The secret vault of the Sutherlands

Dornoch Cathedral and graveyard

Elizabeth Leveson-Gower, Duchess of Sutherland, is certainly one of the most notorious and controversial figures of Scottish history. She was incredibly rich, owned most of the county of Sutherland although she was rarely present. She was born in Edinburgh in 1765 and was buried in Dornoch Cathedral in 1839. So was her husband, who died in 1833.

The Duke and the Duchess were laid to rest in the family vault. But here things become unclear. Where is that family vault?

David Craig claims “a mausoleum was dug out in the graveyard and the old bones and coffins were thrown aside, wich made the people say, ‘The Sutherlands clear you even after you’re dead.'” (p.135)

But there is no sign of a vault in the graveyard. More likely Craig meant the graves in the actual cathedral.

From the time of its completion until the Reformation some 340 years later, Gilbert’s Cathedral stood in its original state. In 1570 it was set on fire and Gilbert’s tomb was desecrated during a clan feud between the Murrays of Dornoch and the Mackays of Strathnaver. Almost totally destroyed, except for the chancel and transept walls, the Cathedral was partially restored in 1616 by Sir Robert Gordon. Between 1835 and 1837, through the generosity of Elizabeth, Duchess-Countess of Sutherland, the restoration was completed and the Sutherland burial vault, which is now sealed off, was built under the chancel floor.

(Dornoch Cathedral Homepage)

The same information is given by Canmore although no information is given as to the persons buried there.

Such controversial figures as the Sutherlands rest unacknowledged, no plaque or stone marks the vault. The marker stones in the walls are according to the official flyer

“mortality stones” which depict the symbols of death are found in several walls of the church – theses were originally found in the ruined nave, and has been incorporated in the walls for historic interest.

The unmarked burial place of the Duke and the Duchess of Sutherland are very much of historic interest, but few Highlanders will remember them kindly. Certainly not those that have been evicted out of their homes on the Sutherland estate.

The income from their Stafford estates alone brought in the huge sum of 300,000 pounds annually, but despite this enormous wealth, which is equivalent to several million pounds at today’s values, they rushed through an “Improvement” program for their remote Sutherland estate.

They employed a lawyer called Patrick Sellar and a factor called James Lock to carry out the actual “Improvements” or, as the tenants would have it, “To Clear” them. Both of these men hated the Gaels and they are still remembered in the Highlands to this day due to their cruelty and barbarity towards the tenant farmers.

The estate records show that evictions at the rate of 2,000 families in one day were not uncommon.

With no shelter remaining for the cleared families many starved and froze to death where their homes had once been.

(The Highland Clearances)

The memory of the Clearances is still very much alive in many parts of Scotland, in Canada and America, where large numbers of the tenants and crofters finally emigrated to.

The land was cleared. More money was earned.

Dornoch remains rather silent, when it comes to the Duke and the Duchess of Sutherland. The Sutherland vault remains unmarked and mostly unspoken of.

De mortuis nihil nisi bene – do not speak ill of the dead.

What else is there to say?

Sources & further reading:

Dornoch Cathedral

Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe on the Sutherland Clearances

Undiscovered Scotland – Elisabeth Sutherland

The Highland Clearances

Canmore – Dornoch Cathedral

The New Statistical Account of Scotland

David Craig: On The Crofters’ Trail, London, Jonathan Cape, 1990

Scotland for Quiet Moments is available as ebook and paperback on Amazon.

Scotland is a country full of history, stories and secrets. Often, the three cannot be separated. That is what makes this country so wonderful and unique. The stories of this book have been discovered and gathered for Erkenbach’s blog, Graveyards of Scotland, over many years. 

Her main sources were historical travel guides from the 18th and 19th centuries, where the finds were scary, beautiful, funny, and sometimes, cruel.This unusual approach to a country’s history has produced amazing results. You don’t have to share the author’s passion for cemeteries to enjoy this book; only a small number of the stories in this collection take place in graveyards, though they do all end in them, so perhaps it helps.

The fairy hill in Inverness, a nitrate murder on Shetland, a family of left-handers, wolves, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace shown in a new light, the secret bay of the writer Gavin Maxwell, a murdering poet and so many things you didn’t know about Scotland, its clans and its history.

2 thoughts on “The secret vault of the Sutherlands

Add yours

  1. Hello,
    Using the *Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland* by R. Gordon and other resources, I have been creating Findagrave memorials for persons whom Gordon identified as having been buried in Dornoch Cathedral. The author does not always specify burial site, but when he mentions one, I create a memorial and leave bibliographic citations so that interested persons can re-check and read for more detail.
    Good blog!
    Eileen Cunningham

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