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GEORGE III, 43RD (5TH) EARL, THE WICKED 1582-1643

[From History of Caithness and History of the Scottish Clans]

This Earl is remembered in the traditional history of Caithness as the "Wicked Earl George," though perhaps the sobriquet might more fairly be awarded to the 42nd Earl. He signalised his accession to the Earldom by deliberately killing, in broad day, Ingram and David Sinclair, the two principal keepers of his late father. David lived at Keiss, and Ingram at Wester. Ingram was Laird of Blingery, and a large landed proprietor of over 3,000 acres. Ingram's daughter was to be married, and a large party, including his lordship, was invited to the wedding. On the forenoon of the appointed day, as the Earl was taking an airing on horseback, he met David on the Links of Keiss, on his way to Wester, and ran him through with his sword. Immediately on doing so he galloped over to Wester, and calling aside Ingram, who was at the time amusing himself with some friends at foothall, he drew out a pistol and shot him dead on the spot. He then coolly turned his horse's head towards Girnigoe, and rode off with as little concern as if he had merely killed a brace of moor fowl. Being a great nobleman, possessed of ample power of "pit and gallows," he escaped with impunity. Tradition adds that during the alarm and confusion caused by this shocking affair the wedding guests dispersed, and the ring was lost. Not many years since a finger ring of a curious construction - supposed to be the identical wedding-ring - was found at Wester. It was of pure gold, twisted so as to represent a serpent coiled with tail in mouth, as emblematical of eternity. [From Caithness Events]

King James VI at Holyrood House, Edinburgh, of date 19th March 1585, gave letters of remission for the deeds to George, Earl of Caithness; James Sinclair, the Master [heir apparent] of Caithness, his brother; David, their brother; Mathew, son of the deceased David Sinclair of Dun; Archibald, Thomas, James, George, and Alexander Hepburn; George Manson: William Manson or Rorison; Donald Groat; Donald Sutherland, son of Angus Hectorson; James Paxton, servant of the Master [heir apparent] of Caithness; James and George Mullikin; Thomas Manson, son of the deceased William Manson in Field; John Hay; John Waterston; William Taylor; Malcolm Alexanderson; Edward Jameson, servants of the Earl, and others, their comrades. The letters were to last for their lifetime, and freed them from, among other things, "art and part of the slaughters of Ingram and David Sinclair, brothers, in the month of February 1584". The readiness with which the remission was issued indicates the fatality as the result of a chance encounter, for Ingram was too important a person to be otherwise disposed of. Besides being Laird of Blingery, now containing 261 acres arable and 2,560 acres pasture, he had tacks [leases] of the vicarages or tithes of Bower and Watten, held a wadset from Knappe barony, Wick, and had been master of the household or chamberlain at Girnigoe Castle. Both Ingram and David Sinclair witnessed the charter of Canisbay, etc., given to William Sinclair of Mey, dated 1st March 1572, at Girnigoe Castle, Ingram being described as "of Blingery". In a contract of date Kirkcaldy and Girnigoe, 24th July and 30th December 1595, to which Earl George was a party, not only is the "deceased Ingram Sinclair of Blingery" mentioned, but also his heirs, Earl George promising to respect their rights as given by his uncle, George Sinclair of Mey. [From Caithness Events]

This Earl being a minor at the time of his succession, the opportunity was considered by those interested a favourable one to detach the Justiciary from the dignity. A supplication was made on the 27th December 1582-83, by George, Earl Marischal, Lord Keith, Laurence, Lord Oliphant, and the Abbot of Deer against the renewal of a Commission of Justiciary in favour of the present Earl, a minor; their supplication was successful. This was followed a few years after by revived differences between Lord Oliphant and the Earl. The former made complaint 21st November 1587, that David Sinclair, brother natural to the Earl, in July 1583, at the Earl's instance, and under silence of night, forcibly ejected William Oliphant of Newton (uncle of Lord Oliphant) from Thrumbustar, and further, that James, Master [heir apparent] of Caithness, brother of the Earl, John Sinclair, another brother, and David Sinclair, with some 70 persons, came to the tour and fortalice of Tubister, and intromitted with live stock and other goods. On the 8th January thereafter, the said Earl, James, Master [heir apparent] of Caithness, and David Sinclair, natural brother of the Earl, were denounced for the same. On the 10th March 1587-88, Francis Stuart, Earl of Bothwell, Great Admiral of Scotland, became caution in 5,000 merks that his brother-uterine, George Sinclair, Earl of Caithness, shall answer upon 15th May next the complaint of Lord Oliphant, and a suspension of the letters raised against the Earl was then obtained until the 10th June. On the 11th June 1589, Hector Monro of Kilderrnorie was put under caution of £1,000 not to harm Lord Caithness, who on 6th March 1589-90, is found appointed Commissioner for Caithness in the matter of Acts against Jesuits. In July 1587, Caithness is enumerated as having broken men on his lands, for which on 16th December 1590, he had to find caution in £20,000. George, Earl of Huntly, became caution in £5,000 on 20th September 1591, that Caithness would not harm Lord Oliphant, and when the case came up on 10th November 1591, the Earl asserted that, having obtained Huntly as security, letters of horning [outlawry], etc., should be suspended. The Lords stated it was not meet that Huntly or any of his degree or rank should be cautioners, and required others.

To strengthen and extend his influence in the North, Earl George married Lady Jane Gordon, sister of the Earl of Huntly. He and the Earl of Sutherland were almost constantly at war. The first opportunity occurred in 1585, when a quarrel arose between Neil Hucheonson and the Laird of Assynt. Hutcheon Mackay assisted Assynt, who had married his sister, and Earl George supported them with men. The Earl of Sutherland, on the other hand, stood by Neil, who was commander of Assynt, and a follower of his. A temporary reconciliation was patched up in 1586 between the two potentates of Caithness and Sutherland, and they united to exterminate the clan Gunn. The latter, however, got timely notice of the plot, and prepared for resistance. Being joined by a party of the Strathnaver Mackays, they attacked the Caithness men before the latter effected a junction with their allies at Auldgown, on the borders of Sutherland, and completely routed them. The leader, Henry Sinclair, brother of the Laird of Dun, and "cousin" to the Earl of Caithness, and about 140 men, were left dead on the field. The Earl was so enraged when he heard of this affair that he immediately hanged John Gunn, a leading man among the clan, whom he had some time before got hold of, and who was then a prisoner in Girnigoe.

The hollow friendship between the two Earls lasted for about a year, when a series of contests arose from what in legal phrase would be termed a piece of "malicious mischief". George Gordon, bastard of Gartay, waylaid the servants of the Earl, and, cutting off the horses' tails, bade them tell their master he had done so. Resenting the indignity, the Earl, knowing the futility of seeking redress from the Earl of Sutherland, whose follower Gordon was, resolved to himself punish the offender. For this purpose he set out with a picked body of men to Helmsdale, near to which Gordon lived, and, arriving in the night time, surrounded his house with the party. Gordon, after a desperate resistance, took to flight, pursued by Sinclair of Mey and some half-dozen followers. He then flung himself into the river of Helmsdale, hard by, and tried to make his escape by swimming across, but a shower of arrows was discharged upon him, and he was slain in the water. The Earl of Sutherland, although he disliked the conduct of George Gordon, who was also guilty of an improper intimacy with Sutherland's sister, resolved to request satisfaction from the Earl of Caithness. The latter replied by assembling his forces, and being joined by Mackay and the Strathnaver men, together with John, Master of Orkney, and the Earl of Carrick, brother of Patrick, Earl of Orkney, with a contingent of Orcadians, marched to Helmsdale to meet the Earl of Sutherland. Neither party cared to risk an engagement, and by the mediation of mutual friends the two Earls agreed to a temporary truce on the 9th of March 1587, from the benefits of which Mackay of Strathnaver was carefully excluded. The latter, however, came to an amicable understanding with the Earl of Sutherland, at Elgin, in the month of November 1588. On the expiration of the truce, Lord Sutherland. supported by his allies Mackay, Macintosh, Assynt, Foulis, and Rasay, entered Caithness with all his forces in the beginning of 1588, having obtained a commission from the Privy Council against Earl George for killing the Bastard of Gartay. His great object was to secure the person of the Earl of Caithness, but that nobleman prudently withdrew within the iron walls of Castle Girnigoe, a fortress strongly fortified, and prepared to withstand a siege. Foiled in his attempt, Sutherland ravaged Latheron, returning home with a large booty in cattle, which was divided among his followers. This foray was known as "Creach larn " - that is, the "harship" or harrying of Latheron The town of Wick was pillaged and burnt, but the church was preserved. In it was found the heart of the late Earl of Caithness encased in a leaden casket, which was opened by John Mac-Gille-Calum of Rasay, and the ashes were scattered to the winds. Such was the singular fate which befell the heart of that proud and cruel nobleman. After twelve days the Earl of Sutherland raised the siege of Girnigoe, and ravaged the county as far as Duncansbay, killing several of the peasantry and returning with great spoil. This affair was called "La na creach more" or "the great spoil".

Another truce ensued, but it was of brief duration, for the Earl of Caithness, burning to be revenged for the injuries done to the county, retaliated by a succession of inroads into Sutherland. Lord Caithness despatched a party of his men to Diri-Chatt, in Sutherland, under the command of Kenneth and Farquhar Buy, chieftains of the Siol-Mhic-Imheair, in Caithness. Lord Sutherland responded by sending 300 men into Caithness at Whitsunday, 1589, under Alexander Gordon of Kilcalmekill. In retaliation James Sinclair of Murkle, brother of the Earl of Caithness, collected an army of 3,000 men, with which he marched in to Strathully in June 1589, but after a long warm contest was forced to retire by Strathnaver and Kilcolmkil, who were in command of inferior forces. The Earl of Sutherland followed up this advantage and advanced as far as Corriechoich, in Braemore, where he encamped. The Earl of Caithness had convened his forces at Spittal, where he resolved to wait the approach of the enemy. The Earl of Huntly, the relation of both of the contestants, on bearing of the warlike preparations of the two hostile Earls, sent his uncle, Sir Patrick Gordon of Auchindun, to mediate between them, by whose friendly interference an armistice was concluded, and in November 1589, the contending parties met at Elgin, where they subscribed a deed, by which they appointed Huntly and his successors hereditary judges and arbitrators of all disputes and differences that might henceforth arise between their two houses. This written agreement was valuable only as waste paper, for scarce a few weeks elapsed till the Earls were again at war.

The severest battle which was fought during this campaign was at Clyne, in Sutherland, and occurred about October 1590. The Murrays and the Gordons disputed for the command of the vanguard of the Sutherland army, and as the Gordons insisted on their claims to the position, the Murrays withdrew and looked on throughout the engagement. The Caithness army had 1,500 archers in the van, mostly from the Western Isles, and under the command of Donald Balloch Mackay of Scourie. The combat raged with great fury, and was long sustained without advantage to either side. Thrice were the Caithness archers driven back, throwing their rear into disorder, and thrice did they return to the fray cheered on by their leader, but, though superior in numbers, they were unable to withstand the intrepidity of the men of Sutherland, and on the approach of night withdrew from the field of battle. The loss in wounded and slain was about equal, and few principal men were killed. The two Earls were once more reconciled by the mediation of the Earl of Huntly at Strathbogie in March 1591.

The same year the Earl of Caithness received a visit from his brother-uterine, Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell, who had, by his exceptionally factious and turbulent conduct, rendered himself peculiarly obnoxious to James VI of Scotland. Bothwell had last distinguished himself by audaciously entering Holyrood with a party of armed men for the purpose of securing the person of the King. His scheme failing, he fled North to his half-brother; but a dispute arising, Earl George meditated delivering him up to the King. In this critical situation Bothwell owed his safety to James Sinclair of Murkle, who informed him of the design, on which Bothwell made his escape abroad. The Earl of Caithness was so offended with Murkle that it is said he banished him for some time from the county. On the 11th February 1594-95, Sir James Scott of Balweary revealed the existence of a band between William, sometime Earl of Angus, George, sometime Earl of Huntly, Francis, sometime Earl of Bothwell, Francis, sometime Earl of Errol, George Earl of Caithness, and umquhile [deceased] Sir Patrick Gordon of Auchindoun, to capture the King and crown the Prince, Huntly, Errol, and Angus being regents. On the 7th February 1598-99, assurances were required from Caithness and Orkney.

After the battle of Clyne the two rival houses remained quiet for some time. Alexander, Earl of Sutherland, died on the 6th December 1594, and was succeeded by his son John. While the latter was absent on the Continent in 1600, the Earl of Caithness massed his forces with the apparent intention of entering Sutherland or Strathnaver, but did not carry his purpose into effect. The question of precedence between the Earls of Caithness and Sutherland was raised on 19th February 1601, and as Caithness still continued to threaten an invasion, the Earl of Sutherland assembled an army to oppose him in July 1601, being supported by Mackay, Assynt, and the Monroes. Meanwhile the Earl of Caithness advanced towards Sutherland with his army. The two armies encamped some three miles asunder, near the hill of Bengrime. A prophetic tradition had long been current that a battle would take place at that spot, which would result in the complete overthrow of the Caithness men, but at the sacrifice of many lives on the side of the Sutherland and Strathnaver men. The latter were, notwithstanding, eager to score their assured victory, but the Earl of Caithness, aware of the prophecy, proceeded to temporise, and sent messengers to the Earl of Sutherland to effect an amicable settlement of their differences. A pacific course was adopted, and in reply Sutherland intimated the willingness of his council to allow Caithness to retire, which he accordingly did. Eventually they agreed to a mutual disarmament, the Earl of Sutherland sending George Gray of Cuttle to see the army of Caithness disbanded, and the Earl of Caithness in his turn despatched Alexander Bane, chief of the Caithness Banes, to witness the dismissal of the Sutherland men.

The next disturbance happened in 1605, on the occasion of a visit of Alister-MacUilleam-Mhoir, a retainer of Mackay. The Earl of Caithness, hearing of his presence in the county, despatched his bastard brother, Henry Sinclair, with a party of men to kill him. He was seized under cover of friendship, and brought prisoner to the Earl, who caused him to be beheaded in his own presence the following day; his fault being unwavering fidelity to Mackay, his chief, during the disputes between the two Earls. Mackay entered a legal prosecution at Edinburgh against Earl George, but by the mediation of the Marquis of Huntly the suit was quashed.

The Earl of Caithness, tired of his enforced state of quietude, made another attempt in the month of July 1607, to hunt in Bengrime, but was prevented from doing so by the sadden appearance in Strathully of the Earl of Sutherland with his friend Mackay. The Earls then went through the usual formality of having the matter settled by their heritable arbiter, the Marquis of Huntly, at Elgin.

The next appearance of Earl George is a splendid illustration of his restless and capricious disposition, and the immunity of great nobles from the consequences of lawless acts in parts where they themselves held heritable jurisdictions. It happened that in 1608, a boat with some of the Earl of Orkney's servants on board, being overtaken with a severe gale while crossing the Pentland Firth, ran for refuge to Sinclair's Bay. As soon as they landed, the Earl, who had a pique at Earl Patrick Stewart, a man very similar in disposition to himself, ordered the servants to be brought to Girnigoe. After plying them with a lot of liquor he then caused the one side of their heads and the one side of their beards to be shaved, and in this condition forced them to take boat and go to sea before the storm had abated. They fortunately reached Orkney in safety, and told their master how they had been treated. The Earl very naturally resented the barbarous usage which his domestics had received at the hands of the Earl of Caithness, and complained thereof to the king. His Majesty ordered the Privy Council to summon the two Earls before them and investigate the matter. Both attended at Edinburgh, but through the interposition of friends the case was not brought before the Council, an agreement being arrived at. The historian of Sutherland quaintly remarks: - "Only one example of this crime I do remember. The servants of David, King of Israel, were so entreated by Hannum, King of the children of Ammon. The Earl of Caithness thus far exceeded Hannum, that not satisfied with what himself bad done, he forced the Earl of Orkney his servants to take the sea in such a tempest, and exposed them to the extremity of the raging waves; whereas Hannum suffered King David his servants to depart home quietly after he had abused them"

In 1610 Earl George and Mackay had a difference on account of the latter giving protection to his nephew, John Sutherland of Berridale, who having been outlawed, retaliated by depredations in Caithness. The Earl on one of these occasions sent a party of the Siol-Mhic-Imheair in pursuit, but they were surprised by Sutherland and defeated with a loss of several killed. This disaster exasperated the Earl who promptly served both Mackay and his son with a notice to appear before the Privy Council for giving protection to an outlaw. The affair was, however, withdrawn and adjusted by friends, it being arranged that the Earl should forgive John Sutherland and restore his possessions; that John and his brother Donald should in turn be kept prisoners by him; and that Donald Mac-Thomais-Mhoir, a follower of John's, should be surrendered to be dealt with by the Earl as he should think meet. Donald was hanged forth with, and the Sutherlands performed the conditions required of them, and were presently released by Earl George at the intercession of the Mackays, whom the Earl was desirous of detaching from their adhesion to Sutherland. Mackay spent the following Christmas at Girnigo Castle, but the Earl was unsuccessful in his design.

The Earl kept round him at Girnigo a body of stout retainers ready for all emergencies. Among others there was one named William MacAngus Gunn from Strathnaver, a fellow of a resolute spirit, and possessed of extraordinary muscular power and agility. Gunn was in many respects a most useful person to the Earl, but was in the habit of annexing from the neighbouring peasantry whatever properties he fancied. This habit be presently applied to property belonging to the Earl, and fearing detection, fled. The Earl discovering the situation sent a posse in pursuit, but the fugitive had too good a start to be overtaken. Some few weeks later he was apprehended for cattle-stealing in Ross-shire and imprisoned in the Castle of Foulis. Not relishing confinement in this fortress he jumped from the tower, but broke a leg in the fall and was again taken into custody. The Sheriff of Tain, Sir William Sinclair of Mey, had him forthwith conveyed under guard to Caithness to be lodged in the Castle of Girnigo and dealt with according to the pleasure of the Earl. On reaching that stronghold be was duly secured and consigned to the prisoner's cell; but his limb having by this time become whole he managed to free himself from his fetters, leaped from the castle into the sea, swam ashore and fled into Strathnaver (1612). The Earl sent his son William, Lord Berridale, in pursuit. Missing the fugitive, Lord Berridale in revenge apprehended a retainer of Mackay's, called Angus Henriach, without any authority from His Majesty, and carried him to Castle Sinclair where he was put in fetters and closely imprisoned on the pretence of having assisted William MacAngus to escape. Mackay brought the matter before the Privy Council, and the Earl was required to appear with his prisoner at Edinburgh in June next (1612) which he accordingly did, and MacAngus being found innocent by the lords was delivered over to Sir Robert Gordon, who then acted for Mackay,

The Earl of Caithness at this time possessed an extensive and valuable landed property in the county, including nearly the whole of the parish of Wick. By his reckless and extravagant habits, however, he had become deeply involved in debt, and was obliged to mortgage several portions of his estate to satisfy his creditors. To recruit his exhausted finances he fell, it is alleged, on a desperate expedient, and employed an ingenious vagabond of the name of Arthur Smith to coin money for him. Smith was originally a blacksmith in Banff, but being detected counterfeiting the coin of the realm, he and an assistant fled into Sutherland where they were apprehended in 1599 by the Countess of Sutherland and were forwarded to Edinburgh for trial. They were duly tried and condemned. Smith's assistant was executed, being guilty of crimes of a deeper dye, but he himself was reserved for further trial, during which period he devised a lock of rare and curious workmanship, which took the fancy of the king and resulted in his procuring a release. He then went North and offered his services to the Earl of Caithness, who accommodated him with a workshop in a retired apartment of Castle Sinclair which the Earl had lately built close by the castle of Girnigo. The workshop was under the rock of Castle Sinclair, in a quiet retired place called the "Gote", to which there was a secret passage from the Earl's bedchamber. There Smith diligently plied his vocation for seven or eight years, at length removing to Thurso, where he ostensibly prosecuted his calling as a blacksmith. In the meantime Orkney, Caithness, Sutherland and Ross were inundated with counterfeit coin, which was first detected by Sir Robert Gordon in 1611, and he on returning to England made the King acquainted therewith. A commission was thereon granted to Sir Robert, John Gordon, younger of Embo, and Donald Mackay to arrest Smith - whom all suspected of the offence - and bring him once more to Edinburgh for trial. Mackay and Gordon proceeded to Thurso where they secured Smith and found in his house a quantity of base money, with all the necessary coining apparatus. The citizens, although satisfied of Smith's guilt, were yet, from recollections of the past, distrustful of the Sutherland authorities, and regarded the commission very much in the light of a hostile invasion. So the alarm-bell was rung to assemble the inhabitants, who accordingly rushed to the street, and presently John Sinclair younger of Stirkoke, James Sinclair of Durran, James Sinclair, brother of Dun, and other relatives of Lord Caithness who happened to be in town on a visit to Lady Berridale, made their appearance. The commissioners produced the royal authority for the arrest, but Sinclair of Stirkoke transported with rage, swore he would not allow any man whatever his commission to carry away his uncle's servant in his uncle's absence. Swords were drawn, but the Thursoese, who were not so well armed as their opponents, finally gave way and retreated to their houses. Sinclair of Stirkoke was slain, James Sinclair of Dunn severely wounded, and James Sinclair of Durran saved himself by flight. None of the men of Sutherland were killed, but many were badly wounded. Sir John Sinclair of Greenland, who then lived at Ormlie Castle, and Sinclair, Laird of Dunn arrived when the fray was ended. Dunn proposed to renew the attack, but Sir John considering what had already happened, would not agree to any such hazardous attempt. The men of Strathnaver slew Smith to prevent his rescue, and they and their Sutherland friends returned home with their wounded.

The Earl of Caithness, who was then at Edinburgh, upon being apprised of the occurrences at Thurso instituted a criminal prosecution against the Earl of Sutherland and the commissioners for the slaughter of his "nephew" Stirkoke, while they, on the other hand, raised a similar process against the Earl of Caithness, Lord Berridale, and their coadjutors, for various matters, and in particular for resisting the royal authority to arrest Smith and attaching Angus Henriach without a commission, which was declared treason by the laws. On the day appointed for their appearance at Edinburgh the parties, with the exception of the Earl of Sutherland, met, attended by their respective friends. The Earl of Caithness and his son, Lord Berridale, were accompanied by the Lord Gray, the Laird of Roslin, the Laird of Cowdenknowes, a son of the sister of the Earl of Caithness, James Sinclair of Murkle, Sir John Sinclair of Greenland, his brothers, along with a large retinue of subordinate attendants. Sir Robert Gordon was attended by the Earls of Winton, Eglinton and Linlithgow, Lords Elphinstone and Forbes, Munro of Foulis, and the Laird of Duffus. The absence of the Earl of Sutherland and Mackay mortified the Earl of Caithness, who could not conceal his displeasure at being so much overmatched in the respectability and number of attendants by seconds and children, as he was pleased to call his adversaries. The Council spent three days in hearing parties and deliberating upon the matters before them, but, arriving at no decision, adjourned the proceedings until the King's pleasure should be known. The King recommended arbitration, and the parties signed a submission to that effect. Arbiters were therefore appointed, but as neither party would yield a single point, they declined to act further, and remitted the whole case back to the Privy Council. The arbiters were all members of the Council, and very much occupied with affairs of state. Those nominated by the Earl of Caithness were the Archbishop of Glasgow, Sir John Preston, Lord President of the Council, Lord Blantyre, and Sir William Oliphant, Lord Advocate; while Sir Robert Gordon appointed the Earl of Kinghorn, the Master of Elphinston, the Earl of Haddington (afterwards Lord Privy Seal of Scotland), and Sir Alexander Drummond of Meidhop. The Earl of Dunfermline, Lord Chancellor, was chosen oversman and umpire by both parties. The arbiters, being very busy, induced both parties to sign a deed of submission giving authority to the Marquis of Huntly, the near relation of both, to settle their differences, but he, finding them both obstinate, remitted the whole affair back to the Council, and it appears to have been left unsettled. One of the counter charges of the Earl of Caithness against Sir Robert was that he had procured the commission solely with the intention of ruining him and his house, and that, previous to the affair at Thurso, he had on one occasion lain in wait to kill him at the Little Ferry. Sir Robert, of course, indignantly repelled the charge. There was undoubtedly little love lost between these two, and Sir Robert, in his history of Sutherland, has never missed an opportunity of attributing unworthy motives to the Earl, many of which are capable of being completely controverted. At an early stage of these Edinburgh proceedings Lord Gordon, son of the Earl of Huntly, was due from London, and Sir Robert, being exceedingly anxious to prepossess him in favour of the Sutherland side of the story, before his relative the Earl of Caithness could have access to him, hastened to meet him at the Borders, and accomplished his purpose. The Earl was so offended at this that he declined to visit Lord Gordon after his arrival at Edinburgh.

At this time the High Street of Edinburgh was the principal promenade of the Scottish aristocracy, and it was fashionable - if not absolutely necessary by the then lawless state of society - for gentlemen to wear defensive armour. An evening or two after Lord Gordon's return, he and the Earl of Caithness, each with a retinue of friends, chanced to meet between the Tron Church and the Cross, when they began rudely to jostle and push one another into the strand. High words arose, swords were drawn, and a general scuffle ensued. In the meantime Sir Robert Gordon and Mackay, with their followers, arrived on the scene, and the Earl finding himself outnumbered retreated from the scene of combat to his residence in one of the adjoining closes. Lord Gordon and his party followed them, and tried to provoke his uncle to sally out, but Earl George prudently remained inside. This melee created considerable stir in the city, and the next day the two lords were called before the Council and reconciled to each other.

As the Privy Council showed no disposition to decide the questions at issue, the Earl of Caithness sent his brother, Sir John Sinclair of Greenland, to Edinburgh to complain of the delay and to intimate that if he did not obtain satisfaction from them he would take redress at his own hands. He hoped this threat might influence a favourable decision, and in October 1613, made a demonstration against Sutherland and Strathnaver by massing forces at a certain point, and bringing thither some pieces of ordnance from Castle Sinclair. The Earl of Sutherland upon hearing of this movement assembled his countrymen and took post near the height of Strathully, where they waited the approach of the Earl of Caithness; but that nobleman, by advice of his brother Sir John, returned home and disbanded his forces. To prevent further tampering of the Earl of Caithness with the Privy Council, Sir Robert Gordon obtained a remission from the King in December 1613, for all concerned in the slaughter of Sinclair of Stirkoke, This pardon Sir Gideon Murray, Deputy Treasurer for Scotland, prevented from passing through the seals till the beginning of 1616.

Caithness, baffled in his designs against the Earl of Sutherland, now fell upon a device which promised to succeed. The laws of Scotland were then very severe against Catholics, and so he represented to the Archbishop of St.Andrew's and the Scottish clergy that the Earl of Sutherland was at heart a Catholic, and prevailed upon the bishops to acquaint the King thereof. His Majesty thereon issued a warrant for the arrest of Sutherland, who was imprisoned on St.Andrew's, the high commission of Scotland having refused his application for a month's delay till the 15th February 1614. His brother Sir Alexander communicated with their brother Sir Robert, then in London, who obtained from His Majesty a warrant for his liberation till August following, on the expiration of which time he returned to St.Andrew's, from which he was removed on his own application to the abbey of Holyrood House, where he remained till March 1615, having in some measure satisfied the church concerning his religion.

The Earl of Caithness, thus again defeated in his views, tried as a dernier resort to disjoin the families of Sutherland and Mackay. Sometimes he attempted to prevail upon the Marquis of Huntly to persuade the Earl of Sutherland and his brothers to come to an arrangement altogether independent of Mackay, and at other times he endeavoured to persuade Mackay, by holding out certain inducements to him, to compromise their differences without including the Earl of Sutherland in the arrangement; but he completely failed in these attempts.

Earl George was now offered an opportunity of military exercise outside his own county. Robert Stewart, natural son of Patrick, Earl of Orkney, then in confinement, had taken illegal possession of Birsay Palace, Kirkwall Castle, the Palace of the Yards, and other places of strength in the Islands, which he fortified as strongly as he could. This was in 1614. The Earl of Caithness, then in Edinburgh, offered to proceed to Orkney and vindicate the authority of the law, provided he were furnished with sufficient troops for the purpose. Government agreed to give him a requisite force, and in August he set sail from Leith with sixty soldiers and two pieces of cannon front Edinburgh Castle. On arriving on the Caithness Coast, the vessel brought up in Sinclair's Bay; and having procured some additional men from his own property, the Earl, accompanied by his natural brother Henry Sinclair, sailed directly for Orkney, and disembarked his troops in the neighbourhood of Kirkwall. He then opened the campaign in true military style. He besieged and took in succession the different posts occupied by the insurgents. The last was the Castle of Kirkwall, which Robert Stewart, with only sixteen men, bravely defended for the space of three weeks. The King's cannon made little impression on the iron walls of the citadel, and it was taken at last only through the treachery of Patrick Halcro, one of the besieged. The prisoners, with the exception of Halcro, were all brought South and executed; and very soon after Earl Patrick himself was beheaded for high treason at the Market Cross of Edinburgh. Before leaving Orkney the Earl of Caithness delivered up the Castle of Kirkwall to Sir James Stewart of Kilsyth, afterwards Lord Ochiltree, on whom in the capacity of farmer-general the King had conferred a new grant of the county; and a few months after the siege the government ordered the Castle of Kirkwall to be demolished.

Early in January 1615, the Earl of Caithness went to London to receive some reward from the King for his services in Orkney. His faithful adversary, Sir Robert Gordon, hearing of his advent hastened to first obtain audience and prejudice the King against the Earl; but in spite of all that, the malice of the baronet could urge, the King granted the Earl a full remission of all by-past offences, with an annuity for his services in Orkney, and also appointed him one of his Scottish Privy Council. But all these royal favours and honours were subsequently forfeited by his imprudent and violent conduct.

In November 1615, Earl George seems to have participated in an act of incendiarism with the intention of making the Lord Forbes "weary of his lands in Caithness". The circumstances leading up to this act require illustration. The Earl had harassed William Sinclair of Dunbeath in a variety of ways, till he at last retired into Moray, where he died in exile, being succeeded by his grandson George, who married a sister of Lord Forbes. George Sinclair of Dunbeath being without likelihood of issue, the Earl obtained a deed entailing his lands on him, and is then stated to have devised means to make away with Dunbeath's life, which coming to the knowledge of the latter he left Caithness and resided with Lord Forbes, who reprobated the conduct of his sister, she having been privy to the Earl's designs. Dunbeath now recalled the deed of entail in favour of the Earl, and executed a new one, by which he conveyed his whole estate to Lord Forbes, and dying soon after without issue his lands of Dounreay and Dunbeath were taken possession of by that nobleman. Disappointed in his plans to acquire Dunbeath's property, the Earl, under cover of discharging his duty as sheriff, took frequent occasion to harass and annoy Forbes' servants, complaints of which were made from time to time to the Privy Council, thus affording partial redress; but the more effectually to protect his tenants, Lord Forbes took up a temporary residence in Caithness. The Earl being thus foiled in any direct attack, opened the subject of harassing him to John and Alexander Gunn, and their cousin-german [full brother] Alexander, whose father he had hanged in 1586. John was chief of the clan Gunn. By invitation they repaired to Castle Sinclair, where the matter was discussed, and he suggested the burning of the corn of William Innes of Sanset, a tenant of Lord Forbes'. Alexander Gunn, the cousin, while willing to assassinate Innes, declined to do anything so paltry or dishouourable as burn a quantity of corn. The Earl then approached the two brothers, who eventually yielded to his entreaties, and fired all the cornstacks of Innes, which were in consequence consumed. This was in November 1615. Sir Robert Gordon took the matter in hand, resolved to probe it to the bottom. Alexander Gunn, the cousin, fled from Caithness, to the concern of the Earl, and revealed the nature of the Earl's proposals to Sir Robert. The Earl, anticipating such a state of affairs, circulated a report that Sir Robert and his friends had caused the fire so as to bring him under suspicion. Lord Forbes cited the three Gunns to appear before the Lords Justiciary at Edinburgh on the 2nd April 1616, to stand trial for the incendiarism; and the Earl of Caithness as sheriff of the county was also summoned to deliver them up. With things this way, the Earl wrote to the Marquis of Huntly for his support, but he responded by sending the account of the affair as supplied by Sir Robert. At trial the Earl of Caithness was absent, but his son, Lord Berridale, put in an appearance. The lords of the Council required Lord Berridale and his father to present the three culprits before the court on the 10th June next. Lord Berridale, whose character was the reverse of that of his father, now offered Lord Forbes satisfaction in his father's name if he would stop the prosecution; but Forbes would only do so on conditions which Lord Berridale considered too hard, and therefore rejected. The Gunns then confessed before the Lords of Council the part the Earl had taken in the crime, and as neither the Earl nor Lord Berridale had surrendered Alexander Gunn and his accomplices, they were both outlawed and declared rebels, and again summoned to appear at Edinburgh in July following. A final agreement was arrived at in July 1616, when the Earl of Caithness accepted the terms imposed, which were gallingly stringent.

In the January of 1616 the Earl had induced William, son of Kenneth Buidhe, to banish himself into Strathnaver, and take the first favourable chance of injuring the Strathnaver people. So, on the first absence of Mackay in Sutherland, William MacKenneth started operations, and was making his way to Caithness with a great booty, but being observed by the clan Gunn, a fight ensued, resulting in the recapture of the booty and the surrender of William and all his party, except Iain-Garbh-Mac-Chonald-MacMhurchidh-Mhoir, who, being a very resolute man, refused to surrender, and was in consequence killed. In consequence of the settlement of July 1616, William and John, the two sons of Kenneth Buy, were delivered to Lord Berridale, who gave security for their keeping the peace.

Matters being thus settled, Lord Berridale presented himself for trial at Edinburgh, but no one appearing against him the trial was postponed. The Earl failing to appear, the diet against him was continued till the 28th of August following. The King was well pleased to have peace restored in the North, but could not overlook such a flagrant act, and commanded the Privy Council to prosecute with due severity all who had been principals or accessories to the offence. Lord Berridale was thereupon arrested on suspicion and committed to Edinburgh Castle, while his father, again declining to appear, was again outlawed, and declared a rebel as the guilty author. In this extremity Lord Berridale had recourse to Sir Robert Gordon, entreating that as all controversies were now settled, he would, in place of an enemy, become a faithful friend, and reminding him how free he was of the present crime, and how little he had to do with the past dissensions. The King could not, without a verdict against Berridale, proceed against the family of Caithness by forfeiture, as his lordship had many years before been infeft in his father's estate, and knowing him to be innocent, could not expect such a verdict, so all the earnest entreaty of the then Bishop of Ross, Sir Robert Gordon, and Sir James Spence of Wormiston, he was pleased to forgive and remit the crime on the following conditions:

  1. That the Earl and Lord Berridale should satisfy their numerous creditors.
  2. That they should renounce the heritable sheriffship and justiciary of Caithness.
  3. They should deliver the three criminals who burnt the corn.
  4. That the Earl, with consent of Lord Berridale, should give up and resign in perpetuum to the Bishop of Caithness, the House of Scrabster, with feu lands, of the annual value of 2,000 merks scots, etc., etc.
Commissioners were sent from London to Caithness in October 1616, to see these conditions complied with. The second and last were forthwith implemented, but on the release of Lord Berridale he was immediately rearrested at the instance of Sir James Home of Cowdenknowes, his cousin-german, who had become surety for him and his father to their creditors for large sums of money. The Earl narrowly escaped the fate of his son by retiring into Caithness, but his creditors had sufficient interest to prevent his remission from passing till they should be satisfied.

Deperate as were the Earl's fortunes, he presently (1618) had overtures made for an alliance by Sir Donald Mackay, who had become dissatisfied with the Sutherlands. The Earl and Mackay met at Dounreay, in Reay, in Caithness, during night-time, attended by only three men each, and, continuing their conferences for several days, they finally arranged to destroy the clan Gunn, particularly John Gunn and his cousin Alexander, and that John Mackay, the only brother of Sir Donald, should marry the Earl's niece, a daughter of James Sinclair of Murkle, the mortal enemy of all the clan Gunn.

Sir Donald proceeded to Edinburgh to get a commission against the Gunns, but was foiled by the opposition of Sir Robert Gordon, and returned home to Strathnaver disappointed. In April 1618, he went to Braill, in Caithness, where he met the Earl, with whom he continued three nights. On this occasion they agreed to despatch Alexander Gunn, the burner of the corn, lest Lord Forbes should request his delivery. Before parting the Earl delivered to Mackay some old writs of certain lands in Strathnaver and other places within the diocese of Caithness, which belonged to Sir Donald's predecessors, expecting that Sir Donald would bring an action against the Earl of Sutherland for the warrandice of Strathnaver, and thus free himself from the superiority of that Earl. Sir Donald did not succeed in securing the Gunns; and although the Earl of Caithness, who sought every occasion to quarrel with the House of Sutherland, tried to pick a quarrel with Sir Alexander Gordon about some sheilings which he alleged the latter's servants had erected beyond the marches between Torrish in Strathully and the lands of Berridale, the dispute came to nothing. The Earl advised the Marquis of Huntly of Mackay's intention to disturb Sutherland, and Huntly informed Sir Robert Gordon, tutor to the young Earl of Sutherland, who had succeeded in 1615, when only six years of age. Mackay seeing how little reliance he could place in the Earl of Caithness, renewed his friendship with the Sutherlands.

The resignation of the feu-lands of the bishopric was an event which preyed on the Earl of Caithness' mind and made him vindictive towards the bishop's servants and tenants. More especially was his hatred directed against Robert Monroe of Aldie, Commissary of Caithness, who acted as chamberlain to the bishop, whom he took every opportunity to molest. One of the first steps taken by Monroe was to remove James Sinclair of Durran from the lands which he occupied, of which he granted a lease to his own brother-uterine, Thomas Lyndsay. Sinclair adopted the Irish method of revenge, and meeting with Lyndsay soon after in Thurso ran him through with the sword. It was generally believed that the Earl had instigated the crime. Durran then fled the country, first going to Edinburgh and thence to London where he hastened to meet his kinsman, Sir Andrew Sinclair, third son of Henry Lord Sinclair, envoy from the King of Denmark, who interceded with the King for a pardon for him, but being refused; Durran then fled to Denmark for better security. Monroe now raised a criminal suit against the Earl of Caithness and Durran for the murder of his brother, and they were summoned to attend the Court of Justiciary at Edinburgh; but as neither appeared they were both outlawed and denounced rebels. Hearing Durran was in London, Monroe hastened thither and His Majesty wrote a letter dated at Windsor, 25th May 1621, directing the Privy Council to commission Sir Robert Gordon to arrest the Earl, reduce his places of strength, and require the county gentlemen to give sureties for their keeping the peace in time to come. Sir Robert being undesirous of the office proposed to Lord Berridale that he should undertake it, but that unfortunate nobleman was unable to procure from his creditors a parole release. The Earl, hearing of the steps being taken against him, wrote to the Privy Council in assertion of his innocence of the slaughter of Lyndsay, and attributing his non-attendance at trial to the fear of being arrested at suit of his creditors, and promising if His Majesty would grant him a safe-conduct, to find security to abide trial. On receipt of this letter the Lords of Council granted him a protection, and in August his brothers James Sinclair of Murkle, and Sir John Sinclair of Greenland, became sureties for his appearing at Edinburgh at the time prescribed. The execution of the commission was thus delayed.

Lord Gordon in the meantime had obtained permission from Lord Berridale's creditors to consent to his liberation on his personal guarantee. Berridale returned to Caithness in 1621, after a confinement of five years, but was unable to apprehend his father or reduce the family estates into possession. Some of the Earl's creditors went North to see him in April 1622, but only received fair promises. About this time a reconciliation took place between the Earl and Lord Berridale; but it was only of short duration, and upon the occasion of the new disagreement he lost the favour and friendship not only of his brothers Murkle and Greenland, but also of his best friends in Caithness. Berridale retired from Caithness to reside with Lord Gordon, who wrote to his friends at Court for a new commission against the Earl. As the King was daily troubled with complaints from the Earl's creditors he readily consented, and in December 1622, instructed the Scottish Privy Council to issue such a commission to Lord Gordon. Its execution was delayed, however, by Gordon being required to proceed to France on affairs of state in 1623, and on his departure the Earl applied for a new protection, promising to appear at Edinburgh on the 10th of August of this year and satisfy his creditors, but he again made default and was re-denounced and proclaimed rebel, while a new commission was granted to Sir Robert Gordon to proceed against him and his abettors with fire and sword. Proclamations were at the same time issued, interdicting all and sundry from having any communication with the Earl, and a ship-of-war was ordered to proceed to Sinclair's Bay to prevent his escape by sea, and to batter down his castles in case he should attempt to withstand a siege.

The Earl of Caithness, seeing now no longer any chance of evading the authority of the laws, prepared to face the rising storm by fortifying his castles and strongholds. Sir Robert Gordon arrived in Sutherland in August 1623, and was immediately joined by Lord Berridale, who was sent to Caithness to ascertain the intentions of the Earl and the disposition of the Caithnessians before taking further concerted action. Berridale reported that his father had resolved to stand out to the last extremity, that he had fortified the strong castle of Ackergill, which he had supplied with men, ammunition, and provisions, and upon the holding out of which he placed his last and only hope. Lord Berridale also reported that many of the inhabitants stood well affected to the Earl. [From History of the Scottish Clans and History of Caithness].

Becoming apprehensive of the consequences, the Earl despatched a messenger to Sir Robert, soliciting an amicable arrangement, but the latter was not prepared to parley further, and required an unconditional submission to the royal mercy. He followed up his request by assembling his troops, all picked men and well-armed, at Dunrobin, on the 3rd September, 1623, whence they marched to the appointed rendezvous, Killiernan in Strathully, and next morning crossed the Helmsdale and advanced to Berridale, where he was met by Lord Berridale and James Sinclair of Murkle, one of the commissioners. Encamping at Brea-Na-Heuglish they were advised of the arrival of the war-ship in Scrabster Roads and that the Earl of Caithness bad abandoned the country, sailing by night to the Orkneys with the intention of passing on to Norway or Denmark. At Latheron, Sinclair of Murkle, Sheriff of Caithness, Sir William Sinclair of Mey, Sinclair of Rattar and others tendered their submission and services, and the party was joined by about 300 Caithness men consisting of the Calders and others who had favoured Lord Berridale. They were commanded by James Sinclair, fiar [heir apparent] of Murkle, and were always kept a mile or two in advance of the army till they reached Castle Sinclair, a very strong place and the chief residence of the Earl. The keys of this fortress were surrendered to Sir Robert who then proceeded to Ackergill Tower and the Castle of Keiss and took possession of them also without any resistance being offered. The Countess of Caithness, who was then in residence near Keiss, entreated Sir Robert - her cousin-german - to use his interest to get the Earl restored to royal favour, which he promised to do if the Earl would attend to his advice. From Keiss Sir Robert returned to Castle Sinclair where according to directions received from the Privy Council he delivered the keys of all these castles and forts to Lord Berridale, to be kept by him till the further pleasure of His Majesty should be known. The commissioners drew up a set of instructions at Wick, leaving Lord Berridale in charge, and an annuity was allowed to the Earl during good behaviour. [From History of the Scottish Clans and History of Caithness].

The only incident of importance during Berridale's administration was a series of depredations by William MacIver, chieftain of the Siol-Mhic-Imheair in Caithness, whom the former had removed from the lands and possessions held by him in Caithness. MacIver thereon retired to Argyll assuming the name of Campbell, as being originally an Argyll man, and sought the favour and protection of Lord Lorn, who unsuccessfully endeavoured by writing to the Earl of Sutherland, Berridale and others to effect a reconciliation. Seeing no hope of an accommodation MacIver collected a party of rebels and outlaws to the number of about twenty, and for four or five years made frequent incursions in Caithness, to end which Berridale got him denounced rebel and at last was, successful in apprehending MacIver and his son whom he hanged, and the race of the Siol-Mhic-Imheair was almost extinguished. This event occurred about the year 1633. MacIver's son-in-law Gillie-Calum-Mac-Shomhairle with some outlaws of the clan Mhic-Iain-Dhuinn, continued the predatory incursions into Caithness and they finally met the same fate at the hands of the Earl of Sutherland. [From History of the Scottish Clans].

George "the wicked" Earl of Caithness died in February 1643, at the advanced age of 79. By his tyrannical conduct he procured himself many enemies, and probably his faults may have been thereby much exaggerated. Some of the crimes, at least, with which he was charged were never fully proved against him; and it is clear, from the whole course of his history that he had a very bitter enemy in Sir Robert Gordon, almost the only authority for the events of that period. "The quietness and moderation", says Mackay, "with which he appears to have conducted himself during the last twenty years of his life plead strongly in his favour". [From History of Caithness].

He married Jean Gordon, daughter of George, fifth Earl of Huntly, by whom he had

  1. WILLIAM, LORD BERRIDALE, married Mary, daughter of Henry Lord Sinclair. He died during the lifetime of his father, leaving a son
    1. JOHN, Master [heir apparent] of Berridale.
  2. FRANCIS, of Northfield, married Elizabeth, daughter of Lord Fraser and had -
    1. GEORGE SINCLAIR of Keiss who succeeded as 45th Earl.
    2. JEAN, LADY MEY, married Sir James Sinclair of Mey and died 1716;
    and a natural daughter
    1. MARGARET married in 1653 to John, son of Alexander Sutherland of Lybster.
  1. ELIZABETH married George, Lord Lindsay, afterwards Earl of Crawford, and died without issue

Earl George had also two natural sons -

  1. FRANCIS, first of Stirkoke, who about 1621 fought a duel with his relative Sir William Sinclair of Mey.
  2. JOHN, who attained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the German Wars.

NOTE - Sir Thomas Urquhart applauds the prowess of Francis Sinclair, the valiant bastard of Caithness, who conquered a gallant nobleman of High Germany in the presence of the Emperor and all his court.

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