The Sinclair Family and Earls of Caithness

The autonomous maritime principality known as the Jarldom (meaning Princedom or Earldom) of Orkney and Caithness are the most ancient in geographical Britain. It is an area with which the Sinclairs have been associated for ever, "even before the birth of Christ" according to a letter to King John of Denmark in 1507.

arms of the Jarl of Orkney

In Scandinavian terms the Jarldom included the Shetland Islands, the Faroes, Iceland, part of Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Western Isles of Scotland and Sutherland (the southern land of Caithness). The first recorded Jarl was the Norwegian Rognvald, also Jarl of Moeri, who was descended from Fornjotr, mythical king and giant who flourished in the Odinic age, and who was granted the title by King Harald of Norway in 871.

Due to other commitments his brother Sigurd took over the role and also became Jarl of Caithness. Rognvald's son Einar later inherited control over the northern empire and became the fifth Jarl and the foundations of his castle in Caithness can still be seen at Knockinnon (a corruption of Knock Einar).

Another of Rognvald's sons Hrolf conquered Normandy. In 911 he signed a peace treaty with King Charles the Simple of France at St Clair sur Epte from whence the name comes. Hrolf married Charles' daughter Gizela (Grizelda) and became the first Duke of Normandy. The family became Counts de Santo Claro and William (Willielmus in common Latin or Guillaume de Seincler in crude Norman French) of that name was a cousin of William the Conqueror.

At the battle of Hastings there were nine St. Clair knights who fought with distinction there and are mentioned in the Abbey Roll. The St Clairs settled in many parts of England and also journeyed north to Scotland.

The earliest recorded involvement in Scottish history dates from 1057 when William 'The Seemly' St Clair, returned with a delegation sent by his father's cousin, King Edward the Confessor, to Hungary to escort Edward's successor, the Atheling Edward the Exile, to England. Atheling Edward's daughter was Margaret who would marry King Malcolm Canmore of Scotland twelve years later.

Edward was given a piece of the Holy Rood by his friend King Andrew of Hungary to enhance his claim to the English throne. Edward died upon reaching England and his great half uncle, Edward the Confessor, raised the young Atheling Edgar in his court while Margaret, her sister Christina and mother Agatha lived mostly in a nunnery for twelve years. During this time William the Seemly aided Malcolm Canmore to regain his throne, married, was given Rosslyn in Life rent and fought against the armies of his cousin, King William (the Conqueror). He held the important position of being her cupbearer. She brought with her part of the 'True Cross' - The Holy Rood and she later founded Holyrood Abbey. He was granted the Barony of Rosslyn near Edinburgh in life rent.

His son Henri de St. Clair went on the 1st Crusade with Godefroi de Bouillon in 1096 and was granted Rosslyn in free heritage. The family continued to play an important part in Scottish affairs and his great, great, great grandson also called Henry fought at the successful battle of Roslin in 1305. He commanded the Knights Templar in 1314 at Bannockburn where his brother, the Bishop of Dunkeld, also fought.

In 1320 he was one of the signatories to the letter to the Pope known as the Declaration of Scottish Independence of Arbroath. King Robert the Bruce gave his sword to Henry's son William following his achievements at Bannockburn with the inscription "La Roi me donne, St Clair me poste", the king gifts me, the Sinclair carries me. Indeed he did, for he died in a battle with the Moors in Spain whilst, with James Earl of Douglas, carrying Bruce's heart to the Holy Land in 1330. His son Sir William St. Clair married Isabella the daughter of Malise, Earl of Orkney, Caithness and Strathearn. She was a direct descendent of Einar and thus the two families of Rognvald reunited after four hundred years.

Whilst fighting for the Teutonic Knights in Lithuania in 1358 William was killed and their son Henry inherited the Barony of Rosslyn, but the Caithness and Orkney titles were split between Alexander de Ard, a cousin, and Eringisle Sunesson, an uncle. The Orkney Islands were still under Norse jurisdiction and Henry, who was already Lord High Admiral of Scotland, had taken part in a crusade with King Peter of Cyprus, and owed allegiance to the Scottish crown had to contest the title.

Besides his right of claim through his mother he had connections with the islands for his uncle Thomas St. Clair, like his grandfather was 'ballivus' of Orkney. In 1379 King Haakon of Norway agreed at Maarstrand (now in Sweden) Henry's claim and was invested with all the hereditary dignities and honours of the ancient jarls of Orkney and Caithness and the lordship of Shetland and thus became the premier jarl of Norway. Robert III, the King of Scotland admitted this in 1392.

Now owing allegiance to both crowns Henry became one of the most powerful men in the land and having his own fleet controlled the access to the North Atlantic from Europe. He was one of the great navigators of all time sailing to Greenland and there is compelling evidence to prove that he also visited the New World and what are now Nova Scotia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. His son Henry acted as chief attendant to Prince James of Scotland, when his father for security reasons sent the Royal youth to France. His marriage to Egidia Douglas, daughter of William Douglas Lord Nithsdale, called the Black Douglas, and granddaughter of King Robert II strengthened his already powerful position.

At this period and for the next one hundred years or so the Sinclairs - "the lordly line of high St. Clair" were probably the most powerful family in Scotland outside the Royal Family. Their son William, called Prodigus, was one of the greatest baronial magnates ever to hold sway in Scotland. He was "Prince of Orknay, [Duke of Holdembourg], Earle of Cathness [and Stratherne], Lord Shetland, Lord Saintclair, Lord Nithsdale, Sherieff of Dumfriese, Lord Admiral of the Scots Seas, Lord Chief Justice of Scotland, Lord Warden and Justiciar of the three Marches betwixt Berwick and Whithorne, Baron of Rosline, Baron of Pentland and Pentland Moore in free forestrie, Baron of Couslande, Baron of Cardain Saintclair, Baron of Herbertshire, Baron of Hectford, Baron of Grahamshaw, Baron of Kirktone, Baron of Cavers, Baron of Newborugh in Buchan, Baron of Roxburgh, Dysart, Polmese, Kenrusi, etc., Knight of the Cockle after the ordre of France [and Knight of the Garter after the order of England, Knight of the Golden Fleece], Great Chancellour, Chamberlain and Livetenant of Scotland, etc.- titles to weary a Spaniard".

With the titles went the land holdings and so he was the owner of vast estates from the Scottish border to Shetland. He acted as one of the hostages for James I and met the Prince at Durham on his permanent release from prison. He was Admiral of Scotland, conveyed the Princess Margaret to France on her marriage to the Dauphin and became Lord Chancellor in 1454 and had the foreign title of Duke of Oldenburgh.

Through his Moeri line he was one of four candidates for the vacant Crown of Norway in 1449. Although he was the highest-ranking chieftain under the ancient system and favoured by the majority in Norway he did not become king due to the influence of the Hanseatic League who wanted someone more 'amenable' to them. Jealous of his allegiance to another monarch, James II granted a new Scottish Earldom of Caithness under a charter dated 28 August 1455. So William became the first earl under Scottish Law but was also the thirty-ninth holder of the title.

In 1470 William had to surrender the title of Earl of Orkney as Orkney and Shetland were given to James III of Scotland as a dowry on his marriage to Princess Margaret of Denmark. He is best known as the founder of the exquisitely beautiful Rosslyn Chapel in 1446 the design and workmanship of which is renowned throughout the world and which was built entirely with private funds. His son, William, became the second (and fortieth holder of the title of) Earl of Caithness and built Girnigoe Castle. Given what his father had created at Roslin it is no surprise that, probably using many of the same masons, the walls at Girnigoe appear to rise seamlessly out of the perpendicular cliffs.

He also started to build the Castle of Knockinnon in order to protect his lands from invaders across the Ord of Caithness, the border with Sutherland, to the south. He answered James IV's call to arms against the English and marched from Girnigoe with three hundred men to Flodden in 1513. Unlike some who fled from the field he stood his ground at the head of his men, all of whom were killed. The Earl with his men attired in green had crossed the Ord on a Monday on their way south and for many years no Sinclair would cross it on that day wearing green.

His son John (third and forty-first) inherited the title and in 1529 with a force of five hundred men set out to settle a family dispute in Orkney which had become one of bitter animosity. Although no longer earls there the family held sway in the islands if not de jure control and his mother held the tack of crown lands in Orkney and Shetland. At Summerdale, four miles north of Kirkwall, the two armies met and Sir James Sinclair with Orcadian support routed the Earl who with his men was killed. Such a disaster so soon after Flodden was a crushing blow to the family and to the sparsely populated county which had lost many of its best young men.

George (fourth and forty second), his son, inherited and sat first as a Peer in Parliament in 1542. Later in 1566 and 1567 two charters were granted appointing him justiciary for the north of Scotland from Meikle Ferry to the Pentland Firth. Also in 1567 he acted as Chancellor of the jury at the trial of the Earl of Bothwell for the murder of Lord Darnley where the verdict was one of acquittal. He inherited from his ancestors a desire to build. The old church of Wick (St. Fergus), the remains of which are known as the 'Sinclair aisle' was one of his creations as was Barrogill Castle. This is where the family lived after Girnigoe and Sinclair were partially destroyed. It is now known as the Castle of Mey and is the home of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. He is alleged to have kept his son John prisoner in miserable captivity in the grim dungeon at Girnigoe Castle for seven years. One account is that having been starved he was fed on salt beef and given nothing to drink. A variation is that he was given copious amounts of brandy and died raving mad as a result. More reliable historians claim that although imprisoned for a time he died in his own bed at Knockinnon Castle.

Continuous feuds with the Sutherlands and Mackays are a hallmark of these times and fortunes swung from one side to the other. In 1588 George (fifth and forty-third), the next Earl who had inherited from his grandfather prudently shut himself up 'within the iron walls of Girnigoe Castle' during one particularly difficult raid by the Sutherlands. After laying siege to Girnigoe for twelve days without making any impression Lord Sutherland went on the rampage in the surrounding district. However it was this Earl who improved and modernised Girnigoe and in particular had the very fine oriel window built by French masons. He erected the finest nobleman's seat in the north of Scotland by the addition of an outer ward to Girnigoe known as Sinclair Castle. Although known by two names it was all one great single dwelling.

He also rebuilt Keiss Castle, which also overlooks Sinclairs Bay. Money was increasingly a problem so he engaged his own coiner called Arthur Smith and for seven or eight years minted his own money in a secret location at Girnigoe. Once more there was trouble at hand just to the north in the Orkneys but this time the earl was more successful and put down the rebellion against the crown by the then Earl of Orkney, the notorious Patrick Stewart.

A third tragedy to follow Flodden and Summerdale was the ill-fated expedition by many Sinclairs to fight for the King of Sweden. On their way through Norway in 1612 they were ambushed at Kringen Pass, ironically in that part of Norway where Rognvald once held sway. The battle was short and decisive with the Scots, led by another George Sinclair routed with many killed. Sadly in 1623 Sir Robert Gordon of Sutherland occupied Girnigoe and Sinclair for a period and burnt all the documents that were there, which is why so few survive from that time.

Earl George's son, Lord Berriedale, and grandson, the Master of Berriedale, predeceased him and when he died aged seventy-eight his great grandson also called George (sixth and forty-fourth earl) inherited. The Sinclair fortunes had waned and the debts were increasing with the large estates encumbered. Many of the family homes were damaged by Cromwell's troops, of which seventy foot and fifteen horse were garrisoned at Girnigoe and for which no compensation was made. Nevertheless he built another new castle at Thurso. When he died one of his principal creditors, James Campbell of Glenorchy seized the estates, assumed the title and married George's widow. The rightful heir George Sinclair of Keiss immediately contested this. Glenorchy marched north and in 1680 the last clan battle was fought. The day before the battle the Campbells wilfully stranded a ship containing a large amount of whisky near Wick. This prize was duly seized by the Sinclairs who set about enjoying the spoils. With the Sinclairs not in the best state to fight a battle and not as well trained, the next day at Altimarlach, about four miles from Wick, proved one sided.

George Sinclair did not give up and continued to harry Glenorchy. Before he was granted the earldom (seventh and forty-fifth) to which he was entitled he attacked in 1690 Glenorchy's garrison at Girnigoe. This time with cannon the castles were taken but in the bombardment were heavily damaged. With a number of other castles in which to live he did not rebuild Girnigoe which was never again inhabited.

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