The Gordon family has been identified with the history of the North of Scotland for so long that many now regard us as a Highland clan. But there is an ancient tradition that we came originally from Gourdon, in Quercy, France, and written history finds us first settling in the lowlands of Berwickshire in the 11th century. Indeed, even in what later became our stronghold in Aberdeenshire, most members of the family lived in the relatively flat agricultural land of the North-East lowlands, not the mountainous terrain of the highlands to the west.
The lands of Gordon, near the lower Tweed and the border with England, were first granted to Adam, 1st of that ilk (name), for accompanying King Malcolm Canmore, with other French, Norman, and English knights to defeat Macbeth at Lumphanan, near Aberdeen, in 1057. We do not know whether Adam gave the name Gordon to his lands, or took it as a title from them. We hear of Adam next in 1093, when Malcolm Canmore invaded England where he was defeated and killed. Among the slain was Adam.
Our Power Grows
Two centuries later, Scotland’s struggle for independence cost the then Lords of Strathbogie the forfeiture of their lands in the North East. These were given to Sir Adam Gordon, 8th of that ilk, and there the chief’s family later settled, with a northern outpost at Bog o’ Gight, now Gordon Castle, Fochabers. Their heiress, Elizabeth, married in 1405 Alexander Seton, whose family obtained the Berwickshire lands, while his wife and their progeny inherited Strathbogie from her brother, and Aboyne, Glenmuick and Glentana from her mother, the heiress of Cluny. The first Gordon to control Strathbogie from Huntly was ‘Old Sir John’, Elizabeth’s uncle, whose famous sons, Jock of Scurdargue and Tam of Ruthven, were progenitors of all the other Gordon families in the North East whose descent is traceable from that time. The Gordon families of Galloway descended from Adam (8th of that ilk), William Wallace’s Keeper of Wigtown Castle, also famous for having carried the Declaration of Arbroath (1320) to Rome.
The rapid rise to power of the Gordons is a remarkable feature of the history of Scotland in the 15th and 16th centuries. The chief became known as the ‘Cock of the North’, or the ‘Gudeman of the Bog’, the latter in jocular reference to his holding of Bog of Gight. North of the Tay, the Gudeman of the Bog was the centre of authority for three centuries. The Gordons were usually too secure to be serious interfered with by the King, Church, or Parliament during the religious and political storms of the time. Even after the Jacobite rebellions, the family remained, surrounded by the ruins of less fortunate clans. The Forbes family alone contested the local supremacy of the Gordons. A struggle lasting 200 years developed between the practical, earnest and realistic Forbes’s, inclined always to make a shrewd choice and back the winning side, and the ‘Gay Gordons’, romantic gallants, often the heroes of a lost cause. With us, blood was always thicker than water, and no Duke of Gordon was known to take advantage of his friends or oppress any tenants or servants. However, in the protection of their interests the Gordons were uncompromising and ruthless opponents.
The Fame of Our Ancestors
All through history there have been notable characters among the Gordon. Scott’s ‘Young Lochinvar’ was a Galloway Gordon of legendary fame. Better recorded in history are the 4th Earl of Huntly, who declined to leave the stricken field of Corrichie with the famous answer ‘Bydand’, (biding, staying on), now the chief’s family motto. The 2nd Marquis of Huntly and Sir John Gordon of Haddo were both beheaded for loyalty to King Charles I. The 1st Duke (d. 1716) was also totally loyal to the Stuart Monarchy, while among Jacobites, Gordon of Glenbuchat, a mercenary soldier of genius who sacrificed all for the cause, is a neglected hero. Alexander, 4th Duke, and his Duchess, the incomparable Jane Maxwell, ‘Flower of Galloway’, enlivened 18th century political and military circles, even if the Duke really preferred playing his fiddle with his butler, at home in Fochabers. The family has been closely associated with the Gordon Highlanders from the beginnings of the Regiment, when our tartan was also decided upon, until the present. The Haddo branch produced a 19th century Prime Minister (1852-1855), and that of Gight, also on the river Ythan, the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, who, with two military heroes, General Patrick Gordon of Auchleuchries, Commander of the armies of Peter the Great of Russia, and General Charles George Gordon of Khartoum may represent the many members of the family who have attained fame.
The Expansion of the Family
This short description shows how the Gordon family began in the borders, moved North (and West), and spread over a large area. In this the Gordons have differed from those clans which have been more circumscribed within the Highland homelands where they originated, flourished, and in many cases declined. Today, thousands of Gordons live in the former British colonies of the USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.