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Issue 33 - A noble and ancient family (Sinclairs)

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Scotland Magazine Issue 33
June 2007


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A noble and ancient family (Sinclairs)

James Irvine Robertson looks at the history of the Sinclairs, a clan with its roots deep in the soil of Scottish history

The origin of the Sinclairs, in the male line at least, is conventional enough.

The first of the family was said to be a kinsman of William of Normandy and came over with him to acquire England in 1066.

This progenitor took his name from St Clair sur Epte, a village heavily contested in the days following D-Day, where he held land.

Having issues with William the Conqueror, however, William ‘The Seemly’ St Clair accompanied the Saxon Princess Margaret Atheling to Scotland in 1068, where he was given territory of Rosslyn east of Edinburgh.

His son, Sir Henry St Clair, became a close confidant of David I, and two centuries later, another Sir Henry, 7th Baron of Rosslyn, was triumphant when the army of Edward I of England was decimated at the Battle of Roslin Glen, a victory often overlooked in Scottish history.

This Sir Henry’s son, another William, fought with Bruce at Bannockburn and was one of the signatories of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320. And, in one of the great romantic tales of Scots history, his son, yet another Sir William, joined the Black Douglas in 1330 to fulfill the deathbed request of King Robert Bruce for his heart to be taken on a crusade. They travelled to Spain, Douglas with his king’s heart strung round his neck in a silver casket. There they joined Alfonso of Castile to fight the heathen Moors. The forces met near Teba in southern Spain when the charge of the 25 Scottish knights split the army of the Moors. Sir William was isolated and beset by enemies. Douglas spurred his horse to the rescue, hurled the heart into the thick of the foe and followed it with the cry ‘Forward, dear heart.’ Both men were overwhelmed and killed; the heart was retrieved by the surviving Scots and brought back to Scotland to be buried in Melrose Abbey.

So the St Clairs were part of the establishment of Lowland medieval Scotland. The path to becoming the Highland Clan Sinclair, however, began with the marriage in the next generation between Sir Henry St Clair to Elizabeth, heiress to the earldom of Orkney. In 1379 their son became the Norwegian Jarl or Earl of Orkney, holding the islands from King Haco VI. As well as still holding Rosslyn, the family was now a mighty power in the north.

In 1391 Henry St Clair, Jarl of Orkney, conquered the Faroe Islands. His son, another Henry, was twice captured by the English – at Homildon Hill in 1402 and with the young James I on his voyage to France in 1406. William, the third Earl, was one of the hostages for the ransom of James I in 1421. In 1436, as High Admiral of Scotland, he escorted James’s daughter to her marriage with the Dauphin, afterwards Louis XI of France. From 1454 to 1456 he was Chancellor of Scotland. And William built the remarkable Rosslyn Chapel alongside his great castle south of Edinburgh.

The betrothal of James III to Margaret of Norway in 1468 brought Orkney and Shetland to the Scottish crown and, in compensation for his lost islands, William received the earldom of Caithness and the rich lands of Dysart, with the castle of Ravenscraig in Fife.

However, on his death he split the family estates. His Fife lands he passed to his inadequate elder son who, nonetheless, sired a long run of Lord St Clairs. His second son received Rosslyn and its new chapel. This line later became the earls of Rosslyn. And his third son became 2nd Earl of Caithness and Chief of the Highland Clan. It was at this time that the spelling of the surname of this branch of the family changed to Sinclair, while the Lowland line remained St Clair. The 2nd Earl died at the head his followers in 1513 at the Battle of Flodden.

His successors had mixed fortunes, largely of their own making. The 5th Earl of Caithness enjoyed bloody quarrels with his neighbours, the Gunns and the Gordon earls of Sutherland. He also feuded with the Mackays. After hundreds of men were killed, letters of fire and sword were issued against him and he fled to Shetland for refuge.

He died in his bed an old man and passed on his debts and his earldom to his grandson who fell foul of Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy, a man famously ‘as cunning as a fox, wise as a serpent and supple as an eel.’ Glenorchy, from Perthshire, about as far from Caithness as possible yet still in the Highlands, bought the Earl’s estate, his debts, his office of Sheriff and then married his widowed Countess. Then Glenorchy claimed the earldom and received it from Charles II.

The Sinclair chieftains disputed his right to the title but they lost the subsequent battle when the Campbells sent 1100 men north who comfortably settled in Caithness for three years, fed and housed by the locals.

But King Charles was soon persuaded he had made a mistake. In 1680 he made Glenorchy surrender the earldom of Caithness, recompensing him at the same time by creating him Earl of Breadalbane.

George Sinclair of Keiss thereafter became 7th Earl of Caithness.

The Sinclairs, then capable of raising 1,000 men, largely avoided trouble in the Jacobite Risings but the honour of the earldom and chief of the clan continued to bounce around various branches of the family. It has now settled upon Malcolm, the 20th Earl, onetime British Government minister under Margaret Thatcher.

The Clan Sinclair has produced many great men. Sir John Sinclair of Ubster may have had the greatest influence on his nation. He was one of the outstanding figures of the Enlightenment, the greatest improver of Scottish agriculture, founder and president of the Board of Agriculture, and compiler of that indispensable work, the Statistical Account of Scotland. In 1794, he raised from among the clansmen two Fencible regiments each 1,000 strong.

Like his grandfather, Lord Sinclair, the 3rd Viscount Thurso, represents the clan heartland as Member of Parliament for Caithness and Sutherland. He and Sir Patrick Sinclair of Dunbeath are vice-presidents of the Clan Sinclair Society. The chief is the president, and he also runs the Clan Sinclair Trust, with Prince Charles as its patron, which looks after the spectacular ruins of Girnigoe Castle, built by his forebears five centuries ago.