Clan Stewart history - Scotland Magazine | History & Heritage

Clan Stewart history

In the latest in our series on the great clans of Scotland, James Irvine Robertson looks at the Stewarts, the most royal of families

The historic House of Stewart takes its name from the medieval office of hereditary Great Steward of Scotland, a title which is still held by their descendant in the female line, H.R.H. Prince Charles.

Before they came to Britain 1,000 ago, members of the family were noble Bretons, hereditary Stewards of Dol who were descended from the Counts of Dol and Dinan, a branch of the ancient dark-age ruling dynasty of Brittany.

Their origins stretch far back into the very roots of European history and it is fitting that the family gave the first kings to a united Great Britain. There have been 14 Stewart monarchs. The family have held and often still hold 10 dukedoms in England, four in Scotland, six in France, 10 in Spain and one in Italy. They have produced three cardinals, two British prime ministers and have held 14 Scottish earldoms.

No other family in Europe has achieved such eminence in so many countries.

Such a cornucopia of great men and women, many of whom had and have great estates, makes selecting a chief of the name, which can be spelt in at least 35 different ways, rather delicate.

Some would say the Queen, others the main-line descendants of the royal Stuarts, currently a Bavarian aristocrat; still others the Earl of Galloway who was the next male in line when James V sired Mary Queen of Scots as his heir.

Several divisions of the family obtained land in the Highlands – the Earls of Moray with their great castle at Doune, the Marquesses of Bute who still own most of that island and have a spectacular seat at Mount Stuart – although only one branch is usually regarded as a full-blown Highland clan.

This is the Stewarts of Appin, who descend from a son of the 4th Steward who died fighting for William Wallace against the English in 1297.

Their land in Argyll was shoehorned in amongst the Campbells with whom they fought bitterly to maintain their interests.

Many of the survivors of the Glencoe Massacre found sanctuary with them.

Some of the Appin Stewarts emigrated east to Atholl in Highland Perthshire where there were already dozens of Stewart lairds. In Robert Louis Stevenson‘s words, these ‘Stewarts hang out like bats in a steeple’ and they intermarried for generations amongst themselves and their neighbours of Clan Donnachaidh.

These families had first obtained land when a Stewart was the Earl of Atholl. Alexander Stewart, in A Highland Parish (1928), described the first Stewart earl thus: ‘His revenue and estates were not very great, but he had a great many allies, and pretty numerous company of gentlemen of his own surname to surround his motehill and fight under his own banner.’

Some of these Stewarts were cadets of his own house; many were collaterals that had been called in from Lorne. A few were descended from the Walter of Atholl line, and more than a few from the Wolf of Badenoch. To these were added Stewarts who boasted ancient or illegitimate descent from kings and princes who, when hunting the deer, wooed Highland maids in sequestered glens. The Wolf of Badenoch, the builder of Garth Castle in Perthshire, was Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, a son of Robert II and one of the greatest robber barons in Scots history.

After a wild and lawless career in which he was excommunicated for burning down Elgin Cathedral in a dispute with its bishop, he managed to repent in time to be buried in Dunkeld Cathedral soon after 1400.

The Atholl Stewarts were supposedly followers of the Murray Dukes of Atholl, who obtained the title by marrying the last Stewart heiress, which they were when it suited them, but they behaved as a clan in almost all respects save for having an acknowledged chief.

The Athollmen and the Appin Stewarts were at the core of the Marquess of Montrose’s devastatingly effective army in 1645, and fought to the end in every attempt to restore a Stuart monarch to the throne. They rivalled the Campbells as the most formidable soldiers in the Highlands. At the Battle of Culloden, they were on the right of the rebel army. They and the Stewarts of Appin suffered dreadful casualties.

An example is Killiechassie, an estate in Atholl now owned by the Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. In 1746 its owner was Robert Stewart. He led 34 of his tenants to that battle. They were placed on the extreme right wing. The laird survived to come home, but 31 of his followers did not.

Another Highland nest of this prolific family clustered around the Stewarts of Ardvorlich near Loch Earn and Loch Voil amongst the Macgregors with whom they feuded as enthusiastically as their kinsmen to the north continually fought with the Campbells.

All these Stewarts had, in 1817, the good fortune to be questioned in a great census of the name carried out by the seminal Highland historian, David Stewart of Garth, himself a whelp of the Wolf. At that time Highlanders still defined themselves by their ancestry and could tell the enumerators from what line they came.

About 4,000 descendants of the Wolf lived in Atholl in the early 19th century. Their descendants are documented and it has been estimated that they will amount to some 30,000 scattered across the globe, all with the blood of kings of England and Scotland in their veins. And that of King Robert Bruce.

They can trace themselves back to the Counts of Doll and, if such things are more than legend, to Aminadab who married a granddaughter of Old King Cole.

A mild complication to those searching their roots is that Stewart families were scattered across the Highlands. As the recorder stated about such isolated cadets, “I find that all the Highland Stewarts who do not know their genealogy lay claim to the family of Appin. I fancy it is because
they are ignorant that there are any other Stewarts of distinction which makes them lay claim upon Appin so generally.‚

And not all Stewarts are anciently Stewarts. As James VI dryly remarked: Not all Stewarts are sibs of the King’ (sib being sibling). When surnames became necessary many Highland tinkers adopted Stewart as their own. Being royal, it was as good as you could get. And it still is.

Regarding clan tartan, although the Lord Lyon keeps an iron grip on the Heraldry of Scotland, no Lord Tyger exists to control tartan.

In 1815 when the idea of clan tartans was first mooted Stewart of Garth wrote ‘There is no proper Stewart tartan.’

Now there are some 50, and Royal Stewart is often the default tartan for those without links to a specific clan who wish to wear Highland dress.

Famously this was the tartan worn by George IV on his visit to Edinburgh. To the amazement of the natives, their whale-sized monarch had spent £1,354 and 18s – the equivalent to nearly £60,000 today – with an Edinburgh outfitter to kit himself as a Highland gentleman.

David Stewart of Garth was his dresser, festooning him in brooches, buckles, dirks, skian dhus, and ensuring the straightness of the seams on the flesh-coloured silk tights that encased the royal legs. Finally he was satisfied, declaring the King ‘a vera pretty man.’



Published six times a year, every issue of Scotland showcases its stunning landscapes and natural  beauty, and delves deep into Scottish history. From mysterious clans and famous Scots (both past and present), to the hidden histories of the country’s greatest castles and houses, Scotland‘s pages brim with the soul and secrets of the country.
Scotland magazine captures the spirit of this wild and wonderful nation, explores its history and heritage and recommends great places to visit, so you feel at home here, wherever you are in the world.