Scottish Architectural Debts to Flanders in the Later Middle Ages

This is a third in what will be a series of blog postings examining the role the Flemish played in shaping Scotland’s architectural and artistic heritage.  The first two, dated December 6th and 13th 2013, focussed on the pan tiles and crow steps that are a well know feature of Scotland’s coastal towns and villages.  In this posting Professor Richard Fawcett examines the role of the Flemish in what he terms “the formation of Scottish ecclesiastical architectural taste”.

Later medieval church architecture in Scotland is the result of a fascinating synthesis of ideas brought together from a wide range of sources. The long wars with England that had such a devastating impact on Scottish creativity for much of the fourteenth century resulted in a reluctance to re-establish the close architectural links that had existed between the two countries throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Instead, amongst much else, we find Scottish patrons and their masons looking to those parts of Continental Europe with which they had the closest ongoing contacts for at least some of their inspiration, as they worked out a fresh approach to meeting their architectural needs.

The best-documented Continental debts are to France. The work of the Paris-born mason John Morow in the early fifteenth century, for example, can be traced at Melrose and Paisley Abbeys, at Lincluden Collegiate Church and at Glasgow Cathedral, on the basis of the inscribed account of his works at Melrose. We also have records of contributions by several French masons to the magnificent palaces built or enlarged for James V.

The contributions of masons from the Low Countries, and from Flanders in particular, are less well documented. Nevertheless, the architectural evidence suggests that their buildings were a significant factor in the melting pot of ideas, and some masons were evidently brought to Scotland to work. Support for this can be found at the very end of our period in the work of a craftsman with the name of Peter Flemisman, who carved statues for the exterior of Falkland Palace in 1538-9. Further support comes after the Reformation, when Lawrence the Fleming was one of two masons recruited by the municipality of Edinburgh at Middelburg in 1599, after being heavily plied with drink.

The admiration in which Flemish works of art were held by Scottish patrons is, of course, well attested, as illustrated by the retable that Bishop George Brown bought for the high altar of his cathedral at Dunkeld in the early sixteenth century, and it is very likely that many of the imported artefacts for which Andrew Halyburton acted as an agent had their origins in Flanders. From other sources we learn that in some cases Flemish craftsmen had to be prepared to travel to Scotland to fit their works into their intended location, as in the troubled case of the stalls of Melrose Abbey that were ordered from the carpenter Cornelius van Aeltre of Bruges in about 1433.

So far as architecture is concerned, a taste for Netherlandish works is apparent in the presence of a number of features in Scotland’s major late medieval churches that can be most satisfactorily explained by an emulation of buildings that had been seen by potential patrons in the course of their travels through the Low Countries. But here it must be made clear that those admired buildings were located not only in Flanders, but in the neighbouring counties of Zeeland and Holland, and possibly further afield as well. This is hardly surprising when we remember the movements of the Scottish staple, the main channel for commercial contacts between the Scotland and the Low Countries: although it was located at Bruges for much of the later middle ages, it was also for periods at Middelburg and Veere.

One of the most impressive results of the architectural contacts between Scotland and the Low Countries is the west tower of the church of St Mary in Dundee, which was probably nearing completion when a bell was donated in 1495. Its most unusual two-stage design, in which the upper stage is set back within a traceried parapet punctuated by pinnacles, has its ultimate origins in the vast tower of Utrecht Cathedral. That tower was to be copied on a smaller scale in considerable numbers of churches in Holland. There was also to be a simpler variant at the church of St James in Bruges, though that has a different visual impact since it is at the centre of the building, and on balance it is more likely that it was the towers of Holland that were being copied at Dundee.

Another feature that was to be favoured in a number of later Scottish churches, and whose adoption was probably a result of contacts with the Low Countries, was arcade piers of cylindrical form. An early case of the revived use of such piers in the Netherlands may be seen in the choir of Mechelen Cathedral as rebuilt after a fire in 1342, and since Mechelen had been acquired by the counts of Flanders in 1333 it can be regarded as to some extent Flemish. However, the city was enveloped within the duchy of Brabant, and it was perhaps from churches in that duchy that the idea was imported into Scotland. The reason for suggesting that lies in the fact that, in one of the earliest cases of the use of such piers in Scotland, at Aberdeen Cathedral, there are also crossing piers of a type that is particularly associated with Brabant. Those piers have a large cylindrical core, to which four substantial semi-cylindrical shafts are attached, and they find one of their closest reflections in the tower piers of Brussels cathedral.

Nevertheless, if there is uncertainty about whether or not the masons responsible for Dundee’s tower and Aberdeen’s piers were looking to Flanders or to elsewhere in the Low Countries, at a number of other churches there are elements that appear more likely to be a result of taking ideas from Flanders. Two examples that will be briefly touched upon here are the ceiling of King’s College Chapel in Aberdeen and the west front of the collegiate church of Haddington St Mary.

King’s College has one of two almost identical timber barrel ceilings in Aberdeen, the other, which is now lost, having been at St Nicholas’ parish church in New Aberdeen. The former dates from around 1506, and the latter from about 1495. These ceilings are of arched profile, with a decorative cross-pattern of ribs that imitates structural ribs in stone vaulting.

What marks out the Aberdeen ceilings as different from other Scottish ceilings is the use of bosses at the rib junctions in the form of long sprigs of foliage, a type of boss that was particularly favoured in Flanders. Amongst the earliest examples are those on the timber vault of the town hall in Bruges, which was constructed in 1402. But they continued in vogue for an extended period, and they can also be seen on the timber ceilings of St Giles’ Church in Bruges, where Scottish artisans staying in the city had a chapel. Bearing in mind that Bishop William Elphinstone, whose patronage was behind both ceilings, is known to have been familiar with Bruges, and that he had imported equipment for use in building King’s Chapel from the Low Countries, the likelihood of borrowings from Bruges seems clear.

The west front of Haddington Church stands out amongst the entrance façades of the great burgh churches for its unusual sophistication. The central part of the front is framed by strong buttresses capped by pinnacles, and the processional entrance is through a pair of round-arched doorways within a round-headed embracing arch. Immediately above this is a large window that is subdivided into two parts by unusually massive sub-arches, and running over the window, at the base of the gable, is traceried parapet.

The closest Scottish parallels for the form of the door and the massive sub-arches of the great window are to be seen in the tower of St Mary’s church in Dundee, which it has already been said must very probably owe its design to prototypes in the Netherlands. Parallels for other elements in the design of Haddington’s entrance front can be found elsewhere in the Netherlands. But one of the buildings with a façade that must have demonstrated the closest similarities for the design as a whole was the church of the Dominicans in Bruges, which has been almost completely lost, but is known in some detail from a number of engravings.

More examples of likely Scottish architectural debts to the Low Countries could be offered, particularly in the use of certain types of window tracery. It should be stressed, however, that the process of building up these debts appears to have involved copying individual elements and grafting them onto the native stock, rather than attempting to adopt the architectural vocabulary of another nation in its entirety. But enough has been said to demonstrate the likelihood that inspiration drawn from the Low Countries, including Flanders, must have been a significant contributor to the pool of ideas involved in the formation of Scottish ecclesiastical architectural taste in the last century and a half before the Reformation.

Richard Fawcett

October 2014

Professor Richard Fawcett, OBE, PhD, FRSE, FSA, spent most of his career working in the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments of Historic Scotland, where he was involved in the conservation and presentation of many of Scotland’s most significant medieval buildings. He now teaches in the school of Art History of the University of St Andrews 

Suggestions for further reading

Cosmo Innes (ed.), The Ledger of Andrew Halyburton (Edinburgh, 1867)

Grant G. Simpson (ed.), Scotland and the Low Countries, 1124-1994 (East Linton, 1996)

Richard Fawcett, ‘Architectural Links Between Scotland and the Low Countries in the Later Middle Ages’, in E de Bièvre (ed.), Utrecht, Britain and the Continent (British Archaeological Association Transactions XVIII, Leeds, 1996), 172-82

Marjan Buyle, Thomas Coomans, Jan Esther and Luc Francis Genicot, Architecture Gothique en Belgique (Editions Racine, 1997)

John G. Dunbar, Scottish Royal Palaces (East Linton, 1999)

Richard Fawcett, The Architecture of the Scottish Medieval Church, 1100-1560 (Yale University Press, 2011)

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Changing Definitions of Flanders and the Netherlands – Part 2

It is important when examining the relationship between Scotland and Flanders to define clearly the borders of the latter, as these changed over time. The definition of Netherlands has likewise changed significantly over time. Alexander Stevenson’s posting last week focused specifically on Flanders. In this week’s posting the focus is on overarching jurisdictional changes that have transformed definitions of both Flanders and the Netherlands. The text begins in the Roman period and moves through the Frankish phase, to the Burgundians and Habsburgs, and on to the present day.

Roman and ecclesiastical provinces

Like other countries in Europe, the origin of our names for the present states of Belgium and The Netherlands dates back to the Roman Empire. After itsconquest by Julius Caesar, Gaul was soon divided into three provinces. The most northerly of these was Gallia Belgica (Belgic Gaul), with a provincial capital initially at Rheims but for much of the Roman period at Trier. In the later first century AD, the frontier area to the south and west of the lower reaches of the Rhine and Meuse was removed from Belgica to form the separate province of Germania Inferior (Lower Germany), with a provincial capital at Cologne. There was further reorganisation throughout the Roman Empire at the end of the third century. Belgica was split in two to form the provinces of Belgica Prima and Belgica Secunda, with capitals at Trier and Rheims respectively. Germania Inferior was renamed Germania Secunda; the other German province, Germania Superior (Upper Germany), with its capital at Mainz, wasrenamed Germania Prima and separated from Germania Secunda by the extension of Belgica Prima to the Rhine.[1] All collapsed in the fifth century, with the decay of the Roman Empire.[2]

They were revived as ecclesiastical provinces under the Carolingians, in the eighth and ninth centuries, with very similar common boundaries west of the Rhine to those in Roman times. Belgica Secunda, the archdiocese of Rheims, was essentially unchanged. It comprised what later became the counties of Flanders, Artois and Hainault, the south-west of the duchy of Brabant (including Brussels, but not Louvain), Antwerp, Mechelen, Picardy, part of the Île-de-France to the north of Paris, and much of Champagne. Germania Secunda, the archdiocese of Cologne, expanded to the north and east to include all of what are now The Netherlands and NW Germany, since these lands were also within the Frankish empire.[3] Thereafter, as relates to what are now France and the Benelux countries, the boundaries of Belgica Secunda, Germania Secunda and Belgica Prima barely altered in the Middle Ages.

The Franks and their successors

The Franks, though their name is now associated with France, were a Germanic people. Towards the end of the Roman Empire, they had been encouraged to settle as foederati(allies) in Germania Secunda and the north of Belgica Secunda, to hold back other barbarians.[4] Tournai – later the see of the bishop whose diocese comprised the greater part of the late medieval county of Flanders – was the capital of the Frankish warlord Clovis, who united the Frankish tribes in the late fifth century, conquered most of Gaul, and was later noted as the first king of France.[5] When the Frankish empire was partitioned in 843, the northern and north-eastern frontier of West Francia (France) was established on the southern edge of marshes in the Scheldt delta and along the River Scheldt.[6] That remained the border of the French kingdom until the end of the Middle Ages. It also formed the northern and eastern boundaries of the medieval diocese of Tournai (adjoined on the east bank by the diocese of Cambrai, covering the north of the archdiocese of Rheims outside the kingdom of France, and to the north by the diocese of Utrecht, in the archdiocese of Cologne).

Over time, the other Frankish kingdoms were reunited within the Holy Roman Empire. While France became a hereditary monarchy, the emperor was elected as king of the Germans (confusingly, ‘Romans’ was soon substituted for ‘Germans’): only when crowned by the Pope did he formally become Emperor. Of the six electors believed in the late Middle Ages to have elected the emperor since Carolingian times (three ecclesiastical, three lay), the representatives of the western provinces were the archbishops of Cologne, Mainz and Trier. De jure, these six electors were also the emperor’s principal advisers.[7] Theoretically, the Peers of France fulfilled a similar function in the French kingdom; there were originally twelve peers (six ecclesiastical, six lay), including the archbishop of Rheims (premier peer) and the count of Flanders.[8] The origins of the Electoral College and of the Peers of France are lost in the mists of time. Both bodies originated before the thirteenth century.

Until the late twelfth century the kings of the French were weak, while the German emperors were strong. The position then reversed. Whereas the territories of the Empire became increasingly autonomous, the principalities within the French kingdom were steadily brought within royal jurisdiction until the mid-1290s.[9] The Anglo-French wars thereafter derailed this drive to create a unified kingdom. Marriages now became a particularly important tool of the French kings to stabilise relations in border areas, with some terrible results. The worst of these were the claim it gave to the English kings Edward III and Henry V to the French crown – which Edward III promoted in part to legitimise a Flemish revolt against a Francophile count of Flanders[10] – and the opportunities it provided for a cadet branch of the French royal family to establish an independent power base.

Burgundians and Habsburgs

The first Valois duke of Burgundy was remarkably astute, and the marriages he arranged transformed his fortunes and those of his heirs. Philip the Bold was King Charles V of France’s youngest brother and chief supporter. His marriage in 1369 to Margaret de Male, heiress to the counties of Flanders and Artois, two other French counties and a quasi-French county (the free county of Burgundy – the Franche-Comté) was intended to consolidate French royal control in these areas. He had been given the duchy of Burgundy in 1363 by his father (after the extinction of the earlier ducal line) and he took his principal title from that; but, after the death of his father-in-law in 1384, the greater part of his revenues came from Flanders. His wife’s aunt was the childless duchess of Brabant and Limburg. His eldest son, John the Fearless, succeeded him as duke of Burgundy in 1404, and became count of Flanders, Artois and Burgundy on the death of his mother the following year. The second son, Anthony, inherited the marquisate of [Antwerp] and lordship of Mechelen from his mother and became duke of Brabant and Limburg on the death of his great-aunt in 1406. Philip the Bold also arranged marriages between his family and that of the ruler of the counties of Hainault, Holland and Zeeland. When Anthony’s line died out in 1430, the only acceptable heir to Brabant, Limburg, Antwerp and Mechelen was John’s son, Philip the Good (1419-67). When the Hainault, Holland and Zeeland line also failed, about the same time, he inherited these too (through his mother).[11]

Although these territories had separate institutions and were divided between France and the Empire, Philip the Good and his heirs were determined to form them into a separate, unified state. They also added to their territories by purchase and conquest. There was much resistance within the territories themselves to the imposition of overarching controls, and hostility from France and Germany. The Valois dukes of Burgundy established some federal institutions for their northern territories – a great council consisting of senior officials who moved around with their court, an intermittent parliament, the States General in the 1460s, and a treasury and court of appeal in Mechelen in the 1470s – but failed to achieve more. Only later did Brussels become a permanent overall seat of government.

Philip’s son, Charles the Rash was killed in 1477, when attempting further conquests aimed at joining his northern territories with the two Burgundies. In the same year his only child Mary (1477-82) married Maximilian, the heir of the Emperor and himself later Emperor, and lost the duchy of Burgundy.[12] Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (and, through his mother, king of Spain), their grandson (1506-55), sealed a treaty with the king of France in 1526 that transferred to him sovereigntyover Artois, Flanders and the Tournaisis. This formalised his unilateral incorporation of all three into what was termed the Burgundian Circle of the Empire in 1521. He also forced through a unified succession law, the Pragmatic Sanction of 1549, which finally guaranteed the continuation of a common inheritance ‘in all our said patrimonial and hereditary lower lands and Burgundy’ (en tous nosdits Pays patrimoniaux et héréditaires d’embas et de Bourgoigne).[13] In other words, there was then no generally agreed term for what are now called de Nederlanden in Dutch, les Pays-Bas in French, and the Low Countries or Netherlands in English.

Under the Pragmatic Sanction, what were by then seventeen provinces, and the Franche-Comté, passed to Charles V’s son Philip (named after his paternal grandfather and Burgundian ancestors), who also inherited Spain. Philip persuaded the Pope in 1559 to agree to a fundamental ecclesiastical reorganisation in all but two of the Seventeen Provinces (the then detached provinces of Limburg and Luxembourg). Aimed at suppressing the heresy of Protestantism, it cut ties to the archdioceses of Rheims and Cologne and created a separate and greatly enlarged episcopal hierarchy ‘in that part of Lower Germany’.[14] As late as the 1660s, Blaeu republished a 1608 map of the Low Countries with the Latin title, Novus XVII Inferioris Germaniae Provinciarum Typus (‘New Map of 17 Provinces of Lower Germany’). He included it at the beginning of a volume of his Atlas Maior titled Nederlanden in Dutch, Belgique in French and Belgica in Latin editions. The volume is in two parts, royal and federal:[15] a remnant Roman Catholic state in the south, ruled by a Spanish king but formally still part of the Holy Roman Empire; an independent confederation of Protestant provinces in the north. Torn apart in the Eighty Years War (1568-1648), they are now usually called in English the Spanish Netherlands and the Dutch Republic.[16]

Morphing identities and names

As the provinces established a shared identity, separate from the Empire, Belgica seemed a suitably classical collective name. Albeit most of the north was in the former Roman province only very briefly under the Emperor Augustus, and much of the rest had soon been incorporated in Germania Inferior. The geographical associations of the latter also changed over time. The old Roman province had become Germania Secunda, the archdiocese of Cologne. By contrast, in the Middle Ages, Germania Inferior was adopted as a general term for all the north German lands. Translated into the vernacular as Nederduitsland, Niderdeetslant and variants of these, it was generally abbreviated to Nederland, Niderlant and the like– the abbreviated vernacular term for the south German lands was Oberlant.[17] The omitted duits is the origin of our word Dutch. This English form originally meant German; its first occurrence in the OED with its present meaning is dated 1568. Duits is still the Dutch word for German. Since Nederland was the form latterly used in common speech in the northern provinces, its hold was too powerful to break. It was retained as the abbreviated name of the Dutch state; while the plural Nederlanden became a term for the provinces in general; and Dutch-speakers’ word for their language is Nederlands.

Belgica had little traction in the Germanic-language northern provinces, but French and Latin forms were commonly used in the multilingual Habsburg south. There Belgica was an appropriate name. The southern provinces had all been part of the Roman province of Belgica (at least for about a century in the first century BC/AD), and much of the country – including Flanders, which was never in Germania and was incorporated in the Empire only in 1521 – had continued to be in Belgica, ecclesiastically, until 1559.

The south remained in the Holy Roman Empire until conquered by the French revolutionaries in 1794; direct rule having switched from the Spanish to the Austrian Habsburgs in 1714 without other institutional change.[18] Reunification of the northern and southern provinces, in a United Kingdom of the Netherlands, followed in 1815; but in religion, culture and associated sympathies they had drifted so far apart in the intervening centuries that the south broke away in 1830 to form the present Kingdom of Belgium. The French name was unchanged; België was adopted as the Dutch-language version; and Belgium, always widely used as an alternative classical form and the usual form in the eighteenth century, superseded Belgica.[19] The subordinate structure was largely unchanged until 1980. Then (as noted in the previous posting) a linguistically-based federal structure was established in Belgium, overlying the old provinces, with Flanders as the regional name for the entire Dutch-speaking north of the country.[20]

Alexander Stevenson
October 2014

Alexander Stevenson is a retired senior civil servant. He is a historian by training and has a special interest in the Low Countries. In 1982 he completed a PhD thesis on medieval Scottish links with the Low Countries, primarily Flanders, which he is currently reworking for publication.


[1] Fritz Heichelheim and others, A History of the Roman People (6th edn, Pearson, 2014), 204, 267, 268, 321, 412, 414; (map of Belgica and Germania, c.70AD); (map of the late Roman Empire, which is defective in that it fails to extend Belgica Prima to the Rhine).

[2] Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 (Allen Lane, 2009), 83-88.

[3] Roger Reynolds, ‘The organisation … of the Western Church, 700-900’ in New Cambridge Medieval History (NCMH), II (Cambridge, 1995), 587-93; Pouillés de la province de Reims, ed. A Longnon, (2 vols. , Librairie Klincksieck , 1907-8), passim.The archdioceses of Trier and Mainz also crossed the Rhine, Mainz extending through central Germany and almost as far north as Hamburg.

[4] Heichelheim, 478.

[5] Wickham, 112-13.

[6] Réné Poupardin, ‘The Carolingian kingdoms (840-877)’ in Cambridge Medieval History, III (Cambridge, 1922), 23-8. Though this volume is mainly long superseded, Poupardin provides a particularly good description of the circumstances and terms of the Treaty of Verdun. He also comments on the long-term instability to which this partition gave rise, because of the incoherence of the transient middle kingdom.

[7] Len Scales, The Shaping of the German Identity: Authority and Crisis, 1245-1414 (Cambridge, 2012), 277-8. These origins are mythical. There were originally more German electors; at some point the king of Bohemia joined their number, and remained an elector when the German electors were reduced to six in the thirteenth century, but he was not a hereditary imperial office holder, unlike the others: id., 272-6;

[8] Though lacking references, Wikipedia has a good summary: The early Capetian kings were elected by the rulers of the six great fiefs, which in the thirteenth century were to be noted as the lay pairies: Robert Fawtier, The Capetian Kings of France: Monarchy and Nation, 987-1328, trans. Lionel Butler and R J Adam (Macmillan, 1960), 48-9, 60-1. The count of Flanders traditionally carried the sword of Charlemagne – the only tangible link the French kings had with the great Frankish emperor – in the French coronation ceremony (recently noted by Neil MacGregor in the Radio 4 broadcast, Germany: Memories of a Nation: the Battle for Charlemagne).

[9] Fawtier, passim; Eckhard Müller-Mertens, ‘The Ottonian kings and emperors’ in NCMH, III (Cambridge, 1999), 233-66; Hanna Vollrath, ‘The western empire under the Salians’ and Benjamin Arnold, ‘The western empire, 1125-1197’ in NCMH, IVii (Cambridge, 2004), 38-72, 384-422; Michael Toch, ‘Welfs, Hohenstaufen and Habsburgs’ in NCMH, V (Cambridge, 1999), 375-404.

[10] Jonathan Sumption, The Hundred Years War I: Trial by Battle (paperback edn., University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 291-4.

[11] Richard Vaughan, Valois Burgundy (Allen Lane, 1975), 14-22. The other two French counties (Nevers, adjacent to the duchy of Burgundy, and Rethel, near Rheims) were inherited by the third son of Philip the Bold and Margaret de Male, and thereafter descended through his sons. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the government of Brabant had insisted on their duchy remaining separate and on their duke speaking the local Dutch dialect. That was not possible in 1430. As Philip the Good spoke Flemish, a closely related Dutch dialect, he was acceptable in a way that his two younger male cousins were not.

[12] Id., 95-123, 194-226; Henri Pirenne, Histoire de Belgique III: de la mort de Charles le Téméraire a l’arrivée du duc d’Albe dans les Pays-Bas (1567) (3rd edn., Maurice Lamertin, 1923), 181-206.

[13]Pirenne, 93-5, 139-42;

[14]; Pirenne, 411-13; Aubert Miraeus, Opera Diplomatica et Historica I (2nd edn., Louvain, 1723), 472-6 (quotation at 472).

[15] Joan Blaeu, Atlas Maior: Belgica Regia & Belgica Foederata, ed. Benedikt Taschen (Taschen, 2006), 1-2, 50-1, 58-9;


[17] Scales, 467-8; Willem Frijhoff and Marijke Spies, Dutch Culture in a European Perspective: 1650: Hard-Won Unity, trans. M. Scholz (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 59-61.




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Changing Definitions of Flanders and the Netherlands – Part 1

One of the difficulties encountered in analysing the relationship between Scotland and Flanders is that the borders of the latter have changed significantly over time. The purpose of this posting, prepared by Alexander Stevenson, is to examine some of the factors that have led to these changes. Another posting that places this evolution in Flanders’ borders within its wider territorial context will follow next week.

Origins and early growth of Flanders

When first mentioned, in 831, the pagusFlandrensis(‘the Flemish district’) was a large coastal district around Bruges, much of it marshland, which would later become the Franc or Liberty of Bruges. It was given in the 860s by the first West Frankish (French) king to Baldwin, a local warlord who had abducted, married and had a son by the king’s daughter Judith. Baldwin already held the district around Ghent. Charles the Bald also gave him other lands to the north-east of Ghent and between Ghent and the pagusFlandrensis, as well as the district of Ternois, around Thérouanne and Saint-Omer. Medieval chroniclers defined this as the origin of the county of Flanders and specified Baldwin as its first count.[1]

Baldwin II (879-918) took advantage of instability caused by Viking raids in the late ninth century to regain lands lost after his father’s death in 879, to take control of the districts between his northern lands and Ternois, and to take coastal lands down to the Canche. In combination, the districts under the count’s control soon acquired the plural name of Flanders (Flandriae – Vlaanderen in Flemish/Dutch though the Latin name for the county was later the singular Flandria, la Flandre in French). His son Arnulf (918-65) extended his rule by conquest across all of the land from the present course of the Scheldt down to Amiens on the Somme. Much of this was lost after his death. Thereafter, the boundary of Flanders never extended beyond the Authie. Most of the French-speaking south of Flanders fragmented into numerous autonomous lordships and counties, which were mainly recovered in the course of the eleventh century. The small, long-lasting counties of Boulogne, Saint-Pol and Guines were, however, established in the south-west, which owed allegiance to the counts of Flanders in the twelfth century but were substantially independent. The eastern limit of the county of Flanders was reached in the eleventh century. Baldwin IV (988-1035) took advantage of temporary weakness in the Holy Roman Empire to obtain the land around Valenciennes. His son Baldwin V (1035-67) followed a similar policy. Though he lost Valenciennes, he crossed the Scheldt further north and seized the south-western corner of Brabant. This and reclaimed marshes facing the island of South Beveland in Zeeland, which had been acquired in the tenth century (the Vier Ambachten – ‘Four Offices’), were thereafter termed Imperial Flanders.[2] The corresponding term for the rest of the county was Crown Flanders.Flanders c1300 (V2)

As most of the counts in the eleventh and twelfth centuries were remarkably capable and ruled for many years, the county was strongly and judiciously governed. This stability led to a population explosion, the establishment of major towns where woollen-cloth manufactures rapidly developed on a large scale, and widespread emigration, because insufficient employment was available on the land. It was then that Flanders acquired a very strong identity, which spanned both its Flemish- and French-speaking regions.[3] Whereas natives of other parts of the French kingdom and their descendants were commonly known abroad as Franks (Franci in Latin), natives of Flanders were usually termed Flemings (from the Flemish Vlamingen, Flandrensesin Latin) – though Flemish settlers in general, as opposed to individuals, were included within the term Franci in twelfth-century Scottish charters.[4]

The zenith of comital power and prestige was reached under Count Philip d’Alsace (1168-91, co-ruler with his father from 1157), who ruled much of Picardy, by right of his wife, as well as Flanders. Godfather of King Philip II (Augustus) of France, he was the young king’s guardian in 1179-80, after King Louis VII was paralysed by a stroke. Lacking children of his own, Philip d’Alsace organized the marriage of the young king to his niece – Isabella, daughter of the count of Hainault – in 1180, while Philip was still under his control. He also provided as a dowry the southern part of Flanders, the subsequent county of Artois, with the proviso that it was to remain under his control during his lifetime.[5]

Territorial changes and the centrality of relations with France

When Philip d’Alsace died, Philip Augustus took Artois in the name of his son, later King Louis VIII.[6] Though now separate, Artois probably continued to be viewed abroad as Flemish. Two of Flanders’ most important towns, Arras and Saint-Omer were in the new county, but they retained close links with Flanders. Saint-Omer and Arras were two of the main markets for Scottish wool in the late thirteenth century;[7] as they must have been earlier, because in the eleventh and twelfth centuries they were the two most successful towns in Flanders.[8] And so they must have remained since both continued in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to be major producers of the types of cloth that were made from Scottish wool.[9]

Philip Augustus also removed the Tournaisis from the count of Flanders’ control. Thereafter the bishop of Tournai held the Tournaisis directly from the French crown until 1521, though the diocese was entirely Flemish, apart from the small territory of the Tournaisis; the appointment of the bishop similarly came under the French king’s control.[10] The bishops of Arras and Thérouanne, whose dioceses spanned the rest of Crown Flanders, likewise came under royal control, as both were based in Artois.

French language and culture dominated the upper strata of Flemish society between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries.[11] A profound backlash followed. Relations between Flanders and France became increasingly strained after the outbreak of an Anglo-French war in 1294, leading to a rebellion by Count Guy de Dampierre (1280-1305) in 1297. In subsequent campaigns, King Philip IV (the Fair) occupied Flanders and confiscated the remaining predominantly French-speaking area, including the major towns of Lille and Douai. Of the seven principal towns of twelfth-century Flanders, only Bruges, Ghent and Ypres were left within the residual county. The Flemish language became a national touchstone in the early fourteenth century, and with it an enduring antipathy towards France, particularly in Ghent. Ties to France that had greatly increased in the thirteenth century were largely severed. When comital relations with the French king strengthened and jeopardised English interests, the English government fomented major rebellions, from 1339 to 1349 and from 1379 to 1385, both based in Ghent.[12]

To counter English influence, King Charles V of France used the good offices of Margaret, countess of Artois, daughter of King Philip V of France and mother of Count Louis de Male of Flanders (1346-84), to arrange the marriage in 1369 of Louis de Male’s daughter and heir to Charles’s brother, Duke Philip of Burgundy. The catalyst for the marriage was an agreement to return the lands and towns confiscated by King Philip IV in 1304.[13] This was followed in 1382 by Louis de Male’s inheritance of Artois on the death of his mother. Though it formally remained a separate county thereafter, Louis de Male established a unified treasury and state archive for Flanders and Artois at Lille in francophone Flanders, which was retained by his Burgundian successors; the latter also appointed a single governor for both counties.[14] Later Burgundian territorial expansion and changes will be outlined in the blog posting next week, as these overlay, but did not supplant, Flemish institutions.

Shifting borders and definitions of Flanders

Insofar as Flanders itself is concerned, the most dramatic changes came with the Counter-Reformation. There were large Protestant populations in most of the Flemish towns, which increasingly agitated against Roman Catholicism, leading to occupation by a Spanish army in 1567 and open revolt.[15] In the following Eighty Years’ War, many thousands emigrated from Flanders, most fleeing to the northern Netherlandish provinces controlled by their co-religionists.[16] When dykes were broken in the war, the far north of Flanders facing the Scheldt delta was flooded; residual islands and a narrow peninsula were held by the Protestants, who afterwards drained the flooded lands. As its name implies, Zeelandic Flanders is now in the Dutch province of Zeeland.[17]

At some point, by association, Flanders became a general term not only for the county itself but also for neighbouring territories. How early this happened is unclear. As Hollanders and Zeelanders spoke very similar Germanic dialects to that of northern Flanders, it may have been common practice in medieval Scotland to call them Flemings. Scottish documents usually refer only to Flanders until the late sixteenth century, despite the fact that from the later fifteenth century onwards most Scottish traffic was with other Netherlandish provinces.[18]

In the most famous and widely distributed atlas of the seventeenth century, the Atlas Maiorpublished in Amsterdam in the 1660s, Joan Blaeu commented that in Western Europe the Netherlands were then widely known as Flanders. This, he explained, was because historically most countries mainly had dealings with Flanders; though he noted that in Germany the usual term was Holland,[19] as by then it also was in Scotland.[20]

In 1980 Flanders became the official name of a ‘Flemish [Dutch-language] community’ and region spanning northern Belgium. This was based on a common identity that had developed in opposition to the French language and culture formerly dominant in the Belgian establishment. It overlies much older distinctions, which are retained in the names of subsidiary provinces. Most of the late medieval county of Flanders is now divided between the provinces of East and West Flanders, with Ghent and Bruges respectively as provincial capitals.[21] The northern fringe of the old county was taken by the Dutch in the Eighty Years’ War. Also in the seventeenth century, the south was conquered by the French: Artois in the Thirty Years’ War; French Flanders in the second half of the century. Old francophone Flanders, Artois and what used to be a Flemish-speaking area from the Aa to the Lys (Leie in Dutch) are now in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France, which has Lille as its regional capital.[22] Tournai and the Tournaisis, which were tightly bound to medieval Flanders, are now in the ‘French[-language] community’ of Belgium, the region of Wallonia and the province of Hainaut.[23]

Alexander Stevenson
October 2014

Alexander Stevenson is a retired senior civil servant. He is a historian by training and has a special interest in the Low Countries.  In 1982 he completed a PhD thesis on medieval Scottish links with the Low Countries, primarily Flanders, which he is currently reworking for publication.


[1] The most accessible accounts in English are: David Nicholas, Medieval Flanders (Longman, 1992), 13-17; Jean Dunbabin, France in the Making, 843-1180 (Oxford, 1985), 68-9.

[2] Nicholas, 17-20, 39-51; Dunbabin, 69-74, 207-11; Frans Beekman and others, Geschiedenis van Zeeland: Prehistorie – 1550 (WBooks, 2012), 107.

[3] Nicholas, 56-70, 97-123; Dunbabin, 141-3, 212-3, 269-74, 318-23.

[4] Early Scottish Charters Prior to 1153, ed. Archibald Lawrie (McLehose, 1905), passim; Regesta Regum Scottorum, I-II, ed. G W S Barrow (Edinburgh, 1960 & 1971), passim.

[5] Nicholas, 71-3, 85-9; Dunbabin, 323; Hans van Werweke, Eeen Vlaamse graaf van Europees formaat: Filips van de Elzas (Fibula-Van Dishoek, 1976), passim; Gérard Sivéry, Philippe Auguste (Perrin, 2003), 47-57.

[6] Robert Fawtier, The Capetian Kings of France, trans. Lionel Butler and R J Adam (Macmillan, 1960), 111-14.

[7] Patrick Chorley, ‘The cloth exports of Flanders and northern France during the thirteenth century: a luxury trade?’, Economic History Review, 2nd series, XL (1987), 349-80; Recueil de documents relatifs à l’industrie drapière en Flandre (1re. partie): des origines à l’époque bourguignonne,  ed. Georges Espinas and Henri Pirenne (4 vols, Librairie Kiessling, 1906-24), I, 196, 237, III, 234-58.

[8] Nicholas, 105, 117-21, 132.

[9]Simonne Abraham-Thisse, ‘Le commerce des draps de Flandre en Europe du nord: faut-il encore parler du déclin de la draperie flamande au bas moyen âge?’ in Drapery Production in the Late Medieval Low Countries: Markets and Strategies for Survival (14th-16th Centuries), ed. Marc Boone and Walter Prevenier (Garant, 1993), 167-204.

[10]Henri Pirenne, Histoire de Belgique I : des origines au commencement du XIVe siècle (5th edn, Maurice Lamertin, 1929), 224-5.

[11] Nicholas, 80-96, 139-49.

[12] Ibid., 186-201, 209-25, 227-31.

[13] Françoise Autrand, Charles V (Fayard, 1992), 531-4; Richard Vaughan, Philip the Bold: The Formation of the Burgundian State (Longman, 1962), 4-6.

[14] Ibid., 16, 128-32; Richard Vaughan, Valois Burgundy (Allen Lane, 1975), 111-13.



[17]; (note particularly the two Blaeu maps of 1645).

[18] Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland: General Index, ed. Cosmo Innes and others (HM Register House, Edinburgh, 1875), 543-4; Extracts from the Burgh Records of Aberdeen, 1398-1629, ed. John Stuart (2 vols, Spalding Club, 1844 & 1848), passim; Index to Extracts from the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh, 1403-1589, ed. James Marwick (Scottish Burgh Record Society, 1892), passim.

[19] Joan Blaeu, Atlas Maior : Belgica Regia & Belgica Foederata, ed. Benedikt Taschen (Taschen, 2006), 57.

[20] Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland: General Index, 643-4. But Low Countries was the usual term from the 1570s to the 1640s: id., 800-1.


[22] Much of the old county of Hainault was also seized by Louis XIV. The coastal county of Boulogne was already French, having been absorbed into the French royal domain in 1501. The county of Guines was taken by the English soon after the capture of Calais in 1346, absorbed into the Pale of Calais, and retaken by the French with Calais in 1558. Saint-Pol remained a separate county until the old order was abolished in the French Revolution, sometimes under Burgundian and Habsburg suzerainty, but mainly under French rule.






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The Flemish on the Firth of Forth – Part 2

This is the second of two postings that examines the evidence of a Flemish presence in the vicinity of the Forth estuary. In this posting David Dobson and Alex Fleming examine the issue in relation to the north of the Firth of Forth, specifically the coast of the Kingdom of Fife around to the Tay Estuary.

During the medieval and early modern periods there was a strong presence of people of Flemish origin in the area immediately to the north of the Firth of Forth, the present day Kingdom of Fife. The connections with Flanders have taken a number of forms. Flemish herring fishermen have long fished in the waters off the Firth of Forth and used Fife (and Lothian) ports. Fife ports were also much used in Scoto-Flemish trade. Then, in the early modern period, Flemish weavers were brought to Fife and many made their homes in the area. The Flemish footprint can be seen to this day in the architecture and medieval structures in Fife.


Fishing and the Fife Ports

The Fife linkage with the Low Countries in general and Flanders in particular may go back to the 9th century, but in the 11th and 12th centuries there was a marked increase in commerce. During the reign of David I (1124-1153) the Firth of Forth was frequented by fishermen from a range of countries. The harbours of the Isle of May were often used but they were small and could not accommodate many boats, and so the fishermen took shelter in harbours on the mainland in Fife (and the Lothians). These harbours included Crail which reportedly was where the Dutch, and possibly the Flemish also, learned the mode of curing herring.

By 1375 a herring industry had been established in Flanders,[1] taking advantage of the development of preservation techniques, notably pickling. Except for a short period (1395-98, when it was discouraged) the industry grew well and was positively encouraged by the Flemish authorities around 1419. Thereafter it thrived and herring was sold on to third countries. However by the middle of the 16th century the Flemish scarcely caught enough to provide for their own consumption. Nonetheless in the 17th century Flemish boats were still fishing for herring in Scottish waters, as evidenced by the strange event described in Box 1 below.

Box 1: An Odd Incident

“In August 1627, some Spanish ships, laden with money for the use of the troops in Germany, having taken the route by the Orkneys, encountered some hundred Flemish busses [a type of fishing vessel] engaged in fishing, which fled from them, and a portion of them took refuge in the Firth of Forth, in which on a summer evening, they appeared to the number of threescore, advancing in the form of a half n-moon. Great was the alarm along the coasts. In Edinburgh proclamation was made that all the inhabitants should take arms, and muster on the shore to resist the threatened invasion. Cannon were trailed down to the Castle, and every preparation made to give them a warm reception, until, at ten P.M. word came that they were only herring busses.”

Extracted from Rev. Walter Wood.[2]


For a period in the middle ages the export of wool to Flanders provided an important stimulus to the Scottish economy. Cloth manufacturing in Flanders (and Artois) began in the 12th century and demand for Scottish wool was significant until the late 14th century.

Much of the wool exports would have gone through the ports of Berwick, Leith, Dundee, Perth and Aberdeen. However trade with Flanders through the Fife ports would have been quite extensive.

In the 14th and 15th centuries Cupar exported more wool than any other town in Fife. Initially the exports went out of “port of Eden” on the Eden Estuary. Indeed some Cupar merchants owned ships and Paula Martin tells us that “In the early 15th century, for example, goods belonging to the King were transported from Flanders in a Cupar-owned ship, and in 1465 Cupar merchants were sending money home from Bruges”.[3] Cupar and nearby Dairsie (until World War 1 named Osnaburgh after a type of coarse linen or cotton originally imported from Osnabrück in Germany) were both centres of weaving.

Within the Forth itself ports such as Kirkcaldy, Burntisland and Dysart became more important during the 17th century as the size of trading vessels grew. Imports from Flanders would have included iron and cloth of various types, while exports to Flanders may have included coal (for brewing and smelting) and salt (for curing).

As noted in last week’s blog posting Flemish weavers, following an Act of Parliament in 1587, were brought to Scotland to provide what in modern parlance would be called “technical assistance” to the local population. Fife was the beneficiary of such assistance and there are a number of references in the literature to weaving in the Kingdom. The weavers had, according to Rev. Walter Wood, “come to exercise their craft in making serges, growgrains, fustians, bombesies, stemmingis, berjes, covertors of beds etc”. Furthermore “they are allowed to remain five years; to bring over at least thirty websters, walkers, and litstairs, and to take Scots boys and maidens as apprentices”.[2]

In the mid to late 17th century Campbell identifies some eight apprentice weavers in Crail with names that appear to be Flemish. See Box 2. He also finds weavers in Burntisland and Dunfermline.[4] Another author noted the location of a former workshop of a Flemish weaver in Anstruther.[5] Flemish weavers would also have lived in other Fife towns.

Box 2: Crail

The small fishing village of Crail features quite significantly in Fife’s association with Flanders. Its strategic position where the Forth Estuary spills into the North Sea is doubtless part of the reason. As noted above, its harbour would have played host to Flemish fishing and trading vessels from the 12th century onwards.

J. Arnold Fleming highlights further Crail connections with the Flemings. Robert III, in the 14th century, grants a William Fleming land in the vicinity of Crail.[6]

Fleming also points to the bells in Crail Parish Church (1520) and the Town Hall (1614) being of Flemish origin. Some would dispute this, however. It is also noteworthy that the Parish Church in Crail had a priest called Fleming officiating there in 1361.

In the 17th century Campbell identifies some 18 families, with possible Flemish names, engaged in a range of trades in the village: bakers, hammermen, shoemakers, tailors, weavers, and wrights.[4]

There is evidence of other areas of Flemish expertise being deployed in Fife. For instance, there was a Peter Flemishman, a stone carver from the Low Countries, who was employed in the construction of Falkland Palace during the 1530s.

In the East Neuk of Fife in the 17th century, Dobson finds a number of possible Flemish men who were skippers or seamen in the coastal ports of Cellardyke, Pittenweem and Anstruther.[7] Flemings also appear to have been involved in a range of other trades across Fife.[4]

During the reign of Phillip II – the late 16th century – a Flemish vessel (from Brabant) was wrecked off the coast of Fife and the sailors reportedly settled in Buckhaven.

Architecture and Structures

The settlement of Flemish people in Fife is reflected in local architecture, early town planning, and some important medieval constructs.

Many of the old houses found in harbour towns, with crow step gables facing on to the street and pantiled roofs, are modelled on houses in the Low Countries. The blog postings entitled Crowsteps in Fife – The Flemish Connection (6th and 13th of December 2013) discuss the Flemish influence on local architecture in the East Neuk of Fife. A similar influence can be discerned in the architecture of the village of Culross, which is further upstream on the Forth. Furthermore, Dunbar would also have exhibited a Flemish architectural influence. The Scottish Burgh Survey noted that in Dunbar by 1830 there were “very few remaining of that Flemish description which stood with their dove-tailed gables to the street”.[8]

There was an even earlier impact of the Flemish on St. Andrews, specifically in the 12th century. Mainard the Fleming was brought north from Berwick-on-Tweed by King David I to supervise the layout of the city. This can be seen in the street plan of the old burgh, and possibly some of the houses with their ‘lang rigs’. See the blog posting in this series entitled The Influence of Mainard the Fleming on the character of St. Andrews (18th of October 2013). St. Andrews gradually became a busy ecclesiastical and commercial center (see Box 3 below) with linkages to Flanders.

Box 3: St. Andrews

There were a number of factors underlying the commercial development of the town. As noted by Lyon, “The reputed sanctity of the spot, the progress of the religious buildings, the increasing number of monks, and, above all, the multitude of pilgrims who resorted hither from all parts to adore the relics of the patron Apostle, must have greatly contributed to the increase of its trade”.[9]

Most of the merchants were reportedly foreign. The foreigners included the English and French as well as the Flemish. They lived both inside and outside the town.

The harbour was a hive of activity. Goods such as wool, skins, salted fish, horses, sheep, and oxen were exported. Imports included fine linen and silks, gold, silver, carpets and tapestry, wine, olive oil, drugs, arms, armour and cutlery. Some of this trade was with Flanders.

Nearby at Leuchars is the site of the 12th century Leuchars Castle of which only the motte has survived. In the medieval period Leuchars was owned by the De Quincy family, which Dr George F. Black claims has its origin in Quinci, Maine, France.[10] However Professor Geoffrey Barrow believes that the de Quincis came from Cuinchy near Béthune in the Pas-de-Calais and that they were tenants of the de Chokes in Northamptonshire before settling in Scotland.[11] The de Chokes originated in Chocques near Bethune and were one of a group of Flemish families settled in Northamptonshire. It appears that a family of Flemish origin were settled in Leuchars. The de Quincis were there from the 12th century.

J. Arnold Fleming identifies a number of other important Flemish families in Fife.[6] There was Robert Burgon, a Flemish leader, who obtained grants of land from David I. There was also a William Flandrenses who witnessed a charter by William III to the monks on the Isle of May. Simon Flandrensis, or Simon the “Flemen” was a witness to the foundation grants to the Abbey at Lindores (near Newburgh). At the same time Walter Flameng appears as the agent of the monks, while another Fleming, Everardus Flandrensis, seems to have been closely associated with the erection of the Abbey. Malcolm Fleming, son of Bartholomew Fleming, is also mentioned in charters pertaining to the Abbey.


A Flemish influence in Fife can be discerned as far back as the 12th century, and an inflow of immigrants would likely have taken place gradually from that time onwards. It would appear that immigration from Flanders also occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries but it was small scale and much less than occurred in the earlier, medieval period.

Sources for the later period point to a good number of people with Flemish origins residing in Fife. Some would have been new immigrants and others would have arrived in earlier periods. Some carry the name Fleming but there is a range of other names that appear to be of a Flemish origin.

It is appropriate perhaps to end with this quote from Wilkie:

“The phlegmatic Flemings were more concerned with commerce than with war; and the combination of shrewdness with imagination, or a power of concentration on the work in hand (however prosaic) with a love of beauty and of life in the open which is a characteristic of the folk of Fife, is largely due to the infusion of Flemish blood into the Celtic”.[12]

David Dobson and Alex Fleming
October 2014


[1] Charles Cutting, Fish Saving – A History of Fish processing From Ancient to Modern Times (London 1955).
[2] Rev. Walter Wood, East Neuk of Fife: its History and Antiquities, Geology, Botany and Natural History in General (Edinburgh 1862), p. 129.
[3] Paula Martin, Cupar – the History of a Small Scottish Town.
[4] A. J. Campbell, Some Fife Apprentices and Freemen, 1524-1899.
[5] George Gourlay, Anstruther, or Illustrations of Scottish Burgh Life (Cupar, 1888).
[6] J. Arnold Fleming, Flemish Influence in Britain, Vol. 1, (Glasgow, 1930).
[7] David Dobson, Directory of Seafarers of the East Neuk, 1580-1800 (St. Andrews, 2008).
[8] Scottish Burgh Surveys.
[9] Rev. C. J. Lyon, History of St. Andrews, episcopal, monastic, academic and civil (Edinburgh, 1843).
[10] George Black, The Surnames of Scotland: their Origin, Meaning and History (New York, 1946).
[11] Geoffrey Barrow, The Kingdom of the Scots (London, 1973).
[12] James Wilkie, The History of Fife from the Earliest Times to the Nineteenth Century (Edinburgh and London, 1924).
[13] A. J. Mackay, History of Fife and Kinross (Edinburgh, 1896).
[14] W. Stephen, History of Inverkeithing and Rosyth (Aberdeen, 1921).
[15] Burntisland: Early History and People (Edinburgh, 1948).
[16] Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, 1350-1379, 1502-1507.

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The Flemish on the Firth of Forth – Part 1

This is the first of two postings that examines evidence of a Flemish presence in the vicinity of the Forth estuary. In this posting David Dobson explores the issue in relation to areas bordering the south of the Firth of Forth (the Lothians). Next week’s posting will focus on the area north of the Forth, that is, the coast of the Kingdom of Fife.


The Firth of Forth has had links with Flanders since the medieval period. Through the various ports along the Fife and Lothian coast raw materials, especially wool, wool-fells (fleeces), hides, coal, and fish were shipped to markets in Flanders, while manufactured commodities were imported from the more technically advanced industries in cities such as Ghent and Bruges.

Emigration, both short-term and permanent, occurred between the two countries. There seems to have been substantial immigration of Flemish people in the medieval period. However in the early modern period, say between 1500 and 1700, Flemish immigration was of smaller scale. Often skilled workers were brought in to expand and improve the indigenous industries, some directly from the continent, while others were two stage migrants arriving from centres such as London and Norwich. Latterly they tended to be religious or political refugees escaping persecution in the Low Countries. A significant number of immigrants brought skills important to the development of the textile industry in Scotland. Others brought advanced techniques relevant to the construction industry or were craftsmen. Flanders was then one of the most economically advanced regions of Western Europe and itself attracted migrants from neighbouring countries such as Scotland.

Bruges was for a time the Staple Port through which imports and exports to or from Scotland were required to pass. This resulted in Scots merchants and their servants settling in Bruges. In 1578 Veere (or Campvere) became the Staple Port of the Scots. However the port books reveal that although Scots vessels did use the Staple Port, they increasingly sailed to or from other ports in the region such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Middelburg, Nieuwpoort, Ostend, and Dunkirk. From time to time trade was disrupted by wars between England, France, and the Low Countries, and also by attacks by pirates and privateers.

Originally Berwick-on-Tweed was the main Scottish port exporting wool and wool-fells to Flanders but after the town was absorbed into England such exports were generally shipped through ports on the Forth, especially Leith. While trade with Flanders occurred from ports along the east coast as far north as Aberdeen, this blog posting concentrates on the ports in the Lothians (see map below).


The best source of information on trade with Flanders comes from the port books, mainly located in the National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh. Unfortunately there is no complete run of them for the seventeenth century. More comprehensive records only commence in 1742. The port books for Leith and Bo’ness have been sampled for the second half of the seventeenth century and reveal that Flanders was like an emporium supplying a wide range of manufactured goods and food stuffs including iron, pots, thimbles, brass, silk, rope, thread, mirrors, apothecary ware, tobacco, sugar, fruit, confectionery, wine, dyes, paper and whale bones. There was no evidence of Flemish factors (import agents) being based in Scots ports and it appears that the trade was conducted between local burgesses and the supercargo (on-board cargo or trading agent) or skippers.

Looking at a much earlier period, in 1436 the royal household imported various luxury goods from Flanders, including jewellery, velvet, tapestry, armour, spices, silk girdles, signets and seals. King James V purchased a mare that was shipped back to Scotland from Flanders in 1541. In 1577 the Conservator of the Scots Nation in Flanders purchased books there on behalf of King James VI. During England’s wars against the Dutch, Flemish ports such as Bruges, Ostend and Nieuwpoort supplied goods to Scottish markets formerly obtained in Holland.

Scottish exports to Flanders through ports on the Firth of Forth comprised a limited range of raw materials and semi-processed goods including coal, wool, fleeces, hides, salt, herring and salmon.

The Low Countries were a major market for Scottish coal, until the mines at Liège were developed and undercut the Scots in price (around the sixteenth century). Also, duty on Scots coal was higher than on English coal in the Netherlands and that had an impact on Scots exports. Much of the Scots coal was destined for the breweries of Rotterdam. This city acted as an entrepôt and supplied Scots coal to the Flemish market. Coal wasn’t the only mineral sought by continental workshops – lead was eventually exported. Continental prospectors were authorised by King James V to prospect and extract minerals in Scotland in 1527. Judging by their surnames, some may have been Flemings, such as Gerard Sterek, or Erasmus Schetz. Another such was Aert Bronkhorst, who arrived in Scotland around 1579 to prospect for gold but later became a court painter until his death in 1610.

Settlement along the South of the Forth

Evidence of Flemish settlement along the south of the Forth in the Early Modern Period (late 1500s and early 1600s) is generally difficult to establish. It is possible, however, to identify people with special skills that the local and central government of the day attempted to attract in order to promote industrial development. The most important industry to benefit from Flemish skills was textiles. Religious persecution in the Low Countries resulted in refugees, including some craftsmen from Flanders, settling in Britain.

In Scotland a number of craftsmen set up business in the Canongate, a burgh adjacent to Edinburgh. Canongate was where the aristocracy and major landowners had their town houses near to the Holyroodhouse and the royal court, so providing an affluent market. Flemish craftsmen were also employed in the maintenance or construction of royal buildings such as Edinburgh Castle, but whether they remained there is not clear. By way of example Bartholomew Fleming was a mason employed in Edinburgh Castle in 1639. In 1599 Edinburgh Town Council, faced with a major repair to the roof of St Giles Cathedral, sent to Flanders for skilled workmen and material, the implication being that the necessary skills were not available locally.

In order to operate a business in a Scottish burgh it was necessary to become a burgess. Some Flemish immigrants can be identified through burgess rolls, for example Abraham van Soun, a goldsmith from Flanders, was admitted as a burgess of Edinburgh in 1587 by right of his wife Janet, daughter of Edinburgh burgess Alexander Gilbert, also a goldsmith. Another was Philipe van der Straeten, a merchant from Bruges, who was admitted as a burgess and guild brother of Edinburgh in 1684.

In order to expand and improve on the skills of local textile workers the Convention of Royal Burghs decided to recruit people from Flanders and from the Flemish communities in England. In 1601 Edinburgh Town Council despatched Alexander Hunter, an Edinburgh merchant, to persuade Flemish ‘clothmakers’ to settle in Scotland. and the later In June he returned with seven Flemings, mainly from Maesen in Flanders, six to make ‘seyis’ (a type of worsted) and the seventh to make broadcloth. One immediately decided to return to Flanders; others were to be allocated to work in Dundee, Perth, Ayr and Edinburgh. A further twelve Flemings from Norwich arrived in Edinburgh in July. These were led by a Gabriel Bischop, a manufacturer of broad-cloth and stuff, and brought ‘their wyffis, bayrnis, geir, and warklomes’ (wives, children, gear, and work looms). Those based in Edinburgh were allocated premises by the Nor’ Loch, but later the House of Correction was used. The poor people living there were taught textile manufacturing skills. As part of the contract the Flemings requested to have their own church and also asked that a Flemish brewer be brought over to establish a brewery. Whether these conditions were fulfilled is not clear.

Surname Analysis

A method that can be used to identify immigrants to the area around the Firth of Forth is analysis of surnames found there. When dealing with Flemish immigration one must keep in mind that many surnames used in Flanders are identical to those found in the Netherlands, and also among the Huguenot refugees, who were mainly French Protestants bearing French surnames. There were possibly also some Flemings with French surnames. However, as relatively few Dutch immigrants settled in Scotland it can be assumed that the vast majority bearing Dutch surnames were in fact Flemish.

Edinburgh and Leith were the most likely burghs to have attracted Flemish people, such as David Jonking, a merchant, 1610; Jacob Jamart, a merchant, 1674; Andrew Grosser, a burgess, 1599; and William Yungar, a cordiner, 1573. Clement Toures was a glass-wright in Edinburgh in 1616 Peter Frank, a smith in Edinburgh Castle, 1625, and Francis van Gent a burgess of the Canongate in 1702.

In 1681 Peter Bruce, a German engineer resident in Scotland, established a playing card and carver making business in Leith. He went to Holland and Flanders to recruit skilled workmen then petitioned the Privy Council to prohibit the import of playing cards, which was granted.

Thomas McGowran claimed in his book Newhaven on Forth that in Newhaven when the shipyard there declined following the the death of King James IV at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, many foreign wrights remained in the town and intermarried with the local fisher folk and ‘imparted a strange style of dress, custom and architecture’. The Newhaven fishwives continued thereafter to wear traditional dress reminiscent of that of the Low Countries.

Mrs George Cupples in her book Newhaven – its Origins and History claimed that the village had first been colonised in the fifteenth century from a Flemish fishing settlement on the Isle of May, later supplemented by refugees from the Netherlands. She emphasised how much the fisher folk of Newhaven resembled their Flemish and Dutch equivalents in respect to the women’s dress, complexion, and physique.

J. Arnold Fleming in his book Flemish Influence in Britain indicates that there were Flemings in the Dunbar area from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. A good number of them were priests or schoolmasters in the parish of Pinkerton. Other pieces of evidence of a Flemish presence there are set out in the book, including the intriguing lawsuit of John Fleming, Prebendary of Pincartoun, versus William Fleming of Bord, for a certain sum claimed as owing to him by the said William Fleming on 20th March 1478.

There is evidence of a Flemish presence in a number of church records, such as the baptismal records of the Church of Scotland. There was a suggestion of a Flemish church being established in Edinburgh around 1601 but if it existed no trace has been found of it or its records. The Church of Scotland was Calvinist like the Flemish Reformed Church, and this facilitated the integration of the Flemish immigrants into the local church. The baptismal register of Edinburgh that covers the period 1595–1607 contains a number of entries that may pertain to Flemish, or possibly Dutch, immigrants.

A number of men from Forth burghs, who had gone to the Low Countries to work, were married to Flemish women and some of them may have returned to Scotland. Among them were Jonas Mabon from Edinburgh, who married Maycken van Haelemis from Tielt, Flanders, in Leiden in 1604; Henry Drommel, a smith from Kinkell, Fife, who married Elizabeth Dobble from Bruges in Leiden, 1604; and Alexander Simmons, a soldier from Anstruther, who married Marieken Jansen from Brussels in Dordrecht, 1588.

Flemish mercenary soldiers are known to have served in Scotland – James IV’s ship ‘The Great Michael’ had both French and Flemish gunners aboard in 1513. Flanders had a good reputation for manufacturing guns, for example Mons Meg in Edinburgh Castle was built in 1449 on the orders of Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and sent by him to King James II of Scotland from Flanders. Robert Hector, a gun-maker in Edinburgh, sent his son to Flanders in 1541 to serve an apprenticeship as a gun-maker. Other possible Flemings in the same calling were Josias Rikker, a gunner in Edinburgh Castle in 1540, and Peter Sochan, a gunsmith in Edinburgh around 1680.

Cases brought before the Scottish courts provide an insight into economic links between Flanders and Scotland. In 1686 the High Court of the Admiralty of Scotland deliberated on the complaint between George Clark, a merchant in Edinburgh, and Francis de Mallendar, a merchant in Bruges, concerning an unpaid debt. In August 1649 a ship, loaded with Spanish wine and salt, was captured by three privateers while sailing from Rotterdam to Leith. It was owned by Thomas Fleming, an Edinburgh merchant.

Town council records sometimes provide evidence of links between Scotland and Flanders. For example on 31 August 1666 Edinburgh Town council received a petition from George Monteith, merchant, to the town council for a testimonial to be sent to the burgomaster of Bruges that George was brother to John Monteith, who died in Bruges. Both were sons of Robert Monteith, merchant, and his wife Marion Sydserf. The Leith port books record George Monteith, a merchant, importing goods from Flanders in the 1660s.

The Firth of Forth was an avenue for trade between Flanders and Scotland in the medieval and early modern periods. This commercial interchange has, in turn, led to some settlement in the towns and villages bordering the estuary. The evidence presented here focuses on the south side of the Forth but additional evidence pertaining to the north side (Fife) will be presented next week.

David Dobson
September 2014

Dr. Dobson is currently a Post Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh and an Honorary Research Fellow with the Institute of Scottish Historical Research at the University of St Andrews. His research interests are focused mainly on the Scottish Diaspora as well as Scottish history in the Early Modern Period. His publications include Scottish Emigration to Colonial America, 1683-1783 (Georgia, 1994, 2004); Scottish Trade with Colonial Charleston, 1683-1783 (Glasgow, 2009), and over 115 historical and genealogical source books (Baltimore, 1983-2013).

Research Resources

- Michael Fry, Edinburgh: a History of the City (London, 2009)
- C. E. Green, East Lothian (Edinburgh, 1907)
- Edinburgh, 1329-1929 (Edinburgh, 1929])
- J. Harrison, History of the Monastery of Holy Rood and the Palace of Holyroodhouse (Edinburgh, 1919)
- J.C. Irons, Leith and its Antiquities (Edinburgh, 1897)
- South Leith Records, 1588-1700, 1700-1850 (Edinburgh, 1911, 1925)
- Thomas McGowran, Newhaven on Forth (Edinburgh, 1985)
- J. Ferguson, Linlithgow Palace (Edinburgh, 1910)
- David Dobson, Mariners of the Lothians (St Andrews, 1993)
- B. Webster, Acts of David II – King of Scots (Edinburgh, 1982)
- Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, 1538-1541 (Edinburgh, 1907)
- New Mills Cloth Manufactury, 1681-1793
- Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, 1350-1379, 1502-1507
- Scottish Burgh Surveys
- Fleming, J. Arnold, Flemish Influence in Britain, vol. 1 (Glasgow, 1930)

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The Armstrong Family and its Possible Flemish Origins

This is the second in a series of postings focusing on Scottish families that may have Flemish roots. In this posting Bob Armstrong explores the possibility of a Flemish origin for the Armstrong family. He identifies a number of apparent links between Flanders, Cumberland, Lincolnshire and Scotland that give credence to a Flemish origin for the Armstrongs. Evidence from Y-DNA analysis is also brought to bear on the issue.

Settlement in England

While there is no firm genealogical evidence linking the Armstrong family to Flanders there are some close linkages with other families that do appear to have clear Flemish roots. The most compelling can be discerned in northern England, specifically the Cumbrian region.

The earliest known record of the Armstrong surname can be found in a Cumbrian charter of the 1220s.[1] The first bearer of the epithet was named Adam and he lived in Ousby, once known as Ulvesby, near Penrith. ‘Adam Armstrang de Ulvesby’ and his kinsmen were forest officials and clerks in the county. Adam held a moiety (half share) in the village, either due to his being a blood relation of Patrick de Ulvesby, a major figure in the region, or as part of a dowry.[2]

In King Henry III’s time, William de Ulfsby (Ulvesby) and William de Percy are recorded as holding over three hundred acres of land in Torpenhow, Cumberland.[3] However research suggests that they may be the same individual. In 1196, a son of Adam de Ulvesby was recorded paying taxes in Bamburgh, Northumberland, a county where the Percies were dominant.[1] The earliest Percies were said to be of Norman stock; however the male line died out in the 12th century. The surname was adopted by Josceline de Louvain, a Fleming, when he wed Agnes, Baroness Percy.[5]

Records show that several villages that lay within three miles of Ousby had Flemish connections. Kirkland and Skirwith were both held by the Fleming family, while in 1159, Peter de Brus of Skelton, Yorkshire possessed Edenhall.[6] A branch of the Setons, thought to be Flemings, obtained holdings in neighbouring Gamblesby and Blencarn. Patrick de Ulvesby also had an interest in the latter village.[7]

Two villages that lie less than a dozen miles to the south of Ousby are also of interest because of their Flemish connection: King’s Meaburn and Mauld’s Meaburn. The twin hamlets occupied an area known anciently as Medburn. Hugh and Maud de Morville once held the villages, but Hugh’s involvement in Thomas Becket’s murder in 1170 led to him losing them. Hugh’s sister wed William de Veteripont, whose surname had Flemish origins (see below).

Mauld’s Meaburn seems to have taken its name from Maulde, Flanders which was held by Gerbod de Maulde in the 1050s. Beryl Platts, an expert on Flemings in Britain, believes that Maude Moolte was in fact Maud de Maulde, a daughter of Gerbod the Fleming, who became 1st Earl of Chester circa 1070.[8] Maulde lies five miles south of Wattripont, Flanders, the latter being the probable pre-Norman source of the Veteripont surname.

In 1203 King John granted the sheriffwick of Westmorland to Robert de Veteripont in perpetuity.[9] Flemings appear to have dominated the office of sheriff in both Cumberland and Westmorland during the 13th century. John Armestrang obtained an exemption from being made sheriff of Westmorland in 1271.[10] Alan Armestrang stepped into the breach in 1289, followed by Gilbert de Brunnelvesheved in 1290, Thomas de Hellebek in 1291, and Thomas de Hollebek in 1293.[11]

Interestingly, there is a Hellebecq located six miles west of Enghien, Flanders (Enghien/Engayne is a surname that appears frequently in 12th century Cumbrian documents). There is also a Hollebeke some dozen miles north-west of Lille, and nine miles from Bailleul. A John de Bailol (sic) was appointed Sheriff of Cumberland in 1248, while a village called Holobec (now Holbeach) is mentioned in the Domesday Book, close to Moulton, Lincolnshire (see Box 1).

The above evidence points to a concentration of people of Flemish origin in parts of northern England, with the “Armstrongs” linked closely to them.

Box 1: A Lincolnshire Connection?

As noted above the first substantive mention of the name Armstrong was found in Cumbria. However, there is some circumstantial evidence to suggest that the ancestors of the first Armstrongs had settled in Lincolnshire, perhaps as early as the 11th century, and that they were again in the company of a number of other Flemish origin families.

There was a history of Flemish movement from Lincolnshire to Cumberland during William Rufus’ reign (1087 – 1100). Professor Richard Sharpe, in his 2005 ‘Norman Rule in Cumbria’ lecture, believes that settlers from Spalding, Lincolnshire were among those sent by Rufus to colonise Carlisle (the Spalding surname is also thought to have Flemish roots).[12] Sharpe’s mention of Spalding is of interest to Armstrong researchers as it sits three miles from Moulton. Sir Thomas de Multon was a powerful Lincolnshire landowner who took his surname from the town. He became chief forester of Cumberland. The Armstrongs were employed in administering forest affairs in the county’s Inglewood Forest, so had close contact with the Multons. It is possible the Armstrongs were part of the Multons’ entourage when they departed from Lincolnshire.

A number of Flemings seem to have occupied the post of chief forester of Cumberland. Robert d’Estriviers and Randulph Engayne were two early holders. Estriviers appears to have been originally derived from Trivieres near Mons, Flanders, while the Engaynes may have originated in Enghien, fifteen miles north of Trivieres. The Morvilles, who reputedly came from near St. Omer in Flanders, held the office before it passed to the Multons.[13]

The Lincolnshire Multons’ close neighbours, Fulk and Lambert de Oiri of Whaplode, are mentioned in the Praestita Rolls as members of King John’s large Flemish contingent that campaigned in Ireland in 1210.[14] Lambert de Oiri was a parcener (joint heir) of Thomas de Multon in the Spalding area.

In the 14th century, Armstrongs inhabited Corby Glen, fifteen miles west of Spalding. A piece written in 1927 by Lincolnshire historian Arthur Abbott claimed the Armstrongs hailed from Tweeddale.[15] Lincoln was one of the few towns allowed to control the wool trade – a business traditionally dominated by Flemings. Bytham Castle, situated four miles south of Corby Glen, was held by Drogo de Beuvriere in 1086. Drogo was a Fleming, thought to have hailed from Labeauvriere, twenty miles west of Lille.[16] His surname is said to have evolved into Briwere or Brewer in later years.

The Armstrongs in Scotland

The first Armstrong recorded in Scotland is William Armstrang, in 1328 a burgess of Berwick, then part of Scotland.[17] The Armstrong surname can also be found in a 1376 document concerning one Alyxandir Armystrand of Mangerton in Roxburghshire.[18] The chronicler Froissart mentioned a knight by the name of Sir John Armstrong fighting for Douglas and the Scots at the Battle of Otterburn in 1388.[19] In 1398 Alexandir Geffry and Davy Armstrang were named as ‘borrowis’ (pledges) for the Earl of Douglas.[20]

The most eminent Armstrong recorded in Scotland during the 14th century was Gilbert, canon of Aberdeen in 1343.[21] In 1363 he was given letters of safe conduct in order to study at Oxford University.[22] He also served as Steward to King David II, and was an ambassador of some renown.[23]

Gilbert Armstrong was a provost in the diocese of St Andrews, Fife, between 1362 and 1373. The bishop of St. Andrews during that period was William de Landallis. Saint-Brice-de-Landelles, Normandy is sometimes cited as the origin of the bishop’s surname. However Landelies near Trivieres, Flanders may be an earlier candidate, particularly as several figures of authority in St Andrews were of Flemish stock.

Elsewhere, a Freskums de Landeles of Roxburgh was named in the Ragman Roll.[24] Freskin is thought to have been a Flemish Christian name: the ‘kin’ suffix reputedly first appeared in late 12th century Flanders. A Robert de Landeles witnessed the document that saw Torpenhow, Cumberland, being willed to Robert de Stuteville – land which later passed to the Ulvesby/Percy family.[25]

The Armstrongs of the 16th and 17th centuries had a less savoury reputation than that of their ancestors. The practice of reiving (plundering goods and livestock) led to the clan’s power reaching its zenith in the 1520s. Countless documents are available naming many of the most notorious Armstrong border reivers and their kin. They also, however, built numerous peel towers in Dumfriesshire and Roxburghshire, an activity that supports the notion of the Armstrongs having Flemish blood in them as the Flemings were renowned castle builders.[26]

Heraldic evidence is also suggestive of an Armstrong-Flemish link. Two of the earliest memorials erected in honour of the 16th century Armstrong lairds of Mangerton and nearby Whithaugh, Roxburghshire, feature a chevron and three fusils.[27] Later Armstrong graves bore an embowed (bent) arm, or three embowed arms. Some branches of the Leith clan, believed by Platts to be of Flemish stock, had almost identical coats of arms to the Armstrong lairds.[28] Robert Leith of Overbarns, Aberdeenshire was one such case.[29] In 1343, Gilbert Armstrong received an income from the canonry of Mortlach, fifteen miles from Overbarns.[30] Overbarns skirts the perimeter of Whitehaugh Forest. The Armstrongs of Roxburghshire occupied the similarly named Whithaugh Tower.

Platts states that the Setons were relatives and close neighbours of the Edinburgh Leiths.[31] Two Seton brothers, both Brus adherents, were executed in 1306 during the period of Anglo-Scottish strife. As a result they lost their Cumbrian holdings near Ousby for their perceived treasonous behaviour. One of the brothers was Sir Christopher de Seton, a man of great stature who is said to have wielded a sword measuring nearly five feet in length.[32] A similar weapon adorns the Armstrong lairds’ memorials at Mangerton and Whithaugh.

Port Seton, a Seton holding, lies ten miles east of Leith. Four miles south of the port stands Ormiston. Author W. A. Armstrong named ‘Black Ormiston’, a Teviotdale Armstrong, as being implicated in the murder of Darnley, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. Ormiston is thought to have sought refuge with the Armstrongs of Whithaugh following the killing.[33] Stodart’s Scottish Arms, 1370-1678 depicts one Philpe Ormestonn’s shield, which bears a striking resemblance to the Armstrong memorials.[34]

Some researchers believe that the Pennington and Mulcaster families were actually branches of the Percy family and therefore shared a common Flemish ancestor. Alicia, niece of John de Mulcaster of Cumberland, is mentioned in the Close Rolls of 1304.[35] She was the widow of Thomas de Soules, a member of the infamous Soules family who were Lords of Liddesdale until the 1320s.[36] Sir Robert de Brus held the lordship in 1332, followed by Sir Archibald Douglas in 1333. Liddesdale became the main Armstrong power-base in the 14th century and endured as such well into the 16th century.

The Multon family, once of Lincolnshire, held Egremont, Cumberland in the 13th century. Platts states that Egremont was named for the lords of Aigremont who were peers of Lille.[37] Platts describes a seal, belonging to the 1237 castellan of Lille, as showing ‘a shield vair, embellished in his case by a dexter arm’.[38] A key question here is whether this could be the source of the Armstrongs’ embowed arm emblem.

Box 2: DNA Analysis

DNA research appears to support some of the theories discussed above, although far more testing is required before any definitive claims can be made.
Armstrong mainstream Y-DNA falls under the large R1b haplogroup that encompasses much of Western Europe. In recent years, the Armstrongs were designated as R-P312**.

In 2013 Professor Jim Wilson, founder of BritainsDNA, discovered a new SNP (these form part of the male Y-DNA signature) called S389 that was relevant to the Armstrongs. The Armstrong mainstream was categorised as having its origins from among the Beaker Folk (c.2800-1800 BC). One of the areas that the Beaker Folk inhabited was Flanders.

Some other testees who also fall under the R-P312** umbrella include Gordon, Desharnais, Crosby, Clayborne and Kirkpatrick. The latter three are of interest as their names reflect locations in Cumbria and Dumfriesshire, close to areas heavily populated by Armstrongs during various periods in history. The Desharnais testee has 17th century links to a village on the outskirts of Lille.

A Ross testee matches some of the Armstrong mainstream Y-DNA group at a level that suggests a 99% likelihood of a shared common ancestor in the 1200s. It’s possible the Ross testee is a descendant of Piers de Ros (born c.1082), who once inhabited Drogo de Beuvriere’s Holderness stronghold.

Piers’ descendants had numerous links to the Percy, d’Albini, Stuteville, and Brus dynasties, whose activities impacted on the lives of the first Armstrongs. It may be that a descendant of Piers de Ros gained the epithet ‘Arm Strong’: the family were ardent jousters, so a nickname reflecting strength might be expected. Robert de Ros and Nicholas de Stuteville were among the Flemish knights named in the 1210 Prestita Roll.

In summary, many of the surnames explored above, found in Cumberland in the 12th and 13th centuries, mirrored place names found within twenty miles of Lille, Flanders. Strong links existed between the Flemish families in Lincolnshire, Cumberland and Scotland, with marital bonds (the Flemish law of nobilitas) protecting their shared heritage. While it cannot be conclusively proven at present that the Armstrongs had a Flemish progenitor, there is good circumstantial evidence to support this theory.

Bob Armstrong
September 2014

Bob Armstrong has been a co-administrator of FTDNA’s Armstrong Surname Group for the last seven years. His interest in genealogy began nearly forty years ago and he regularly writes research articles for the Armstrong Clan Association magazine.


[1] J. E. Prescott, The Register of the Priory of Wetherhal, charter nos. 183, 186, pp. 292-295.
[2] W. G. and R. G. Collingwood (eds), Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, N.S. 22, p. 46.
[3] William Hutchinson, The History of Cumberland and Some Places Adjacent, vol. 2 (1794), p. 353.
[4] Magnus Rotulus Pipe, Anno 1196, Ric. I, Burg of Baenburc.
[5] G. A. Brenan, History of the House of Percy, vol 1, p. 14.
[6] W. Farrer (ed.), Early Yorkshire Charters, vol. 2 (1915), p. 13.
[7] W. G. and R. G. Collinwood (eds.), Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, vol. 22, p. 66.
[8] Beryl Platts, Scottish Hazard, vol. 2 (1985), p. 134.
[9] Calendar of Patent Rolls 4, John.
[10] Calendar of Patent Rolls, Henry III, vol. 6, 25th March 1271.
[11] List of Sheriffs of Carlisle, Cumberland and Westmorland. Photocopied at the Public Record Office, Kew.
[12] Richard Sharpe, ‘Norman Rule in Cumbria, 1092-1136′. Lecture delivered to Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society on 9th April 2005.
[13] Beryl Platts, Scottish Hazard, vol. 2 (London, 1990), p. 109.
[14] Rotuli de Liberate Praestitis, King John, p. 225.
[15] Rev. Arthur Abbott, History of the Parishes of Irnham and Corby (1927), p. 93.
[16] Johan Verberckmoes, Flemish Tenants-in-Chief in Domesday England (1988), p. 727.
[17] Calendar of Inquisitions Micellaneous (Chancery), vol. 2, no. 1671, p. 411.
[18] Registrum Honoris de Morton, vol. 1, app no. 17, ‘Extentus Terrarum Vallis de Lydell, c1376′.
[19] Jean Froissart, Chronicles of England, France and Spain and adjoining Countries, book 3, chapter 124.
[20] Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland, Ric. II, Nov 6 1398, p. 512.
[21] Calendar of Entries Papal Registers: Papal Letters, vol. 3, 1342-1362, p. 79.
[22] Rotuli Scotiae, vol. 1, 877a-878b.
[23] Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, vol. 2, 1359-1379, pp. i-li.
[24] J. Bain (ed.), Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland, vol. 2, p. 200.
[25] W. Farrer and C.T. Clay, Early Yorkshire Charters, vol. 9 (1952), p. 125.
[26] Lise Hull, Britain’s Medieval Castles (2006), pp. 13, 19.
[27] R. R. Stodart, Scottish Arms, 1370-1678, vol. 2 (1881), p. 254.
[28] Beryl Platts, Scottish Hazard, vol. 1 (1985), p. 166.
[29] Alexander Nisbet, A System of Heraldry, vol. 1 (1816), p. 213.
[30] Calendar of Entries Papal Registers: Papal Letters, vol. 3, 1342-1362, p. 79.
[31] Beryl Platts, Scottish Hazard, vol. 1 (1985), pp. 172-4.
[32] George Seton, A History of the Family of Seton, vol. 2 (1896), p. 615.
[33] William A. Armstrong, The Armstrong Borderland (1986), p. 126.
[34] R. R. Stodart, Scottish Arms, 1370-1678, vol. 1 (1881), p. 21.
[35] Calendar of Close Rolls, 32 Edw. I.
[36] Thomas Cockburn-Hood, The House of Cockburn of That Ilk (1888), pp. 165-6.
[37] Beryl Platts, Scottish Hazard, vol. 1 (1985), p. 150.
[38] Ibid., p. 164.

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The blog series on Scotland and the Flemish People resumes today and postings will take place every Friday. Over the coming weeks we will be including, from time to time, postings relating to Scottish families that may have Flemish roots. The goal is to provide an opportunity for such families, or their researchers, to set out evidence – be it historical, genealogical, or genetic – bearing on their Flemish origins. If you would like to share your family research, highlighting evidence linking it back to Flanders, please contact Alex Fleming at the following EM address:

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Dowie: A Scottish Surname with Flemish Roots?

Tracing any modern Scottish family line directly back to late medieval Flanders is not easy. Fortunately, the adoption of a place name to reflect the bearer’s place of origin was common practice at that time. So whilst the surname Fleming points to the bearer or his forebears coming from the geographical region called Flanders, it is to the cities, towns and villages of Flanders that we can look for connections that root a family to a specific locality. In this posting Gary Dowie summarises research into his own family that he is able to trace back to medieval Flanders.


The vast majority of present day Dowie families appear to hail from just one extended family. This family was living in Fife, Kinross-shire and Perth from at least the early fifteenth century. Their likely ancestor was Andrew Dowy, a merchant of Perth who was alive in 1441. This finding takes the records for the surname back some 172 years earlier than the earliest reference cited by George F. Black.[1] Like numbers of other Scottish families the Dowies can now be found in many corners of the world. At issue here, and the subject of much research underlying this posting, is whether the family had originally come from Flanders.

The Flemish Connection

In 1441 Andrew Dowy appears in the records of the High Court of Holland pleading, alongside his fellow merchants from Perth, for compensation after their ship had run aground in the Meuse Estuary.[2] This reference provides the first clear evidence of a link between the Dowie family and the Low Countries. Andrew’s presence in Holland as a merchant from Perth is noteworthy, as the town of Douai in Flanders is one of the two most cited sources for the surname.[3] Douai, which is pronounced as ‘Dou-ay’ or ‘Dow-ay’ in English, lay within the County of Flanders until it was ceded to France in 1668 and now lies in the Nord Departement of the north-eastern tip of modern day France.

The Low Countries, including Flanders, was the economic power house of northern Europe during the Middle Ages and their merchants travelled far and wide to turn a profit. Flanders was famous for its cloth production and Douai was no exception.

As a merchant, Andrew Dowy was amongst the higher echelons of Perth’s small community. The burgesses and merchants ran the burgh by controlling its trade: setting commodity standards along with their prices and extracting tolls for the Crown. It is well documented that Scotland’s burghs were largely populated by immigrants from England, Flanders, France and Germany. Some burghs were renowned more than others for their particularly high concentrations of Flemings, namely Aberdeen, Berwick-upon-Tweed and Perth.[4] Perhaps it is not surprising therefore to find evidence that Flemish merchants from Douai traded and settled in Scotland from an early date.

Continental wool merchants buying sheep. Museum of the National Bank of Belgium (NBB).

Continental wool merchants buying sheep. Museum of the National Bank of Belgium (NBB).

The first recorded Douaisien merchant is William de Doway. He owned property in Berwick-upon-Tweed and was prevented from travelling to Scotland by Henry III, King of England in 1244.[5] This seems to be the result of a stand-off between Henry III and Alexander II, the Scottish King, over a (false) rumour of an anti-English alliance with the French King, Louis IX.

Further records list a John de Dowaco, (of Douai or Douay) a merchant in the employ of John de Soules, the sheriff of Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1291.[6] Also, Henry of Doway, was a juror of Berwick in 1334,[7] and a William de Ways (Deways?), a knight, was at Dunbar in 1342.[8] Just a few miles down the coast there was a wool merchant named William Dewe trading in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1373, perhaps a relative of the William de Doway noted in 1244.

If we are looking for evidence of Flemish merchants from Douai trading and settling in Scotland, these men provide it. For their respective toponymic surnames to then develop into the hereditary family name Dowie, at least one of them would need to have left his own male progeny to follow him. From their number it would not be unreasonable to assume that this happened.

A Move from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Perth

From 1296, the Scottish Wars of independence engulfed the extremely important border town of Berwick-upon–Tweed in a violent tug of war between England and Scotland. Both states fought for control of this strategic fortress, its lucrative trade and its tax revenues. If the English could not wrest possession from the Scots, their aim was to destroy Scotland’s pre-eminent trading port with Europe. The devastation wrought, combined with outbreaks of plague, led to depopulation and reduced the town to near ruin. Under these circumstances, it would be quite understandable for many of the town’s merchants to seek safer havens such as Perth, just 80 miles north-west by sea.

Although no hard evidence exists of a connection between these Berwick-upon-Tweed based merchant-burgesses and the Perth merchant Andrew Dowy, their dates and locations are so close that it is a possibility.

Map showing Douaisien trade and migration to Perth. © G.Dowie.

Map showing Douaisien trade and migration to Perth. © G.Dowie.

English Douaisiens

The Douaisiens in Scotland were not unique. There were many people named ‘de Douai’ who lived and settled in England from the late twelfth through to the late fifteenth century. It is quite possible that one of these Flemish Douaisiens or their English born offspring could have migrated north to Berwick-upon-Tweed or even directly to Perth during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This was especially the case in York and the East Riding of Yorkshire, where their surname was often recorded as Doway. One early family is found in Barmston in Holderness which may have had links to the Douaisiens in Newcastle and Berwick (see the map above).

The process of first settling in England before moving up to Scotland can be seen time and again in the history of immigrant Anglo-Norman families arriving from Europe around this period. This has been very well documented by Ritchie, Barrow, Platt and Blakely.[9] Whilst these findings cannot provide a conclusive documented family tree detailing descent from father to son over many generations, it would be surprising if such a move had not happened.


The research underlying this blog posting suggests a connection between the modern Dowie family and the early Douaisiens. The Dowie family’s close association with the famous Mercer family of Perth could also be of significance as the latter had ties to the Douglas and Murray families (both of known Flemish origin). These are both families that claim they came from either Flanders or the Low Countries.[10]

The fact that Andrew Dowy had acquired a surname before 1441 suggests that it had been used by more than one previous generation of his family. This would take formation of the surname back to at least the middle of the fourteenth century – a time that is generally considered to predate the Gaelic community’s adoption of stable hereditary surnames. More importantly, with Douaisiens and their English- or Scottish-born descendants well-established at Berwick-upon-Tweed and elsewhere in England, the hereditary surname Doway was already in use.

Based purely on geography, the Gaelic route often cited in surname dictionaries as the source of the surname Dowie makes sense.[11] But significantly the research summarised here does not appear to support this and somewhat surprisingly reveals that what at first appears to be a very Scottish surname may in fact be Flemish in origin.

In the absence of finding any more conclusive written evidence to support either the Gaelic or Douaisien source, DNA research may one day provide a definitive answer as to the origin of the Dowie family, be it Flemish, Gaelic or something entirely different.

Gary Dowie
September 2014

Gary Dowie is a practising Chartered Landscape Architect who has worked extensively on historical restoration projects (some with financing from the Heritage Lottery Fund). He is a member of the Scottish Genealogy, Fife Family History, Scottish History, and Scottish Place-Name Societies. His genealogical research and one-name study of the Dowie family has absorbed him for many years.

This is a short abstract from an article with the same title first published in:
The Scottish Genealogist, Vol. LXI No.2, June 2014.
Available from:


[1] G. F. Black, The Surnames of Scotland: their origin, meaning, and history (New York: The New York Public Library, 1946).
[2] R. W. G. Lomarts, Memorialen van het Hof (den Raad) van Holland, Zeeland en West-Friesland, van den secretaris Jan Rosa (Leiden: Rechtshistorisch Instituut, 1882), p. 85.
[3] Reaney, The Origins of English Surnames (Fifth impression ed.) (London: Routledge, 1979); Kegan Paul & Wilson, A Dictionary of English Surnames (3rd rev. edition) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).
[4] Chalmers, Caledonia: or, a Historical and topographical account of North Britain… (New edition ed., Vol. II) (Paisley: Alexander Gardner, 1887), vol II.; G. F. Black, The Surnames of Scotland; Reid, ‘Trade, Traders and Scottish Independence’, Speculum vol. 29 (1954).
[5] Bain (ed.), Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland, vol. I. 1108-1272, (1881), p. 298; Innes (ed.), Registrum de Dunfermelyn (1842), p. 72, no. 120; Stevenson, ‘Trade with the South, 1070-1513′, in The Scottish Medieval Town (ed. Lynch, Spearman and Stell) (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1988), pp. 101, 104.
[6] Bain (ed.), Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland, vol. II. 1272-1307 (1884), p. 131.
[7] Ibid, vol.III. 1307-1357 (1887), pp. 202-203.
[8] Innes (ed.), Liber Sancte Marie de Melros (1837), vol II, p. 396
[9] Ritchie, The Normans in Scotland (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1954); Barrow, The Anglo-Norman Era in Scottish History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980); Platts, Scottish Hazard, 2 vols. (London: Procter Press, 1985-90); Blakely, The Brus Family in England and Scotland 1100-1295 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2005).
[10] Mercer, The Mercer Chronicle (London: For Private Circulation, 1866); Anderson, The Scottish Nation, vol. III. (Edinburgh and London: A. Fullerton & Co., 1863).
[11] Hanks, The Oxford Names Companion (First ed.) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). Bibliography, p. 183. Suggests the surname Dowie is a variant of the surname Duffy (or Duffie) – the Anglicised form of the Irish Gaelic Ó Dubhthaigh, meaning ‘descendant of Dubhthach’.

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Scotland and the Flemish People Project Workshop – 5 June 2014

On 5 June 2014, the Scotland and the Flemish People Project held a workshop at the New Arts Building of the University of St. Andrews. Attending the event were experts in varying aspects of Scottish, Flemish and Low Countries history, as well as genealogy and genetic genealogy. The workshop was made up of four informal panels led by Jan Dumolyn (Ghent), Alex Fleming, David Ditchburn (Trinity College Dublin), and Graeme Small (Durham). Each panel comprised a presentation and discussion on a specific topic related to the relationship between Scotland and Flanders.

Panel 1: Jan Dumolyn (University of Ghent) led the first panel session on ‘Flemish Settlement in Medieval Scotland.’ His presentation and the resulting discussion primarily focused on the push and pull factors for Flemish migration to Scotland. Jan began by stressing the importance of medieval Flanders, particularly its economic dominance in Northern Europe. He then argued for the influence of a demographic boom as a push factor for Flemings to move to Scotland. Between 1050 and 1350 the population of Flanders tripled to some 800,000 people. The available resources in the region were overwhelmed by such a population growth which prompted the movement of peoples to neighbouring regions. The professional skills of these Flemings were important as a pull factor for their migration to Scotland. Jan suggested that Flemings chose Scotland for its need of highly skilled professionals, particularly weavers, fullers, and shearers, and its small population size. Jan also argued that in the 16th and 17th centuries socio-economic push and pull factors were primarily responsible for the migration of Flemings to Scotland, rather than religious persecution. The issue of religious persecution as a push factor was the subject of much discussion. Silke Muylaert (Kent) supported the view that the numbers of Flemings who fled to England because of persecution was relatively small. The discussion also highlighted the need to define clearly the borders of Flanders as these had changed over the course of six centuries. It was also agreed that an analysis of Scottish toponyms would be helpful going forward.

Panel 2: Alex Fleming, a part sponsor of and researcher in the Scotland and the Flemish People project, gave the group an introduction to the work that he and others had been doing on ‘Tracing the Flemings in Scotland.’ This involved liaising with many local and family history specialists throughout Scotland (with the assistance of John Irvine). Among those who contributed to the work was Charles Rigg, who has undertaken noteworthy research into twelfth century Flemish immigrants to Upper Clydesdale. Similarly George English has made an important contribution on the issue of religious emigration from Flanders.

F. Lawrence Fleming spoke about his research on the genealogy of those with the surname Fleming. His work was inspired by the discovery of an eleventh century man named ‘de Flamande’, believed to have been a Fleming in the train of William the Conqueror and the person from which those with the present day surname ‘Fleming’ largely descend. However Jan Dumolyn argued that this is quite unlikely due to the lack of written sources, and warned against ‘argumentum ex silentio’: basing conclusions upon the absence of evidence demonstrating another explanation.

The discussion moved onto an assessment of Beryl Platts’ controversial work on Flemish origin families using heraldic evidence. Suspicion of this methodology was fairly widespread among the group. It was pointed out by Alexander Stevenson that Platts had applied the evidence to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, before heraldry had properly matured, and Michael Brown argued that heraldic relationships could be formed through landholding rather than through families, e.g. the Lindsays and the Stewarts, their overlords, used the same heraldic symbols.

On the question of immigration patterns David Dobson described how, between 1500 and 1700, a small number of Flemish immigrants in Scotland had come as two-stage migrants from cities such as Norwich and London. A correlation may be found between the names of Flemings in Edinburgh and Leith, for example, and these southern cities, using documentary evidence such as church records.

Another way of identifying the Flemish footprint in Scotland is through an examination of place names. Alex Woolf highlighted the work of his former PhD student Peadar Morgan, who compiled a database of ethnonym Scottish place names.[[1]]

Another topic of discussion was military history, which can also shed light on the Flemish footprint – mottes are believed to have been constructed by Flemings in Clydesdale, for instance. The Flemish may also have left their mark on agriculture. Flemish expertise may have been sought by lords looking to improve the cultivation of their land.

Alasdair MacDonald, who is working with Alex Fleming to trace Flemish families in Scotland, explained how DNA analysis can potentially be used to validate an origin. A DNA project is now well underway, hosted by the Family Tree DNA company. It is hoped that DNA testing can in due course confirm the Flemish origins of Scottish families, such as Murray, Sutherland, Lindsay and Douglas, where question marks exist at present.[[2]]

Alasdair cautioned against a populist approach to such analysis and instead stressed the need for academic rigour.

Our participants getting involved.

Our participants getting involved.

Panel 3: David Ditchburn (Trinity College Dublin) led the third panel titled ‘Trade Links and Commercial Exchange.’ He began by exploring the close business connections between the Scots and Bruges in the medieval period. David stressed the point that while Scottish historiography treats it as such, Flanders and the Low Countries are not synonymous. The overlapping jurisdictions of the Low Countries had an important impact upon relations between Scotland and Flanders. Similarly, the economics of trade were vital within the political machinations of Scotland, Flanders, England, and France in the medieval period. David highlighted the problems involved in using the customs records (Exchequer Rolls of Scotland) for reconstructing the history of Scotland’s economy. Another important topic covered in David’s presentation was the movement of Scotland’s staple between Bruges, Middelburg, and, finally, Veere in the sixteenth century. He argued that the movement of the staple was an effort to gain further trade privileges for Scottish merchants. There was a broad ranging discussion on commercial exchange with particular emphasis placed on the community of Scots in the Low Countries.

Panel 4: The final session of the day, ‘Diplomacy and Cultural Exchange, was led by Professor Graeme Small. He is an expert on the politics and culture of the Burgundian Netherlands, of which Flanders was a part.[[3]]

Graeme raised several broad cultural issues for discussion. He speculated on whether the exchange between Scotland and Burgundy in the later middle ages was essentially one way. Specifically he believed that Scotland was pulled more and more into mainstream European culture through diplomatic and cultural links with Burgundy.[[4]]

These links were enabled and made manifest by ‘conductors’ or ‘brokers’ between the two states, a notable example being Anselm Adornes, a Burgundian diplomat and counsellor of James III of Scotland.

Of particular note was the example of Mary of Guelders, niece of Philip the Good of Burgundy and queen to James II. At issue is whether, when Mary was physically transferred to Scotland, she also brought her new home more deeply into the cultural orbit of the Burgundian dukes. Graeme suggested that the establishment of Mary’s household under the Scot David Lindsay rather than under a Burgundian was symptomatic of the lack of cultural influence she exerted. However, architectural historian Richard Fawcett discussed her patronage of the Trinity College Kirk (no longer extant), as well as the remodelled presbytery of St Giles Cathedral, both in Edinburgh. Furthermore, Richard argued that the architecture of Trinity College was an example of Burgundian style with a Scottish accent: a visual representation of the cultural fusion stimulated by Mary of Guelders. The architectural theme continued with an examination of how continental styles were generally influential in late medieval and early modern Scotland. For example Stirling Castle has connections with the ducal palace of Nancy, and the telescopic form of the parish church of Dundee bears a resemblance to Low Countries structures such as Utrecht Cathedral.

This raised the question of just how influential Flemish and, more generally, Burgundian culture really was in Scotland. Many of the objects bought in and imported from the staple at Bruges were not necessarily made there, as illustrated by the movement of Robert Bruce’s Parisian tombstone through Flanders before being shipped to Scotland. Graeme stressed the need to think more broadly when considering potential cultural links, to include such institutional routes as universities, for example Leuven, which attracted several notable Scots. Furthermore, Scots were also subject to alternative cultural influences: for example David II and James I both spent formative periods at the English court.

Despite this, it is clear that Bruges exerted a powerful commercial influence as an entrepôt at which Scotland’s elites, without a developed industrial base of their own, sought the best quality luxuries available. Sources such as the ledger of Andrew Halyburton, a Scottish merchant based in the Low Countries, detail the various imports of Scottish clients. Graeme concluded by suggesting that historians need to look to the mercantile classes, and to trade, to get a fuller picture of the long-term and enduring connections between Scotland and Flanders.

Concluding Discussion: After an interesting day of lively discussion and debate, involving experts on fields as varied as social, economic, and cultural history, genealogy, art, and architecture, the workshop drew to a close with concluding remarks led by Professor Roger Mason. While many aspects of the Flemish influence in medieval and early modern Scotland had been discussed, it was agreed that place name and archaeological evidence will also be necessary in order to create a comprehensive study, with trade and commerce holding everything together. It is hoped that a more open conference will be held in late 2015 or early 2016, accompanied by a published volume of essays. Alex Fleming also requested that workshop participants be receptive to contributing to the blog series over the coming year (the blog will resume in September).

The Scotland and Flemish People Project would like to thank all of those who participated in making the workshop a success.

Post-workshop dinner at Zizzi.

Post-workshop dinner at Zizzi.

Amy Eberlin & Morvern French
20 June 2014

[1] See
[2] Further information is available at
[3] See Graeme Small, ‘The Scottish Court in the Fifteenth Century: A View from Burgundy’, in Werner Paravicini (ed.), La Cour de Bourgogne et l’Europe: Le Rayonnement et les Limites d’un Modèle Culturel (2013).
[4] See Alasdair MacDonald, ‘Chivalry as a Catalyst of Cultural Change in Late Medieval Scotland’, in Rudolf Suntrup and Jan R. Veenstra (eds.), Tradition and Innovation in an Era of Change (2001).

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The Flemings of Cumbernauld Castle

Cumbernauld Castle, the home of an important medieval Fleming family, occupied a strategic position in the centre of Scotland. In its day the castle was probably one of the largest in Scotland. Today not much can be seen of its remains but it is hoped that shortly to be commissioned archaeological research will shed light on the size and structure of the castle. This blog posting, mainly the work of Adam Smith, looks at the history of the castle and the Flemings that occupied it.

The castle and other structures

Cumbernauld castle, built by a Fleming family in the 14th century, would have been one of the largest castles in Scotland in its day, covering some 9 acres of land (see mock up below of how the castle may have looked). Likely the castle would have initially comprised a strong stone tower in the form of an L-Plan (a rectangular block with a wing projecting at the end of one of the long sides) with timber or stone outhouses attached. Today not much of it remains apart from a small section of its original wall.

Sketch of Cumbernauld Castle c. 1550 (

Sketch of Cumbernauld Castle c. 1550 (

Some of the stone from the castle was used to build Cumbernauld House (see photo below), a country house that was constructed in 1731 for John Fleming, the 6th Earl of Wigtown. The house sits on the former grounds of the castle and is a category A listed building. During the 20th century it went through a range of uses, including office space for the now defunct Cumbernauld Development Corporation. The house has recently been restored and developed into flats under strict regulations set by the current council.

Entrance of Cumbernauld House (Robert McAllen,

Entrance of Cumbernauld House (Robert McAllen,

Another interesting feature of the area around the castle was a motte and bailey castle that was constructed by the Comyn family. Today only the motte remains and this is shown in the photo below. The Cumbernauld area was originally part of the Comyn’s barony of Kirkintilloch.

Cumbernauld Motte (Texas Radio and Big Beat; No Were Made From The Original;

Cumbernauld Motte (Texas Radio and Big Beat; No Were Made From The Original;

The Fleming family and the castle

The Comyns, were one of the most powerful families in Scotland and the chief supporter of Edward I of England in Scotland during the early stages of the Wars of Independence. Robert the Bruce met John Comyn, head of the family, at Greyfrairs Kirk in Dumfries in 1306. The two argued and Bruce stabbed and killed Comyn. Robert Fleming was one of two companions to Bruce that day, and a staunch supporter of him. To provide proof that Comyn was dead Fleming cut off his head in order to “let the deed shaw”, a Fleming family motto ever since.

Robert Fleming came from the Fleming family of Biggar (the subject of a blog posting on March 24, 2014), a well-established family. Robert was the son of the Lord of Biggar. Robert died prior to Bannockburn but a grateful Bruce knighted his son, Malcolm. Malcolm was also granted the barony of Kirkintilloch and a significant amount of former Comyn land.

Sir Malcolm Fleming came under threat, after Bruce died in 1329, from Edward Balliol and Scottish lords of the Comyn faction (with the support of English king Edward III). This threat intensified following the battle of Halidon Hill in 1333 and an English invasion. But Sir Malcolm survived and his son, also a Sir Malcolm, subsequently inherited the barony. Around 1371 he turned his attention to a consolidation of the barony and centering its activities towards the more strategic Cumbernauld and away from Kirkintilloch. As a result Cumbernauld castle was built.

The castle played host to a number of royal visitors over the years, including Mary Queen of Scots. It was during her visit on 26 January 1562 that the Great Hall of the castle collapsed (while the Queen and her entourage were out hunting). 7 or 8 men were killed. The Queen visited the families of the men killed or injured in the accident. The Fleming link with Mary was very close because one of her four close companions (the four Maries) was the daughter of Lord Fleming, a descendant of Sir. Malcolm.

Early in the 17th century, following the accession of James VI as James I of England the King acknowledged the services that the Flemings had rendered to himself and family. In 1606 the Earldom of Wigton was bestowed upon John, the 6th Lord Fleming.

The end of the Cumbernauld Castle came at the hands of Oliver Cromwell’s troops some time after 1650. It was one of the fortresses in Scotland that “Cromwell knocked about a bit”.

Excavations of the castle and plans for a new archaeology project

During the period 1963-4 an excavation was carried out by the Cumbernauld History Society on Cumbernauld Castle revealing the remains of a prison and cellar, a 15th century rubbish chute and a 17th century wellhouse. When the excavation was completed it was filled in again. In 1981-2 Cumbernauld and Kilsyth District Museums excavated another part of the castle. They discovered a cobbled courtyard, the base of a circular building and part of the wall.

It is hoped that the Friends of Cumbernauld House Park will soon commission a Community Archaeology Project to investigate the belief that Cumbernauld Castle was once one of the largest in Scotland. With the previous excavations having been completed in an era when the only mode of archaeological investigation was to dig, this project will utilise modern technology, for the first time presenting a complete picture of the Castle remains which lie hidden beneath Cumbernauld House Park. This investigation, and the resulting excavations, will not permanently uncover a new historic structure, but will serve a much greater community education purpose, enabling countless people from all over the world to learn of the history of Cumbernauld Castle and a glimpse into the life of its former Fleming residents.

Adam Smith and Alex Fleming

Adam Smith is Chair of the Friends of Cumbernauld House Park and the Chair of Cumbernauld Community Development Trust.



Millar, Hugo B. The History of Cumbernauld and Kilsyth from Earliest Times. Cumbernauld Historical Society, 1980

Cumbernauld Castle – Wikipedia

North Lanarkshire Council Archives

Cumbernauld Museum

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