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The Battle of Altimarlach (by Malcolm, Earl of Caithness)

18th September 2014

Published in the Caithness Field Club Bulletin Vol 8 No. 1 - April 2013

The Battle of Altimarlach (by Malcolm, Earl of Caithness)

2010 marked the 330th anniversary of the Battle of Altimarlach on 13th July 1680, near Wick, and as part of our International Clan Gathering that year, the Sinclairs visited the site of the battle to commemorate the event. An account of the battle can be found on the web at ( and this is the story as we were told it.

The background to the dispute is that George 5th Earl of Caithness dissipated a large part of his inheritance before he died in 1643 and that left considerable problems for his great grandson George 6th Earl of Caithness, who inherited from him, and who wished to maintain the lavish lifestyle of his predecessors. His problems were exacerbated by the Scottish Civil War and, following the defeat of Montrose at the Battle of Carbisdale in 1650, the occupation of his castles and houses by Cromwell's troops, which they damaged and for which he was not recompensed. After Castle Sinclair was garrisoned he built himself a new Castle at Thurso East in the 1650's and in 1657 married Mary Campbell, the daughter of the Marquis of Argyll. ‘His debts were said to exceed a million merks' (1) and his main creditor was his fourth cousin, John Campbell of Glenorchy, with whom he got on well and with whom he did a deal by transferring his estates through two dispositions in 1661 and 1672 in exchange for an annuity. He also assigned John Campbell the Earldom of Caithness which that person duly claimed in 1676 when George died. George Sinclair of Keiss, being George 6th Earl's great uncle's son, was a closer blood relative than John Campbell and contested his claim to the lands and title. The case was heard by the leading advocates in Scotland who ruled in favour of Campbell and this was confirmed by The Privy Council. George ignored these rulings and harassed John's agents in Caithness before he marched north, surprised the Sinclairs and in an ambush slaughtered many of them. I had regularly wondered how George, given what had so recently happened, could have been caught so unawares. As a result of checking papers suggested to me by Field Archaeology Specialists Ltd in connection with the work the Clan Sinclair Trust are carrying out at Castle Sinclair Girnigoe a very different story is found.

Following ratification of his claim to the title, John Campbell sought further help and so went to the Monarch. The first relevant papers were a number of copies of a printed Proclamation which he, as The Earl of Caithness, had obtained from the King on 4 March 1680. This set out what ‘certain broken and lawless Men, within Our Shire of Caithness' had done and that any merchant or skipper of a ship who bought or carried any goods belonging to these men would be fined ten pounds for every boll (140 lbs) bought or transported. Every help was to be given to The Earl of Caithness and he had the right to command ferry boats to assist him in his passage. The proclamation was ‘to be Printed, and Published at the Mercat-cross of Aberdeen, Inverness, Thurso, Caithness-Wick, and other Places needful, that all persons concerned may have notice of the same' (2). The Mercat-cross was the central meeting place in towns and cities where all the important announcements were made including Royal proclamations. As a result there could not have been many people who were unaware of what was going on. Moreover John, armed with this proclamation, approached General Dalyell’s (Commander in Chief of the Scottish Army) who, in June of that year, ordered a company of officers and soldiers to be at John Campbell’s disposal and there is a document detailing the charges due and discharged to the Earl of Caithness in the sum of £5,638 - 10 - 0 - a substantial sum of money for the period July to Oct 1680 (3) .

John Campbell, The Earl of Caithness, then marched north not only with his own and his relation’s troops but also with experienced Government soldiers to take control of his estates. There could be no doubt that George would have known what was happening and the next relevant paper I found was written by John Campbell entitled A true account of the Earl of Caithness, his procedure in pursuance of the Commission granted for possessing of him in his estate in Caithness (4). He firstly ‘throws the book at’ and accuses George Sinclair and his accomplices of riots, disorders, convocations, insolences, contempt of authority, abusing and imprisoning his tenants and servants, carrying arms illegally, besieging and destroying his houses, forts and castles and other barbarous acts. He had 700 men and states that George had 600, some of whom went under duress. In early July, having heard of his impending arrival, George marched his troops to Strathmore in the centre of the County through which John would have had to pass on the then road from Dunbeath to Thurso. John was told of this and outflanked him by continuing up the coast. When George heard about it he marched his troops towards John and on July 8th camped within a mile of him and a few shots were fired.

On 9th John sent the herald ‘carrying his Majesty’s coat of arms displayed and on his Majesty’s trumpet’ to read the rules and law to George and men. Such a person would normally be listened to carefully but he was slighted and so John sent over another emissary but he was taken prisoner. He then marched his troops to another place to camp three miles outside Thurso and was shot at by cannon on the way which led to a stand off for some hours. George also moved camp to Thurso and ‘planted several pairs of cannons in the avenues and streets of the town’. Both sides rested on 10th. The next day, being Sunday, John sent hand written notes to all the parish churches stating that all those who left George’s side and went home would not be harmed or prejudiced. He sent the herald to Thurso but he had to flee in a hurry to save his life.

John marched his troops to Wick on Monday 12th where his commission was read but even before the herald had finished George and his men were sighted. John camped the night in the fields around Castle Sinclair to the north of Wick. This was one of the castles George had made uninhabitable in January of that year. The following morning George at about 10.00 tried to attack John where he was with the sea at his back but he quickly marched his men back towards Thurso for a couple of miles with George in pursuit. The description of the battle is brief. ‘I had hardly time to draw up my men when they came up in a full body within musket shot, and gave a great shout, threw up their capes and thereafter having fired their field pieces and therefrom all shot whereby my groom was killed and one of the King’s soldiers and several others wounded they forced us for preservation of our lives to engage them and by God’s blessing did defeat them....’ He claims to have killed about 100 with several wounded and tried to stop his men wreaking revenge after all the provocations and insults they had endured. He claims George was busy rounding up the stragglers in Wick and was just joining his men when the first shots were fired. The battle was short, decisive and one sided. It was over by midday and the George Sinclair was comprehensively beaten.

George continued his ‘battle’ with John and was rightly granted the Earldom of Caithness in 1681 as the title has to go to the nearest male heir but, as compensation for loosing that Earldom, John was made Baron of Wick and Earl of Breadalbane. I have little doubt he was a cruel and hard man or that he was hated in Caithness. "He was as grave as a Spaniard, wise as a serpent, cunning as a fox, and slippery as an eel" (5) wrote General Hugh Mackay (c 1640 to 1692) who was a friend of his. He married Margaret, the widow of the 6th Earl in 1678, also a cousin, and was later involved in the Massacre of Glencoe. He sold his Caithness estates in the early 1700 with part going to the Dunbars and part to the Sinclairs of Ulbster. Even allowing for the fact that John is seeking to portray himself in the best possible light and a compassionate man, his version, to my mind, presents a much more credible version of what actually happened than that found in the ‘history’ books or on the web. The same is true, as we know, of the history of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. My belief is that there was an ambush of sorts due to the lie of the land at Altimarlach and the deep burn there. John was a good commander and he had trained soldiers with him. They had marched past the site on their way to Wick and doubtless realised this was the place to fight. George had pursued John on two occasions so it was likely he would do it a third time and therefore the only question was how to lure him into the right spot. As John retreated past the burn some of his men slipped into the burn which meant that George would be attacked from two sides at once and if he fled downhill there was the river Wick as a barrier - a perfect place for a fight.

It is reported that Altimarlach was the last Clan Battle in Scotland and I was also taught that. One could argue that the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692, despite being primarily caused by religious differences, was also a clan battle but one surely cannot argue that the Keppoch MacDonalds clash against the Mackintoshes at Mulroy on 4 August 1688 was not one. As with the ‘history’ of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe evidence from primary sources has either been ignored or not discovered but this once more proves how much of our ‘history’ and what we were taught as children is fiction. I find the truth, whatever it is, much more interesting.

(1) Sinclairs of the Isles by Roland Sinclair
(2) NAS GD112/58/42/17
(3) NAS GD112/43/14
(4) NAS02024 GD112-58-42-15-0001
(5) Copied from cutting Historical Archives in Wick

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