Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sinclair, John (1683-1750)

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SINCLAIR, JOHN (1683–1750), Master of Sinclair, Jacobite, eldest son of Henry, eighth lord Sinclair (new creation by letters patent of Charles II, 2 June 1677, with the former precedency), by his wife Grizel, daughter of James Cockburn of Cockburn, was born on 5 Dec. 1683. John Sinclair, seventh lord Sinclair [q. v.], was his great-grandfather, and James Sinclair (d. 1762) was his younger brother. Entering the army at an early age, John held a command in Preston's regiment, under the Duke of Marlborough. Having been taunted by Ensign Shaw of the same regiment with having stooped down during the time of action at the battle of Wynendaal, he and Shaw fought with swords in February 1707–8, when Sinclair's sword was broken and Shaw's bent, but Shaw himself was mortally wounded. Thereupon a brother of Shaw, Captain Shaw of the royals, asserted that Sinclair had previously protected his breast with paper. Resenting such a reflection on his courage and honour, Sinclair encountered Shaw at the head of his regiment, and, failing to obtain a denial or apology, shot him dead. It was found that Shaw's hand had been laid on his pistol while Sinclair shot him, and it may have been that Sinclair fired either in self-defence or after due warning. But on his being tried by court-martial in the camp on 17 Oct. 1708, the act was declared to be a breach of the tenth article of war, and he was sentenced to death (Proceedings of the Court Martial held on John, Master of Sinclair, in the Roxburghe Club, 1828). Through the Duke of Marlborough the case was recommended to the consideration of the queen's privy council, who pronounced the act to be wilful murder; but before the sentence could be carried out Sinclair escaped from the camp to the Prussian dominions, and he remained abroad until he received a pardon in 1712.

In 1708 the master of Sinclair was chosen member of parliament for the county of Fife; but, even if the election had not been declared void by reason of his being the eldest son of a peer, it would not less have been rendered void by the sentence of death. On his return to Scotland, after receiving pardon, he continued to reside at Dysart, Fifeshire, until he was summoned to join the standard of rebellion under Mar in 1715. He obeyed the summons with reluctance, not because of lukewarmness as a Jacobite, but because he had little or no faith either in Mar's sincerity or ability. Still, to him belongs the credit of the one brilliant Jacobite achievement of the campaign. Learning that a vessel with arms and stores from the castle of Edinburgh, intended for the retainers of the Earl of Sutherland in the north of Scotland, had, from stress of weather, been brought to anchor near Burntisland, the master, setting out from Perth with four hundred horse, reached Burntisland at midnight. Without losing a moment, a detachment of his soldiers seized some boats in the harbour, boarded the vessel without resistance, and thus obtained 420 complete stand of arms. But at Sheriffmuir his action was not at all in keeping with this daring exploit. In command of the Fifeshire and Aberdeen horse, he was attached to the division which advanced towards Dunblane. This division met the left wing of Argyll's army and was victorious; but Sinclair, though he writes in high praise of the incredible vigour and rapidity of the highland attack, himself did nothing to turn it to account; and in the old song his doubtful attitude is thus satirised:

‘Huntly and Sinclair they baith played the tinkler
With consciences black as the snaw man.’

On the return of Mar's forces to Perth, Sinclair left the camp and went north to Strathbogie, and thence to Orkney, where he at last found a vessel to take him to the continent. Being attainted for his share in the rebellion, he remained abroad until 1726, when he received a pardon as regards his life, but without remission of the other consequences of the attainder. Returning to Scotland, he received back the estates at the hands of his younger brother, General James Sinclair, as had been privately arranged between them. The master of Sinclair died at Dysart on 20 Nov. 1750. He was married, first, to Lady Mary Stewart, eldest daughter of James, fifth earl of Galloway, and dowager of James, fifth earl of Southesk; and, secondly, to Amelia, eldest daughter of Lord George Murray, sister of John, third duke of Atholl, but left no issue by either marriage.

The master of Sinclair's ‘Memoirs of the Rebellion,’ published by the Roxburghe Club, 1858, are curiously cynical and sarcastic, but graphic and clever, and of great value for the light they throw on the inner history of the Jacobite rising. He has also been credited with the authorship of ‘A True Account of the Proceedings at Perth, the Debates in the Secret Council there, and the reasons and causes of the sudden finishing and breaking up of the Rebellion,’ London, 1716; but the fact is, he had left the camp before these debates commenced.

[Proceedings in the Court Martial, with preliminary notice of Sinclair by Sir Walter Scott; Memoirs ut supra; Histories of the Rebellion of 1715; Douglas's Scottish Peerage (Wood), ii. 501.]

T. F. H.