Clan Sutherland History
The Sutherland's history is overshadowed by the Clearances of 1814 to 1820 and the bitter controversy which followed them. Until that date they were one of the best examples of cooperation between Gaelic clansmen and a non-Gaelic chieftain line. But the Clearances in a mere decade brought about the most spectacular collapse of clan loyalty in Highland history.
The Lairdship os Sutherland forms an instructive paradox. How did the most northerly part of maniland Scotland become known as the southland ? Because to the Norsemen, who first conquered it, it was to the south, not only of their Norwegain homeland but to the south of thier great Scottish provinces which in the 10th and 11th centuries included the whole of the modern counties of Caithness and Sutherland
(which they called sudderland)
Carbisdale Castle, Invershin, Sutherland.
The Sutherland family established itslef by helping to drive them out. Thier first known ancestor was a Flemish mercenarycalled Freskin, who was given a commission by King David the first to gather all the Sutherland Gael's together to clear the Norsemen from the north. Freskin was therefore probably the hero of the first great clan legend - the story of the killing of the last Noreman. The crucial battle whihc we are told took place at Embol near Dornoch, where the Norse chief had gathered all his men in a desperate attempt to reverse the Scottish advance. Indeed the fight at first went the Norsemen's way when they penetrated to the heart of the Scot's formation and cut the Sutherland chief to the ground.
As the chief lay wounded though, he spotted the Norse general coming up to support the attack and, finding a horseshoe conveniently at hand, threw it with all of his force, striking the Noreman square on the forhead and turning the whole battle around.
The Lordship of Sutherland title was first given to one Hugo, who strengthened the family's royal favour by ridding the north of a ferocious robber band whose leader was called Chisholm. Among the other cromes this Chisholm tortured a number of Sutherland churchmen and nailing horseshoes to their feet and making them dance to entertain his followers before putting them to death. On hearing of the outrage King William the Lion ordered Hugho of Sutherland to pursue Chisholm to the death and a great flight ensued nearJohn O'Groats, in which all the robbers were either killed or captured. Chisholm and the other leaders were given a punishment to fit the crime; horse-shoeing and hanging, the rest being castrated " less and succession should spring from so detestable breed"
In 1222 trouble started with a row over rights imposed by the Bishop of Caithness. His seat was at Dornoch and the Sinclaie Earls of Cathness, based at Wick and Thurso, had long resented the fact that the bisopric was under Dornoch, Sutherland control. Therefore, Caithness determined to exploit the discontent to get rid of the bishop and have the seat moved. Soon there was a riot incited by the Caithness supporters and the unfortunate Bishop was roasted alive on his own cow spit. Soon the rioters were headed north. Once again the Lord of Sutherland was given responsibility by the Crown for restoring law and order and punishing Caithness for his instigation of the incident. The far north east was ravaged by a ferocious campaign of revenge and repression. Wick and THurso were burned, and the Caithness stronhold raised to the ground with 80 men beheaded or hanged in a summary court session at Golspie. To the end there wasstrict punshment for the rioters. Four of the ringleaders were roasted on their cow spit and then fed to the crown dogs for good measure. THis campaign set the pattern for centuries to follow.
Sinclair castle, near Wick, Caithness
By 1275 the earls of Sutherland had taken Sutherland as their familt name as well. Their close allies were the bishops of Cathness, the Scottish crown and the Gaelic clansmen around Dornoch and Helmsdale. Thier habitual enemies were the Sinclairs of Cathness, the MacKays from the far north west and the MacLeods of Assynt.
It was the backing of the crown whihc mattered most and this was retained by the Sutherlands through thier services during the war of Independence, culminating in the successof the 5th Earl William, who in 1343 marrried King David Bruce's sister and who won many favours from him, including the overlordship of the MacKay lands of Strthnaver, the captaincy of Dunnottar castle south of Aberdeen and, lastly the very succession to the Scottish crown itself for his son by Margaret Bruce.
Both the latter gifts lapsed since the son died and Dunnottar was given up as too far from the Sutherland homeland, but the expansion into Strathnaver was crucial since it was the first and largest step towards the Sutherland's eventual ownership of almost all of the county which bears their name.
However before that, in 1500 the Gordons took over the Earldom of Sutherland. The long dispute with the MacKays first came to a head in 1372 when the head of one os the junior branches, Nicholas Sutherland, treacherously muredred MacKay and his heir in their beds at Dingwall castle; for both sides has met in an attempt to patch up their quarrel. Much bloodshed followed these killings, inclusing a retaliatory raid on Dornoch in which the much wronged cathedral was once again set on fire and Sutherland men hanged in the town square. After this the feud quietened down as both sides were called away to fight against the English. Robert Sutherland, the sixth Earl, stood with Douglas against Percy at the famous moonlight battle of Otterburn in 1388; and in the lull brought about by the English wars built the strong fortress os Dunrobin so secure himself and his men in future clan conflicts. Hid long chieftanship evejn saw a temporary alliance with the MacKays against the MacLeods who invaded Strathnaver in 1407 after rumours that MacKay was mistrating his wife, a MacLeod heiress. Since both Sutherland and MacKay country was laid waste, the old rivals joined forces as the returned east, catching them somewhere near Loch Shin where the invaders were massacred to the last man. This day became known as the Great Slaughter and gave the Sutherlands the uypper hand in Assynt, completing their domination of local clan rivals, but there was one weakness running through the Sutherland history, always threatening to destroy them. Their line was ancient, although not in the legendary sense of many of the Gaelic families, and the rights to the title and estates were always open to challenge. There was no charter for the Earldom though it was widely recognised to be the oldest in Scotland and there were many obscurities in their descent. It was always possible for a cadet branch, or even a complete outsider, to claim superior descent from some half forgotten ancestor and to successfully challenge the ruling line to show otherwise. This is what happened at the end of the 15th century when the male line was eliminated and the Gordons took over the Earldom.
An early lithograph of Dunrobin Castle.
The central fugure in this change was John Sutherland, eigth Earl who in a long reign of 30 years from 1460 seemed to have secured his house by patching up the MacKay feud again and by eliminating contenders for his position like the two illegitimate brothers he had stabbed while playinf football in 1470. He made a fatal mistake, though, in marrying his daughter Elizabeth to Adam Gordon of Aboyne, younger son of the ambitious Earl of Huntly and a man whose family had a long standing claim to the Sutherland estate. In 1494 Gordon and his wife obatined a claim of idiocy against the Earl, who was kept in close confinement for the next 14 years.
When he died, the same couple had his eldest son declard incapable too, and the estates put into their effective control although officially both title and land reverted to the crown. After Floddin in 1513 when the King and a great many of the great nobles, except the earl of Huntly, were killed, Adam Gordon and his wife had a free hand and were soon styling themselves Earl and Countess of Sutherland.
There was another claimant though, Alexander Sutherland, son of the old Earl by his second marriage. The Goirdons dealt with this threat by having a writ of bastardy written aginst Alexander and banishing him from Sutherland where the calnsmen were dangerously inclined to his cause. A couple of years later Alexander succeeded in raising a force against the new regime and in winning temporary control of Dornoch, but his supporters fled when the Gordon army attacked them, and Alexander was quickly captured and beheaded. His head soon perched upon the loftiest point of the cathedral. This fulfilled the prophecy of a local witch who had told him that his head would be the highest that ever was in Sutherland, although doubtless Alexander himself had interpreted the saying rather differently.
The Caln Sutherland was no part of the Gordopn empire of the north. Its chief remained very concious of the doubtful basis of its tenure. In 1601 they obtained a new grants of regality on vice regal power from James the Sixth, whihc contained the extraordonary provision that should their line fail the Earldom and Estates would pass to another Gordon house with no connestion whatever to the old Sutherland line. AS a result, there was something of a realignment of the north with the disinherited Sutherland cadets allying themselves with the old enemies of the Earldom, the Sinclais and the MacKays; while the Earls turned to their Gordon cousins in Moray and Buchan. The former party had had its first chance to strike in 1562, when Huntly, in rebellion against the reformation, was defeated by the Earl of Moray in Aberdeenshire and the entire Gordon family, including the Earl of Sutherland, decalred forfeit. The Earl of Caithness obtained a right of sequestration on the Sutherland estates and though the Gordons were restored by Queen mary in 1566 there was virtual war all over the district for the next 30 years, and the Sinclairs struggled yet again to get control of the great estates to their south.
Their greatest coup was the assassination of the Earl of Sutherland and his wife at Helmsdale Castle in 1567. This was arranged by Isobel Sinclair, the widow of a Sutherland cadet, who hoped to obtain the estates for her son when the Earl's familycalled at her castle after a days hunting. She prepared a poisoned meal and served it in her private apartment so that she could watch its effect. Unfortunately for her, the Earl's heir, Alexander, had gone back out to continue the hunt. By the time he returned, the Earl and his wife had already begun to feel the poison at work. Staggering to his feet as his son came into the room, the Earl gathered up the entire meal on the tablecloth and threw it from the window saying " we are all poisoned here Alex. Lets back to Dunrobin where the Sinclair bitch can harm us no more!". The plot misfired when Isobel's own son, who had returned to the hunt with Alexander Gordon, went straight to the kitchen where unsuspecting servants gave him the remaining food. He, the Earl and Countess died in horrible agony two days later. Isobel was tried and condemned to hang for the murder, but she cheated the hangman's noose by taking her own life the evening before her execution.
By the end of the 1500's, Gordon and Murray were now the most common surname in the country. The Sutherland name was confined to the few pockets of clansmen immediately subject to survivors of the old line. The land was wild and siolated, especially in winter when the weather invariably closed the few routes to the south. On one occasion the Earl was caught in a blizzard between Dornoch and Dunrobin but wisely declined offers of cheering whisky, preferring a clear heart to a warm throat. Sure enough, one after another, his piper, his chamberlain, his bodyguard and even his serving boy wandered off the track into the snow and were never seen alive again. The Earl alone reached his castle in safety with an understanable vow to never carry whsiky in his ytrain again, whihc doubtless like most vows of its kind in the Highlands was kept only a few months.
The caln began to acquire the reputation for enthusiastic protestantism which distinguished its later history. This is probably what made the Earls begin to distance theselves from their Gordon cousins who were catholics and later Jacobites. In 1702 ther break with Huntly became complete when the chief dropped the Gordon surname and reverted to the territorial title, and soon Sutherlands were spreading again throughout the district as the clansmen in Gaelic fashion adopted their chief's patron image. There is evidence of this process at a Dornoch witch trial in 1722, the last suck case in Scotland, where almost all the court officials were called Sutherland.
The 2nd Jacobite rebellion of 1745
Various factors combined to make the 1745 Jacobite rebellion a complete disaster for the Sutherlanders, despite them being on the winning side. Firstly the Earl failed to raise and arm the clan quickly enough to take effective action against Bonny prince Cahrlie when he was on the islands, thus incurring suspicions of his loyalty in London. Then he was forced to disband his militia as the calnsmen deserted to bring in the harvest, leaving Sutherland open to the rebels when the returned north in February 1746.
This led to the last storming of a fortress in British history when the Jacobite Earl of Cromarty brought 500 rebels against Dunrobin castle, narrowly missing its owner who was forced to escape via a baclk entrance and take ship for Aberdeen, where he joined Cumberland's army. The Earl of Sutherland then spent the next four years in a vain attempt to obtains compensation for the extensive damage done to his estates by the rebels, before dying, prematurely worn out by financial worries in 1750. In fact the only redeeming episode of the '45 for the Sutherland men was the victory gained over the Earl of Cromarty's force as it retreated to join Prince Charlie at Culloden.
Unfortunately the 19th century Sutherland family's estate managers were men of progressive, well intentioned but unshakeably ruthless convictions who believed in the need to replace subsistence farming with a more rational system - sheep on the hills, the population on the coast and fishing and manufacturing. These "improvements" proved drastic in scale and method. Calnsmen were given notice to quit their ancestoral homelands and move to cottage plots onm the coast. When they refused, managers simply burned their houses to the ground, sometimes over the owners heads.
The clansmen rightly felt betrayed by their clan chief as he was supposed to protect them. Their plight was made worse by the failure of the new industries and agriculture on the coast. And so began the great migration of Highland families to all corners of the earth....