by Cass and Deborah Wright
The Douglases were among the most influential and powerful of the old clans, and, at their height of power, arguably, the greatest family in Scotland. Though earliest in Douglasdale, their origins are obscure, the best guess being that the name is from the Gaelic dubh glas, for “gray-black”, or “of darkest gray”, perhaps referencing the art of rendering charcoal, or operating a forge or smelter, in apprentice to smiths; their clan motto, “J’Amais Arriere” meaning “never retreat,” is certainly one they ever embodied, whether attacking or defending.
The earliest mention of the name is in a charter to the monks of Kelso, circa 1175, which was witnessed by William of Dufglas. Sir William was a witness to a charter in 1240, and, with Sir Andrew of Dufglas, to another in 1248. His great-grandson, widely known as William Douglas, the Hardy, for his prowess and his heroic deeds, fought under William Wallace in the War of Independence.
In the centuries to follow, perhaps no great family, with the possible exception of House Murray, could claim to have stood closer to the thrones of kings in Scotland, than the men, and often the women, of the Douglas bloodline.
‘Good Sir James,’ the friend of the Bruce, was the most illustrious member of the Douglas family, and one of the noble heroes who extricated Scotland from English domination. Hearing that the rebel prince, Robert the Bruce, had taken up arms against the English, Douglas, then only 18 years of age, resolved to ride at once to Bruce’s standard. He met the future king near Moffat, on his way to Scone to be crowned, and pledged him his service. From that time onward, until Scotland’s freedom was won, Douglas was ever Bruce’s “good right arm”, alike in strife and in success.
Over a century later, a woman of Clan Douglas would actually rival him as the “good right arm” of another Scottish king, though in a very different way . . . but first let us return to Sir James, who had fought at the Battle of Methven, where the new king was defeated, and narrowly escaped. He was the same Douglas who then found a small, leaky boat, in which the Bruce’s surviving followers were ferried, two at a time, over Loch Lomond, where they afterward spent the winter with the king on the island of Rachrin, where they subsisted on “quinses and henge frut and bannoch, ande of tymes, sum of shoare fishes”.
The following year, while Bruce was trying to liberate his patrimonial domains in Carrick, Sir James and his followers rode secretly into Douglasdale, which was held by Lord Clifford, surprised the English garrison on Palm Sunday, took Douglas Castle, put his prisoners to the sword, and then set it ablaze. This shocking deed was no doubt revenge for the atrocities which Edward had inflicted on Bruce’s brothers and adherents. Thereafter, Douglas Castle was rebuilt by Clifford, who placed a garrison there commanded by a soldier named Thirlwall, and then returned to England. After his departure, Douglas sought to expel the enemy again from his estates; in time, the castle again fell to Douglas’s forces, and its fortifications were leveled to the ground.
Sir James continued in the struggle to expel the English from their country, and was involved in all the most perilous enterprises of that warfare. In 1313, he captured the key fortress of Roxburgh. He commanded the left wing of the Scottish army at the Battle of Bannockburn; following the victory, Sir James Douglas seized the opportunity to pursue the fleeing Edward II. The English king reached the gates of Stirling, but the governor refused to let him in, choosing to honor his pact as the army of the Scots had honored theirs.
With the enemy hot on his tail, Edward continued racing south; after long days of hard riding, worsened by Douglas’s men merrily picking off stragglers, he finally made it to Dunbar Castle. From there a ship took Edward, defeated and disgraced, back to London.
Though never quite cornering his quarry, grants of lands were made to Sir James Douglas, as he had proved himself one of Robert the Bruce’s closest friends and best lieutenants, made famous by his many brave exploits. Years later, Sir James undertook his greatest quest, to carry his late king’s heart, secured in an iron box, to Jerusalem. Sadly, he was slain en route, repelling an attack by Moors in Granada, Spain; plunging to that fate at a crushing gallop, Douglas stood in his stirrups, hurled that precious, little box into the very faces of his adversaries, and thundered “Brave heart! Follow the brave heart!” The chest of the heart was recovered by Douglas’s lieutenant, Sir Simon Lee of Locard, one of the fray’s few survivors, who also allegedly interred Sir James, with military honors, in Spain, before escorting the Bruce’s heart back to Scotland.
But over the years and reigns that followed, the vast ambitions of the Douglases were often as much a threat to their kings, as they were a benefit, as when the Clan allied with the Lord of the Isles against the Crown, and again when the Black Earl of Angus conspired with his brother earls, the clan chiefs of Lindsay and Ross, against James II, raising and combining their armies in defiance of the throne. The Douglas Earl of Angus, chief of the House of the Black Douglases, was slain for that conspiracy of treason by the young king’s own hand, while hosting his liege at Stirling Castle; lest anyone think that a condemnable act of itself, it is telling to remember that while still a child, that same king had witnessed the political murder of two prior Douglases at Edinburgh Castle, while attending as royal dinner guests. Surely, the old Celtic gods must have blanched in high dudgeon at such bloodthirsty breaches of ancient “Guest and Host Laws.”
In bold contrast, though, the courageous loyalty of Lady Catherine Douglas, an attendant of James II’s father, was not only of undeniable celebrity, but iconic, an historical figure who inspired folk tales and ballads down through many years. In 1437, the final year of the first Stewart reign, while striving in vain to shield James I from a party of assassins at Black Friars Monastery, she replaced his chamber-door’s missing bar with her own arm thrust through the jamb’s great staples. Thus did she hold the killers without at bay, while her beloved, fleeing monarch scrambled through adjoining rooms, and finally down into the Abbey’s sewer channel, before the murderers managed to batter the door open, shattering the bone in her arm, and earning her forever the honorific “Kate Bar-lass”.
Though her king would die that day, her bravery and fierce resolve would make her immortal; the ghost of Good Sir James must have beamed with pride!
Family relations notwithstanding, the Black Douglases opposed for many decades the upstart “Red” branch of the Clan, whose holdings had taken root in the Borders countryside, wedged between feuding factions like the Scotts, Armstrongs and Eliotts. With their lands already forfeit in 1455, their keep at Threave Castle came under siege, and was bombarded by the rival branch with the famous cannon, “Mons Meg”; when Threave fell, George, head of the Red Douglases, became chief of the entire clan, and soon brokered crucial alliances with other large, key clans, like the Gordons, and their neighbors, the Scotts. George Douglas’s son, known from his ascendency as Archibald “Bell-the Cat”, 5th Earl of Angus, led the rebellion that resulted in the defeat and death of James III at the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488.
A grandson, also named Archibald, a frequent guest at Court, and a great favorite of the ladies, followed a popular Douglas family tactic by marrying upward, wedding no less a luminary than Margaret Tudor, widow of James IV, who fell at Flodden, passing forever into romance and legend. This Archibald always sought to balance statesmanship with his soldiering, and was purportedly still donning his armor against English incursions well into his sixties.
Their daughter, Lady Margaret, an apt student of her father’s plots and ploys, and counseled by her mother in the art of procurement, wed the Earl of Lennox; their son, Lord Darnley, became the second husband of Mary Queen of Scots, and so fathered James VI, that canny prince destined to splice two thrones into one mighty Empire.
But though Darnley might have loved Mary with all his heart, another Douglas despised her, that being the spider-like James, Earl of Morton, a bitter rival of Darnley from early on and an outspoken anti-papist; he was rumored to be among the assassins who slew the Queen’s secretary, David Rizzio, and allegedly conspired in the murder of Darnley himself.
Thus by daylight, and by moonlight, the Clan continued to thrive and prosper, originating the Earls of Morton, Douglas, Annandale, Ormond, Angus and Forfar, and the Dukes of Touraine and Queensberry; it is indeed ironic, given the clan’s near-rabid ambitions for the Scottish throne for over 300 years, that the 2nd Duke of Queensbury (equally descended of Clan Scott), a notorious rake known popularly as “Old Q”, became one of the foremost architects of the controversial Union of Crowns in 1707.
Perhaps the greatest final irony of this mighty clan is that despite their thunderously renowned history, so vibrant with fame and glory, victory and legend, they are among the very few big, ancient Scottish families who are deemed ineligible to sit upon the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs, nor can they be recognized as a formal House or Clan of merit by the Lord Lyon, King of Arms, or the Lyon Court.
The reason for such bold exclusions was the conjoining, by marriage, of the great houses of Douglas and Hamilton, resulting since then in the chief male heirs of the primary line all bearing the surname of “Douglas-Hamilton”; Scottish heraldry does not recognize heritable rights or legacies for hyphenate surnames.
Clearly, although the might of armies and the wrath of kings could not conquer this noble house, the love of a man for a woman could, and, did; and to this day their descendants happily bear the brunt of that cost.
But recognized or not, the Douglas heraldry still includes their original clan crest, the Salamander of medieval myth, writhing through flames that cannot harm him . . . as obviously, neither the fortunes nor ravages of time can destroy the legendary Douglases, either!