Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Scottish Nation
Spens / Spence

SPENS, or SPENCE, a surname, originally a Fifeshire one, derived from a word, meaning in Scotland, a spare room beside the kitchen, and in England, a yard, an enclosure, a buttery. The family of Spens of Lathallan, of great antiquity in that county, from their carrying the lion rampant of Macduff in their arms, are said to have been descended from the old earls of Fife. Of the Spences of Wolnerston, or Wormieston, in the parish of Crail, we have the following notices:

The Spences of Wormieston adhered to the cause of Queen Mary, and at the parliament held by the regent Lennox at Stirling, 28th August 1571, David Spence of Wormieston was amongst the “rebels” forfeited. He is described as one of the most able and upright characters of the period. In the daring attempt to surprise the parliament at Stirling, on the 4th September, planned by Kirkaldy of Grange, he had received from the latter the charge of securing the regent and saving his life at every risk, and after the regent had surrendered, he executed his charge so faithfully that when attacked by his murderers, he received through his own body the bullet by which Lennox was mortally wounded. Wormieston was afterwards barbarously hacked to pieces by the king’s party who came to the rescue, although the wounded Lennox repeatedly called to spare his life. After James VI. had succeeded to the throne of England, Sir James Spence of Wormieston was sent ambassador to the king of Sweden, with the view of effecting a peace between that monarch and the king of Denmark. The barony of Wormieston afterwards came into possession of the Lindsays.

Count de Spens, who was ranked amongst the first of the nobility in Sweden, and was generalissimo of the Swedish forces, was a descendant of the house of Wormieston.

It is not improbable that Sir Patrick Spens, of the ancient ballad which bears that name, was a baron of Wormieston. The occasion of the ballad was the expedition which conveyed the princess Margaret, daughter of King Alexander III., to Norway in 1281, when she was espoused to Eric, king of that country. “In returning home,” says Fordoun in his History of Scotland, “after the celebration of her nuptials, the abbot of Balmerinoch, Bernard of Monte-alto, and many other persons were drowned.” The command of the ship that bore the princess to Norway, was given to Sir Patrick Spens, as

---------------“the best sailor
That ever sailed the sea;”

And the gallant commander and all his company are represented as having been lost on their homeward voyage:

“Sir Patrick he is on the sea,
And far out ower the faem,
Wi’ five and fifty Scots lords’ sons
That longed to be at hame.”

Midway between Norway and the coast of Fife, they were all cast away

“Half ower, half ower, to Aberdour.”
Sir Walter Scott preferred to read it,
“O forth miles off Aberdeen,”

remarking that in a voyage from Norway, a shipwreck on the north coast appears as probable as either in the firth of Forth or Tay. But as Aberdour was the nearest port to Dunfermline, where the Scottish monarchs chiefly resided from the time of Malcolm Canmore to that of Alexander III., and as the royal commissioners, Wemyss of Wemyss and Scott of Balwearie, sent to escort the young princess to her husband, belonged to Fife, it seems more likely that the common reading is the correct one:

“Half ower, half ower, to Aberdour,
Full fifty fathoms deep,
And there lies gude Sir Patrick Spens,
Wi’ the Scotch lords at his feet.”

The immediate ancestor of the Lathallan family was Henry de Spens, who flourished in the end of the thirteenth century. Like most of the other Scots barons he was compelled to swear fealty to Edward I. in 1296. Contemporary with him was Nicol de Spens, who was also forced to swear allegiance to that imperious monarch. Henry died soon after 1300. His son, Thomas de Spens, is mentioned in two charters, in the reign of Robert Bruce, to the monastery of Soltray. His son and successor, William de Spens, had two sons, William his heir, and Walter de Spens, witness in a writ of the bishop of Aberdeen in 1382. William, the elder son, was proprietor of the lands and barony of Lathallan, and several others in the same county, of which the earls of Fife were superiors till the forfeiture of Murdach duke of Albany and earl of Fife in 1425, after which the family held the lands of the crown. He died about 1432, at an advanced age. He married Isabel, daughter and heiress of Duncan Campbell of Glen Douglas, Tarbet, Dumbartonshire. In consequence of this marriage the Spens’ of Lathallan, with several cadets of the family, added to their arms gyronny of eight, the paternal coat of Argyle. With one daughter, he had two sons, John, his heir, and William, first of the Spens’ of Kilspindy, Perthshire, who flourished principally in the reigns of James I. and II., but have long been extinct.

John de Spens, the elder son, in his father’s lifetime was designed of Glen Douglas, and he retained that designation with that of Lathallan, as long as he lived. He is described as having been a person of great parts and spirit, and extremely active in business. In 1434, he was chosen one of the lords of the articles in a full parliament held at Perth by King James I. He died in the beginning of the reign of James II. By his wife, Isabel, daughter of Sir John Wemyss of Rires, progenitor of the earls of Wemyss, he had four sons. 1. Alexander, his heir. 2. Robert, of Pittedie, Fifeshire. 3. Thomas, bishop of Galloway, a learned prelate, appointed in 1458 lord-privy-seal for Scotland. The following year, on being translated to the see of Aberdeen, he resigned the privy seal, but in 1468 received it again, and held it till 1471. Being very prudent and expert in business, Bishop Spens was employed in several embassies, particularly in the treaty of marriage between the duke of Savoy and Lewis, Count de Maurienne, his son, with Anabella, sister of King James II., in 1449, and on 27th July 1451, he was appointed ambassador from Scotland to negotiate a truce with England. There is an effigy of Bishop Spens in the collegiate church of Roslin. He erected an hospital at Edinburgh, where he died, and was buried in the Trinity college churchyard at the foot of Leith Synd in 1480. 4. Patrick, an officer in the company of Scots guards, sent from Scotland by King James II. to Charles VII. of France in 1450. He was ancestor of the family of Spens-Destignots of France.

The eldest son, Alexander Spens of Lathallan, was by James II. appointed high constable of the town of Crail for life, and got a charter of the same, dated 29th December 1458. By his wife, Katherine, sister of Sir Andrew Wood of Largo, he had a son, Robert Spens of Lathallan, who died before 1474. The latter left a son and successor, John Spens of Lathallan, who died in 1494. He married Margaret, daughter of Patrick Dunbar of Kilconquhar, son and heir of the twelfth earl of March. Douglas, in his ‘Baronage,’ states that as he could discover no descendant of that family in existence, excepting those of the said Margaret, the Spens’ of Lathallan are undoubtedly the heirs of line of that great and illustrious house. John Spens of Lathallan had two sons; John, his heir, and David, rector of Flisk, who got a charter under the great seal of the lands of Muirton, dated 12th June, 1513. The elder son, John Spens of Lathallan, was retoured heir to his father in 1495, and died in 1520. His son, Alexander Spens of Lathallan, married a lady of the ancient family of Durie, and with a daughter, Lilias, Mrs. Arnot of the house of Balcormo, had a son, James Spens of Lathallan, who, by prudence and economy, greatly improved his estate. By his wife, Elizabeth, daughter of John Seton of Lathrisk, the latter had four sons, and died at an advanced age in 1595. The second but eldest surviving son, Arthur Spens of Lathallan, married Janet, daughter of William Duddingston of St. Ford, and left a son, Alexander Spens of Lathallan, who married Isabel Bethune, a daughter of the family of Creigh, but having no issue, he made a resignation of his whole estate, 14th October 1609, in favour of his undoubted heir male, his uncle, Alexander Spens of the city of St. Andrews, third son of James Spens of Lathallan, by Elizabeth Seton. Alexander Spens, who thus succeeded to Lathallan, had three sons. 1. Thomas, his heir. 2. James, writer in Edinburgh. 3. Alexander. The eldest son, Thomas Spens of Lathallan, living in 1630, married Margaret, daughter of Nathaniel Moncrieff of Randerston, and had three sons and two daughters. Alexander, the eldest son, predeceased his father. Nathaniel, the second son, was retoured heir in 1662. He married a daughter of Sir Thomas Gourlay of Kincraig, and had a son and successor, Thomas Spens of Lathallan, who died before 1700. The latter married his cousin, Margaret Gourlay, grand-daughter of Sir Thomas Gourlay, and had two sons; Thomas, his heir, and the Rev. Nathaniel Spens, a clergyman of the Episcopal church of Scotland.

The elder son, Thomas Spens of Lathallan, married Janet, daughter of Sir Robert Douglas of Glenbervie, baronet, and had five sons and three daughters. Nathaniel, the fourth son, was the first of the Spens’ of Craigsanquhar. The eldest son, Thomas Spens of Lathallan, married Margaret, daughter of Archibald Hope, Esq., of the Craighall family, and had three sons and three daughters. His eldest son, Thomas Spens, Esq., succeeded his father, 9th May 1758. He sold the ancient patrimonial estate of Lathallan, and died, unmarried, in 1800, when the representation of the family devolved on his brother, Archibald Spens of Manor House, Inveresk, lieutenant-colonel East India Company’s service, born 22d June 1765, died in May 1845. By his wife, Charlotte, second daughter of Arundel Phillip, Esq. of Exeter, he had three sons and two daughters. The eldest son, Archibald, East India Company’s civil service, Bombay establishment, born 17th August 1809, married 18th March 1829, Henrietta Ochterlony, eldest daughter of Sir Thomas Malcolm, K.C.B. and K.G., with issue, three sons and two daughters.


Nathaniel Spens, M.D. of Edinburgh, younger son of Thomas Spens, the sixteenth laird of Lathallan, purchased in 1792, the estate of Craigsanquhar, Fifeshire, which at one period formed part of Lathallan, but had been disjoined from it in 1524. By his wife, Mary, second daughter of James Milliken, Esq. of Milliken, Renfrewshire, Dr. Spens had James, his heir; Thomas, M.D., fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh, and first physician to the royal infirmary of that city; two other sons, and a daughter. The eldest son, Lieutenant-colonel James Spens, 73d regiment, became in 1799, proprietor of Craigsanquhar. He was three times married, but had issue only by his third wife, a daughter of John Davidson, Esq. of Ravelrig, Mid Lothian, by his wife, Hannah, sister of Henry Mackenzie, author of ‘The Man of Feeling,’ and died in 1840. With one daughter, Hannah, Mrs. Monypenny of the Pitmilly family, he had two sons, Nathaniel, his heir, and John, M.D., fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh. The elder son, Nathaniel Spens of Craigsanquhar, born 18th February 1805, became a writer to the signet in 1830. He married 23d January 1840, Miss Janet Law Guild, with issue. His only surviving son, Colin, was born 9th November 1843.


The Spences of Rodham, Aberdeenshire, says Douglas, have been free barons ever since the reign of James III. Several other families of the name of Spence in the same county, also, the Spences of Berryhole, Fifeshire, are all descended from the family of Lathallan.


In the reign of Queen Mary, Sir John Spence of Condie was lord advocate. He favoured the Reformers, and in December 1563, when John Knox was indicted for having written his famous letter to the leading Protestants, which, to gratify the queen, the privy council declared to be treasonable, he went in secret to Mr. Knox, and after he had heard his declaration, and considered the letter, he said, “I thank God, I came to you with a fearful and sorrowful heart, fearing you had committed some offence punishable by the laws, which would have brought no small grief to the hearts of all those who have received the word of life out of your mouth. But I depart greatly rejoicing, as well because I perceive you have comfort in the midst of your troubles, as that I clearly understand you have not committed such a crime as is bruited you will be accused of; but God will assist you.” The queen, says Calderwood, (vol. ii. pp. 234, 237), commanded him to accuse, which he did, but very gently. Knox, it is well known, was acquitted, greatly to poor Mary’s chagrin.

Return to The Scottish Nation Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus