Dowie: A Scottish Surname with Flemish Roots?

Morvern French
Friday 12 September 2014

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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