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A sept of the Douglas family

(However, this is disputed. see below.)


The Borders family Bell may well descend from a Norman follower of David I who reigned until 1153 and was, by the end of the thirteenth century, well established in Dumfriesshire, Berwickshire and Perthshire.

The name may derive from the French ‘Bel,’ meaning fair or handsome. Since the derivation is descriptive, common ancestry cannot be assumed for all those bearing the surname.

The arms attributed to the principal family are in the nature of canting, or punning, heraldry, alluding to the pronunciation of the name rather than its origin.

Some sources suggest that it relates to living beside a bell tower, or perhaps the bell ringer.

The Bells participated in the Borders disturbances as one of the riding clans of border reivers. In the thirteenth century Gilbert Le Fitzbel held lands in Dumfries, Sir David Bell was Clerk of the Wardrobe to Robert II. In 1426, William Bell’s lands of Kirkconnel were confirmed by James I under a charter recorded in the register of the great seal.

The Bells, along with other Borders families, became increasingly turbulent throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Crown’s determination to pacify the Borders led in 1517 to Clan Bell receiving royal letters of warning to keep the peace.

The tower of Blackethouse(1) was destroyed in a raid by the English in 1547. After the union of the Crowns in 1603, the family suffered much the same fate as the other border reivers; many emigrated to the new plantation lands in Ulster where the name is among the twenty most numerous in that province. Others settled further afield in Australia and New Zealand.

The descendants of the Lairds of Blackethouse stayed in the realm but moved to the cities where they contributed substantially to learning and in particular medical science.

Although the Bells were a Borders family, there are others of this name who are of Highland origin, and in that case, Bell is held to be a Sept of MacMillan.

The heraldry

In general, Bell Arms are "Canting" or "Punning," visually allusive to the surname of the bearer. French Heralds use the old expression, "Armes Parlantes," or "Speaking Arms." Many examples of these "speaking" Bell Arms can be seen in Middlebie and surrounding Kirkyards, carved with varying degrees of skill on flatstones and headstones. The same can be found in Argyll also.

The tartan

Clan Bell, since 1984, has had a tartan named "Bell of the Borders" and informally called the "Dress Blue" that is listed by the Scottish Tartans Society and in Tartan for Me! By Dr. Philip D. Smith. There is now a second tartan which was acquired when the Clan Bell International and Clan Bell Descendants merged. The tartan is named "Bell South." Both tartans will be registered with the Lord Lyon’s office at the appropriate time.

Early history in Scotland

Bell forebears settled in the southwest of Scotland not later than the early 1100s, more likely the late 1000s, and became typical Borderers in pursuit of their survival. They populated the 40 square mile area now called Middlebie Parish in Dumfriesshire where more than thirty major families and their numerous sub-families have been identified. There is an old Scots saying, "As numerous as the Bells of Middlebie."

The spelling of the name seems to have varied with the recorder of the event as it ranged from Bel, Bellis, Belle, Beall, Beal, Beale and Bale to Bell. Many families whose name has been spelled Bell who have changed the spelling to Beall, Beal and Beale. The genealogical histories of many show both spellings in the family tree. In one early document, the scribe spelled Bell four different ways. He was going to get it right no matter what!

The Act of 1587 provides proof that we are a Border Family. During the 16th century, the appellation Clan began to be used in other than the Highlands. The list under "Elleventh Parliament of King James the Sext, xxix of Julij, 1587," gives the name of the Clan and indicates that even down to that date the Bells were under Patriarchal Chiefs rather than Feudal Superiors. The Act was passed "for the quieting and keeping in obedience of the disorderit and subjectis inhabitants of the Borders, Highlands and Isles" and contains "The Roll of the Names of the Landislords and Baillies of Landes dwelling on the Bordoures and in the Hielandes, quhair broken men hes dwelt and presently dwellis. To the quhilk Roll, the 95 Acte of this Parliament is relative." Then follows, "The Rolle of the Clannes that hes Captaines and Chieftaines, quhom on they dependes, of times against the willes of their Landes Lordes, alsweill on the Bordoures, as Hielandes, and of sum special persons of Braunches of the saidis Clannes, West Marche, Scottes of Eusdaill, Beatisonnes, Littles, Thomsonnes, Glendunninges, Irvinges, Belles, Carrutheres, Grahames, Johnstones, Jardines, Moffettes and Latimers." (Reference APS, III, p 466).

On 6th March 1426, King James I confirmed a Charter granted by the then deceased Archibald, Earl of Douglas, Lord of Galloway and Annandale (who died in 1424), to William Bell, "pro ejus servitio et benemeritis dicto comiti impensis," the lands of Kircconveth, otherwise called the Fleminglandis in the Lordship of Annandale, which had fallen to the Earl through the death of John de Carrutheris without heirs, to be held by the said William Bell and his heirs of the Lord of the lands of Luce in fee (Reg. Mag. Sig., 1424-1513, No. 85.). This was Kirkconnel, possibly the Bells first land by parchment rather than by sword. The old site of Kirkconnel was on the left bank of the Kirtle River. Old Kirkconnel was burned during the Great Plague and only the cemetery remains. The property is now owned by the Maxwells and renamed Springkell.

A Douglas sept

Charles Davidson Bell's Memorial of the Clan of the Bells tells of the relationship of the Bells and the Douglas on Scotland’s border in those early days. he claims the Bells were never a Sept but retainers of and allied with the Great House of Douglas by blood as well as friendship. They generally accompanied any of the Douglas in their expeditions and invasions into England and the Bells of Kirkconnel, being valiant men, were always sent upon the most hazardous enterprises.

When William, 8th Earl of Douglas, set out for London in 1451 to foment a rebellion against the Scottish Crown, Thomas Bell of Kirkconnel went with him and his name was included in the Letter of Safe Passage. After the murder of William, his brother James, 9th Earl of Douglas, attempted to avenge his death by armed opposition to King James II. Betrayed by almost all his allies, but not the Bells, the 9th Earl lost at Arkinholme on 1 May 1455. The Earl escaped to France, but his possessions went to the victors and the Bell Family, it is said, forfeited Kirkconnel to the Maxwells. The Bells of Blackethouse did not lose their lands. After the fall from power of the Black Douglases, records how that the Bells of Dumfriesshire were ever more turbulent. In 1484, the forfeited 9th Earl of Dougas returned to Scotland with a small Army of 500 men. He rested at Bell’s Castle on the eve of the Battle of Kirtle.

In modern times, there is no official list of recognised septs. This is a matter for each chief to determine. The Douglases have no clan chief! Additionally, given that the term 'sept' was only introduced in the 19th century, there is no historical precedent. But as the Bell family were at the Douglases side, it seems clear that an interpretation can be that they are, indeed a sept.



1.  There is a suggestion that the Blacklocks may have a connection with Blackethouse.




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