The House of Erroll

The first Hay of Erroll followed the custom of many Norman settlers by marrying a member of the indigenous aristocracy who brought him her lands in Fife to add to his barony of Erroll.  His son David, second of Erroll, did likewise, marrying a daughter of the Celtic Earl of Strathearn, so Gilbert, third Chief, was no more than a quarter Norman, despite his Norman name.  This Gilbert married Lady Idione Comyn, a daughter of the mighty Earl of Buchan, the beginning of a close connection with north east Scotland which endures to this day.

James Hay, 15th Earl of Erroll (1726-1778)

It was with his grandson that the Hays truly came to prominence.  Sir Gilbert Hay, fifth of Erroll, remains the greatest hero of the family, distinguishing himself as one of the staunchest friends of Robert the Bruce, one of the very few who consistently stood by him in Scotland’s long struggle to throw off the English threat.  After the Battle of Bannockburn he received the Barony of Slains in Aberdeenshire, previously held by his cousin Buchan.  The King also made him Lord High Constable of Scotland, one of the greatest offices at the medieval court, a position which has been hereditary in the Hay Chiefs ever since.

The role of Lord High Constable came with great authority and transformed the fortunes of the family.  Sir Thomas, 7th of Erroll, married Princess Elizabeth Stewart, the daughter of King Robert II.  William, 9th of Erroll, was created 1st Earl of Erroll in 1452.  Under his son the third Earl (d. 1508) the family reached the zenith of its power, having accumulated lands in Aberdeenshire, Kincardine, Angus, Fife and Perthshire by acquisition, conquest and a series of judicious marriages with heiresses.  Additionally, the Errolls acquired vassals by Bonds of Manrent with families as diverse as Leask of the Ilk and Mackintosh of Rothiemurchus.

William, fourth Earl was killed at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, dying beside King James IV whom he was attending as Lord High Constable.  No Hay returned alive from that battle, which claimed no fewer than 87 lairds and gentlemen of the name.

George, seventh Earl (d. 1574) was a committed supporter of Mary, Queen of Scots and acted as her Lieutenant for central Scotland.  His grandson, Francis, ninth Earl, was prominent in the religious and political strife of James VI’s reign; as a leader of the Catholic faction, he and the Earl of Huntly (Gordon) inflicted a heavy defeat on the Protestant Earl of Argyll at the Battle of Glenlivet in 1594, which resulted in the personal intervention of the King, the destruction of Slains Castle and Erroll being forced into exile.

On his return from France, he built a new Slains Castle four miles north of the original.

Victor Hay, 21st Earl of Erroll (1875-1928) who, as Lord Kilmarnock, had a distinguished diplomatic career

Victor Hay, 21st Earl of Erroll (1875-1928) who, as Lord Kilmarnock, had a distinguished diplomatic career

This was widely extended by his grandson Gilbert, 11th Earl.  On his death in 1674, Gilbert was succeeded by his cousin Sir John Hay of Kellour, a committed Jacobite who withdrew from public life after the accession of William of Orange in 1688.  His son Charles, 13th Earl, was a key promoter of the rebellion of 1715, but illness prevented him taking an active role and he died in 1717.

His successor was the redoubtable Mary, 14th Countess, an alarming female who allegedly ensnared her intended husband by dressing up as a man and fighting a duel with him.  She held the title for over 40 years and conscripted many men from her estates, largely unwillingly, to fight for Prince Charles Edward in the rebellion of 1745.  A crafty operator, she managed to mask her role as a Jacobite leader and keep her estates when many of her neighbours lost theirs.

Countess Mary had no children and with her death in 1758 the 11th earl’s arrangements for the succession were invoked.  She was succeeded, not by the nearest male heir, but by her great nephew, James, Lord Boyd, the eldest son of the Earl of Kilmarnock who had been beheaded as a Jacobite in 1746, who changed his name to Hay on his succession.

Alicia, Countess of Erroll and her son Lord Hay, who was killed at Waterloo aged 17

Subsequent Earls have remained active in public life.  William George, 18th Earl, married the illegitimate daughter of King William IV, and became Knight Marischal of Scotland, Master of the Buck Hounds and Lord Steward to Queen Victoria.  A Knight of the Thistle and Lord Lieutenant of Aberdeenshire, his magnificent display as Lord High Constable during George IV’s Edinburgh visit in 1822 and his ambitious reconstruction of Slains Castle 20 years later nearly bankrupted the family.

By the early 20th century, especially with the inflation and taxation that came with the First World War, the Aberdeenshire estates were under serious pressure and Charles, 20th Earl, reluctantly disposed of Slains in 1916, ending a 600 year association with the area.  His grandson, Josslyn 22nd Earl, emigrated to Kenya and was the victim of a celebrated and still unsolved murder in 1941.  He was succeeded by his daughter, Diana, 23rd Countess.  In 1957 she purchased the ruins of the old Slains Castle which had been reduced by James VI in 1594, where she built a family home.  On her death in 1978, she was succeeded by her eldest son, Merlin, 24th Earl of Erroll, 28th hereditary Lord High Constable of Scotland, and 32nd Chief of Clan Hay.

© Alan Hay 2010