|Reconstruction of Girnigoe Castle by Andrew Spratt|
Does power lead to cruelty, or does cruelty lead to power? Did George Sinclair (1527-1582) have the same “bad gene” that turned his great-uncle William Sinclair into the person known in history as “William the Wastrel”? Was it the same gene that turned his grandson, another George and the 5th Earl of Caithness, into the person we know as “the Wicked Earl”? Or were these fellows bad because they lived in cruel times? It’s the age-old Nature v. Nurture debate, I suppose, but there were no niceties of the psychiatrist’s couch in the earl’s time. There was just blunt force.
|Girnigoe Castle Today|
George’s grandfather, William Sinclair, 2nd Earl of Caithness, had added to the Sinclair castles by building Girnigoe Castle three miles north of Wick on the east coast of Scotland. (The spelling Groën gho is found in some documents.) It was a massive beast of a castle of the L-Plan towerhouse type with a massive square multi-storey tower typical in Scotland at the time. Similar castles are known to have had walls 14 feet thick on the ground floor, and since Girnigoe was nearly impregnable until it was attacked in the seventeenth century by Cromwell’s cannons, we can probably assume that it was a pretty sturdy place.
|Dungeon of Girnigoe Castle|
Of interest to us in the story of George Sinclair, however, would more likely be the dungeon of Girnigoe Castle. George’s son and heir, John (called Master of Caithness as he was in line to be the next earl), fell (to put it mildly) from his father’s good graces. In a dispute with the Sinclairs’ arch-enemy, the Earl of Sutherland, George sent his son John into the town of Dornoch to attack Hugh Murray of Aberscors, a Sutherland ally. In this assault, John first burned down the Cathedral and destroyed the town, then besieged the castle. The Sutherland allies “cried uncle” and surrendered the castle. Agreeing to leave the county, the defeated group left three hostages as a pledge that they would follow through. However, Earl George—was he paranoid?—took John’s decision not to kill the Sutherland allies as a sign that he (John) had turned against his father and was in league with the Sutherlands. Therefore, when the three hostages were delivered, George immediately had them beheaded and threw his son John, aged 27, into the dungeon of Girnigoe castle, where he lived for seven years in darkness. During the last months of his life, his two jailers (actually Sinclair kin) began feeding him salt-beef while depriving him of water. The history books say that in 1577, John, Master of Caithness, “died insane from thirst.”
|Sinclair Aisle in Wick, Caithness|
Photo by Gordon Mackay
Anderson, William. The Scottish Nation: Or. the Surnames, Families, Literature, Honours, and Biographical History of the People of Scotland. London: Fullarton, 1877. Available on Google Books.
Girnigoe Castle Today. “Sinclair Girnigoe Castle.” Wikipedia. 11 Jun 2013. Web. 22 Jun 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girnigoe_Castle
Inside the Dungeon. “Sinclair and Girnigoe Castle.” Caithness.org. n.d. Web. 22 Jun 2013. http://www.caithness.org/caithness/castles/photogallery/index.php?gallery=14&start=24
Reconstruction of Girnigoe Castle. Used with the kind permission of Andrew Spratt. Stravaiging around Scotland. 2013. Web. 22 Jun 2013. http://www.stravaiging.com/history/castle/castle-girnigoe
Sinclair Aisle. Used with the kind permission of Gordon Mackay. Gordonmac Dot Com. http://www.gordonmac.com
© Eileen Cunningham, 2013