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Issue 97 - Clan Mar

Scotland Magazine Issue 97
February 2018


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Clan Mar

James Irvine Robertson investigates one of Aberdeenshire’s prominent clans

Mar lies between the rivers Don and Dee in Aberdeenshire. It is an earldom, heritable in the female line, the premier earldom in Scotland and described by one expert as 'the most ancient title in Great Britain, perhaps in Europe', with its origin lost in the mist of prehistory.

The earliest of the known earls, then known as mormaers, was Melbrigda and his name only survives in legend - though it's a very fine legend. Sigurd, the Viking Earl of Orkney, was extending his control into mainland Scotland and Melbrigda met him in battle. Sigurd won but both died. Melbrigda because Sigurd chopped off his head. Sigurd because he tied the head to his saddle and careered round the battlefield in triumph. But Melbrigda had been down to his last tooth, a prominent tooth. This stabbed Sigurd in the thigh leading to septicemia and death.

The names of a few men who might have been mormaers of Mar are known from early annals and charters and it seems likely the title alternated between two kinship groups. Hence the clan calls itself the Tribes of Mar as the groupings predate the formation of clans and its members do not claim to be blood descendants of the earl. The earldom has been held by some of the greatest families in the nation's history.

Those with the surname of Mar likely had forbears who came from the district. The name may come from the Norse word marr that means ‘reedy ground’. The earliest commoner on the record comes in 1235 when William de Mar witnessed a legal document, making it clear that this was his country of origin rather than a family name.

Ruadri was Mormaer of Mar and he became the first Earl of Mar. He was one of the earls who gave consent to the foundation charter of the Abbey of Scone by Alexander I in 1120.

The earls of Mar were stout supporters of Robert I and the King's first wife was Isabella, daughter of Domhnall, 7th Earl of Mar, who was the ancestor of the Stewart kings and today's royal family. Domhnall's grandson was Regent of Scotland for a week before being killed in 1332, leading the Scots loyalists at the battle of Dupplin Moor.

The last of the main line of this family was Thomas, who died childless in 1377. The title passed to his sister, who was married to the Earl of Douglas. Their son was James, 2nd Earl of Douglas, and after his heroic death at the Battle of Otterburn his lands passed to his cousin. However, the earldom of Mar went to his sister Isobel and this triggered centuries of complications and much wealth for generations of lawyers.

Isobel was married to Sir Malcolm Drummond, but in 1402 he was seized and killed by 'a band of ruffians'. A couple of years later Alexander Stewart, son of the Wolf of Badenoch and with great numbers of ruffians at his back, turned up at her magnificent castle of Kildrummy, forcibly seized her and compelled her to sign a marriage contract promising him her title and estates when they were wed. Even if his uncle was the Duke of Albany and the Regent of Scotland, this was an outrage, but matters were quickly put right.

A couple of months later, the Bishop of Ross, the gentlemen of the district and great numbers of the local people processed to a meadow. The castle gates opened, Alexander came out, knelt in front of Isobel and handed her the castle keys, her charters and the contract. She gave them straight back.

Alexander and his followers from Mar went on to be the victors in the crucial battle of Harlaw in 1411 that repelled the western Gaels from invading lowland Scotland. He became one of the flowers of European chivalry. On his death without heirs in 1435, the title was commandeered by the crown and granted (with dubious legality) half a dozen times over the next century to various relations or favourites of the King. In 1565, Queen Mary gave the title to Lord Erskine, the heir to the original earls, and the earldom of Mar has remained with his descendants ever since.

The most famous of subsequent earls was the 22nd, known as Bobbing John. In 1715, he felt snubbed by King George I and left London to raise the flag of rebellion for the deposed Stuart dynasty at Braemar, in the heartland of his earldom. No doubt many of the local people and landowners weren’t keen to join his army, but they had no choice, as he was the feudal superior. The Rising was his to lose and he managed it, dithering for months before deciding he had lost the battle of Sheriffmuir and escaping to France. The earldom and his lands were forfeit but he had the consolation of being invested with the dukedom of Mar by King James VIII.

The earldom was restored to his son in 1824 and his son inherited the earldom of Kellie.

When he died, the earldom of Mar passed through the earl's sister and the Kellie title went to a male cousin, but he thought he should also be Earl of Mar. The dispute went back to the Alexander's snatching of Isobel and the rightful heir when he died without children. In 1875, the House of Lords decided on the right of Lord Kellie, whose Mar title was created in 1565 by Mary, Queen of Scots and only heritable by males. But this was considered unfair since the original title could be passed down through heirs general (including women) and ten years later Parliament passed an act stating that there were actually two earldoms of Mar, one with the 'new' title whose holder is the Earl of Mar and Kellie and is the chief of Clan Erskine. The chief of the Tribes of Mar is of the ancient line, Margaret of Mar, 31st Countess of Mar.


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