Clan Hay Gathering 2022: The Hays of Erroll

The Hays of Erroll first arrived in North East Scotland in 1308, in the lands that would become and remain their principal seat, down to the present day.

Originating in northern France, the Hays were by the 14th century a well established Scottish baronial family, although they then belonged to the minor gentry: they had not reached the ranks of the higher nobility which Sir Gilbert Hay, fifth of Erroll, would aspire.  Sir Gilbert was one of the earliest and most constant supporters of King Robert the Bruce in his long and heroic struggle for Scotland's freedom.  North East Scotland was at this time the stronghold of the Comyn family, Earls of Buchan, King Robert's principal opponents who had to be completely crushed if the cause of Scotland's independence was to succeed.  That was finally achieved in 1308, the rich Comyn lands parcelled out among the king's supporters, among whom Sir Gilbert Hay was one of the main beneficiaries.

Old Slains by Andrew Spratt

Old Slains Castle as imagined by artist Andrew Spratt

Sir Gilbert received the old Comyn lands and barony of Slains on the Aberdeenshire coast, which swiftly became the family's main base, in preference to their historic Perthshire property of Erroll, which it has ever since remained.  The earldom of Buchan had been comprehensively destroyed by Robert the Bruce as part of his strategy to break the Comyns and the lands Sir Gilbert received were far from the prosperous territory  we are now used to.  His first task was to repair the very extensive war damage, resettle his extensive lands with capable tenants, and above all rebuild the castle of Slains, which his master had destroyed; it is believed the remains of Slains that stand today date from this time and the powerful new castle built by Sir Gilbert Hay in the early 14th century.

William George, 18th Earl of Erroll

Sir Gilbert Hay also received the powerful office of Lord High Constable of Scotland, of which the Comyn Earl of Buchan had been deprived.  That role came with immense authority and catapulted the Hays into a new sphere of influence in medieval society.  Sir Gilbert now stood next to the royal family in order of precedence, the office confirmed heritably to him in 1314 and held by his descendants ever since, still in the possession of the Chief of Clan Hay today.

Thereafter a combination of clever business strategies, conquest and advantageous marriages relentlessly grew the family's influence and prestige.  The family suffered, though, alongside many others, during the strife of the 14th century.  The hero Sir Gilbert's eldest son, Nicol, younger of Erroll, was killed at the Battle of Dupplin Moor in 1332, so it was a grandson, Sir David, sixth of Erroll, who succeeded on his death a year later.  Sir David was killed at the Battle of Neville's Cross in England in 1346.  His son, Sir Thomas, became the seventh of Erroll, to date the longest serving chief of Clan Hay, with a reign of 60 years.  He added to the family's prestige by marrying Princess Elizabeth Stewart, a daughter of King Robert II, and it was he, as Lord High Constable, who presided over the gladiatorial clan battle on the North Inch of Perth in 1396, viewed by his brother in law Robert III and his queen.

Charles Hay, 20th Earl of Erroll

William, eighth of Erroll, became a peer of parliament as Lord Hay in 1429 and his successor, another William, was belted Earl of Erroll in full Parliament by King James II in 1452, raising the family to the highest rank in the land at that time.  Under William, third Earl of Erroll, the Hays reached the zenith of their power and prestige, with lands in Perthshire, Aberdeenshire, Angus and Fife.

William, fourth Earl of Erroll was killed at the Battle of Flodden in 1513.  His male line expired with the death of his grandson the sixth earl in 1541, who was succeeded by his cousin Sir George Hay of Logie.  In the next generation, the lines of the collateral heir male and heir general were united with the marriage of Andrew, eighth Earl of Erroll, with Lady Jean Hay, the sixth earl's only child.

Under their son, Francis, ninth earl, the Hays took a leading part in the conspiracy of the Spanish Blanks and the subsequent campaign to restore Catholicism in Scotland.  He achieved a notable victory over the Earl of Argyll at the Battle of Glenlivet, but thereafter the king personally intervened, Erroll was exiled to France and the castle of Slains was demolished under King James VI's supervision.  Francis was allowed to return home in 1597, when he built a new Slains Castle at Cruden Bay, which remained the family's principal seat until 1916.

William, 10th earl, led a very extravagant life and the family's historic property of Erroll in Perthshire had to be sold in 1648 to cover the debt and taxes he owed at his death.  Thereafter the family's only seat was in Aberdeenshire and Slains Castle was dramatically extended by his son, Gilbert, 11th earl.  On his early death he was succeeded by a cousin, John, 12th earl, a great grandson of the eighth earl via his second marriage.

This 'new' Erroll line were staunch supporters of the Jacobite movement and opponents of the union with England in 1707.  Under Charles, 13th earl and his sister and successor, Mary, 14th countess, Slains became a major centre for Jacobite intrigue and a principal landing place for Jacobite agents of the Old Pretender coming from, and departing for, France.

On Countess Mary's death in 1758, she was succeeded by James, Lord Boyd, the grandson of her sister, who changed his name to Hay and became the 15th earl.  Under this chief and the two sons who succeeded him, the family's fortunes began to decline, the result of overspending which led to the sale of extensive estates by all three earls, in order to finance their lifestyles.  The minister of Slains recorded sadly in 1795 that, in the previous 10 years, the Earl of Erroll had disposed of all his property in the district and now owned not a single acre in the parish.

In the next generation, William George, 18th Earl of Erroll, somewhat restored the family's fortunes and made a very grand marriage, to the daughter of King William IV.  However he to spent lavishly, initially on his role as Lord High Constable during George IV's ground breaking visit to Edinburgh in 1822, and then in 1836 with the extravagant remodelling of Slains Castle.  He had a successful political career in the Whig ministries of Viscount Melbourne, where he was successively Master of the Buckhounds and Lord Steward of the Household.  (It should be remembered that, at this time, these were political appointments.)  In due course, he became Ranger of Richmond Park, Master of the Horse to Queen Adelaide, a Knight of the Thistle, and Lord Lieutenant of Aberdeenshire.

His son and successor, William Harry, 19th earl, was a soldier who fought in the Crimean War, where he was severely wounded.  During his long tenure, he spent generously on public works for the benefit of the community, building a Congregational Church for the benefit of the local fisherman, a library, and a new harbour for Cruden Bay.  He was not, however as good improving the earning potential of the estate and by the time his son succeeded to the title in 1891, resources were seriously depleted.  In 1916, crippled by the taxation and inflation resulting from World War One, Charles, 20th earl, was compelled to sell the last of the family's lands.  He died in 1927 in Surrey, England, in a house rented for him by his son.

Clan Chief

Clan Chief the 24th Earl of Erroll with his son and heir, Lord Hay, at Holyrood in 2009. Lord Hay is wearing a kilt that belonged to his great grandfather, Josslyn, 22nd Earl

Victor, 21st earl, was an extremely able man who, as Lord Kilmarnock, had a successful diplomatic career.  He died only six months after his father in Cologne, Germany, where he was in charge of the diplomatic mission, to which he was appointed following the First World War.  His son, Josslyn, 22nd Earl, decamped to Kenya, where he and fellow British aristocrats lived a famously Bohemian lifestyle in the 'Happy Valley,' his life dramatically shortened when he was the victim of a notorious and still unsolved murder in 1941.

Josslyn was succeeded by his only daughter, under whom the family would return to Scotland and specifically to their native turf at Slains.  She married another Scottish chief, Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk, and they raised their children at his family seat of Easter Moncreiffe in Perthshire.  In 1956, they purchased the ruin of the old castle of Slains where they built a compact family home.  That property remains the seat of her eldest son and successor, the present 24th Earl of Erroll.

© Alan Hay 2022