William, 1st Earl of Sutherland

William, 1st Earl of Sutherland (son of Hugh)

I. William (Moray, afterwards Sutherland), 1st s. and h. of Hugh Freskin or Moray,[1] lord of Duffus and Strabrock, who had acquired by grant, or otherwise, a large tract of land in Sutherland before 1211 and d. inter1214 and 1222, when William, as "Lord of Sutherland and s. and h. of the late Hugh Freskin,"[2] confirmed his father's grant of lands circa 1211 to Gilbert Moray, Archdeacon of Moray.[3] He attests in 1226 as William de Moravia, in 1229 as William de Moravia, Knight, and in Sep. 1232 as William of Sutherland.[4] It is suggested that he was cr. EARL OF SUTHERLAND in 1235, "though as to the true date of creation there is no evidence whatever, but that he was Earl is proved by a later writ."[5] The name and parentage of his wife are not recorded. He is said to have d. in 1248 and to have been bur. in the Cathedral of Dornoch.[6]

[1] Hugh was s. and h. of William, s. of Freskin (alleged to be of Flemish origin), named only in a charter granted between 1166 and 1171, confirming his lands to William (Scots Peerage, vol. viii, p. 319). This proves that Freskin d. before 1172, not before 1166, as the Scots Peerage strangely assumed. William was probably living in 1204 (Idem, p. 320). As regards the alleged Flemish origin of Freskin, the Editor is indebted to Professor F. L. Ganshof ofr kindly obtaining and translating the following opinion on this name from Mr. Gÿsseling, Rÿksarchief in Ghent; "The name Freskin, Fressekin, seems to be old-flemish, but there does not seem to be any evidence for it... It is a diminutive, of the type Adalkinus, Boykinus, Dudekinus, Levekin, Onekinus, etc., which is formed with the suffix -ke(n), which is still in life in our language. THe first element in the name seems to be found in Freshertus, which is mentioned in the Ratio de Villa Hatingem [in: Liber Traditionum] and is to be found back also in the place name Fresingahem, now Fersinghem (France, Pas-de-Calais, arrt. Saint-Omer)."
[2] Text of und. charter in Sutherland Book, vol. iii, pp. 2-3.
[3] The Archdeacon who became Bishop of Caithness in 1223 and was canonised as St. Gilbert Moray soon after his death, 1 Apr. 1245, may have been s. of William Fresking of Petty, Bracholy, Bohairn and Arkedol and thus Hugh Freskin's nephew: the wording of the original grant to "Magistro Gilberto, archidiacono Morauie, et illis heredibus de parentela sua, quibus ipse dare et concedere voluit" suggests that the gift was to Gilbert more as a member of this Moray family than as Archdeacon. Text of und. charter in Idem., vol. iii., p. 1.
[4] Reg. Episc. Morav., Bannatyne Club, pp. 81, 26 and 89.
[5] Scots Peerage, vol. viii, p. 322; Sutherland Book, vol. iii, p. 7. It should be noted that the Sutherland of which he was made Earl was not co-terminous with the present county, as it was not till nearly 4 centuries later that King Charles I, in a charter of 14 Sep. 1631, confirmed by an Act of Parl. [S.] in 1633, added the districts of Strathnaver, Edderachills, Durness, Strathhalladale, Assynt and "Ffairintoscar alias Sleischeles," the latter being part of a parish of Creich, to the district previously known as Sutherland. This last, with Brora and certain of the feu-lands of the See of Caithness, had been disjoined from the Sheriffdom of Inverness and erected into a free and separate Sheriffdom to be called the Sheriffdom of Sutherland by King James VI by charter on 29 Apr. 1601 (Acts of Parl. [S.], vol. v, pp. 62-63; Reg. Mag. Sig. [S.], 159301608, no. 1170; 1620-33, no. 1847).
[6] Gen. Hist. p. 33.

White, G. H. (1953) The Complete Peerage, vol. XII. London: The St. Catherine Press.



William, son of the preceding, describes himself after his father's death as Lord of Sutherland, son and heir of the late Hugh Freskin. He was therefore the eldest son, and took the largest share of his father's possessions. He confirmed his father's charter of Skelbo and the other lands to Archdeacon Gilbert, at some date between 1211 and 1222.[1] It is apparently he who is a witness in 1226 and 1229 as William de Moravia and William de Moravia, Knight.[2] In September 1232 he appears as William of Sutherland.[3] This would agree with the suggestion that he was not created EARL OF SUTHERLAND until 1235, though as to the true date of creation there is no evidence whatever, but that he was Earl is proved by a later writ. Sir Robert Gordon, in his history of the family, states that this Earl William, of whom there is almost no notice in public record, was a great help to Gilbert, Bishop of Caithness, in the building of the cathedral of Dornoch and in the erection of canonries by appointing them lands and tithes to the Earl's 'great cost and charges.'[4] This is corroborated by Bishop Gilbert's arrangement of the diocese, still preserved at Dunrobin Castle. It is not dated, but was drawn up probably not long after 1222. The Bishop states that hitherto, owing to the poverty of the place, and because of frequent hostile commotion, only a single priest had ministered in the church of Dornoch. He now proposed to build a cathedral there at his own expense, and he appointed ten canons, and for their maintenance and his own he set apart twenty parish churches, with their emoluments. It is quite clear he would have been unable to do this without encouragement and aid from the Earl. He and the Bishop, however, before the latter's death in 1245, had a dispute as to some lands. The merits of the quarrel are unknown, but it was not finally settled for many years afterwards. Sir Robert Gordon describes this Earl as taking part in an encounter with a marauding band of Norsemen, who were defeated at Embo, and driven bak to their ships, the Earl's kinsman Richard Moray being killed in the fray. But the story is doubtful, as Sir Richard Moray survived the Earl, and the tradition seems rather to refer to an incident of the year 1263. The first Earl is said to have died in 1248, and was buried in the south aisle of the cathedral of Dornoch.[5] He was succeeded by his son, William.

[1] Sutherland Book, iii. 2, 3.
[2] Reg. Moraviense, 81, 26.
[3] ibid., 89. This seems to show that this branch of the Moravias was beginning to adopt their surname from their new territory.
[4] Genealogy of the Earls of Sutherland, 33.
[5] Genealogy of the Earls of Sutherland, 32, 33.

Sources: Balfour Paul, J. (1911) The Scots Peerage, vol. 8. Edinburgh: David Douglas.



Hugh Freskin was succeeded by his son William, of whom the earliest notice on record is the charter granted by him under the designation of William, Lord of Sutherland, and son and heir of the late Hugh Freskin. William thereby confirms to Gilbert, archdeacon of Moray, the lands of Skelbo and others.[1] The charter is undated, but it must have been granted before the year 1222, when Gilbert was made bishop of Caithness, his promotion being doubtless due to the influence of his kinsman.
     William, Lord of Sutherland, probably attended King Alexander the Second when he marched north in the end of the year 1222 to punish the men of Caithness, who had murdered their bishop. The king and his nobles then honoured with their presence the election of Gilbert de Moravia, the new bishop of Caithness.[2] It is sometimes asserted that it was at that date that William, Lord of Sutherland, was created Earl of Sutherland, but there is no evidence of this, and it is more probably the creation was made some years later.
     According to Bower, the continuator of Fordun, a local rebellion occurred in the district of Moray, headed by a certain Gillescop, who probably claimed descent from a native chieftain. He burned several wooden strongholds and attacked suddenly the mansion of Thomas Thirlstane, baron of Abertarff, whom he killed. He also burned a great part of Inverness, and carried off spoil from the king's lands adjoining that town. King Alexander committed the punishment of this marauder to the Earl of Buchan as justiciary, furnishing him with a considerable force for the purpose. This occurred in the year 1228, and Gillescop, with his two sons, was captured in the following year, and their heads sent to the king.[3] Chalmers and other authorities state in connection with this rising that "the Freskins... probably contributed their assistance" in crushing it. Chalmers adds-- "It was on this occasion perhaps that the gratitude, as well as the policy, of Alexander the Second thought fit to raise William Freskin to the dignity of Earl of Sutherland, in order to balance the power or overawe the turbulence of the Earl of Caithness."[4] But in the narrative of Bower nothing is said of any share in the matter taken by any one save the king and the Earl of Buchan. The Lord of Sutherland as a vassal of the king may have been called upon to aid the justiciary, but there is no evidence on the point.
     Another hypothesis as to the date of the creation of the earldom of Sutherland is that it was granted to William, the son of Hugh Freskin, after the death in 1231 of John Haraldson, the last of the ancient Earls of Orkney and Caithness. An account of the Earls of Orkney, dated about 1443, states that Earl John was succeeded by Earl Magnus the second, from whom Alexander, King of Scots, took the earldom of Sutherland.[5] "It is," says Lord Hailes, "the opinion generally received that Alexander II. granted the earldom of Caithness to Magnus, the second son of Gillibride, Earl of Angus, in 1222."[6] Sir James Dalrymple also states that the earldom of Caithness was given to Magnus, son of Gillibride, Earl of Angus.[7] John Haraldson, Earl of Caithness, died in 1231, and was succeeded by Magnus, a son of the Earl of Angus, not however of Earl Gillibride, but of Earl Malcolm, who became Earl of Angus before 1226. Earl John Haraldson had issue one daughter, who was given into the custody of King William the Lion as a hostage for her father's good behaviour. Her name is said to have been Matilda, and it is possible that she was married to Malcolm, Earl of Angus, and that Magnus was her son. Magnus, however, may have been her husband, but in any case, whatever claim he had to the earldom of Caithness arose through her.[8]
     But though King Alexander the Second thus created or accepted Magnus as Earl of Caithness, it cannot be said that the deprived him of the earldom of Sutherland. The territory known by that name had, as already shown, long passed from the allegiance of the Norwegian earls, and had been in the possession of Hugh Freskin and his son William for some time. It is probable that it was at this period that King Alexander conferred the title of earl upon William, Lord Sutherland. He may have thought it well to consolidate power in the hands of a family who had always been attached to the Crown, and he no doubt considered the occasion favourable for defining the separate territories of Sutherland and Caithness. But, be this as it may, the creation of the earldom of Sutherland may be held as having been made in the year 1235, and the grantee enjoyed it for the following thirteen years till his death in 1248. No patent or charter of creation of the earldom has been traced amongst the family muniments, though these include a few charters of lands of an earlier date, and the want of it gave rise to a keen competition for the title of Earl of Sutherland in the year 1766. Lady Ezliabeth Sutherland, the heir of line of the fmaily, was preferred to the title as heir of the body of William who was Earl of Sutherland in the year 1275. He was the second Earl of Sutherland, being the son and successor of William the first Earl of Sutherland, but the same instrument which was taken as proof of the existence of an Earl of Sutherland at that date, also refers to Earl William, his father, who was then dead, and thus establishes an earlier creation.
     Even after the creation of William as Earl of Sutherland he appears seldom in contemporary record. Under his influence, however, his territory became more civilised and settled, a result partly due to the greater hold over Caithness which was attained by the king's policy. Proof of this is found in the consitution drawn up by the new bishop of Caithness some time after his appointment to the diocese. The cathedral church was situatied at Dornoch, within the earl's territory of Sutherland, but the bishop tells us that owing to the poverty of the place, and because of frequent hostile commotion, only a single priest had hitherto ministered there. To remedy this the bishop resolved to build a cathedral church at his own expense, dedicating it to the Virgin Mary, and in proportion to his means to make it conventual. He therefore ordained that there should be ten canons in the church, over whom the bishop should preside as head, five of the others holidng the dignities of dean, precentor, chancellor, treasurer, and archdeacon. For the maintenance of these and the other canons, and for the lighting of the cathedral, the bishop assigned fourteen parish chrches with their teinds, and reserved six for episcopal uses.[9] These churches included the whole of the present parishes in the modern counties of Sutherland and Caithness, and it is evident the bishop felt he could now rely on securing the payment of teinds and other church dues over a district so lately in a disturbed condition. Sir Robert Gordon states that Earl William was a great help to Bishop Gilbert in the building of the cathedral, and in the erection of the canonries, by appointing them lands and tithes, to the earl's "great cost and charges."[10]
     The bishop and the earl did not, however, always agree, as before the bishop's death, in 1245, a controversy took place between them as to certain lands. An agreement was made at the time, but the dispute was not settled in their day. It was left as a legacy to their successors.
     Sir Robert Gordon relates an encounter between the men of Sutherland under this earl's command and an invading force of Norwegian marauders. The earl, it is said, first despatched his retainer, Richard Moray, brother of Bishop Gilbert, to keep the invaders in check until he himself could raise a sufficient force to give them battle. Richard Moray finding the enemy careless, attacked them, and was killed in the conflict, but the earl coming up with reinforcements, defeated the Norwegians, killing their leader, and driving them to their ships. Sir Robert adds that the earl erected to the memory of his vassal the tomb with recumbent figure still in Dornoch Cathedral. Embo is said to have been the scene of the conflict, which was commemorated by a cross, now no longer in existence.[11]
     Sir Robert Gordon states that William, first Earl of Sutherland, died at Dunrobin in 1248, and was buried in the south aisle of the cathedral church of Dornoch, which from thenceforth was the usual burial-place of the earls of Sutherland.[12] He left issue, so far as is known, only one son, William, second Earl of Sutherland, who succeeded him, and of whom a memoir follows.

[1] Vol. iii. of this work, pp. 2, 3.
[2] Fordun a Goodall, vol. ii. pp. 46, 47.
[3] Fordun a Goodall, vol. ii. pp. 57, 58.
[4] Caledonia, vol. i. p. 606.
[5] Liber Insulæ Missarum, pp. liii, liv.
[6] Annals, vol. i. p. 148. Lord Hailes, however, admits that the date 1222 must be erroneous, and he expresses his sense of the obscurity of the whole subject.
[7] Historical Collections, p. lxxiii.
[8] Mr. Skene, Celtic Scotland, vol. iii. p. 450, suggests that Johanna, Lady of Strathnaver, who married Freskin de Moravia, Lord of Duffus, about 1240, was the daughter of Earl John Haraldson. He also suggests that Magnus of Angus was the son of a sister of a former Earl of Caithness. His arguments are plausible, but there is no very good evidence in support of them.
[9] Vol. iii. of this work, pp. 3-6.
[10] Genealogy, p. 33.
[11] Genealogy, pp. 32, 33; Origines Parochiales, vol. ii. p. 647.
[12] Genealogy, p. 33.

Source: Fraser, W. (1894) The Sutherland Book. Edinburgh: Privately Printed.



Vnto Earle Hugh succeeded his sone William Southerland, Earle of Southerland; in whose dayes Adam, bishop of Catteynes, having succeeded vnto bishop John, obtained Pope Honorius the Third his confirmation and approbation of the erection and institution of the bishoprick of Catteynes, the yeir of God 1218. This bishop Adam did write divers books.
     The inhabitants of Catteynes, conducted by the sones of Simon Harbister, (being nothing affrayed of ther predecessors late exemplaire punishment) at the command of Magnus ther Erle, entered the chamber of the bishop Adam, in the tound o Hackrick in Catteynes, vnder silence of the night, becaus he had accursed them for not paying of ther tithes: First they murthered a monk, who wes his companion; then they hailled and drew the bishop by the hair doun to his kitching, and ther scourged him with rods; last of all they fired the hous, and burned the bishop therein, the yeir of God one thowsand tuo hundred tuentietuo. King Alexander the Second, sojourning then at Jedburgh, and heiring of this execrable fact, hasteth north into Catteynes with all speid, to punish the offenders. After great search maid for them, they wer found and taken, to the number of four hundred. Then the king caused hang them all publictlie; bot first both they and ther linage wer all gelded, least any succession should descend from so wicked a generation; - a strange kynd of punishment, now tuyse inflicted vpon the inhabitants of Catteynes. Their thane or erle haveing escaped, wes forfaulted and depryved of all his lands and dignities; bot coming humblie to the king the third yeir efter, on Cristmes day, and asking pardon for his offence, he wes forgiven. Nevertheles, this haynous fact, so pardoned by man, wes punished afterward by the just judgement of the Almightie God, as sayeth Boethius. For this Magnus, thane or erle of Catteynes, wes slain as he lay in his bed, by his owne servants, whom he had oppressed and roghlie intreated. The hous also wherein he was killed wes sett on fyre and burnt over him, that thet fact might seem to have chanced by some sudden adventure; justlie in the same maner as he had befor caused deale with his bishop. - God is just, and will not suffer innocent blood to escape vnpunished. Vnto bishop Adam succeeded Gilbert, arch-deacon of Morray.
     This William Erle of Southerland did frielie confirme the disposition formelie maid be his father Hugh, of the lands of Skelbo, Invershin, and Gerrinbuscay, (now called Ferrinkostay or Slishchelles) and therefter Gilbert, bishop of Catteynes, disponed and gave these lands vnto his brother Richard Morray. Which disposition wes confirmed be King Alexander his charter of confirmation, dated at Sanct Andrews the 26th day of December, the tuentie-tuo yeir of his raigne, and of God 1235 yeirs.
     After the cruell death of bishop Adam, (as said is) Gilbert, arch-deacone of Murray, wes created bishop of Catteynes; and the bulls which wer granted by sundrie Popes concerning the liberties of the church of Scotland, wer then, by King Alexander the Second, committed to the custodie of this holie and learned man Sainct Gilbert; who, in his young yeirs, trawelled into France and Italie to advance his studies and knowledge; wherby he became verie learned, and wes a great defender of the liberties of the Scottish clergie against the English. Sanct Gilbert is patron of the cathedrall church of the diocie of Catteynes, called commounlie Sanct Gilbert his Church; which wes founded and built by himselff, in honor of the conception of our Ladie, in the toun of Dornoch in Southerland, wher the Earles of Southerland have ther buriall place vnto this day. And ther is a fair keiped yeirlie in the said toun the first day of Aprile, called St. Gilbert his fair. All the glasse which served that church wes made by St Gilbert his appoyntment besyd Sideray, tuo mylls by-west Dornoch. Sanct Gilbert did institute and erect the dignities and channones of the said cathedrall church, whereas befor his tyme ther wes bot one preist serveing the cure, through lack of mantenance, and the hostilitie of adjoyning countries. In that erection ther ar nyne channons appoynted to assist the bishop, fyve of them being dignities; to witt, the dean, the chanter, the chanceller, the thesaurer, and the arch-deacon. The abbot of Scone is appoynted to be one of the nyne channons, and to have one ther to serve the cure for him in his absence. In that institution also ther peculiar landward (or rurall) churches, together with the particular tithes, crofts, manses, gleibs, and quartes, ar severallie appoynted to everie one of the dignites and channons, and therin is at large recorded.
     This Sanct Gilbert wes appoynted be King Alexander the Second to be thesaurer for his majestie in the north of Scotland; and dureing the space he had this office, he built the castle and fortresse of Kildrume in Marr, with seaven tours within the precinct of the said castle. It is reported that St Gilbert did find a myne of gold in Durines, which lands doe belong vnto his bishoprick, and wer given to St Gilbert by King Alexander the Second. Ther passed ane accord and arbitrall decreit betueen Sanct Gilbert and this William Erle of SOutherland, for certan lands, in the raigne of the said King Alexander; bot ther was some contraversie between this Erle William, and William bishop of Catteynes, (Sanct Gilbert his successor) for the propertie and inheritance of certan lands. Sanct Gilbert maid his testament and later will, the yeir of God 1242, as is manifest by the same, yit extant among the bishop of Catteynes his registers and records. He died the yeir of God one thowsand tuo hundred fourtie-fyve, at Strabbister, being verie aged; and wes, according to his owne appoyntment, buried at the cathedrall church in Dornogh, wher his buriall place is to be sein at this day, directlie vnder the steiple, as yow enter into the queer. And after his departur out of this transitory lyff, he wes registrat for his holienes among the number of the Sancts. He died wreet divers books. He wes called Carthophilax, from his offices. About this tyme, Sanct Duffus, bishop of Rosse, lived; a verie godlie man, patron of Sanct Duffus his chappell, besyd the toun of Tayn; vnto the which chappell, besyd the toun of Tayn; vnto the which chapple a great confluence of people, yea some of our kings, did resort in pilgrimage, in former ages. It is thought that Sanct Duffus wes St Gilbert's preceptor.
     About these tymes the Danes and Norvegians invaded Scotland, and sent some companies of men into the north pairts of the kingdom. These did land at the ferrie of Vnes, with a resolution to invade Southerland, and the nighboring provinces; against whom, William Earle of Southerland sent his servant Richard Morray, (the brother of St Gilbert) with a company of men, to stay and hinder the Danes from spoyling the cuntrey, vntill he himselff had gathered the rst of the inhabitants to mak head against them. Richard finding the Danes negligent, as not expecting any resistance in this cuntrey, he was loth to stay for Erle William, or to slip any advantage, and so beginneth a cruell battell against them, at a place called Enbo, betueen the toun of Dornogh and the ferrie of Vnes. The Danes perceaveing Erle William coming with the rest of his forces to assist Richard, they flie quicklie, and mak heid towards ther navie. Earle William pursueth them eagerlie, overthroweth them, slayeth ther generall with many others, and chaseth the rst to their shipps. In memorie whereof a monument was ther erected, which wes called Ree Croiss, that is, the king or generall his cross, and divers burialls are to be seen ther at this day. Richard Morray wes also slain in this battell; and, for his good service in defence of his cuntrey, Earle William caused a buriall place to be assigned vnto him in the queir of the cathedrall church at Dornogh, with his statue and wieve image armed at all peeces, maid of fyne stone, which doth remayn ther vnto this day.
     So let ws end the lyff of this William Erle of Southerland, who wes godlie and valiant. He dantouned his nighbouring enemies, and wes a great help to Sanct Gilbert in the building of the cathedral church at Dornoch, and in the erection of the channons and dignities thereof, by appoynting them lands and tithes, to Erle William's great cost and charges.
     Erle William died at Dounrobin, the yeir of God one thowsand tuo hundred fourtie-eight, leiveing his sone William to inherite his erledom, and wes buried in the south yle of the cathedrall church at Dornoch; which, from thencefoorth, wes the commoun buriall-place of the Erls of Southerland for the most pairt.

Gordon, R. (1813) A Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland, from its origin to the year 1630; written by Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun, Baronet. With a Continuation to the Year 1651. Edinburgh: Ramsay & Co.

Return to Sutherland Index Page


Comments