The Battle of Altimarlach
A delve into Scottish history through the eyes of Paul McLean. Here we go again with more clan disputes in Scotland. This time – for a change – the Campbell’s are involved, shock! The 13th of July, 1680 saw the last significant clan battle to be fought in Scotland, with the Sinclairs, under the command of George Sinclair of Keiss, taking on the Campbells led by Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy, fighting over the right to the Girnigoe Estates in Caithness, by the way nowhere near each other geographically.
Background tales; back in 1676, George Sinclair the 6th Earl of Caithness died without an outright heir, both Glenorchy and Keiss believed they were entitled to inherit the estate. During the 17th century things were bad for many of the Highland clans, some struggling to survive financially. The Earl of Caithness was one of those in desperate need for money (it must have been hard being an Earl, maybe he wanted to be a common fella living in a mud thatch?) the Sinclair estate virtually bankrupt. It is alleged that he borrowed money from the Campbells (here we go again, er scuse me Sinclair, would it no have been a good idea to chat with the Macleans first?) for the purpose of shoring up the clan’s estates. On the death of the Earl, Sir John Campbell, being the main creditor to Sinclair, obtained the Girnigoe Estates as well as the Earldom in 1677 as repayment for his loan. By 1678 he had coveted and married the late Earl’s widow, the Countess of Caithness – the only reason Campbell married the countess was because it saved him having to pay her an annual 12,000 marks. George Sinclair of Keiss was unhappy with Campbell’s accession to the Earldom, and disputed the claim. Keiss put forth his claim to the Earldom by stating that he was a direct relative of George Sinclair, and he went on to seize the Caithness estates, as well as occupying areas in and around the town of Wick where my pals live today. The dispute saw Campbell gaining royal permission to invade Caithness. Along with his own men Campbell was provided with several companies of the king’s troops, and they marched north to Wick from Perth. They arrived on the 18th of May and camped at Braemore, near Morven. This was part of the Berriedale estate which Campbell laid claim to as Earl of Caithness. Believed to be 800 strong, they marched on the 12th of July and reached the Hill of Yarrows, which was known for a long time as Torran nan Gael – the Highlanders Hill. Whilst on the hill a thick mist descended, Campbell decided to advance on Wick. However, the mist lifted as he was heading down and the alarm was promptly raised by the Sinclair forces in the town.
Campbell and his men reached the bottom of the hill they headed for Stirkoke and Altimarlach where he split his army in two. Sinclair moved his men and headed along Wick River to meet the enemy army. As they reached the haugh, the Campbells launched a surprise attack followed shortly by an ambush – as they are wont to do. At this point the Wick River is deep, the Campbells pushed forward, the Sinclairs fell into the water and drowned. For those who fell in to the flowing river but managed to make it across to the opposite bank, on the Moss of Bronsie, were reserve Campbells who killed many who made it across. The battle ended in a victory for Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy. Legend claims that so many Sinclairs were killed or drowned in the river that the Campbells were able to cross without getting their feet wet. It is estimated that Sinclair lost around 300 men in the battle, whilst Campbell buried men where a commemorative cross now stands. After, Campbell split up his army around Caithness, where he levied the rents and taxes and ruled over the people in an oppressive manner, shock upon shocks. Campbell remained Earl of Caithness only until 1681. George Sinclair had influential and powerful friends, he took his case to the Privy Council, and by act of parliament George was granted the Earldom, making him the 7th Earl, and putting the title back into the Sinclair family where it has remained ever since. The point of this for me; why do the Campbell’s think they can roam all over Scotland doing what they wish? And where did they get all their money and land from in the first place? Ask the sassunachs. Thanks to our pal Ian Horne for the image.