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Issue 35 - The most ancient earldom in Scotland

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Scotland Magazine Issue 35
November 2007


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The most ancient earldom in Scotland

James Irvine Robertson turns his attention to the Clan Sutherland, one of the country's most ancient (and notorious) clans

Like all clans, the Sutherlands have had their ups and downs. For the best part of two centuries, they were cadets of the Gordons.

The horrors of the Sutherland Clearances are part of the folklore of the Highlands, spread around the world by those forced from their homes. And yet, Lord President Forbes in his memorial to the Government before the 1745 Jacobite Rising, stated that the clan could field 2,000 men, a figure beaten by only the dukes of Argyll and Atholl.

The remarkable honour of the clan – and what led to its difficulties – lies in its Chief holding the most ancient earldom in Scotland. Such earldoms can, uniquely, be inherited through women should the male line fail.

And three times in its history has this happened to the earldom of Sutherland, allowing the title to pass to the Countess’s sons of another surname. Such a marriage by Elizabeth, the 10th holder of the title in 1500 to Adam Gordon, second son of the 2nd Earl of Huntly, gave their son Alexander overwhelming power in clan country and this was confirmed by James VI, who decreed that the earldom should never leave the surname of Gordon. However, this changed when the 18th Earl took the name of Sutherland and, in 1766, the House of Lords decreed that the earldom should pass once more to his daughter and out of the Gordon family.

Sutherland is a Scottish county – the sudrland (southland) of the Norse – as well as a clan. Its people are said to originate in the Catti tribe who inhabited the region in prehistory. The clan chief’s Gaelic soubriquet echoes this in ‘Great one of the cat.’ Freskin, a knightly incomer from Flanders, received vast estates from the king and sired the Douglas and Murray families. He came north to repel a Viking invasion and, with his force in extremis at the Battle of Embo, the enemy having broken the Scottish formations and himself wounded and weaponless, he managed to kill the opposing commander by smiting him between the eyes. To achieve this, he employed a horseshoe that was still attached to the creature’s leg, and this resulted in a Viking rout. More land and more glory accrued to him.

Freskin’s grandson Hugh was the founder of Clan Sutherland. Alexander II granted his son William the earldom about 1228 for crushing a rebellion by the neighbouring Sinclairs. The 4th Earl was killed leading his men against the English at Halidon Hill in 1333. His successor William was the first to join his brother-in-law David II with his clan – ‘many men-at-arms’ – for the campaign that ended in disaster at Neville’s Cross in 1346.

William died in 1370, perhaps as a consequence of his brother’s murder of the neighbouring McKay chief, which resulted in a four-century feud.

The 6th Earl married a daughter of Alexander Stewart ‘The Wolf of Badenoch,’ and he built the tower still at the centre of Dunrobin Castle, which has since remained as the chief stronghold of the clan. The 8th Earl went mad in 1494. His son was similarly afflicted and, on his death, this gave the Gordons the chance to take possession of the earldom of Sutherland when his wife, Elizabeth, became Countess in her own right.

John, the 16th Earl, inherited the title in 1703 and resumed the ancient name of Sutherland. He and his successor were stalwart in their support of the Protestant Hanoverian line and, in the civil war of the ’45 Rising, they held the north of Scotland for the Government and had the distinction of capturing by assault their own castle of Dunrobin, which had been taken by Lord Cromartie for Prince Charles Edward Stuart.

This was the last time in Britain that a castle was taken in time of war. Nonetheless, after the Battle of Culloden, the clan suffered the same harsh treatment as the rest of Gaeldom, with their way of life destroyed by the draconian laws against their culture.

Lord President Forbes particularly noted the loyalty of the Sutherland clansmen. David Stewart of Garth, writing 20 years after the raising of the Sutherland Highlanders, the 93rd Regiment, in 1800 to fight Napoleon stated that: “None in the Highland Corps is superior to this Regiment’... they are all brave... but they have for 20 years preserved anunvaried line of conduct.” Not one man had been punished since their formation.

It made it the more tragic that Earl John’s infant successor Elizabeth should marry the Marquis of Stafford, perhaps the richest man in England, with wealth from coal and canals and a man with no understanding of Highlanders or the Highlands. His business managers took a look at the books of his wife’s enormous tract of Scotland, and decided to institute improvements and stem the losses.

These improvements included removing unprofitable tenants and replacing them with sheep. Even at the time, the Sutherland Clearances were regarded with horror.

Stewart of Garth, himself a land owner with several thousand Highland acres and several hundred tenants, wrote: “I deprecate the burnings and depopulations of Lady Stafford, she would no doubt be happy to see the cry of Radicalism raised against me – but I care not for her opinion, nor wish to have any opinion or principle in common with a person who has caused such undeserved and general misery among so many thousands of virtuous unoffending human beings.” It seems astonishing that it took so long before the Crofters Act of 1886, the first legislation in the United Kingdom that interfered with the freedom of a landowner to manage his estates, prevented such ruthless actions by Highland landlords.

The Clearances are now part of history and folklore. The Marquis of Stafford was raised to the dukedom of Sutherland. His grandiose statue, contributed to by a grateful tenantry, stands on its hilltop staring out to sea and is now more a memorial to his actions than to himself. It has been joined by a new sculpture by the Black Isle-based sculptor Gerald Ogilvie Laing, at Helmsdale, The Emigrants, which directly commemorates those whom he forced from their lands.

The dukedom has since passed out of the immediate family. Today’s Chief, heading a thriving clan with active societies in Scotland and the USA, is Elizabeth, 24th Countess of Sutherland.