Elphinstone Clan History

Elphinstones were a noble and baronial family who’s name came from the place name of Elphinstone. There is a family tradition that claims that the Elphinstones are descended from Flemish knights called Helphenstein. Another theory suggests that the name is derived from Alpin’s tun, which means the farmstead of Alpin.

John de Elphinstone (1200 – 1250)  was the earliest  ‘documented’ member of the Elphinstone family and seen as the progenitor of the family.  He flourished in the reigns of King William the Lion and Alexander II and III. His name ‘de Elphinstone’  shows us that the lands of Elphinstone were at this time in the family’s possession.  How these lands were acquired is not really known.

He is considered to be the descendant of the ‘de Erth’ family who took their name from the lands of Airth in Stirlingshire. The castle, Plean Castle was probably erected by this family.

Plean Castle

Plean Castle, a one-time stronghold for the Elphinstones


The ‘de Erth’  family ended when one of the de Erths married an heiress and took on her families name of ‘de Swinton’, owning land near Tranet, East Lothian.  His name was recorded as Alanus de Swinton. This is where we find the first  ‘de Elfinstun’.  It is likely that de Swinton’s son took the land and the name and became  John de Elfinstun (1200 – 1250).

It is thought that this first Elphinstone, John de Elfinstun  founded the Castle first known Elphintine, then later as Elphinstone Castle.  The castle had such a commanding view that family tradition says that on a clear day as many as thirteen counties might be seen from the battlement of the tower.

John de Elphinstone was father to his names sake John who was witness to a grant by Sir Fergus Cumyne on 1265.  He then had a son called John (1279-1338) who married Robert the Bruce’s neice Margaret Seton.

In 1296 during the Wars of Independence, Edward I visited the town of Montrose with 30,000 of his men.  Among others John de Elphinstone (1279-1338)  swore allegiance to Edward I  to protect himself  and the community.  He pledged allegiance again in Berwick.  John lived until 1338. He was succeeded by his son, Alexander.

Alexander received a charter granting him the lands in Erthbeg.  He also received from Sir Godfrey Ross the lands of Kythumbre, in the barony of Stonehouse, Lanarkshire.  Alexander didn’t live a long life and died in 1363.

His son was Sir William Elphinson, a Knight who is thought to have married Mary Leslie of the house Rothes.  The lands of Pittendrich in the shire of Stirling were granted.  His son, also William Elphinstone is thought to have married Margaret Douglas, daughter of Sir William Douglas, the first laird of Drumlanrig.  William died leaving three sons:

The first was a Knight who was killed at the battle of Piperdean on 10th September 1435.  From his daughter Agnes who married Gibertm son of the chief of Clan Johnstine  His line of descendants were  designed Johnstones of Elphinstone.

The second son Henry disputed the possession of Elphinstone with his niece Agnes which he lost but took ownership of Airthbeg, Pittendriech and Stickshall in 1477.  Airthbeg went to his grandson John.

The third son, William was Canon of Glasgow and Archdeacon of Teviotdale.  He was father of the famous William Elhinstone, bishop of Aberdeen.

William Elhinstone (1431 – 25 October 1514) 

William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen

William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen


William Elphinstone was a Scottish statesman, Bishop of Aberdeen and founder of the University of Aberdeen.  William was born and educated in Glasgow.  In 1452 after practising for a short time as a lawyer in the church courts, he was ordained a priest, becoming rector of St. Michael’s Church, Trongate, Glasgow.  Four year later he continued his studies at the University of Paris where he became reader in Canon law.

He returned to Scotland and was made academic rector of the University.  Then in 1481 he was made Bishop of Ross. William was also member of Parliament in Scotland and was sent by James III of Scotland on various  diplomatic missions  In 1483 he was appointed Bishop of Aberdeen.

In 1488 William was made Lord High Chancellor, but on the king’s death he retired to Aberdeen. As a diplomat, his services were quickly required by the new king, James IV of Scotland.  For this work a small endowment was provided by the king and William built  The university of Aberdeen, it was modelled on that of Paris and intended principally as a law school, soon became the most famous and popular of the Scots seats of learning, largely due to the prestige of Elphinstone and his friend, Hector Boece, the first rector. It was completed in 1506.

The branch of The Elphinstone of Calder Hill were a branch that came from William.  This branch intermarried with  the heiress of the Hendersons of Chester, the Lauders of Hatton and the Bruces of Airth.

Lord Elphinstone

Lord Elphinstone is a title in the Peerage of Scotland created by King James IV in 1510 for William’s cousin, Sir Alexander Elphinston, making him the First Lord Elphinstone.

Arms of the Lord Elphinstone

Arms of the Lord Elphinstone (not including the various quarterings acquired by the family)


Alexander Elphinstone, 1st Lord Elphinstone

On the lands of the new barony of Elphinstone a new tower was erected called the tower of Elphinstone.

Elphinstone Tower  later called Dunmore Tower – Falkirk

Elphinstone Tower, later called Dunmore Tower – Falkirk


It formed the chief residence of the Lords Elphinstone for eight generations of the family down to, and including Charles the ninth Lord.

The First Lord Elphinstone was killed at The Battle of Flodden in 1513.

The second Lord, was killed at the Battle of Pinkie in 1547. The fourth Lord Elphinstone was a judge of the Supreme Court of Scotland and later Lord High Treasurer and the eleventh Lord became lieutenant governor of Edinburgh Castle.

In 1754 the Elphinstone Estate was sold to John Murray, son of the 3rd Earl of Dunmore for £16,000. Just before he inherited the earldom and renamed the estate ‘Dunmore Estate’ after his title.  The tower fell into ruin after it was abandoned in 1911.

In 1774  Hon. William Elphinstone married Elizabeth and inherited Carberry Tower.  This became the new seat of the Lords of Elphinstone in 1801. They remained at Carberry Tower until Sydney Elphinstone died in 1955 and his wife, Lady Mary, died six years later in 1961. Lady Mary bequeathed the tower to the Church of Scotland.

Carberry Tower

Carberry Tower


George Keith Elphinstone, A younger brother of the eleventh lord followed a naval career where he served on vessels that protected British shipping on Americas eastern seaboard. He also served with distinction in actions at the Cape of Good Hope and rose to the rank of Admiral and later Viscount. He became Baron Keith of Banheath.
His nephew William George Keith Elphinstone, fought at the battle of Waterloo. He was later commander in chief of the Bengal army, where he ran into trouble leading the Afghan campaign in 1841. He was to be court martialled but died before the trial could begin. The 13th Lord had better fortune in Asia as Governor of Madras.

The present chief, the 19th Lord Elphinstone, inherited the title at the age of 14 when his father died in 1994.

Earls of Orkney

Euphemia Elphinstone

Euphemia Elphinstone


Euphemia Elphinstone (1509 – 1547) was the second daughter of Alexander Elphinstone, 1st Lord Elphinstone.  She was only 4 when he died at The Battle of Flodden.

Euphemia was a mistress of James V and bore his illegitimate son, Robert in 1533 who was to become the 1st Earl of Orkney in 1564.  She later married and gave birth to five more children, the most famous of which was Laurence Bruce of Cultmalindie.

Robert Stewart, 1st Earl of Orkney

Robert Stewart, 1st Earl of Orkney


Robert’s half sister Mary Queen of Scots granted him the Royal estates in Orkney and Shetland together with the post of Sheriff of Orkney and Shetland and made him 1st Earl of Orkney and Lord of Zetland. Robert proved to be a tyrant who governed the northern isles with an iron fist, and appointed his half brother Laurence Bruce Sheriff of Shetland to help him do so. Robert died peacefully in his bed on 4 February 1593 and was succeeded by his, if anything, even more tyrannical son, Patrick Stewart, 2nd Earl of Orkney.   Patrick ended up being beheaded for treason in 1615.  It is said that many people living in Shetland and Orkney today number Euphemia Elphinstone amongst their ancestors, via either Laurence Bruce or Robert Stewart.

Castle of Kildrummy

Kildrummy Castle is a 13th Century Castle near Kildrummy in Aberdeenshire was once  the seat of the Earls of Mar. 

Kildrummy Castle

Kildrummy Castle


The castle survived many sieges. The title of Earl of Mar had been forcibly taken by Alexander Stewart .  In 1435 it was the castle was taken  over by James I, becoming a royal castle until being granted to Lord Elphinstone in 1507.

The castle passed from the Clan Elphinstone to the Clan Erskine before being abandoned in 1716 following the failure of the Jacobite rebellion of 1715.


Airth Mercat Cross

Airth Mercat Cross


The old medieval burgh of Airth was founded in the reign of William the Lion (1165-1214). It was later replaced with a town around the beginning of the 18th century. One of the oldest permanent structures in the village is The Mercat Cross or The Airth Market Cross. The cross was erected by Charles Elphinstone in 1697. On it you can still make out  his initials and coat of arms also the arms e of his mother and father.  Charles met his death in a dual with his relative, Captain William Bruce of Auchenbowie at nearby Torwood, a few miles south of Airth.

The Mercat Cross was also reputedly the site of public trials and executions, and up until the 1930s it was the custom to proclaim deaths and funerals from its steps. To this day all funeral processions have to pass these same steps on their way to the cemetery. 

Drawing of Mercat Cross, Airth, from 1861

Drawing of Mercat Cross, Airth, from 1861


Lands of Elphinstone – a legend

There is a tale from Elphinstone about a witch called Meg who is supposed to have been involved in the naming of the village. Meg had servants who were elves and she was cruel to them. One day she went to the burn in between Elphinstone and Ormiston and ate in her carriage, telling her servants not to disturb her. One elf broke into her carriage once she had fell asleep and stole some of her leftovers. Meg, however, awoke and caught him. She took him back to Elphinstone and trapped him in her stone or “Meg’s chuck”. Hence the name Elph (elf) in stone.

The Elphinstones of Balmerino

After the chiefly branch ‘ Elphinstone of Elphinstone’ the most notable branch is The Elphinstone of Balmerino.

The Third Lord Elphinstone Robert Elphinstone (1530 – 1602) married Margaret, daughter of Sir John Drummond of Innerpeffray.  They had a son James born around 1553. He was appointed a lord of session 4 March 1586. He was at this time known as “Master James Elphinstone of Innernochtie”.  James was a favourite of James V. On 20 February 1604 he was created a peer, with the title of Lord Balmerino, the estates of the Cistercian Abbey of Balmerino in Fife being converted into a lordship.

He was a peer but was disgraced in 1609 just before he was expected to have been made secretary of state in England.   This came after he ha wrote to Pope Clement VIII asking him to hand his  cardinal’s hat to William Chisholm, bishop of Vaison (a kinsman of Balmerino). Elizabeth I was told about this and it was brought to James V who said the letter must be a forgery.   A jury found James guilty and in 1609 was sentenced to be beheaded, quartered, and demeaned as a traitor. The sentence, however, was not carried out.  He was instead imprisoned at Falkland till October 1609, when, on finding security in £40,000, he was allowed free ward in the town and a mile around. Afterwards he was permitted to retire to his own estate at Balmerino, where he died in July 1612.

James had married twice, to the first marriage he had one son, John who became the second Lord Balmerino and his second marriage bore a son called James who in 1607 was created Lord Coupar, he also had two daughters, Anne and Mary.

This branch of Elphinstones continued,  though by the 18th century a series of lawsuits had reduced the family’s properties to the barony of Restalrig in South Leith. The Elphinstones were prominent members of the Episcopalian minority of the Scottish church: the burying ground of the ruined church at Restalrig on their estate was used by local Episcopalians throughout the 18th century.

Arthur Elphinstone, 6th Lord Balmerino

Arthur Elphinstone, 6th Lord Balmerinoch

Arthur Elphinstone, 6th Lord Balmerinoch


Arthur Elphinstone was the son of John Elphinstone, 4th Lord Balmerino and 3rd Lord Cupar.  He was not expected to inherit the family estate so embarked on a military career. He was a captain in  Lord Shannon’s regiment in March 1714.

As a north-eastern Episcopalian Protestant, Elphinstone has been described as epitomising the most “ideologically committed” Jacobite supporters.  He like other Jacobite sympathisers opposed the 1707 Union of England and Scotland. During the Jacobite rising of 1715 he Arthur fought  at the  Battle of Sheriffmuir on the government side but, reportedly finding this “against his conscience”, deserted and joined the Jacobites.  The rising subsequently collapsed and he fled the country, before joining the French army.

In 1733, Elphinstone’s father obtained a pardon for him and he eventually returned to Scotland: about this time he married Margaret Chalmers or Chambers, daughter of a Captain Chalmers of Leith. His half-brother James succeeded to the title of Lord Balmerino on the death of their father in 1736.

Elphinstone was one of the first to join Charles Edward Stuart during his 1745 attempt to recover the British throne for the Stuarts.  He commanded a troop alongside David Wemyss, Lord Elcho. Arthur became the 6th Lord Balmerino in early 1746 following his half-brother James’s death, but in April of the same year he was taken prisoner at the Battle of Culloden.

Balmerino was tried before Parliament, given his history and previous pardon, he represented himself and offered little in the way of a defence, joking that he only pleaded not guilty in order “that so many ladies might not be disappointed of their show”. He was found guilty and was executed alongside The Earl of Kilmarnock.

Balmerino went to his execution unrepentant, stating “If I had a thousand lives, I would lay them all down in the same cause”. His insouciant attitude at the time of his trial and execution, joking with bystanders and insisting on taking the axe in his carriage so that Kilmarnock would not be bothered by it, was widely reported in the media of the time. Balmerino’s execution is sometimes reported to have taken three blows.

Execution of Arthur Elphinstone, 6th Lord Balmerinoch

Execution of the Earl of Kilmarnock and Lord Balmerino