Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Scottish Gardens
Dunrobin, Sutherland

UNROBIN CASTLE occupies on the east coast a position similar to that of Culzean Castle on the west. Each is built on the summit of a high sea cliff, the broad Moray Firth stretches in front of one as the spacious Firth of Clyde does before the other; and each has been in possession of the same family from a time anterior to any written record. We find, at least, no documentary evidence of the ownership of Dunrobin previous to 1197, when the territory of Sutherland was forfeited by Harold Maddadson, Norse Earl of Caithness, for rebellion, and.. bestowed by William the Lion upon Hugh, son of Freskin the Fleming. From this Hugh the present Duke of Sutherland traces direct descent through his great-grandmother, Elizabeth, daughter and sole heir of the nineteenth Earl of Sutherland.

In yet another respect these two houses enjoy a common characteristic, inasmuch as the climate of Dunrobin is almost, if not quite, as favourable to the growth of choice and delicate vegetation as that of Culzean, although Dunrobin is 280 miles further north than Culzean, and the winter of inland Sutherland is far more severe than that of Ayrshire. It is difficult to account for the peculiar clemency which distinguishes the shores of the Moray Firth, for that great inlet lies far out of the direct course of the gulf stream; but certain it is that, wherever shelter can be provided from the furious winds which rage in this region during the winter months, all forms of vegetation display vigour and luxuriance in a remarkable degree. Robert Gordon of Straloch, geographer and cartographer to Charles I., took note of this.

"Dunrobin, the Erie of Sutherland his speciall residence, a house well seated upon a mote hard by the sea, with fair orchards, when ther be pleasant gardens planted with all kinds of froots, hearbs and floors [flowers] used in this kingdom, and abundance of good saphorn [saffron], tobacco and rosemarie, the froot being excellent, and cheeflie the pears and cherries."

One is disposed to murmur at the taste of an age which swept away this old garden and its contents, to make way for terraces and parterres on a grand scale in the Italian manner, when the second Duke of Sutherland enlarged the castle in 1845-51; nevertheless, the ground lies so beautifully, the views from the terrace stairs are so commanding, and the trees crowd down so close to the tide, that the whole effect is very fine. At all events, we have here an example, scarcely to be surpassed elsewhere, of the art of horticulture as it prevailed in the early Victorian era. Should the passion for cultivating rare plants ever

overtake a lord of this stately demesne, soil, aspect and climate combine to assure him of an ample reward.

In the garden of Dunrobin one cannot but be impressed, as in other historic Scottish houses, with a sense of contrast between past and present. Where everything seems so orderly and secure, it is good to remember the system of anarchy and violence which once over-rode all law. No part of Scotland was more fiercely riven with blood-feuds than the counties of Sutherland and Caithness. Administration of justice was, of necessity, committed to the barons, and, like all hereditary functions, was liable to gross abuse when it passed into unworthy hands.

The chronicle of crime and terrorism in these counties is so confused, the actors in deeds of violence changed sides so often, that it is difficult to follow the intricate narrative. But in the sixteenth century two implacable rivals stand out among the ruck of minor marauders in the persons of the Earl of Sutherland and the Earl of Caithness. In 1514 the Earldom of Sutherland devolved upon Elizabeth, sister of John, eleventh earl. She married Adam Gordon, second son of the Earl of Huntly, and her husband became titular Earl of Sutherland. Adam, being a man of common sense, determined to put an end to the wasteful rivalry between the house of Dunrobin and the Earl of Caithness. Each had a common enemy in the clan Mackay, inveterate brigands, who raided the lands of both earls with fine impartiality. Adam made over certain lands in Strathullie, now known as Helmsdale, to the Earl of Caithness, in consideration for assistance to be given against the Mackays. Caithness took possession of the lands, and straightway joined forces with the Mackays, who, during Sutherland's absence in Edinburgh, made a destructive raid upon the lands of Dunrobin. The countess was at home, however, and sent out her natural brother, Alexander Sutherland, who overtook the Mackays at Torran-dubh, near Rogart, and inflicted upon them a bloody defeat. "This," wrote Gordon of Straloch, "was the greatest conflict that hitherto hes been foughtin between the inhabitants of these countreyes, or within the diocy of Catteynes, to our knowledge."

Alexander might have lived prosperous and popular after this, but his victory over the Mackays turned his bead. He made alliance with the hereditary enemies of his house, marrying the sister of the very chieftain whom he had overthrown at Torrandubh, and laid claim to the earldom of Sutherland, alleging that he was no bastard, but had been born in wedlock. He had a considerable following in the Sutherland clan, and, assisted by the Mackays, seized Dunrobin Castle when the Earl was again absent. The earl returned, however, raised his clan, recaptured the castle in which Alexander had left a garrison, and, in a subsequent raid by Alexander, took that gentleman, struck off his head and stuck it on a pole on the top of Dunrobin Castle, "which chews us," says Gordon of Straloch, "that whatsoever by fate is allotted, though sometimes foreshewed, can never be avoyded. For the witches had told Alexander the bastard that his head should be the highest that ever wes of the Sutherlands ; which he did foolishlye interpret that some day he would be earl of Sutherland, and in honour above all his predecessors."

For more than fifty years after this the two earls and their successors waged almost incessant guerrilla upon each other's lands and people, a condition of affairs far from unusual between country neighbours in Scotland during that troubled century, but accompanied in this instance by deeds of more than common brutality. When Queen Mary came to the throne, John Gordon, twelfth Earl of Sutherland, known as "Good Earl John," held the upper hand; but he was forfeited and banished in 1563 on a charge of complicity in the rebellion of his kinsman, the Earl of Huntly. After Queen Mary's abdication in 1567, he was restored by Act of Parliament, and returned to Sutherland with his third wife, widow of the fourth Earl of Menteith.

During Sutherland's exile, you may be sure that the Earl of Caithness had not been idle. He had induced Sutherland's uncle, Gilbert Gordon of Gartay, to marry Isobel Sinclair of Dunbeath. Gilbert died, leaving one son, John, who lived with his mother at Helmsdale Castle, a lonely fortalice about thirteen miles north eastward along the coast from Dunrobin. Sutherland, also, had but one son, Alexander, who alone stood between Isobel's son and succession to the earldom. Caithness persuaded his kinswoman Isobel that Alexander must be put out of the way. What will not woman dare and do for the sake of her son? But more was wanted. A single murder would not suffice, for the Countess of Sutherland was known to be near her confinement. Caithness insisted that a clean sweep must be made of the whole brood.

This was planned in the following way. In July, 1567, Isobel invited the Earl and Countess of Sutherland, with their son, Lord Alexander, to spend a few days at Helmsdale, that the young lord might enjoy some sport with the deer in Strathullie. One evening she put poison in the ale prepared for supper. Sutherland and his countess drank of it, and were taken ill; but Lord Alexander remained late on the hill and supper was finished before he and John Gordon, Isobel's son, returned. Sutherland, feeling the poison at work and suspecting the truth, dragged off the tablecloth, forbade his son to take bite or sup in that house of death, and sent him forward fasting to Skibo. The Earl and Countess managed to get to Dunrobin, where they both died within five days; but not before their death had been avenged by a strange stroke of fate. Isobel, probably, had made some pretext to keep her son out of the supper-room; but the lad, being thirsty and tired with hunting, sent a servant for a horn of ale, which he quaffed, fell ill, and died after two days of agony. The wretched mother was taken by Sutherland's people, sent to Edinburgh for trial, was condemned to death, and only escaped execution by taking her own life in prison, after denouncing the Earl of Caithness as having commanded her to commit the crime.

The said Earl was by no means diverted from his purpose by the miscarriage of his plot. The new Earl of Sutherland being under age, John Earl of Atholl was appointed his guardian, who most nefariously sold the wardship to Caithness himself, Sutherland's deadliest enemy, who carried the young earl off to the grim fortress of Girnigo, scene of innumerable and unspeakable cruelties. Even in that secret retreat, however, he did not dare immediately to attempt the life of his ward. As a preliminary, perhaps, he compelled him to marry his daughter, Lady Barbara Sinclair, a woman of open profligacy, the paramour of Mackay of Far. The bride was two-and-thirty; the bridegroom only fifteen. Caithness then took up his abode at Dunrobin, where he destroyed all the Sutherland papers, and proceeded to administer his son-in-law's estates, inaugurating a reign of terror, the memory whereof still haunts the hills and shores of this fair land. Many he drove from their homes by violence, slaying those who resisted and forcing others by inhuman tortures to surrender their property. He did not spare even his own son, the Master of Caithness, who displeased him by showing too much mercy to the people of Dornoch, whom he had been ordered to massacre. He kept him in a dungeon at Girnigo for seven years, at the end of which the wretched man was put to a horrible death. His gaolers were two cousins of his own, David and Ingram Sinclair. Whether they wearied of their duty, or whether Caithness instructed them now to bring it to an end, certain it is that they left their prisoner without food for two or three days, then supplied him liberally with salt beef, gave him nothing to drink and left him to perish in an agony of thirst.

The monster who could thus inhumanly treat his own son and heir was not likely to show much tenderness to him whom he had forced to become his son-in-law. Nor did he so. In 1569 Caithness left Dunrobin for Edinburgh, having given minute instructions for the assassination of the young Earl of Sutherland. The plot was betrayed to one of the Gordons, who collected a party and concealed them in Dunrobin Glen, not far from the castle. Alexander Gordon of Sidderay then went forward, disguised as a pedlar, obtained speech with Sutherland, warned him of his danger, and bade him come to the glen next morning. The servants of Caithness had instructions never to let Sutherland out of their sight ; but the young man managed to lead them to the appointed place, where they sprung the ambush. The Gordons overpowered the keepers, cut their throats, and carried off their chieftain to the strong castle of Strathbogie.

Thereafter Sutherland managed to keep free from the clutches of his dangerous neighbour. Not only so, but he had no difficulty in obtaining decree of divorce against his wife, Barbara Sinclair, and in 1573 married Lady Jean Gordon, daughter of the fourth Earl of Huntly, the beautiful woman whom Bothwell had divorced in order to marry Mary Queen of Scots.

Standing on the terrace above the garden at Dunrobin, one is on the very scene of these and many similar deeds which seem well-nigh incredible in our humdrum age. The keep still stands wherein the tyrant Earl of Caithness kept Sutherland a prisoner doomed to death, for it is incorporated in the great pile erected by the second Duke of Sutherland. From the same standpoint may be seen a memorial of a later age—the age of Gargantuan conviviality—in the shape of a large garden-house below the castle. This now is fitted up as a museum, and contains a fine collection of local antiquities and natural history; but it served a different purpose in the eighteenth century. Hither the lord of the castle used to adjourn with his guests after an early dinner, to spend the long evening plying them with strong wine. Outside the servants assembled towards midnight on the broad stairway leading to this temple of Bacchus, the duty of each being to recover his master and lead (or carry) him to bed.

Thus "the old order changeth, yielding place to new." Each generation of men lives in a different fashion from the last; but the blackbird's note in Dunrobin Glen—the plover's pipe on Dunrobin shore—the scream of the eagle on Beinu Dobhrainthe yelp of the fox on Creag-a-ghlinne—have changed no whit since the Norsemen first drew up their black kyuls on Golspie strand.

Yet there is one sound which the people of these glens once had good reason to recognise with dread, that is no longer heard hereabouts—the howl of the grey wolf. It was at the very close of the seventeenth century that some sheep were destroyed in the Glen of Loth, about half way between Dunrobin and Helmsdale. At first this was believed to be the work of dogs, for it was supposed that the last of the wolves had been killed two or three years before in Assynt and Halladale. But an old hunter named Poison, living at Wester Helmsdale, recognising the real character of the culprits, set out with his son and a herd laddie to explore the recesses of Glen Loth. This is a place of many memories, for here, where the Sletdale burn joins the Loth, are the standing stones of Carrickachlich, Cairnbran, where Fingal's good dog Bran lies buried, and the holy well of Tobermassan. In the ravine of Sletdale Poison found his quest in the shape of a rift in the rocks, with the ground well trodden into a track leading into it. The fissure widened inwards, but was too narrow to admit a full-grown man; so, having first failed to rouse what inmates there might be by throwing in stones, the two lads were sent in to explore the cavern, while Polson kept watch outside. Sure enough, they found a litter of fine whelps, and shouted news of their discovery to Polson.

"Kill them quickly," he cried, poking his head into the crevice, "and come away."

Just as he withdrew his head, a great she wolf, which had come up unobserved, dashed past him into the hole. Luckily, he managed to catch and keep hold of her bushy tail, which he twisted round his left arm; but it required the force of both arms to hold the maddened brute; Poison dared not loose his right hand to draw his knife, and his gun was out of reach. His son, all unaware of the mortal struggle outside, cried out from inside-

"It is dark here now, father; what is stopping the light from us?"

"You'll soon know," answered Poison, "if the root of the tail was to break ' "

After this had gone on for some time, the wolf lay still for a moment or two to gather strength; Poison made a snatch for his knife, and stabbed the animal in the hind-quarters, which made her turn and attempt to come out of the hole. But the hunter had the powerful beast at a disadvantage; keeping her jammed between the rocks, he managed to plant his blade in a vital part, and the last wolf in Sutherland shed its lifeblood on the rocks and heather.

Return to Scottish Gardens Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus