THE FOLLOWING DATA QUOTED IS APPROVED BY THE STANDING COUNCIL OF SCOTTISH CHIEFS:
"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.
The suggestion that it relates to living beside a bell tower seems far fetched.
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 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.
Andrew Bell, founder of the Madras system of education was born at St. Andrews in 1753, The college founded in his native town and named after his system is still a respected seat of education today.
Dr. Joseph Bell, great-grandson of Benjamin Bell of Blacket House, who was himself a distinguished surgeon, is said to have inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create his great detective, Sherlock Holmes.
General Sir John Bell was a distinguished soldier during the Napoleonic Wars and a friend of the Duke of Wellington. Scottish lawyers encounter the name of Bell in their study of Principals of the Law of Scotland by George Joseph Bell, Professor of Scots Law at the University of Edinburgh in 1829. More recently, Alexander Graham Bell was a pioneer in the development of the telephone.
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." End of quote.
Blacks "The Surnames of Scotland" states "The name Bell was common on the Scotish Border for centuries and the Belles are included in the 1587 list of unruly clans in the West Marches. Families of the name long predominated in the parish of Middlebie, insomuch that the ‘Bells of Middlebie’ was a current phrase throughout Dumfriesshire."
J. A. Rennie, in ‘The Scotish People, their Clans, Families and Origins’ writes on the Lowland Clans. He states, "In many ways the great families found on each side of the Border resembled the Highland Clans. The more prominent Scottish Border families had chiefs, clan badges, and slogans and wore bonnet and plaid. On the English side, few families were as powerful as those of the Scottish Barons; the families tended to be smaller and more localized. Families whose chiefs were landed gentlemen though not possessing baronies included "Bell."
Ane Act in favours of Johne Erll of Mortoun, Lord Maxwell his friendis and servantis (Acts Parl., III., 387), contains the Muster Roll of the Clansmen at the siege of Stirling in 1585, which resulted in the capitulation of James VI., and gives a list of forty Dumfriesshire Bells, including our chief William Bell called Redcloak and members of other clans associated with them.
In The Scotch-Irish, Vol II, by Charles A. Hanna, Baltimore Genealogical Publishing Co., 1968, the Bells are listed under the heading of Border and Lowland Clans in 1547 of Annandale. There is also a listing for Border Clans and Chiefs in 1597 including the Bells of Annandale. Additional data regarding Clan status is that in 1596, thirty-seven hostages were taken from every division of the clans, including the Bells. (Caledonia, III., 112).
The Bell Family In Dumfriesshire by James Steuart. Mr. Steuart’s original intent was to record the pedigree of his maternal ancestors, the Bells of Crurie, offshoots of the Bells of Crowdieknowe; however, the gathering of data expanded the project and Mr. Steuart was invited to submit a paper on the Bell Family to the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. This paper overflowed its confines and, from the length of the notes, it was resolved to publish them in book form. Although Mr. Steuart regarded his work to be only a "draft" of what a book should be, it is in reality the only work which characterizes the Bells of Middlebie.
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.
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.
OUR GENESIS IN SCOTLAND
Our 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. We have found 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).
THE CLAN BRANCHES
In the 1600s, Middlebie Parish encompassed approximately 40,000 acres and was populated by 31 major Bell families.
The Albie branch of the Bells, Pennersax Parish, was of considerable importance in the district and quite possibly among the first Bells to hold land, prior to 1300, in what became Middlebie Parish in 1609. From this branch of the clan sprang the holders of Blackethouse, Godsbrig (of Scotsbrig), Auldhall, Satur and Land. There were also Bells in Gilsland on the English side of the Border that had close ties with their Middlebie cousins.
The Scottish Branches of the Clan and their old locations are:
- Cowholm in Half-Morton Parish
- Pennersax in Pennersax Parish
- Kirksleights in Hutton and Corrie Parish
- Curre in Corrie Parish
- Laverhay and Poldeen in Wamphray Parish
- Clynts in Ecclefechan Parish
- Kirkconnel in Kirkpatrick-Flemming Parish
- Albie (including Satur) in Pennersax Parish
- Auldhall and Land
- Blackethouse in Pennersax Parish
- Godsbrig and Scotsbrig in Middlebie Parish
- Dunnabie in Carruthers Parish
- Neuk or Broadlea in Pennersax Parish
- The Hill or Middlebiehill in Middlebie Parish
- Castlebank in Ecclefechan Parish
- Middlebie Tenants
- Crowdieknowe in Carruthers Parish
- Minsca and Torbeckhill and Carruthers in Carruthers Parish
- Whitcastles and Whiteknowe in Corrie Parish
- Crurie in Eskdalemuir Parish
- Stockbriggs in Middlebie Parish
- Nether Albie in Pennersax Parish
- Between-the-Waters in Carruthers Parish
- Hotts in Carruthers Parish
- Water of Milk in St Mungo Parish
- Winterhopehead in Carruthers Parish
- Skellyholm (now Glenholm) in St Mungo Parish
- Milton and Newhall in Tundergarth Parish
- Tundergarth Tenants
- Rammerscales in Dalton Parish
THE BELL’S FIRST LAND BY PARCHMENT
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.
THE BELL/DOUGLAS RELATIONSHIP
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. 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 9thEarl 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.
THE CHIEF OF THE BELLS
History records that all Bells throughout the kingdom acknowledged Bell of Blackethouse for their Chief. The Bell relationship was acknowledged, even by English Bells, especially when a coat of arms was introduced by using the Bell characters in the chevron. William Bell of Blackethouse, who died about 1628, was undoubted Chief of the Surname and is believed to have used the principal coat of arms of the Family, viz. Azure, three bells, the crest, a hand holding a dagger, paleways proper, with the motto, "I beir the bel."
THE 16TH CENTURY
The border area where Scotland and England meet was overpopulated in 1500s, and as a result there was a scarcity of land, jobs and food to sustain the ever growing numbers of Borderers. Like other families in this impoverished land in the border area, the Bell Clan began to break up and re-settle elsewhere. While many a hearty Bell remained in their beloved Border homeland, economic reality forced thousands of other Bells to migrate to diverse locations throughout Scotland and overseas.
One group of Bells migrated to the Glasgow area for a time and then continued to Argyll where they settled, apparently in two factions. One faction affiliated with the Campbells. Records confirm Bells worked for the Campbells in various capacities. Of the second faction, there is no valid history.
THE 17TH CENTURY
During the 17th century, there was a great exodus from the family lands in Dumfriesshire. Many of the Clan crossed to the Ulster Plantation in Northern Ireland, which opened in 1610, but later sailed for the New World. The Union of the Crowns and the authority of the reformed church virtually ended the Border reiving. Population growth and great poverty provided the impetus for emigration.
Even so, there were still some who were restless under the new conditions, and so the boldest Reivers were brought in on the side of law and order.
In 1622, William Bell, called Redcloak, Chief of the Bells, was chosen by John Murray of Lochmaben, with nine others to act as a Border Guard on the West March. In 1624, the Earl of Annandale chose Redcloak to help in the same way.
After the devastating War of Independence, residents of the Marches were forced by circumstances to return to primitive living. It was in this environment that our Bell forebears character was hammered out on the anvil of survival and tested. Our ancestors used to number their horses in the hundreds and their cattle and sheep in the thousands. The Bells of Middlebie were quite well known, especially for their fighting skills.
THE 18TH AND 19TH CENTURIES
Both the 18th and 19th centuries saw a continuing exodus from the Family lands of Dumfriesshire. Many Bells went to foreign lands where they continued to live in concert with the clan ways they practiced in Scotland. Bells were found living in Germany, Russia, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, the Netherlands and what is now the United States.
During the expansion of the Empire, many Bells joined the British armed forces, such as John Bell descended from the Bells of Minsca, who fought at the battle of Waterloo. Others simply moved to the cities to enter the learned professions.
Descendants of the Bells of Blackethouse provided a Surgeon Extraordinary to the Sovereign, two Presidents of the Royal College of Surgeons, various Sheriffs, and men and women of Letters. Two Baronetcies were offered, and respectfully declined; the first out of a non-belief in primogeniture, the second because the potential heir had predeceased his father.
Scottish literature of the early fifteenth century and later, indicates that Scottish citizens by the name of Bell were by then separated into two classes, viz: those who preserved the Clannish form of government and were referred to in political documents as Clan Bell of the West Marche, and, the other class which was found scattered all through Scotland and England paying little attention to Clannish organization but successfully indulging in literary, scientific and military pursuits.
THE CASTLES OF MAR
The "Castles of Mar," namely Midmar, Fyvie, Castle Fraser, Cragievar and Crathes Castle, were built by a prominent family of Bell masons, headed by Master Mason George Bell whose "signature" is inscribed right into the walls of the castles. The castles are located outside of Aberdeenshire, Scotland (Grampian Highlands - N.E. quarter). They are some of the finest examples of French influenced architecture based on the "Z-Plan." In actuality, they are baronial dwellings, not castles, but no one refers to them as such in this day and age. Cragievar castle was featured as the logo for Philip Morris cigarettes for years.
THE BELL SEPT OF MACMILLAN
Confusing to many is the Bell Sept of Clan MacMillan. Of much later origin than Clan Bell, and, according to the MacMillans, the Bell Sept of Clan MacMillan possibly originated in Glen Shira at a settlement called Badokennen near the head of Loch Fyne in Argyllshire, far north of the border Bells. For many years, tartan purveyors told Bells their tartan was MacMillan. This has caused great confusion over the years, to the detriment of Clan Bell, as many have wrongly believed themselves to be MacMillan Sept Bells simply because of the tartan.
THE ULSTER PLANTATION IN NORTHERN IRELAND
In 1610, when the Ulster Plantation was opened, a good number of Bells were encouraged to journey to the new "land of opportunity." A standard to assist in determining Bell origin for those Bells in North America is whether or not your ancestors came through the Ulster Plantation in Ireland.
A certain portion of Scotland was expressly excluded from the "privilege" of sharing in the Ulster experience as it was made a condition that the colonists, both of higher and lower ranks, must have been "born in England or the inward parts of Scotland." This restriction was specifically designed to exclude all persons in Argyllshire and the Isles. The MacMillans and their Bell Sept were of Argyllshire.
Nine "major" Bell families are identified as having lived in Ulster. Of them, it is said that between 1707 and 1729 approximately 500 Bell families emigrated from Ulster to North America where they flourished.
COUNTRIES WITH CLAN REPRESENTATIVES
Clan Bell is represented in the following countries: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Canada, Chile, England, Honduras, India, Mexico, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Nothern Ireland, Norway, Scotland, South Africa, Switzerland, Uruguay, United States and Venezuela.
"We owe to ourselves, our country and posterity the duty of collecting and publishing such information and records concerning the Bells as may exist or become available. Pride in family history must be encouraged for it tends to strengthen the moral obligations, elevate the individual character, broaden our patriotism and give each a sense of Clan/Family history and pride."