Sinclair of Toab, Brabster and Sabay

Tolhope, Tolhoip, Tollop, Tob or Toab, has been spelt various ways over the years and is a district in St Andrew’s parish, on the mainland of Orkney about 7 miles from Kirkwall. Mostly agricultural farmland, from the earliest records it was divided into two townships, ‘Above the yaird’ and ‘Beneath the yaird’ with ‘yaird’ being an old name for high ramparts of turf or a stone-built wall to keep grazing animals away from the crops.

The earliest Sinclair connections with Toab were sometime before 1438, when three witnesses attested they were present on an earlier occasion when two men swore on the ‘hirdmanstein’ [the sheriff court of Orkney held in January each year] before the Earl of Orkney, that they had witnessed a meeting in the vestry of St Magnus Cathedral, when Thomas Sinclair, [‘son of the late Davy Sinclair’ – possibly the Thomas Sinclair appointed by the Norwegian King as Warden of Orkney], bought the ’12 pennyland of Tollop above the yaird’ from John Kirkness. The witnesses swore that he had not been under any duress to sell the land to Thomas Sinclair, as Kirkness was now insisting. At some point later, Thomas sold the land to Watt Fraser, whose descendants remained on the land there for several generations.

Earl William Sinclair somehow acquired the 9 pennylands of Sabay, Grotsetter and Toab, as we know he exchanged those lands on 27th April 1460 with Christe Irving and his wife Edane Paplay for the lands of Paplay, Hurtiso and Okilsetter in the parish of Holm instead. That would have been a different part of Toab to the earlier portion bought by Thomas Sinclair. The Irvings remained in possession of Sabay, Grotsetter and that part of Toab for several generations thereafter.

Sometime before 1514, Sir William Sinclair of Warsetter had bought Nicol Frasers’ heritage in Toab. This land must have been an inherited portion of the lands of Toab ‘above the yaird’ previously sold by Thomas Sinclair to Watt Fraser. However, it included the mansion house usually inherited by the eldest son, and on those grounds, the sale was contested by Nicol Fraser’s uncle, albeit unsuccessfully.

In 1522, John Sinclair ‘of Tollop’ purchased the deceased Cristiane Sinclair’s sister’s part of all her land within Orkney and Shetland from her sons, William and Henry Paulson. Cristiane was the daughter of a Thom Sinclair and Margaret Wilson. A Margaret Wilson is listed in the 1492 Rental as holding land at Yenstay, also in St Andrew’s parish, where she was exempt from paying rent or ‘skat’, suggesting her late husband was probably a member of the earldom family to have had such favourable treatment. It could be that Margaret had been married to Thomas Sinclair, the Warden of Orkney, but that cannot be substantiated. That William and Henry Paulson were selling to John Sinclair implies that they were probably related somehow, as land was always kept in the family if at all possible. It also implies that John was a member of the comital family, as the Sinclairs would have been one of the few families with sufficient funds to buy land in those days. In any case, John’s grandson, John ‘of Tollop and Brabster’, used a seal with an engrailed cross on a document in 1584, which confirms his membership of the earldom family.

The fact John named his heir ‘Magnus’, suggests his father was named Magnus, following the usual Scottish naming pattern. Perhaps John was Sir William of Warsetter’s nephew; Sir William did have a brother named Magnus, he also had a son named Magnus and he had bought Nicol Fraser’s land in Toab, so he had a foothold there, which he may have passed on to either his nephew or grandson. The only other Magnus Sinclair on record in Orkney around that time is Magnus the tacksman of Cairston in Stromness, who is another possible candidate, about whom nothing more is known. Unfortunately, once again, the scarcity of available records makes it impossible to be certain exactly how John connects to the earldom family.

Not very much is known about John ‘of Tollop’, although we do know from a later court case in 1527 that he exchanged 3d land at Havell on the north side of the gate [yaird] in Toab with Thomas Fraser, for Thomas’s inheritance in Toab on the south side of the gate, including the mansion house, and in 1531 he bought 2 merks of land in Brabster in Deerness parish from the sons of Magnus Louttit. He fought alongside the Warsetter Sinclairs against the Caithness Sinclairs at the inter-family battle of Summerdale in 1529, for which he, along with other Orcadians and Shetlanders, having been charged with the murder of John Sinclair, Earl of Caithness, were granted an amnesty by the King in 1539. There is no record of whom John married and he must have died before 2 August 1568 when his son, Magnus Sinclair ‘of Tolhop’ is mentioned as a witness to a land sale for Patrick Bellenden of Stenness. He may also have had a son named Edward, ‘in Tollop’, who is mentioned as a witness in court between 1558 and 1584.

A little more is known about Magnus, who was usually referred to as ‘in Skaill’, where he was baillie [tax collector] of Sandwick parish for Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney. He survived an attempt by Thomas Fraser’s heir to contest his right to Swartebrek and Havell in Toab in 1579, on which occasion Earl Robert declared Magnus’ father’s charter of 1527 was legally valid and Henry Fraser was ordered to cease troubling Magnus in his peaceable possession of the lands. In 1574, Magnus had been involved in a dispute over land at Skeabrae in Sandwick, but lost out to Katherine Man and her spouse James Gray, whom the assize determined had the legal right to it. Then in May 1580, his eldest son John married Marie Stewart, ‘brother daughter to Lord Robert Stewart, feuar of Orkney and Shetland’ and Magnus resigned all his heritable lands both ‘conquest and pertaining to him in heritage’ to his son and future wife in fulfilment of the marriage contract.

Four years later in March 1584, Magnus stood accused by Earl Robert Stewart of ‘succeeding in his father’s vyce of steiling and grippand the kingis landis and for withhalding of certane outbrakis brokin furth upoun the kingis balk and bigit houssis thairupoun between the kingis land and the hill.’ In other words, stealing some of the King’s land and developing it, just as his father apparently had. As a result, Magnus’s lands of Brabster in Deerness and Hawell and Swartebrek in Toab were confiscated and granted to Marie Stewart, his daughter-in-law, who lived at Air in Deerness with her husband John. In the end, the land remained within the family to be passed on to future generations, the only punishment being that Magnus would not have had any income from the rents from that point on. However, it appears Magnus died sometime between that court case in March, but before November 1584, so that judgement did not trouble him very much.

The first record of Magnus’s heir, John ‘of Toab and Brabster’, was as a member of an assize on 12 November 1584, when the lands of Brough and Quhome in Rousay were apprised for non-payment of duties from Margaret Sinclair, widow of Malcolm Halcro of Brough, and their two daughters. Margaret was the daughter of Sir James Sinclair of Brecks, son of Sir William Sinclair of Warsetter, indicating another Warsetter family link for the Sinclairs of Toab. John was also one of many holders of udal land in Orkney and Shetland who petitioned parliament complaining that Patrick, Earl of Orkney, was trying to possess their lands by devious means. The following year in 1593, the King granted a charter of the 6 pennylands of Brugh and others on Rousay to John Sinclair of Toab, who then promptly sold them two months later to Hew, son of Henry Halcro of Halcro and so the lands of Brough were back in Halcro hands once more.

This Halcro connection may be a clue as to who the ‘Barbe Halcro’, apparently married to John’s son William, was from. Although there is no record of any marriage between William and a Barbe or Barbara Halcro in Scotland, the Swedish College of Nobles has a record, provided by their son, David Sinclair, when he was ennobled in Sweden in 1655, asserting his mother was Barbe Halcro, daughter of Hew Halcro of Halcro, although there is some contention as to whether she was Hew Halcro’s daughter or his sister. Apart from William Irving of Sabay mortgaging 1 pennyland in Swartebrek, ‘above the yaird in Toab’, ‘which he had of Walter Frasers heirs’ to John for £30 in March 1589, and a note in the Privy Council, which records that John Sinclair of Tolhoip was an ‘indwellar of Edinburgh’ who, along with William Murray of Pitcairlies, stood surety for George Sinclair of Mey, Chancellor of Caithness, for 5000 merks in May 1600, not much else is known. John was certainly dead before 18 October 1615, because his widow, Marie Stewart, had already married David King of Warbister in the parish of Hoy.

John’s son, William ‘of Tollop then Sabay’, was a colourful character and as mentioned above, he apparently married Barbara or Barbe Halcro. In that case, Barbara must have died sometime before 1615, by which time William was married to his next wife, Jean Gordon, the widow of Patrick Irving of Sabay. From this apparent first marriage he had two sons, John and David, who both went to Sweden in the 1630s and started a dynasty there [see Sinclair of Finnekumla]. In 1615, William and Jean Gordon had a charter for the liferent of Coubister and Smogroo in Orphir and, in 1618, William witnessed a charter in Fetlar, Shetland for David Heart of Rusland, the notary public. By 1619, William was baillie of St Andrew’s parish and lived at Grind. In August 1617, William sold 20 marks of land in Nether Scoland in Scatness, Dunrossness, in Shetland to James Sinclair of Gott, of the Sinclair of Brew family. Quite how he acquired land in Shetland is unknown. In 1622, Jean Gordon’s son, William Irving, borrowed 700 merks from Willliam Sinclair, using his lands as security, and after Irving’s death without heirs in 1626, Irving’s lands of Sabay, Grotsetter and Toab were acquired by William in settlement. In 1624, William enlarged his estate still further when he bought the other part of Sabay from Magnus Flett of Gruthay. Then, in 1625, William bought part of Foubister in St Andrews parish and finally, in 1634, he bought a portion of udal land in Over Sanday in St Andrews from William Irving, son of James Irving, portioner of Over Sanday.

Over the years, William spent a lot of his time in litigation; in 1623 he was involved in the court case of Janet Sinclair of Warsetter who was claiming her inheritance; in 1636, he brought a case to the Lords of Council in Edinburgh accusing Harie Stewart of Graemsay, Patrick Stewart of Gyre, John Stewart, son of Sir James Stewart of Tullos and Eday, and twenty others, all fully armed, of attacking him at his house of Brabster, chasing him and his servants off the land and taking away his crop of corn on 11 October 1630. He accused John and Robert Stewart of breaking into his house on 23 November 1630 and attacking him with ‘sett purpose and provision to have tane his lyffe.’ He also accused the Stewarts and their accomplices of invading his land of Over Sanday in St Andrew’s parish, fully armed, in April 1636, taking possession of his house, firing a hagbut [long-barrelled firearm] at him, breaking his plough and harrow, and accusing David Foubister of having kept possession of William’s house there. After hearing the evidence, the Lords absolved all the defenders ‘as no point of the complaint was proved’ and, to make matters worse, William was instructed to pay compensation of £100 each to two of the accused, 100 merks to William Irving, plus £100 to every horseman and 50 merks to every footman who had been forced to travel to Edinburgh for the case.

The Scotland, Scandinavia and Northern European Biographical database [SSNE] mentions that by 1637, William had joined his son David in Sweden, firstly serving in Colonel Robert Cunningham’s Regiment, and ultimately commanding his own regiment with David as Lieutenant. William must have been in his late forties by then. However, back in Orkney, Saint-Clair of the Isles notes that on 26 May 1637 William became cautioner for John Cromarty of Skae; on 6 August 1639, he was sued by James Baikie of Tankerness, along with his sons Robert and Edward, and on 14 July 1640, William sues Baikie and Finlayson. The only gap in the record seems to be between May 1637 and August 1639, so if William raised his own regiment in Sweden, it did not last long. Finally, on 7 September 1651, he is sued by Edward Sinclair of Gyre and a charter dated 23 April 1657 mentions a toumale of land in Stronsay ‘sometime belonging to the late William Sinclair of Tolhoip’. He certainly acquired land extensively both in Orkney and in Shetland, possibly through business transactions with other merchants, and we can pinpoint his death to sometime before 1653, when his son Robert is noticed in the Orkney rental as ‘of Sabay’.

By the mid-1640s, Robert Sinclair had married Beatrix King, probably related to David King of Warbister in Hoy, whom Robert’s widowed grandmother, Marie Stewart, had married. Robert was a merchant like his father, although not quite as successful. This may not have entirely been his fault; there were several famines in Orkney in the 1630s and 1640s, which would have resulted in unpaid rent from tenants due to crop failure, so landowners had no goods to sell and export down south, leading to the need to borrow money to carry on trading, and debts accumulating. It could also be that the estate was already indebted due to his father’s costly litigation or, perhaps Robert just lived beyond his means and became embroiled in personal debt, because from at least 1669 he was no longer managing the Sabay estate; that job had been taken on by his brother James, who lived at Grotsetter. James acquired the lands of Hammer in Birsay in 1669 from David Sinclair of Hammer and his uterine brother, George Liddell, sons of Isobel Sinclair, the daughter of Magnus Sinclair of Gorne in Sandwick. James then alienated the heritable lands in Birsay back to George Liddell in 1673, but there is no further notice of him until he died on 9 March 1682.

Robert outlived his brother but was imprisoned for debt in the Tolbooth in Kirkwall from 8 July 1687 until 3 May 1689. He was released on payment of a fine, but he still owed 500 merks for meals provided, which neither he nor his second wife, Janet Gordon, had the means to pay. Instead, he negotiated a very favourable bond for 100 merks in settlement. Robert’s eldest son James, had already predeceased him in 1681, leaving no issue. His brother James of Grotsetter was also dead, so the estate was inherited by Robert’s second son Edward in February 1687, shortly before Robert’s imprisonment. Robert owed money to a merchant in Edinburgh who raised an order against him in 1691, so he was presumably still alive then. However, the estate must have still been burdened with debt, as by 1692, the Sabay lands had been acquired by James Graeme of Graemeshall, who is named as ‘proprietor of the lands of Sabay’, with James of Grotsetter’s widow Christian Skene, having the life rent. Christian had married David Traill, the Provost of Kirkwall, in 1684.

By 1708, David Traill had acquired Sabay and assigned it to his son Patrick, under reversion to the heirs of the deceased Edward Sinclair of Campston, whilst Captain James Allen acquired Over Sanday, which had previously been in the hands of Robert’s brother, Major Edward. Sometime before 1764, Captain Allan acquired the estate of Sabay to add to his acquisition of Campston and when he died childless in 1767, after much litigation, Arthur Sinclair, the son of his sister, inherited his estates in 1775. The captain’s sister Anne had married William Sinclair, a merchant from Thurso, and they had three sons born in Thurso, although only Arthur, born in 1736, was alive by 1767.

Arthur was a surgeon in the HEICS [Honorable East India Company] and he died sometime before April 1787, whilst preparing to return home from Masulipatnam in Bengal. His executors were Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster and Alexander Pringle, Esq, suggesting Arthur was a Sinclair with close connections to the earldom line. Ultimately, it seems Arthur sold Sabay to Alexander Stewart, 6th Earl of Galloway, not very long after inheriting it and thus the centuries old Sinclair family connection with Toab and Sabay ended.

Nina Cawthorne


John Sinclair of Tolhop ( -bef.2 Aug 1568) m. Unknown
(?)Edward Sinclair ‘in Tollope’ ( -bef.1584)
Magnus Sinclair in Skaill m. Unknown
(?)James Sinclair ‘beneath the yard in Toab’ ( -aft.1595)
John Sinclair of Toab and Brabster ( -bef.Oct 1615) m. Marie [‘brother daughter’ of Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney]
(?)James Sinclair ‘in Tollop beneath the yairds’
(?)John Sinclair, ‘merchant in Kirkwall’
William Sinclair of Toab, then Sabay ( -bef.1653) m. (1) (?)Barbara Halcro, (?)dau. of Hew Halcro of Halcro
Lt.-Col John Sinclair (c.1610-abt.1632)
Harie Sinclair ( -bef.1647)
Col. David Sinclair of Finnekumla, Sweden (c.1612-1656) m. 1651 Catherine MacLean
m. (2) bef.1615 Jean, dau. of William Gordon of Cairston, Stromness
Marie Sinclair ( -bef.1681) m. c.1635 George Bellenden of Midhouse, Evie
Unknown dau. Sinclair m. William Irving of Sabay (c.1602-1626)
Major Edward Sinclair of Over Sanday ( -aft.1655) m. (?)Elizabeth Douglas
James Sinclair of Grotsetter ( -1682) m. Christian Skene
Robert Sinclair of Sabay ( -abt.1691) m. (1) Beatrix King
Andrew Sinclair, natural son ( -aft.1659)
Robert Sinclair ( -aft.1667)
Charles Sinclair
George Sinclair (1658-aft.1675) (?)’at Skaill in Deerness’
(?)Robert Sinclair ( -aft.1700) [‘baillie depute in Skaill in Deerness’]
Barbara Sinclair (1663- )
Edward Sinclair of Sabay ( -aft.1687) [inherited from his brother James in 1687]
Isobell Sinclair (?)m. Gilbert Irving
James Sinclair of Sabay ( -1681), no issue
m. (2) 1673 Janet Gordon
Christine Sinclair (1674- )
Margaret Sinclair (1675- )

Map of St Andrews & Deerness, Orkney (click image to enlarge), by Murdoch MacKenzie, taken from Lord Henry’s 1492 Rental of Orkney by W P L Thomson, published 1996 by The Orkney Press Ltd

Derelict Farm buildings in Toab, looking northeast towards Deerness

Seal of John Sinclair of Tollop as a member of the jury in the process of apprising against the Halcros in Rousay in 1584. Courtesy of Records of the Earldom of Orkney by J Storer Clouston, published 1914

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