A Cavalry Officer Fond of Polo

I was looking through the spiffing web log of Jonathan Calder – the secretary of Nutcase the Lord Bonkers – when I espied a familiar sight: Thurso Castle. I have previously discussed it on my other truly awful web log, including this photograph of mine.


I was there this morning, chatting to the occupant and my MP, John the Lord Thurso. What my photograph and that one provided by Calder should show is how misplaced an attempt from Labour PPC for the constituency, John Mackay, to portray Thurso as living in a country castle was.

In all the years I have lived in [the town of] Thurso, this was the first time I had ventured past the gate house on the main road, and down the glorious avenue of trees; maybe 1/3 mile. This buccolic remnant and the copse of trees (relatively unusual in wind-swept Caithness) is by far the most significant remainder of the pile built by Tollemache Sinclair, Thurso’s great-great-grandfather, in the 1870s. On the left of the photograph on Calder’s web log is a white-washed wall, which was formerly the servants’ quarters but now represents the lounge and a large part of the occupied area. In fact, seen from the front, the scene of entropy and genteel decay made me think of a J G Ballard short story.

Attempts to dismiss him as a serial absentee from 10 votes on Parliamentary expenses, I found, are equally misplaced. At least five of these took place ad hoc in one session in May 2009 when he had departed for a prior engagement with the full knowledge and permission of party whips.

I will stop there, as I wish to discuss an absolute gem which Calder links: namely the Google Book of Gerard J. De Groot’s Liberal Crusader: The Life of Sir Archibald Sinclair, biography Thurso’s grandfather and Tollemache Sinclair’s grandson. De Groot describes him as a “cavalry officer fond of polo”.

Born in 1890, like Winston Churchill, he had a speech impediment. Like Churchill, he later opposed Chaberlain’s Appeasement policies. Like Churchill, his mother was of blue-chip East Coast wealth from America sent to Britain to marry a titled Lord. Like Churchill’s Ma and Pa’s canoodling, this caused much scandal and consternation. Unlike Churchill, though, he did not arrive eight months after a hastily arranged marriage.

He also served as second-in-command to Churchill in the 6th Royal Scots Fusillers at Ploegsteert Wood during the Great War, where Churchill was making amends after Gallipoli. Afterwards, he accompanied Churchill, now Secretary of State for War, as his Personal Military Secretary; and then as Private Secretary at the Colonial Office.

In 1922, he was elected as Liberal MP for Caithness and Sutherland, defeating the incumbent Liberal MP. The then decline of the Liberal Party marked his rise through Parliament. He later sat in Ramsay MacDonald’s Cabinet, as Secretary of State for Scotland, and then alligned with Churchill once more when the latter was shunned by his party. During WWII, he had been the Secretary for Air, but lost his Parliamentarian seat to a Tory in 1945 whilst the rest of the country was voting in a Labour Government. After a second defeat in 1952, he was made the first Lord Thurso.

All in all, de Groot decides that he had helped make good again the name of this established and popular Caithness family slightly besmirched by his father, Clarence, who was:

A lieutenant in the Scots Guards, he dabbled in amateur theatricals, played polo, wrote very bad poetry and generally did what dashing young gentlemen were supposed to do – including getting up to considerable mischief on his Grand Tour. During his youthful adventures in Paris, he contracted syphilis.

Clarence was briefly a Liberal MP for Caithness-shire, but died in 1895, aged 37, leaving Sinclair to be raised by the absolutely dotty but locally popular Tollemache, Third Baronet of Ulbster and another onetime Liberal MP. These were not Dukes of Sutherland type people, with one report of a collapse in the summer crops being offset by his waiving the rent for that year (several of the families still farm locally). *His* grandfather, Sir John Sinclair and the first Baronet of Ulbster, had been the Jethro Tull of his day and class; coiner of the word “statistics”; founder of the Board of Agriculture, in 1793.

Tollemache, however, was the Ed Wood of landlordism. A genuinely nice person, but an abysmal planner. Harmlessly, he was fond of his orchestrion, such as this model which is still working on the Isle of Rum:

Idiotically, inspired by all the soppy romanticism of the 19th Century and tales of Ivanhoe, he converted the stable Thurso Castle, at great expense, into the following baronial fable:


The perfect allegory for the Romanticism of the 19th Century should have been seen in the fate of the Eglinton_Tournament of 1839, being rained out on the day and turned into some proto-Glastonbury Festival. But, Tollemache persisted and the Castle, it has to be said, lasted some 70 years until a sea-mine damaged it during WWII. Even with shrinking fortunes, the damage could have been repaired had a better job been done in the 1870s. Alas it was not to be, and in 1952 the Castle was stripped of its lead roof and left to slip, like the Charlotte Elizabeth on t’other side of Thurso Harbour, into a state of genteel decay.


One Response to “A Cavalry Officer Fond of Polo”

  1. Mill Theatre, Thurso « Thurso and the Hyperborean North Says:

    […] water-mill which, in 1960, the then Lord Thurso, Archibald Sinclair (whose biography I discuss here) gifted it to the Thurso Players amateur dramatic society. They have used it […]

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