The county of Sutherland is one of the two most northernmost counties in mainland Britain, Caithness being the other. The name derives from the Norse word "Sudrland", that is land to the south of the Norse earldom of Orkney and Caithness. Sudrland did not include the North and Western parishes of the modern-day county of Sutherland. These were part of the traditional Clan Mackay territory, purchased in 1829 by the Marquess of Stafford (later created 1st Duke of Sutherland shortly before his death in 1833) and husband of the Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland in her own right and 19th holder of the Earldom of Sutherland.

The 1st Earl of Sutherland's great-grandfather, Freskin, who was of Flemish origin, possessed much of Sudrland in the 12th Century, as well as lands at Duffus, in the present county of Moray (and elsewhere). [Please refer to the note at the bottom of this page for further recently available information about Freskin.] The 1st Earl's father, Freskin's grandson Hugh de Moravia, was known as Lord de Sudrland. He also inherited the Duffus lands.

The followers of Freskin and his descendants, who may be called Clan Sutherland, therefore extended along the eastern part of the county of Sutherland into Nairn and Moray. They also extended northwards into Caithness, the traditional clan territory of the Sinclairs. Inter-clan skirmishes were therefore inevitable.

The two branches of Clan Sutherland most closely related to the Sutherland Earls, or Clan Chiefs, were the Lairds of (and later Lords) Duffus and the Lairds of Forse. The Duffus Lairds descended from Nicholas Sutherland, only brother of William, 5th Earl. The Forse Lairds stem from Kenneth Sutherland, only brother of Robert, 6th Earl. (Robert's elder half brother John, who was a grandson of Robert the Bruce, predeceased his father.) Duffus, as already noted, is outside the county of Sutherland. So also is Forse, which is in Caithness. This reinforces the claim that Sutherland clan territory extended beyond the geographical borders of the county of Sutherland.

The Sutherland Earls, the Lairds of Forse and the vast majority of their adherents supported the Hanoverian succession to the British crown. They were not Jacobites. Kenneth Sutherland, 3rd Lord Duffus, however, was an ardent Jacobite during the 1715 uprising. When this failed, Kenneth was stripped of his title and lands. The title was later recovered by his grandson James, styled 5th Lord Duffus, but James died without a legitimate heir to succeed him and the title passed to a cousin, Sir Benjamin Sutherland Dunbar of Hempriggs, in Caithness. Benjamin's eldest surviving son, George, did not claim the title and he died a bachelor. The Duffus peerage then became extinct. The Sutherlands of Forse continued to hold lands at Forse until early in the 20th century and their line is still represented most recently by the late Major George Sutherland, who lived in Golspie and was a Clan Chieftan. He is survived by 3 daughters who are his co-heiresses.

After the unsuccessful Jacobite uprising in 1745-46, the clan system in Scotland was deliberately emasculated, as a policy of the government based in London, determined to ensure no further uprising occurred on behalf of the Jacobite Stuarts. However clan loyalties undoubtedly lingered on and even as late as 1799, the clan chief was able to raise the 93rd Regiment of Foot, the Sutherland Highlanders by calling on the support of her tacksmen, tenants and other followers. In fact, this regiment was raised by a cousin of the 19th Countess of Sutherland, Major General William Wemyss. He selected the men he wished to serve in his regiment and, when they came to muster, not a single man selected failed to report. It is said that all the officers and the other ranks were either related or, at least, knew one another.

As the number of people in Sutherland grew apace, traditional ways of highland life were simply inadequate to support this burgeoning population. Emigration to England and the new world (particularly to the Americas) started as a trickle and soon became a flood. To an extent this was exacerbated by a policy known later as the Clearances, under which much small scale tenant farming was replaced by large scale sheep farming.

Many Sutherlands, who now live far and wide, are still proud of their surname, of their ancestral roots in the far north of Scotland and of the Sutherland tartan. There are active Clan Sutherland Societies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States of America as well as in Scotland.

The Clan Sutherland Society in Scotland in fact is the society for members living throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland. It has many members from overseas countries including many members who are also members of one or more of the overseas societies. It has its headquarters at Dunrobin castle in Golspie, the ancestral seat of the Sutherland earls. The present Chief of the Clan, Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland is the 24th holder of the Earldom of Sutherland and the Society's Honorary President. In recent years following the reconstitution of the society in 1977, there have been a number of gatherings of the Clan, in Sutherland. These are usually held every 4 or 5 years.

At present the Clan chief is a lady. The Sutherland earldom, like many of the Scottish hereditary titles created before 1707, can be inherited by a woman and has been inherited on three occasions by the nearest female descendant, in the absence of a male heir. The Sutherland dukedom created in 1833 is a United Kingdom title and like most such titles can only be inherited by a male. The dukedom and earldom were held for four generations by one and the same person. On the death of the 5th Duke and 23rd Earl in 1963, without issue, the dukedom (together with a collection of English titles held by the 1st Duke) was inherited by his nearest male relative, a distant cousin, the 5th Earl of Ellesmere. The earldom was inherited by his niece the present Countess of Sutherland, the only child of his younger brother, Lord Alastair Sutherland-Leveson-Gower. Following the death of the 6th Duke in September 2000 Francis Ronald Egerton aged 60, became 7th Duke of Sutherland.

The Clan crest is a cat salient proper, the Clan motto is San Peur (without fear), the Clan emblem is the butcher's broom and the Clan pipe music is the Earl of Sutherland's March. In Gaelic, the Clan chief is called Morair Chat. Some authorities regard as Clan septs the families of Cheyne, Federith, Gray, Oliphant, Mowat, and a branch of the Keiths. The Lord Lyon recognises the names of Cheyne, Gray, Oliphant and Keith as being clans in their own right and they cannot therefore continue to be considered Clan septs although branches of families of those names have long held and continue to hold a close association with Clan Sutherland.

This article comprises an original text written by Malcolm Sutherland (Emeritus Historian: Clan Sutherland) updated by Mark Sutherland-Fisher (Genealogist: Clan Sutherland). A recent publication in the Journal of the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy (2019) volume 11, pages 49-62 by the current Clan Historian, James B Sutherland gives a fuller description of Freskin. The publication has the title ‘Freskin, Adventurous Fleming or Locator? Founder of the House of Moravia in Medieval Scotland’.  Members of CSSS may consult a copy of the publication in the archive of documents located in a password-protected part of this website. Members can obtain the password via the contact us page, by providing their membership number.

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