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The Scottish Nation

BELL, a surname of considerable antiquity both in Scotland and England, supposed to be derived from the French word Belle, Fair or Beautiful. A numerous clan of Bells settled from an early period in Annandale, believed to have come there among the other Norman followers of Robert de Brus, to whom a charter of Annandale was granted by David I.

In the Ragman Roll, “Rotuli Scotiae,” and other ancient national records, are frequent notices of persons of the name of Bell, not merely as landed proprietors, but also as holding important benefices in the church.

The principal families of the name of Bell were located in Annandale from at least the beginning of the 15th century; for, above the outer door of the Tower of Blacket-house are the initials W.R., with the date 1404 – and in 1426 there appears in the “Regia Diplomata” (Lib. ii. c. 77 and 84), a charter of the estate of Kirkconnell, in the parish of Kirkpatrick Fleming, and separated from Blacket-house, parish of Middlebie, by the river Kirtle, granted by Archibald Earl of Douglas, in favour of William Bell. On the lands of Kirkconnell was a stronghold called the “Bellis Tour” or “Bell Castle,” mentioned in an Act of Parliament of date 1481, providing for the safety of the borders – and where in 1483 Earl James of Douglas, accompanied by the banished duke of Albany, is said by Pennant to have passed the night before their defeat near Lochmaben the following day. The arms of Bell of Kirkconnell were “azure three bells, Or,” which was also the crest of Bell of Provost-hough, with the addition of a fesse of the same metal between the bells.

It would appear that the clan of Bell in Dumfries-shire was divided into two distinct sections, viz., the Bells of Tostints of Toft-zuitts, and of Tindills or Tyndale. After the rout of the Scottish army at Solway Moss in 1542, various persons were received as pledges for his majesty’s service, and among those bestowed in Yorkshire by the Counsaile were the Bells of Tyndale – pledge for them, John Bell, of small substance, for 112 men; and Bells of Toft-zaitts – pledge for them, Thome Bell, having no lands and small goods, for 142 men.

In 1547 an excursion was made on the West Borders by Lord Wharton, when many barons and clans submitted and gave pledges to him (Nicholson’s Hist. of Cumberland), that they would serve the king of England with the number of followers annexed to their names. Among others are, Bells of Tostints, 142; Bells of Tindills, 222. The origin of these names has not been explained. They may, however, have been derived from the districts which these sections of the clan respectively inhabited in England, before their supposed emigration from Yorkshire to Scotland with the family of De Brus.

In the act passed in 1585, freeing the earl of Morton from all responsibility for acts done against James VI. since 1569, among his dependents and allies are enumerated numerous members of the clan Bell. Most of the places mentioned as occupied by them were in Middlebie, and the immediately adjoining parishes. The name, indeed, was once so common in the parish of Middlebie that the phrase “the Bells of Middlebie” was formerly a current on in that county. There are now few families of the name in the district, but a large proportion of the tombstones in the parish churchyard still bear the figure of a bell, indicating the great number of persons of this surname who have been buried there.

The warlike habits of the clan, and the wild character of that age, are very clearly proved by the number of Towers of Peels, belonging to lairds of the name of Bell, with which that district was studded.

In the act of the Scots parliament passed in 1587, for restoring order to the Highlands and Borders, in connexion with a provision by which the Captains and Chiefs of Clans were obliged to find hostages and security for the orderly conduct of their clansmen and dependents, there was published “The Roll of the Clans that have Captains and Chieftains on whom they depend ofttimes against the will of their landlords, and of some special persons of branches of said clans.” On the west march, among others are mentioned “Bells, Chief, believed to be Bell of Blacket-house.”

Among the clans of the debateable land in 1597, in Annanduill, were the Belles – Will Bell of Alby, John Bell of the Tourne, Mathie Bell called the King, Andro Bell called Lokkis Andro, and Will Bell, Redchoke.

In the Life of Dr. Currie of Liverpool an interesting description is given of the tower of Blacket-house, of which the ruins are still to be found on the romantic banks of the Kirtie.

In 1585 William Bell of Blacket-house was included in the act of indemnity above mentioned. He had five brothers, Wat, Thom, Francis, Richie, and Johne. The family seems to have been largely concerned both actively and passively in those border raids referred to in the breviate of the bills of England fouled at Berwick upon the west marches of Scotland in 1586. The balance was in favour of Scotland; for it a claim made for the burning of Goddesbrig with 3,000 kine and oxen, 4,000 sheep and gate, 500 horses and mares, the loss was estimated at £40,000 Scots, which far exceeds the aggregate claims made by England for the same year. This William Bell was proprietor of Blacket-house and Godsbrig, both situated in the parish of Middlebie, for in narrating the marriage of his daughter Sibyll to Fergus Grahame of Plomp, he is called William Bell of Blacket-house in ‘Nicholson’s Cumberland’ and ‘Playfair’s English Baronetage,’ and William Bell of Godsbrig in ‘Lodge’s Baronetage’ and in ‘Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage.’ This Fergus Grahame of Plomp, who married Sibyll Bell, was the great-grandson of John Grahame (2d son of Malise, earl of Menteith), who retired to the borders, and was the founder of the clan Grahame as well on the Scottish as the English side. Of this marriage the 2d son, Richard, accompanied Charles I., when prince of Wales, in his romantic journey through France and Spain, was created a baronet (of Esk) in 1629, rose in arms with the king in 1641, and lay all night wounded among the slain after the battle of Edgehill. He purchased the barony of Netherbie from the earl of Cumberland, and died in 1653.

We find John Bell of Blacket-house indited in 1644 for the slaughter of Irwyn of Braes, a neighbouring laird. A remission from his majesty was pleaded in bar of trial, and eventually the diet was deserted. John Bell of Blackket-house was in 1648 one of the commissioners of war within the shire of Dumfries, and he survived at least till 1663.

George Bell in Godsbrig is included in the Act of Indemnity passed in 1662, in favour of those who had acted treasonably against the king during the civil war. He was fined £1,000 Scots. Dying in 1694, he was succeeded by his son William Bell of Godsbridge and Blacket-house. Both properties were sold, and the latter was purchased towards the middle of last century, by his younger brother Benjamin Bell, who having early in life taken the farm of Woodhouselie in Canonbie, belonging to the Buccleuch family, afterwards engaged very extensively in the rearing and sale of cattle, and purchased Blacket-house from his brother, and the adjoining lands of Cushat-hill.

George Bell, son of Benjamin Bell of Blacket-house, by Rebecca Graham, of the family of Breckenhill, Cumberland, was born in 1722. He was in early life engaged in the Levant trade, was afterwards partner of Mr. Blair of Belmont as a merchant in Dumfries, and having been unfortunate in business, succeeded his father in the farm of Woodhouselie, where he remained until his death in 1813. He led the way in the agricultural progress of the surrounding districts, and originated many of those improvements which, completed by two succeeding generations of his family, have made Woodhouselie a model farm and beautiful residence. He married about 1745 Anne Corrie, daughter of James Corrie, Esquire of Speddoch in Dumfries-shire, and had a numerous family. The eldest son was the celebrated surgeon, Benjamin Bell. He married Grizel, only daughter of Rev. Robert Hamilton, D.D., professor of divinity in the University of Edinburgh, by Jean, daughter of John Hay, Esq. of Haystoun, Peebles-shire, and left 4 sons. George, the eldest, born 1777, and Joseph, the youngest, born 1786, died 1848, were for many years leading members of the medical profession in Edinburgh. Robert, the 2d son, born 1782, advocate and sheriff of the counties of Berwick and Haddington, has for many years been procurator for the Church of Scotland. William, the 3d son, born in 1783, was a writer to the signet, and for some time Crown agent during Lord Melbourne’s administration. He died in 1749.

One of the Bells of Blacket-house is associated with the tragic ballad of ‘Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lee.’ The particulars of the story on which it is founded, though transmitted by tradition, have never been doubted. According to it, fair Helen was of the family of the Bells of Kirkconnel, although some accounts call her Irving. This is owing to the uncertain date of the ballad; for, although the last proprietors of Kirkconnell were named Irving, when deprived of their possessions by Robert Maxwell in 1600, yet the residence of the lady’s family was commonly called “Bell’s Tower,” and she is supposed to have been the daughter of one of the Bells of Kirkconnel. Her father’s house stood on the banks of the beautiful and classic Kirtle, and, on its being taken down, the materials were employed in building the mansion-house of Springkell, the residence of Sir John Maxwell, baronet. She was beloved by two gentlemen in the neighbourhood, of the names of Adam Fleming of Kirkpatrick and a Bell of Blacket-house. The former was the favoured suitor. The latter had the countenance of the lady’s friends. The lovers were, therefore, obliged to meet clandestinely, and by night, in the churchyard of Kirkconnel, a romantic spot, almost surrounded by the river Kirtle. During one of these secret meetings, the rejected lover suddenly appeared on the opposite bank of the stream, and levelled his carabine at the breast of his rival. Helen threw herself before her lover, and receiving in his bosom the bullet intended for him, expired in his arms. Fleming immediately drew his sword and pursued the assassin. After a desperate combat between them, Bell was cut to pieces. Some accounts say that Fleming pursued the murderer to Spain, and slew him in the streets of Madrid. He afterwards served as a soldier on the continent, and, on his return to Scotland, he is said to have visited the grave of his unfortunate mistress, and beside it to have died. The grave of the lovers is yet pointed out in the churchyard of Kirkconnel. On the tombstone are sculptured a cross and a sword, with the following inscription, now scarcely legible, “Hic Jacet Adamus Fleeming.” He is said to have belonged to a family formerly of considerable note in that part of the country, whose surname gave the addition to the name of the parish of Kirkpatrick-Fleming. That fair Helen received her death from a carabine is beautifully alluded to in the following stanza of one of the many ballads on the subject:

“Wae to the heart that thought the thought!
Curst he the hand that fired the shot!
When in my arms Burd Helen dropp’d
And died for luve of me.”

Burd is an old poetical name for maiden. Some of the stanzas in the old ballad are peculiarly touching, particularly the one which commences the second part:

“I wish I were where Helen lies,
Night and day on me she cries;
O that I were where Helen lies,
On fair Kirkconnel lee!”

In the churchyard of Anwoth, Dumfries-shire, there is a monument to the memory of John Bell of Whiteside, a martyr of the Covenant. He had been forfeited in 1680, in consequence of having been engaged at the battle of Bothwell Bridge, and after having been for some years in hiding, he was in 1685 surprised, with some others, by Sir Robert Grierson of Lag, on the hill of Kirkconnel, in the parish of Tongland. Grierson ordered them to be instantly put to death, and would not allow their bodies to be buried. Mr. Bell was the only son of the heiress of Whiteside, who, after the death of his father, had married Viscount Kenmure. This nobleman, after the martyrdom of his stepson, met Grierson on the street of Kirkcudbright, in company of a brother persecutor, Graham of Claverhouse, and accused him of cruelty. Grierson answered him in such highly offensive language that his lordship drew his sword, and would have slain him on the spot had not Claverhouse interposed and saved his life.

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