THE FOLLOWING DATA QUOTED IS APPROVED BY
THE STANDING COUNCIL OF SCOTTISH CHIEFS:
"The Borders family Bell may well descend
from a Norman follower of David I who reigned until 1153 and was, by the end
of the thirteenth century, well established in Dumfriesshire, Berwickshire
The name may derive from the French ‘Bel,’
meaning fair or handsome. Since the derivation is descriptive, common
ancestry cannot be assumed for all those bearing the surname.
The arms attributed to the principal
family are in the nature of canting, or punning, heraldry, alluding to the
pronunciation of the name rather than its origin.
The suggestion that it relates to living
beside a bell tower seems far fetched.
The Bells participated in the Borders
disturbances as one of the riding clans of border reivers. In the thirteenth
century Gilbert Le Fitzbel held lands in Dumfries, Sir David Bell was Clerk
of the Wardrobe to Robert II. In 1426, William Bell’s lands of Kirkconnel
were confirmed by James I under a charter recorded in the register of the
The Bells, along with other Borders
families, became increasingly turbulent throughout the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries. The Crown’s determination to pacify the Borders led in
1517 to Clan Bell receiving royal letters of warning to keep the peace.
The tower of Blackethouse was destroyed in
a raid by the English in 1547. After the union of the Crowns in 1603, the
family suffered much the same fate as the other border reivers; many
emigrated to the new plantation lands in Ulster where the name is among the
twenty most numerous in that province. Others settled further afield in
Australia and New Zealand.
The descendants of the Lairds of
Blackethouse stayed in the realm but moved to the cities where they
contributed substantially to learning and in particular medical science.
Andrew Bell, founder of the Madras system
of education was born at St. Andrews in 1753, The college founded in his
native town and named after his system is still a respected seat of
Dr. Joseph Bell, great-grandson of
Benjamin Bell of Blacket House, who was himself a distinguished surgeon, is
said to have inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create his great detective,
General Sir John Bell was a distinguished
soldier during the Napoleonic Wars and a friend of the Duke of Wellington.
Scottish lawyers encounter the name of Bell in their study of Principals of
the Law of Scotland by George Joseph Bell, Professor of Scots Law at the
University of Edinburgh in 1829. More recently, Alexander Graham Bell was a
pioneer in the development of the telephone.
Although the Bells were a Borders family,
there are others of this name who are of Highland origin, and in that case,
Bell is held to be a Sept of MacMillan." End of quote.
Blacks "The Surnames of Scotland" states
"The name Bell was common on the Scotish Border for centuries and the Belles
are included in the 1587 list of unruly clans in the West Marches. Families
of the name long predominated in the parish of Middlebie, insomuch that the
‘Bells of Middlebie’ was a current phrase throughout Dumfriesshire."
J. A. Rennie, in ‘The Scotish People,
their Clans, Families and Origins’ writes on the Lowland Clans. He states,
"In many ways the great families found on each side of the Border resembled
the Highland Clans. The more prominent Scottish Border families had chiefs,
clan badges, and slogans and wore bonnet and plaid. On the English side, few
families were as powerful as those of the Scottish Barons; the families
tended to be smaller and more localized. Families whose chiefs were landed
gentlemen though not possessing baronies included "Bell."
Ane Act in favours of Johne Erll of
Mortoun, Lord Maxwell his friendis and servantis
(Acts Parl., III., 387), contains the Muster Roll of the Clansmen at the
siege of Stirling in 1585, which resulted in the capitulation of James VI.,
and gives a list of forty Dumfriesshire Bells, including our chief William
Bell called Redcloak and members of other clans associated with them.
In The Scotch-Irish, Vol II, by
Charles A. Hanna, Baltimore Genealogical Publishing Co., 1968, the Bells are
listed under the heading of Border and Lowland Clans in 1547 of Annandale.
There is also a listing for Border Clans and Chiefs in 1597 including the
Bells of Annandale. Additional data regarding Clan status is that in 1596,
thirty-seven hostages were taken from every division of the clans, including
the Bells. (Caledonia, III., 112).
The Bell Family In Dumfriesshire by James
Steuart. Mr. Steuart’s original intent was to record the pedigree of his
maternal ancestors, the Bells of Crurie, offshoots of the Bells of
Crowdieknowe; however, the gathering of data expanded the project and Mr.
Steuart was invited to submit a paper on the Bell Family to the
Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. This
paper overflowed its confines and, from the length of the notes, it was
resolved to publish them in book form. Although Mr. Steuart regarded his
work to be only a "draft" of what a book should be, it is in reality the
only work which characterizes the Bells of Middlebie.
In general, Bell Arms are "Canting" or
"Punning," visually allusive to the surname of the bearer. French Heralds
use the old expression, "Armes Parlantes," or "Speaking Arms." Many examples
of these "speaking" Bell Arms can be seen in Middlebie and surrounding
Kirkyards, carved with varying degrees of skill on flatstones and
headstones. The same can be found in Argyll also.
Clan Bell, since 1984, has had a tartan
named "Bell of the Borders" and informally called the "Dress Blue" that is
listed by the Scottish Tartans Society and in Tartan for Me! By Dr. Philip
D. Smith. There is now a second tartan which was acquired when the Clan Bell
International and Clan Bell Descendants merged. The tartan is named "Bell
South." Both tartans will be registered with the Lord Lyon’s office at the
Our forebears settled in the southwest of
Scotland not later than the early 1100s, more likely the late 1000s, and
became typical Borderers in pursuit of their survival. They populated the 40
square mile area now called Middlebie Parish in Dumfriesshire where more
than thirty major families and their numerous sub-families have been
identified. There is an old Scots saying, "As numerous as the Bells of
The spelling of the name seems to have
varied with the recorder of the event as it ranged from Bel, Bellis, Belle,
Beall, Beal, Beale and Bale to Bell. We have found many families whose name
has been spelled Bell who have changed the spelling to Beall, Beal and
Beale. The genealogical histories of many show both spellings in the family
tree. In one early document, the scribe spelled Bell four different ways. He
was going to get it right no matter what!
The Act of 1587 provides proof that we are
a Border Family. During the 16th century, the appellation Clan
began to be used in other than the Highlands. The list under "Elleventh
Parliament of King James the Sext, xxix of Julij, 1587," gives the name of
the Clan and indicates that even down to that date the Bells were under
Patriarchal Chiefs rather than Feudal Superiors. The Act was passed "for the
quieting and keeping in obedience of the disorderit and subjectis
inhabitants of the Borders, Highlands and Isles" and contains "The Roll of
the Names of the Landislords and Baillies of Landes dwelling on the
Bordoures and in the Hielandes, quhair broken men hes dwelt and presently
dwellis. To the quhilk Roll, the 95 Acte of this Parliament is relative."
Then follows, "The Rolle of the Clannes that hes Captaines and Chieftaines,
quhom on they dependes, of times against the willes of their Landes Lordes,
alsweill on the Bordoures, as Hielandes, and of sum special persons of
Braunches of the saidis Clannes, West Marche, Scottes of Eusdaill,
Beatisonnes, Littles, Thomsonnes, Glendunninges, Irvinges, Belles,
Carrutheres, Grahames, Johnstones, Jardines, Moffettes and Latimers."
(Reference APS, III, p 466).
THE CLAN BRANCHES
In the 1600s, Middlebie Parish encompassed
approximately 40,000 acres and was populated by 31 major Bell families.
The Albie branch of the Bells, Pennersax
Parish, was of considerable importance in the district and quite possibly
among the first Bells to hold land, prior to 1300, in what became Middlebie
Parish in 1609. From this branch of the clan sprang the holders of
Blackethouse, Godsbrig (of Scotsbrig), Auldhall, Satur and Land.
There were also Bells in Gilsland on the
English side of the Border that had close ties with their Middlebie cousins.
The Scottish Branches of the Clan and
their old locations are:
Cowholm in Half-Morton Parish
Pennersax in Pennersax Parish
Kirksleights in Hutton and Corrie Parish
Curre in Corrie Parish
Laverhay and Poldeen in Wamphray Parish
Clynts in Ecclefechan Parish
Kirkconnel in Kirkpatrick-Flemming
Albie (including Satur) in Pennersax
Auldhall and Land
Blackethouse in Pennersax Parish
Godsbrig and Scotsbrig in Middlebie
Dunnabie in Carruthers Parish
Neuk or Broadlea in Pennersax Parish
The Hill or Middlebiehill in Middlebie
Castlebank in Ecclefechan Parish
Crowdieknowe in Carruthers Parish
Minsca and Torbeckhill and Carruthers in
Whitcastles and Whiteknowe in Corrie
Crurie in Eskdalemuir Parish
Stockbriggs in Middlebie Parish
Nether Albie in Pennersax Parish
Between-the-Waters in Carruthers Parish
Hotts in Carruthers Parish
Water of Milk in St Mungo Parish
Winterhopehead in Carruthers Parish
Skellyholm (now Glenholm) in St Mungo
Milton and Newhall in Tundergarth Parish
Rammerscales in Dalton Parish
THE BELL’S FIRST LAND BY PARCHMENT
On 6th March 1426, King James I
confirmed a Charter granted by the then deceased Archibald, Earl of Douglas,
Lord of Galloway and Annandale (who died in 1424), to William Bell, "pro
ejus servitio et benemeritis dicto comiti impensis," the lands of
Kircconveth, otherwise called the Fleminglandis in the Lordship of
Annandale, which had fallen to the Earl through the death of John de
Carrutheris without heirs, to be held by the said William Bell and his heirs
of the Lord of the lands of Luce in fee (Reg. Mag. Sig., 1424-1513, No.
85.). This was Kirkconnel, possibly the Bells first land by parchment rather
than by sword. The old site of Kirkconnel was on the left bank of the Kirtle
River. Old Kirkconnel was burned during the Great Plague and only the
cemetery remains. The property is now owned by the Maxwells and renamed
THE BELL/DOUGLAS RELATIONSHIP
Charles Davidson Bell's Memorial of the
Clan of the Bells tells of the relationship of the Bells and the Douglas
on Scotland’s border in those early days. The Bells were never a Sept but
retainers of and allied with the Great House of Douglas by blood as well as
friendship. They generally accompanied any of the Douglas in their
expeditions and invasions into England and the Bells of Kirkconnel, being
valiant men, were always sent upon the most hazardous enterprises.
When William, 8th Earl of
Douglas, set out for London in 1451 to foment a rebellion against the
Scottish Crown, Thomas Bell of Kirkconnel went with him and his name was
included in the Letter of Safe Passage. After the murder of William, his
brother James, 9th Earl of Douglas, attempted to avenge his death
by armed opposition to King James II. Betrayed by almost all his allies, but
not the Bells, the 9th Earl lost at Arkinholme on 1 May 1455. The
Earl escaped to France, but his possessions went to the victors and the Bell
Family, it is said, forfeited Kirkconnel to the Maxwells. The Bells of
Blackethouse did not lose their lands. After the fall from power of the
Black Douglases, records how that the Bells of Dumfriesshire were ever more
turbulent. In 1484, the forfeited 9th Earl of Dougas returned to
Scotland with a small Army of 500 men. He rested at Bell’s Castle on the eve
of the Battle of Kirtle.
THE CHIEF OF THE BELLS
History records that all Bells throughout
the kingdom acknowledged Bell of Blackethouse for their Chief. The Bell
relationship was acknowledged, even by English Bells, especially when a coat
of arms was introduced by using the Bell characters in the chevron. William
Bell of Blackethouse, who died about 1628, was undoubted Chief of the
Surname and is believed to have used the principal coat of arms of the
Family, viz. Azure, three bells, the crest, a hand holding a dagger,
paleways proper, with the motto, "I beir the bel."
THE 16TH CENTURY
The border area where Scotland and England
meet was overpopulated in 1500s, and as a result there was a scarcity of
land, jobs and food to sustain the ever growing numbers of Borderers. Like
other families in this impoverished land in the border area, the Bell Clan
began to break up and re-settle elsewhere. While many a hearty Bell remained
in their beloved Border homeland, economic reality forced thousands of other
Bells to migrate to diverse locations throughout Scotland and overseas.
One group of Bells migrated to the Glasgow
area for a time and then continued to Argyll where they settled, apparently
in two factions. One faction affiliated with the Campbells. Records confirm
Bells worked for the Campbells in various capacities. Of the second faction,
there is no valid history.
THE 17TH CENTURY
During the 17th century, there
was a great exodus from the family lands in Dumfriesshire. Many of the Clan
crossed to the Ulster Plantation in Northern Ireland, which opened in 1610,
but later sailed for the New World.
The Union of the Crowns and the authority
of the reformed church virtually ended the Border reiving. Population growth
and great poverty provided the impetus for emigration.
Even so, there were still some who were
restless under the new conditions, and so the boldest Reivers were brought
in on the side of law and order.
In 1622, William Bell, called Redcloak,
Chief of the Bells, was chosen by John Murray of Lochmaben, with nine others
to act as a Border Guard on the West March. In 1624, the Earl of Annandale
chose Redcloak to help in the same way.
After the devastating War of Independence,
residents of the Marches were forced by circumstances to return to primitive
living. It was in this environment that our Bell forebears character was
hammered out on the anvil of survival and tested. Our ancestors used to
number their horses in the hundreds and their cattle and sheep in the
thousands. The Bells of Middlebie were quite well known, especially for
their fighting skills.
THE 18TH AND 19TH
Both the 18th and 19th
centuries saw a continuing exodus from the Family lands of Dumfriesshire.
Many Bells went to foreign lands where they continued to live in concert
with the clan ways they practiced in Scotland. Bells were found living in
Germany, Russia, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Argentina, Uruguay,
Chile, the Netherlands and what is now the United States.
During the expansion of the Empire, many
Bells joined the British armed forces, such as John Bell descended from the
Bells of Minsca, who fought at the battle of Waterloo. Others simply moved
to the cities to enter the learned professions.
Descendants of the Bells of Blackethouse
provided a Surgeon Extraordinary to the Sovereign, two Presidents of the
Royal College of Surgeons, various Sheriffs, and men and women of Letters.
Two Baronetcies were offered, and respectfully declined; the first out of a
non-belief in primogeniture, the second because the potential heir had
predeceased his father.
Scottish literature of the early fifteenth
century and later, indicates that Scottish citizens by the name of Bell were
by then separated into two classes, viz: those who preserved the Clannish
form of government and were referred to in political documents as Clan Bell
of the West Marche, and, the other class which was found scattered all
through Scotland and England paying little attention to Clannish
organization but successfully indulging in literary, scientific and military
THE CASTLES OF MAR
The "Castles of Mar," namely Midmar, Fyvie,
Castle Fraser, Cragievar and Crathes Castle, were built by a prominent
family of Bell masons, headed by Master Mason George Bell whose "signature"
is inscribed right into the walls of the castles. The castles are located
outside of Aberdeenshire, Scotland (Grampian Highlands - N.E. quarter). They
are some of the finest examples of French influenced architecture based on
the "Z-Plan." In actuality, they are baronial dwellings, not castles, but no
one refers to them as such in this day and age. Cragievar castle was
featured as the logo for Philip Morris cigarettes for years.
THE BELL SEPT OF MACMILLAN
Confusing to many is the Bell Sept of Clan
MacMillan. Of much later origin than Clan Bell, and, according to the
MacMillans, the Bell Sept of Clan MacMillan possibly originated in Glen
Shira at a settlement called Badokennen near the head of Loch Fyne in
Argyllshire, far north of the border Bells. For many years, tartan purveyors
told Bells their tartan was MacMillan. This has caused great confusion over
the years, to the detriment of Clan Bell, as many have wrongly believed
themselves to be MacMillan Sept Bells simply because of the tartan.
PLANTATION IN NORTHERN IRELAND
In 1610, when the Ulster Plantation was
opened, a good number of Bells were encouraged to journey to the new "land
of opportunity." A standard to assist in determining Bell origin for those
Bells in North America is whether or not your ancestors came through the
Ulster Plantation in Ireland.
A certain portion of Scotland was
expressly excluded from the "privilege" of sharing in the Ulster experience
as it was made a condition that the colonists, both of higher and lower
ranks, must have been "born in England or the inward parts of Scotland."
This restriction was specifically designed to exclude all persons in
Argyllshire and the Isles. The MacMillans and their Bell Sept were of
Nine "major" Bell families are identified
as having lived in Ulster. Of them, it is said that between 1707 and 1729
approximately 500 Bell families emigrated from Ulster to North America where
COUNTRIES WITH CLAN REPRESENTATIVES
Clan Bell is represented in the following
countries: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, England, Honduras, Republic
of Ireland, India, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Mexico, Norway,
Scotland, South Africa, Uruguay, United States, Venezuela, Austria and
"We owe to ourselves, our country and
posterity the duty of collecting and publishing such information and records
concerning the Bells as may exist or become available. Pride in family
history must be encouraged for it tends to strengthen the moral obligations,
elevate the individual character, broaden our patriotism and give each a
sense of Clan/Family history and pride."