The Ancestor/Number 1/Review: The House of Douglas


These handsomely-equipped volumes[1] form the first instalment of what promises to be an interesting and valuable series of 'histories of those families which have more especially contributed to the development of Great Britain and Ireland.'In the course of a brief introduction Windsor Herald, the editor of this series, claims that hitherto no complete or satisfactory history of the Douglas family has been produced. And it is true that the delightful work of Hume of Godscroft is not only fragmentary but essentially uncritical in method; whilst the four goodly volumes of the late Sir William Fraser's 'Douglas Book,' besides being printed for private circulation only, were conceived (like most of the work of that late eminent genealogist) too much in the spirit of the courtier. We should be loth to tax Fraser with errors for which he cannot justly be accounted responsible, and in the present volumes, in dealing with the question of the first Earl of Douglas's complicity in a secret treaty with England—the first hint of opposition by a Douglas to his sovereign—Sir Herbert acquits Sir William of 'an unsuccessful attempt at special pleading,' on the ground that the Issue Roll for the year 1363 was not before him when he wrote. But should any one wish for a specimen of Fraser's courtly extenuations, let him compare the account of the battle of Melrose (1526), as given in the 'Douglas Book,' with an account of the same battle in The Scotts of Buccleuch. In the existing circumstances, the qualities specially to be desired in the present history were, on the one hand, impartiality, on the other, accuracy; and in respect of these qualities, so far as we have tested it. Sir Herbert's work leaves nothing, or little, to be desired. Moreover the author writes a terse and perspicuous style, and deals with his documents and authorities in the manner of an expert.

Of comparatively little that is positively new in his volumes, his theory regarding the first known ancestor of the Douglases is perhaps the most striking item. Instead of rejecting Godscroft's tradition of yeoman's service rendered in battle by the first Douglas to an obscure king, he shifts the date some four centuries down the ages, substitutes William the Lion for Solvathius, and shows reason for regarding the incident as plausible. Interesting, also, is the evidence he brings forward as to the origin of the family. It was not to be expected that a difficulty which had so far baffled the genealogists would now be resolved; but Sir Herbert narrows the issue as to reduce it to an alternative—that of derivation from a Flemish colonist, an ancestor held in common with the house of Moray; or from a native chief of Clydesdale who had received a charter of his hereditary lands. The balance of probability, based upon a passage in Wyntoun's Chronicle (B. viii. c. 7), and upon community of nomenclature and heraldic insignia, inclines to the former alternative.

For the author's treatment of the history of the earlier Douglases we can find nothing but praise. Coming down, however, to the classic period of the Black Douglas—the Cid of Scottish history—it seems to us that he has missed a literary opportunity. We have spoken of his style as admirably clear; it is also lighted up by no infrequent gleams of humour—as, for instance, when he tells us that Sir James Douglas died, in 1420, 'of influenza,' an epidemic whose nature was not understood by the faculty, and which was vulgarly spoken of as 'the Quhew,' 'just as at the present time we may hear it spoken of as "the flue."' But the story of the 'Good Sir James'—endeared as it has become to every Scottish schoolboy through Scott's Tales of a Grandfather—called for other literary qualities than those of the mere expositor. And, truth to tell, at this point Sir Herbert's narrative strikes us as bald and matter-of-fact. This is the more surprising as the author has obviously a special interest in feats of martial prowess, in the treatment of which he often shows peculiar skill. Also, later on, when he comes to treat of George and Willie Douglas, and of Queen Mary's escape from Lochleven Castle, he shows somewhat of that picturesqueness, imaginative insight and literary grace which he so entirely misses in what ought to be a Romancero at once delightful and veracious.

Again, in his narrative of Otterburn, his scientific scepticism strikes us as excessive and uncalled for. The dying words of Douglas have been accepted, in slightly varying forms, by every authority from Froissart to Fraser; was it reserved for Maxwell to throw doubt on them? Admitting Wyntoun's assertion that the earl's death was not known to his army until the next morning, is not the inference plain that, for obvious reasons, it was kept a secret by those who had witnessed it? Had it become known, its effect on the morale of the troops might easily have been disastrous. Once more, as regards the Cavers House relics—most treasured possessions of the house of Douglas—Sir Herbert's treatment of these is positively cavalier, for he dismisses them in a note. As to the pearl-embroidered gauntlets, the late Mr. James Watson, author of the History of Jedburgh Abbey, a pains-taking local antiquary who had approached the question with an open mind, had arrived at the conclusion of their almost certain authenticity, pronouncing them to be a love-gage captured from Hotspur at the lists of Newcastle. The pennon, or pencil, associated with the gloves, presents a more difficult problem. This has been dealt with by the Earl of Southesk, in a paper read before the Scottish Society of Antiquaries, since or just before the publication of Sir Herbert's volumes. Lord Southesk's conclusions are to the effect that the flag is a standard, and that it must have belonged originally to a Douglas, though more probably to one of the Angus branch than to a member of the original family. Hence it is argued that it may have come to the Douglases of Cavers in 1452, when the head of that house was appointed keeper of Hermitage Castle. In assigning the kirk of Yetholm as the place of tryst prior to Otterburn, Sir Herbert contravenes all geographical probability. The place is called by Froissart 'Zedon,' but it is long since Robert White identified this with Southdean (locally Souden), eight miles south of Jedburgh. On the next page (i. 107) Sir Herbert has Portland for Ponteland, whilst on page 52 of the same volume he speaks of the barony of Bedrule in Roxburghshire as 'in Berwickshire.' We also suspect that he is in error when he follows Bain in identifying 'Lyliot Cross ' with Lilliard's Edge, between Melrose and Jedburgh. Even at a time when the Border Line fixed in 1222 had been blurred by English aggression, Lilliard's Edge was not a likely place for the holding of March meetings. More probable is it that the identity of Lyliot Cross (like that of Campespeth, so prominent in the Leges Marchiarum) became forgotten when the place ceased to be specially resorted to.

I have preferred in this brief review to deal exclusively with the most glorious period of the Douglas history, for after Otterburn the Douglases lost a rose from their chaplet (that of loyalty), as after Arkinholm they may be said to have lost the chaplet itself. But Sir Herbert brings his history avowedly down to the Legislative Union, and actually down to the death of 'Old Q,' at the age of eighty-six, in the year 1810. That the author shows no lack of sympathy with his subject may be judged from his concluding paragraph, which we transcribe:—

'What's in a name? Much, it seems; for it has come to pass that we are inclined to expect more of one bearing that of Douglas than of people bearing less historic surnames. In these pages the virtues of individuals have not been inflated, neither have their foibles been screened nor their evil doings glozed. The record stands as the various actors have left it. They suffered, and they made to suffer; they served, and they made others to serve. Now they rose to the highest levels of patriotism and loyalty, and anon sank to the dark and crooked ways of treason and dishonour. A masterly purposeful ambitious breed, their influence cannot have been for ill on the destiny of their country, seeing what a large share of power lay ever in their hands; and no family has furnished more material towards the ideal of a Scottish gentleman.'

The illustrations are well chosen and excellently reproduced, the tinted drawing of the Regent Morton and the photogravure of 'Old Q'—a lean, nervous Black Douglas of the decadence—being especially noteworthy; but the gaily-coloured heraldic plates seem to hide a feebleness of design under their bold black outlines. A tabular genealogy, even if but a skeleton 'pee de grue' is a crying need in these volumes; without it one wanders without a clue down this gallery of Douglases. The points to which we have taken exception are small; whilst in conclusion we take pleasure in acknowledging that by his admirable, conscientious and sympathetic work Sir Herbert Maxwell has earned the gratitude of all bearers of the name which it illustrates.


  1. History of the House of Douglas, by Sir Herbert Maxwell, Bart. (London : Freemantle & Co., 1902).