Taking their name from the town of St Clare-sur-Elle in the Pont d’eveque region of Normandy, the Sinclair clan are thought to have originally arrived in Scotland after leaving their native France during the reign of David I in the early 12th century.
The first Sinclair to be recorded as living in Scotland would be Henry de St Clare of Herdmanston in the year 1163 and this line of the family would eventually be raised to the peerage as Lords St Clair. This branch of the family would not be the ancestors of the chiefly family, however, as that accolade would be given to the Earls of Caithness, descendants of William St Clair, a sheriff of Edinburgh, who was given the barony of Roslin in 1280.
The Sinclairs would become deeply associated with the area around Roslin and would eventually give their loyalty to the claim of Robert the Bruce during the Scottish Wars of Independence, receiving further lands in the area for their contribution during the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
From here, the clan would become close to King Robert and the chief, William St Clare, would take part in a mission to carry Bruce’s remains to the Holy Land following his death. St Clare would not make it to the Holy Land, however, and would be killed before he could return. His tomb is located inside the chapel at Roslin, one of the most architecturally impressive chapels in the world.
The family would then begin an association with the Orkney Islands in the far north of Scotland and Henry St Clare would become earl of the islands in 1379. The chief would then continue to expand north and would eventually begin an expedition which is believed to have culminated in the Americas, possibly landing in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts.
The third Earl would be given an even more important position as he became the High Chancellor of Scotland between 1454 and 1458 although the clan did return Orkney to the Scottish crown in 1470 before the chief, William, would split his lands between his two sons with the eldest receiving the Earldom of Caithness and the younger his lands at Roslin.
The chiefship would thereafter be given to the line which followed the Earl of Caithness and the family would prosper until the sixth Earl was forced to sell much of his lands in 1672 after accruing a serious amount of debt. He would die without an heir in 1676 and the earldom would pass to a member of the Campbell family before a relative of the 5th Earl, George Sinclair of Keiss, would take back possession of his family’s former estates by force. This would, unfortunately for the Sinclairs, not be the end of this feud and a bloody battle between the two families would be decisively lost by the Sinclairs on the banks of the River Altimarlech where it is said that so many Sinclairs lost their lives, the Campbells were able to cross the water without getting their feet wet.
Despite the bloodshed, the Sinclairs would regain the earldom by an order of parliament in 1681 and this family would continue to hold the chiefship of the clan up until the present day.
The current clan chief of Clan Sinclair is Malcolm Sinclair, 20th Earl of Caithness. He has a distinguished political career and has held a number of government ministerial posts. He is also very active in clan affairs across the world and has campaigned for the preservation of the clan’s historic seat at Girnigoe Castle in Caithness.