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Issue 82 - The Clan Keith

Scotland Magazine Issue 82
August 2015


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The Clan Keith

James Irvine Robertson reveals a powerful Lowland and Highland dynasty

Once the Keiths were amongst the richest and most powerful families in Scotland. Loyalty to the Crown was their strength and also brought about their downfall. Amid the grim record of ruthless self-seeking by the Scots aristocracy for century after century, the Keiths were exceptional in having no stain upon the honour of their house.

At the Battle of Barrie fought between Malcolm II and the invading Danes in 1010, the enemy commander was slain by Robert de Keith. The Scottish King drew three lines of blood upon his shield and these have been part of the family's arms ever since. Herveius, with lands at Keith in the Lothians, was witness to the Charter that granted Annandale to Robert de Brus. This man's son was Keith Marischal, King's Marischal, to Malcolm IV and William the Lion, and the office became hereditary in his family. The Marischal was Keeper of the Regalia and the King's bodyguard in parliament.

Two members of the family played distinguished roles in the Wars of Independence. Sir William Keith was one of the knights who accompanied Sir James Douglas on his expedition to the Holy Land with King ­­Robert Bruce's heart. He was appointed Governor of Berwick and an ambassador to England. Sir Robert de Keith was one of the barons who met to decide on the government of the country after the death of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce granted him lands in Aberdeenshire for his part in the overthrow of the Comyns of Badenoch. Sir Robert de Keith was also commander of the Scots cavalry at Bannockburn; its charge scattered the English archers when they came forward to threaten the Scots schiltrons. He was killed at the Battle of Dupplin in 1332, his successor at the Battle of Durham in 1346. The clan also fought at Harlaw and Otterburn.

A series of excellent marriages led to the steady aggregation of estates to the clan in the north east during the 14th Century and this part of the country became their focus. Sir William Keith exchanged property in central Scotland to obtain Dunnotter on the coast, 15 miles south of Aberdeen where, on a scarcely accessible promontory, he built one of the most impregnable fortresses in Scotland and this became the seat of the family.

James II created the head of the clan Earl Marischal around 1458 and they continued to play a leading role in national politics, bar a blip when they supported the rebels fighting against James III on behalf of his son James IV. The two eldest sons of the 3rd Earl Marischal were killed at Flodden and he was appointed guardian to the young James V. His son was one of the most trusted advisers to the young king and went with him on a glittering trip to France to meet and marry, amid much pomp and splendour in Notre Dame, the French King's daughter. He was a guardian to the infant Queen Mary but, when her reign led to civil strife, he refused to take part and retired to his castle of Dunnotter.

George, the 5th Earl Marischal, led an embassy to negotiate the marriage of James VI to Anne of Denmark. He paid for it himself and the grateful king awarded him the one-time church lands of Deer. He founded Marischal College in Aberdeen whose main function was to educate clergy for the post-Reformation kirk. In his time, the Keiths reached their peak. Owning castles and great tracts of land across Scotland, the Earl Marischal ranked amongst the most powerful men in the nation with his ‘revenue greatest of any earl of Scotland.’

William, the 6th Earl Marischal, lived during the Civil Wars. He was a covenanter by inclination but did his best to avoid becoming embroiled in the troubles. But his status made this impossible. He eventually plumped down on the Royalist side in time to be imprisoned, fined and have his estate confiscated by Cromwell's government. But prior to that he had organised the safekeeping of the Royal Regalia in his castle at Dunnotter. The castle was the last stronghold to surrender to Cromwell in Scotland, by which time the regalia had been smuggled out of the castle and buried in the floor of the local kirk to emerge at the restoration of Charles II. But ‘he reduced himself and his successors to absolute poverty by his extravagant habits’.

The last Earl Marischal and his brother were amongst the most interesting of their dynasty. The money had gone. The power had gone, and both lived in exile, forced by their Jacobite convictions. The eldest, George, commanded two squadrons of horse at Sheriffmuir. Although loyal to the Stuarts in exile, he had little respect for Prince Charles or his father and after the failure of the 1745 Uprising he became a diplomat in the service of Frederick the Great of Prussia. He was pardoned by George II but, save for a brief visit, remained on the continent. He was a friend and protector of the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and corresponded with David Hume. Frederick looked upon him as his dearest friend and gave him a house for his retirement. He lived until he was 78 and in his old age a visitor described him as ‘an excellent cheery old soul, honest as the sunlight, with a fine small vein of gaiety, and pleasant wit: what a treasure to Friedrich at Potsdam and how much loved by him’.

His brother James became a soldier of fortune and was among the greatest military leaders of the century. He began in Spain but found his Protestantism a barrier to promotion. He moved to Russia, became a General, but the new Empress Elizabeth wanted to marry him and he prudently offered his services to Frederick of Prussia who made him Field Marshal and he became ‘his mainstay in every scene of difficulty and danger, and his most trusty and judicious counsellor in every perplexity’. He was killed by a cannonball at the age of 63 and Frederick raised statues in his memory.

The Chief of Clan Keith is James William Falconer Keith, 14th Earl of Kintore who descends through various twists and turns from a younger son of the 6th Earl Marischal. Clan Keith societies flourish in the USA, Canada and New Zealand.

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