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Issue 90 - The Clan Kerr

Scotland Magazine Issue 90
December 2016


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The Clan Kerr

James Irvine Robertson investigates the roots of a prolific old Scots family

The name Kerr likely comes from a Lancashire place name derived from the Old Norse word ‘kjarr’ meaning ‘copsewood.’ Nonetheless, the family is believed to have been of Norman stock and arrived in England with William the Conqueror. The name can be spelled Kerr, Ker or Carr. In Scotland it is normally pronounced ‘care’ and south of the border it's usually 'car.' The name appears in the records of Ayrshire before the year 1200 and, by the time of the Ragman Roll in 1296, five of the family – from Stirling, Edinburgh, Peebles and Ayrshire – are of sufficient importance to be signatories.

Andrew Kerr of Auldtounburn and Cessford was born in 1405. Thomas, his eldest son by his first wife, was first laird of Ferniehirst. Walter, his son by his second wife, became laird of Cessford. The two estates were about ten miles apart near Jedburgh, in the Border Middle Marches, and each had a stout castle. They established themselves amongst the most powerful of the riding clans, feuding with others and raiding pitilessly on both sides of the border. A curiosity of Ferniehirst was the staircase that gave access to the upper floors went anti-clockwise rather than the usual clockwise. The Kerrs were often left-handed and this allowed their swords to be deployed against attackers, who would be at a disadvantage. Ker or car-handed still means left-handed in the Borders today.

For 150 years, a Kerr was more often warden of the Middle March than not. Theirs was turbulent rule since the Kerrs of Ferniehirst, spelling their name with a double ‘r,’ were bitter rivals of their kinsfolk the Kers – single ‘r’ – of Cessford and both used the office to increase their own power and diminish that of their competitors. In 1513 the clan fought together at Flodden, where the King and much of the aristocracy was killed. After the battle, Cessford supported the Queen mother and her new husband, the Earl of Angus, while Ferniehirst backed the boy James V. The two branches of the family were always important in national politics and were on opposite sides for the rest of the turbulent 1500s.

Ferniehirst castle was attacked at least six times, most often by English armies, and was eventually demolished by one in 1570. James VI attacked it in 1593 when he was chasing those who conspired against him with the Earl of Bothwell. Cessford also suffered, being attacked and burnt by the English four times. It could have been worse since, like all successful reiving clans, they rode with the English when it suited their interests, their pockets and their property.

At the battle of Melrose in 1526, Andrew of Cessford was killed by the forces of Sir Walter Scott – who was trying to capture the young James V, while he was in the care of the Earl of Douglas. The attackers were driven off, but the death resulted in a bitter feud between the Kers and the Scotts that culminated on the High Street of Edinburgh in 1562 when Sir Walter was set upon by the Kers and stabbed to death.

Both of the leading branches of the clan did very well when monastic lands were distributed after the Reformation. One egregious manifestation of the feud between the two branches of the family came in 1590 when Sir Robert Ker of Cessford murdered William Kerr of Ancram, cousin of Ferniehirst, under the cover of darkness in Edinburgh. The killer fled to England, but was recalled and pardoned by his father-in-law, the Lord Chancellor, as he was needed to bolster up support for the King.

The feud between the houses of Cessford and Ferniehirst was not settled until 1607 when Sir Robert, by then ennobled as Earl of Roxburghe, apologized to the Ferniehiurst Kerrs and paid them 10,000 merks. When King James inherited the English throne he appointed the son of Sir Robert's victim as one of his councillors and tutor to both Prince Henry of Wales and, later, Prince Charles. He became the Earl of Ancram in 1633.

In subsequent centuries, both branches have climbed high. The Kerr family has provided scholars, diplomats and politicians. Today's chief of Clan Kerr is Michael Kerr, 13th Marquis of Lothian. Of the Cessford branch, the Earl of Roxburghe became a duke when he helped bring about the Union in 1707 and his descendant, the 10th duke, Guy Innes-Ker is chief of Clan Innes.

Visitor Information
Ferniehirst Castle Jedburgh, Roxburghshire, TD8 6NX
+44 (0) 1450 870 051

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