The Murder of The Master of Caithness

Caithness Castle - the castle ruins are perched high on the cliff above the storm-tossed crags of Noss Head.

Caithness Castle – the castle ruins are perched high on the cliff above the storm-tossed crags of Noss Head.

On a rocky prominence 60 feet above the sea, stand the isolated, gaunt ruins of Sinclair and Girnigoe Castles, the ancient home of the Earls of Caithness. From this grim fortress a few miles north of Wick, a succession of pragmatic, ruthless and self-seeking lairds ruled their domains with feudal authority and harsh justice.

Hardly a square yard of Caitness remains unsullied by the blood of various angry confrontations. For nearly 200 years the north was riven with the feuds and squabbles of the principal Caithness families in their never-ending quest for land, money and power:
“Sinclair, Sutherland, Keith and Clan Gunn
There never was peace where these four were in.”
The spectacular ruins, perched high on the cliff above the storm-tossed crags of Noss Head, serve as a grim reminder of these turbulent times. From a distance the castles are barely discernible, merging into the gray background of their surroundings, but as one approaches over the wet, green fields, the dark stones dominate the skyline, ominous and magnificent.

The twin ruins were all but impregnable and still crowd the crest of the 400-yard-long, narrow peninsula jutting out into the cold waters of the North Sea. Castle Girnigoe was completed first, toward the end of the 15th century, and castle Sinclair was added about 100 years later.

Because Castle Sinclair is closer to the land, it has suffered less from the attention of vandals than Castle Girnigoe. Large sections remain impressively intact. The dungeon may still be entered by a flight of broken steps. It is a dreadful place, dank and foul-smelling, illuminated by the fitful light from a narrow window slit in the damp wall. It was in this cell that one of the blackest deeds in the castle’s history was enacted.

During the middle of the 16th century, George Sinclair was the 4th Earl of Caithness; a man of boundless ambition and an important figure in the political affairs of his time. Although it was never proved, it is suspected he had a hand in the murder of his neighbours, the Earl and Countess of Sutherland. They were poisoned while staying at their hunting lodge near Helmsdale.

Isobel Sinclair, a servant in the house and related to the Caithness Earl, was convicted of the crime but escaped execution by committing suicide the night before her officially planned exit from life. George Sinclair then moved quickly to obtain the guardianship of the young successor to the Sutherland lands. He married the youth off to his own 30-year-old daughter, Barbara.

Convinced that his avaricious father-in-law planned to have him murdered as well, the young Earl of Sutherland fled to friends in Morayshire. In a towering rage, George Sinclair ordered his son, John, the Master of Caithness, to visit Sutherland in a hurry and teach the inhabitants a lesson they would not forget. Consequently, in company with the chief of the Strathnaver MacKays, John marched south to do his father’s bidding and laid siege to the town of Dornoch.

After several weeks and many bloody battles, John managed to secure from the beleaguered Dornoch townsfolk concessions and hostages against their future good behaviour and subservience to the Earl of Caithness. But his father was made of sterner stuff. He wanted neither concessions nor hostages, but rather Sutherland itself. He refused to ratify the agreement and ordered his son to put the hostages to death and burn the town.

Strange as it may seem in these harsh times, neither John nor Strathnaver were inclined to carry out the brutal instructions of the Earl. Instead, while other more loyal subjects put the Dornoch captives to the sword and set fire to the town, the Master of Caithness and Strathnaver fled to the west – to the wilds of the Forest of Reay – to escape the Earl’s wrath. John Sinclair lived there for a number of years and married Strathnaver’s sister, who bore him a son. However, John’s father kept sending him conciliatory letters, assuring his son of forgiveness and begging him to return home. Eventually, John agreed to do so. He could not have intended to stay long with his father because he left his new wife and young son in Strathnaver. Accompanied only by MacKay, John set off on the long journey to his father’s house and reconciliation.

As the two men approached the drawbridge, Mackay became uneasy, noticing an unusually large number of armed men in the courtyard. Wheeling his horse, he called out a warning to his friend. It was too late. Mackay escaped, but John was thrown into the dungeon, there to remain: “keiped in miserable captivity for the space of seaven yeirs.”

There is no record of the Earl ever having a discussion with his son during the whole of John’s imprisonment. The Earl was certain that his son and MacKay had been plotting his over-throw. The old man also was enraged that John had produced an heir, the rightful claimant of the Earldom, before he himself and his new wife had the opportunity of having a child of their own.

Although John Sinclair was famous for his remarkable strength, it is astonishing that he lasted seven years in his freezing cell.  He was kept fettered and chained to the dungeon wall and fed only enough to keep him alive.  John’s first jailer was a man named Murdo Roy who sympathised with the Master’s plight.  John eventually managed to persuade Roy to help him escape.

Stairs To Dungeon

Stairs To Dungeon

Unfortunately, John’s younger brother, William, discovered the plot and exposed the scheme to the Earl, no doubt hoping for approval from his father.  Within minutes, the Earl had Murdo Roy’s head removed from his shoulders.  The grisly object adorned the castle wall for weeks, as a warning to any others disposed to come to the assistance of his imprisoned son.

When the Earl went off to Edinburgh to attend to affairs of state, William couldn’t resist the opportunity of visiting his wretched brother to gloat over his misfortune.  Captive though he was, bound and chained.  John leapt upon his brother and crushed him to death.  The Earl was horrified and two additional jailers were employed – the brothers James and Ingram Sinclair.  They were left in little doubt as to the kind of treatment they should mete out to their charge.

Thus, the stage was set for the final act in this tragedy.  It was decided the Master of Caithness should be starved.  The only person who could have given such an order was the Earl himself.  John was deprived of food for five days and then presented with large quantities of well-salted beef.  After the starving man devoured the beef, and the resultant thirst tightened his throat, he begged to be given water to ease his thirst.

But he begged in vain.  John died in a tormented agony of pain and raging thirst, choked to death by his own swelling tongue.  The murdered man was buried in the mall church his father had recently completed in Wick.  The tombstone gives no clue to the terrible circumstances surrounding his passing:  “ane noble worthy man who departed this life of 15 March 1576.”

When the 4th Earl died, the title passed to the son of the Murdered Master of Caithness.  The new Earl was not one to let his Father’s murder go unavenged.  He was determined that the jailers, the Sinclair brothers should pay for their deed.  He waited until the morning of James Sinclair’s wedding.  First, he killed brother Ingram, the best man, running him through with a sword; then he shot dead brother James.  Satisfied, the Earl rode back to his castle fortress on the cliffs.  Nobody ever tried to make him pay for his crime  and he went unpunished.

The body of the old Earl lies in Roslin Chapel, near Edinburgh, but, at his own request, his heart was removed and taken north to be buried at Wick.  It was interred next to the remains of his murdered son. They lie there in uneasy slumber to this day.


About Amanda Moffet

I run with Rodger Moffet. Live in Edinburgh and love travelling around Scotland gathering stories.

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5 thoughts on “The Murder of The Master of Caithness

  1. Julie E

    Wow, thank you for the great story! I am an American, and recently discovered two ancestors named Sinclair (David P of Forres and John Earl, USA I think). How thrilling!

  2. Susan MacIntosh

    Hi I believe we may have visited this castle while we were in John O’Groats this past May, It was told to us that this was a 1000 year old viking castle and that it was given to the Mowatts in 1314 by Robert the Bruce, is this the same castle or another one? I am comparing my pictures and they are similar. Thanks

  3. D.N. Mason

    This is such a great story. Filled with everything I imagined it would be. I was curious about my name and surnames in the past they all seem to point to the Sinclair clan. I am a Mason- on my mother’s side and Gordon and Jones. I took the DNA test and it confirmed my suspicions. Definitely Scottish!!!!. They also got around the world …if you know what I mean. I was watching a show on castle renovations and wondered if they had the Mason clan had castles. I used to play with one as a child. A weeble wobble castle. ha, ha…weird funny.
    Learning a lot. I hope i get to visit one of these ancestrial homes. Thanks

  4. Fred Sutherland

    Fred William S.II Great story Sutherland clan made it to the mountains of Virginia! There we spread out everywhere!

  5. Marie Macpherson

    Hi Amanda,
    Thank you for you most interesting story of John, Master of Caithness and his terrible demise. I’m so grateful for that kind of fascinating, detailed description. While researching the life of Jean Hepburn, sister of James the 4th Earl of Bothwell, I was most intrigued to learn here that John had married Strathnaver’s sister.
    Can you tell me if his first wife, died or did they divorce so that he could marry Jean on 12 August 1566? She was “granted her conjunct fee as the new spouse of John, master of Caithness” and bore him four children. She later married Archibald Douglas as her 3rd husband. Many thanks in anticipation.


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