Clan Keith

Clan Keith

Clan Keith is a Scottish clan associated with Aberdeenshire and Caithness.




It is said that a Scottish warrior slew the Danish General Camus at the legendary Battle of Barrie in 1010. For this, King Máel Coluim II of Scotland dipped three fingers into the blood of the slain and drew them down the shield of the warrior. Thereafter the warrior was named Marbhachir Chamius or Camus Slayer. It has been claimed that, ever since this event, that the Chief of the Clan Keith has borne the same mark of three red lines on his arms.

Máel Coluim's victory at the Battle of Carham in 1018 brought him into outright possession of the lands of the Lothians and the Merse. The Keiths derive their name from the Barony of Keith, Humbie, East Lothian, said to have been granted by the king to Marbhachir Chamius for his valour.

The first Keith on record as Marischal of Scotland is Hervey de Keith (d.c. 1196) described as Marscallus Regis Scotie in correspondence between the monks of Kelso Abbey and Jocelin, the Bishop of Glasgow. He was Marischal during the reigns of Malcolm the Maiden and William the Lyon.[1]

Wars of Scottish Independence

The office of Earl Marischal and later Knight Marischal of Scotland was hereditary in the Keith family until the 18th century. It may have been conferred at the same time as the barony, since it was confirmed, together with possession of the lands of Keith, to Sir Robert Keith by a charter of King Robert the Bruce, and appears to have been held as annexed to the land by the tenure of grand serjeanty. Sir Robert Keith commanded Scottish light cavalry at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and was killed at the Battle of Dupplin Moor. His grandson, also a Robert Keith, was killed at the Battle of Neville's Cross in 1346.

At the close of the 14th century Sir William Keith, by exchange of lands with Lord Lindsay, obtained the crag of Dunnottar in Kincardineshire, where he built the Dunnottar Castle, which became the stronghold of the Clan Keith. He died in about 1407. The castle is on a cliff-top south of Stonehaven.

15th century and clan conflicts

The Clan Keith were often at feud with the neighbouring Clan Irvine. Both clans invaded each others' lands. In 1402 the Clan Irvine are said to have attacked and defeated an invading war party of the Clan Keith in what was known as the Battle of Drumoak.

In 1430 a later Sir William Keith was created Lord Keith, and a few years afterwards Earl Marischal, and these titles remained in the family until 1716.

The Battle of Tannach (probably 1464) was fought between the Clan Keith, assisted by the Clan MacKay against the Clan Gunn. The inhabitants of Caithness assembled an army and met the MacKays and Keiths at a place in Caithness called Blair Tannie. After a cruel fight the Keiths and MacKays had the victory by means chiefly of an Assynt man John Mor MacIan-Riabhaich, who consequently became very famous in this region. Two "chieftains and leaders" of the inhabitants of Caithness were slain.[2]

The Battle of Champions (probably 1478) was fought between twelve men of the Clan Gunn and twenty four men of the Clan Keith. All the Gunns, including the chief of the clan, were killed. However, the chief of the Clan Keith was soon after killed by the Gunns in a revenge attack.[3]

16th century and clan conflicts

In 1571 the Clan Keith joined forces with the Clan Forbes in their feud against the Clan Gordon. The Forbeses were also joined by Clan Fraser and Clan Crichton. The Gordons were also joined by Clan Leslie, Clan Irvine and Clan Seton. The feud between the Gordons and Forbeses which had gone on for centuries culminated in two full scale battles: The Battle of Tillieangus and the Battle of Craibstone.

William, fourth Earl Marischal (died 1581), was one of the guardians of Mary, Queen of Scots, during her minority, and was a member of her privy council on her return to Scotland. While refraining from extreme partisanship, he was an adherent of the Reformation; he retired into private life at Dunnottar Castle about 1567, thereby gaining the sobriquet "William of the Tower." He was reputed to be the wealthiest man in Scotland[citation needed]. His eldest daughter Anne married the regent Murray.

His grandson George Keith, 5th Earl Marischal (c. 1553-1623), was one of the most cultured men of his time. He was educated at King's College, Aberdeen, where he became a proficient classical scholar, afterwards studying divinity under Theodore Beza at Geneva. The 5th Earl was responsible for the tower house still extant on his ancestral lands at Keith Marischal.

17th century and Civil War

George Keith, 5th Earl Marischal was a firm Protestant, and took an active part in the affairs of the Kirk. His high character and abilities procured him the appointment of special ambassador to Denmark to arrange the marriage of James VI with the Princess Anne. He was subsequently employed on a number of important commissions; but he preferred literature to public affairs, and about 1620 he retired to Dunnottar, where he died in 1623. He is chiefly remembered as the founder in 1593 of the Marischal College in the university of Aberdeen, which he richly endowed. From an uncle he inherited the title of Lord Altrie about 1593.

William Keith, 7th Earl Marischal (c. 1617-1661), took a prominent part in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, being at first a leader of the covenanting party in northeast Scotland, and the most powerful opponent of the Clan Gordon and the Marquess of Huntly. He cooperated with James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose in Aberdeenshire and neighbouring counties against the Gordons. With Montrose he signed the Cumbernauld Bond in August 1640, but took no active steps against the popular party till 1648, when he joined the Duke of Hamilton in his invasion of England, escaping from the rout at Preston. In 1650 Charles II was entertained by the Marischal at Dunnottar; and in 1651 the Scottish regalia were left for safe keeping in his castle. In 1651 the Royalists at the Battle of Worcester were commanded by Colonel Keith. Taken prisoner, he was committed to the Tower of London and was excluded from Oliver Cromwell's Act of Grace. He was made a privy councillor at the Restoration and died in 1661.

Sir John Keith (d. 1714), brother of the 7th Earl Marischal, was, at the Restoration given the hereditary office of Knight Marischal of Scotland, and in 1677 was created Earl of Kintore, and Lord Keith of Inverurie and Keith-Hall, a reward for his share in preserving the regalia of Scotland, which were secretly conveyed from Dunnottar to another hiding-place, when the castle was besieged by Cromwell's troops, and which Sir John, perilously to himself, swore he had carried abroad and delivered to Charles II, thus preventing further search. From him are descended the Earls of Kintore.

18th century and Jacobite uprisings

George Keith, 10th Earl Marischal (c. 1693–1778), served under Marlborough, and like his brother James Francis Edward Keith (1696–1758), later a Prussian field marshal, was a zealous Jacobite. He inherited the title of Earl Marischal in 1712 and took over as chief of Clan Keith, but after taking part in the rising of 1715 had to escape to the continent. In the following year he was attainted, his estates and titles being forfeited to the Crown. Later he led the clan when they fought at the Battle of Glen Shiel in 1719. He lived for many years in Spain, where he concerned himself with Jacobite intrigues, but he took no part in the rebellion of 1745, proceeding about that year to Prussia, where he became, like his brother Francis, intimate with Frederick the Great. Frederick employed him in several diplomatic posts, and he is said to have conveyed valuable information to the Earl of Chatham, as a reward for which he received a pardon from George II, and returned to Scotland in 1759.

George Keith died unmarried and without issue in 1778. His heir male, on whom, but for the attainder of 1716, his titles would have devolved, was apparently his cousin Alexander Keith of Ravelston, to whom the attainted earl had sold the castle and lands of Dunnottar in 1766. James Francis Edward Keith did have issue with his common law wife Eva Merthen, but the identity of the children remains a mystery to this day. One theory states that her heirs, the purported brother and sister of her second husband J. D. von Reichenbach, were in fact her children with James Keith.[4]

From Alexander Keith was descended, through the female line, Sir Patrick Keith Murray of Ochtertyre, who sold the estates of Dunnottar and Ravelston. After the attainder of 1716 the right of the Keiths of Ravelston to be recognized as the representatives of the Earls Marischal was disputed by Robert Keith (1681–1757), bishop of Fife, a member of another collateral branch of the family. The bishop was a writer of some repute, his chief work, The History of the Affairs of the Church and State of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1734), being of considerable value for the reigns of James V, James VI, and Mary, Queen of Scots. He also published a Catalogue of the Bishops of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1755) and other less important historical and theological works.

Robert Murray Keith (d. 1774), descended from a younger son of the family, was a British minister in Vienna in 1748, and subsequently held other important diplomatic appointments, being known to his numerous friends, among whom were the leading men of letters of his time, as "Ambassador Keith". His son, Sir Robert Murray Keith (1730–1795), was on Lord George Sackville's staff at the Battle of Minden. He became colonel of a regiment, the 87th Foot, known as "Keith's Highlanders", who won distinction in the continental wars, but were disbanded in 1763. He was then employed in the diplomatic service, in which he achieved considerable success by his honesty, courage, and knowledge of languages. In 1781 he became lieutenant-general; in 1789 he was made a privy councillor.

19th century

From the Keith family through the female line was descended George Keith Elphinstone, Baron Keith of Stonehaven, Marischal and afterwards Viscount Keith, whose titles became extinct at the death of his daughter Margaret, Baroness Keith, in 1867.


The current Chief of Clan Keith is James William Falconer Keith, 14th Earl of Kintore (b. 1976).


Clan Profile

  • Mottos: Dexter, Quae amissa salva (What has been lost is safe), Sinister, Veritas vincit (Truth conquers), On compartment, Thay say: quhat they say: thay haif sayed: let thame say
  • Slogan: A Keith, Veritas Vincit (also Truth Prevails)
  • Plant Badge:White Rose


Austen, Austin, Cate, Cates, Dickson, Dixon, Dixson, Dick, Falconer, Faulkner, Harvey, Hackston, Haxton, Hervey, Hurrie, Hurry, Keath, Keech, Keeth, Keyth, Kite, Laird, Lumgair, MacKeith, Marshall, Ouston, Urie, Urry

Notes and references

  1. ^ Liber de Calchou, pp70-71
  2. ^ "Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland". p.69. by Sir Robert Gordon
  3. ^ "History of the House and Clan of the Name MacKay (1829). P.82 by Robert MacKay. Quoting "Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland" by Sir Robert Gordon (1580 - 1656)
  4. ^ Klinge, Matti (1997-). "Merthen, Eva (1723 - 1811)" (in (Finnish)). Kansallisbiografia (The National Biography of Finland). Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura. Retrieved 2009-10-27. 


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • References from the 1911 Encyclopædia: See
    • Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland, edited by J. Bain (4 vols., Edinburgh, 1881–1888); Peter Buchan,
    • An Account of the Ancient and Noble Family of Keith (Edinburgh, 1828);
    • Memoirs and Correspondence of Sir Robert Murray Keith, edited by Mrs. Gillespie Smyth (London, 1849);
    • John Spalding, Memorials of the Troubles in Scotland, 1624-1645 (2 vols., Spalding Club Publ. 21, 23, Aberdeen, 1850–1851);
    • Sir Robert Douglas, rev. John Philip Wood, The Peerage of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1813);
    • G.E.C., Complete Peerage, vol. iv (London, 1892).
  • Homer Dixon B. "The Border or Riding Clans and History of Clan Dickson" Albany, New York Joel Munsell's Sons, Publishers 1889
  • Alexander Nisbet. "Nisbet's System of Heraldry" published in Edinburgh 1722
  • Frank Adam and Thomas Innes. "The Clans, Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands" 1934
  • Chris Brown. "Robert the Bruce, A Life Chronicled" Tempus Publishing Stroud 2004. ISBN 0-7524-2575-7
  • Liber S. Marie de Calchou : registrum cartarum abbacie tironensis de Kelso, 1113-1567,II vols. Bannatyne Club, Edinburgh 1846.[1]

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