Color Skins

Clan Sinclair

Highlights in the History of Clan Sinclair


The proud and noble Scottish family of Sinclair (St. Clair) is of hearty Viking stock with duel roots extending more than a millennium back in time to the ancient Norse earldoms of Orkney and Caithness and the dukedom of Normandy. The surname of Sinclair in French is “de Sancto Claro” and in Latin, “Sanctus Clarus,” meaning Holy Light. The name derives from the hermit St. Clare and St. Clair-sur-Epte, a town near Paris close to the location of the hermit St. Clare’s martyrdom. St. Clair-sur-Epte was the scene of a treaty in 912 between Charles, King of the Franks, and the Viking marauder Gange Rolf (or Hrolf, Rollon or Rollo as he is also known) whereby Rollo was granted that part of France now called Normandy in return for his acceptance of Charles as his king and his embracement of Christianity. Rollo was to become the first Duke of Normandy and those of his descendants who took the name of St. Clair later became cousins to a later Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror. As recorded in the battle roles and suggested in the Domesday Book, several St. Clair knights were likely companions of William at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and were thus granted lands in England following the Conquest.

Other Norman knights of the surname St. Clair are thought to have sought their fortunes further north in Scotland. Tradition has it that one of these Normans of lordly rank was William “The Seemly” St. Clair who joined the court of Malcolm Canmore; faithfully served the king’s wife, Margaret, as her cup-bearer and for his services, it is said that he was granted a charter of lands at Rosslyn. Later, Sir William St. Clair was to die fighting his cousin William the Conqueror. In 1162/63 Henry de St. Clair was granted a charter of the lands of Herdmanston near Haddington, thus founding a line which later was raised to peerage status under the title of Lord St. Clair.

The progenitor of the St. Clairs of Roslin and the Sinclairs of Caithness is believed to be the Norman immigrant Guillaume (William) de St. Clair who acquired the lands of Rosslyn by marriage to its heiress, Amecia de Rosskelyn, as documented by a charter issued in 1280 by King Alexander III of Scotland. Sir William served as Ambassador to France before being taken captive at the Battle of Dunbar and died a year later in 1297. William’s eldest son, Sir Edward St. Clair, Edward’s brother William who was later made the Bishop of Dunkeld, and Edward’s son, William St. Clair, gave faithful service to Robert the Bruce in Scotland’s Wars of Independence. These three Roslin St. Clairs, along with Sir William St. Clair of Herdmanston, were present on the field at Bannockburn on June 24, 1314 when the Scots soundly defeated the English. Edward later was to be a signatory to the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320. His son, William, died along with Sir James Douglas in 1330 at the Battle of Teba in Spain on a mission to carry the heart of Robert the Bruce to the Holy Land. This William’s son, another William who died in Lithuania serving with the Teutonic Knights, was the father of “Prince” Henry St. Clair, the first St. Clair Earl of Orkney who is believed to have visited America in 1398 nearly a century before Columbus. The 2nd Earl of Orkney, who lived lavishly like a king, was the guardian of James I of Scotland during his minority. The house of the “high St. Clair” reached its zenith with the 3rd and last Earl of Orkney, William St. Clair, who was the founder of Rosslyn Chapel in 1446. Earl William was granted the earldom of Caithness in 1456, becoming the first Sinclair earl of this northern domain, but in 1471 he surrendered the earldom of Orkney to King James III. The Earls of Caithness historically have been the chiefs of the Sinclairs of Caithness, and like the Sutherlands, Gunns and Macleods, the family is regarded to be a highland clan in every sense of the word. Over the past 500 plus years there have been twenty Sinclair Earls of Caithness.

By several accounts, the history of the clan in its northern stronghold during the 16th and 17th centuries was a bloody one. William, the 2nd Earl, was slain along with his king, James IV, at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. Later, in 1529, John, the 3rd Earl and a large contingent of Caithness clansmen which he led, were slaughtered to the man in an ill fated invasion of Orkney. At the Battle of Kringen in Norway in 1612, a large band of locals ambushed a mercenary force of largely Wick volunteers on their way to assist the Swedes in the Kalmar war. One of the Scots leaders, George Sinclair, along with more than half his company, was slain. Regarded by some to be the last clan war in Scotland, the Battle of Altimarlach in 1680 was fought between George Sinclair of Keiss and Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy in a dispute over the earldom of Caithness. The opposing sides met a mile west of Wick near the stream of Altimarlach where Sinclair’s small force was soundly defeated with more than a 100 casualties. Years later, the northern Sinclairs were prepared to take part in the Rising of 1745, but disbanded after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden. The 9th Earl of Caithness, who died in 1765, was the last surviving peer to sit in the Scottish Parliament.

Although Caithness and Orkney are considered the clan home for the Sinclairs, families of this surname and their descendants can be found throughout the world, playing prominent roles in the history of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States.

Clan Sinclair is represented worldwide by associations in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Scotland and the United States. The Patron of these companion associations is the Right Honorable Malcolm Sinclair, 20th Earl of Caithness, Hereditary Chief of the Clan Sinclair. The clan’s rich and colorful history, as represented by such iconic works in stone as Sinclair Girnigoe Castle and the chapel at Rosslyn, is a legacy for which the family of Sinclair today can be rightfully proud.

Clan Sinclair

Clan Seats: Sinclair/Girnigoe Castle, Wick; Kirkwall Castle, Orkney; Brawl Castle, Caithness; Rosslyn Castle, Roslin, Midlothian; and Ravenscraig Castle, Dysart, Fife
Tartans: Ancient Hunting Green and Dress Red and modern Dress Red and Hunting Green
Clansman’s Badge: A cock Proper, surrounded by Belt and Buckle. The Belt contains the Sinclair Motto “Commit Thy Work to God.”
Slogan or War Cry: Girnigoe! Girnigoe!
Plant Badge: A branch of conis, whins, or gorse, also white clover
Livery Colors: Argent and sable (silver or white and black) as displayed on the Sinclair engrailed cross
Pipe Music: The Sinclair March (a.k.a. The Red Ribbon)
Clan Chief: Lord Caithness, Earl Malcolm Ian Sinclair, is the 20th Earl of Caithness