Although this clan is inextricably bound up with the Royal House of Stuart, which provided kings and queens for both England and Scotland, there are highland clans, which also bear the name Stewart. However, there is no single figure that is recognized as the chief of the clan. Instead, individual branches of the clan have their own chief e.g. Andrew Francis Stewart, 17th of Appin, and Crichton-Stuart, John Colum, 7th Marquess of the County of Bute.
From the Highlands to the Lowlands of Scotland, from the Hebrides to the islands of Orkney and Shetland, from Scotland to England and beyond, one clan above all others emerged to lead the nation and reign supreme. Clan Stewart dominated Scotland and then Great Britain as kings and queens for three and a half-centuries. This ancient royal house is linked to dramatic moments in our history – blood feud, murder, intrigue and rebellion. But given their extraordinary influence on the history of Scotland, the House of Stewart’s origins come as something of a surprise.
For all that the Stewarts dominated the country for generations their origins were neither Scots nor regal. In fact, Scotland’s greatest royal clan were French - and began life in and around Dol-de-Bretagne and Dinan in Britanny. A thousand years ago the family were the Counts of Dol and Dinan. By the 12th century, there were so many of them that the younger sons began to look elsewhere for land and fortune.
One of the sons took part in the Norman invasion of England and his descendant Walter Fitzalan was later given lands in Scotland by King David the First and made hereditary High Steward of Scotland, the greatest office available. And it was from the title of this office, Steward, that the family got the name Stewart.
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There are of course the kings and Queens, beginning with Robert the Second, Robert the Third; James First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Mary Queen of Scots (she was also the Queen of France and gave the family the French spelling Stuart), James the Sixth (also known as James First of England), Charles the First, Charles the Second, James the Seventh (second of England), William and Mary, Queen Anne.
Other colourful characters include Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, a belligerent paranoiac who had his power base at Ruthven Castle where he became known as the Wolf of Badenoch. Alexander, the youngest son of king Robert III was sent to Badenoch in 1370 where he was expected to exercise royal authority, keep the peace and maintain law and order. Instead of playing the king’s ambassador, he terrorised and pillaged much of the Highlands, imprisoned and murdered whoever offended him, and produced more than 40 illegitimate children.
According to legend, the wolf’s excesses and depravity marked him out as a man in league with the devil. His final demise was proof positive of his satanic ways. In typical Highland fashion, it’s said that a stranger, dressed in black, came to Ruthven Castle on 24 July 1394 and challenged the Wolf to a game of chess. The castle was rocked by a terrible storm of thunder and lightning.
Next morning there was no sign of the visitor, but the servants’ bodies were found outside the castle walls, apparently killed by lightning and the Wolf’s remains were in the banqueting hall: there were no marks on his body, but all his boot nails had been torn out. Which is about the least you can expect for playing chess with the Devil.
The Stewart monarchy was forced into continental exile in 1688 where their followers became known as Jacobites. The Jacobites posed a constant threat to the British state, which feared the return of the Stuart kings. In 1715 and again in 1745, there were armed rebellions. The Jacobite movement was finally crushed after the brutal battle of Cullodden in 1746. In the aftermath, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, who had led the rebellion, was forced to spend five months on the run from government troops, hiding in the highlands with the help of loyal clansmen.
During his flight through the heather, Prince Charles Edward Stewart, the son of the exiled king, was forced to dress up as a woman. Passing as Betty Burke, an Irish spinning maid, the prince managed to evade capture and went on to make his escape back to France.