Scotland Magazine Issue 88
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The Clan Dunbar
The Dunbar family have a tumultuous history on both sides of the border. James Irvine Robertson investigates
The founding father of Clan Dunbar, Gospatric, Earl of Northumbria, was extremely well connected. He is believed to have been the grandson of Crinan of Dunkeld, father of Duncan I, king of Scots and, through his mother, grandson of Æthelred II, king of the English. After falling out with William the Conqueror in 1072, he fled north.
Malcolm III needed a political and military heavyweight to cover his southeastern flank. Gospatric needed a base from which to fight to regain the earldom of Northumbria. Both parties were satisfied with Gospatric's grant of land in Lothian and the borders. He was the Earl of Lothian and the March – referring to his border lands – and built a castle on a promontory at Dunbar, the name of which means a fort on a summit.
Gospatric's heir and namesake, who was favoured by both David I and Henry I, also held extensive estates south of the border, many of which he passed on to his descendants. He had the difficult task of policing the borders, but his true loyalties were revealed by his death at the battle of the Standard in 1134 when ‘chief leader of the men of Lothian was struck by an arrow and fell in battle at the head of a contingent of troops.’ In 1184 Patrick, now Earl of Dunbar, married the daughter of King William the Lion and received more border lands in her dowry. The family was now amongst the most powerful of Scots magnates. The 6th earl took his army to the battle of Largs in 1263 where he was wounded fighting off the attempt of Haakon IV, King of Norway, to reassert Norwegian sovereignty over the western seaboard of Scotland. He went on to subdue the Hebrides.
The 8th earl was the most important magnate in the south of Scotland and one of the competitors for the crown following the death of the Maid of Norway. His loyalties and those of his successor show just how hard it was to select the winning side in turbulent times: in 1296 he swore fealty to the English king; in 1297 he was allied to William Wallace; in 1298 he was leading the English armies in southern Scotland and was at the siege of Caerlaverock Castle. His son gave shelter to Edward II when he fled after the battle of Bannockburn, but submitted to Bruce soon afterwards and was a signatory to the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320. He fought for Bruce's son at Dupplin Moor in 1332, but was back with the English in 1333. By 1335 he was a Scots magnate again and commanded the left wing of the Scots army at Neville’s Cross under David II.
His wife, Black Agnes, was ‘of greater spirit than it became a woman to be.’ In 1338, with a handful of soldiers and her household staff, she held Dunbar Castle for five months against the might of the English army. She and her maidservants would mock the besiegers by dusting the wall after any missile strike. When the enemy brought up a battering ram she dropped a boulder, previously sent over from a trebuchet by the English, from the battlements and destroyed it. Eventually Edward III himself came to view this hellcat in action and abandoned the siege in order to use his state-of-the-art weaponry in France.
Over the centuries, plenty of important families had spun off the main line of the earls, particularly in North East Scotland. After his marriage to Marjorie, daughter of the future Robert II, John Dunbar was granted the earldom of Moray in 1372, which had been held by his uncle Thomas Randolph, a companion-in-arms of Bruce. The Bishop of Elgin paid protection money to Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan (aka ‘The Wolf of Badenoch’), but decided to change patrons to Moray and his son Thomas Dunbar, Sheriff of Inverness. Unfortunately the latter was unable to prevent the Wolf burning the cathedral, the monastery of the Greyfriars and St Giles parish church. After the death of the 4th earl, the title passed to the Douglas family through his daughter Elizabeth.
In 1694 Sir James Dunbar of Mochrum in Wigtownshire was created a baronet and he was recognised as the clan chief in 1744. The chief today is his descendant Sir James Michael Dunbar, 14th Baronet of Mochrum and 39th Hereditary Chief of the Name and Arms of Dunbar.