William Sinclair of Rosslyn

Photo 1

Quite probably the initials of William Sinclair of Rosslyn and the shield bearing the Rosslyn St. Clair's engrailed cross above the dormer window on the first floor of the house at rosslyn Castle. William was responsible for building the vaults below the house and the 'Great Turnpike', the staircase from the basement to the first floor.

Photo 2

A drawing of the shield above the fireplace in the 'Great Hall', marking the completion of its construction in 1597.


William Sinclair was born in 1561 and was generally referred to in contemporary documents as 'William Sinclair of Roslin'. He led a tumultuous life and was soon in trouble. Both he and his father were accused by the wife of his brother Edward that they were turning him against her – even locking him in the castle to stop her from seeing him. As it turned out, she probably had good cause because, in 1582, Edward gave up all his hereditary rights as the lord of Rosslyn to William, his younger brother.

William married Jean Edmonstone, the daughter of John Edmonstone. The Edmonstones had an estate in the Merse, but their main home was at Newton, within easy reach of the court in Edinburgh and only a few miles from Roslin. Jean died in 1590, possibly as a result of complications when their son was born, who was later to be known as 'Sir William Sinclair of Pentland'.

Following this tragedy, William must have thrown himself into political life and rebuilding Rosslyn Castle after the devastation the earl of Hertford had wrought in 1544 during Henry VIII's 'rough wooing'. Within a year, King James VI had denounced William as a rebel and imprisoned him for a short time in Blackness Castle. Even so, by 1596 he had completed the construction of the vaults and the 'Great Turnpike', built a new arch for the drawbridge and the tower for the clock on the Keep. Between December 1600 and November 1601, the first St. Clair Charter confirmed ‘Wm Sinclar now of rosling’ as the patron and protector of Scottish masons. He also continued his father’s legal battle with the Borthwicks for reneging on a marriage to one of his sisters, and fought with the kirk over Rosslyn Chapel.

Since 1589, the presbytery of Dalkeith had been pursuing William about his
suspected Catholicism and failure to dismantle the altar and other ‘idolatries’ in Rosslyn Chapel. Only after the threat of excommunication did they finally persuade him to act. The last stones were removed in 1592, but this wasn’t the end of their dispute with him. During the early 1590s, William was regularly being called to appear before the presbytery and general assembly to answer for his immoral behaviour. Following his wife’s death, it appears that he had taken up with several local women, and in particular with Janet Dobie.

There were a number of Dobie families living near Roslin at the time, and one of them leased farmland in Roslin Lee from William, now part of the Roslin Glen Country Park. Janet (or Jean) Dobie lived at ‘Leymylnes’, which was probably the mill referred to by Father Hay, the family's historian, when he wrote in 1700 that William built ‘a fine House near the Milne’. Indeed, it is likely that the remains of this mill are what can still be seen below the castle by the linn, where a wooden bridge used to cross the North Esk.

By 1614, William had already had two sons by Janet – William and George. But the elders never let up their pressure on him, constantly accusing him of fornication and unlawful cohabitation. Whether it was due to this, or Sir William Sinclair of Pentland's marriage to Anne Spottiswood in 1610 and the changes this brought about in their living arrangements at the castle, William was starting to make plans to leave from 1612. He would have been well aware of king James I's ‘Ulster Plantation’ in 1605, and the idea of settling far away in Ireland must have appealed to him.

Father Hay wrote:

Sir William Sinclair, the father, was a leud man. He kept a miller's daughter, with whom it is alledged he went to Ireland; yet I think the caufe of his retreat was rather occafioned by the Prefbyterians who vexd him fadly because of his religion, being Roman Catholic.

But another reason – and probably more important – was that he was beset with debt, doubtless caused by continuing litigation and the cost of rebuilding the castle. He even claimed that he was fearful of creditors catching up with him. To resolve this, in 1612, he settled his lands in Caithness on his son for the payment of ‘Certain Soumes of money to Certain persons’.

Five years later, when he was living in Edinburgh, he finally took action. He settled the rest of his lands in Roslin, Pentland, Morton and Mortonhall on his son William, his daughter-in-law and their heirs, and married Janet Dobie in a church just south of the border in England. By 1620, at the age of 59, he left for Ireland with Janet and his young family, never to return to live at Rosslyn again.