A Brief History of the Gordons

With 157 main branches, the Gordon family traces it’s lineage back to Adam de Gordon who settled in Berwickshire in the time of Malcolm III, known as Malcolm Ceanmor, or his son, David I (1124-53).

Chalmers in Caledonia appears to be giving two versions of the family’s origin first being in the time of Malcolm III or his son David I, with Adam being one of the favorites and ridding the land of a particularly pesky boar (hence the boar’s heads on the arms) and being given land in Berwickshire. The other version put forth has the family coming during the reign of Malcolm IV or his brother William the Lion and settling in the Berwickshire area called Gor dun meaning hill fort hence the name of the family.

There are many suppositions on the origin of the family from the Gorduni tribe located in Flanders during the time of Julius Caesar; to the Norman family de Guerdon (later spelled Gourdon); to the possibility of Adam & Richard de Gordon being the sons of Ernulf of Swinton and therefore a cadet branch of the Swinton family whose arms also bear the three boar’s heads. (Sc. Peer.,iv, p.507) Although there seems to be much to support the possibility of the Swinton claim in regards to the early customs of the family, the similarity of the arms and so forth, there has been no documentary proof found to date for this supposition. In addition, it would be more likely that the grandfather of Richard & Adam de Gordon, Adam de Gordun who fought with Malcolm Ceanmor would be the link with the Saxon family of Swinton, if there were indeed a link.

Edward Gordon of Cairnfield in his History of the House of Gordon, XVIII Vols. (1949) states that since the Gourdon name was known in France from at least the time of Charlemagne that the opinion of the Gordon family historians followed that of a French origin for the family. (Vol I, p. 129) He further puts forth the version of Adam de Gordun (Gordon) being among the ten thousand men under Siefried, Earl of Northumberland, (some French and Norman knights then at the English Court) being granted by King Edward Atheling (the Confessor) to his son-in-law Malcolm Ceanmor to regain his throne from Maclbeatha, Maormer of Moray, better known as MacBeth. (Ibid-p. 131) Adam de Gordun (sic) was granted lands near the lower Tweed (the lands then named Gordun for the family in Berwickshire and also land in present day Roxburgh district—see below for references to Kelso and Houm, now called Hume) for his service to Malcolm in regaining his throne. He later died, leaving a son also named Adam, in battle at Alnwick in 1093 when Malcolm Ceanmor invaded England in an attempt to regain lands in Northumbria. This version seems to be the most plausible and the accepted version of the Gordon’s entry into Scotland.

About 1130, according to one William Gordon of Harperfield, Adam ‘Filius Adae de Gordun’ grants lands specially limited, apparently for the site of a church and cemetery for the parish of Gordun, and extensive pasturage to the Abbey of Kelso founded by King David in 1126. In a second charter confirmation to the monks of the Church of St. Mary of Kelso: “the church of St. Michael of Gordun with the whole of its parish namely of Gordun and of Spotheswode (Sottiswode)”, and “so long as the abbot and convent of Kelso are willing, the men of the other Gordon, that is to say of Adam, may take the church sacraments there, and there their bodies shall be buried; and again when they please, they shall return to their mother church of Houm.” (Ibid) Adam died in 1138 at the Battle of the Standard leaving two sons, Richard de Gordun and Adam of Huntly & Faunes (Huntly & Faunes presumably being presently known as Fans just west of West Gordon in Berwickshire.) Richer de Gordun, lord of the barony of Gordon in the Merse between 1150-60 gave yet another charter which granted a piece of land and the church of St Michael to the monks of Kelso, a grant confirmed by his son Thomas de Gordun (Kelso, 118, 126). Adam de Gordun, his brother also known as of Huntly & Faunes, along with Richer (or Richard) witnessed the claim of lands of Swinton by Patrick, first earl of Dunbar (Raine, 117). (Another source sited for the claim of the Gordon’s being a cadet branch of the Swinton family.) Adam’s son, Alexander, earned the gratitude of Alexander I by killing or capturing a group of traitors who had tried to murder the King. For this he received the lands of Stitchel in the Merse. (Edward Gordon, pp. 131132)

Thus according to the documents & manuscripts assembled by Edward Gordon of Cairnfield, the descent follows such (Ibid.):

Adam De Gordun family tree

It was this Adam de Gordon who married an English lady by the name of Marjory and held lands in her right for which he paid homage to England’s King Henry III and then his son Edward I (Longshanks of Braveheart fame). On the death of Alexander of Scotland followed by the death of his granddaughter and heiress Margaret the Maid of Norway, Queen of Scotland, the Scottish throne was left vacant. Edward I as the granduncle (King Alexander’s wife was Edward’s sister) of the young queen had assumed the role of protector of Scotland and upon her death assumed the role of arbiter of the dispute for the throne and backed John Balliol’s claim. Adam also backed John Balliol’s claim and joined in his army when Edward reneged in his support and invaded Scotland.

Adam died on the fields of Dunbar. He left a son also called Adam who escaped from Dunbar, but was compelled to surrender at Elgin. His mother was left with no option and was forced to swear fealty to Edward on 3 September in order to protect her son & his holdings. In the spring of 1297 Adam joined William Wallace in his defense of Scotland and her freedom. However, he still owed fealty to Edward and John Balliol – bit tricky to balance.

In 1305, Edward appointed him Justiciar of Lothian. In 1308 Adam was able to negotiate the release of Lamberton, Bishop of St. Andrews and Primate (imprisoned for 2 years for his part in the coronation of Robert the Bruce), and was also able to save the life of Sir Thomas Randolph (also a Bruce follower.)

It was not until 1314 with the death of Balliol that Sir Adam was able to seek out Robert the Bruce and swear his fealty to him. At this point, he entered service under Randolph now the Earl of Moray, and fought under his banner at Bannockburn. In 1320, Robert the Bruce named Sir Adam and Sir Edward Maubisson as his ambassadors to carry the Declaration of Arbroath to the Pope outlining the grievances of the Scottish people against the English and pleading the case for the removal of excommunication of Robert the Bruce by praising his character and rule. Recognition of Scotland as a free and independent nation and her choice of king were accomplished! For his service Robert the Bruce granted him the lands of Strathbogie Peel in Aberdeenshire. Strathbogie was renamed Huntly and upon his death at Halidon Hill in 1333, the Huntly estate was inherited by his elder son Adam. William, the younger son, inherited the lands of Stitchel and his line became the Gordons of Galloway and the Viscounts of Kenmure. (Ibid Vols. 12 & 13.)

Adam’s line branched into the lines of Gordon of Auchleuchries, Tillytermont, Methlic, Buckie, and Ruthven. Ultimately the main Huntly branch ended with Elizabeth Gordon, wife of Alexander de Seton. Their children took the name of Gordon and their eldest son, Alexander, became the first Earl of Huntly. Alexander’s son, George, married Annabella, daughter of King James I of Scotland. George and Annabella’s second son became the progenitor of the earls of Sutherland, their third son was the ancestor of the Gordon’s of Gight and thus of George Gordon, Lord Byron. (More on the line of Elizabeth Gordon Seaton later.)

An important date in the Gordon history came with the charter dated 13 July 1376 in which King Robert II of Scotland reaffirms the grant of the lands of Strathbogie upon the descendant of Adam de Gordun, named in the charter as Joannes de Gordon (also known as Sir John de Gordon). This is the first time the Gordon spelling of the name is recorded in an official document.

In 1377, Sir John Gordon burned Roxburgh to the ground in the border wars in order to keep it from being of use to the English. He overthrew Sir John de Lilburn at Carham, had a hand in the defeat and capture of the English Governor of Berwick, Sir Thomas de Musgrave. He died on the field of Otterbourne in 1388. Sir John married Elizabeth Somervell by whom he had four sons, Adam, John, Alexander and Roger. Alexander and Roger died at Hamildon Hill in 1402 leaving no issue.

Adam the elder son inherited the Huntly titles and John, the younger, a life interest in the Gordun estates. There has been much confusion about the order of birth between these two sons and much ado as to the inheritance of Huntly (Strathbogie) by Adam’s daughter, Elizabeth and her husband Alexander de Seton over the sons of John. Many have supposed that John’s sons, known as Jock & Tam, were illegitimate. However, Edward Gordon in his research successfully defends the position that John was the younger son, and that his sons were not illegitimate. It is noted that Sir Adam is consistently styled as Sir Adam of Huntly, while John is styled in some documents as John de Gourdon, Lord of the same. This would seem to indicate that Adam being the elder inherited the higher title of Huntly while John was given a life interest in the Gordun estates in Berwickshire. It is further pointed out that as the father and elder brother were kept busy defending their interests in the south and defending the eastern March from border raids, the younger son was entrusted with defending the newly acquired northern estates of Strathbogie (Huntly).

In order to win over the pictish peoples of the area, Sir John adopted many of their ways and married one of their own, Elizabeth Cruikshank, the daughter of Cruikshank of Aswanley who was a Toshstirgh, or judiciary of the area (an executive position most like a baron bailie.) Their sons were John and Tomas, commonly known as Jock of Scurdargue and Tam of Ruthven, who were certainly accepted by the heiress Elizabeth and her husband Alexander de Seton as legitimate near relations. Edward Gordon makes much of the document of 1422/3 wherein this line is referred to as natural sons, and seems to be supposing that it is the Church’s attempt to impose it’s determination of legitimate vs. illegitimate due to the newly stated position of marriage as a sacrament. It must be noted that it was not until the Council of Florence (1438-45) that the Church declared marriage one of the seven sacraments. Therefore, contrary to his statement that this document was after the acceptance of marriage as a sacrament, it was in fact recorded prior to the Council of Florence’s convening by sixteen years. However, the accepted laws of the time in Scotland would not have prevented either son from inheritance of lands, titles or chieftainship regardless of a church marriage or not. So the point regarding the confusion over the elder/younger son is well laid out and supported in his arguments.

Elizabeth Gordon and Alexander de Seton, Lord Gordon by right of his wife held the lands of Strathbogie. Their son, Alexander, assumed the name and arms of Gordon, and was created the first Earl of Huntly by James II in 1449, and also in 1451 received the former Cumming lands of Badenoch, as well as grants to land in Inverness and Moray. He accompanied Margaret of Scotland to France on marriage with Dauphin Louis (1436); held command at siege of Roxburgh Castle (1460). His son George Gordon second earl, was Lord High Chancellor of Scotland (1498-1501). He married Annabella, daughter of James I of Scotland; from their second son, Adam Gordon of Aboyne, descended the earls of Sutherland. (Adam took title earl of Sutherland in right of his wife Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, sister and heiress of the 9th earl.) From their third son were descended the Gordons of Gight, maternal ancestors of Lord Byron. Their eldest son, Alexander Gordon (d. 1524), third earl, led the Scots vanguard at Flodden (1513). He was twice a member of the Council of Regency (1517, 1523).

George Gordon (1514-1562), fourth earl, was Regent (1536-37). He supported Cardinal Beaton against Arran (1543); as Lieutenant of North, he crushed the Camerons and MacDonalds (1544). He was Lord Chancellor in 1546. In 1548, he received the earldom of Moray, but when stripped of it through the queen’ s jealousy of his power, he joined the Lords of the Congregation (1560) and died in revolt against royal authority. His second son, George Gordon (d. 1576), fifth earl, was restored to his father’ s lands and dignities (nominally, 1565; actually, 1567). He allied himself with Bothwell and Queen Mary (1566); was made Lord Chancellor; aided in the murder of Darnley, the divorce of his sister from Bothwell, and Mary’ s marriage with Bothwell. He conspired for Queen Mary’ s deliverance from Loch Leven Castle (1567), but seceded from her cause (1572).

George Gordon (1562-1636), sixth earl, was head of Roman Catholics of Scotland. He took part in the plot leading to the execution of Morton (1581), and in the conspiracy that delivered King James VI from Ruthven raiders (1583). He raised rebellion in north (1589), but had to submit to the king. He conducted a private war against the earl of Moray and killed him (1592). After the destruction of his Huntly Castle (at Strathbogie) by the king, he had to leave Scotland (1595). He was charged with treason, pardoned, received into kirk, and created the first Marquis of Huntly and joint Lieutenant of the North (1599). His son George Gordon (d. 1649), second marquis, was created (1632) Viscount Aboyne. He refused to subscribe covenant (1638). As Lieutenant of the North, he was driven from Huntly by Montrose. In civil war, he took the king’ s side, and stormed Aberdeen (1645). Excepted from general pardon (1647), he was beheaded by order of Scots Parliament. His grandson George Gordon (1643-1716), fourth marquis, was restored to the family titles and estates in 1661 and created Duke of Gordon (1684). He held Edinburgh Castle for James II in Revolution of 1688. His son Alexander Gordon (16781728), second duke, also a Jacobite, as Marquis of Huntly led 2300 men to Old Pretender at Perth (1715).

Lord George Gordon, the third son of the third Duke of Gordon was a naval lieutenant. From 1774-1781, he served as a Member of Parliament. In 1778, he headed protestant associations organized to secure the repeal of act relieving Roman Catholics of certain disabilities. He headed a mob of 50,000 in a march from St. George’s Fields to the Houses of Parliament to present a repeal petition. The crowd got unruly and the result was the No-Popery (or Gordon) Riots lasting from June 2nd8th, 1780. He was charged with treason and through the skillful defense by Erskine was acquitted. Upon his excommunication from the church, he converted to Judaism in 1786. In 1787, he was convicted of libel of Marie Antoinette. He lived out the rest of his life in ease at Newgate prison where he gave many dinners and dances.

George Gordon

George Gordon (1770-1836), fifth and last duke. In 1794 under the direction of his father, Alexander, 4th Duke of Gordon, he raised the Gordon Highlanders regiment, first under the command of General Moore in the Netherlands, and then Gordon commanded it in Spain, Corsica, Ireland, Holland; attaining the rank of general in 1819. He was severely wounded at the Battle of Bergen (1799); commanded a division in the Walcheren expedition of 1809; and in 1820 he was presented with the Grand Cross of the Bath. The dukedom became extinct at his death, and most of the Gordon property passed to his nephew, the Duke of Richmond.

The Huntly title was passed to the late Duke of Gordon’s kinsman, George, fifth Earl of Aboyne. This nobleman was descended from Lord Charles Gordon, fourth son of the second Marquis, who in consideration of his loyalty and service, was created Earl of Aboyne by Charles II at the Restoration in 1660.

The Huntly title has since followed his line to the current chief, Granville Charles Gomer Gordon, 13th Marquis of Huntly, Earl of Huntly, Earl of Enzie, Earl of Aboyne, Lord Gordon of Badenoch, Lord Gordon of Strathavon and Glenlivet, Baron Meldrum of Morven, County Aberdeen, and Chief of the Name and Arms of Gordon.

Author: Lois M. Todd © copyright 2004.