When we find a document describing specific events in great detail that occurred hundreds of years ago, as historians we need to be sceptical. In this article, I would like to explain the process of fact-checking historical stories which is a process we need to go through to ensure that we do not perpetuate a falsehood or distort a hidden truth.
I have mentioned elsewhere that history is fractal. You find that the closer you look at a particular subject, the more emerges from your investigation, and the more fascinating and complex it becomes. Yet documented history is often fractured and incomplete. We need to make the best of scanty evidence to come up with a sensible narrative to describe what probably happened at the particular time and place we are exploring.
This story began when I was browsing through my local library’s reference section, as I sometimes enjoy doing. Various local historians have collected together various documents and publications making a patchwork of local history. One of these books consisted of scraps of newspaper articles pasted into an elegant scrapbook.
Someone had written an article way back in the second decade of the twentieth century recounting an incident at Auldwick Castle. There was no byline, and no clear date, and not even the newspaper was identifiable, but the story was extraordinary.
The Black Sinclair and the Rose Oliphant
The newspaper article did not even give me a date for the events, but the characters involved were pretty clear. The protagonist was the Master of Caithness, known as the Black Sinclair. The story told of his desire for the beautiful young girl known as ‘the Rose’ Oliphant, daughter of Lord Oliphant.
According to the story, when Lord Oliphant refused to give away his daughter in marriage to the Master of Caithness, the Black Sinclair responded angrily. He gathered his soldiers together and laid siege to the castle Auldwick, demanding that the Rose be delivered out to him.
After several days the people within the castle were finding it harder to hold out. Lord Oliphant’s own Secretary secretly agreed to drop the drawbridge in exchange for being spared from the slaughter.
A deal agreed, the Secretary severed the bridge rope, and Sinclair’s warriors stormed the enclosure. The Black Sinclair himself put Lord Oliphant to the sword and ordered his men to search for the girl.
When they could not find her, they set fire to the tower and ransacked the buildings behind the fort. Unbeknown to them, ‘the Rose‘ Oliphant was hiding in a secret alcove in the upper storey of the tower. She was likely overcome by smoke and was asphyxiated before the fire took her, which it sadly did. When the fire burnt out, the Sinclair clansmen returned to loot the tower of precious items and found her body. She could only be identified by the medallion she had been wearing.
You can watch me telling the story on YouTube, where you will see how plausible the story is. Auldwick castle may be impregnable to attack from the sea; you will see how vulnerable it is to attack from the shore side, particularly when a traitor is within.
Could This Story be True? – Fact-checking historical stories
For a tourist guide, this sort of story is pure gold. It has everything: the hero, the villain, the romantic and the dramatic. Best of all, you can visualise the events exactly where they occurred.
But if it is not true, it becomes less valuable even than a fairy tale. Fairy tales bear a timelessness and mystery that we all enjoy, indulging the possibility of other worlds beyond our understanding.
Try as I might, I have not found this tale retold elsewhere. It is not on the clan sites of either the Sinclairs or the Oliphants, who each have their own keen clan historians with comprehensive and interesting websites of their own. There is nothing that I have managed to find on the web nor in the archives of the local newspapers. It is also from the early twentieth century and describes events over three hundred years before.
This makes fact-checking essential if I am to build this historical story into my repertoire as a tourist guide. That means looking for official records that can either back up or prove impossible the events described in the narrative.
Fortunately, the Sinclairs and the Oliphants were important families, and this means there are records. The first and biggest clue in the story refers to the Master of Caithness as the Black Sinclair. This has to be John Sinclair, son of the Fourth Earl of Caithness. He was a man of great violence and even strangled his own brother, William Sinclair of Mey, to death. His father eventually confined him in a cell at their castle of Girnigoe till his death in 1575.
This means we may have our villain, he seems the sort of man who could behave in such a way to pursue his desires, but we know from other evidence that he married sometime in the period from 1565 to 1567, and this is an issue because we can work out who the father of ‘the Rose’ must have been by the date.
Laurence, the third Lord Oliphant, died at Auldwick Castle either on 29th March 1566 or sometime between 1562 and 1566, depending on which source you believe. What does not appear in the record is the manner of his passing. One would have thought that the record might mention death by the sword of the notorious Black Sinclair.
But then history is written by the victors, and the Sinclair family were very much the victors here. They took over the castle and all the Oliphant lands in Caithness just four decades on from the alleged siege. Family historians may have felt it appropriate to expunge some of the most egregious deeds of the Master of Caithness from the record. Perhaps indeed, he had already only just married Lady Jean Hepburn when he fell for the beautiful young Oliphant girl.
If we go with all of that, and as we are supposed to be fact-checking this historical story, it is a bit of a stretch, we have to take on the essential central question of who was the Rose?
It is a matter of record that Laurence Oliphant had three sons and two daughters. We know that the two daughters married in church. However, Burkes Peerage records a third unnamed daughter who never reached maturity and did not receive a Christian burial.
We shall never know for sure
We cannot know whether the story is true; it may have been a mischievous columnist in the early twentieth century. However, it has the integrity of a story that had survived generations in the oral tradition of the North Highlands. As you will have seen fact-checking historical stories is often a case of making a judgement on probability.
When you visit the Castle of Old Wick, you may feel a sense of melancholy about the place. Where so long ago was a thriving feudal community, you picture the pure beauty of ‘the Rose’ Oliphant. You cannot but wonder if the spirit of an innocent girl whose pure beauty led to the death of both her and her father at the hands of a maniac still lingers in the place.
Acknowledgement: I must acknowledge my friend Anne Powers for setting me in a direction to find out about the characters in this tale. She is a serious genealogist, though and would not approve of my romantic speculation.