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BADGE: Bealaidh chatti (Ruscus occilialus) Butcher's broom

PIBROCH: Piobaireachd nan Catach

SLOGAN: Ceann na Drochaide Bige

One of the many clans of Scotland which have never been of Celtic blood, or have been so only by marriage, the race of Sutherland has nevertheless always been one of the most powerful in the north, and at the present hour its real leader, if not its actual Chief, the Duke of Sutherland, is the largest landowner and one of the greatest nobles in the kingdom.

The district from which the clan takes its name, and which was then of much less extent than at the present day, was no doubt named Sudrland or Sutherland by the Norwegians by reason of its position with respect to Caithness, for long the only possession of these invaders on the mainland of Scotland. Skene, in his Highlanders of Scotland, supports the theory that Thorfinn, the Norwegian Jarl of Orkney, on overthrowing Moddan, maormar of the region, in 1034, expelled or destroyed all the Celtic inhabitants, and that the Celts who afterwards formed part of its population were chiefly of the Clan Ross, who migrated into it at a later day from adjoining districts. There seems, however, as little reason to believe that the Norwegians drove the Celts out of Sutherland as to believe that they drove them out of other parts of the country which they conquered. Skene's idea is merely his means of fitting facts to his general thesis, that the Scottish clans are descendants of the ancient Picts, and not of a race of Gaelic invaders from Ireland. It is his way of accounting for the fact that no Highland clans whatever are to be found descended from the ancient inhabitants of this region. The truth, however, as now very well ascertained, seems to be that the Gaelic invasion from the west and the Norwegian invasion from the north went on at the same time, that the people whom the Norwegians submerged in Sutherland in the eleventh century were not Gael but Picts, and that the later Gaelic incomers from the west were the first of that race to set foot on the soil.

In any case, it appears certain that the ancestor of the Sutherland Chiefs was neither Gael nor Pict. That ancestor was the famous Freskin, ancestor also of the Douglases, and said to be a Fleming, who received from David I the lands of Strathbrock in Linlithgowshire, and afterwards, for his skill and bravery in suppressing the rebellion of the Moray men in 1130, certain fertile lands in that region and those of Sutherland which they also possessed. Freskin's second son, William, who was a trusted attendant of William the Lion, got the Moray estates on the death of his father in 1171, and became ancestor of the Murrays of Tullibardine, whose Chief is Duke of Atholl at the present day. Freskin's eldest son, Hugh, succeeded to the greater estate of Sutherland, granted the lands of Skibo to his cousin Gilbert, Archdeacon of Moray and founder of Dornoch Cathedral, and died in 1214. His son William, styled Lord of Sutherland, took an active part with Comyn the Justiciar in suppressing the rebellion of Gillespie MacScolane, who in 1228 burned the crown lands in the North and set fire to Inverness. For this service Sutherland was made an Earl by Alexander II.

William, second Earl of Sutherland, was the hero who overthrew a large force of invading Danes at the battle of Embo in 1259, himself slaying their leader with the leg of a horse, a circumstance commemorated in the name of Dornoch - a horse's hoof, and by the Earl's Cross which still stands on the spot. He was one of the Scottish nobles who at Scone in 1284, settled the succession to the Scottish Crown on the Maid of Norway, granddaughter of Alexander III. His son, another William, was one of the eighteen Highland chiefs who fought in Bruce's army at Bannockburn, and six years later he signed the famous letter to the Pope declaring Scottish independence. This chief's brother, Kenneth, the fourth Earl, married a daughter of the Earl of Mar, and fell at the disastrous battle of Halidon Hill in 1333.

His son, William, fifth Earl, married Margaret, daughter of King Robert the Bruce by his second wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, and sister of David II. Following this marriage King David raised the Earldom of Sutherland into a regality, and plotted to make the son of this union heir to his crown instead of Robert the Steward, son of the Princess Marjorie, Bruce's daughter by his first wife. In support of this plot, Earl William made grants of land in the shires of Inverness and Aberdeen to various powerful individuals, whose goodwill it was desirable to secure. But the plot came to nothing. The son, John, died at Lincoln of the plague while a hostage for the King's ransom, and the Earl himself, who had been one of the Scottish commissioners for the release of the King, and a hostage for him afterwards, only secured his liberty in 1367, and died at Dunrobin three years later.

His second son, Robert, who became sixth Earl was present at the surprise of Berwick by the Scots in 1384. He married Mabel, daughter of John, Earl of Moray, and granddaughter of the famous Black Agnes, daughter of Randolph Earl of Moray and Countess of March, who so heroically defended Dunbar against the English. Their son, Nicholas, the seventh Earl, married a daughter of the Lord of the Isles. From his second son are descended the Sutherlands of Berriedale, and from his third the Sutherlands of Forse. In his time began the first of the great feuds between the Sutherlands and the Mackays of Strathnaver. To put an end to the trouble, the Earl in 1395 arranged a meeting at Dingwall Castle, in presence of his father-in-law, the Lord of the Isles, and other witnesses. At the conference, however, the altercation so incensed the Earl that he slew the opposing chief, Hugh Mackay of Fay and his son Donald with his own hand. Sutherland escaped with difficulty to his own country, and prepared for defence; but the Mackays were not strong enough to attack him, and when he died, four years later, his successor, Earl Robert, effected a reconciliation.

A few years later the Earl had an opportunity of still further securing Mackay's adherence. The latter had married a sister of Malcolm Macleod of the Lewis. On his death his brother, Hucheon Dhu Mackay, became tutor or guardian of his two sons. Macleod, hearing that his sister, Mackay's widow, was not being well treated by the tutor, invaded Strathnaver, and laid it waste with a great part of the Breachat in Sutherland. The tutor asked help from the Earl, who responded by sending a force under Alexander Murray of Cubin, which, joining with the Mackays, came up with the Mac1eods on the march of Sutherland and Ross. Here a desperate fight took place, Only one of the Mac1eods escaped to carry the news to the Lewis, and died immediately afterwards of his wounds.

A little later, Thomas Mackay, a nephew of Hucheon Dhu, burned Mowat of Freswick and his people in the chapel of St.Duffus at Tain. For this outrage James I declared Mackay a rebel, and offered his lands to anyone who should kill or capture him. The enterprise was undertaken by Angus, son of Alexander Murray of Cubin, who, securing the help of Mackay's two brothers by offering them his daughters in marriage, apprehended Thomas Mackay, who was forthwith executed at Inverness. Murray then obtained Mackay's lands of Palrossie and Spaniziedale in Sutherland, married his daughters to the two Mackays, and, with the consent of the Earl of Sutherland, proceeded to invade the Mackay country in Strathnaver, which his sons-in-law claimed should be theirs. Angus Dhu Mackay, the Chief, their cousin, however, raised his clan, and as he was old and infirm, gave the command to his natural son, John Aberich. The two forces met at Drum-na-Cuip, two miles from Tongue.

Before the battle Angus Dhu sent an offer to resign all his other lands to his cousins if they would allow him to keep Kingtail. This fair offer they rejected. In the fierce fight which followed John Aberich was victorious, though he lost an arm, while Angus Murray and his two sons-in-law were slain. After the battle Angus Dhu had himself carried to the field to seek the bodies of his cousins, and while doing this was killed with an arrow by a Sutherland man from behind a bush.

Earl Robert was, in 1427, one of the hostages to England for the payment of the ransom of King James I. He married a daughter of the King's cousin, the Earl of Buchan, and died at Dunrobin in 1442. His son, John, the tenth Earl, married a famous beauty of her time, Margaret, daughter of Sir William Baillie of Lamington, a descendant of the Scottish patriot, Sir William Wallace. In the time of this Earl John occurred the life and death struggle between King James II and the House of Douglas. That struggle reached as far as Sutherland. Upon the overthrow of the last Earl of Douglas by the King, Douglas made an alliance with the King of England and the Lord of the Isles, and while Donald Balloch, kinsman of the Island Lord, invaded the Firth of Clyde with a great fleet and laid waste Arran, Bute, the Cumbraes, and Inverkip, the Lord of the Isles himself made an incursion into Sutherland and besieged Skibo Castle. To raise the siege Earl John sent a force under Neil Murray, son of the doughty Angus slain at Drum-na-Cuip, Murray attacked the Lord of the Isles and forced him to retreat to Ross with the loss of one of his chieftains and fifty men. To avenge this disgrace, Macdonald sent a force to lay waste the Sutherland country. This invasion was met by a force under the Earl of Sutherland's brother, Robert, and after a bloody struggle on the sands of Strathfleet, the Islesmen were overthrown with great slaughter.

This feud with Clan Donald was ended by a marriage between the Earl of Sutherland's son John and Fingole, daughter of Celestine, brother of the Lord of the Isles.

John succeeded as tenth Earl in 1460. Twenty-seven years later the Sutherlands were drawn into another of the blood feuds which formed one of the strongest motives of Highland life for many centuries. Angus Mackay grandson of Angus Dhu, having been slain at Tarbert by a Ross, his son, John Riach Mackay, asked the help of his feudal chief, the Earl of Sutherland, to avenge the death. The Earl sent a party under his uncle, Robert Sutherland. This force of Mackays and Sutherlands, with whom was William, son of John Aberich, invaded Strathoykell and laid it waste. They were attacked at Aldicharish, by Ross of Balnagown, chief of that clan, but Balnagown and seventeen of his chief followers being slain, the rest of his force fled and was cut to pieces. An immense booty fell to the victors. This was divided on the same day, but its value excited the greed of the men of Assynt, and they induced John Riach Mackay to agree to a most perfidious and diabolical plot - the murder of the friends who had come to his help. Their scheme was to cut off Robert Sutherland and his party, and give out that they had fallen in battle. When the plot was broached to William Aberich he was horrified, and took means to warn Robert Sutherland, who at once got his men together and prepared for attack. John Riach Mackay, however, finding the Sutherlands prepared, abandoned his disgraceful plan and slunk home to Strathnaver, Hugh Roy Mackay, brother of this John Riach, played a part in another enterprise which concerned the Sutherlands. A certain Sir James Dunbar of Cumnock had married the beautiful Margaret Baillie, Countess Dowager of Sutherland and with others of his name had settled in the north. Alexander Sutherland of Dilred had borrowed money from him, and being unable or unwilling to repay, was sued for the debt. Conceiving a grudge at the Dunbars as incomers, he picked a quarrel with Alexander Dunbar, Sir James's brother, and, after a long combat, killed him. Sir James went to Edinburgh and laid the matter before James IV, who was so incensed that he outlawed Dilred and promised his lands to any person who should arrest him. Dilred was arrested with ten of his followers by Hugh Roy Mackay, his uncle, and was duly tried and executed, while MacKay received a grant of his lands from the King.

It seems to have been either the tenth or eleventh Earl, both of whom were named John, who was the chief actor in a tragic occurrence at the family seat of Dunrobin. The Earl had two nephews, sons of a natural brother, Thomas More. These young men often annoyed their uncle, and at last one day invaded the castle and braved him to his face. Their act so enraged him that he killed one on the spot. The other escaped with some wounds, but was overtaken and slain at a spot at hand, afterwards known from the fact as Keith's Bush.

The eleventh Earl, dying without lawful issue, was succeeded in 1514 by his sister Elizabeth. She had married Adam Gordon, second son of the Earl of Huntly, and he accordingly took the title of Earl of Sutherland.

On this succession of a new family to the Earldom of Sutherland, there began a series of conflicts, first with the Mackays of Strathnaver and afterwards with the Earls of Caithness, which kept the far north in turmoil for three-quarters of a century.

The eleventh Earl had left a natural son, Alexander Sutherland, who, pretending that his parents had been married, laid claim to the title and estates. In July 1509, however, he was induced by the new Earl to sign a document before the Sheriff of Inverness renouncing his claim. Seven years later, fearing other trouble, Earl Adam engaged the Earl of Caithness in a treaty of friendship, and to secure his goodwill conveyed to him some lands in Strathully. But these transactions only delayed the storm. In 1517, while the Earl was absent in Edinburgh, John Mackay of Strathnaver, a natural son of Hugh Roy Mackay, who had beheaded his own uncle and seized his lands, invaded Sutherland with a prodigious force gathered throughout the north by promise of plunder. In the emergency the Countess of Sutherland induced her bastard brother, Alexander Sutherland, to oppose Mackay. Assisted by John Murray of Aberscors and the Chief of Clan Gunn, Sutherland raised a force, and encountered the Mackays at Torrandhu in Strathfleet. Sutherland's force was much the smaller of the two, but he attacked vigorously, and after a severe and bloody action entirely defeated his opponents, who lost about three hundred men. Mackay next, attributing his defeat to Murray of Aberscors, sent two kinsmen with a force to destroy him. But Murray met them at Loch Salchie, and cut them to pieces. Mackay, still further exasperated, sent yet another party to burn Murray's village of Pitfour, but it met the same fate, one of his nephews, who led it, being slain, and the other taken prisoner. The Earl of Sutherland then returning from Edinburgh, Mackay thought it prudent to submit to him and give him a bond of service; but he secretly tampered with the bastard Alexander Sutherland, to renew his claim to the Earldom and estates. Sutherland, it is said, was further persuaded by a witch's prophecy that his head should be the highest that ever was of the Sutherlands, In consequence, while the Earl was absent in Strathbogie Sutherland attacked and took Dunrobin. John Murray of Aberscors promptly raised a force for defence, and, reinforced by a body of men sent north by the Earl, besieged Dunrobin, which surrendered. Alexander Sutherland had retired into Strathnaver, but he now returned with a fresh body of men, wasting the country and putting to death several of his own kinsmen who had joined the Earl's party. Flushed with success, he grew careless, and was lying at a place called Ald-Quhillin, on the Sutherland coast, when the Earl himself came upon him, took him prisoner, and slew most of his men. Sutherland himself was immediately executed, and his head on a spear placed on the top of the great tower at Dunrobin, thus dramatically fulfilling the witch's prophecy.

The Earl, being now well advanced in years, retired to his native country of Strathbogie and Aboyne, leaving the conduct of affairs to his son Alexander, the Master of Sutherland. John Mackay, still thirsting for revenge, thought this a favourable chance to retrieve his losses.

Twice he attempted to invade Sutherland, but on each occasion was driven out by the Master, who retaliated by dispossessing him of his estates in Sutherland and plundering and burning Strathnaver, Finally, Mackay, attempting a third expedition, the Master came suddenly upon him near Lairg, cut his force to pieces, and recovered the plunder he had taken. Mackay only escaped by swimming to Eilean Minric and submitting once more to the Earl. This was in 1522 and John Mackay himself died in 1529.

These and the subsequent raids and burnings between the Sutherlands and Mackays and the Earls of Sutherland and of Caithness respectively are detailed with much quaintness by Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstown, the historian of the Sutherlands. Only two episodes of the feud characteristic of the time need be noted here.

The Master of Sutherland dying in 1529, eight years before his father, the Earldom was inherited by his son John, known as the Good Earl. He was Lieutenant of Moray in 1547 and along with his cousin George, fourth Earl of Huntly, accompanied the Queen Regent, widow of James V, to France in 1550. For taking part in Huntly's rebellion in 1562 he was forfeited, and retired to Flanders, but the forfeiture was rescinded in 1565. Two years later he was staying with his countess, then pregnant, and his only son, with Isabel Sinclair, widow of his uncle,Gilbert Gordon of Gartay, at Helmsdale Castle. This lady's son was next heir to the earldom, and, whether or not she was instigated by her relative, the Earl of Caithness, she conceived the diabolic scheme of opening the way for her son's succession by poisoning her guests. The poison was mixed with the ale with which the Earl and Countess were supplied at supper, and they died five days later at Dunrobin. The Earl's son only escaped by the fact that he was late at a hunting party, and on his return was warned by his father not to touch the repast. For this crime Isabel Sinclair was tried and condemned to death, but escaped execution by destroying herself in prison at Edinburgh.

Alexander, the thirteenth Earl, who thus succeeded, was committed by his sister to the care of the Earl of Atholl, who disposed of his wardship to George, Earl of Caithness, the house's enemy. This nobleman seized the boy in Skibo Castle, carried him off to Caithness, and forced him at the age of sixteen to marry his own daughter, Lady Barbara Sinclair, a profligate woman of thirty-two. Two years later the young Earl escaped from his sinister guardian, who had taken up residence at Dunrobin and formed a design upon his life, and on attaining his majority in 1573 he divorced Lady Barbara. He afterwards married his second cousin, Lady Jean Gordon, sister of the fifth Earl of Huntly, who had been previously married to the Earl of Bothwell, but repudiated when that unscrupulous nobleman wished to marry Queen Mary. It may be mentioned here that when Bothwell married Lady Jean he was already the husband of a wife in Denmark. Earl Alexander died in his forty-third year, and his countess afterwards married Ogilvie of Boyne, whom also she survived. To the Earl of Sutherland she had four sons, the youngest of whom was that Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstown who was created a Baronet of Nova Scotia, the first of the order, in 1625, and became the historian of the family. He was tutor to his nephew, the fifteenth Earl, throughout a long minority, during which, with much wisdom and skill, he kept the peace of the country, greatly improved the fortunes of the Earldom, and completely secured it against the intrigues of the Earls of Caithness.

The line of the Gordon Earls of Sutherland, who afterwards held high offices and honours in the State came to an end with the death of William, nineteenth Earl at Bath in 1766. The title and estates were then claimed by Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstown and George Sutherland of Forse, and the case, in which the celebrated Lord Hailes took part, remains among the most famous in our legal annals. It was finally decided, however, by the House of Lords in 1771 in favour of the late Earl's only surviving daughter, Elizabeth. This lady married, in 1785, George Granville Leveson-Gower, Viscount Trentham, afterwards second Marquess of Stafford, who was, in 1833, created Duke of Sutherland. From that time to this the distinguished holders of the Sutherland titles have been of the Leveson-Gower family, and only distantly related, through the two heiresses named Elizabeth, of the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries respectively, to the original heads of the clan of the name of Murray or Sutherland. Meanwhile the actual chiefship of the clan by male descent was believed to be vested in William Sutherland of Killipheder, who enjoyed a small annuity from the Duchess-Countess, and died at a great age in 1832, and after him in John Campbell Sutherland of Forse, in the county of Caithness. The last-named died about 1917, leaving five daughters but no son. In the course of the intervening centuries the race of the famous Freskin the Fleming has made a mighty record in the history of Scotland.


Cheyne Federith Gray Keith Mowat Oliphant

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