LAST year when I finished my series on the Highland clans, I promised I would return to the subject of clans by looking at the great lowland clans – and I am starting today and next week with perhaps the mightiest of them, Clan Douglas.

In future columns I will look at hybrid clans who have both Highland and lowland presences, such as Clan Fraser and the Stewarts, and I will also have a look at some of the smaller clans who have interesting stories to tell.

There are no doubt traditionalists who hold that clans can only be Highland, not least because the word derives from Gaelic “clann”, meaning “children” – for those who asked, the earliest use of the word in writing dates to the 1300s and we know that clans began to form two centuries before that. I contend, however, that in some lowland places like Fife, Galloway and the Scottish Borders, the clan system prevailed for centuries, just as it did in the Highlands and Islands.

There were differences in the way that Highland and lowland clans operated, but the basic rule of thumb was the same – the people of a clan shared familial loyalties, they mostly had the same name, they acknowledged the overlordship of a chief or chieftain, and very often shared the same territory.

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Some nobles were content to be acknowledged as aristocrats and did not bother to assert their control of clans, but many others were anxious to retain their chieftainship and jealously guarded it – to the point of death in some cases.

The clan system was very much male-dominated, and one aspect that came late to the clan system was that if a woman married into a different clan – exogamy was allowed and often encouraged if a new wife brought a good dowry – then she nearly always adopted her husband’s name and became part of the clan.

This was true for both the Highlands and lowlands and was a separate Scottish development, distinct from the English law of “couverture” which forced women from the 12th century onwards to be “covered” by their husbands – ie take their surname.

In any case, most people in mediaeval times did not have surnames as we understand them, most being known by their given name and their father’s name (Mac Gregor) or place of origin or abode (de Fife), though some people would be known by a nickname usually from some sort of facial or bodily feature – ginger hair would often see someone called “the Red”.

As we have seen, clans tended to develop over many generations, and were often created by splits in an original clan. Some simply grew out of the families of noblemen. The extraordinary King David I, who ruled from 1124 to 1152 and who I often say was Scotland’s greatest monarch, was ultimately responsible for creating several clans in central and southern Scotland.

Having been a “guest” at the English court, which was really Anglo-Norman in character, David was so impressed by Norman culture that he imported powerful men from the Continent and they helped him transform Scotland, taking lands which the king gave them in return for military service. Thus did the Bruce family, for example, come to Scotland.

Another immigrant family was that of Theobald Le Fleming, whose family originated in what is now Belgium or northern France and which came across as part of the Norman Conquest of England. Born in about 1120 in Aldingham Manor in Lancashire, Theobald came north to be given land by the Abbot of Kelso who had been building the magnificent Kelso Abbey.

Though the Flemish connection is disputed, there is little doubt that in return for services to the Abbey – could he have been a guard or garrison commander? – Theobald was given land by the Douglas Water, the dubh glas or black stream, in what is now South Lanarkshire.

It was Theobald’s son William who was the first of that name to enter written history when he witnessed a charter by Jocelin, Bishop of Glasgow, to Kelso Abbey in 1174.

As William de Douglas, he clearly by that time was Lord of the Douglas lands, and he also made good marriage to Margaret, sister of the powerful Freskin de Moravia, the likely progenitor of the Clan Murray who was himself of Flemish origin.

The Douglases and the Murrays would be linked thereafter, so much so that a 15th century poet and chronicler, Andrew of Wyntoun, wrote:

“Of Murrawe and the Douglas,

How that thare begynnyng was,

Syn syndry spekis syndryly

I can put that in na story.

But in thare armeyis bath thai bere

The sternys[stars] set in lyke manere;

Til mony men it is yhit sene

Apperand lyk that had bene

Of kyn be descens lyneale

Or be branchys collaterele.”

The original Lord William of Douglas was definitely the first to bear that name, though there is a recurring myth propounded by, among others, historian David Hume of Godscroft (1558-1629) that one Sholto who fought for the king of Scots in the eighth century was the original progenitor of the clan.

The National: David I, King of Scotland. David I (1084-1153) ruled Scotland from 1124David I, King of Scotland. David I (1084-1153) ruled Scotland from 1124

Unfortunately for that myth, there is no actual evidence of any such Sholto other than Hume’s flight of fancy. He was, after all, writing a history of the Douglases and all clans wanted to know they were extant from ancient times and were descended from heroes.

During the 13th century, the Douglas family prospered and built a castle at Douglas and started the village around it which stand to this day. Through marriage they became related to the powerful Bruce family, the Earls of Carrick.

William’s son Archibald was named in numerous church charters while Archibald’s brothers included Bricious, who became Bishop of Moray, and his sister Margaret married Hervey de Keith, Marischal of Scotland, who was close to successive Scottish kings, Malcolm the Maiden and the long-reigning William the Lion.

It was their alliance with the Bruces which would make the Douglas name famous and bring them both triumph and tragedy. Sir William Douglas, known as the Hardy, married Elizabeth Stewart, daughter of Alexander, 4th High Steward of Scotland, and they had a son James who we will learn more about. William went on the Eighth Crusade in 1270 and returned to Scotland to play his part in one of the best known stories about the early Douglas chiefs.

In 1288, the recently widowed Douglas laid siege to Fa’aside Castle near Tranent in East Lothian. It was a possession of the English La Zouche family and Douglas objected to their demands for rent from people he considered to be his kin. He was about to raze the castle when he was told that it contained a wealthy widow, Eleanor Ferrers, who William Douglas promptly seized and carried off to Douglas Castle. Douglas went to prison briefly but emerged to marry Eleanor and the pair lived happily ever after, having two sons.

William the Hardy was imprisoned three times by the forces of King Edward Longshanks, the second time after the capture of Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1296. Douglas had been made governor of the town by the Guardians of Scotland after the exile of King John Balliol and he and his garrison eventually had to surrender to the English, who had slaughtered almost all of the townspeople.

HAVING sided with William Wallace’s rebellion, he was captured a third time, and brutally mistreated, he died in the Tower of London in 1298. The next Lord of Douglas was the most famous – or infamous if you were English – Sir James “the Black” Douglas. He became Robert the Bruce’s friend and ally and was adored in Scotland and feared across England.

In The Brus, John Barbour describes him thus:

But he was not so fair that we

Should praise his looks in high degree.

In visage he was rather grey;

His hair was black, so I heard say,

His limbs were finely made and long,

His bones were large, his shoulders strong,

His body was well-knit and slim

And those say that set eyes on him,

When happy, loveable was he,

And meek and sweet in company,

But those with him in battle saw

Another countenance he wore!

His battle prowess was undoubted and it may even have been Douglas who devised the guerrilla tactics of Bruce’s growing army as they slowly but surely drove the English back south, leaving only garrisons in castles such as his own Douglas Castle – he recaptured it in 1308 and beheaded all the English occupants.

The last main English presence other than Stirling was Roxburgh Castle, which Douglas recaptured in February 1314, with his men disguised as sheep and cattle as they approached the walls under cover of darkness before a lighting attack captured the castle.

His final encounter with the English was his most daring and successful. On the night of August 3 to 4, 1327, Douglas attacked the army of King Edward III, actually led by would-be usurper Roger Mortimer, at Stanhope Park on Catterick Moss.

An eyewitness account described how close Douglas came to killing King Edward III, son of the loser at Bannockburn: “The Lord James Douglas took with him about two hundred men-at-arms, and passed the river far off from the host so that he was not perceived: and suddenly he broke into the English host about midnight crying ‘Douglas!’ ‘Douglas!’ ‘Ye shall all die thieves of England’; and he slew 300 men, some in their beds and some scarcely ready: and he stroke his horse with spurs, and came to the king’s tent, always crying ‘Douglas!’, and stroke asunder two or three cords of the king’s tent.”

Edward managed to escape but had no option but to sign the Treaty of Northampton-Edinburgh in 1328 which – supposedly once and for all – relinquished any English claim to the kingdom of Scotland.

It was James who took Bruce’s heart on crusade in Spain in 1330 where he perished in battle with the Moors. The legend that he threw the casket containing Bruce’s heart at the Moors shouting “lead on brave heart” is just that – a legend, significantly embellished by Sir Walter Scott in his Tales of a Grandfather.

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The Douglases were to pay a high price for their Scottish patriotism and closeness to the royal families of Bruce and Stewart. Sir James’s son William was killed while leading an army loyal to the Bruce’s heir King David II against the English forces of would-be usurper Edward Balliol at Halidon Hill on July 19, 1333, his heir and uncle Sir Archibald being killed in the same battle.

This family line became the so-called Black Douglases. Sir Archibald’s son William was made the first Earl of Douglas and later the Earl of Mar. It was his illegitimate son who began the other line of the Douglas family, the Red Douglases, who became the Earls of Angus. Other splits occurred and the branches of the family fought each other at times.

Next week I will describe how the Douglas clan split and featured heavily in the many massive scandals, murders and intrigues that immersed the Scottish royal court over the next three centuries.

I will also show how Clan Douglas, though recognised by the monarchs and the courts as a clan, eventually came to the current situation where they do not have a chief recognised by the Lord Lyon King of Arms,

who has the responsibility of legalising clans, their coats of arm and identifying their chiefs, which seems a shame for this mightiest of lowland clans.