St Clare lay in Pont d’Eveque in Normandy, and was the birthplace of this great northern clan. Walderne de Santo Claro accompanied William the Conqueror on his invasion of England in 1066. His son by Margaret, daughter of Richard of Normandy, was one of the many Anglo–Norman barons who came north to settle in Scotland during the reign of David I. William de Santo Claro was granted the barony of Roslin just south of Edinburgh, and this was confirmed to his son, Sir William St Clair of Roslin, in 1180. Sir William’s grandson, another William, was one of the most powerful men in Scotland in the reign of Alexander III, and was appointed sheriff of Edinburgh, Linlithgow and Haddington around 1263. He became guardian to the heir to the throne and governor of Edinburgh Castle. His eldest son, Sir Henry, swore fealty to Edward I of England in 1296, and the family generally favoured the Balliol claim to the throne. However, as the struggle for Scottish independence became paramount, the St Clares gave their loyalty to Bruce, and they fought at Bannockburn in 1314. Sir Henry received a grant of lands around Pentland in 1317 as his reward. Sir Henry’s son, Sir William, was a favourite of King Robert, and he accompanied Sir James Douglas on his expedition to the Holy Land with the heart of the king. The Scots knights did not see the Holy Land, but joined the king of Aragon in his fight against the Moors of Spain. St Clare and Douglas were both killed, and the pilgrimage was abandoned. William’s tomb is in the chapel at Roslin, which remains one of the finest chapels of the late-medieval period in Scotland. His grandson, Henry St Clare, became Earl of Orkney through his mother, Isabel. Haakon VI, King of Norway, who had previously controlled the islands outright, recognised the title in 1379.
Henry conquered the Faroe Islands in 1391 and discovered Greenland. He is now believed to have voyaged as far as the Americas, possibly landing in both Nova Scotia and Massachusetts.
The third Earl was High Chancellor of Scotland between 1454 and 1458. He was granted the earldom of Caithness in 1455 in compensation for the loss of his claim to the lordship of Nithsdale. James III married Princess Margaret of Denmark in 1468 and her father, unable to pay her dowry in cash, pledged Orkney and Shetland in lieu. The islands were never redeemed by the Danes, and became part of Scotland. The earldom, or princedom, of Orkney was bought from the St Clares in 1470, and later annexed to the Crown. William settled the earldom of Caithness on the eldest son of his second marriage, and the Roslin lands on his younger son. It was around this time that the spelling ‘Sinclair’ came into general use, although the Earls of Rosslyn still prefer the older form. The second Earl of Caithness died at Flodden in 1513 following his royal master, James IV.
The chiefship followed with the earldom of Caithness, and the fourth Earl, George, was as fierce as any of his Viking ancestors. He imprisoned his own son, the Master of Caithness, for making peace with the Morays without his permission. The Master languished in chains in the dungeons of Girnigoe Castle for seven years. He died only through the intrigues of his brother, William Sinclair of Mey, who had the jailers first starve him, then feed him with salt beef without water to drink. The Master soon died raving.
George, the sixth Earl of Caithness, was forced to sell off much of the family lands in 1672, being greatly burdened with debt. He died without issue in 1676, and Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy claimed the earldom, being in possession of most of the mortgaged estates. Glenorchy promptly married the widowed countess. The right to the title in the estates was disputed by George Sinclair of Keiss, a descendant of a younger son of the fifth Earl. Keiss took possession of the estates by force, but when he met the Campbells in a pitched battle on the banks of Altimarlech near Wick, it is said so many Sinclairs were killed that the Campbells were able to cross the water without getting their feet wet. The Sinclairs regained the earldom in 1681 by an order of Parliament.
The St Clares of Roslin laid claim to be hereditary Grand Master Masons of Scotland. In 1736, when forty-four Scottish Freemasons’ Lodges met in Edinburgh to found the Grand Lodge of Scotland, William St Clare appeared as a candidate for Grand Master. He played his trump card by offering to surrender his hereditary rights, and promptly became the first elected Grand Master.
The remains of Rosslyn Castle near Edinburgh and the splendid chapel associated with it are still in family hands. In 1805, the earldom of Rosslyn passed to Sir James St Clair Erskine, Baronet, whose descendants care for these jewels of Scottish architecture today.