The Origin and Brief History of the Clan BellThe origin of the Bell Clan in Scotland does not seem to have been definitely recorded. Numerous data have been collected and digested on the subject but we can only surmise at its actual origins.
There are various theories that the name Bell came from the old French town of Belle, or from a Frenchman named Gilbert La Fitz Bel and later William Le Bel, or from a shortening of "Isabel", or from the sign of a bell on an inn, or from the priests of the Druid agricultural deity Baal, or maybe from the moors of Denmark and the dales of Norway. All the stories are interesting and intriguing, but absolutely improvable. No matter the beginning, our forebears settled in the southwest of Scotland not later than the early 1100s, more likely the 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 Scot's 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 Juli, 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).
Blacks "The Surnames of Scotland" states, "The name Bell was common on the Scottish 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 1/4. 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 that resulted in the capitulation of (King)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 Annandale in 1547. 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 Bells of the old West Marche Clan, were one of the eight great riding families of the Scottish Border since the early 1100s, were allied with the best border families through blood and friendship. Their land holdings were extensive, and to survive, they engaged in the 'reiving' of the period and participated in many battles against the English. Declared "unruly" by the Scottish Parliament, many of the Clan emigrated to the Ulster Plantation after 1610. After William Bell, called "Redcloak" and Chief of the Clan died in 1627/28, the chief-ship became dormant; without leadership, the Bells ceased to exist as a viable clan.
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 in what became Middlebie Parish in 1609, prior to 1300. From this branch of the clan sprang the holders of Blackethouse, Godsbrig (of Scotsbrig), Auldhall, Satur and Land. In the 1600s, Middlebie Parish encompassed approximately 40,000 acres and was populated by 31 major Bell families.
The 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 Milldlebiehill 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
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 were retainers of and allied with the Great House of Douglas by blood as well as friendship. They generally accompanied any of the Douglas clan in their expeditions and invasions into England and the Bells of Kirkconnel, being valiant men, were always sent upon the most hazardous enterprises.
Thomas Bell of Kirkconnel was a close friend of, and kept faith with, James, 9th of the name, last Earl of Douglas, also called the Black Douglas while most of the other Douglas retainers and supporters deserted and fought against him. In the late 1400s, when Douglas lost at Arkinholme and Burnswark, the ruin of his friends was complete. The Earl's possessions were distributed to the victors and the Bell Family, it is said, forfeited Kirkconnel to the Maxwells. It is possible the Bells of Blackethouse were not involved, but unlikely; however, they did not lose their lands.
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 1627/8, 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!" Records of the 1400's indicate that this motto is or can likely be attributed the peoples' (of that area and era) involvement in contests, engagements of sorts and races of that time; the winner of such events often was rewarded with a small gold or silver bell. Thus, the winner, the demonstrated champion, could and would exclaim, "I beir the bel."
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 forebear's 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.
There were also Bells in Gilsland on the English side of the border. In the 1500s and 1600s, they had ties with their Middlebie cousins. The raiding party which rescued Kinmont Willie Armstrong from the Carlisle Castle Gaol is identified as having four Bells, including our Chief William Bell called "Redcloak" of Blackethouse. Kinmont Willie and William Bell were said to be brothers-in-law.
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.
Confusing to many is the "Bell Sept" claimed by Clan MacMillan. Of much later origin than Clan Bell, 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. These were Bells who seemed to collaborate with the MacMillans when needed. DNA research is currently underway to determine if there maybe be a substantiated link.
In sharp contrast to today, the border area where Scotland and England meet was significantly over-populated in the 1500s; 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, 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 displaced Bells migrated to the Glasgow area and remained for a time. Then they continued on 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. Interesting though, is the existence of a gravestone found in Argyll with the Border Bell Coat of Arms on the stone, exactly the same as found in Border cemeteries.
As with many Clans and Families and, to the best of our knowledge, Clan Bell apparently did not have a distinctive tartan, not surprising since many of the Border Bells were horsemen who most often wore leather, wool or cotton breeches. Nonetheless, tartan purveyors saw possible sales and have always told Bells their tartan is MacMillan. This falsehood has caused great confusion over the years. To the detriment of Clan Bell, many have been wrongly taught by the merchandisers that they were of the MacMillan-Bell Sept that resulted in kilt sales to Bells. Despite the confusion, the Bells and MacMillans are, in this modern day, good friends and cooperate with each other.
Clan Bell, since 1984, has had a tartan named "Bell of the Borders", informally called the "Dress Blue". It is listed by the Scottish Tartans Society and in "Tartan For Me!" By Dr. Philip D. Smith. Another tartan has been designed for the Chief; however, it will not be woven for sale until our Chief is appointed by the Lyon Court. There is a third tartan which was acquired when the Bell Family Association and Clan Bell Descendants merged. The tartan is named Bell South. All three tartans will, when our Chief is appointed, be registered with the Lord Lyon's office. No other tartan, claimed to be of Bell of Blackethouse, is recognized at this time. Also, use of the name "Blackethouse" is specifically reserved for the Chief.
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. 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 throughout Scotland and England, paying little attention to Clannish organization but successfully indulging in literary, scientific and military pursuits.
After William Bell called "Redcloak", Chief of the Bells, died in 1627/8, the chief-ship apparently became dormant. The distinguished Edinburgh surgeon Benjamin Bell, in direct line for the chief-ship, was offered a baronetcy but refused. He later sold the family homestead, Blackethouse to help educate his children. The Bells ceased to exist as a viable clan as they were without leadership and many were living in other countries and were no longer within influence of the clan structure.
Thus, for over 385 years, the Bells have lacked a clan chief. Regardless, Clan Bell has long been recognized by the Lord Lyon Court as being one of the strong riding clans of the borders. As a prominent Border clan with a rich history, the Bells are entitled to their own three feather chief and clan status in the family of Scottish clans. Fortunately, a concerted effort is underway to resurrect Clan Bell to its past status through the appointment of a Chief by Scotland's Lord Lyon, King of Arms. In April 1985, a letter providing proof of the Border Bell's history was sent to the Lord Lyon requesting he acknowledge the Bells had, at one time, been a Clan under patriarchal chiefs and to allow us to reestablish the Clan. The Lord Lyon's 6 May 1985 letter provided acknowledgment and permission. Shortly thereafter, work was commenced concentrating on a genealogical trace of the senior Blackethouse line to determine the ranking Bell to be invested as Chief.
This was accomplished in 1988, when Douglas Bell, C.B.E., was found to be the ranking Bell. Sadly, Douglas passed away in February 1993. This is where we stand today. Research to find the proper family line candidate continues. Once a proper candidate is identified and if the candidate approves, a petition to Lord Lyon Court will be submitted. Upon approval of the petition by the Lyon Court, the genealogically highest ranking Bell will be invested as Chief of the Bells. The Clan will then assume its rightful place among the Families of Scotland. The time frame for submission and approval of the petition by the Lyon Court is unknown.
Clan Bell has Bell members and representatives all over the world. Bells reside in: Australia/New Zealand, Canada, Argentina, Chile, Norway, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, the United States and Uruguay. The Clan Bell North America site (formerly Clan Bell International, Limited) Web Site is located at: www.clanbell.org. Clan Bell AUS/NZ is our sister organization in Australia and New Zealand. It has been ably led by June Freeman Bell!
"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."
Col. William H. Bell, President Emeritus, Clan Bell International, Ltd.
Edited/updated: Joseph Lewis Bell, President, Clan Bell North America: Feb 2019}
Former Presidents of Bell Family Groups and Associations:
Irving Bell, International Bell Society;
E. R. Bell, Tennessee Bells;
June Bell Freeman AUS/NZ;
Colonel William H. Bell