The Sinclairs of Holy Hill

Throughout this book passing references have been made to the Sinclair family of Holy Hill. At the beginning of the chapter on Leckpatrick and Dunnalong in the eighteenth century it was pointed out that the Sinclairs were the leading gentry family in the area from the late seventeenth century to the middle of the twentieth century. The first Sinclair in Leckpatrick was the Reverend John Sinclair who was rector of the parish between 1666 and his death in 1703. According to the earl of Belmore’s book, Two Ulster Manors, Sinclair was the son of James Sinclair of West Brimes and grandson of James Sinclair of Thura in Scotland. Another pedigree of the family shows him to have been the son of Sir James Sinclair of Caithness. An exchequer deposition of 1672 gave his age as 28, on the basis of which he must have been born in the early 1640s.

He first came to the Strabane area as curate of Urney in 1665. On 19 February 1666 John Sinclair was instituted rector of Leckpatrick. In 1669 he also became rector of Camus-juxta-Mourne. He later became rector of the parish of Tullyaughnish in the diocese of Raphoe. The combined incomes from these three parishes enabled Sinclair to purchase in 1683 the freehold of Hollyhill from Captain George MacGhee. Holy Hill was to form the basis of the family’s estates over the next two and a half centuries. The Reverend Sinclair also acquired a small estate at Argory near Lifford in Co. Donegal. According to a Sinclair family tradition, during the troubles of 1689-90, Holy Hill was in danger of being attacked by a party of Jacobite soldiers retreating from Derry following the end of the siege. The soldiers burned Leckpatrick church and would have done the same to Holy Hill, but for a last minute reprieve.

He died in 1703 in his 62nd year. His second wife, Anna Galbraith, erected a large monument to his memory, which still stands in Leckpatrick parish church. The inscription on this memorial pays tribute to Sinclair in glowing terms, drawing attention to the fact that he was a faithful servant to the Established Church and showed a strong enthusiasm for suppressing dissenters (Presbyterians). It also acknowledges his position as a landowner in the area: ‘He neither grasped after the wealth of others nor did he use his own extravagantly: rich in property he was even richer in kindness.’ The memorial also names the children who predeceased him: Elizabeth, Ezekiel, John, William, Anna, Elizabeth, Andrew and Rebecca.

The Reverend John Sinclair was succeeded in his estate by his eldest son James. James Sinclair, who received his education at the diocesan school in Derry (now Foyle and Londonderry College) and later at Trinity College, Dublin, outlived his father by only fifteen years, dying 1718. He left a wife Elizabeth and a son John as well as four daughters, Angel, Ann, Lettice and Isabel. His sister Anne was the wife of Robert Lowry of Aghenis. The Lowrys later married into the Corry family of Co. Fermanagh. The Lowry-Corrys were subsequently elevated to the peerage as the earls of Belmore.

At the time of his father’s death, John Sinclair was a minor and was consequently placed under the guardianship of his uncle Robert Lowry. Little is known about his early life, though he was, like his father, educated at Trinity College, Dublin. He did take an interest in managing his properties and about 1740 commissioned the surveyor and cartographer, William Starret, to map the Holy Hill estate. He married, firstly, Marianna, sister of Francis Johnston of Kilmore, Co. Fermanagh, and they had two sons, James and William. Marianna died in 1753 and the following year John Sinclair married Elizabeth, daughter of George Knox of Moneymore, Co. Donegal. Not long after this he entered the service of the eighth earl of Abercorn. The retiring agent, Nathaniel Nisbitt, when recommending a suitable replacement, pointed out to Abercorn that John Sinclair of Holy Hill was ‘a rough honest man’. Abercorn heeded Nisbitt’s advice and appointed Sinclair his agent for the manor of Dunnalong in 1757. Sinclair was responsible for Dunnalong for the next thirteen years and his frequent letters to the earl reveal him to have been a conscientious and diligent agent.

In April 1770 another of Abercorn’s agents, James Hamilton, reported that Sinclair was suffering from a shortness of breath and a rupture, and was considering whether he should resign from his job. This he did, but his retirement was very brief and he died in the summer of 1770. A few years before his death John Sinclair had added the townlands of Douglas, Beaghs and Knockiniller to his estate, and there is some evidence that he prospected for coal in this area. Although in the parish of Ardstraw, this small estate adjoined Sinclair’s own Holy Hill estate. By his will John Sinclair bequeathed his lands in Donegal to William, his eldest surviving son by his first wife Marianna (James Sinclair had predeceased his father), and his lands in Co. Tyrone to George, his son by his second wife Elizabeth. It was John Sinclair’s intention that his son George should be trained in the linen business, and before his death he had arranged for George to be apprenticed to a suitable linen merchant. In July 1778 Mrs Elizabeth Sinclair, George’s mother, wrote to the earl of Abercorn on her son’s behalf, requesting that he be allowed to divert the course of the Glenmornan river, presumably in order to provide a water supply for a flax mill or a bleach green. The proposed venture would appear to have never been carried out as there is no further mention of it.

William Sinclair, who owned the family’s estate in Donegal, had a reputation as a heavy drinker. In 1772, when Abercorn and his agent, James Hamilton, were discussing potential burgesses for the corporation of Strabane, the latter described Sinclair as ‘rather giddy and drinks often too much’. A few years later Hamilton described Sinclair as having inherited ‘his father’s honesty’ and ‘if he was as sober, he would be a useful member [of the corporation]’. Hamilton did, however, acknowledge that recently Sinclair had become ‘more regular’. William Sinclair married Isabella, daughter of Thomas Young of Lough Eske, Co. Donegal, and they had three children, James, Thomas and Rebecca. He died some time before 1796 and was succeeded by his son James.

James Sinclair was born about 1770 and was educated at Trinity College, Dublin. He was a close friend of James Hamilton junior, agent to the marquis of Abercorn, and the letters from Hamilton to Abercorn reveal that this friendship was tested to the limit in the revolutionary period of 1797-8. In 1796 Hamilton had recommended Sinclair as a sheriff for Co. Donegal, and believed that he would make a ‘very steady and upright one’. However, throughout 1797 Sinclair was associated with anti-establishment forces much to Hamilton’s chagrin. In a parliamentary election in Donegal in 1797 Sinclair refused to back the Abercorn candidate and threw his full weight behind a Mr Montgomery who was something of a radical. He was joined in this by his brother Tom who had trained as a lawyer. During the election campaign James Hamilton junior accused the Sinclair brothers of being ‘overbearing and violent beyond all computation’. Eventually the rift got to the stage where Hamilton decided to cut all contact with the Sinclairs.

By the beginning of 1798 James Sinclair would appear to have been reconsidering his position. In a letter to James Hamilton junior in January 1798 he seems to have indicated a certain dissatisfaction with the part he had played in the previous year’s events. He also told Hamilton that he was thinking about moving to America. However, Hamilton was still not prepared to forgive Sinclair for his behaviour towards him and was determined that ‘no circumstance shall ever renew our intimacy’. Sinclair was a member of the Donegal militia and fought with this force against the rebels at New Ross, Co. Wexford, in 1798, reputedly being the last person wounded in the battle. He was clearly demonstrating his loyalty to the Crown and no doubt as a consequence of this his friendship with Hamilton was also renewed shortly afterwards.

In April 1802 Sinclair left Ireland for Paris with the intention of staying there for four years. According to James Hamilton junior, Sinclair hoped to save enough money while abroad to enable him to build on his return to Ireland. However, it would appear that Sinclair’s sojourn in Paris was brief, for the following year he was back in Ireland and taking a great interest in his yeomanry corps, so much so that he was ‘scarcely 2 hours a day off horseback’. Sinclair’s uncle George Sinclair of Holy Hill died in Limerick about the end of 1803 or beginning of 1804. His body was brought back for burial in the family enclosure in Old Leckpatrick. The Holy Hill estate then passed to James Sinclair. Thus the Sinclair lands in Donegal and Tyrone were reunited.

In 1805 James Sinclair married Dorothea, daughter of the Reverend Samuel Law. In January of that year James Hamilton junior had informed the marquis of Abercorn of the intended match in the following terms:

My friend James Sinclair is here. In fact he was a good deal the occasion of bringing me to town. He came in search of a wife, and I am happy to inform your Lordship he has been so fortunate as to succeed in getting a most amiable, lovely and accomplished not 17 years old yet, and who will ultimately have an excellent fortune. … The lady’s name is Law, daughter of a clergyman of our neighbourhood. I never beheld a man in my life so over head and ears in love.

The ‘excellent fortune’ to which Hamilton referred included the Montgomery estate at Bonnyglen in Donegal. However, it was not until 1848 that Bonnyglen passed into the family’s possession. Through intermarriage with the Laws the Sinclairs also acquired the townland of Lisdivin which they leased in perpetuity to the marquis of Abercorn in 1832. In 1807 Sinclair sold his estate ‘near this town’ – presumably the lands of Douglas etc. acquired by his grandfather in the late 1760s. In 1808 he received tragic news from Antigua, an island in the West Indies, that his brother Tom had died. James Sinclair took a full part in the affairs of northwest Ulster, serving as J. P. in both Donegal and Tyrone. He was also a witness at several parliamentary inquiries in the 1830s and 1840s, including the Devon Commission and the inquiry into the Orange Order in Ireland in 1835. His opinion of the Order was very low. To a question inquiring about his attitude to Orangemen he replied with the following statement: ‘As a Protestant, I think they are exceedingly injurious and embarrassing to the Government and very injurious to the Protestant religion’.

We have already discussed Sinclair’s improvements on his Holy Hill estate in the late 1810s. By this time the Sinclair estate also included the townland of Ballee, leased from the marquis of Abercorn. In 1810 Sinclair planted in this townland 1412 spruce firs, 62 Scotch firs, 78 ‘silver and balm of Gilead’ firs, 1520 larches, 1230 ashes, 171 horn beams, 273 birches, 870 alders, 1041 beeches, and 509 oaks.

James Sinclair died on 18 February 1865 at the advanced age of 94, outliving his wife Dorothea by just three and a half months. He was succeeded by his son William Sinclair who in 1839 had married Sarah, daughter of James Cranborne Strode of Tunbridge Wells in Kent. Sarah’s brother James was an officer in the Enniskillen Dragoons. Their children included James Montgomery, William Frederic, a member of the Bombay civil service, Donald Brooke, and Alfred Law, a captain in the Bombay Staff Corps. William Sinclair, a barrister-at-law, was also prominent in the affairs of north-west, serving as high sheriff of Co. Donegal in 1854 and becoming a deputy lieutenant of Tyrone in 1876. He was chairman of, firstly, the West Donegal Railway Company and, secondly, the Donegal Railway Company. William Sinclair died on 25 August 1896 at the age of 86 and was buried in the family enclosure in Old Leckpatrick graveyard. The epitaph on his memorial includes the following verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans: ‘Not slothful in business, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord’. His wife died on Christmas night 1898.

On 19 January 1868 James Montgomery Sinclair married Mary Everina, daughter of Lieut.-col. Hugh Barton of the Waterfoot, Co. Fermanagh. He died in a shooting incident at Bonnyglen in 1899. His eldest son William Hugh Montgomery Sinclair studied law and joined the consular service in 1900, serving firstly at Manila in the Philippines, then Boston and, eventually, Buenos Aires in Argentina. In 1907, while on his way from Buenos Aires to a holiday in the Mediterranean, Sinclair made a lengthy detour to Strabane in order to vote in the North Tyrone by-election. However, his efforts were in vain, for the unionist candidate was defeated by the margin of just seven votes.

In his absence the Holy Hill estate was managed by his mother Mary. In 1904-5 it was sold off to its tenants under the terms of the Land Act of 1903. Bonnyglen was also sold off, and in the early 1920s the house was burned down. William Sinclair spent part of the First World War in Italy, and in the early 1920s he again returned to America where he met and married in 1924 the heiress, Elizabeth Elliott Hayes, popularly known as ‘Bessie’. Sinclair was then aged 54 and, believing his wandering days to be over, returned to Holy Hill with his new wife. He died in 1930; they had no children and everything was left to Bessie.

Bessie Sinclair’s snobbery stopped her from bequeathing the Holy Hill estate to her sister-in-law’s family, the Mackeys. With no Sinclair male heir she chose General Sir Alan Adair as a man worthy of inheriting what remained of the Holy Hill estate. Adair was a far out relation of the Sinclairs, but he was a member of the establishment and a distinguished British army officer. On Bessie’s death in 1957 Adair took possession of Holy Hill. He would seem to have had little feel for the house and its history and sold off some of the family heirlooms as well as burning many of the records relating to the estate. His visits to Holy Hill were irregular and in 1983 he sold the property to Hamilton Thompson, a chemist in Strabane, who has put a great deal of time and effort into looking after the house and grounds. Ironically, Hamilton Thompson’s forebears were tenants on the Holy Hill estate.


This chapter on the Sinclairs of Holy Hill was based on material in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (D.623, D.2298 and D.3608) and on an article by J. Dooher, entitled, ‘Commit thy work to God: the history and times of the Sinclairs of Hollyhill’, in Concordia (1995). Although the official name of the townland is Hollyhill, the Sinclairs themselves always referred to it as Holy Hill.

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