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Ferniehirst Castle
Chapter VIII - Border Families, Houses & Names

The Swinton family is so ancient that nobody really knows how far back it goes. According to T.H. Bridgewater’s monograph on A.A. Campbell Swinton (inventor of the modern form of television), the Swintons go back to Edulf, Lord of Bamburgh, who acknowledged Alfred the Great as his overlord in 886. More recent ancestors include Earl Waltheof, living in 968, and several other Anglo-Saxon noblemen, one of whom, Eadulf Rus, may have spent some time at the Viking Court of Kiev. They are also connected with Gospatrick, Earl of Dunbar, from whose steward the Homes are descended, and with several other Berwickshire families whose coats of arms include one or more wild boars (Swinton or "Swinetoune" means "the place of the boars"). In any event there is continuous documentary evidence mentioning various members of the family from the time of St. David 1(1124-1153) and this documentary evidence itself refers to forebears with Germanic rather than Anglo-Norman names living before the Norman Conquest. At that time —before the emergence of surnames — some of them held land in what is now England and others in Scotland, and the "English" members of the family presumably moved across the Tweed when the Conqueror devastated Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland in "The Harrying of the North".

Though long-established and well-documented the Swintons never came to hold as much land or as much power as some other Border families. Nevertheless they have included many distinguished men. Among them was Sir John Swinton, one of the few Scots recorded as having fought on the English side in the Hundred Years’ War. He made an interesting agreement with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, which included the following among other terms:

a) Swinton was not to be required to fight against his own country.
b) He was to be given double pay, and free transport for himself, his horses and his men.
c) The Duke was to replace any of his horses that were lost or taken. In return, he was to have one-third share in the ransom of Swinton’s future prisoners and in his other "profits of war".

This unusual "contract" shows that Sir John must already have acquired a solid reputation as a fighter, perhaps in Prussia or Spain or even both, some time before 1371, when it was made.

Sir John fully justified the trust placed in him, through his conduct in a series of campaigns and particularly at Noyon (between Amiens and Paris) when he fought his way single-handed into the town. About this time, he married a young wife, Joan, who died without children and whose jewels were stolen by Alice Perrers, Edward III’s mistress (who also stole the King’s rings from his fingers as he lay dying). He appealed to the King for their return, but they could not be traced, and it is not altogether surprising that he returned to Scotland soon after. He was one of the Scottish leaders at Otterburn (1388) and married twice more, his second wife being Margaret, Countess of Mar, while his third wife was Margaret Stewart, granddaughter (or some say daughter) of Robert II. He was killed at Homildon Hill (often confused with Halidon Hill, where the first of the Turnbulls died), leading no more than a hundred Scots against the massed ranks of the English archers. The Scots were drawn up in schiltroms, a "hedgehog" formation also used by the Ancient Greeks (who called it the phalanx) and by the Swiss, more or less invulnerable to ordinary infantry but highly vulnerable to archers. Swinton urged them not to "stand like deer to be shot, instead of indulging your ancient courage, and meeting your enemies hand to hand. Let those who will descend with me, that we may gain victory, or fall like men". He was of course right; the only way to cope with the archers was to meet them head-on and accept the necessary casualties in order to break them — for they would have been helpless at close quarters against the massive Scottish spears — but few of the Scots were personally prepared to be among the "necessary casualties". Among those few was a young man, Adam Gordon, who had a long-standing feud with him. Gordon fell on his knees before Swinton, begging for his forgiveness and for the honour of knighthood before they went down to die together. Sir John knighted him on the spot and they led their small body of men down to their inevitable but heroic end.

His son, also Sir John Swinton, fought on the French side in the Hundred Years’ War. At the battle of Baugé (1421) he disabled the Duke of Clarence, brother of Henry V and commander of the English army:

Clarence was then killed, some say by the Earl of Buchan, who led the Scots, though others give the honour to Alexander MacCausland. Sir John was himself killed, along with Buchan, at the battle of Verneuil a few years later; the English commander on this occasion being another of Henry V’s brothers, the Duke of Bedford, Verneuil was, however, the last major English victory; the tide turned decisively in favour of France at Orleans a few years later (again with many Scots involved) and the English who, together with their Burgundian allies had at one time held two-thirds of the country, then lost everything except Calais in the remaining 24 years of the war.

In the seventeenth century, one of the most remarkable members of the family was John Swinton of Swinton, who was originally on the King’s side in the Civil War, but went over to Cromwell in December 1650, possibly after having been captured by English soldiers. He served as a member of the Council of State for Scotland and as a Commissioner for Justice. After the Restoration he was tried for treason; his life was spared but he was imprisoned for some years, and his lands were forfeited to the King and granted to the Earl (later Duke) of Lauderdale. They were restored to his younger son in 1690. This son, Sir John Swinton, was a merchant in London and Holland a founder of the Bank of Scotland as well as a laird and a member of the Scottish Parliament before the Union and of the first UK Parliament thereafter.

Many of the family have been soldiers since the Union as in the Middle Ages. Among them should be noted Captain Archibald Swinton of the East India Company’s "private army", who served with great distinction under Clive; Major-General Sir Ernest Swinton, who played an important part in the early development of the tank, and the present head of the Swintons of Kimmerghame, Major-General Sir John Swinton. GOC London and commander of the Household Division in 1976-79, Others have been lawyers and clergymen (Randall Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury for many years, was a Swinton on his mother’s side) and one, A.A.C. Swinton, was an outstanding electrical engineer who conceived, though he did not actually construct, the television set and transmitter as we know them today.

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