Wemyss is a district in Fifeshire on the northern shore the Firth of Forth, its name being derived from the Gaelic 'uaimh' for cave, and is thus pronounced as 'weems' rather than 'weem-iss'. During the late twelfth century it came into the possession of one Michael of Wemyss and Methyl, of whom's origins nothing is known, although he may have been a senior clerk of Gillemichael, 3rd Earl of Fife and may possibly have even married the Earl's daughter. (This possible connection explaining why the family later claimed to be descended from these so-called MacDuff Earls of Fife.)
Amongst these Michael's descendants were a David Wemyss of Wemyss who became one of the signatories of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 and another David Wemyss of Wemyss who died at the battle of Flodden in 1513. But it was John Wemyss who, having obtained a baronetcy in 1625, was the first of the family to be raised of the peerage when he was created the Lord Wemyss on the 1st April 1628 and then subsequently granted the titles of Lord Elcho and Methell and Earl of Wemyss on the 25th June 1633. But despite these early signs of royal favour, John was an ardent and uncompromising Presbyterian who thus sided with the Scottish parliament against Charles I. His son David, the 2nd Earl who succeeded in 1649 was of a similar opinion and joined with the Covenanters and was notably defeated by James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, at the battle of Tippermuir in 1644.
The 2nd Earl was married three times and produced a prodigious number of offspring most of whom predeceased him including all of his sons, the last of these being his heir apparent David Wemyss, Lord Elcho who died on the 28th September 1671. Thus when the 2nd Earl died in 1679 he left, as his nominated heir, his daughter Margaret as, although she wasn't the eldest daughter, she had married her cousin James Wemyss, Lord Burntisland on 28th March 1672. Margaret, Countess of Wemyss subsequently died on the 11th March 1705 at the age of forty-six and was succeeded by her son David.
The 4th Earl was selected as a representative peer for Scotland in 1707, and travelled to London where he attracted the reputation as something of a miser, but subsequently and probably wisely returned home when he was suspected of Jacobite leanings. His son James, 5th Earl married Janet Charteris, only daughter and heiress of the notorious Colonel Francis Charteris, the 'rape-master general', who had made a large fortune by gambling and money-lending. Like his father James was a suspected Jacobite and largely kept out of public affairs, although he is known to have corresponded with the Stuart court in exile and made at least one trip to Paris on behalf of his fellow Jacobites. Despite his sympathies, the 5th Earl avoided any actual involvement in the Jacobite risings of the early eighteenth century. However his son David, known under his courtesy title of Lord Elcho, took matters a little further and as the Colonel of Bonnie Prince Charlie's Lifeguards was active in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. He was consequently attainted for high treason and spent the rest of his life in exile and died without issue on the 29th April 1787.
The Post Attainder Earls
Naturally the attainder prevented the title from passing to David Wemyss when his father the 5th Earl died on the 21st March 1756, not that this prevented him from styling himself as the 'Earl of Wemyss'. In anticipation of this event the 5th Earl had already made sure that none of his assets would not fall into the hands of the crown. On the 31st July 1750 he transferred Wemyss Castle and its estates into the hands of his third son James Wemyss (the ancestors of the family of Wemyss of that Ilk) and sold the Elcho estate to his second son Francis in the the same year for the sum of £8,500.
Francis could afford such a sum thanks to his position as heir to his mother, and later obtained an Act of Parliament in 1771 to legitimize his assumption of the name and arms of Charteris, partly to reflect his inheritance of his maternal grandfather's wealth and partly no doubt to distance himself from his disgraced brother. Francis later assumed the title 'Earl of Wemyss' on his brother's death in 1787, reflecting the widespread but mistaken belief that his brother's attainder did not effect his inheritance rights. He married Catherine, daughter of Alexander Gordon, 2nd Duke of Gordon and died on the 24th August 1808, at which point, his eldest son having predeceased him, he was succeeded by his grandson Francis.
This Francis who styled himself as the Lord Elcho prior to his father's death and as the Earl of Wemyss thereafter, later succeeded to the Peeblesshire estates of his cousin, William Douglas, 4th Duke of Queensbury following the latter's death on the 23rd December 1810, at which point he adopted the name of Charteris-Wemyss-Douglas and also claimed to have inherited the title of Earl of March (See note below.) He was later created Baron Wemyss of Wemyss in the peerage of the United Kingdom on the 17th July 1821 and was formally recognised as the Earl of Wemyss when he succeeded in obtaining a reversal of the attainder on the 26th May 1826, as a consequence of which his grandfather has now become regarded as the 7th Earl of his line and the aforementioned David, Lord Elcho is adjudged to have been the 6th Earl of Wemyss, nothwithstanding his original attainder. The 8th Earl who subsequently served as Lord-Lieutenant of Peeblesshire from 1821 until his death on the 28 June 1853 when he was succeeded by his only surviving son.
Francis, the 9th Earl, decided to drop the Charteris-Wemyss-Douglas and became plain Francis Charteris, took over from his father as Lord-Lieutenant of Peeblesshire and married Louisa Bingham, daughter of Richard Bingham, 2nd Earl of Lucan. He died on the 1st January 1883, and was followed by his eldest son Francis Richard, who had earlier been the Conservative Member of Parliament for East Gloucestershire (1841–1846) and Haddington (1847–1883), and subsequently served as a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery between 1856 and 1866. The 10th Earl died on the 30th June 1914 and was succeeded by his third son Hugo Richard, who like his father had previously been a Conservative Member of Parliament for the constituencies of Haddingtonshire (1883–1885) and Ipswich (1886–1895) and was later a member of London County Council from 1904 to 1910. The 11th Earl died on the 12th July 1937, followed by his grandson Francis David Charteris, (his eldest son having been killed in action during World War I) on the 23rd April 1916), who is the current and 12th Earl of Wemyss.
Having been chairman of the council for the National Trust for Scotland (1947–1969), President of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (1958–1962), Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on three occasions, a director of Standard Life Assurance and Scottish Television, the 12th Earl has rightly been described as "a pillar of the Scottish establishment". The Earl resides at Gosford House, Longniddry in East Lothian and is reputed to worth some £20 million, being in possession of some 10,000 acres in Peeblesshire and a valuable art collection, although not as valuable as it once was as he recently sold Botticelli's 'Virgin Adoring the Christ Child' to the National Galleries of Scotland for £10m.
His eldest son Iain David Charteris, known as the Lord Elcho died in an accident on the 3rd April 1954. and so his heir apparent is his second son James Donald Charteris, who uses the alternative courtesy title of the Lord Neidpath.
The 12th Earl also holds the titles of Lord Wemyss of Elcho, Lord Elcho and Methell, and Baron Wemyss of Wemyss. He also claims to be the 8th Earl of March, Viscount of Peebles and Lord Douglas of Neidpath, Lyne and Munard; said titles having been inherited by the 8th Earl of Wemyss by virtue of the fact that his ancestor David Wemyss, 4th Earl of Wemyss had married Anne Douglas, daughter of the 1st Duke of Queensbury and thus sister of William Douglas, 1st Earl of March and eventual heiress following the death of the 4th Duke of Queensbury in 1810. Some authorities such as The Scottish Peerage regard the March title as having become extinct in 1810 due to a failure in the heirs male of the body of the original grantee; other such as Burke's Peerage, insists that in default the title could pass to the other heirs male specified in the entail by which the 1st Earl received his large Peeblesshire estates from his father.
Oddly enough despite representing the senior line of the Wemyss family, since have decided to adopt the surname of Charteris, the current Earl is recognised as the Chief of the Name and Arms of Charteris. The Chief of the Name and Arms of Wemyss is an entirely different branch of the family, descended from the 5th Earl's third son James Wemyss.
THE EARLS OF WEMYSS
As Lord Wemyss
- John Wemyss, 1st Lord Wemyss (1628-1633)
As Earl of Wemyss
De jure earls (1756 to 1826)
Attainder reversed in 1826
- The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for WEMYSS, EARLS OF,
- The entry for WEMYSS and MARCH, CHIEF OF CHARTERIS from Burke's Peerage and Baronetage
- John Wemyss-Kessler, Scotland the Brave; The account of the life and times of David, Lord Elcho
- Sunday Times Rich List
- Wemyss Clan History