25 Jan 2024

Celebrating Scottish Borders Clans

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Categorized under: Distillery / The Borders

To commemorate Burns Night this year, and in collaboration with ScotlandShop, we are celebrating our home, the Scottish Borders, and in particular, the Borders Clans.

Robert Burns himself was very familiar with the Scottish Borders – he embarked on a tour of the region with his friend Robert Ainslie in the summer of 1787. While it is unknown if he met with any clan chiefs along the way, he certainly would have passed through many clan territories on his journey through the region.


borders clans

The Scottish Borders Clans emerged in around the 12th century. They began as family groups that were often characterised by a common surname, territorial area, and allegiance to a clan chief. They began to claim and occupy territorial areas which today we associate with the Borders and Lowlands regions of Scotland.

Hardy and self-reliant, they were skilled horsemen, often at the centre of historic conflict, forming alliances and engaging in feuds. They grew to become immensely powerful, arguably more so than their Highland cousins and demonstrated deep loyalty to their kin – even above their country, monarchs, and the church.


Borders Reivers

Scotland and England were frequently at war, which devastated the lands and livelihoods of the people living in the area due to armies advancing and retreating on both sides. So, the region, on both sides of the border, was organised into areas called Marches – East, Middle and West, with a warden attributed to each.

The Borders Reivers Clans

The need for Borderers to stay close to and seek security through their own kin, gave way to the Border Reivers. They made their living by raiding other clans, moving very quickly to steal cattle, sheep, and anything else deemed valuable, before retreating at the same pace. It was a way of life of which they were very proud.


The Borders Clans Today

Unlike the Highland Clans, the Borders Clans didn’t wear kilts – the time spent on horseback would have made it impractical! However, specific tartan patterns, clan crests, and mottos began to be attributed to them in the 19th century. Today these items have come to strongly symbolise their identity.

Here are some of the best-known Border Clans.


Clan Armstrong

Motto: Invictus Maneo (I remain unvanquished) Armstrong Clan

Clan Chief: No chief. Clan Armstrong is known as an armigerous clan.

Originally from Anglo-Danish roots, Clan Armstrong was extremely powerful and had a huge number of fighting men who could be mobilised very quickly. The clan’s stronghold was Gilnockie Tower in Dumfriesshire, which today houses the Clan Armstrong Centre. Famous Armstrong descendants include arctic explorer, Sir Alexander Armstrong; and Neil Armstrong, who famously took a small piece of the Clan Armstrong tartan with him to the moon!


Clan Bell

Motto: I Beir the Bell

Clan Chief: No chief. Clan Bell is known as an armigerous clan.

Clan Bell, a famous reiving family, is renowned for its historical significance and distinct identity. Close allies to Clan Douglas, they were traditionally associated with the lands around Liddesdale and were actively engaged in turbulent border conflicts. Well-known Bells include Dr Joseph Bell, inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes and Alexander Graham Bell, pioneering inventor who introduced the first telephone.


Clan Douglas

Motto: Jamais Arrière (Never behind)

Clan Chief: No chief. Clan Douglas is known as an armigerous clan.

Originating in the 12th century, the Douglases were a hugely powerful and influential family, playing central roles in various border conflicts and earning a reputation for valour and loyalty. They were closely associated with Scottish monarchs – Sir James Douglas carried out the task of taking Robert the Bruce’s heart to the Holy Land. Two well-known Douglases include actors Kirk and Michael Douglas who are related to the clan on their maternal side.


Clan Eliott

Motto: Fortiter et Recte (Boldly and Rightly)

Clan Chief: Madam Margaret Eliott of Redheugh

Clan Eliott has a rich and colourful history. They held the Middle March area at the frontier of England and along with Clan Armstrong were one of the most troublesome of the Scottish Border clans through the medieval era. Unfortunately, much of the documentation associated with this clan was lost due to a fire at Stobs Castle in 1712, but they remain one of just a few clans to have a recognised chief since the days of Robert the Bruce.


Clan Fraser

Motto: All My Hope is in God

Clan Chief: Flora, the Lady Saltoun

The Frasers are thought to have originated in northern France, first settling in the Borders region before an offshoot of the family settled in the Highlands to create the Frasers of Lovat Clan. Today, they are perhaps one of the widest-spread clans, with descendants living in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Well-known Frasers include Lord Fraser of Allander, founder of department store House of Fraser and one-time owner of Harrods.

Here at the Borders Distillery, our Clan Fraser Reserve Whisky is inspired by the great clan.


Clan Graham

Motto: Ne Oublie (Forget Not)

Clan Chief: James, the Duke of Montrose

Clan Graham, an ancient clan with deep roots in medieval Scotland, was originally from Anglo-Norman origin. The first Scottish Graham, Sir William de Graham, was mentioned in William the Conqueror’s Doomsday Book and witnessed the foundation charter of the Abbey of Holyrood. Through the ages the clan boasted a legacy of military prowess and had pivotal roles in historical conflicts, including the wars of Scottish Independence.


Clan Home

Motto: True to the End

Clan Chief: The Right Honourable Michael, 16th Earl and Lord of Home

Clan Home has a history steeped in both conflict and service, for much of their time dominating the eastern Scottish Borders. Known for their strategic insight and immense power, the Homes were engaged in border skirmishes and many wider national conflicts. The Clan Home tartan was for many years adopted and worn by the 40th Regiment Royal Artillery. Well-known Homes include former British Prime Minister, Alec-Douglas Home.


Clan Irvine

Motto: Sub Sole, Sub Umbra, Virens (Flourishing Under the Sun and Shade)

Clan Chief: Alexander Irvine of Drum

Clan Irvine, a notorious Borders family, has a rich history marked by military service and political involvement. Engaging in key conflicts like the wars of Scottish Independence, the Irvines earned a reputation for bravery. The clan’s stronghold was Drum Castle which was gifted to William de Irwyn in 1323 by Robert the Bruce. Well-known Irvines include biographer and historian, Washington Irvine.


Clan Johnstone

Motto: Nunquam Non Paratus (Never Unprepared)

Clan Chief: Patrick, Earl of Annandale and Hartfell

One of the most ferocious Borders reiving families, the Johnstone clan originated from the Anglo-Normans but settled in Annandale, Dumfriesshire. They were well known for having a long-running feud with the Maxwell Clan in which they fought for supremacy of the West March, which they won after the Battle of Dryfe Sands. They also kept a vigilant watch against the English and, unlike many other Borders clans, only ever raided in England.


Clan Kerr

Motto: Sero Sed Serio (Late but in Earnest)

Clan Chief: Michael, the Marquess of Lothian

Although a prominent reiver family, Clan Kerr showed great loyalty to the Scottish Crown, and through the ages was rewarded with lands, titles, and office. They were the leading clan of the Middle March and played an important role in the history and development of the Borders region. Strangely, the Kerrs were associated with left-handedness due to the unusual number of left-handed clan swordsmen – they even built Ferniehurst Castle, complete with a left-handed staircase.

One famous Kerr is William Kerr, celebrated 19th century botanist, born here in our Borders home of Hawick, and the inspiration behind our Kerr’s Gin.


Clan Maxwell

Motto: Reviresco (I Grow Strong Again)

Clan Chief: No chief. Maxwell is known as an armigerous clan.

Clan Maxwell carries a legacy of political influence. They were a particularly prominent and wealthy family, acquiring their fortune by strategic marriages and alliances with other great clans. They were strong supporters of Robert the Bruce and fought loyally at his side at the Battle of Bannockburn but similarly with other Borders families, they were not consistent in their allegiance and changed sides many times. A famous descendant of Clan Maxwell was author and naturalist, Gavin Maxwell.


Clan Scott

Motto: Amo (I Love)

Clan Chief: Richard Walter John Montagu Douglas Scott, The Duke of Buccleuch & Queensberry

Originating in the 12th century, the Scott clan was a powerful reiving family, extremely active in both the Borders conflicts and wars of Scottish Independence. They held intense rivalry with their neighbours, the Kerrs, regularly raiding their territory, before the feud was eventually resolved with a marriage between the clans. The most famous Scotts are legendary 19th century writer, Sir Walter Scott, and filmmaker, Sir Ridley Scott.


Final Thoughts

Clans are all about kinship.

So, this Burns Night, why not celebrate with your kin, raise a dram of our Borders Distillery whisky and toast in memory of the Bard.

Slàinte mhath!

Please enjoy our spirit responsibly. Visit drinkaware.co.uk for the facts. ⁠


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