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Issue 86 - The Clan Irvine

Scotland Magazine Issue 86
April 2016


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The Clan Irvine

James Irvine Robertson investigates the two clans named Irvine

Like the Frasers, Macdonalds and Macleans, the Irvines have spawned more than one clan. The name is territorial, derived from the town of Irvine in Ayrshire. There are two clans, both Lowland and each with its own chief – the Irvines of Drum and the Irvings of Bonshaw. The spellings differ today, but the spelling of names was never of great interest to the Scots of yore. The name has been documented in about 270 variations and the version a particular clansman ended up with largely depended on the whim of the clerk who first recorded it.

Dr Christopher Irvine was historiographer royal to Charles II and wrote a short history of the family in 1680. In it, he said the name meant ‘a stout or resolute West Country man’ and put a date of 404AD as the year that the Irvines returned to Scotland after fighting the Hungarians with Fergus II, who may well have been mythical. He stated that the Gaels came north through Ireland to Scotland with their origins in Spain, which modern genetics have established. Less certain was his theory that the family came down through Crinan of Dunkeld, father of King Duncan. He believed that the Bonshaw clan was the senior branch of the family and Drum stemmed from a second son, but recent research shows no connection between the families. Individuals bearing the name Irvine have been witnessing charters since the 12th Century and the name has been long established throughout Scotland.

Bonshaw Tower, said to have been built by the Irvings, is a mid-16th Century peel tower a few miles north of the Solway Firth near Gretna Green. It is still owned by a clansman and lies in Annandale, where Robert Bruce was the lord – the Irvings would have followed him through the War of Independence. The Irvings became one of those rieving clans whose way of life was dictated by their geographical location in the Scottish Borders. The constant unrest scarcely made it worthwhile to grow crops; instead, survival and prosperity depended on being strong enough to deter or defeat rivals and steal their cattle, whilst also protecting one's own. There was also the constant threat from English raiding clans or English armies, and this lifestyle bred a tough and ruthless people, tolerated by the government – most of the time – as a buffer against southern incursions.

In 1323, the lands of Drum in Aberdeenshire were granted to William de Irwyn, an official in the administration of King Robert Bruce. He inherited a strong keep, built by the king's mason half a century earlier as a royal hunting lodge; the castle was lived in by the chief until it was handed over to the National Trust in 1975. In 1411, the Northeast and the Lowlands were threatened by an army sent by the Lord of the Isles, intent on raiding Aberdeen and, perhaps, continuing south. It was stopped at Harlaw in a ferocious battle between the chivalry of the Northeast and the Gaels, during which Sir Alexander Irvine, who was knighted in France in 1408, fought “a noble and notable single combat” against Red Hector of the Battles, 6th Chief of Clan Maclean – both men died of their wounds.

The Irvines of Drum always supported the crown. The chief's son was killed in 1547 at Pinkie, the catastrophic battle that was part of Henry VIII's attempt to secure the marriage of Queen Mary to his son, rather than the dauphin. Their loyalty sometimes put them at odds with their neighbours, particularly during the religious conflicts of the 16th and 17th Centuries, when many in the northeast were Covenanters. Twice during the civil war, Drum Castle was attacked and looted. Both of the Laird's sons fought with Montrose before being captured and imprisoned in the dungeons of Edinburgh Castle, where Robert, the younger of the two, died. His brother Alexander, the 11th Laird of Drum, inherited an estate that was overwhelmed with debt due to fines and depredations of war. Charles II recognised the “eminent loyalty and good services of the family of Drum for several ages”, but the debts remained and the consequent legal difficulty would enrich lawyers for another two centuries to come.

Today, the Irvine and Irving clans are joined in the Clan Irwin Association, with branches across the United States. They are led by David Charles Irvine of Drum, Chief of the Name and Arms of Irvine, 26th Baron of Drum; and Robert Alec Snow Irving, Chief of the Name and Arms of Irving of Bonshaw.