The name Ainslie most likely derives from Annesley in Nottinghamshire, England. There was also a Ansley in Warwickshire which is recorded as “Hanslei” in the Domesday Book of 1086, and derives from the Olde English “ansetl”, hermitage, with “leah”, thin wood, glade, clearing. Annesley in Nottinghamshire is recorded in the Domesday Book as “Aneslei”, and means “the solitary glade”, from the Olde English “an”, one, with “leah” as before. Therefore it is most likely to have originated in Nottinghamshire.
The surname Ainslie is chiefly found in the border areas of Scotland but before the Normal Conquest it was prominant in England. The modern forms of the surname are Ainslie, Ainsley, Aynsley and Ainslee. The first documented people with the surname Ainlie (or a variant of this) were Thomas de Aneslei (1221, Glasgow); Johan de Anesleye (1296, Roxburghshire); and John de Annesley (1292, York).
The Saxon lords of Annesley in Nottinghamshire held large estates, but they fled in the face of the advancing forces of William the Conqueror to Scotland, where they were received generously by Malcolm III.
The expanding family soon became settled in lands around Dolphinstone. William de Ainslie, a canon of Glasgow Cathedral, witnessed a charter by Walter, Bishop of Glasgow, around 1208. In 1221 Thomas de Ainslie was one of the mediators appointed to settle a dispute between the monks of Kelso and the bishopric of Glasgow. Sir Aymer de Aynesley was a Borders knight sent to treat with the English to settle the marches in 1249. There are two references to the family in the Ragman Roll listing those who submitted to Edward I of England in 1296: John de Anesleye of Roxburghshire and Johan de Anesley of Cruwfurt in Laarkshire. Robert de Ainslie, Baron of Dolphinstone, accompanied his kinsman Patrick, Earl of Dungar and March, on a crusade to the Holy Land between 1248 and 1254. It seems likely that the Laird of Dolphinstone, who swore fealty to Edward I, was the crusader’s son, John.
The Ainslies were opposed to Robert the Bruce in his campaign to win the Scottish Crown and paid for this by loosing their estates. But their fortune changed when William de Ainslie, who had married Helen Kerr (of the family from which the present Duke of Roxburgh descends), became a favorite of Robert II. William de Ainslie was given back the estates of Dolphinstone in 1377. The Anisllies secured their fortunes by strategic alliances by marriage with other prominent Borders families. They intermarried with the Douglases, Pringles, Homes and Kerrs. Marjory, daughter of John Ainslie, married Mark Kerr of Cessford, a doughty warrior known as the Terror of the Borders. He was killed at the Battle of Pinkie in 1547.
Robert Ainslie, a lawyer who was a Scottish writer and a correspondent of Robert Burns, the poet., was born on 13 January 1766. He made the poet’s acquaintance in Edinburgh in the spring of 1787, and they traveled through the Borders together with Ainslie being received at Burns’ family home.He later visited Burns at Ellisland where he was given a manuscript copy of Tam o’ Shanter, which he later presented to the writer Sir Walter Scott. One of his brothers, Sir Whitelaw Ainslie, was medical superintendent of the Southern Division of India and the author of a detailed work on Indian native medicine. He was a regular contributor to the Edinburgh Magazine, and wrote a number of plays. Sir Robert Ainslie was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at Constantinople from 1776 to 1792. He also served as a Member of Parliament and was created a baronet in 1804. He is now best remembered for three volumes of drawings and sketches of Egypt.
The Ainslie arms clearly allude to their early crusading exploits but even in more recent times they have enjoyed high military rank. General Charles de Ainslie commanded the 93rd Highland Regiment, which has now passed into legend as the ‘Thin Red Line’, at the Battle of Balaclave in 1854.
The family were also distinguished lawyers, and David Ainslie of Costerton, who died in 1900, left a fortune amassed from his legal practice to build the Astley Ainslie Hospital in Edinburgh.
There is a memorial to the Ainslie family on the wall of the parish church of South Leith.