Sinclair Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Sinclair Surname Meaning

The root of Sinclair is the French Saint Clair, from one of a number of place-names in Normandy (Saint-Clair-sur-Elle in La Manche or Saint-Clair-l’Évêque in Calvados).

There were St. Clair families in France, including the St. Clairs with links to the Knights Templar in popular mythology.  A Saint Clair came to England with William the Conqueror in 1066; the name of Hubertus de Sancto Claro was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086; and by that time the St. Clairs had arrived in Scotland.

Sinclair Surname Resources on The Internet

Sinclair Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Caithness and Midlothian)
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America, Caribs (Barbados), Canada, Australia and New Zealand

Scotland.  William de Saint Clair accompanied Margaret to Scotland in 1068 where she eventually married King Malcolm. In return for his efforts, the king was said to have granted Saint Clair the barony of Roslin or Rosslyn near Edinburgh in Midlothian.

These Saint Clairs led the Scottish fighting against the Vikings in the northeast of the country during the 13th century. Did they in fact have Viking blood themselves? They had become an important family in Scotland by the mid 14th century. Henry Sinclair, the first to adopt the Sinclair name (pronounced then Sinkler), was made the Earl of Orkney by the King of Norway in 1375.

“Henry Sinclair was a notable seaman. He is best known today because of a modern legend (probably untrue) that he took part in explorations of Greenland and North America almost a hundred years before Christopher Columbus.”

His grandson William expanded the family’s lands. became the first Earl of Caithness, and was Lord Chancellor of Scotland from 1454 to 1456. It was William who built Castle Sinclair Girrigoe, the clan stronghold on a seacliff outside Wick. He split the family lands, giving the lands of Caithness to his elder son and the lands at Roslin in Midlothian to his younger son. These Sinclairs played their role in subsequent Scottish history, royalist during the Civil War, Jacobite supporters in 1715, but British government supporters in 1745.

One branch of the Sinclairs in Caithness, the Sinclairs of Ulbster, produced Sir John Sinclair, author of the monumental Statistical Account of Scotland, and his great great grandson Archie Sinclair, leader of the British Liberal party in the 1930’s. The Sinclairs of Longformacus in Berwickshire were a branch of the Roslin Sinclairs. This line stopped about 1800, shortly after the main Roslin line had ended.

Because of its history the Sinclair name is both Highland and Lowland. The 1891 census showed:

  • 35 percent of Sinclairs in Caithness, Orkney and Shetland
  • 15 percent in Midlothian
  • 25 percent in Lanarkshire
  • and another 25 percent elsewhere.

Ireland. Sinclairs came to Ireland as part of the Scottish plantations of the 17th century. William Sinclair of Roslin arrived in 1620. He built his residence, Newton Manor Court, in county Offaly. The Rev. John Sinclair arrived from Caithness in 1663 and settled at Holyhill in county Tyrone.

“After the siege of Derry in 1689, James II’s fleeing troops arrived at Holyhill. They were about to burn it down when the commander of the troops issued an order that it should be left untouched. He was a Hamilton and it is thought it was because the Rev. John Sinclair’s first wife was a Hamilton that he saved it from destruction. The commander was on the Donegal bank of the Foyle at the time. So his messenger had to swim across the river to deliver it.”

These Sinclairs had established themselves in both Tyrone and Donegal during the 17th century and by the 1770’s had set up a thriving linen business at Holyhill. However, the Sinclair name is not common in Ireland today.

America. The son of Daniel and Elizabeth Sinclair in Caithness styled himself Arthur St. Clair and came to America in the 1760’s with the British army. He later fought on the American side in the Revolutionary War and rose to become one of its generals. He was then made governor of the Northwest territory. But his career ended with an ignominious defeat against Native American forces.

Arthur Sinclair arrived in Virginia from Scotland also sometime in the 1760’s. His son Arthur was an early American war hero, commanding a US naval squadron on Lake Ontario in the War of 1812. His grandson Arthur was with Commodore Perry in Japan in 1854 and later served in the Confederate navy. His great grandson was the novelist Upton Sinclair.

Another Sinclair family, this time from Inverness, came to Hampshire county, Virginia in the 1790’s. These Sinclairs later moved onto what became known as Sinclair Ridge in West Virginia.

Some Sinclairs are Jewish. Anne Sinclair, for instance, was born Anne Elise Schwartz to Jewish parents in New York in 1948. She is today a French TV and radio interviewer married to the controversial French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Caribbean.  Sinclair could become Sinkler or Sinckler in Barbados. One line of Sinckler planter families began with James Sincker of St. George parish in the mid-1700’s.  A descendant the Rev. E.G. Sinckler was the Curate of St. Leonard’s from 1855 until his death in 1881. It was said during his time that St. Leonard’s had the best organists and one of the finest choirs in the West Indies.

Canada. William Sinclair from Orkney had joined the Hudson Bay Company in 1792 and moved out west. He married a local Indian girl and they raised a large family. Their most famous son was the fur trader James Sinclair. In 1841 and again in 1854 he successfully led parties of emigrants from the Winnipeg area across the Rockies to settle in Oregon territory.

Alexander Sinclair from Caithness was the forebear of the Sinclairs of Goshen in Nova Scotia, arriving there in 1816. His lineage was covered in the Rev. Alexander Sinclair’s 1901 book The Sinclairs of Roslin, Caithness and Goshen.

Jimmy Sinclair arrived in Vancouver from Scotland with his family as a young boy in 1911. He entered the Canadian Parliament and became a Cabinet minister in the 1950’s. His daughter Margaret, considered a wild child by the press, was married to the Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

Australia.  James Sinclair arrived from Scotland in the late 1830’s, settling in Golbourn, NSW.  A builder, his home St. Clair Cottage still stands.  It appears that he over-extended himself and went bankrupt in 1851.  Legend has it that he set out for the Victorian goldfields a year later but met with foul play.  His empty money belt was all that was found of him.  Peter Sinclair from the Orkneys meanwhile came to the goldfields of Mount Crawford in South Australia in the 1850’s.

New Zealand.  Francis and Eliza Sinclair were married in Glasgow in 1824 and set off for New Zealand in 1841.  They bought land for their Craigforth farm on Pigeon Bay, South Island.  Five years later Francis and their elder son George died in a shipwreck off the New Zealand coast.  The remaining Sinclairs remained at Craigforth until 1863 when Eliza sold the farm and took the family to Hawaii.

Sinclair Surname Miscellany

The St. Clairs and Some Fancy Mythmaking.  The St. Clair family has gotten connected in popular myth today with the Templars, the Priory of Sion, and talks of bloodlines in books such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail and Dan Brown’s best-seller The Da Vinci Code.

These books have been responsible for some of the difficulties encountered at Rosslyn Chapel and for the overcrowding that still continues there.   Rosslyn Chapel featured prominently in The Da Vinci Code as it was thought to have harbored dark secrets of the Knights Templar.

Some writers have taken the St. Clair connection even further.  The Templars, they claim, had the motive, the method, and the strong motivation to come to North America. Led by Prince Henry Sinclair, they established both a safe haven for the Merovingian Dynasty and mining operations which led to a military edge over their opponents back in Europe.  These Templars apparently left clues all over North America recognizable to those Templars who might follow.

The St. Clairs in the 14th Century.  Such documents as the Declaration of Arbroath indicate that the St. Clair family was an important one in Scotland at the time.  As signers, they were one of fifty one of a select group of Scottish leaders.

These St. Clairs were often called to Norway and England.  Henry Sinclair’s position of Jarl in Norway was considered an important one there. He was recorded as sending his half brother, David Sinclair, son of Isabella Sparra in Orkney and Shetland, away to England with the following pledge:

“To all who shall see or hear these presents, Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney and Lord of Roslin, safety in the Lord!  I concede to my brother, David Sinclair, for life, because of his claim through our mother Isabella Sparra in Orkney and Shetland, all the lands of Newburgh and Auchdale in Aberdeenshire, to return to me if his heirs fail.”

Less than fifty years after Henry’s death his grandson William commissioned a genealogy of the Sinclair family, full of praise for his ancestors’ achievements.

Did he mention his grandfather’s supposed maritime exploits?  He did not.  This story instead seemed to have surfaced much later, with a 16th century Venetian document called the Zeno narrative.  The document was allegedly compiled from letters the navigators to America wrote in 1380 to a relative living back in Venice.

The Earls of Orkney.  The Earl of Orkney was originally a Norse jarl ruling Orkney, Shetland, and parts of Caithness and Sutherland.  In 1379 the Earldom of Orkney, without Caithness, was granted by the King of Norway to Henry Sinclair, a son-in-law of the Gaelic mormaer Maol Iosa.  Earl Henry ruled until his death in 1401.  It was said that Earl Henry’s little court in Orkney was one of the most elegant and refined in Europe and was adorned with the official services of many Scottish nobles.

He was succeeded by a son Henry who was followed by his son William to whom the Earldom of Caithness was granted by the King of Scotland in 1455.  However, Orkney and Shetland were then pledged to King James III of Scotland and James took the Earldom of Orkney for the Crown in 1470.  William was thereafter Earl of Caithness alone until he resigned the Earldom in favor of his son in 1476.

The Sinclair name, however, has continued to be found in Orkney and Shetland.  Laurence Sinclair, for instance, was a burgess at Kirkwall in Orkney in the 16th century.  William Sinclair was born at Estaquoy in Orkney in 1766 but left there at an early age to join the Hudson Bay Company in Canada.  An early account of the Sinclair Orkney connection was Roland William St. Clair’s 1898 book The Saint Clairs of The Isles 

Sinclair’s Ballad.  Sinclair’s Ballad is a Norwegian song about the massacre of Scots mercenaries hired by the Swedish king in a war with Norway and Denmark.  These Scots landed on the coast at Romsdal in 1612 and were ambushed by Norwegian farmers at Kringen in the Gudbrandsdalen valley.

Many of them were slaughtered, among them Captain George Sinclair of Stirkoke who led the Caithness Company.  Tradition has it that he was shot by Berdon Segelstad with a bullet melted from a silver button. The place where he fell was marked with a wooden cross. A commemorative plaque was added in 1733. Zinclar Vise or Sinclair’s Ballad was written by the Norwegian poet Edvard Storm in 1781.

The ballad (in translation) began as follows:

  • “Lord Sinclair crossed the salty sea,
  • To Norway his course was set;
  • Among Gudbrand’s cliffs he found his grave,
  • Where a bloody brow awaited.”

It reached its climax with the following verse:

  • “The first shot did Lord Sinclair strike.
  • He roared and then his spirit yielded;
  • Each Scot cried out as their leader fell:
  • God free us from this woe.”

William Sinclair and His Irish Estate at Newton Manor Court.  William Sinclair of Roslin arrived in Ireland in 1620 and received as a Scottish planter 1,000 acres of pasture and woodland on the lower slopes of the Slieve Bloom mountains in county Offaly.  There Newton Manor Court was built.

However, it is unlikely that William and his wife and family ever lived there.  Conditions were tough enough in Scotland if you were moderately wealthy, but it would have been much more difficult on the Slieve Bloom mountains which was many hours away from the relative comfort and safety of Dublin.  It is more likely that he employed an agent to build the house and look after the land.

In fact, whilst he was holding Newton Manor, William settled his family on the townland of Mullamore in another plantation at Ballyloughmaguiffe in county Tyrone. Why he did this is not known, but it could be that he was hedging his bets.  Conditions in Offaly were very unsettled and he may have been looking for greater security for his wife and children.  William was recorded as living at Mullamore and his eldest son George was listed in the Muster Roll of county Tyrone in 1630.

The Sinclair family had sold Newton Manor Court by that time. It passed into other hands and has ended up in ruins.  However, recently Peter Sinclair, a descendant of the original owners, has been instrumental in forming the Newton Manor Court Trust to preserve the ruins of this unique plantation house.

Arthur St. Clair’s Sad End.  Arthur St. Clair was made commander-in-chief of the army in the Northwest Territory in 1791.  He soon moved against the Indians on the Wabash, even though he was so lame from gout that he had to be carried on a litter.  He and his troops marched northwards from Fort Washington (now Cincinnati) in search of them.

Early one morning, after the troops had slept fitfully after a wearisome march and were preparing for breakfast, they were suddenly attacked by Indians.  The slaughter among the troops was dreadful.  Most of the officers were slain or wounded.  The remaining remnants fled in confusion and it was with great difficulty that St. Clair escaped on a packhorse, having had three horses killed under him.  He had lost nearly half of his army, over 800 men killed and wounded.

Blamed severely, a committee of Congress nevertheless vindicated St. Clair; but he resigned his commission. He was broken in health, spirits, and fortune, and, retiring to a log-house on the summit of Chestnut Ridge among the Alleghany mountains, he passed away the remainder of his days in poverty.

Early Sinclairs in Nova Scotia.  Donald Sinclair, a merchant in Thurso, lost his wife in 1806 and decided to emigrate to the Americas.  He boarded the Long Mhor America a year later in 1807.  The ship was wrecked off the coast of Newfoundland, with the loss of nearly all on board. But Donald and his two sons survived and they made a new home for themselves at Sherbrooke in Nova Scotia.

Alexander Sinclair had lived nearby in Scotland at Latheron.  He sailed with his family for America in the spring of 1816, the year after the battle of Waterloo.  He landed in Halifax in June and came in a schooner to Sherbrooke.  He lived there for a few years in a rented farm about half a mile below the foot of Lochaber lake.  About 1820 he removed with his family to the district then known as the Backlands of St. Mary’s, but now known as Goshen.

Sinclair Names

  • William de Saint Clair came to Scotland in 1068 and was the forebear of the Sinclair clan in Scotland.
  • Sir John Sinclair was a late 18th century Scottish writer on finance. the first – in his pioneering work Statistical Account of Scotland – to use the word statistics in English.
  • Upton Sinclair was an American writer who became well-known through his 1906 muckraking novel The Jungle.
  • Sir Clive Sinclair was an early producer and marketer of home computers in the UK in the 1980’s.

Sinclair Numbers Today

  • 24,000 in the UK (most numerous in West Lothian)
  • 9,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 26,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Sinclair and Like Surnames

The Norman Conquest brought new rulers to England and they brought their names and language, a form of French, with them.  Over time their names became less French and more English in character.  Thus Hamo became Hammond, Reinold Reynolds and Thierry Terry and so forth.  The names Allen, Brett, Everett, and Harvey were probably Breton in origin as Bretons also arrived, sometimes as mercenaries.

The new Norman lords often adopted new last names, sometimes from the lands they had acquired and sometimes from places back in Normandy.  Over time the name here also became more English.  Thus Saint Maur into Seymour, Saint Clair into Sinclair, Mohun into Moon, and Warenne into Warren.

Here are some of these Norman and Breton originating names that you can check out.





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Written by Colin Shelley

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