The Erskine Claim to the Earldom of Mar

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When I started writing ‘The Challenge to the Crown‘, I undertook a significant amount of research into my wife’s grandmother’s family, the Erskines. The Erskines laid claim to the Earldom of Mar, the senior Scottish Earldom, although they gained this by marriage. This account shows the initial fragility of their claim and explains the reasons for the two Mar Earldoms that exist today.

The Erskine claim dated back to Gratney, one of a long line of Mormaers or Earls of Mar, who had been appointed sheriff of Aberdeenshire by Edward I in the late 13th Century.  Gratney had married Christian Bruce, sister of Robert Bruce, later King Robert I, and they had two children, Donald, who inherited the earldom from his father, and Elyne, who married Sir John Menteith, Lord of Arran.  Elyne’s daughter Christian, who married Sir Edward Keith of Syntoun, had an only daughter, Janet, who in turn married Sir Thomas Erskine.  When the descendants of Donald died out three generations later, Sir Thomas claimed the Mar title.

Donald’s last surviving descendant was Isabel Douglas, Countess of Mar in her own right, who inherited from her uncle Thomas, Earl of Mar.  Isabel had married Sir Malcolm Drummond of Drummond, brother of Robert III’s wife, Annabella, but they had no children.  Her inheritance had been opposed by Thomas’s widow Margaret, Countess of Angus.  Although Thomas and Margaret had no children, she had a bastard son, George Douglas later Earl of Angus born in Thomas’s lifetime, and she claimed the Mar earldom for him.  The dispute was resolved in Isabel’s favour, and in 1395 Erskine, who was Isabel’s lineal heir if she died without issue, obtained a charter from Robert III confirming his claim.

Isabel then came up against the two most notorious brigands of their day, Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, and his illegitimate son, also Alexander.  Better known as the Wolf of Badenoch, the father was the fourth son of Robert II, and he wanted the Earldom of Mar and its estates for his son.  He was not to be trifled with; together with his henchmen he had earlier burned Forres and destroyed Elgin Cathedral, resulting in his excommunication.  Yet the Bishop of St. Andrews later absolved him in the presence of his brother Robert III.  In 1402 after being restored to grace, Buchan and his son, who had been ‘brought up to his father’s trade as a leader of freebooters’, captured Drummond, Isobel’s husband.  They imprisoned him and then murdered him.  They immediately took control of Isabel in Kildrummy Castle and forced her under duress to sign a charter on 12 June 1404 to marry the son and to entail Kildrummy and its estates on him.  This usurped the claim of the Erskines, her lawful heirs as confirmed by their charter from Robert III, and denuded her of all but a dower.  Although Robert III refused to affirm their action, father and son tried once more, and on 9 December produced a new charter for Isabel to marry the son.  He was to be created Earl of Mar with the estates being held by him and any children of the marriage, failing whom they were to pass to her lawful heirs.  After the marriage, her husband appears to have mended his ways, but Isabel had no children, dying in 1408.  He lived on as Earl of Mar until 1435, performing a number of military and ambassadorial commissions on behalf of the Scottish Crown.

So tenuous was the relationship between Sir Thomas Erskine and Gratney, passing as it did through three female descendants that the Erskine inheritance remained in doubt until 1565.  Sir Thomas’s son, Sir Robert, whose prospective claim had also been acknowledged by Robert III’s charter in 1395, adopted the title in 1438.  He had been created a Lord of Parliament on 23 May 1429 as Lord Erskine, so his inheritance of the Earldom seemed appropriate both in terms of status and blood.  Yet four years after his death in 1453, James II arranged an assize of error against the grant, and Sir Robert’s son Thomas was debarred on grounds of illegitimacy.  There was no justification for this, but the title carried with it valuable estates, which devolved on an impoverished Crown.  It then passed to successive younger sons of the Scottish Kings, remaining their perquisite for the next hundred years.

In order to assure Erskine’s loyalty at the time of her marriage to Lord Darnley, Mary Queen of Scots at last raised Erskine to the Earldom of Mar in 1565.  Before this she had temporarily granted a new Earldom of Mar to Lord James Stewart at the time of his marriage to Agnes Keith and before Lord James had travelled north with Mary to tackle Huntly’s overweaning authority in northern Scotland.  It was Mary’s ultimate intention to make Lord James Earl of Moray, but the Moray estates were being controlled by Huntly, and they wanted to provoke him by delaying the grant of the Moray title to Lord James until they were in the north. Once the grant of the Moray title was made public, the new Mar title was withdrawn from him.

When the Mar title was granted to Erskine, Mary’s lawyers confused it by reinstating the original earldom, which passed through the female line, and then by passing on to him Moray’s new Mar title, which did not.  In 1875 the House of Lords upheld the view that the entail of the original title had been replaced by the new one, allowing the Earls of Mar and Kellie, represented by the male Erskine line, to hold both grants.  However this decision was amended in 1885 when the female line was granted the original title becoming Earls of Mar, but leaving the newer one with the Earls of Mar and Kellie. This leaves two separate titles in existence.

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