Origins of the clan
The Sinclairs were a noble family which has its origins in Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, in Normandy, France. William “The Seemly” Sinclair, among others, accompanied William the Conqueror in 1066 on his invasion of England. He also accompanied Margaret, daughter of Edward the Exile to Scotland in 1068, where she eventually married Malcolm III of Scotland. In return for his efforts, the king supposedly granted Sinclair the barony of Roslin “in free heritage”.
Battle of Alnwick, Northumbria England, 1093. Sir Henry Sinclair (1060 - 1110) led a successful attack on England at Alnwick Castle. After the battle during a ceremony where the keys to the castle were to be handed over to the Scottish King an Englishman speared Malcolm III of Scotland to death. Today the castle still remains a very impressive fort with a central keep and a massive encircling wall.
Battle of the Standard, 1138. Here Sir Henry Sinclair (1100 - 1165) won high distinction in defending Scotland and was rewarded lands in Cardaine. He was later sent to England as a Scottish ambassador to resolve land disputes. He also succeeded in claiming back Northumberland for Scotland.
Legend has it that the Earls of Caithness engaged in a long succession of feuds with their neighbours and within the family. Many of the clan’s most notable battles were between them and the Clan Sutherland. Rebellion of the Sinclairs, 1222. This Sinclair rebellion does not seem to have been recorded in any chronicle or record accounts and is completely unknown to scholars of the period. The origins of the story probably rest in 18th century romantic literature. The story goes that the trouble was over tithes imposed by the Bishop of Caithness whose seat was at Dornoch, and is probably based on a diocesan dispute resolved by King Alexander. The Sinclair Earls of Caithness (according to the story, but in fact the Sinclairs would not become northern landowners for another century) had long resented the fact that the bishopric was under Sutherland control and decided to exploit the discontent over tithes, to get rid of the bishop and have the seat moved. There was soon a riot, said to be incited by Sinclair gold. The unfortunate bishop was roasted alive and his cathedral was set on fire. The rioters then headed north to join up with their Sinclair allies. Once again the Lord of Sutherland was given responsibility by the crown for restoring law and order, and for punishing Sinclair for his instigation of the incident. The Sutherland force was gathered and the far northeast was laid waste in a campaign of revenge and repression. Wick and Thurso were burned and the Sinclair stronghold razed to the ground. Eighty men were tried at a summer court session at Golspie and there was strict punishment for the rioters. Four of the ringleaders were roasted and then fed to the town dogs for good measure.
The Scottish-Norwegian War
Battle of Largs 1263. Sir William Sinclair (1190 – 1270) led the soldiers of King Alexander III of Scotland to repel the last Norwegian invasion. Today a column marks the spot where the battle took place. Every September a Viking festival celebrates the event.
Battle of Lewes, 1264. Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, England had gained great influence over other barons and bishops. They drew up the Provisions of Oxford. King Henry III objected. Civil war broke out. The rebellious barons won, capturing the King. After years of conflict the Crown was returned to his son Edward. King Alexander III of Scotland had ordered Sir William Sinclair to assist King Henry III in a bloody victory. Sinclair escaped unharmed.
Wars of Scottish Independence
Battle of Dunbar, 1296, Sir William Sinclair of Rosslyn was captured and died later, probably in the Tower of London. Henry his son was also captured and later sent to St. Briavels Castle.
Battle of Stirling Bridge, 1297. This battle, was about a mile north of Stirling. The castle was recaptured from England’s King Edward I, by the Scottish at the end of 1299, a year after William Wallace was replaced as Guardian of Scotland by Robert Bruce, Earl of Caqrrick and John II Comyn, Lord of Badenoch.
Battle of Roslin, 1303, Scots under John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, defeated an English force at Roslin Glen in two, possibly three, separate engagements.
Battle of Loudon Hill, 1307, King Robert the Bruce assisted by Henry Sinclair of Rosslyn defeated the English.
Battle of Bannockburn, 1314. Contrary to myths of 18th Century origin, Sir William Sinclair (1300 – 1330) did not lead Knights Templar into that battle. He also signed a truce for permanent peace between Robert the Bruce of Scotland and King Edward II of England.
Battle of Donibristle, 1317 William Sinclair, Bishop of Dunkeld, rallies Scots army to defeat an English invading force in Fife.
Battle of Teba Sir William Sinclair, heir to Henry, and his brother John are among the Scots killed attempting to carry Bruce’s heart to the Holy Land. They were buried in Rosslyn Chapel.
Battle of Neville’s Cross, 1346, Sir John Sinclair of Herdmanston is taken prisoner after the battle.
In 1379, the family obtained the Earldom of Orkney, and in the 1455 received land in Caithness. The earldom of Orkney was later resigned by order of King James III of Scotland.
Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney
Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, Baron of Roslin, and Lord of Shetland (c.1345-c.1400), was a Scottish explorer and nobleman. He is sometimes identified by the alternative spelling Henry St Clair. He was the grandfather of William Sinclair, the builder of Rosslyn Chapel. He is also noted for being the subject of legend that he undertook early explorations of Greenland and North America in about the year 1398. According to a biography published many years after his death, he died in battle against the English around the year 1400.
Henry II Sinclair, Earl of Orkney
Henry II Sinclair, Earl of Orkney was taken prisoner leading his tenants and associates against the English at Battle of Homildon Hill in 1402 but was soon released. In 1406 he escorted Prince James to France but the ship was captured by the English. Both were imprisoned in the Tower of London. In 1407 he escaped or was released on payment of a ransom from the Tower.
William Sinclair, 1st Earl of Caithness
William Sinclair, Earl of Caithness and Orkney, and Baron of Roslin, the head of the Sinclair family split the family lands, giving the lands of Caithness to his elder son William Sinclair, 2nd Earl of Caithness in 1476, and the lands at Roslin to his younger son. It was around this point that the spelling “Sinclair” came into general use, although the Earls of Roslin still prefer to use the older form of “St. Clair”.
16th century clan conflicts & Anglo-Scottish wars
Battle of Flodden Field, 1513. During the Anglo-Scottish Wars, William Sinclair, 2nd Earl of Caithness was one of the nobles fighting for King James IV of Scotland. He had previously sat in Parliament. In battle King James observed Sir William leading his followers, all wearing green. The King asked and found they were of Caithness, led by the Earl. King James wrote the renewal of Sir William’s Earldom on a drumhead, the only parchment available. The drumhead was carried by runner to Sir William’s lady. Sir William died in battle the next day, leaving the Earldom to his son John. William, 2nd Earl helped lead the right wing of the Scottish army army that beat the English left wing. Unlike some he returned to help the rest of the Scots and was killed. There was a loss of 300 Sinclairs including George Sinclair of Keiss, Henry 3rd Lord Sinclair, Sir John Sinclair of Herdmanston, The Bishop of Caithness as well as King James IV of Scotland.
Battle of Somersdale, 1529, May, at the , John Sinclair, 3rd Earl of Caithness (1490 – 1529) 3rd Earl of Caithness, died leading 500 men to help James Sinclair defend the Orkneys. He was succeeded by his son George Sinclair 4th Earl of Caithness. William, 4th Lord Sinclair was taken prisoner.
Battle of Solway Moss, 1552, Scots, commanded by Oliver Sinclair of Pitcairns were beaten by the English and Oliver Sinclair was taken prisoner, he died in 1560.
In 1568 Henry 3rd Lord Sinclair assisted Mary Queen of Scots to escape from Lochleven Castle.
In 1570 John Sinclair, Master of Caithness, son of George Sinclair 4th Earl of Caithness burned the Cathedral in pursuit of men from the Clan Murray who had taken refuge in the steeple. John was later imprisoned in Sinclair & Girnigoe Castle by his father until 1577.
Battle of Dail-Riabhach, 1576, involving the Clan MacKay and Clan Sinclair.
Battles of Allt Camhna and Leckmelm, 1586, involving the Clan Sinclair, Clan MacKay, Clan Gunn, Clan Sutherland and Clan MacLeod.
Battle near Wick, 1588. Alexander Gordon, 12th Earl of Sutherland divorced his obnoxious Sinclair wife in 1573. He waged all out war with her father and Clan Sinclair before gaining a decisive victory outside Wick in 1588, when more than a hundred Sinclair clansmen were killed in a pitched battle on the seashore. Earl Alexander later married Jean Gordon, the divorced wife of the Earl of Bothwell, third husband to Mary Queen of Scots. The Sinclair’s Girnigoe Castle withstood a siege by the Earl of Sutherland and his forces of the Clan Sutherland in 1588. In 1589 George Sinclair 4th Earl invades and ravishes the lands of the Clan Sutherland.
In 1592 3rd April George 5th Earl of Caithness resigned Earldom in return for novodamus and remainder to his son William Sinclair. On 11th December William Sinclair of Mey was knighted by King James VI of Scotland.
17th Century Clan Conflicts & Civil War
In 1601, 21st October, Henry 5th Lord Sinclair died and was succeeded by grandson Henry.
In 1606, George 5th Earl of Caithness, was, by an Act of Parliament allowed to change the name of Girnigoe Castle to Sinclair Castle. See: Sinclair & Girnigoe Castle.
Battle of Kringen, 1612, Otta, Norway, George Sinclair was killed with most of his men in an ambush.
In 1614 Henry Sinclair Wadsetter (1570 – 1614) died leading 100 men to besiege the Kirkwall Castle. He became paralyzed and died at night. Kirkwall Castle was an Orkney waterfront stronghold built by Prince Henry 1390.
In 1650 James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose was defeated at the Battle of Carbisdale. He was supported by the Sinclairs and Major Sinclair helped Montrose to escape but he was later betrayed by MacLeod of Assynt, imprisoned in Ardvreck Castle, tried and killed.
At the Battle of Dunbar (1650) Sir William Sinclair of Rosslyn was killed leading the Clan Sinclair. He was the last Knight to be buried in full armour below Rosslyn Chapel. General Monk sacked Rosslyn Castle but the Chapel was spared although used for stabling horses. Sir John Sinclair of Rosslyn sent to Tynemouth Castle.
In 1651 at the Battle of Worcester the Clan Sinclair led by John 9th Lord Sinclair fought for King Charles II. John Sinclair was captured by Cromwell’s forces Imprisoned in the Tower of London and then at Windsor Castle until 1660 when he was liberated by General Monck.
Battle of Altimarlech, 1678. A battle took place between Clan Campbell and Clan Sinclair. Legend has it that so many Sinclairs were killed that the Campbells were able to cross the river without getting their feet wet. Clearly, however, the Sinclairs had influence in high places as only a few years later, in 1681, they regained the earldom by an order of Parliament.
In 1657 George Sinclair 6th Earl of Caithness was present when Oliver Cromwell was proclaimed Chief Magistrate of the three nations in Edinburgh.
In 1698 George Sinclair 7th Earl of Caithness died. He was succeeded by John Sinclair of Murchill (Murkle) 8th Earl, his cousin.
18th Century & Jacobite Uprisings
During the 1715 Jacobite Risings the Clan Sinclair supported the Jacobite cause, however by the time of the 1745 Jacobite Rising the Sinclairs supported the British Hanoverian Government.
1715 Jacobite Rising
In 1708 Chief John, Master of Sinclair (Son of Henry Lord Sinclair) Kills Ensign Schaw and Captain Alexander Schaw in duels. He was exiled to Prussia but later pardoned by Queen Anne of Great Britain.
In 1715 John Master of Sinclair captured a vessel with 420 stand of arms bound for the for the Earl of Sutherland.
In 1715 at the Battle of Sheriffmuir David Sinclair of Brabsterdorran fights for Jacobite cause, as did John, Master of Sinclair who fled to Orkney and then to Europe.
In 1733, 3rd November, John Sinclair of Murkle the younger son of John 8th Earl created Lord Murkle.
In 1736 Sir James Sinclair glazed the windows for the first time of Rosslyn Chapel, relaid the floor with flagstones and repaired the roof of the chapel.
In 1736 Sir James Sinclair of Rosslyn resigned his office as hereditary Grand Master Mason of Scotland to the Scottish Lodges on their foundation. He was later Reappointed for his life.
In 1739, 17th June, Major Malcolm Sinclair ‘A good and faithful servant of Sweden‘ was charged with affairs of State, he was assassinated at Grunberg in Siesia by agents of Czarina Anna of Russia.
1745 Jacobite Rising
In 1745, 04th June, Sir James Sinclair of Rosslyn, a Lieutenant general with The Royal Scots was appointed the Commander of the British Forces in Flanders.
In 1746, 16th April, at the Battle of Culloden. Sir James Sinclair of Rosslyn commanded The Royal Scots on the British Hanoverian government side. About 500 Caithness Sinclairs were ready to join the Jacobites, but instead followed their chief James Sinclair, who supported the Hanoverians.
In 1750 Sir William Sinclair of Dunbeath Founded Baptist Church at Keiss.
In 1759, Lt. A. Sinclair Carried the Colours for General Wolfe at the Battle of the Heights of Abraham. He later became a Major General.
In 1761, 10-Mar, Sir James Sinclair M.P. who should have been 11th Lord Sinclair was gazetted a General.
In 1777, 29-Dec, at the Battle of Charlestown, Virginia, USA John Sinclair, son and heir of William, a Major in 76th Foot wounded in the groin by a musket ball when reconnoitring with Sir Henry Clinton.
A number of Scottish castles are associated with the Sinclairs. Some were built by them, and some they came to possess.
Roslin Castle, in Midlothian, is considered to be the earliest seat of the Sinclairs in Scotland. It was probably begun by Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney (c.1345-c.1400). His family also built the famed Rosslyn Chapel nearby.
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is perhaps the best-known Sinclair Castle. It was dramatically situated on the cliffs just outside Wick. Although now ruined, it is well worth a visit and it still contains both a secret chamber in the vaulting of the kitchen ceiling and a grim dungeon where, it is said, the 4th Earl of Caithness imprisoned his son and heir and fed him salt beef so that eventually he died mad with thirst.
Castle of Mey is another former Sinclair property which although was originally known as the Castle of Mey, its name was changed for a time to Barrogill Castle. It was built by George Sinclair, 4th Earl of Caithness. In 1952 the castle was purchased by HM The Queen Mother who changed its name back to Castle of Mey.
Sinclairs have owned, at one time or another, a great many Scottish castles, including Ackergill Tower, Braal Castle, Brims Castle, Dunbeath Castle, Keiss Castle, and the Castle of Old Wick.
The Sinclair tartan.
Clan Chief: Malcolm Ian Sinclair, 20th Earl of Caithness
Crest badge: Note: the crest badge is made up of the chief’s heraldic crest and motto,
Chief’s motto: Commit thy work to God (sometimes styled as Latin “Revela Domino opera tua”)
Chief’s crest: A cock rampant
Clan Plant Badge: Whin
Lands: Midlothian, Orkney and Caithness
Gaelic Name: Mac na Ceardadh
Origin of Name: Placename, French de Sancto Claro
Pipe Music: Spaidsearachd Mhic nan Cearda (The Sinclair’s March)
The archives for the Sinclair Family Papers are maintained by the Archives of the University of Glasgow (GUAS).