The History of Cadboll Castle

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A story on Cadboll Castle and the people who made it their home.

You have to really search hard to find the ruins of Cadboll Castle which is now tucked away among the more modern Cadboll estate buildings. The castle's history is equally as elusive with all its different owners but two documents in our collection, showing the castle was attacked in 1572 by the Chief of Clan Ross, inspired me to see what more I could find.

Cadboll Castle

Little is known about the area's early medieval past but not far from the ruins of Cadboll Castle are two spectacular 9th-Century Pictish Cross Slabs, at Nigg and Shandwick, together with a replica of a third, the Hilton of Cadboll Stone. Which has been erected at the old cross slab's original location on the shore close to the old castle. These magnificent stones hint at the area's rich Pictish heritage, although, the name Cadboll is Norse, translating to 'Cat-stead' or Catfarm. Suggesting that the lands were not only 'a haunt of wild cats' and Picts but later also home to Norse settlers, this is a strong possibility with Cadboll being only one of several Norse placenames found nearby on the Peninsula. 

The lands at Cadboll were part of the Medieval Earldom of Ross but had been held by the Bishops of Murray at Elgin since the 13th century. They had been granted a portion of land at Cadboll and Pitkerry by William the Earl of Ross in compensation for the 'damages, injuries and losses' to the churches at Petty and Brackley in Murray. In 1478 these church lands were leased by the Bishop of Murray to John MacCulloch of the Plaids and his successors for 14 silver Marks a year to be paid at the Cathedral Church of Ross.  

MacCulloch of the Plaids

The MacCulloch Clan were an important family at this time who held extensive lands and positions of power in Easter-Ross. John MacCulloch of the Plaids was the Hereditary Baillie of the Girth or Sanctuary of St Duthac at Tain and it was perhaps either he or his son William who began building the original castle at Cadboll. In 1511 William married Agnes Ross the daughter of the chief of Clan Ross, Sir David Ross of Balnagown. Lady Plaids, as Agnes was styled, would go on to outlive both her husband, who died in 1540, and her eldest son Thomas who was killed at the Battle of Pinkie in 1548. His tragic death, left poor Agnes Ross widowed and fighting a long legal battle for control of Cadboll and the Plaids.

Lady Plaids Agnes Ross

Her opponent was Alexander Innes, styled 'Captain of Orkney', who purchased Cadboll and the other MacCulloch lands, including the Plaids from Agnes's grandson Robert MacCulloch in 1552. Innes, who was also Robert's uncle, spent a decade in the courts trying to remove Agnes and her tenants from Cadboll. In 1562 the courts eventually decided in Innes's favour but with little local support, it seems he could not completely remove Agnes from his lands; as she died at Skardie (Hilton by Tain) on the 24th of April 1572. 

Alexander Innes of the Plaids

In the same year, Innes's lands were extensively raided, and the castle at Cadboll was attacked by Agnes's nephew Alexander Ross 11th of Balnagown and chief of Clan Ross. He, no doubt with the support of the MacCullochs, raided Innes's lands, attacked his castle, took both Innes and his wife hostage and then attempted to force him into a sale of almost all his lands. This coerced contract, now in Tain Museum's collection, gave Alexander Ross almost all of Innes's lands for only 1000 marks whilst offering to return; 'all his cornes, oxin, ky, sheip, horse, bedding, naiprie, plenisssing... moveable guids...Catboll and fortalice yairof.' 

Innes's attempt to gain a foothold in Easter Ross was thwarted again but now violently. His complaints to the Government led to Alexander Ross and his accomplices being summoned to a Parliament at Edinburgh by the Regent of Scotland the Earl of Morton. Alexander Ross the old clan chief eventually appeared at the Tollbooth in Edinburgh to answer the charges, in March of 1573 and was promptly arrested and thrown in jail. He stood accused of destroying the 'baillie tower of Cadboll' whilst also imprisoning Alexander Innes of Plaids and his wife. Here the tables had turned on the Chief and now he was forced to sign a contract promising to pay Innes 4,000 Marks to rebuild the 'vaults and houses of Cadboll.'

On his release in August Alexander Ross immediately revoked this agreement. He signed an article of Revocation, also in Tain Museum, claiming he was in fear of his life when signing. Whilst stating the attack was carried out by 'Hugh MacCulloch pretending a right to Cadboll and his accomplices.' Alexander eventually escaped home but found himself under pressure from his own son George and the Ross Clan and was in no position to further pursue Innes. 

Alexander Innes the Laird of the Plaids and Cadboll had at long last thwarted the attempts of the Ross and MacCulloch Clans. Who, from their reactions, likely viewed Innes's purchase of the MacCulloch lands from his young nephew with more than just a little suspicion. The castle at Cadboll, which appears to have been extensively rebuilt soon after, was seriously damaged during the incident in 1572; perhaps being attacked by the Culverine (cannon) which Alexander Ross ordered in 1553. Ultimately Innes's attempts to establish his family in Easter Ross failed when, shortly after he died in 1584, his son Robert sold all his lands and titles to the George Sinclair 2nd of Mey for 23,500 Marks. Slightly more than the poultry sum of 1,000 Marks that Alexander Ross tried to force on Innes in 1572.

The Sinclairs and Lady Mey 

For the next few generations Cadboll castle and the neighbouring lands of Geanies became home to the Sinclairs of Mey. Already close kin with the Ross Clan their arrival, although likely unwelcome, was eased with an arranged marriage. George Ross the 10th of Balnagown and George Sinclair the 2nd of Mey, who were 1st cousins, agreed in 1591 to the marriage of their children William Sinclair and Katherine Ross. This proposed marriage was seriously jeopardised in 1595, when the 14-year-old William infamously shot dead an Edinburgh Baillie during a riot at Edinburgh High School, over the shortening of the school holidays! Somehow William managed to escape being charged and he and Catherine Ross of Balnagown married in 1600 and had at least one child together, a son James Sinclair, who was born in 1602.  

It is not clear where the young couple lived but they were never together the Laird and Lady of Cadbol, although the Calendar of Fearn does name Catherine as 'Ladye Maye' in her obituary. She died at Tain on the 5th July 1612, likely only in her twenties, four years before the Laird of Cadboll George Sinclair who died in January of 1616. A complaint by George's widow Margaret Forbes only a few months after his death highlights the difficulties of being a 17th-century widow, whilst giving us a rare glimpse into the life of Cadbol Castle; 

"Complaint by the King’s Advocate, as follows:— On 11th March last, Sir William Sinclair of Catboll, son of the said Lady May, accompanied ... with others, all armed with swords, etc., went to the place and tower of Catboll;

'put ladders to the said house climbed up the roof there, entered in there, broke open the doors, kists, lockfast loom, being there until, stole away the whole writs, goldsmith works, sums of money and others being within the said house, pertaining to her and her bairns.'

Pursuer’s son has since occupied the house, and will not render it up to her. Lords order defenders to render up the same for failing to show cause to the contrary, and moreover, order them to be denounced rebels for not appearing."  

After William took the castle by force, his mother Lady Mey went to live at Geanies with her younger son Sir John Sinclair. A letter in the Sinclair of Mey papers adds a little more details to the incident and a wee story for an item which we perhaps have in our collection, the Key to Cadboll Castle.

"At Tayne (Tain), 4 August 1616. Instrument narrating that Arthur Forbes in Ballacherrie (Balcherry), factor for Sir William Sinclar, offered to Margaret Forbes the keys of the tower and fortalice of Catboll. The said Arthur, with Alexander Sinclar, Margaret's son, and Janet Sinclar, her daughter, passed within the tower and made an inventory of the plenishing (everything) thereof." 

George Sinclair, who was said to have been banished from Caithness, and his son William both seem to have made Cadboll castle their main residence whilst taking an active role in Easter Ross during their lives. The last stages of construction at Cadboll castle were likely completed by them in the early 17th century. William Sinclair died, according to the Calendar of Fearn, at Castle Mey on the 16th of June 1642 but letters suggest that he lived much of his life at Cadboll Castle. 

His son, Sir James Sinclair of Mey was 40 years old at the time of his father's death and showed little interest in Cadboll having already returned North to the family's old home at Canisbey in Caithness. When he died in 1662 the revenues from the lands at Cadboll were given for life for the upkeep of his widow Elizabeth Leslie Lady Mey. 

Alexander Duff and his Three Wives

The Castle next became home to Alexander Duff who is noted in the Tain and Balnagown Documents as chamberlain to Lady Mey in 1665. Alexander seems to have been in the employment of Sir James Sinclair since the late 1640s when he is styled at Lochslin. He was likely living in the castle before 1665 as an obituary for his wife 'Crestane Wrqhart' is recorded in the Calander of Fearn noting that she died at Cadboll on the 4th of September 1660. Alexander, the most infamous vandal in Easter Ross, also left a lasting memorial to himself and his three wives carved into the back of the Hilton of Cadboll Stone now in the National Museum of Scotland. The rather poetical inscription on the stone reads;

    A  DVF
K   S
C   V
H   V
I could find almost no other information on Alexander apart from one reference to an Alexander Duff being fined £6 13s 4d, by the minister and elders of the session of Fearn Church, for continued fornication! Surprisingly considering the date on the inscription he is recorded as being still alive in 1683.

The Macleods of Cadboll

The lands at Cadboll and the Plaids were eventually sold in 1694 to George Mackenzie Viscount Tarbat to pay off debts and fines incurred by the Sinclairs of Mey. The main fine was for attacking the unfortunate Neil MacLeod the last of Assynt who had lost his lands to the Mackenzie's.  Ironically the following year, Viscount Tarbat sold Cadboll and the Plaids to Aeneas Macleod who was descended from an uncle of Neil Macleod of Assynt. The Macleods who had lost their ancestral seat in Assynt made Cadboll their home but not it seems the castle. A mansion house and tower were part of the sale of Cadboll in 1694 and the old castle's days as a home were over.


And the lovely Lady May
Pined and sickened from that day.
Fifty years have passed away,
Old and bent is Lady May,
Living in her feudal tower
Like the everlasting flower,
Which, though sapless, hard, and dry,
Liveth on-it cannot die.

The epic poem on the Legend of Cadboll Castle, tells that no one ever died within its walls and the old and long broken-hearted Lady Mey had to beg to be removed from the castle so she could, at long last, die in peace. I had hoped to learn who she was but the poem states Lady Mey was a Macleod, which seems impossible. Maybe Lady Mey was poetic license and modernising an old tale as the only broken-hearted Lady of Cadboll, who lived beyond her days, was surely Agnes Ross, whose husband was killed at the Battle of Pinkie?