A Highland fling with the Dukes of Gordon

If you visit the northeast corner of Scotland, Aberdeenshire or the Moray Coast, you cannot help but bump into castles built or towns founded by some member of Clan Gordon. Today they are represented in the Scottish peerage by the marquesses of Huntly and of Aberdeen, but in the 18th century the clan was led by the dukes of Gordon, who, in the person of the famous 4th Duchess, were amongst the great political leaders of that very aristocratic century. As a hostess for the Tory party, she rivalled the Duchess of Devonshire—made famous in a recent film starring Keira Knightly—hostess for the Whigs. But there were only five dukes of Gordon, and after 1836, their titles merged with another great ducal family, the Lennoxes of Richmond, who, although primarily based at Goodwood in Sussex, also had Scottish roots, as their surname suggests. The Gordon properties are primarily represented by Huntly Castle, one of the major fortifications of the Highlands. At their height, the Gordons of Huntly were virtual kings of the North, a continual barrier to the unification of the Scottish Kingdom under the Stewarts in the 16th century.

George, 5th Duke of Gordon

The Gordons were not originally from the Highlands. The first to bear the surname appears in the 1150s, as lord of Gordon in the Merse, the low-lying part of Berwickshire in the borderlands between Scotland and England. It’s conjectured that he was a member of the Swinton family, one of the oldest noble families in all of Britain, with Anglo-Saxon roots in the Kingdom of Northumbria. Both families still have a similar coat of arms, with three boars heads. The village of Gordon (possibly from the Brittonic ‘great fort’) is still to be found in the Borders, not far from Kelso. They built a fortification nearby called Huntly. They were therefore a lowland family for the first two centuries, and became chief supporters of the medieval Scottish monarchy: Adam de Gordon was sent by King Alexander III to accompany King Louis IX as his representative in the 8th Crusade. His grandson Adam was a supporter of the cause of Robert the Bruce and appointed his ambassador to Avignon, charged with the delivery of the famous Declaration of Arbroath (1320) to the Pope, proclaiming Scotland’s independence, and subsequently killed defending this independence at Halidon Hill, 1333.

Soon after, in 1352, the Gordons were granted lands much further north, in the interior of Aberdeenshire, in the valley (or ‘strath’) of the river Bogie. This was a strategic territory connecting the southern parts of the Kingdom with the northern coast of Moray and beyond. A castle had been built at Strathbogie by the earl of Fife, around 1180. The lands were confiscated in the 1330s as its laird supported the rival to Bruce, John Bailliol. Eventually, the Gordons would become the dominant family of the northeast, and renamed Strathbogie castle Huntly in the early 16th century, after their original fortress down south.

Huntly Castle as it stands today

The family who developed Huntly Castle and who eventually became dukes were not in fact (strictly speaking in genealogical terms) Gordons. The next to last lord of Gordon, another Adam, was both baron of Huntly (Strathbogie) in the north, and baron of Gordon in the south, and Warden of the Eastern March (the lands around Berwick). He was killed in an invasion of England in 1402, and his son (also Adam) died a few years later in 1408, leaving a sister, Elizabeth, who was soon married to Alexander Seton. They had two sons: Alexander, who took the name Gordon and became the first earl of Huntly in 1449 (but retained the Seton crescent moons in his coat-of-arms); and William, who kept his father’s surname and founded another line of the Setons who eventually held the earldoms of Winton, Dunfermline and Eglinton.

the arms of the marquesses of Huntly, with quarters for Gordon, the lordship of Badenoch, Seton, and Fraser for the lordship of Aboyne

The Setons were an East Lothian noble house—supposedly descended from the counts of Boulogne, relatives of kings of Jerusalem, dukes of Normandy and counts of Flanders, established in Scotland in the early 12th century. Those who love Scottish history probably recall ‘Mary Seton’ as one of the four Marys who were the dependable companions of Mary, Queen of Scots. They held one of the oldest baronies in Scotland (1371). This is not their story. But it does give an interesting origin story in strict patrilineal descent to the later Gordons. Some lines of the original Gordon family did continue, notably the lairds of Kenmure (in Kirkcudbrightshire), who became viscounts in 1633 (for one of the pioneers of the settlement of Nova Scotia in Canada), and died out in 1847; and the lairds of Haddo (Aberdeenshire), an illegitimate line, who became earls of Aberdeen in 1682 (for Charles II’s Lord Chancellor for Scotland). These later rose to greater prominence in the 19th century, when the 4th Earl served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1852-55); his grandson was Governor-General of Canada (1893-98), then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1905-15), and upon his retirement, was raised a notch to be Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair. As an interesting aside, the 2017 marriage of the 7th Marquess’s daughter, Anna Gordon to Sarah McChesney, is cited as the first lesbian marriage for the British aristocracy. Her brother is now the 8th Marquess and his heir is called the Earl of Haddo. Their seat is Haddo House, a Georgian Palladian mansion just north of the city of Aberdeen.

Haddo House

The formerly Seton, now Gordon, first earl of Huntly built up his territories in the Northeast with the acquisition of the lordship of Badenoch—a quite remote territory at the headwaters of the river Spey; the lordship of Cluny, west of Aberdeen; and the lordship of Aboyne, a bit further west in the Dee valley. Alexander Gordon was a strong ally of the Crown in its efforts to suppress the over-mighty Clan Douglas in the 1450s. The Earl’s heroics in helping to defeat them earned him the nickname ‘Cock o’ the North’, a nickname which has ever since been applied to every succeeding head of the clan (and is the name of Clan Gordon’s piping tune still today). When he died in 1470, he was buried in princely style in Elgin Cathedral, on the north coast, which would remain the family burial spot, even long after the building ceased to be a cathedral, its roof removed, and its central tower collapsed.

the tomb of the 1st Earl of Huntly, Elgin Cathedral
Elgin Cathedral ruins today. The Gordon Chapel is in the closest corner at this angle, with tombs all the way up to the last dukes

Another interesting sideline of the Gordon family at about this point in their history was the takeover (in genealogical terms) of the House of Sutherland by the House of Gordon, in 1514. The earldom of Sutherland is the oldest in Scotland (1230)—this family also claimed to be originally from Flanders, and established themselves as the main power in the far north (Caithness and Sutherland—the most ironically named place in Britain). The Gordon-Sutherland line eventually passed to the House of Leveson-Gower, who became dukes of Sutherland in the 19th century, with their fantastical castle at Dunrobin, so their story will be told in a separate blog post.

By the mid-16th century, the Gordons were one of the chief allies of the Crown in the North. Their local rivalries were exacerbated by the Reformation, as they remained Catholic, and the Forbes family, with whom they already had a long-running clan feud, adopted the new Reformed faith. This story already has Game of Thrones overtones with the Earl of Huntly as ‘Cock o’ the North’, but there would be further echoes with the famous ‘red wedding’ type scenario at the Forbes’ Druminnor Castle (not far from Huntly) in 1571, during which 20 Gordons were killed. This was followed by an open battle in which 27 Forbeses were slaughtered at Corgarff Castle.

a wonderful ancient recording (1906!) of the Gordon piping tune, ‘Cock o’ the North’

Huntly Castle was increasingly enlarged as the family took on more ‘princely’ airs, but this led to conflict, first with their former ally (as staunch Catholics), Mary Queen of Scots in the 1560s, and then with her Protestant son (still being fervent Catholics) James VI in the 1590s. Yet, they continued to rebuild, and George Gordon, 1st Marquess of Huntly, turned the castle into a genuine fortified palace, with extra wings for visitors and servants, and proclaimed his new status boldly with huge lettering across the front of the building.

the bold lettering at Huntly Castle

The 1st Marquess had initially been a great favourite of James VI and married one of his cousins, Henrietta Stuart of Lennox. He had tentatively adopted the new Presbyterian faith of his king, but ultimately his family motto, Bydand (‘biding’ or ‘steadfast’) seems to have pulled him back to his loyalty to the Catholic Church. After a short rebellion, 1593-94, his friendship with the King was nevertheless restored, he was named Royal Lieutenant of the North, and raised to his marquessate in 1599. He and his wife would remain devoted servants to King James and to his son Charles I for the next 30 years.

But the grand palatial status of Huntly Castle once again became a target, this time to Covenanters during the Civil Wars, and following the execution of the 2nd Marquess of Huntly—also called George, an able Royalist cavalry commander—in March 1649, the castle’s defences were slighted and it was mostly abandoned. The later dukes of Gordon developed the town of Huntly in the 18th century (with a modern grid pattern), and its flax industry, but they did not reside in the now ruinous castle. Their successors, the dukes of Richmond and Gordon continued to own the land until the 1930s, and had already given the castle to the state in 1923—today it is in the care of Historic Environment Scotland.

George Gordon, 2nd Marquess of Huntly

Following the execution of the 2nd Marquess of Huntly in 1649 and the death of his son and successor the 3rd Marquess in 1653, another George Gordon, the 4th Marquess, turned his attentions further south. As was tradition, he had been sent to France for a Catholic education, then served in the French armies under the greatest commander of the age, Turenne. He then returned to Britain and the court of King Charles II, where he married Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk—an alliance of the two grandest Catholic houses in England and Scotland. The dukedom of Norfolk had been restored to the Howards during the Restoration, and Charles also began rewarding some of the great Scottish supporters of his reign with this top title in the peerage: Maitland in 1672, Leslie in 1680 (not counting those dukedoms being created for his bastard sons). In November 1684, both the Gordons and the Douglases were also made dukes, of Gordon and Queensberry, respectively. I suspect the Gordon dukedom was created with the aim of balancing the Scottish peerage with at least one openly Catholic duke. The next year, King Charles was dead, and the Catholic James VII and II was glad to have a Catholic ally in Scotland—the Duke of Gordon was appointed Constable of Edinburgh Castle, a Commissioner of the Scottish Treasury and a founding Knight of the Order of the Thistle. But his loyalty was not very durable (or Bydand), and when the Glorious Revolution swept James from the throne in 1688-89, Gordon only weakly held Edinburgh for him for a short time, then joined James in exile in France. He soon returned to Britain, and by the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14) had regained some favour at court. He was, however, arrested in 1707 as a Jacobite sympathiser—his daughter was married to the head of the exiled Jacobite court, the Duke of Perth; his son took part in the Jacobite rising of 1715—and he died in disgrace at his residence in Leith in 1716.

the 4th Marquess of Huntly before his promotion to 1st Duke of Gordon

The son, Alexander, now 2nd Duke of Gordon, was pardoned by the new king, George I. His life was fairly short, and he was succeeded in 1728 by his eldest son Cosmo, who was still a child. His name is said to come from Cosimo, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who was a supporter of the Old Pretender (‘James III’), now in exile in Italy.

Cosmo George, 3rd Duke of Gordon

The family continued to have mixed feelings about its support for the Jacobites. The 3rd Duke married a Gordon, granddaughter of the Earl of Aberdeen who arrested his father during the ’15; and his sister married that same Earl’s son. Their brother, Lord Charles Gordon led government troops against the forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie in the second Jacobite rising in 1745. In sharp contrast, Lord Lewis abandoned his post in the Mediterranean fleet to join the Prince’s war council, and was instrumental in recruiting hundreds of men (sometimes by force) from his family’s vast estates for the Jacobite cause (one source says Gordon tenants and associates supplied about a quarter of the entire Jacobite army in the ’45). The Duke himself did not commit to the Jacobite cause, but he delayed in his formal condemnation of his brother’s and his tenants’ actions. The Jacobites were defeated at Culloden in April 1746; Lord Lewis escaped and died in France. The 3rd Duke also died soon after, in 1752, at only 32 years old. Only the youngest brother, Lord Adam Gordon lived a long, full life, rising through the ranks of the army as commander of the Royal Scots regiment to become Commander-in-Chief for Scotland in 1789, and governor of Edinburgh Castle in 1796.

Lord Lewis Gordon
Lord Adam Gordon

Alexander, 4th Duke of Gordon, at age 9 was one of the largest landowners in all of Great Britain. As an adult, he entered politics, and to ensure he had a seat in the British House of Lords (and not just as one of the few representative peers for Scotland), he was given a barony in 1784 in Gloucestershire, named for the small village of Huntley in the Forest of Dean, which in reality had no connection to the Gordon family. He was also given the earldom of Norwich, in Norfolk, which similarly had little connection to the family (though perhaps recalled his family’s former connection to the Howards of Norfolk). He played a moderate role in politics (especially compared with his wife), but for many years served as Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland.

the 4th Duke of Gordon

The 4th Duke also re-fortified his position in Scotland by aggrandising his ducal seat: this had shifted away from the now crumbling Huntly Castle and instead was some miles to the north at Gordon Castle, near the mouth of the River Spey. A typical Scottish tower house had been here since the 1470s, built by the 2nd Earl of Huntly. In the 1770s, the 4th Duke had the original castle enveloped within a new central block and added two wings, making it one of the largest country houses ever built in Scotland. With the rising costs of running a country house, and mounting death duties, it became impossible for the Gordon-Lennox family to sustain two ducal seats (here and at Goodwood), so Gordon Castle was sold in 1938 to the Crown Estate. After the Second World War, however, Sir George Gordon-Lennox (a grandson of the 7th Duke of Richmond and Gordon) repurchased the estate, and decided to demolish much of it to create a more manageable country home. Today the tower remains and one of the wings, but it is not open to visitors; the nearby walled garden is, however, and it is stunning.

Gordon Castle in 1911

As he got older, the 4th Duke of Gordon retreated from politics to his new country house—here he developed a new breed of hunting dog, the Gordon Setter. It was his wife, born Jane Maxwell, who became one of the leading forces in British politics of the 1780s, as the chief society hostess for the Tory Party at houses she and her husband rented on Pall Mall, then on St James’s Square in London. She is credited with making Scottish culture fashionable, its music and its dress, after it had been formally banned after Culloden. In 1794, she and her husband raised the famous Gordon Highlanders Regiment—though she was criticised, like her rival the Duchess of Devonshire, for using her feminine charms to recruit men for service. Jane shocked society by having fairly open affairs, but so too did her husband, living apart from her far away in northern Scotland. Yet she was quite successful socially, in marrying off three of her five daughters to dukes. One of these was Charlotte, Duchess of Richmond, who famously hosted the Waterloo Ball in Brussels in 1815, and ultimately would be the heiress of the Gordon estates.

Jane, 4th Duchess of Gordon
one of the many political cartoons featuring the Duchess of Gordon by James Gillray. In this one she is trying to harness the duke of Bedford for one of her daughters

The 4th Duke’s younger brothers also led shocking lives, in different ways. Lord William was the dashing young soldier—as portrayed in the book and television mini-series The Aristocrats, about the Lennox sisters (one of my favourites)—who seduced the already married Lady Sarah Lennox, eloped and had a child with her, then abandoned her for new adventures. His brother Lord George was even more interesting, at first leading a crusade against the proposed Catholic emancipation bills (the family was by now Protestant) that led to a riot in London in June 1780. The ‘Gordon Riots’, after trying to force their way into the Commons, instead turned to burning Catholic chapels, setting fire to Newgate Prison, and attacking other public buildings, were eventually put down by the army, leaving hundreds killed or wounded. Lord George was charged with high treason and put into the Tower, but was acquitted. After getting into difficult entanglements with the Anglican Church and the Court of France (for defaming Queen Marie-Antoinette), he settled in Birmingham where he converted to Judaism and gained followers amongst the ultra-orthodox who considered him a new Moses, come to deliver his people. As Yisrael bar Avraham, he was arrested (the scandal against the French queen having caught up with him), and he spent the next few years in Newgate Prison where he died in 1793.

Lord Charles Gordon, with The Protestant Petition
another political cartoon, this one of ‘the Birmingham Moses’

Jane, Duchess of Gordon, died in 1812; her husband, the 4th Duke then married his long-term mistress, also called Jane, in Fochabers, the town he built next to Gordon Castle. He died in 1827, and passed his vast estates and many titles to his eldest son, George, 5th Duke of Gordon. He had lived most of his life as the ‘Marquess of Huntly’, and rose to be a general in the British army, commanding the Highlanders in the Revolutionary Wars. After his father’s death, he succeeded him in his posts as Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland and Governor of Edinburgh Castle. His wife was Mistress of the Robes to Queen Adelaide from 1830. As a political conservative, the 5th Duke opposed the Great Reform Bill of 1832, but when he died in 1836, he left a huge fortune to his widow, born Elizabeth Brodie, who had very different ideas. Known as ‘the Good Duchess’, she was the founder of schools and charities all over Scotland. She also became a pillar of the new Free Church of Scotland, an evangelical split from the Church of Scotland, and funded the construction of a new church in Edinburgh. She also built a new school and Gordon Chapel in Fochabers with some of the most beautiful stained glass windows in Britain. She lived to a ripe old age and died in 1864.

George, 5th Duke of Gordon
Elizabeth, 5th Duchess of Gordon, who lived long enough to enter the age of photography

The death of the 5th Duke of Gordon without any legitimate sons (he did have illegitimate children, including the portrait painter and Australian pioneer Georgiana McCrae), meant that the dukedom of Gordon became extinct (and the British titles of Norwich and Huntley). The title marquess of Huntly passed to the next male heir, from the distant line of the earls of Aboyne (branched off in the 1660s), while the estates passed to his eldest sister, Charlotte, the Duchess of Richmond. Their son took the name Gordon-Lennox, and their grandson, the 6th Duke of Richmond, was re-created Duke of Gordon in 1876 (in the peerage of the United Kingdom, not of Scotland). See the dukes of Richmond for their story.

The head of clan Gordon today is thus the 13th Marquess of Huntly (b. 1944), who lives at Aboyne Castle—a 13th-century castle built near the River Dee, rebuilt in the 17th and 18th centuries, but nearly derelict until restored by the family in the 1980s. There are numerous other branches of the family; some held baronetcies (including Gordonstoun, whose castle now houses the world-famous school outside Elgin), but these are all, with one exception, either extinct or dormant. There are also untitled branches—one of these, Gordon of Gight, ultimately produced the famous poet Lord Byron, whose mother was heiress of the Gight estates in Aberdeenshire (George Gordon Byron).

Aboyne Castle, today’s seat of the Marquess of Huntly

The dukedom of Gordon may have been subsumed into another ducal family, but we still have Gordon tartan, Gordon Highlanders (though merged in the 1990s with the Queen’s Own Highlanders), and Gordon piping tunes.

today’s Marquess of Huntly, wearing the Gordon tartan

(images Wikimedia Commons).

Published by Jonathan Spangler

I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia. I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and am the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy. My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.

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