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The Great Historic Families of Scotland
The Ancient Earldom of Mar

THE original earldom of Mar has been pronounced by the Ulster King-of-Arms, the most ancient title in Great Britain, perhaps in Europe. The learned and accurate Lord Hailes remarks that ‘this is one of the earldoms whose history is lost in antiquity. It existed before our records and before the era of genuine history.’ It has been held in succession by members of the great historic houses of Douglas and Stewart, Drummond and Erskine; has been borne by the hero of Otterburn and by the victor in the critical battle of Harlaw, which finally decided the protracted struggle for supremacy in the Highlands between the Saxon and the Gael; by the sons of two of the Scottish kings, and by three rulers who governed Scotland with vice-regal authority, one of the three being the most sagacious and energetic statesman that ever held the reins of government in our country.

The province of Mar, from which the title is taken, lies between the rivers Don and Dee, and is the most extensive and interesting district in Aberdeenshire. The Highland portion of the earldom, termed Braemar, is noted for its wild and majestic scenery. It contains Macdhui, the highest mountain in Scotland, Cairntoul, Ben Avon, and Cairngorm, which are little inferior in height, and ‘dark Lochnagar,’ celebrated in the poetry of Byron. The Garioch, which in the olden time was connected with Mar and furnished a second title to the earldom, is an extensive and fertile valley, and used to be termed the granary of Aberdeen.

The ancient title borne by the governors of the province of Mar was ‘mormaor,’ a Pictish dignity inferior only to that of king. About the beginning of the tenth century this designation was exchanged for the Saxon title of earl. Tradition has preserved a curious story of a remarkable incident connected with the death of one of the mormaors of Mar, named Melbrigda, about the close of the ninth century. He fell in battle with Sigurd, the first Scandinavian Earl of Orkney, who had conquered the greater part of the northern counties of Scotland and invaded the province of Mar; but his death was revenged upon the victor in a most singular manner. Melbrigda was noted for a large and very prominent tooth, and Sigurd, having cut off the head of the fallen mormaor, suspended it to his saddle-bow and galloped in triumph across the battlefield. The rapidity of the motion caused the head of Melbrigda to strike violently about the saddle, and his prominent tooth inflicted a wound on Sigurd’s thigh which festered and mortified and caused his death.

The first mormaor of Mar whose name has come down to our day in a written document was Martachus, who in 1065 was witness to a charter of Malcolm Canmore in favour of the Culdees of Lochleven. His son, Gratnach, who about fifty years later witnessed the foundation charter of the monastery of Scone by Alexander I., appears to have been the first of the great hereditary rulers of Mar who bore the title of earl. From this period downward the heads of the house of Mar filled a most influential position at the Court and in the national councils; they held the highest offices in the royal household, and took a prominent part in most of the great events in the history of the country. They were connected by a double marriage with the illustrious line of Bruce; the restorer of Scottish independence having taken to wife a daughter of David, sixth Earl of Mar, while Gratney, seventh earl, married Christiana, sister of King Robert, and received as part of her dowry the strong castle of Kildrummie, in Aberdeenshire, which was long the chief seat of the family. His son Donald, eighth earl, was taken prisoner in 1306, at the battle of Methven, in which his royal uncle was defeated, and did not regain his liberty till after the crowning victory of Bannockburn. On the death of Randolph, the famous Earl of Moray, Earl Donald was chosen Regent in his stead, August 2nd, 1332. But only two days thereafter he was killed, at the battle of Dupplin, in which the Scots were surprised and defeated with great slaughter by the ‘Disinherited Barons.’

Thomas, the ninth earl, or, according to another mode of reckoning, the thirteenth who enjoyed that dignity, was one of the most powerful nobles of his day. He held the office of Great Chamberlain of Scotland, and was repeatedly sent as ambassador to England. He died in 1377, leaving no issue, and in him ended the direct male line of the Earls of Mar. His sister Margaret was, at the time of Earl Thomas’s death, the wife of William, Earl of Douglas, nephew and heir of the ‘Good Sir James,’ the friend of Robert Bruce. On the death of his brother-in-law he obtained possession of the historical earldom of Mar and transmitted it, along with his own hereditary titles and estates, to his son James, the hero of Otterburn, ‘the dead man that won a fight‘—one of the most renowned in Scottish history. The Douglas estates were inherited by Archibald ‘the Grim,’ the kinsman of Earl James, while the earldom of Mar passed to his sister, Isabella, wife of Sir Malcolm Drummond, brother of Annabella, Queen of Scotland, wife of Robert III. About the year 1403, Sir Malcolm was suddenly surprised by a band of ruffians, who treated him with such barbarity that he soon after died, leaving no issue. This outrage was universally ascribed to Alexander Stewart, natural son of the Earl of Buchan, the ‘Wolf of Badenoch,’ fourth son of Robert II. After the death of her husband the Countess was residing quietly and in fancied security at her castle of Kildrummie, when it was suddenly attacked and stormed by Stewart at the head of a formidable band of Highland freebooters and outlaws, and either by violence or persuasion the young Countess was induced to become the wife of the redoubted cateran, and to make over to him, on the 12th of August, 1404, her earldom of Mar and Garioch, with all her other castles. In order, however, to give a legal aspect to the transaction, Stewart presented himself, on the 19th of September, at the gate of the castle of Kildrummie, and surrendered to the Countess ‘the castle and all within it, and the title-deeds therein kept; in testimony thereof he delivered to her the keys to dispose of as she pleased.’ The Countess, holding the keys in her hand, declared that deliberately and of her own free will she chose Stewart for her husband, and conferred upon him the castle, pertinents, &c., as a free marriage gift, of which he took instruments. It appears that even this formal transaction was not deemed sufficient to give validity to the transaction, for on the 9th December following, the Countess, taking her station in the fields outside her castle, in the presence of the Bishop of Ross, and the sheriff and posse cornitatus of the county, along with the tenantry on the estate, that it might appear that she was really acting without force on Stewart’s part or fear on hers, granted a charter to him of her castle and estates duly signed and sealed.

Strange to say, this lawless freebooter afterwards rendered most important services to his country by repressing the disorders of the northern counties and repelling the attacks of English invaders; and he obtained high renown, both in England and on the Continent, on account of his valour and skill in the exercises of chivalry. He was repeatedly sent on embassies to the English Court, and, at one time, held the office of Warden of the Marches. His restless spirit and love of fame carried him abroad in quest of distinction; and Wyntoun states that, during a residence of three months in Paris he kept open house, and was highly honoured for his wit, virtue, and bravery. From the Court of France he proceeded to Bruges, and joined the army which the Duke of Burgundy was leading to the assistance of his brother, John of Bavaria, the bishop-elect of Liege, ‘a clerk not of clerk-like appearing,’ who was in danger from the rebellion of the people of his diocese. The subsequent victory at Liege was mainly owing to the skill and courage of Mar, who slew in single combat Sir Henry Horn, the leader of the insurgents. He was the ‘stout and mighty Earl of Mar’ who gained the battle of Harlaw, in the year 1411, defeating Donald of the Isles with terrible slaughter, though outnumbered by ten to one, and thus terminating the protracted contest for superiority between the Celtic and the Saxon races. The ostensible and immediate cause of this sanguinary conflict was the claim to the earldom of Ross, which had been held by the Earl of Buchan, Mar’s father, in right of his wife. Alexander, Earl of Ross, the son of the Countess by her first husband, married Lady Isabel Stewart, eldest daughter of the Regent Albany. The only issue of this marriage was a daughter, named Euphemia, who became Countess of Ross at her father’s death. She afterwards entered a convent, and entrusted the management of her estate to her grandfather, the Regent, with the intention, it was supposed, of resigning it in favour of her mother’s brother, the Earl of Buchan, Albany’s second son. Donald, Lord of the Isles, who had married Euphemia’s aunt, Margaret, the only sister of the deceased Earl Alexander, insisted that Euphemia, by becoming a nun, must be regarded as dead in law, and demanded that his wife should be put in possession of the earldom. The Regent, however, refused to accede to the claim, and Donald took up arms to enforce it. At the head of ten thousand men, he suddenly invaded and took possession of the district. He was encountered at Dingwall by Angus Dow Mackay of Farr, at the head of a large body of men from Sutherland. The Mackays were routed with great slaughter, their leader was taken prisoner, and his brother was killed. Elated with his success, Donald pressed on through Moray, laying waste the country with fire and sword, and penetrated into Aberdeenshire, for the purpose of executing his threat to burn the town of Aberdeen. He was encountered at a place called Harlaw, in the Garioch, about fifteen miles from that city, by the Earl of Mar, at the head of the chivalry of Angus and Mearns—the Ogilvies, Maules, Lyons, Lindsays, Carnegies, Leslies, Leiths, Arbuthnots, Burnets, &c., who, though few in number, were better armed and disciplined than the Highlanders of whom Donald’s host was composed. In the words of old Elspeth’s ballad, in the ‘Antiquary ‘—

‘If they hae twenty thousand blades
And we twice ten times ten,
Yet they hae but their tartan plaids
And we are mail-clad men.’

The battle, which was fought on the 24th of July, 1411, was long and fiercely contested, and night alone separated the combatants. The Earl of Mar lost one half of his force, and among the slain were Sir James Scrymgeour, Constable of Dundee; Sir Alexander Ogilvie, the Sheriff of Angus, with his eldest son; Sir Thomas Murray; Sir Robert Maule of Panmure; Sir Alexander Irvine of Drum; Leslie of Balquhain, with six of his sons; Sir Alexander Straiton of Lauriston, and Sir Robert Davidson, Provost of Aberdeen. The Earl of Mar and the survivors of his little army were so exhausted with fatigue that they passed the night on the battlefield, expecting the contest to be renewed next morning; but when the day broke they found that Donald and the remains of his force had retired during the night, leaving a thousand men, with the chiefs of Macintosh and Maclean, on the battlefield, and, retreating through Ross, they gained the shelter of their native fastnesses. ‘It was a singular chance,’ says Sir Walter Scott, ‘that brought against Donald, who might be called the King of the Gaels, one whose youth had been distinguished as a leader of these plundering bands; and no less strange that the Islander’s claim to the earldom of Ross should be traversed by one whose title to that of Mar was so much more challengeable.’

After the death of the Countess of Mar, the title and estates should have devolved on the heir of line, Janet Keith, wife of Sir Thomas Erskine, and great-granddaughter of Earl Gratney, but Earl Alexander, who had only a life interest in the earldom, resigned it in 1426 into the hands of the King, James I., and received a grant of the titles and estates to himself for life, and after him to his natural son, Sir Thomas Stewart, and his lawful heirs male. Earl Alexander died in 1435, and his son having predeceased him without issue, the earldom, in terms of the recent charter, reverted to the Crown. Sir Robert Erskine, the son of Sir Thomas and Lady Janet, claimed the earldom in right of his mother, as second heir to the Countess Isabel, 22nd April, 1438, before the Sheriff of Aberdeen, and, in the following November, was invested in the estates. He assumed the title of Earl of Mar, and granted various charters to vassals of the earldom; but, in 1449, James II. obtained a reduction of his service before an assize of error, and took possession of the estates, no doubt in order to carry out the favourite policy of himself and his father, of weakening the dangerous power of the barons. It was subsequently conferred on John, second son of James II., who was put to death in 1449 for alleged treason against his brother, James III. The next possessor of the earldom was Cochrane, one of the favourites of that monarch, who was hanged over the bridge at Lauder in 1482. It was then granted, in 1486, to Alexander Stewart, Duke of Ross, a younger son of James III. On his death it reverted to the Crown, and in February, 1561-2, it was conferred by Queen Mary on her natural brother, Lord James Stewart, afterwards the celebrated Regent; but he speedily resigned it, preferring the dignity of Earl of Moray. The Queen then, in 1565, bestowed the title on John, fifth Lord Erskine, the descendant and heir male of Sir Robert Erskine, who had unsuccessfully claimed it a hundred and thirty years before. From that period downwards the Mar honours have followed the varying fortunes of the family of Erskine, one of the most illustrious of the historic houses of Scotland. The greater part of the extensive estates which in ancient times belonged to the earldom had, by this time, passed into various hands, and could not be recovered; but the remnant which still remained in the possession of the Crown was gifted to the new earl.

On the death of John Francis, sixteenth Earl of Mar and eleventh Earl of Kellie, in 1866, his cousin, Walter Coningsby Erskine, inherited the family estates along with the earldom of Kellie, which were entailed on heirs male; while the ancient earldom of Mar was claimed by John Francis Goodeve, the only son of the late earl’s sister, who thereupon assumed the name of Erskine. His claim was at first universally admitted. He was presented at Court as Earl of Mar, his vote was repeatedly received at the election of representative peers, and his right to the title was conceded even by his cousin, Walter Coningsby Erskine, the new Earl of Kellie. By-and-by, however, Lord Kellie laid claim also to the earldom of Mar, but he died before his petition could be considered by the House of Lords. It was renewed by his son, and was in due course referred to the Committee for Privileges. In support of the claim it was pleaded that the title of Earl of Mar, conferred by Queen Mary on John, Lord Erskine, in 1565, was not the restoration of an ancient peerage, but the creation of a new one; that the original earldom of Mar was purely territorial, one of the seven ancient earldoms of Scotland, and was therefore indivisible; that this dignity terminated at the death of Earl Thomas in 1377; that William, first Earl of Douglas, his sister’s husband, must have obtained the earldom by charter and not by right of his wife, as at his death the title and estates descended to their son James, second Earl of Douglas, while his mother was still living; that her daughter, Isabella, became the wife of Sir Malcolm Drummond, who was styled Lord of Mar and of the Garioch, not earl; that her second husband, Alexander Stewart, obtained possession of the territorial earldom of Mar in right of his wife, but did not become earl until he obtained seizen under the Crown; that he survived the Countess for many years, and acted, and was treated by the Crown, as the owner in fee of the earldom, and that on his death the Crown entered into possession of the estates in terms of the charter granted to the earl by King James I.; that from this period downwards the lands had been broken up and disposed of by the Sovereign at his pleasure, different portions of them having been granted at various times to royal favourites, and that the title had been conferred in succession upon several persons who had no connection with its original possessors. The territorial earldom, it was asserted, was indivisible, and could not be separated from the title, and as the former had ceased to exist, the ancient dignity could not be revived. It was, therefore, contended that Queen Mary must have created a new dignity when on her marriage to Darnley in 1565 she raised Lord Erskine to the rank of an earl; that the fact that throughout Queen Mary’s reign he ranked as the junior and not the premier earl, as must have been the case if the title had been the old dignity revived in his person, shows that his earldom was a new creation, and that as there is no charter in existence describing the dignity conferred upon Lord Erskine, the prima-facie presumption is that it descended to heirs male.

On the other hand, it was pleaded by Mr. Goodeve Erskine,. who opposed Lord Kellie’s claim, that inasmuch as the earldom of Mar was enjoyed by two countesses, mother and daughter, it could not be a male fief; and that as Sir Robert Erskine is admitted to have been second heir ‘of line and blood’ to the Countess Isabel through his mother, Janet Keith, great-granddaughter of Donald, third earl, he was de jure Earl of Mar, though excluded from the title and estates by an act of tyranny and oppression on the part of James I., who was at this time bent on breaking down the power of the nobles, and for that reason illegally seized the land and suppressed the dignity of this great earldom; that the Erskines never relinquished their claim to the earldom, while it remained ‘in the simple and nakit possession of the Crown without ony richt of property therein,’ and made repeated though unsuccessful efforts to recover their rights; that Queen Mary had in express terms recognised the right of Sir Robert Erskine’s descendant, John, Lord Erskine, to the earldom of which his ancestor had been unjustly deprived, as she said, through ‘the troubles of the times and the influence of corrupt advisers,’ and had declared that, ‘moved by conscience, as it was her duty to restore just heritages to their lawful heirs, she restored to John, Lord Erskine, the earldom of Mar and the lordship and regality of Garioch, with all the usual privileges incident and belonging thereto, together with the lands of Strathdon, Braemar, Cromar, and Strathdee.’ Queen Mary, therefore, it was contended, did not create a new peerage but restored an old one; and even if the title conferred upon Lord Erskine had been a new creation, the presumption is that, like the original dignity, it would have descended to heirs female as well as male. With regard to the assumption that Queen Mary must have granted a patent or charter conferring the ‘peerage earldom.’ on Lord Erskine, it was pointed out that there is no proof that any such document ever existed, that there is not the remotest allusion to it in any contemporary history, and that Lord Redesdale’s suggestion that the deed may have been accidentally destroyed, or that the Earl of Mar may have destroyed it to serve some sinister purpose, is a mere conjecture, wholly unsupported by evidence. When it was proposed to restore the forfeited title, in 1824, to John Erskine of Mar, it was remitted to the law officers of the Crown, one of whom was Sir John Copley, afterwards Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst, to investigate whether he had proved himself to be heir to his grandfather, the attainted earl. They reported in the affirmative, and the attainder was reversed in his favour. It was noted as an important fact that John Erskine was declared in the Act to be the grandson and lineal heir of his grandfather through his mother—a striking proof, it was said, that the earldom restored by Queen Mary was not limited to heirs male. Mr. Goodeve Erskine rests his claim to be the heir of his uncle on the very same ground on which his grandfather based his claim to be the heir of the Jacobite earl, viz., through his mother; and it was argued that, since the claim was regarded as valid in the one case, it ought to be so held in the other also. Great stress was laid on the position which the earldom occupies in the Union Roll, as showing that it has all along been regarded as the original dignity, and not a new creation. In 1606 commissioners were appointed by James VI. to prepare a roll of the Scottish peers, according to their precedence, and the document prepared by them, which was corrected by the Court of Session, is known in Scottish history as the ‘Decreet of Ranking‘— the official register of the peerage of Scotland—the basis, in fact, of the Union Roll. Now in this nearly contemporary document the earldom of Mar has a much higher antiquity assigned to it than the date of 1565, the earl being placed above several earls whose titles were conferred in the fifteenth century. On the Union Roll it has the date of 1457 prefixed to it.

These arguments, however, failed to satisfy the Committee for Privileges, consisting of Lords Redesdale, Chelmsford, and Cairns, who decided that the dignity conferred by Queen Mary on Lord Erskine was a new and personal honour, and is held on the same tenure as the other peerages possessed by the Erskine family, all of which are limited to heirs male. This decision has not given universal satisfaction. A considerable number of influential Scottish peers, including the Earls of Crawford and Balcarres, Stair, Galloway, and Mansfield, the Marquis of Huntly, Viscounts Strathallan and Arbuthnot, and Lord Napier of Ettrick, have repeatedly protested against the Earl of Kellie’s claim to vote as the Earl of Mar, whose name stands fifth on the Union Roll. An elaborate work in two volumes octavo was prepared by the late Earl of Crawford and Balcarres to prove that a miscarriage of justice has taken place in consequence of the decision of the Committee for Privileges on the Mar peerage case. Mr. Goodeve Erskine, who continues to assume the title of Earl of Mar and Baron Garioch, asserts that though the Committee for Privileges have unwarrantably authorised the Earl of Kellie to assume a title which never had an existence, and is a mere figment of their own imagination, their decision has no bearing on his right to the ancient earldom of Mar, which is claimed by no one but himself, and of which he is the undoubted lineal heir.

The feeling that injustice was done to Mr. Goodeve Erskine by the decision of the Committee is so strong that a Bill, entitled ‘Earldom of Mar Restitution Bill,’ has been brought into the House of Lords, with the signature and under the authority of the Queen, for the purpose of restoring the ancient earldom to Mr. Erskine. It was read a second time on the 20th of May, 1885, and referred to a Select Committee, who reported that the preamble had been proved. The Bill passed through both Houses of Parliament without opposition, and became law before the close of the session.

The Earldom of Mar in Sunshine and in Shade during Five Hundred Years
Volume 1 | Volume 2

The Scottish Lyon Office of Arms
By Joseph Foster and Are there two Earls of Mar? by J. H. Round (pdf)

 Return to the Great Historic Families of Scotland | Clan Mar Page


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