When researching a Family Story and Family Tree for clients we can sometimes find half forgotten, epic stories, that have borne their ancestors along on the tide of history. This was one such case where we found a Durham Mining Family had roots in the North of Scotland in one of the last inter-clan invasions of Scottish territory. In this case it also lets us pinpoint the actual moment when the surname was adopted, which is very rare in family history.
The family’s name of Larnach is extremely rare, even in Scotland. The accepted origin of the Larnach name places it in Argyll Scotland. Tradition has it that the Clan is descended from the 5th century King Loarne who gave his name to Lorne in Argyll. The generally accepted derivation of the name is from the Gaelic “Latharnach” meaning “a man from Lorne”. Now you wouldn’t call a man from Lorne a man from Lorne if you were all living in Lorne. So, despite what the accepted authorities say, the actual surname could never have originated in that area. Rather, like most names with a geographical element to them, the surname must have originated when people from Lorne left Lorne and went somewhere else, so the families may have originated in Lorne, but the surname didn’t. This is backed up by the records, where we find that almost all the recorded instances of the surname Larnach before modern times are not in Argyll, they come from Caithness on the other side of Scotland. In fact there are no Larnachs other than this family in Caithness and occasionally the Orkney Isles, in any records from the 18th and early 19th centuries. So Larnach was a name applied outside of Argyll to a man from Lorne in Argyll. If this is the case why did they travel so far? The intriguing answer may point to a family adventure taking in Clan battles and Jacobite uprisings.
To find out how the Larnachs travelled from Argyll to Caithness, we have to look at the turbulent 1600s, and a Highland Laird with a reputation as a rogue.
A follower of Slippery John
John Campbell was the son of Sir John Campbell of Glen Orchy in Argyll and a member of the Scottish Parliament. In1672 he was the chief creditor to George Sinclair 6th Earl of Caithness, and as surety for the debt, held claim to the Earl of Caithness’s Lands and Titles. When the Earl died without a direct male heir,and still owing the debt, John Campbell of Orchy claimed the Earldom of Caithness by default. In1678 he married the dead Earl’s widow to reinforce his claim and save himself having to pay her a £1,200 per anum annuity.
Needless to say the rest of the Sinclairs of Caithness were not happy with the family Earldom being bartered away over gambling debts, and so John Campbell’s claim to the title of Earl of Caithness was challenged by disgruntled members of the Sinclair Clan. This move was led by George Sinclair of Keiss. Keiss waited till John Campbell travelled to Parliament in London, then seized former Sinclair properties around Weik (Wick) one of the main Caithness towns, and thereby denied John Campbell the rights to the Earldom by force majeure.
Now John Campbell was not a man to back down and also a man of action, so in 1680, he sought redress through the Government’s Privy Council, who confirmed his rights, and instructed the Chief General in the North of Scotland, Lord Dalzell, to support the Campbell claim with troops and money. Backed by Government in law, finance, and arms, and having raised a force of Highlanders from his Argyll Clan followers including an ancestor of our client. John Campbell marched his force from Perth to Wick. Sources claim that he had between 800 and 1,400 followers. The discrepancy in numbers is interesting, and may show the difference in numbers between his Clan followers and the Government Troops who were ordered to join the expedition..
Once in Caithness, John Campbell followed the letter of the law, sending Government proclamations to be read at the larger towns, to warn of his approach and offer a bounty for any who actively turned against the Sinclairs. On the march to Thurso John Campbell managed to outflank the Sinclair forces, who moved camp to confront the Campbells. John Campbell made two attempts to parlay with the Sinclairs and give them the opportunity to disperse, but his first envoy was sent back under a torrent of abuse, and his second was captured and taken prisoner, against the accepted rules of warfare at the time. Undeterred The Campbells marched on Thurso, only to find the main approaches to the town protected by Sinclair cannons, that promptly subjected the Campbells to cannon fire. In a last-ditch attempt to gain peaceful access to Thurso, John Campbell sent a herald, but the man was forced to flee for his life from the hostile acts of the Sinclairs.
The Campbells decided to march south to Wick, the Sinclairs decided to follow. John Campbell was wily as well as brave, and decided to improve his odds of winning by a pair of ruses. He arranged for one of his agents to deliberately run a ship aground near the Sinclairs’ camp, this ship carried a cargo of Whiskey that John Campbell realised the Sinclairs would salvage and drink. He read the situation well, the Sinclairs did indeed spend the night drinking whiskey and carousing.
The following day the Sinclairs woke up nursing hangovers, and marched out of Wick to confront the Campbells who had marched towards the town. The Campbells halted their march and made much of performing a hasty retreat, and upon seeing this the Sinclairs enthusiastically pursued them. But John Campbell had planned this event, and the retreat was merely a ruse to draw the Campbells pell-mell to Altimarlach where a group of his troops had hidden in a gulley.
The Campbells drew up past the hidden gully to their forward flanks, and looked to makle a stand with their inferior numbers. of men. To the Sinclairs the Campbells looked like so many bare arsed savages, bare footed and trouserless. This was a clash of two separate ethnicities; the Campbells were descended from the savage Scots who had invaded Scotland from Ireland (mainly Ulster) in the 5th century and given Scotland their name. The Brythonic speakers they replaced called them “Gaels” which meant “Savages” a name still proudly bourn by Scots and Irish to this day. By contrast the men of Caithness, were descended from the Norse who had invaded from Scandinavia as Vikings, mixed with the ancient Picts (non-Gaelic speakers) who were indigenous to Northern Scotland before the Scots got there. The men of Caithness with their Pictish/Norse ancestry wore trousers and shoes, preferred to live in larger coastal towns and generally saw their western Scots neighbours as savages, with good reason.
Despite their hangovers from the drinking the night before, the Norse-Pictish Sinclairs attacked the Scots Campbell line. The Campbell’s held, and cat-called the Sinclairs, for being soft for wearing breeks (trousers) and shoes, whilst the Campbells were barefoot and in plaid (a type of kilt). The Campbells fired off a volley and with John Campbell in the fore, drew their Claymore swords, hefted their shields, and charged barefoot at the Sinclairs, at which point the surprise attack from the men hidden in the gulley was launched. This combination attack broke the Sinclair line and forced them to flee. The Campbells pursued the Sinclairs slaughtering them in the pursuit, and chasing the remnants into the River Wick where they drowned. So many Sinclairs were killed that the Campbells were able to pursue across the river dry-shod over their bodies.
After the battle the Clan Campbell Piper Finlay ban McIver, would compose the tune “The Campbells are coming” with the line “…the carls wi’ the breeks are running before us…” referring to the Sinclairs in their breeches. It is as part of this army of “bare-arsed savages” that the Larnachs, coming to Caithness from Lorne with Slippery John Campbell originated, running with their swords across the River Wick over the dead bodies of the slaughtered Sinclairs. It is very rare in a Family History, that a surname’s origin can be pinpointed so precisely to an historical event.
John Campbell, his victory complete, kept the title of Earl of Caithness for about 6 years, giving land and farms to his followers, and employing them as tax collectors and in other overseer roles. John Campbell was later dispossessed of his claim by the Scottish Parliament, who ruled that a Title to an Earldom is not one man’s possession to be sold for a debt. None the less Slippery John Campbell reaped the reward of receiving other titles in exchange for his lost title, and became Earl of Breadalbane and Holland (a district in Scotland), Viscount of Tay and Paintland (ancient “Pictland”) and Lord Glenorchy, Benederloch, Ormelie and Wick, thereby keeping a hold on lands in Caithness, especially around Wick. He was described by a British Government Spy, John Mackay as:
“Grave as a Spaniard, wise as a serpent, cunning as a fox, and slippery as an eel.”
Given the Larnach name derived from “a man from Lorne” in Argyll, it verifies that the ancestors of my client were among the hundreds of men of Argyll who invaded Caithness with John Campbell. It would explain the family living in the area near Wick where John Campbell had his power base, and where his followers held lands and property. This would have made the Lanarchs unpopular in the area as their sponsor Slippery John Campbell, was viewed as a military dictator by the locals who he ruled with an iron hand, enforced by his local followers including the Larnachs.
First Records Late 1600s – Early 1700s
The written records throw up a few Larnach entries for Caithness at Watten (on the road from Wick to Thurso) during the very early part of the 1700s, given the rarity of the name these were undoubtedly relatives of this line, and I managed to piece together a rough tree of these early generations which was presented to the client. Some of the entries were necessarily speculative due to the sparsity of records, but given that there appears to be only one recorded Larnach Family in Caithness Scotland by the 1700s, i.e. this client’s Larnach line, the tree fitted the timings of various births and marriages etc.
Foul Mouthed Larnachs
One interesting entry in the court sessions for 1701 directs the town of Wick to:
“…put up ane cock-stool.”
“Alexander Larnock and his wife are appointed to stand publicly, and to pay 20 shillings Scots for the crime of cursing.”
So one of the earliest generations of Larnachs in Caithness were a hard swearing couple in Wick, for whom a stool was erected for their public shaming. No doubt being followers of Slippery John Campbell didn’t endear them to the locals.
After the English Civil War, the restoration of Charles II, and the ousting of James II due to his Catholic loyalties, Slippery John took the oath of allegiance to William III (William of Orange, the new Dutch Protestant King of Great Britain) in 1689. John Campbell was seen as a useful agent in the highlands, and in 1691 was paid a large sum of money by the Government in London to payoff Jacobite Highlanders and gain a truce in hostilities. He did manage to arrange a truce, but did so whilst keeping the whole of the money for himself. When called before Parliament in London to account for what had happened to the money he famously said:
“The money is spent, the Highlands are quiet, and this is the only way of accounting between friends.”
William III’s reign was violent in the highlands, with Clans using the excuse of wearing a Red Coat and a King’s Commission to settle scores with rivals, as well as pitching Highlanders against Lowlanders. So bad was Slippery John Campbell’s reputation amongst many Scots that he was blamed for many acts of betrayal, many years later Sir Walter Scott even implicated him as the chief planner of the Glencoe Massacre of 1692, where the MacDonalds were slaughtered by the Campbells who were guests in their homes, but there was no evidence to support that claim. Although this massacre is sometimes blamed on the English, the men in Redcoats who did the killing were almost entirely Scots, and many Argyll Campbells.
In 1707 both the Scottish and English Parliaments voted to be united in a single political realm of “Great Britain”. Many people in Scotland were against the Union. Some Scottish Protestants were afraid that the rigorously democratic makeup of the Scottish Kirk would become Anglicised, to be given over to rule by Bishops, rather than the congregations. Most Scottish Catholics were against a Protestant Hanoverian King ruling Scotland, and wanted a return of the exiled Stuart line of Kings. Using a network of spies, including the author of Treasure Island Daniel Defoe, the English Government judged the mood of the Scottish people as heavily against Union, with DeFoe stating that there were
“99 Scots against Union for every 1 Scot for it.”
A significant, dangerous, and profitable part was played in these troubles, by the man who had brought the Larnachs to Caithness, their aristocratic sponsor “Slippery” John Campbell of Glen Orchy and Breadalbane. His actions would have direct consequences for the lives of the Larnachs as his sworn men.
Many Highland Scottish Lairds like Slippery John, were afraid that the rule of English Law in Scotland would replace their far reaching ancient rights and take away their power. So to counter this popular opposition, the English Government bought the votes of Scottish Parliamentarians with bribery, prompting Robbie Burns to compose a couplet on the matter:
“We’re bought and sold for English Gold,
Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation.”
Slippery John voted against the Union, gave some support to a proposed French intervention, but did not put his name to anything in writing. It is highly likely that the Larnachs would have opposed Union at this time as political opinion was set by the local Laird.
Discontent blew up in 1715 with a Stuart Jacobite uprising, Slippery John pleaded old age and infirmity to avoid travelling to Edinburgh to pledge allegiance to the crown, instead he travelled to the Jacobite camps, as one of the local Caithness Sinclairs put it:
“…to trick others, not to be tricked, and to obtain a share of the French subsidies.”
He received a large amount of French money in return for pledging 1,200 men for the Jacobite cause. In fact he only sent a small force of 300 men, and withdrew them after the first inconclusive battle with the forces of the crown at Sheriffmuir, where the Jacobites were stopped in their march on Perth, by another a relation of Slippery John, another John Campbell, the 2nd Duke of Argyll (pictured below), and incidentally “Lord Lorne”. Slippery John died two years later in 1717, and so avoided being tried for supporting the uprising.
Slippery John’s half-hearted support for the rising and his early withdrawal of his men back to their homes, may have saved the Larnachs from either perishing in battle at Sherriffmuir, or from the crown’s legal retributions against known rebels in the years following.
Given that the leader of the Government forces at Sherriffmuir was the hereditary Lord of Lorne, the former Argyll home of the Larnachs, it is not surprising that they took no part in the uprising and I could find no Larnach names mentioned in documents accusing people in Caithness of rebellion, so they survived without any recriminations, unlike some of their neighbours.
Their descendants gave rise to my client’s family who ended up penniless in the Durham Coal Mines, right through to modern times, and ironically also one of the richest families in Australia and New Zealand. Neither side of the family was aware of the other.
But that is another story.
If you would like your Famiy Tree researched and your Family Story researched and written up as a true personalised Historical Narrative, the size of a Novella, then contact Time Detectives on firstname.lastname@example.org