The name bell may possibly derive from the French ‘Bel’ or ‘Belle’ and families of this name are found almost exclusively in the Borders, particularly Dumfriesshire. Various spellings have been recorded, including Bel, Bellis, Belle, Beal, and Bale
The Bells settled in Middlebie Parish in Dumfriesshire around the 11th century and by the 17th century, there were 31 families living there. It is believed they are descended from a Norman follower of David I and one of the earliest references is to Gilbert Le Fitzbel who had land in Dumfries.
Like many families living in the Borders at this time, the Bells turned to reiving in order to make a living. By the 15th and 16th centuries the activities of the reiving families had become troublesome due to overcrowding in the region, that many received letters of warning in 1517 from the Crown to keep the peace. Presumably matters did not improve a great deal as the Act of 1587 was passed “for the quieting and keeping in obedience of the disorderit and subjectis inhabitants of the Borders, Highlands and Isles”. A list of clans “that hes Captaines and Chieftaines” follows, which includes the Bells. In the early part of the 17th century many families relocated to the Ulster Plantation and the name Bell can still be found in Ireland.
The Bells were close allies of the Douglases after Archibald, Earl of Douglas, granted lands to William Bell at Kirkconnel in Annandale in 1424. William built a fortified tower there which featured the Bell clan crest still in use today.
The last Chief of the clan, William Bell, known as Redcloak, died in 1628. His home was originally Blackethouse in Annandale, but the house was destroyed in 1547 during a raid by the English, after which William moved to another house near Kelso, retaining the Blackethouse name. After nearly 400 years dormancy, the clan has been recognised by the Lord Lyon and permission given to trace a new Chief.
After the 17th century, the family continued migrating to various parts of the world, including America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
There is also a Bell Sept of the clan MacMillan which is quite separate to the Border Bells. They originally lived in Glen Shira near the head of Loch Fyne.
Bells distinguished themselves in many professions, one was a Surgeon Extraordinary to the Sovereign, two were presidents of the Royal College of Surgeons, some became Sheriffs, and many were men and women of Letters.
Well known Bells include General Sir John Bell who fought in the Napoleonic Wars and was a friend of the Duke of Wellington, George Joseph Bell wrote “Principals of the Law of Scotland”, Dr Joseph Bell, a well known surgeon provided inspiration for the fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, and last but not least, Alexander Graham Bell who is credited with inventing the first practical telephone.