Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Three Williams Sinclair

Crest of the Sinclair Earls of Caithness
Though I know little about my fourteenth great-grandfather, one of the actions he took speaks volumes about his character.  In 1436, the earl’s first son was born and was named after himself, William.  This lad was the son of the earl’s first wife, Lady Elizabeth Douglas. 

Nithsdale Arms of Sir William Douglas
Unfortunately, as young William grew up, he did not meet up to his father’s expectations.  In fact, so far was he from what his father wanted in a son that he has become known in history as William the Wastrel.  No doubt, he broke his mother’s heart as well.  Only 43 at her death, she left behind young William, aged 15, and two daughters. 

Sutherland Crest

Earl William married again five years later in 1456 to Margaret Sutherland, the daughter of Alexander Sutherland of Dunbeath and my fourteenth great-grandmother.  In 1458, Margaret gave birth to Earl William’s second son, and again the boy was named William. 

It was not altogether uncommon for siblings to have the same name in the Middle Ages, but I can’t help wondering if Earl William wasn’t already seeing behavior from William the Elder that made him seek a more admirable namesake in his younger son.

15th-Century Caithness
By 1477, the younger son was apparently showing himself to be more worthy of his father’s esteem, for at this time, the Earl, almost 70 years old and undoubtedly thinking of what would happen upon his demise, made the unusual decision to resign his earldom in favor of William the Younger, who was not yet quite 20.  By doing so, he may have felt he was protecting Caithness from the depredations of William the Elder, now a middle-aged man of 41.

Though it was customary for the elder son to inherit the title, by resigning his title in his own lifetime, Earl William was able to secure the succession for the younger son.  To the elder William, he gave the right to call himself 2nd Lord Sinclair, a lesser title in the peerage created for the father before he had been made Earl of Caithness and Orkney. 

"Earl of Caithness."  Wikipedia.
"Lord Sinclair."  Wikipedia.
"William Sinclair, 1st Earl of Caithness."  Wikipedia.,_1st_Earl_of_Caithness
© Eileen Cunningham, 2013



Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Those Places Thursday - Castles of William Sinclair, 1st Earl of Caithness: Ravenscraig

 William Sinclair
1st Earl of Caithness

Ravenscraig Castle Reconstruction
By Andrew Spratt
Nobody likes to have their property or titles taken away from them, but in 1471 when King James III decided he wanted the Orkney earldom for himself, he swapped Ravenscraig Castle for the earldom, which was held by William Sinclair (1408-1480), the Earl of Orkney and Caithness at the time (see at right). 

Ravenscraig Castle Today
            Ravenscraig Castle was located in Kirkcaldy, just north and slightly east of Edinburgh across the windswept Firth of Forth.  Like King James before him, Sinclair intended for the castle to have substantial artillery fortifications.  Thus, on both the east and west ends on the front side of the castle were rounded towers massively thick (some say up to 15-feet thick).

            Perhaps that is why the castle was the first in Scotland to be able to stand up to the cannons of the age. In addition, cut into the walls of the castle are keyhole-shaped shot-holes for artillery defense of the front side and the postern gate (see image at left).

Note the keyhole-shaped shot-hole.
             Images of the ruins of Ravenscraig suggest that distinct romantic “feel” that one associates with the great castles of the age.  Since nowadays the city of Kirkcaldy has grown out quite close to the castle, it is said to have lost some of its romance, but the southern view toward the Firth of Forth can still give one that secure feeling the Sinclairs would have felt, knowing their castle was well-fortified on the front and virtually inaccessible in the rear (see at right).

View of the Firth of Forth from Ravenscraig

Ravenscraig's "Doocot"
            One of the fun features of Ravenscraig is the dovecote (or “doocot,” as it was pronounced in Scots).  In the Middle Ages, pigeons and doves served as a food source, so much like a farmer today might have a chicken house, medieval castles had dovecotes.  Not only the fowl themselves, but also their eggs served as food, and even their dung could be put to use in the process used to tan leather.  Scottish doocots, as the Ravenscraig example shows, were often shaped like a bee-hive and had an opening at the top. 

            Interestingly, despite the smell that must have been associated with them,  doocots were a symbol of status and power and were only to be owned by members of the nobility under a special right (droit) known as droit de colombier, the French word colombier being derived from the Roman columbarium (pigeon house). 

Sir Walter Scott
            But despite those practical matters of food and defense, Ravenscraig’s tale is ultimately about the people of the place—their aspirations and their loves—and who better than Scotland’s beloved novelist and poet, Sir Walter Scott, to tell the sad tale of the beautiful Rosabelle Sinclair, who leaves Ravenscraig (Ravensheuch) and meets a terrible fate on the firth.  In Canto VI of The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Scott writes:

O listen, listen, ladies gay!

No haughty feat of arms I tell;

Soft is the note, and sad the lay,

That mourns the lovely Rosabelle.

--"Moor, moor the barge, ye gallant crew!

And gentle ladye, deign to stay!

Rest thee in Castle Ravensheuch,

Nor tempt the stormy firth to-day.

"The blackening wave is edg'd with white:

To inch and rock the sea-mews fly;

The fishers have heard the Water-Sprite,

Whose screams forebode that wreck is nigh.

"Last night the gifted Seer did view

A wet shroud swathed round ladye gay;

Then stay thee, Fair, in Ravensheuch:

Why cross the gloomy firth today?"

" 'Tis not because Lord Lindesay's heir

To-night at Roslin leads the ball,

But that my ladye-mother there

Sits lonely in her castle-hall.

" 'Tis not because the ring they ride,

And Lindesay at the ring rides well,

But that my sire the wine will chide,

If 'tis not fill'd by Rosabelle."

O'er Roslin all that dreary night

A wondrous blaze was seen to gleam;

'Twas broader than the watch-fire's light,

And redder than the bright moonbeam.

It glar'd on Roslin's castled rock,

It ruddied all the copse wood glen;

'Twas seen from Dryden's groves of oak

And seen from cavern'd Hawthorn-den.

Seem'd all on fire that chapel proud,

Where Roslin's chiefs uncoffin'd lie,

Each Baron, for a sable shroud,

Sheath'd in his iron panoply.
Seem'd all on fire within, around,

Deep sacristy and altar s pale;

Shone every plllar foliage bound,

And glimmer'd all the dead men's mail.

Blaz'd battlement and pinnet high,

Blaz'd every rose-carved buttress fair--

So still they blaze when fate is nigh

The lordly line of high St. Clair.

There are twenty of Roslin's barons bold

Lie buried within that proud chapelle;

Each one the holy vault doth hold--

But the sea holds lovely Rosabelle!

And each St. Clair was buried there,

With candle, with book, and with knell;

But the sea-caves rung, and the wild winds sung

The dirge of lovely Rosabelle.

Post Script:

There are several videos about Ravenscraig Castle on YouTube.  For one that matches the mood of Sir Walter Scott's poem, try "View from Ravenscraig Castle" by Kevin Lockard.  For one that shows the inside of the castle, try “Ravenscraig – 30th September 2011”  by Ryan O'Neill.  I'm not one much for the ghost angle, but the video stroll through the castle is instructive.



“Dovecote.”  Wikipedia.  13 May 2013.  Web.  19 May 2013.

“Listed Building Report: Ravenscraig Park, Ravenscraig Castle.”  Historic Scotland.  19 May 2013.

“Lord Sinclair.”  Wikipedia.  23 Feb. 2013.  Web.  19 May 2013.

“Ravenscraig Castle.”  Whittington Family Tree. 6 May 2011.  Web.  5 Jan. 2013. 

“Ravenscraig Castle.”  Wikipedia.  11 Mar. 2013.  Web.  19 May 2013.

Scott, Walter, Sir.  The Lay of the Last Minstrel.  Poet’s Corner Bookshelf. n.d. Web. 19 May 2013. 

“Sinclair, Sir William, Third Earl of Orkney and First Earl of Caithness.”  Dictionary of National Biography.  22:1195.

“William Sinclair, 1st Earl of Caithness.”  Wikipedia.  2 May 2013.  Web.  19 May 2013.,_1st_Earl_of_Caithness


Fingerson, R.  Keyhole Shot-holes at Ravenscraig. Owned by R. Fingerson. Used with permission..

Plan of Ravenscraig.  “Ravenscraig.”  Wikipedia.

Ravenscraig Castle.  Photo by Garry.  I Travel UK. Used with permission.

Ravenscraig Castle Reconstruction.  Andrew Spratt.  “Scottish Castle Reconstructions by Andrew Spratt.”  Maybole. Aug. 2000.  Web.  21 May 2013.

Ravenscraig “Doocot.”  © Copyright Anne Burgess and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

View of the Firth of Forth from Ravenscraig.  Photo by Garry.  I Travel UK. Used with permission.

William Sinclair, 1st Earl of Caithness.  “Our Family Tree” maintained by Charles Edward Stuart Boden.

YouTube Videos

O’Neill, Ryan. “Ravenscraig – 30th September 2011.”  YouTube.  15 Jan. 2013.  Web.  20 May 2013.

Lockard, Kevin.  “View from Ravenscraig Castle.”  You Tube.  27 Dec. 2012.  Web.  20 May 2013.


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