Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 69 - The clan Kennedy

Scotland Magazine Issue 69
June 2013


This article is 5 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

The clan Kennedy

James Irvine Robertson looks at another great Scottish family

In Gaelic, ceann means head and is pronounced ken. The origin of the Kennedy surname is from this root and could simply mean the head of the kindred. The family is first recorded holding lands in southern Ayrshire as earls of Carrick. This was part of the ancient British kingdom of Galloway, taken over by the Norse- Gaelic people that dominated the Irish Sea between the 9th and 11th centuries.

The second earl of this line had no male heir and his daughter was grandmother of Robert Bruce who carried the title into the crown. But the Kennedys descend from a younger son of the old earls and Alexander II declared the male heirs chief of their name and leaders of the men of Carrick in 1256. The head of the Clan became Lord Kennedy in 1452 and was one of the regents of Scotland during the minority of James III. His grandson became Earl of Cassillis in 1509. The 12th Earl was a close friend of William IV. It has been said that if you are close to the fount of all honours, you are likely to be splashed and the earl was created Marquis of Ailsa on William’s coronation in 1831.

The clan and its various cadet branches held total dominance in their own country. It was said they held 20 castles and 40 estates. Three of the clan were sufficiently prominent to affix their names and seal to the Ragman Roll in 1296 when King Edward I demanded oaths of fealty from the Scots aristocracy before he would arbitrate on the candidates for the Crown.

Such a powerful clan had obvious importance on the national stage. They consistently supported the Bruce family when they became earls of Carrick.

Sir Gilbert Kennedy was one of the hostages held by England to liberate David II. Sir Hugh Kennedy of Ardstinchar, who accompanied the Scots troops, under the command of the earl of Buchan, to France, and distinguished himself at the battle of Baugé in 1421, in consequence of which he was honoured by the king of France with his armorial bearings which incorporate, three fleurs de lis.

Sir James Kennedy married a daughter of King Robert III and received further lands and honours.

His eldest son was raised to the peerage as Lord Kennedy, his second son, James, entered the church. He became Bishop of St Andrews, Chancellor of Scotland, regent during the minority of James III and was charged with keeping the nobility in line during those uncertain times. He founded the University of St Andrews and twice travelled to Rome to try to persuade the Pope to reform the Catholic Church. The great Protestant scholar, George Buchanan said of him that he excelled all his predecessors and successors in the see, and praised his zeal for reform.

The first earl of Cassillis died at Flodden in 1513.

The second earl was murdered by Campbell of Loudon. The third was captured at Solway Moss in 1542, given into the custody of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury who converted him to Protestantism. Cranmer was burnt at the stake when Bloody Mary took England to Catholicism.

The third earl was one of those who would not agree to the Dauphin reigning in Scotland as comonarch with Mary. Cassillis, along with three other members of the delegation, were poisoned at Dieppe on their way home.

The fourth earl fancied the abbey lands of Crossraguel. So in 1570 he kidnapped Alan Stewart, who was in charge of the estates, took him to the dungeons of his castle at Dunure and, after carefully basting him with oil, roasted him over a spit until ‘his flesh was consumed and burnt to the bone’ at which point he agreed to sign.

His brother-in law the Kennedy laird of Bargeny rescued Stewart and this sparked a feud within the clan. It reached its peak in 1600 when 200 men supporting the Earl of Cassillis engaged with about 80 supporters of Bargeny. Young Bargeny died of wounds. A reprisal by Bargeny’s men, instigated by the sinister Mure of Auchindrain, in 1602 resulted in the murder of Sir Thomas Kennedy of Culzean in the woods of St Leonard’s, Ayr. Sir Thomas had been the peacemaker in the dispute and unsuspecting that he could be a target. The authorities took an interest in the affair and Mure sent the most dangerous witness against him, a young messenger, to the Low Countries. Some six years later, the young man came home whereupon Mure strangled him. He was caught this time and beheaded in Edinburgh in 1611.

The ‘grave and solemn’ 6th earl was a Covenanter and prominent in national affairs through the Civil War and into the restoration of Charles II. But he is primarily remembered through the ‘Ballad of Johnie Faa’. His first wife had been forced to break off her engagement to Sir John Faa when Cassillis offered for her hand. Six years later her lover turned up again with 15 retainers and persuaded her to elope with him.

Cassillis caught up with them, hanged Faa and his associates under the eye of his wife, and imprisoned her until her death a short while later.

Later chiefs were respectable members of the British establishment as were the myriad cadet families of the Clan.

The most spectacular of the many Kennedy mansions is Culzean Castle. Built at the end of the 18th century by Robert Adam for the 10th Earl, it over looks the sea from a cliff top near Maybole in Ayrshire. In 1945, the Kennedy family gave the castle and its grounds to the National Trust for Scotland. They stipulated that the apartment at the top of the castle be given to General Eisenhower in recognition of his role as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during the Second World War. The General first visited in 1946 and stayed there four times, including once while President of the United States.

Claim your free Scotland Magazine trial issue