The romance and reality of a border family

The Kerrs are said to be of Norman and thus Scandinavian descent from two brothers, Ralph and Robert, who settled in Roxburgh in the Scottish Borders in the 14th century.

Tradition has it that Ralph was the ancestor of the Kerrs of Ferniehurst, whilst the Kerrs of Cessford descended from his brother, Robert. These two main branches of the family were in an almost constant state of feud for decades, and were often fighting each other when not feuding with other border families.

Alternatively, it has been suggested that the name came from a Celtic word meaning strength, that would infer the Kerr name was of pre-Norman origin and of greater local antiquity. Interestingly, the name has also been documented as existing in the borders as early as the 12th century. 

There is yet another theory in respect of the origin of the surname of kerr, this being that it derives from the Gaelic word "caerr", meaning "left".

The Kerrs were frequently left-handed and constructed the spiral staircases in their castles and towers so that they could gain an advantage over right-handed swordsmen. The border term "Corrie-fisted" or  "Kerr-fisted" derives from the family name of Kerr and their genetic trait of being left handed.

The Kerr name is also spelt as Ker, Carr or Carre. These differences occurred in earlier centuries when spellings were in the eye of the beholder, the bard and the scribe.

Cattle thieves and aristocrats

Many of Scotland's noble families have very ignoble beginnings. All this past banditry, theft, pillage and murder has been glossed over in the centuries that followed. Cattle thieves became aristocrats and dish bearers became Kings. The world was a very different place then and our 21st century attitudes cannot hope to truly fathom the people of those times.

The Kerrs, during the turbulent period from 1286 - 1603 rose to become one of the strongest and most influential Border families. They were products of their time and existed in an often brutal and unforgiving world.

At the time of the Protestant Reformation, the Kerrs pounced and absorbed the entire property of Kelso Abbey, a hugely fertile and productive area of land that included manors, baronies, lordships, mills, patronages, they took anything and everything. Their Christianity did not seem to be a barrier to material gain by seizure from the Church. All this acquisition was accomplished because Sir Robert Kerr of Cessford was evidently a great favourite at the Scottish court.

Other possessions acquired during the Reformation include, the Jedburgh Abbey estates which had also been taken from the church, Newbattle Abbey and also on the border, Bongedworth, Tempendean, Crailing Tofts, Ormiston and Harden Peel.

The Kerrs were certainly not averse to a bit of bloodletting either. In 1601, Andrew Kerr of Ferniehurst – first Lord Jedburgh – was charged at Edinburgh with the slaughter and dismemberment of large numbers of Turnbulls, Middlemasses and Davidsons. 

After the joining of the crowns in 1603, by royal decree of James VI/I, the lawless families of Border Reivers were hung, pacified, dispossessed and scattered. The Kerrs, having sensed which way the wind was blowing supported the king over those of their surname. They morphed into a more conventional kind of nobility, advancing themselves at a steady pace. The old bonds of family loyalty that had been a way of life in the borders for so long, melted away into the silken twilight that presages the dawn of a new era.

Noble advancement  

The Kerrs of Cessford and Ferniehurst both became powerful and influential Border familes, having been granted land by James IV. Sir Robert Kerr of Cessford became Lord Roxburgh in 1600 and in 1616 was elevated to Earl of Roxburgh. 

When Sir William Drummond, from another powerful Scottish family, married the Earl's daughter, he became the 2nd Earl and assumed the name of Kerr. After supporting the Act of Union in 1707, the 5th Earl became Duke of Roxburgh. Eventually the direct Kerr line failed and, after a long dispute over who was next in line, Sir James Innes succeeded and became the 5th Duke. 

Another branch of the Ferniehurst Kerrs was established in Lothian, and the first Earl of Lothian was created in 1606. This branch of the Ferniehurst Kerrs are today the premier family and hold the official title of Clan Chief.

The Kerrs, who had been noted for their banditry and brigandage on the borders were never ones to run from a fight or shy away from a bit of violence and skulduggery. One in particular, who was Privy Seal to Charles I, was notorious for his coldness and cruelty.

In 1747 as compensation for the loss of heritable jurisdiction of Kelso, they took a very large financial consideration indeed, and the same for Sprouston and Ancrum. A nice little windfall, considering that Kelso was land stolen from the church for which no payment or compensation to the church was ever made.

The Kerrs always managed to play the political game amazingly well, and were astute in picking the right side to fall in behind. In 1746 at the momentous and tragic Battle of Culloden which saw the final demise of the Jacobite cause, William, 4th Marquess of Lothian, brought his own regiment - 'Kerr's Horse' - to fight for the victorious Hanovarian army.

The Kerr tartan

The Kerr tartan was first recorded in the less than factual 'Vestiarum Scoticum' in 1842. The patterns actual origin is possibly much older than that, but definitely not as a Kerr tartan.  

The Sobieski-Stewarts were a pair of extremely talented brothers who are responsible for many of the modern tartans we are familiar with today. Most of these tartans are either Victorian fabrications, or older designs that have been recycled.

None of the Border Families traditionally wore tartan. That did not happen until the great Victorian mania for all things tartan took off during the 19th century. From that point on a family tartan became a 'must have' of the middle and upper classes. 

The Sobieski-Stewarts certainly knew their market and the Lowland mills and weavers were more than willing to meet the demands of that new market, even to the extent of designing and producing a 'funeral tartan', which did not prove to be very popular.

The tartan and badge of the Kerrs


The border country around the town of Hawick

People of the Marches

In modern times, the name of Kerr and its variants are well represented in the old Border Marches, with the Kerr spelling to the north of the border and the Carr spelling to the south. No matter what Mel Gibson may fantasise about in respect of the people of the Borders and the Lowlands, they did not wear tartan. They certainly did not wear the kilt, big or small and they did not paint their faces blue, that was the Picts at least a thousand years earlier. 

One often quoted written record of a kind of basic tartan design being worn on the Borders, was by an English traveller in the 16th century. He stated that:-

'The lower sorts of citizens wives and the women of the country wore cloaks made of a coarse stuff of two or three colours in checker work vulgarly called 'pladden'. 

A coarse kind of plaid was only worn by poor women and it was associated with poverty in the borders. No self-respecting Border man would dress in it. The 'pladden' mentioned above was most likely the traditional check-style shepherds design of the Borders, sometimes called the 'Northumberland Tartan'. It would not have looked anything like the classic tartans of the Highlands that we all know so well.

There was absolutely no border 'clan tartan' prior to the early 19th century. Until then, the concept of a Border or Lowland Clan simply did not exist. Today the term 'Clan' is used for all the traditional families of Scotland, but the Border Families were exactly that, Families with Heidsmen, not Clans with Chiefs.

The Kerrs spoke the Scots version of the language of England, not the Gaelic of the Highlands. In fact Borderers on both sides of the national divide probably spoke in much the same way, and with a similar accent. The Border Families existed both in England and Scotland and to these families, loyalty to ones family always came before loyalty to ones country. 

It is a deeply attractive concept in the broken and fractured society that exists in modern Britain. Those of us with a border heritage feel the pull of this familial loyalty even more keenly, it has always been dormant within us ever since our ancestors rode the moonlight of a crisp winters night.

Michael Andrew Foster Jude Kerr - Chief of Clan Kerr and 13th Marquess of Lothian

Today there is no official Association or Society for the Kerrs in the UK, which is a shame for such a famous border family so deeply rooted in border history. It does have a 'Clan Chief' in the form of Michael Andrew Foster Jude Kerr, better known as the Conservative Party politician, Michael Ancram. He is also the 13th Marquess of Lothian.

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