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Issue 37 - The clan Gordon

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Scotland Magazine Issue 37
March 2008


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The clan Gordon

James Irvine Robertson examines a successful clan from the far north of Scotland.

Any researcher of history in the far north of Scotland cannot avoid tripping over the Gordons. They were the region’s most successful family and attracted the opprobrium that goes with such success.

Clan chiefs had only one duty, the aggrandisement of their line. The successful ones were utterly ruthless in the methods they used to achieve this. To criticise them for this is like blaming a lion for having sharp claws.

Unsuccessful clan chiefs were equally ruthless, but tended to end up dead more frequently than their rivals. In spite of their success, the Gordons became dead quite a lot, and did not always enjoy the means. ‘Ye’re ane o’ the tender Gordons – you daurna be hang’d for hurting your neck’ runs one Scots proverb. But another warns, ‘Ne’er misca’ a Gordon in the raws [streets] of Strathbogie’ The family name may have originated in Gourdon in Normandy. Another theory is that it means gor din – great hill-fort. The first of the line is said to have fought with Malcolm Canmore at the Battle of Lumphanan in 1097 when he killed and took the crown from MacBeth. His reward was lands in Berwickshire.

A couple of misty centuries later, Sir Adam of Gordon was a close associate of the Red Comyn, slain by Robert the Bruce in front of the altar of Greyfriars Church in Dumfries. To revenge his friend, he fought for King Edward I of England.

But the English harried his estate in the south, so Adam switched sides in 1313 to become one of Bruce’s trusted lieutenants. He was rewarded with the lands of one who failed to switch – the 75,000 acres of Strathbogie in Aberdeenshire. As Scottish ambassador, Sir Adam was sent to Rome by Bruce to deliver the Declaration of Arbroath to the Pope in 1320.

Judicious marriage led to increased estates, and cadet families proliferated in the north east of Scotland. In 1445, Sir Alexander was created Earl of Huntly. By the 15th century, the Gordons had married into the Royal family and were the King’s Lieutenants for the north of Scotland. Lord Huntly fought and survived the Battle of Flodden, where so many of the country’s glittering figures died with their monarch. The hiatus of power that followed allowed Huntly to seize the earldom of Sutherland and move against the MacKays in Strathnaver. Four years later the Earl wed the late king’s daughter. Their son became Chancellor of Scotland in 1546 and, for a short time, held the earldoms of Mar and Moray.

But Mary of Guise, Regent of Scotland during her daughter Mary Queen of Scots’ minority, granted the MacKay chief a pardon and refused to bestow the superiority of Strathnaver on the Gordons who, although Catholics, joined the Protestant Cause against her to protect their dizzying power and position. This was one of the rare occasions that the Gordons misjudged the situation and it ended up with defeat by Mary, Queen of Scots, at the Battle of Corrichie.

Lord Huntly was captured and brought before the Queen. He forestalled his execution by dropping dead of apoplexy on the spot. His title and lands were forfeited in 1563, but the importance of the family in the north, where they acted as virtual dictators on behalf of the Crown, led to a reversal of the Act of Attainder in 1567 when the one-year-old James VI became King of Scots after Mary was deposed, and the 5th Earl served as Lord Chancellor like his father.

In the 17th century, the Gordon chief, by then elevated to become Marquis of Huntly, supported Charles I in the Civil War. He lost his head in Edinburgh in 1649. James VII raised the Marquis to a dukedom, the first clan chief to receive such an honour. He did not, however, oppose the Revolution of 1688 and, as Captain of Edinburgh Castle, surrendered it to the Convention of Estates.

Alexander, second Duke of Gordon, raised 2,300 men from his estates to join the Earl of Mar and his Jacobite army at Perth. He was at the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715. William Gordon, Lord Kenmure, was Mar’s general in the Borders and was executed after the Uprising foundered. He was commemorated by Robert Burns in a poem of 1791: ‘There’s ne’er a coward o’ Kenmure’s blude, Nor yet o’ Gordon’s line.’ The Duke’s second son, Lord Lewis Gordon led a strong contingent of Jacobite clansmen in the campaign which ended at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The part he played is commemorated in the song, by Alexander Geddes, Lord send Lewie Gordon Hame. Another of the Duke’s brothers, Lord Adam Gordon, was afterwards Member of Parliament for Aberdeen-shire and Kincardineshire, and Commander of the army in Scotland.

The judge and philosopher Lord Kames described Alexander, the fourth Duke, as the greatest subject in Britain. It was he who was given the appellation the ‘Cock of the North.’ He was a Knight of the Thistle, Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland, and bred the Gordon Setter dog. His Duchess, Jane Maxwell, was brought up across the High Street in Edinburgh opposite the town house of the Gordons where Alexander lived and, with her sister, exercised by riding around on the adjacent innkeeper’s pigs.

When the Duke was raising the Gordon Highlanders for the American Revolutionary war, she is said to have recruited 940 men by standing at the Cross of Aberdeen with the King’s shilling between her lips as a prize for every lad bold enough to come, kiss her and take it. She also introduced, and was chief sponsor of Robert Burns when he came to Edinburgh.

The fifth Duke, George, was a general, and the last of his line. He had nine illegitimate children, and one of them became an admiral. He settled £10,000 on each of them, but had no legitimate heir.

At his death in 1836, the dukedom became extinct, but the marquisate of Huntly passed to the 5th Earl of Aboyne, who was descended from the marquis beheaded in 1649.

There are many branches of the House of Gordon throughout Scotland including the Gordons of Haddo, which has for its head the Marquis of Aberdeen and Temair. The Chief of the Clan Gordon today is Granville Charles Gordon, 13th Marquis of Huntly.