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Issue 71 - The clan Hay

Scotland Magazine Issue 71
October 2013


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The clan Hay

?James Irvine Robertson looks at one of Scotland's great families

All clan histories have legends about their early days. The luckier ones have early land charters that prove their ancient origins. A very few manage to weave their legends into history and Clan Hay must have one of the best of these.

For such a very grand and important clan, it may be thought surprising that they descend from a ploughman. The year was 990. A Danish Viking army landed at Red Head, south of modern Montrose, and proceeded to devastate the countryside north of the estuary of the Tay and lay siege to Perth. King Kenneth III was at Stirling and gathered his army to repel the invaders. It caught up with the enemy on a ridge at Luncarty where the Scots immediately launched an uphill assault. The Danes responded and beat back their attackers, who gave way and fled. Nearby, overlooking a narrow valley along which the defeated army was streaming, an old man named Hay and his two sons were ploughing. Seeing their fleeing countryman, they seized various farm implements to use as weapons and descended into the valley where they rallied the fugitives and drove back the Danes, slaughtering most of them in the Tay. Apart from leading a triumphal procession into Perth, the king ennobled the patriarch and granted him as much land as would be covered by a hawk's flight. The bird was duly launched from Kinnoul Hill above Perth and did an excellent job by flying several miles down the fertile Carse of Gowrie, which must have made the task of following its progress difficult, before landing on a rock near the river Tay. There is another version of the family's origins but not such fun, This states that the family descends from a Viking turned Norman - de la Haye, who came to England with William the Conqueror. The name means a stockade such as surrounded a Norman castle. William de la Haye is the first of the family to be identified in Scotland. In 1160 he was butler to the King, a high official with the crucial job of sourcing wine for the court. He was the first baron of Erroll and the mound where he built his stronghold is still owned by the Earl of Erroll, the chief of Clan Hay. One the most striking aspect of the clan is the number of noble families that stem from the main line. From a younger son of the second chief comes the Marquess of Tweeddale, Earl of Tweeddale, Earl of Gifford, Viscount of Walden, Lord Hay of Yester, and Baron Tweeddale of Yester. William, another son of the second chief, was ambassador to England in 1258 and fathered several landed branches of the family, including the earls of Carlisle, the earls of Kinnoul and John Hay.

The 3rd Baron of Erroll was one of the Regents of Scotland during the minority of Alexander III. His son, Gilbert, was one of the most loyal and effective of Robert I's supporters and Bruce made him hereditary Lord High Constable of Scotland after the Battle of Bannockburn. He was commander of the king's bodyguard and ceremonial commander-in-chief of the entire Scottish army. One Constable fell at the battle of Neville’s Cross, another at Flodden. They were the premier lords baron of Scotland as the Lords Hay and, by birth, have precedence in Scotland over all subjects after the royal family.

Sir Gilbert Hay fought with Joan of Arc against the English and was at the coronation of Charles VII of France. His descendant, Sir William Hay was chief of Staff to Montrose and was executed as a royalist in 1650.

In 1559, George, the 7th Earl of Erroll, was appointed Lord Lieutenant of central Scotland, Highland and Lowland between the rivers Earn and Spey. The 9th Earl fought on the side of Queen Mary and in 1589, after her execution, he conspired with Philip II of Spain to replace Elizabeth I of England with James VI. The queen found out and sent the information to James. The king was not that cross but Erroll continued with his conspiracies, was declared a traitor and had to leave the country. James blew up Erroll's magnificent castle at Slains in 1595 but the earl was reconciled with the king on his return in 1596 to Scotland and, in 1602, was appointed commissioner to negotiate the union of the crown with England.

The 11th earl was the last to hold out against Cromwell. His wife accused him of being impotent but he proved the contrary with a serving maid in front of wise judges. 'If it be the length of five barley-corns, Erroll's proved a man.' In spite of this they managed a son who was an organiser of the Rising of 1708 when James VIII sailed up the Forth but failed to land since the pilot was drunk. Erroll was imprisoned in Edinburgh castle along with William Keith, the Earl Marischal of Scotland. The two had an ancient family feud, which they continued to pass the time. Erroll wounded the Earl Marischal by throwing a bottle at him.

During the '45 the Countess of Erroll - it is one of those ancient earldoms that can be inherited by a woman - raised the clan for Prince Charles. One of the family, Lord Adam Hay, at the battle of Fontenoy in 1745, stood between the front lines of the French and British armies that confronted each other at the crest of a summit at a distance of 30 paces. He pulled out his hip flask and drank to the health of the enemy and summoned three resounding cheers from the British troops. There then followed a brief argument about which side should fire first. The French agreed it should be them. The British withstood that first volley of musketry and their riposte killed and wounded some 800 men. As well as substantial holdings in Aberdeenshire and lowland Perthshire, the clan held land in the Highlands and appear in the roll of Highland landlords of 1587.

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