Friday, December 11, 2020

The Bishop's Sea: Caithness and the Matter of Alba

Birds of Caithness Twitter.

 So speaking of odd threads dangling out of the whole story of Greenland, how about the "Sinclairs of Greenland and Rattar"?

This is one of those tangles that doesn't really have a starting point as such, so I'm going to begin with a Sixteenth Century Venetian historian, Niccolo Zeno, who in 1558 published a series of letters between one of his ancestors, and his brothers. They described various exciting adventures in vaguely located Atlantic islands, back at the turn of the Fifteenth Century. (The best known of the brothers was a Venetian naval hero active in 1400.) This was an exciting era on the triple borderland between Christianity and Islam, the known world and unknown. It was full of Christian adventurers in Muslim lands, Muslim adventurers in Christian; Of converts both ways, both paladins and saints; and of little taifa states trailing down the coast of what the kings of Morocco declined to allow to be Morocco out of their commitment to the inland caravan trails. 

Of course, it was also an age of entertaining fictions about the same, and as far as we can tell, that's what the Zeno letters were. That is not, however, what Johann Reinhard Foerster, Calvinist divine and former naturalist on James Cook's first Pacific voyage thought when he encountered the letters, mainly because he fastened on a supporting character in the colourful story, one Prince Zichmni, which Foerster decided was a Venetian attempt to render "Sinclair." This would be an odd error on a late medieval Venetian's part, inasmuch as "Sinclair is just a Scottish form of "Saint Clare," and Santa Clara of Assisi, founder of the Poor Claires, is perfectly well rendered into Italian as Santa Clara. 

Foerster's error, if error it was, isn't actually that hard to understand --now that we have Google. The Sinclairs of Greenland and Rattar are an extremely obscure branch of a Scottish noble house that became extinct in 1784. Short of pouring through old genealogies no Nineteenth or Twentieth Century reader is likely to have heard of them before the rise of Google's awesome powers of aggregation. On the other hand, the extinction of the house, which involved its last heir committing suicide in London at the age of 33 two years after being "wounded in the groin" while reconnoitering the works at Yorktown in the company of Lord Cornwallis is not a story that anyone, or, at least, any man, who was alive at the time was likely to be forget! 

So Foerster probably had "John Sinclair,Seventh and Last Lord of Greenland and Rattar" on his mind when he encountered "Prince Zichmni." Foerster had no trouble finding a candidate "Prince Zichmni" in the Sinclair family line, albeit one two centuries before a branch of the family named itself for a farm estate in Caithness that, coincidentally, bore the same name as Greenland's icy mountains. Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney and Lord of Roslyn (c. 1345--c. 1405) was a Scottish/Norwegian nobleman from the strange era of Sottish/Norwegian condominium in the vaguely defined "Northern Islands" that, I guess, a particularly expansive mind might take to include Greenland and Vinland along with the Orkneys. Henry owed fealty to Scotland for minor properties in Lothan, and to Norway for the Orkneys. In respect to Norwegian affairs, he is recorded as a supporter of King Erik. As far as Good King Robert of Scotland was concerned, he was mainly known as a pest about his Lothian properties, and we might speculate, over the reversion of his wife's lands, which originally included the entire suppressed earldom of Strathearn. Then he was "cruelly killed" by invaders of the Orkneys who might have been English seafarers avenging an attack on an English fleet at Aberdeen by ravaging the Orkneys. The rest is pseudo-history, culminating in "Prince Henry" sailing all the way to Nova Scotia to build some matching New World structures to a classic puzzle-structure in the Old, Rosslyn Chapel, south of Edinburgh. It has to do with Knights Templars and the Holy Grail, you see

This isn't actually where I started down the rabbit hole. That would be the claim that a Sinclair crest has been found on a tiny bit of jewelry recovered at a dig in Greenland. I don't know. I've been having trouble locating the story online, and if it's in Kirsten Seaver's Frozen Echo, I can't find that, either. (Not to worry, it'll show up on one of my shelves the moment I hit "Post.") It's all pretty irrelevant considering that the old Sinclair crest was a simple saltire cross, so it would be ridiculous to think that a signet ring (or whatever) with a saltire cross on it was a "Sinclair" piece and proof of the doings of Prince Zichnmi. 

The issue is that I carried that factoid into my investigation of Arthur St. Clair, himself a fascinating figure in the primordial days of the plantation of North America, as he was the Governor of the Old Northwest (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan) in the earliest, pre-Constitution days of the American Republic, and yet is a surprisingly shadowy figure. I mean, there's almost four times as many people in Ohio as there are in British Columbia, and I cannot even begin to imagine how many graduate students at BC history departments would be on the trail of Sir James Douglas if there were half as many loose ends in that fascinating man's back story as there are in that of Arthur St. Clair!

Most of the mysteries here aren't as significant as they seem. The main "loose end" in St. Clair's biography is best brought out by quoting Wikipedia:

"St. Clair was born in ThursoCaithness, Scotland. Little is known of his early life. Early biographers estimated his year of birth as 1734,[2] but subsequent historians uncovered a birth date of March 23, 1736, which in the modern calendar system means that he was born in 1737. His parents, unknown to early biographers, were probably William Sinclair, a merchant, and Elizabeth Balfour.[1] He reportedly attended the University of Edinburgh before being apprenticed to the renowned physician William Hunter.[1]"

. . . . 

St. Clair met Phoebe Bayard, a member of one of the most prominent families in Boston, and they were married in 1760. Miss Bayard's mother's maiden name was Bowdoin and she was the sister of James Bowdoin, colonial governor of Massachusetts.

In a normal, Eighteenth Century church wedding, you produce your baptismal certificate. Baptismal certificates can omit the parents' name if the child was born out of wedlock. If St. Clair were born into a proper marriage, his parents' names and his birthdate would have been "known to early biographers."  In reality, the "early biographer" asserts as simple fact that St. Clair was a bastard, and that his father was known to be the younger brother of John, Master of Sinclair, and, like him, a Jacobite exile. St. Clair was said to have been born in the Sinclair fastness of Thurso, Caithness, and was certainly brought up there. He corresponded extensively with William Sinclair, a member of the Caithness line and a former British soldier who took up residency in Cahokia, Illinois, after the Revolution. (At the time, St. Louis was still Spanish, so the American town directly across the river was a bit more than a romantic ruin.) Exactly why the modern biographer feels the need to advance a middle-class origin in place of the one explicitly asserted by the editor of the St. Clair Papers is known to neither me nor Wikipedia. All I'm saying here is that if this were B.C., hardly the homeland of advanced historiographic studies, this little tidbit would not be left on the table. 

But let's by all means reel it back in a bit. Caithness is a historic county of Scotland. It is very lightly populated, low and heathy. Its main claim to fame is that it is the most northerly jurisdiction on the mainland of Great Britain, with an extensive coast along the Pentland Firth, and is the location of John O'Groats. The county town of Thurso has a population of just a little less than 8000. The name is Norse, meaning "Thor's River," and the population was historically Norse-speaking before they adopted English. It was founded at some vague point during the period of Norwegian hegemony in the northern and western islands (although there are Neolithic remains), and the first recorded Bishop of Caithness, Aindreas (c. 1154--1181) is famously known to us as one of the sources of De situ Albania, although Aindreas was an absentee bishop and it is more likely that his information came from the library of Melrose Abbey than from Thurso, which in any case would soon have been lost to endemic town and gown disputes that led the Bishops of Caithness to prefer a fortified seat along the coast,  first at Halkirch and later Dornoch, down on the North Sea shore of the county and thus slightly closer to civilisation than the stormy and treacherous Pentland Firth, abode of wreckers and pirates. Much like the Earls of Caithness, the careers of the early bishops seems to have been hard scrabble and violent, fitting for such a lightly populated country, best known for foul trades like fish curing and tanning. 
By Dorcas Sinclair, CC BY-SA 2.0,

As for the Sinclairs themselves, there are the usual "Came Over with the Conqueror/Came Up with St. Margaret" stories, according to which they were originally Norman nobility who settled in Scotland in the era of the Dunkeld dynasty's Anglicisation and feudalisation of their Scottish dominions after 1057, and particularly after David I (1084--1153) introduced tithing and parish organisation as part of his reforms of traditional "Gaelic" Scottish usage. In reality they are pretty obscure before the War of Independence, when they supported Robert the Bruce in a timely way and were rewarded with power and influence that allowed them to insert themselves into the politics of the Orkneys. After 1445, they were Earls of Caithness, ruling the Orkneys and neighbouring Sutherland as well, although by this time Clan Sinclair was clearly a much more complicated organisation, as attested by the last battle ever fought in the Orkneys, Summerdale, in 1529, "between the Sinclairs of Caithness and the Sinclairs of the Orkneys." 
Bieremeal bannock

By this time the Orkneys paid a substantial landrent in, of all things, grain. The 96,000 hectares of arable land on the islands produced an ample crop of six-row barley, Orkney's "bere." On account of the name being Norse, it is assumed that its cultivation was brought over from Norway, where its 90 day maturation cycle was much appreciated. In the Orkneys and elsewhere in the Isles and northern Scotland, it was preferred for its tolerance of alkaline soils, which allowed farmers to colonise the machair soils near the beach. As late as the Nineteenth Century there was a substantial market for bere exports of at least four varieties. The minimal modern production is bought by whiskey distilleries. The colonisation of the machair coincides with what we think must have been the period of Norse settlement on historical linguistic grounds, so there's that. 
By Richard Webb, CC BY-SA 2.0,

This takes me back to James Barrett's "fishing event horizon," in a narrative that I would have had a much easier time tying off if the Sinclairs were only the Douglasses, as I would then have been able to point to William Sinclair at Cahokia and the Red River Settlement, wink wink nudge nudge. 

So forget that part, and let's move on to historical linguistics. The general assumption is that the north of Scotland, which is to say, actual Scotland, mainly that bulge that sticks out from the Firth of Forth to the Moray Firth, where you'll find your Fife and your Cawdor, your Aberdeen, Banff, Perth, St. Andrews and Scone, was Pictish speaking in the First Millennium. The evidence for Pictish in the Outer Hebrides and the Orkneys is pretty weak, since Pictish placenames do not survive, and "Pictish" art is the main indicator, but we have more than enough evidence for an at least partially British Celtic language, denoted "Pictish," both north and south of the Mounth, which is a cool Scottish way of referring to a spur of the Grampians that drowns itself in salt marsh not far south of Aberdeen and so divides the eastern Scottish heartland into a northern and southern division. 

Inverness, at the tip of the Moray Firth and the north end of the Great Glen that cuts across Scotland from southwest to northeast, is deemed to have been the original capital of the Pictish monarchy, or Fortriu, which conquered the area south of the Mounth a generation before the Venerable Bede. It. too, then, belongs very solidly in the British Celtic/Pictish oecumene as of c. 800, with a bishop at Rosemarkie and at least one monastery at Portmahomack. Pictish names are equally common south of the Firth, although it is only south of the Mounth that we get into a new ecclesiastical province or provinces, with monasteries at Dunkeld and St. Andrews.

And then something weird happens --linguistic colonisation. And not with Norse, in spite of its successes just a little further north, and not with English, either, in spite of its later complete victory often traced back to St. Margaret's time. Rather, Gaelic starts to appear. "Aberdeen" for example, is recognisable from cognate Welsh forms as "Harbour of the Don." But the Book of Deer (quite the story!) testifies to land deeds being written out and witnessed in Gaelic in the immediate vicinity about 1150. Although there is room for emigre Irish Gaelic-speaking elites in this story, it is not obvious why local "kindreds" needed to witness their deeds to the heirs of St. Domnall in Gaelic. 

I think the current explanation for this is elite replacement by west coast Gaelic-speaking elites in the ill-documented late 800s and 900s. The Book of Deer proper counts as physical evidence of this, in that it was produced in the Irish Midlands some time in the late 800s or early 900s and and was no doubt the prized possession of some traveller from Irish Gaelic-speaking lands. There are also two Irish style round towers at early Scottish ecclesiastical establishments, architectural equivalents to the Book of Deer. There are some  tenuous arguments for secular elites as well, for a movement of churchmen associated with the translation of the cult of St. Columba from Iona to Dunkeld, and the enduring mystery of whether the Alpinid dynasty was "Scottish" or "Pictish."

And yet the timing doesn't seem to work out. There's a strong case for compressing events into the period of the fishing event horizon, and, I would argue, for linking them. At least, they're not likely to be two completely independent things that happened! As it happens, the experience of the Fisheries Society is pretty good evidence for the likely causes of a likely eastward movement of population from western Scottish fishing communities to North Sea Fishing ports. They are better places to fish from, and fishing boats are mobile.  A northwards movement of merchants and townsfolk associated with new fishing ports is also what happened in the Eighteenth Century. Even the revolution in landholding has a cause in the new need for curing grounds --and the profitable rent from them. 

I'm not going to strain any further at linking events in the Old Northwest in the 1780s and 1790s with the shadowy foundation of Scotland. There are two mechanisms that might come together, however. First, I am proposing language (and social) change as being due to new economic modalities. In the Scottish case, the rise of the fisheries industry brings new population, but, more importantly, new ways of life. Bere and Norse are the most strongly linked, and are associated with the most complete linguistic transformation, in the northern isles. Gaelic and a migration of the herring fishery has only a slight impact on the northeast, although a traceable one. As for the success of English (and the eastern North Sea Germanic languages), climbing the coast and leaping the North Sea, then proceeding inland from the new burghs, we might be tracing the penetration of the market?

Obviously I also think that the movement of technologies and economies has as much or more to do with the Americanisation of the Old Northwest in the 1780s and 1790s as population movements, but I don't want to argue to a controversial position from a weak analogy. I would have made that argument if, as I said, the Douglasses were the Sinclairs. But they're not. Alas.   

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