ON November 5,1605 Guy Fawkes was arrested in London after he was discovered carrying matches, next to 36 barrels of gunpowder, in the cellars underneath the Parliament – but when the news from England filtered up to the far north of Scotland, the people of Dornoch believed they had received advance warning of the plot, sent directly to them from God.

In Dornoch, there had also been strange happenings on the night of November 5. A terrible storm had suddenly blown up, causing massive damage to the Cathedral.

In 1605, Dornoch Cathedral was already standing partially ruined, with some of its roof gone. It had been burnt down 35 years earlier by John the Stout, the heir to the Earldom of Caithness, and Aodh Mackay, the Chief of the Clan Mackay. Dornoch was part of the Earldom of Sutherland, and the Earldom of Caithness, supported by the Mackay clan, was embroiled in a bitter ongoing dispute which had already seen the old Earl and Countess of Sutherland killed by poisoning. However, part of Dornoch Cathedral had been saved from the disastrous fire, and the tower and some fine Gothic arches were still standing.

But on the night of November 5 1605, the gale-force winds were so strong that this final part of Dornoch cathedral fell: "All the inner stone pillars of the north side of the body of the cathedral church ... were blown from the very roots and foundation ... clean over the outer walls." The pillars which had held up the roof were blown out – but to the astonishment of everyone in Dornoch the outer walls remained standing. It was as if the cathedral had been turned inside out by an explosion.

The second surviving son of the Earl of Sutherland, Robert Gordon, had only recently passed through London on his way home from a trip to France. Robert had travelled north from England just a few weeks before, in October 1605. He already had plans to return to London and the newly-established court of James VI and I, so was eagerly watching out for news from the capital.

When Robert heard of the Gunpowder Plot he was shocked: ‘"The detestable powder treason," he called it, "a monstrous and devilish plot, singular from all example… against the king, queen, prince, and the whole state of Great Britain."

Robert immediately made the connection with the strange events that had taken place in Dornoch on the same night of November 5.

"These great winds," Robert wrote, "did even then prognosticate and foreshadow some great treason to be at hand." Robert and the people around him in Dornoch were convinced that the storm in the far north had been a sign to them that the devil was at work, and bad things were brewing. "As the devil was busy then to trouble the air, so was he busy, by these his firebrands [Guy Fawkes and the other plotters], to trouble the estate of Great Britain."’

Robert’s family, the Earls of Sutherland, were all Catholic, but Robert himself, after his travels on the Continent, and with a desire to become established at the court in London, seems to have converted to Protestantism. Robert had no hesitation in blaming Jesuit preachers as being the prime movers behind the Catholic Gunpowder Plot – despite the fact that his own uncle James Gordon was one of the most prominent Scottish Jesuits. Robert had become totally committed to James VI’s idea of a "state of Great Britain", with a united Scotland and England, and saw the Gunpowder Plot as an evil and unforgiveable attack on the king’s person.

There was a history in Scotland of mysterious gales being summoned up by people who wished ill on James VI: a trial in the 1590s had seen one Agnes Sampson confess that she, along with a group of other witches, had called on the devil to help them raise a storm against the Scots king. James VI was out of the country at the time, returning from his romantic trip to collect his new bride, Queen Anne of Denmark, and the witches and their accomplices did not wish him to return. They worked a spell involving casting a black cat into the water. The cat objected, and swam back to shore. Then the witches upped their game, and threw into the water another cat, to which they also attached dead body parts. A mighty tempest blew up. King James VI and his new bride were delayed in their journey by the contrary winds – but another vessel, loaded with presents for the new queen, was sunk as it travelled from Kinghorn to Leith.

In Scottish folklore, the devil had long been associated with bad weather and strong winds. Witches, one of James VI’s obsessions, were believed to work with the devil to control the wind. The coincidence of the storm in Dornoch and the Gunpowder Plot in London, made it easy to link them. Robert Gordon of Sutherland remembered November 5 vividly, and wrote about it some years later, in a family chronicle he made up for his nephew – while Robert himself authorised the rebuilding of Dornoch Cathedral in 1616.