LORDSHIP OF DUFFUS
By Nigel Tranter
THE Laigh of Moray, the rich alluvial plain which lies between the great mountain mass of the Monadh Ruadh, or the Cairngorms, and the northern sea, has been called both the Granary and the Garden of Scotland, on account of its great fertility and the salubrity of its climate. In the midst of this Eden is a smaller, area of about four miles square, a par- ish which itself is known as the Heart of Moray, not so much on account of its geographical centrality as because of its surpassing fertility and richness. And in the very centre of this creme de la creme, rises out of the luxurious, fecund and teeming black soil, a green mound. From this thrust up jagged fangs of ancient masonry--the Castle of Duffus.
Duffus of the Duffuses!
The name is presumed to signify, in the Gaelic, Dubh-uis, the Black Water, and no doubt it takes us back to the days when the nearby Loch of Spynie was more than five miles long, and all this area was in the thrall of water seeping, creeping, lapping water laying down the deep, dark basis for the subsequent amazing fertility. But it was more the surname than the place name which interested me. For the name of Duffus is but little heard of, little known, in Scotland. To have sprung from the very quin-tessence of the land's richness, and yet to have made so little impact on our country and history, struck me as strange. Especially when considered in conjunction with that famous picture, so often reproduced as the authentic and authoritative representation of Highland dress at the height of its magnificence--the portrait, full-length and colourful, of Kenneth, third Lord Duffus.
So there were Lords Duffus, linked with this ancient and fertile territory. Yet, who has ever heard of the part they played on Scotland's stage, barring that of tailor's dummy, as portrayed by Kenneth, with his podgy knees, proud and spectacular great-kilt, slashed doublet, gartered tartan hose, broadsword, powder-horn, dirk, musket, and greyhound? I had not, at any rate, I decided to investigate.
Reference works declared that Duffus Castle was the seat of a family who bore the title of Lords Duffus from 1650 until 1843-- but little more. Yet the remains of this castle show it to have been already ancient in 1650; Clearly, it was one of the compara-tively few very early remaining mote-and-bailey castles of the 13th century, with alterations and additions in the two centuries following. There is an area of no less than eight acres within the ditch, which itself averaged 25 feet in width, This was clearly the seat of highly important lords.
All sources agree that Duffus was originally a timber castle, built on top of its mote, or semi-artificial green mound, by the almost legendary family of De Moravia. This family took its name from the great Province of Moray, once much larger than the present county, and numerous lines took their descent from it, most notably that of the great family of Murray. The accepted progenitor of the De Moravia line was a somewhat misty magnate named Freskin of Friskinus, probably of Pictish origin, although sometimes declared to have been one King David the First's imported Flemings.
This Freskin has a better-documented son, William De Moravia, who had a charter from William the Lion in 1169, of the lands of Duffus, Roseisle, Kintrae, and others ". . . which lands his father, Freskin held in the reign of my grandfather, King David." Duffus Castle, then, was the seat of the family which once con-trolled the entire Province of Moray. Freskin is elsewhere entitled Dominus de Duffus. Freskin also had a son, Hugh. Hugh had a son William, who became first Earl of Sutherland. William, son of Freskin, carrying on the main line of the family, had a great grandson, another Freskin, who produced no son but two heiresses. Mary the elder, was married to Sir Reginald Cheyne in 1286, and in 1305 her husband approached the all-conquering King Edward the First of England for permission to fell 200 oak trees " to build his manor of Duffus." Cheyne and Mary De Moravia once again produced only two daughters, and the elder, who was the heir to Duffus, another Mary, married a far-out cousin, Nicholas, second son of Kenneth, 4th Earl of Sutherland. So Duffus came back to the original male descendants of the first Freskin, even though now called Sutherland.
To go back: What took Freskin's grandson, William, north and gained him so much land and power in what was then Sudrland, the South land of the Norse Caithness; and Orkney territories, We do not know --probably, in the usual way, he married into it. Anyway, he became powerful enough to be created first Earl of Sutherland. Thereupon, this branch seems to have dropped the surname of De Moravia and adopted that of Sutherland. The third Earl signed the famous Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, the fourth died at Halidon, and the line went until 1514 when the ninth Earl died insane.
But we are not concerned with the Sutherland earldom. Nicholas Sutherland, seventh in descent from the first Freskin, thus became Lord of Duffus. After this, something of a silence descends upon Duffus--or at least, records do not survive to declare much otherwise. Until, in 1530 stirring doings come to light, not around the main seat of Duffus, but in Sutherland. In that year we read that William Sutherland , Lord of Duffus, was killed by Clan Gunn, at Thurso -- the Gunns allegedly insti- gated thereto by the Bishop of Caithness.
The reason for the murder of Duffus is not revealed -- but we discover that the dead man's brother was the Dean of Caithness. This was the period prior to the Reformation when there was a tremendous amount of sculduddery amongst the lords and laird to get relatives into positions in the collapsing Church, whereby, when the crunch came the great Church lands would gravitate towards the incumbents. lt may well have been something of the sort here, with Duffus seeking to get his brother, the Dean, into the Bishop's seat.
The next laird, Alexander, son of William, seems to have carried on the policy of conducting his mishaviours far from home. We that in alliance with the Earl of Caithness, he attacked the Town of Dornoch in 1567, and again laid waste both town and castle in 1570. A year or two earlier, his brothers with the Lord of Duffus's consent, had seized the castle of Berriedale and held it for some time against its true owner, the Lord Oliphant. This was probably all still part of the Reformation land-grab aftermath, with the Catholic -Protestant rivalry further complicating the issue. This Alexander seems to have suffered a change of heart, for we read that in 1571, having put to death certain "sureties" who had surrendered to his ally, the Earl of Caithness, he became so overcome with remorse that he fell ill and soon pined away and died. Odd for the man who had sacked the town of Dornoch twice!
The laird who, succeeded in 1616 carried on the family tradition by becoming "much embroiled with the neighboring lairds, especially in Sutherland." He died suddenly in 1626 at an early age, leaving an heir, Alexander, of only four years. This Alexander, however, was the man who painted the Duffus colours on a wider canvas. He must have been a precocious youth, for he was one of those who went to Edinburgh to greet King Charles, the First in 1641, whereupon the grateful monarch knighted him. He can have been only nineteen at the time. However, his admiration for the unfortunate Charles seemed to have cooled, for he took the opposite Covenant side, and his estate suffered at the Royalist hands in consequence. Indignant, he petitioned Parliament for redress, and succeeded in winning compensation of, L 10,000 Scots--to be paid by the English Parliament.
On the proceeds, presumably young Sir Alexander Sutherland went abroad, and traveled extensively in France and Holland--Scotland was no doubt a good place to be out of during the Commonwealth period. But Holland was where King Charles the Second was in exile, and in June 1650, when Charles sailed back to his own country, Sir Alexander came with him. They landed at Garmouth in Moray, only a few miles from Duffus, and it may well have been Sir Alexander's influence which brought the Royal exile there. At any rate, within six months, Alexander was created a peer, as the first Lord Duffus.
But Cromwell was to rule the land for another ten years, and the new Lord Duffus soon found himself in trouble. He was ordered to hold the city of Perth for King Charles and given 600 men to do it. He held out for exactly twelve hours--and was thereafter fined L1500 by the Lord Protector. When at last the Restoration came, Lord Duffus in due course went to London with the now Merry Monarch.
Reading between the lines, it is probable that the new peer earned his honours by more than the fact that he brought Charles from Holland to Moray--or even by his twelve-hours' defence of Perth. Charles was chronically short of money, inheriting an empty treasury and Alexander Sutherland was rich. As well as all the original lands of Duffus and in Sutherland, one of his predecessors had married an heiress with great estates in the Elgin area.
I think it is safe to say that the Laird of Duffus dipped his hand deep into his pocket on the King's behalf--and so, perhaps, was one of the first to gain his peerage by a method which was later was later to become not at all unusual. His successor, at any rate, had to sell the greater part of his vast estates. Royal favours can be over-dearly bought.
This second lord, James, seems to have reverted to normal. He stayed more or less at home and quarrelled with his neighbours in Sutherland. He did more than squabble with his northern neighbours--he ran one of them through with a sword--" to the expiry of breadth.'' This was one William Ross, Younger of Kindeace, to whom he owed a lot of money--ten thousand marks. James, indeed, paid for his father's peerage all his life, embarrassed with debt. It was claimed on his behalf, however, after the unfortunate running-through with the sword, that the discord was nothing to do with the debt but with an argument regarding the relative merits of horses ridden by the company.
Duffus fled, and seems to have suffered no penalty--other than his conscience. The Sutherlands do not really seem to have been of the stuff of successful villains. It is said that he suffered great distress in his mind. His mother-in-law, the Countess of Seaforth, indeed wrote to him thus:--" Many a man has fallen in such an accident worse than circumstances was, yet has been at peace with God and all the world lived happily for all that." Lord james got over his distress, for he came home, evidently his credit unimpaired, and promptly became Provost of Elgin.
If the second Lord was scarcely a hero, his sons did better. The eldest son, Kenneth was a captain in Queen Anne's navy, and the West Indies on service when his father died in 1705. He seems to have remained in the Navy, for in 1711 it is related that in his own ship alone, a 46-gun frigate, he engaged no fewer than eight French privateers at once, and after desperate resistance was taken prisoner with five bullets in his body.
This is he of portrait, in all the Highland finery. It seems odd to say the least of it, that he should have had himself painted thus, for, of course, he was no Highlander, and this was long before the period when young Queen Victoria mad the kilt and the tartan popular fancy dress for Lowlanders and even Englishmen.
Why this sea-going sprig of a Laigh of Moray house should have decked himself up and been painted thus, we don't know. His house had, all along, good cause to hate the Highlanders and had no doubt suffered greatly at their hands; recollect that it was only sixty years before that Lochiel was writing about "Moray land where all men take their prey." Presumably, then, Kenneth was a romantic --and his romanticism was such as to cost him his whole career, title and lands, and came out for King James over the water.
He had voted for the Union of the Parliaments in 1707 --but he turned militant Jacobite eight years later. We next hear of him marching at the head of five hundred men into Tain, and there proclaiming the Old Chevalier as King James the Eighth.
The next reference I have unearthed is less stirring. An excerpt from an Edinburgh newspaper of 3rd March 1716 (after the disaster of Sheriffmuir) says: "120 gentlemen of the Horse army, with whom were Lord Duffus, Sir George Sinclair, General Ecklin, &c, rode with all speed to Burgh (Burghead) in Moray where they embarked in open boats for Caithness, who did not know how to dispose of their horses, upon which General Ecklin immediately shot through his heart, and 15 more followed his example." Less gallant stuff than the battle with the eight French privateers.
But Lord Duffus was not finished yet. He escaped abroad, his estate confiscated, but after some time proposed to come home and surrender, under the terms of a general indemnity for former rebels notifying the British Minister at Stockholm to this effect. However, politics were as murky then as now, and on his way home he was seized by order of the British resident at Hamburg and confined in that City until the time for surrenders expired.
Then he was conveyed prisoner to the Tower of london --and though he was eventually liberated without trial, his lands and title were not restored to him. Penniless, he sold his sword to the Czar of Russia, and became prominent in that navy. He married a Swedish lady, daughter of the Governor of Gothenburg, and died in 1733.
He had a son named Eric, who succeeded as titular Lord Duffus, and petitioned George the Second to reverse the attainder, detailing the shady conditions of his father's imprisonment at Hamburg. But the House of Lords would have none of it. He assumed the title, however, and was generally, if not legally, accepted as the 4th Lord of Duffus. He remained loyal to the government during the rising of 1745, even sending intelligence of Jacobite movements to the authorities. He lived at Ackergill Tower in Caithness --for he had married his cousin, Elizabeth Dunbar, of whom anon. Perhaps Eric's anti-Jacobite activities had their effect for the peerage was restored in 1826 to his son James, an officer in the army, who died unmarried the next year.
To go back to Kenneth. He had a brother, James, the second son of the second Lord. His career was as different from Kenneth's as it could be. He was a lawyer, an advocate, and after becoming a baronet in unusual circumstances, changed his name and started a new line, untainted by loyalty to the Stewarts. He managed this by marrying an heiress --Elizabeth Dunbar, only child of Sir William Dunbar of Hempriggs, in Caithness.
This Sir William must have rendered indeed notable service to the government, for when he died, and his baronetcy devolved upon his brother, for want of a son, Queen Anne, in 1706, conferred a completely new baronetcy on Sir William's daughter --or, at least, on her husband, since baronetesses are rare indeed, so long as he took the name and arms of Dunbar. And this wholly unearned title was "with remainder to heirs whatsoever" --an unusual privilege.
So James Sutherland, advocate, suddenly became Sir James Sutherland- Dunbar of hempriggs, in faraway Caithness, and was in a position to wash his hands conveniently of all treasonable Duffus doings. It would be interesting to know, however,whether when Lord Duffus set sail from Burghead in his open boat for Caithness in 1716 he was not perhaps thinking of sanctuary with brother James Dunbar, at least for the moment.
It was Sir James's daughter, Elizabeth, then whom Eric the half-Scandi- navian fourth Lord came home and married --his full cousin. And their who officially had the title restored to him and died unmarried. Now the story becomes complicated. The peerage was then assumed by Sir Benjamin Dunbar, third baronet, grandson of Sir James.
But his claim was contested by an English clergyman, Rev. Eric Rudd. he was the son of Elizabeth Sutherland, a daughter of Eric, fourth lord. Re. Eric was obviously nearer to the main stem of the family than Sir Benjamin, grandson of old James-Change-Name-Dunbar. And he at least clearly believed that the peerage was one that could travel through the female line.
Sir Ben seems to have won the day --but there remain some distinct doubts, for Sir ben's son, george, assumed the Dunbar baronetcy (as, of course was correct), but did not assume title of the 7th Lord Duffus. he died unmarried, and the Dunbar baronetcy went to a grandnephew named Duff. But the loftier title of Lord Duffus, quietly sank from sight and disappeared.
So there has been no Lord Duffus, officially, since 1876. I do not know whether the Rudds or the Duff-Dunbars have pressed their respective claims --both through the female line. But is surely unlikely that there were no male descendants of the earlier lords. Sutherland is not an uncommon name --there are 266 of them in my issue of the Telephone Directory. Somewhere today, perhaps, walks, all unknowing, the rightful Lord Duffus, latest in the long line from Freskin De Moravia.
The motto of the house was "Butt Sicker."