The ancient earldom of Mar

The district of Mar lies between the rivers Don and Dee on the eastern coast of Scotland, in what is now modern Aberdeenshire. Like other such districts, it was under the rule of a mormaer or great steward, later dignified in the twelfth century with the title of earl.

Tradition accords the status of 1st Earl of Mar to one Ruadri or Roderick in around the year 1114, although there were very probably another four Mormaers or Earls of Mar before Ruadri but their identity is not clear and their connection with him not certain. (Although this means that Ruadri is also sometimes known as the 5th Earl of Mar with the consequent renumbering of his successors.)

Ruadri was succeeded by Morgund, son of Gillocher who may have been Ruadri's brother and then by Gilchrist, who may or may not have been his son, then by Duncan who definitely was. With possibly a Gartney which some sources show as an additional earl between Gilchrist and Duncan (and thus produce yet another numbering variant of the sequence of earls).

All of these individuals remain shadowy figures about whom little is known and it is not until the time William the 5th Earl that the succession to the earldom becomes clear. This William emerged as one of the most powerful Scottish nobles of his time and who held the office of Great Chamberlain of Scotland in 1252, and once more between the years 1263 and 1266.

Earl William died in 1273, and was succeeded by his eldest son, Donald, who after the death of Margaret Maid of Norway in 1290, became one of the key supporters of the claims of Robert Bruce of Annandale to the Scottish throne. It is therefore no surprise to see that his son, Gartney, who succeeded him in 1297, married Christiana Bruce sister of Robert the Bruce, who brought her the lordship of Garioch together with Kildrummy castle, which thereafter became the chief seat of the family.

Gartney was succeeded by his son, Donald who fell into the hands of the English after the battle of Methven, and thus spent much of his youth in custody in England and was only released after the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 when he was exchanged for the English prisoners taken at that battle. Donald continued the family tradition of support for the Bruce dynasty, and during the minority of David II was appointed regent on the 31st July 1332 only to suffer defeat and death at the battle of Dupplin Moor two days later. He was followed by his son Thomas who held the office of Great Chamberlain of Scotland, and served as an ambassador to England on a number of occasions. Thomas died in 1377 without issue and the title therefore devolved upon his sister Margaret, and was assumed by her husband, William, Earl of Douglas.

William Douglas died in 1384 and was succeeded by his son James Douglas, whose heroism was regarded as being responsible for the Scottish victory at the battle of Otterburn in 1388, although his heroism cost him his life. Now although William and James Douglas appear as Earls of Mar, technically speaking the title was vested in Margaret as Countess of Mar who outlived them both and lived until the year 1393. Although Margaret remarried a John Swinton of Swinton he does not appear to have assumed the title (and was later killed at the battle of Homildon Hill in 1402) and when she died the title therefore passed into the hands of her surviving child; a daughter named Isabel.

Alexander and Isabel

Isabel had earlier married Malcolm Drummond, brother of Annabella Drummond, wife of Robert III. But such royal connections were insufficient to protect Malcolm being attacked and killed in an ambush in 1403. The perpetrator of this crime was generally considered to be one Alexander Stewart, the illegitimate son of Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, himself the fourth son of Robert II. In the summer of the following year this Alexander Stewart, stormed Kildrummy castle took hold of the widowed Isabel, married her and obtained from her a charter dated 12th August, 1404 making over to him the estates and title of Mar for the duration of his lifetime.

Notwithstanding the rather violent methods employed by Alexander in obtaining himself a wife it appears that Isabel was quite happy with this state of affairs and went to some lengths to convince everyone that this was the case and obtained a formal conformation from the king of Alexander's position as Earl of Mar on the 21st June 1405. Alexander thereafter became a respectable member of the Scottish nobility, serving for a time as the Warden of the Marches, fighting on behalf of the Duke of Burgundy in the Netherlands and famously defeating the Lord of the Isles at the rather bloody battle of Harlaw in 1411.

However since Isabel had died in 1408 and she and Alexander had produced no surviving children it was clear that on Alexander's death that the title would pass to the other surviving descendants of the original line of Mar. This prospect was not to Alexander Stewart's taste and thus in 1426 he resigned the earldom to the Crown, in order to have it regranted to him by a new creation which specified that the title would pass after his death to his illegitimate son Thomas Stewart, and then his lawful heirs male, failing which the title would revert to the crown. Unfortunately for Alexander at the time of his death in 1435, his son Thomas was already dead, he had failed to produced any other legitimate sons and the earldom, in accordance with the terms of the 1426 charter, reverted to the Scottish Crown.

The First Erskines more Stewarts and a Cochrane

Notwithstanding the above circumstances, with the death of Alexander one Robert Erskine appeared to claim the earldom by right of his mother, as the next heir in line. (Robert Erskine's mother was Janet Keith, daughter of Christian Menteth whose mother was Ellen of Mar daughter of Gartney, 7th Earl of Mar, and therefore the last surviving descendant of the original Earls of Mar.)

Robert Erskine assumed the title of Earl of Mar and succeeded in gaining possession of the Mar estates only to be challenged by James II, who claimed that both title and estates had reverted to the crown under the terms of the 1426 creation. The dispute simmered for some time until the year 1449 when James II took possession of the estates. Robert died in 1452 but his son Thomas Erskine continued to press his claim and it was not until James II obtained a legal judgement in 1457 that awarded him the title and lands of Mar that the Erskines were fully dispossessed.

At this point James II proceeded to bestow both title and estates on his third son John Stewart who held the title until his murder in 1479 as a result of his probable entering into a conspiracy against his brother James III. James III thereafter granted the title to one of his favourites Robert Cochrane in 1480, but Cochrane was never popular with the rest of the Scottish nobility, was suspected of counterfeiting, and was hanged over the bridge at Lauder in 1482 by the Earl of Douglas.

Meanwhile Alexander, Duke of Albany (James II's second son) who had fled Scotland after the murder of his brother in 1479, returned to Scotland in 1482 with an army commanded by Richard, Duke of Gloucester and the formal recognition of himself as king of Scotland by Edward IV in place of his beleaguered brother James III. He subsequently reached an accommodation with James, was granted the earldom of Mar, but continued to intrigue with the English and fled back to France in 1483 where he died in 1485.

Alexander was deprived of the earldom of Mar a few months shortly after it was granted to him in January 1483. The title was then granted by James III to his second son Alexander Stewart, but he died very shortly afterwards. (This Alexander is a very shadowy figure whose dates of birth and death are uncertain and whose name is often omitted from the genealogical record.) After the death of Alexander, James III gave the title to his third son John Stewart in 1486 who held it until his death unmarried in 1503.

The title thereafter remained out of use until it was granted in February 1562 by Mary, Queen of Scots to her brother James Stewart who held the title for few months before he disclaimed it in preference to the title of Earl of Moray.

The Restored Erskines and the Jacobite Title

On the 23rd June 1565 a John Erskine, the 5th Lord Erskine and a descendant of the Robert Erskine who had earlier claimed the title in 1435, succeeded in obtaining a charter from Mary, Queen of Scots which granted him the earldom of Mar.

Unfortunately most of the land that had once formed the inheritance of Mar had been variously sold or granted to other parties during the long period that had elapsed since the Erskines had been dispossessed in 1449, but the remnant which remained in the possession of the Scottish Crown was transferred to the new earl. Indeed John the 2nd Erskine Earl was largely engaged in the process of recovering land previously alienated and rebuilding the Mar estate.

It was during the lifetime of the 2nd Earl that the Stewart kings of Scotland also became the Stuart kings of England and the succeeding Erskine Earls of Mar were generally staunch royalists and supporters of the Stuart monarchy and Charles Erskine, the 5th Earl was arrested by the government as a precautionary measure in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution shortly before his death in 1689. His successor John was initially supportive of the new regime, and served as Secretary of State for Scotland but later changed his mind (and was thus commonly known as 'Bobbing John'), and raised the flag of rebellion at Braemar and launched the ill-fated Jacobite Rebellion of 1715. The failure of that particular venture led to the 6th Earl being condemned as a traitor, subsequently attainted with his earldom and property declared forfeit.

John Erskine fled into exile with James III after the failure of the '15 and as some consolation for the loss of his estates and title the Old Pretender created him Duke of Mar on the 22nd October 1715. (Naturally this title was never legally recognised within Britain.) John, spent most of the rest of his life in France, where he attended the court of James at St Germains near Paris and died in France in 1732.

Meanwhile, although the Erskine estates had been declared forfeit for treason and had now fallen into the hands of the crown, other members of the Erskine family were permitted to purchase these estates at a discount to market value. Specifically the Lord Grange, the forfeited Earl’s younger brother, and a David Erskine of Dun, who gradually re-acquired various Erskine estates as trustees for Thomas Erskine, the only son of the forfeited Earl, awaiting a change in the political climate.

Whilst they were waiting Thomas Erskine known as the 'Lord Erskine' died without issue in 1766 and the succession passed to his sister Frances Erskine, the 'Countess of Mar' who married a cousin named James Erskine (whose father another James Erskine was a younger brother of 'Bobbing John').

The Erskines and the two Earls of Mar

Eventually memories of the '15 and '45 receded and by an Act of Parliament in 1824, John Francis Erskine, the son of the afoementioned James and Francis Erskine, was restored to the earldom of Mar at the grand old age of 83. He survived only another year and on his death in 1825, was briefly followed by his son another John Francis Erskine who died in 1828, after which his grandson John Francis Miller Erskine succeeded. However this latest John, the 9th Earl who also inherited the title Earl of Kellie in 1835, died without issue in 1866.

On the 9th Earl's death the Erksine estates passed to a cousin named Walter Coningsby Erskine (in accordance with the terms of the trust previously established) who also succeeded to the title Earl of Kellie whilst the title of Earl of Mar was claimed by a John Francis Goodeve, whose father had married the late earl's eldest sister, and who additionally assumed the name of Erskine.

Initially everyone was happy with this state of affairs, even Walter Coningsby Erskine, but shortly before his death in 1872 he changed his mind and petitioned the House of Lords to claim the title of Mar. His son William Henry Erskine pursued the claim which was in due course referred to the Committee for Privileges.

The dispute over the succession was in essence a replay of the argument that had occurred way back in 1435 when Robert Erskine had originally claimed the title of Mar. On the one hand John Francis Goodeve argued that the 1565 charter granted by Mary Queen of Scots was nothing more than a confirmation of the validity Robert Erskine's claim, and that therefore he was the rightful Earl of Mar as heir-general to the 9th Earl, Whereas on the other hand William Henry Erskine claimed that the charter of 1565 represented an entirely new creation of the title which should properly be regarded as descending to the heir-male which he was.

It didn't help in this respect that there was no surviving copy of the 1565 charter but nevertheless the Committee for Privileges decided that the Charter of 1565 should be construed as creating an entirely new personal dignity with a limitation which they presumed to be to heirs-male of the body, and therefore on the 25th Feb 1875 decided against John Francis Goodeve and thus Walter Coningsby Erskine became posthumously recognised as the 10th Earl, with his son William Henry Erskine becoming the 11th Earl.

Despite losing the case John continued to assume the title of Earl of Mar and the decision was widely criticised by a number of Scottish peers, including the Earls of Crawford and Balcarres, Stair, Galloway, and Mansfield, the Marquis of Huntly, Viscounts Strathallan and Arbuthnot, and Lord Napier of Ettrick. But despite their protests the decision, described by the Lord Chancellor in 1877 as being "final, right or wrong, and not to be questioned", was allowed to stand as unfortunately (at the time) the House of Lords was the supreme court there was no avenue of appeal or means of reversing the decision.

The Scottish peers therefore embarked on the only option available to them, which was to put forward a bill to restore the title of Mar to John Francis Goodeve Erskine, and therefore by means of the Earldom of Mar Restitution Act 1885 John Francis became the Earl of Mar.

The result of all these legal shenanigans is that since 1885 there have been two separate and distinct titles of Earl of Mar;

- one holding the title under the 1565 creation
- another holding the title under an earlier creation with precedence granted to the year 1404.

Fortunately for all concerned the Erskine holders of the 1565 version of the title also hold the title of Earl of Kellie and therefore have adopted the style of Earl of Mar and Kellie and can thus be distinguished from the holders of the 1404 version of the title who are known as simply Earls of Mar.

The Modern Earls of Mar

The holders of the title of Earl of Mar (1404) regard themselves as the inheritors of the original 1114 title and are therefore numbered taking into account not only the Robert Erskine who was historically an Earl of Mar in the years after 1435, but also his successors in the years between 1452 and 1565 who are regarded for this purpose as the de jure Earls of Mar.

The John Francis Goodeve Erskine the 26th Earl who obtained the title by virtue of the Earldom of Mar Restitution Act 1885 was the nephew of John Francis Miller Erskine, who was the 9th or 25th Earl. He died in 1930 and was succeded by his son John Francis Hamilton Erskine who died without issue two years later at the age of 64.

The sister of the 26th Earl, Frances Jemima Goodeve married a James Nowell Young and produced both a son and daughter. The son Charles Walter Young was the father of Lionel Walter Young who succeeded to the title of Mar in 1932. His only issue was a daughter named Alice Young, who married a James Horsburgh Lane in 1878, and it was their grandson James Clifton Lane who inherited the title on the death of his great-grandfather, becoming the 29th Earl of Mar in 1965. The 29th Earl died in 1975 and was succeeded by his only daughter Margaret Alison Lane, who is the current Countess of Mar, the 30th of the line.

The Countess has been married three times but appears to have only one daughter Susan Helen Artiss known by her courtesy title as the Lady of Mar.


On the dispute regarding the succession to the title

Alexander's surrender of the title in 1426 was of doubtful legality, since Alexander only had a life interest in the earldom, arguably he could not have surrendered to the crown any more than this life interest, leaving the rights of the potential heirs unaffected by such a surrender. However the subsequent measures that James II later took to obtain possession of the earldom paid little attention to such niceties; Thomas Erskine was not allowed to present any evidence to contest the crown's claim and was probably not even allowed to be present during the court case that determined the matter.

It seems that the 'tyrannical' nature of this usurpation of the rights of the true heirs of Mar was well recognised in 1565, and that the grant of the title to John Erskine was regarded as being a matter of restitution. This was recognised by the Scottish Parliament who passed a statute on the 29th July 1587 which specifically recognised Robert Erskine (the 12th Earl of Mar) as the heir of Isabel Douglas.

All this evidence was simply ignored by the House of Lords in 1875 who preferred to pronounce on the matter in accordance with English Law and paid scant regard to the different circumstances that prevailed in Scotland. This was why the Scottish peerage of the time became so upset over the issue and why they devoted so much effort to righting what they saw as a miscarriage of justice.

On the numbering of the Earls of Mar

The ordinal designations of the Earls of Mar are subject to a great deal of variance and it is difficult to find any two sources who agree on the correct sequence. Thomas the last male descendant of the eleventh century Ruadri is variously described as either the 9th or the 13th Earl, or sometimes even the 10th or the 14th Earl if the alleged Gratney is included as 4th Earl.

Matters become even more confused with the later Earls; the John Erskine who was recognised as Earl of Mar in 1565 is shown below as both the 1st and the 17th Earl of Mar. Being the 1st Earl in terms of the title now held by the Earl of Mar and Kellie and 17th Earl of the line of Earls of Mar. However Burke's Peerage shows him as either the 1st or 22nd (presumably by the inclusion of the five undoubted Stewart creations in the numbering sequence) whilst another source (thepeerage.com) shows him as the 18th Earl, counting Alexander Stewart as the 12th but ignoring all the other non-Erskine creations. One might sympathise with the author of The Scottish Peerage simply gave up on the question and decided not to number them at all.

The numbering sequence shown here follows that outlined on Leigh Rayment's Peerage Page, which is the only one that appears to make any sense.


THE EARLS OF MAR

MAR

DOUGLAS

STEWART

Created by charter of 1404; Re-created 1426

ERSKINE

De Jure Earls

STEWART

Creation of 1457

COCHRANE

STEWART

Creation of 1483 Creation of 1484/5? Creation of 1486 Creation of 1562

ERSKINE

Title forfeit in 1715.

Jacobite Creation of 1715 as Duke of Mar

  • John Erskine, Duke of Mar (1715-1732)

The subsequent Erskine succession

Title of Earl of Mar restored in 1824

  • John Francis Erskine, 7th or 23rd Earl of Mar (1824-1825)
  • John Francis Erskine, 8th or 24th Earl of Mar (1825-1828)
  • John Francis Miller Erskine, 9th or 25th Earl of Mar (1828-1866)

GOODEVE/ERSKINE

As recognised claimant
  • John Francis Goodeve Erskine 'Earl of Mar' (1866-1875)
Under the Earldom of Mar Restitution Act 1885

YOUNG

LANE


SOURCES

  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for MAR, EARLDOM OF
    See http://1911encyclopedia.org/index.htm
  • James Taylor The Great Historic Families of Scotland (1887) http://www.electricscotland.com/webclans/families/mar.htm
  • John Mackintosh, Historic Earls and Earldoms of Scotland http://www.electricscotland.com/webclans/earldoms/preface.htm
  • Stirnet Genealogy
    http://www.stirnet.com/HTML/genie/british/mm4ae/mar1.htm
    http://www.stirnet.com/HTML/genie/british/ee/erskine02.htm
  • Leigh Rayment's Peerage Page at http://www.angeltowns.com/town/peerage/
  • A genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain at www.thepeerage.com

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