which really belonged to the land of the Cattians were the Mackays, the Gunns, the Hendersons, the Sutherlands and the Sinclairs.

The Keiths, the Murrays, the Gordons, the Macleods and the Campbells were numerous in the country, but their chiefs by blood belonged to other parts of Scotland.

The Mackays

Hugh Mackay of Farr, chief of the Mackays, had four sons - Donald of Scourie, John Beag, Hugh, and William of Bighouse.

Hugh, his third son, succeeded him in the chiefship and also in his estates.

Hugh had two sons; Sir Donald, his successor, and John of Dilred and Strathy.

In 1614 Sir Donald purchased Reay, Downreay, Borlum and Brubster. He was created Lord Reay in 1625. Owing to pecuniary difficulties, he had some time afterwards to part with his estates in Caithness.

He was succeeded by his son John, who was succeeded by his son George. George, third Lord Reay, had four sons, Donald, Hugh of Bighouse, and George of Skibo. Eric, son of George of Skibo, was the seventh Lord Reay, and the last Lord Reay who ruled over Mackay's country.

William Mackay, first of Bighouse, had five children: Angus, second of Bighouse, Hugh of Golval, Donald, Ann and Marion.

William, third of Bighouse, married Agnes, daughter of John of Dilred and Strathy, and grand-daughter of James Sinclair of Murkle.

Angus, fourth of Bighouse, married Jane, daughter of Patrick Sinclair of Lybster.

George, sixth of Bighouse, married Catherine Ross, by whom he had Elizabeth and other daughters.

Col. Hugh Mackay, son of the third Lord Reay, married Elizabeth Mackay, and got the lands of Bighouse with her. Janet their only daughter, was married in 1749 to Colin Campbell of Glenure, and had by him Louisa and other daughters.

George Mackay of Handa married Louisa Campbell in 1765, and obtained the Bighouse estate with her. He was colonel of the Reay Fencibles, and was a very popular man. He died in September, 1798, and was succeeded by his son, Colin Campbell. The Mackays of Bighouse held the lands of Strath-Halladale under their chiefs.

The Gunns

It is said that Guin or Gunn, the progenitor of the Gunns, was the son of a Scandinavian father and a Keltic mother. George Gunn, chief of the clan in 1450, lived at the castle of Halbury in Clyth. He was crowner of Caithness and was known as am Braisteach Mor, or the big man of the brooch.

He had at least six sons: James, his heir; Robert of Braemore; John of Dalmore; Henry, ancestor of the Mackendricks or Hendersons of Caithness; William, ancestor of the Williamsons and Wilsons of Caithness; and Torquil, of whose descendants we have no account. He was treacherously slain by the Keiths of Ackergill about 1464.

James, his eldest son, removed to Sutherland, and settled at Killearnan. James was succeeded in the chiefship by his son William, who was known as Uilleam MacSheumais or William Mac Kamish. Robert Gunn of Achaneccan near Kinbrace was chief of the Gunns in 1800.

Author's Addition (2nd Edition 1902):
The statement that Robert Gunn in Achaneccan was chief of the Gunns in 1800 may or may not be true. The chief authority for it is the Rev. Donald Sage in his valuable and interesting work "Parish Life in the North of Scotland". When I made that statement I had not read Mr. Thomas Sinclair's history of the Gunns, a work which every Gunn who has any respect for himself or his ancestors should purchase and study.
The Mansons, or Magnus' sons, are apparently a branch of the Hendersons.

The Sutherlands

Hugh Freskin received a grant of the district of Sutherland in 1197. He was the first chief of the Sutherlands. William his son was created Earl of Sutherland about 1228.

John, ninth chief of the clan Sutherland and eighth Earl of Sutherland, died in 1505, and was succeeded in the estates by his son-in-law, Adam Gordon, second son of the earl of Huntly. Alexander Sutherland, of Kilphedder, succeeded him as chief of the clan.

William Gordon, eighteenth Earl of Sutherland, married Mary Maxwell, by whom he had Elizabeth, who was born in 1765. He died in 1766. He was an excellent man, and the last Highlander who was Earl of Sutherland. He was succeeded in his estates and title by his daughter.

George Gower, afterwards Earl Gower, married Elizabeth Gordon, Countess of Sutherland, in 1785. On the death of his father he became Marquis of Stafford. He was created Duke of Sutherland in 1833, and died in the same year. His wife died in 1839. He was not chief of the Sutherlands; he was simply a land-owner and a duke.

The Sutherlands of Kilphedder became extinct about 1835. Sinclair of Forse in Caithness seems to be the present chief of the Sutherlands as a clan.

Other families

The Caithness portion of the parish of Reay contained 44747 acres; the Sutherlandshire portion of it was much smaller. The lands were owned chiefly by the Sinclairs, Inneses, and Mackays.

In 1604 William Innes, a native of Morayshire, purchased Sandside, an estate which included the lands of Sandside, Fresgo, Borlum, Rear, New Reay, Dachow and Shurery. In 1757 Major William Innes became proprietor of these lands. He died in 1842, and was the last Innes of Sandside.

John Sinclair of Murkle, eighth Earl of Caithness, held in the parish of Reay the lands of Downreay, Borrowston, Lybster and Acharaskil. Alexander of Murkle, the ninth Earl, obtained the lands of Isauld in 1723 and of Brubster in 1726.

John Sinclair of Assery, a son of James first of Murkle, obtained a charter of Brawlbin in 1631. Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster purchased Brawlbin in 1754. At the present time [i.e. 1901] Brawlbin, and also Lambsdale, belong to the estate of Sinclair of Forss.

The Mackays of Bighouse held the lands of Strath-Halladale.

In 1829 Lord Gower purchased all the lands then held by the Mackays for 300,000.

The Clearances

The inhabitants of Caithness and Sutherlandshire were in a fairly happy condition until the beginning of the last century [i.e. 1800]. It is true that they were in the discouraging and unpleasant position of being tenants; at the same time their rents were comparatively small. About the year 1800 the landlords began to discover that sheep and deer would pay them better than men, and also began to conclude that they had a perfect right to depopulate the country in their own interests.

In 1807 Mrs. Colin Campbell Mackay of Bighouse - a daughter of Patrick Cruikshanks of Strathcathro - evicted eighteen families from the upper part of Strath-Halladale. They had been paying between them a rent of 155 a year, but that was deemed too small a sum. Mrs. Mackay gave their lands to a sheep-grazier, who agreed to pay her 400 a year for them.

In the same year in which the people of upper Strath-Halladale were removed from their homes, Lord Gower and his wife, the Countess of Sutherland, evicted ninety families from the parishes of Farr and Lairg. In 1809 the same couple evicted hundreds of families from the parishes of Dornoch, Rogart, Loth, Clyne, and Golspie. Their principal agents in carrying on their nefarious work were William Young, Patrick Sellar, James Loch, Francis Suther, John Horseburgh, Captain Kenneth Mackay, and Angus Leslie. If we can credit tradition, Sellar was the most active and the most cruel of all; he was certainly the most detested.

About 1810, Major William Innes of Sandside and John Patterson, his sheep farmer and factor, evicted a large number of families from Isauld, Skaill, Borrowston, Lybster, Skinnet, Shurery, and other parts of West Caithness.

In 1812 Lord Gower and his wife drove away from their lands scores of persons who were compelled to seek a home among the Indians and bears of the Red River settlement. In 1815 they turned more of their tenants - more of the parents of the men who had been fighting against Napoleon - out of doors, especially in the parishes of Farr and Kildonan. On this occasion the selfish and tyrannical Sellar found enjoyment and pleasure in setting fire to the houses of those whom he was removing.

In 1819 and 1820 the whole parish of Kildonan, parts of the parishes of Rogart and Golspie, and the districts of Strathnaver and Strathy were cleared almost wholly of their inhabitants and sheep put in their place.

In the statistical account of the parish of Reay, written in 1840, we find the following statements: The distress at present existing in the parish is extreme. The most of the parish has been converted into sheep-farms and consequently the poor people have been ejected from their houses and lands, many of them reduced to indigence and misery, and others necessitated to emigrate to a foreign land.

Lord Gower, Marquis of Stafford and Duke of Sutherland, was an Englishman. He was to a large extent responsible for the Sutherland clearances and their horrible cruelties. It is of no use to try to throw the whole blame on his wife. The factors were bad enough, but they were only agents. John Patterson came to Caithness from Roxburgh in 1804. He was then only a moneyless shepherd. At the time of his death, which took place in 1853, he was tenant of several large well-stocked farms and had 39,000 in cash.

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