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Laurence Bruce of Cultmalindie lived from 20 January 1547 to August 1617. He was a deeply unpopular Sheriff of the Shetland Islands best known for building Muness Castle on the island of Unst. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Laurence Bruce was born in Perthshire, the son of John Bruce of Cultmalindie and Euphemia Elphinstone. His mother was also a mistress of King James V of Scotland and as a result in 1533, Laurence became the half brother of Robert Stewart, who would later be appointed 1st Earl of Orkney and Lord of Zetland (Shetland).
In about 1571 Robert Stewart appointed Laurence Bruce to the post of Sheriff of Shetland. Accompanied by his nephew (or illegitimate son, the facts are cloudy) William Bruce of Crail and a band of armed men, Bruce set up his base on the northern island of Unst and tackled his new role with a corrupt and cruel enthusiasm. His men undertook acts of piracy on passing shipping, and Bruce changed the system of weights and measures in order to increase the income to the Earldom. He is also said to have liberally bestowed his favours on local women and fathered some 24 illegitimate children, in addition to the ten legitimate children he had with wives Helen Kennedy and Elizabeth Gray. Complaints about him from Shetlanders led to his removal from post by a Royal Commission in 1577: though the respite was short because in 1578 Laurence Bruce returned to Shetland, appointed by Earl Robert as "Sheriff-Depute".
Robert Stewart died in 1593 and was succeeded as by his son, Patrick Stewart, 2nd Earl of Orkney. Patrick's disliked his half uncle intensely and his efforts to gain control of Shetland from Laurence Bruce became more determined as the 1590s proceeded. Laurence responded in 1598 by starting work on Muness Castle on Unst, the UK's most northerly castle. Bruce had good reason to feel concerned for his safety. In 1608 Earl Patrick arrived in Unst with 36 men and artillery, intent on capturing or destroying the castle. And they might well have succeeded had they not suddenly withdrawn for reasons that have never been explained.
In 1610 Laurence Bruce was amongst those who testified in Edinburgh against Earl Patrick on charges brought by the Bishop of Orkney, James Law, arising from Patrick's tyranny on Orkney. Phrases about "pots" and "kettles" spring to mind. Nonetheless, following an uprising by Earl Patrick's supporters in Orkney in 1614, Bruce was given a Government appointment as a Commissioner responsible for tracking down any of Patrick's supporters on Shetland. It is easy to imagine that this was a task he undertook with enthusiasm. Laurence Bruce died in his bed at Muness Castle in August 1617 and is buried the old churchyard at Sandwick on Unst.