A Short History of Bonshaw


According to ancient family traditions (which are largely supported by known historical fact, and were first recorded in The Original of the Family of the Irvines or Erinvines, written in 1678 by Dr. Christopher Irvine, M.D., Historiographer Royal of Scotland) the Irvings of Bonshaw are descended from Duncan, known in the family as Duncan of Eskdale, a younger brother of Crinan, the husband of Princess Beatrix and father of King Duncan I of Scotland. The paternal grandfather of Duncan of Eskdale and Crinan was Duncan, hereditary Abthane of Dule and lay abbot of Dunkeld.

The latter Duncan is now believed to have been a direct descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages, who was High King of Ireland early in the fifth century, and who was killed in battle in 438 AD. It appears that he was appointed Governor of Strathclyde when that region was conquered by the Saxons and turned over to Malcolm I of Alban (the early name of Scotland) in 946. His residence in Strathclyde is thought to have been the old fort of Eryvine, or Orewyn, where the town of Irvine now stands, so he is referred to as the “First of the Eryvines.” Duncan was killed at the battle of Duncrub c. 965 AD while leading his forces against a strong rebel army of fellow countrymen.

Duncan, First of Eryvine, was succeeded by his eldest son and heir, also Duncan, about whom we know little except that he succeeded his father, and that he inherited his father’s titles. At the battle of Luncarty (exact date unknown), where the Danes were routed, Duncan commanded the left wing of the Scottish forces under King Kenneth III. This Duncan is the progenitor of many of the oldest recorded families in Great Britain. The family of Dunbar is certainly descended from him, and traditionally so are the noble families of Irving and Home, all in the male line, as well as the Royal Family.

Duncan, Second of Eryvine, was succeeded by his eldest son, Crinan, who married Princess Beatrix, daughter and heiress of King Malcolm II of Scotland. He reigned as King of Scotland for six years. Crinan was the progenitor in the male line of all the kings of Scotland down to Alexander III (who died in  1286), and in the female line of all the sovereigns of Scotland, with the sole exception of Macbeth. In 1040 Macbeth murdered King Duncan, son of Crinan, and reigned for the next seventeen years. Tradition has it that Crinan maintained a residence at Eryvine, but that he was the last of his family to do so, the fortress being used solely for military purposes thereafter. He was killed by Macbeth's forces in 1045 while trying to avenge his son's death and his grandson's deposition.

According to combined fact and tradition, Duncan of Eskdale, a younger brother of Crinan, went to the Border with his nephew, Prince Duncan, early in the eleventh century. It is presumed that this was in 1018, the year in which Strathclyde, Lothian and Cumbria came firmly under the Scottish Crown, the first two permanently. Duncan of Eskdale was made Governor of Cumbria, with command of the forces; his nephew was appointed “Rex Cumbrorum” and, under his uncle's guardianship, was his royal grandfather's  representative on the Border. Their official residence, the seat of the Border Command, was at Carlisle, but they had a private retreat at the immense British stronghold in Eskdale, which was renamed “Castle Owyrn” (now corruptly known as “Castle O'er”).

About 1020, Duncan of Eskdales’s eldest son married an heiress of the ancient British royal line of Coel Hen and took up residence at her ancestral home, the ancient hill-fort of Dumbretton (“Fort of the Britons”). Shortly afterwards, either he, or one of his descendants, built a new castle in Kirtledale, two miles further east on or near the present site of Bonshaw. He  lived there, and gave it the name Irwyn (in a form now unknown) which had by then become firmly associated with the family, as was Irewyn in Ayrshire, Owyrn in Eskdale, and Heryn (the seat of Crinan's brother Grim, Thane of Strathearn) in Strathearn.

When King Malcolm introduced the parish system towards the end of the eleventh century, the Irvings' lands in Kirtledale became the Parish of Irving, which retained its identity as such until the end of the sixteenth century, when it was broken up and divided between the revised parishes of Annan and Kirkpatrick-Fleming.

During the eleventh century the Irving family's lands on the Border were extensive, stretching from Annandale in the west to Tinnis Hill in Liddisdale in the east.

Although surnames were first introduced to Scotland by King Malcolm it was not until the reign of David I (1124-1153) that they became common. The chief of the Border branch of the Irving family took his surname, “de Irwyn” (meaning “of Irwyn” or “from Irwyn”), from the new family seat in Kirtledale, and many of his clansmen took the same name after him. “Bonshaw,” meaning the wood,” is an ancient name of common local derivation. The present tower is known not to occupy the position of the previous Bonshaw Tower, and this, in turn, probably occupied a different position from the original Irwyn Castle of Kirtledale.

The Irvings and Bruces became very close friends and allies. Tradition relates that “The Bruce” was a guest at Bonshaw as early as 1298, and when he fled in 1306 from the court of Edward I of England his first night back in Scotland was spent there. There is a cave in the Kirtle cliffs at Cove, and the Irvings are reputed to have hidden Bruce from the English in it on at least one occasion during this time. It is believed that when he left he took William de Irwyn (1280-1335), probably a son of the Laird of Bonshaw or one of the Laird’s brothers, as his armor-bearer, and later gave him the additional title of secretary. William served Bruce faithfully and with complete devotion throughout all of his troubles and campaigns. In 1323 William was rewarded with a grant of a large part of the royal forest of Drum. It was made into a free barony in his name the following year, and he was eventually knighted as well.

Two other members of the family, Roger de Irwyn and another William de Irwyn, were Court Chamberlain and Clerk of the Rolls respectively from 1328-1331. The next mention of the Irvings of Bonshaw is not for another one hundred and fifty years or so.

An  attempt by the Duke of Albany and the Douglas Clan to raise a rebellion in the south of Scotland in July 1484 resulted in the battle of the Kirtle. It was fought just across the Kirtlewater from Bonshaw, but Albany and his supporters were completely routed. While the English reinforcements were fleeing for the Border, their commander, William Musgrave of Edenhall, was taken prisoner by John Kirkpatrick in Hesilbrae. William Irving of the Bonshaw family, a man who knew both sides of the Border well, was chosen to obtain a ransom of eighty gold angel-nobles (about sixty dollars) for Musgrave, while Adam Johnston of the Johnston Clan, a close friend and ally of the Irvings of Bonshaw, guaranteed that William would return. Irving returned Musgrave to his family and obtained the ransom, but the ransom was never turned over to  Kirkpatrick. Perhaps Irving thought he had earned it himself. Twenty-four years later, in 1508, Kirkpatrick successfully sued Johnston for the unpaid money.

Apart from the indisputable fact that the Irvings were at Bonshaw at the beginning of the fourteenth century, and in Kirtledale at the end of the fifteenth century, there is no contemporary proof that the Irvings held Bonshaw before 1506. This is hardly surprising, for a great many Border properties suffered so badly from English raids that records were continually being destroyed. Most of the early family papers that did survive these raids were later destroyed by Dr. Irvine's second wife after his death . Also, the old pre-Norman Border families had little use for the feudal system,  and the titles that went with it.

During the sixteenth century the Irvings of Bonshaw played a leading part in inter-clan and Border warfare, as well as having considerable influence on national politics during the chieftainship (1555-1605) of Edward Irving of Bonshaw. At the same time various lesser members of the clan directed their efforts to raiding across the Border. During the century a feud existed between the Johnstons and Irvings and their sup­porters on one side, and the Maxwells and their supporters on the other. Various reasons have been given for this feud, but none is convincing. It is interesting to note that the Irvings' power at this time was considered to be at least equal to that of the Johnstons. In addition to their audacity, military prowess and keen judgment, a careful survey of all of their sixteenth century properties shows that they had become one of the biggest land-owning clans bordering England.

Christopher Irving of Bonshaw fought at the battle of Solway Moss in 1542 where he commanded the Light Horse of Scotland, reputedly a hereditary command. He survived the battle and continued to resist the forces of Henry VIII. In 1543 the English Lords Dacre and Wharton led a force into Dumfriesshire and burned many towers, including Bonshaw. Realizing that he could not defend Bonshaw himself, Christopher handed it over in June 1544 to Edward, his eldest son, but three months later Lord Wharton burned it anyway.

The present tower was built about 1545. During the years 1547 and 1548 events moved fast in Dumfriesshire. The English were continually marching over the Border, and relentlessly pursuing their policy of trying to annex Dumfriesshire to England. At first the Scots Borderers, being completely unorganized and outnumbered, made no attempt to resist these intrusions, but later resistance rapidly built up under the leadership of Douglas of Drumlanrig.

In September 1547 the Earl of Lennox and Lord Wharton ravaged Annandale, burning many towers, including Bonshaw. This seems to have been one of the occasions on which most of the Borderers made an oath of allegiance to England and promised the services of all their able clansmen, though with little or no intention of complying. Records indicate that Irving of Bonshaw pledged one hundred and three clansmen. Again in December, the Earl Lennox and Henry Wharton raided Annandale, but this time Christopher would not submit.

Two months later, when Lennox and Lord Wharton crossed the Border again, this time with seven hundred horsemen and five thousand foot soldiers, they were met for the first time by a strong Scottish army. Christopher Irving of Bonshaw, having collected a large body of light horse, had joined the forces of Douglas of Drumlanrig and the Earl of Angus. This Scots force, with the light horse in front, met the English at Durisdeer and drove them back. A running fight followed as the raiders were pursued down the twelve miles of the Nith Valley to Dalswinton. The over-confident Scots, on the verge of complete victory, were caught unawares when the English rallied and made a sudden flank attack, routing them with heavy losses. Christopher was taken prisoner, but was released later after he renewed his former oath.

The Irvings supported Queen Mary during her early struggles, but in 1566 they fell out of favor, so they changed sides and joined the Regent Moray. Three years later Moray appointed Edward, one of Bonshaw's younger sons, governor of Annan.

During the Border feuds it is generally true that the Irvings, Johnstons, Carlyles, Grahams, Scotts and Elliots matched themselves against the Maxwells, Douglases, Crichtons, Murrays, Kirkpatricks and Charterises, but this did not prevent individual disputes breaking out on either side. The Bells often found themselves on both sides! It is interesting to note how these feuds could be set aside completely during times of national or international crisis, and then taken up again afterwards.

In 1570 the Earl of Sussex, with an army of four thousand Englishmen, raided Dumfriesshire and left a trail of destruction behind. Many towers and castles of all sizes were completely destroyed, and Bonshaw was one of several Border towers that were “'destroyit with gunpowder.” However, many sixteenth century accounts of raids were greatly exaggerated, so it is difficult to tell the actual extent of the damage.

During 1585-1586, the Irvings and Johnstons were openly at war with the Maxwells. The trouble seems to have been started on this occasion by Lord Maxwell, who, on the April 6, 1585, took a large force to raid the Johnston territory of Upper Annandale. He overran the area, burning and plundering. He also burned Lochwood, Johnston's chief seat, and forced Sir John Johnston, Warden and Justice of the Western Marches, to seek refuge at Bonshaw. Maxwell pursued Johnston, brought up the Earl of Morton's cannon, and laid siege to the tower, but without effect. In the meantime, news of Maxwell's campaign had caused alarm in Edinburgh, where the King and Regent Arran called an emergency meeting of the Secret Council on April 9. While Edinburgh was deciding what to do, Lord Scrope, an English Warden, brought his police across the Border to Bonshaw and forced Johnston and Maxwell to sign a peace treaty. The terms were that Maxwell would not attack the Irvings and Johnstons and that Johnston would guarantee that some of the Irving lands would be forfeited to Maxwell.

The Irvings had no intention of complying with a treaty that had been made under an English threat. They held on to all their lands. A month later Lord Maxwell arrived to claim Kirkconnel in the belief that he was now the owner. He found, however, that William Irving, a son of the Laird of Bonshaw and father of the famous “Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lee” of Border ballads, totally unwilling to part with it. Lord Maxwell spent twenty-four hours trying to obtain possession. He gained nothing, but did lose two men and three horses in the process, so he retreated to Annan.

After the end of the sixteenth century the tone of life on the Borders quieted down considerably, mainly because of the accession of King James VI of Scotland to the throne of England in 1603. As king of both countries James was able to control both sides of the Border. By combining their forces the two Parliaments renewed the hope of peace. To help prevent the renewal of local feuds, King James ordered the destruction of all the outer defenses of the Border strongholds.

On his marriage to the daughter of the fifth Lord Carlyle in 1590, William Irving, younger of Bonshaw, received the lands of Rockhillhead as part of her dowry. In 1635 he gave these lands, together with the lands of Carthat and Haregills to Johnston in exchange for the lands of Allerbeck and Bellorchard. In 1610, five years after succeeding his father, he received a crown charter of the lands of Sarkshields. Many other lands were acquired or sold by the Irvings of Bonshaw around this time as well.

When Edward Irving of Bonshaw died in 1655 he left the estate in a very unsound financial position, and in part mortgaged to his half­brother Herbert. The latter's interest in it apparently dated from before 1648, for in that year the Scottish Parliament appointed “Harbert Irving of Bonschaw” as Commissioner of War for Dumfriesshire. James, Edward's eldest son and heir, was declared heir to his great-great-grandfather and the rightful owner of Bonshaw. James, the Wild Bonshaw of Wandering Willie's tale, a lover of adventure and excitement who had no time for the problems of estate management, sold the whole Bonshaw estate to his Uncle Herbert.

During the general registration of the armorial bearings of the nobility of Scotland during the years 1672-1677, William Irving of Bonshaw, Herbert's eldest son and heir, registered the ancient armorial achievement of Irving of Bonshaw (although he himself had no right to the arms, not being the heir of line) as:

William Irving of Bonshaw bears argent three holly leaves proper above the shield and helmet befitting his degree mantled vert doubled argent next is placed and torse for his crest and arm gauntlated holding ane branch of holly consisting of seven leaves all proper. The motto is ane escroll Haud Ullis Labentia Ventis.”

It was this same William Irving who built a new manor house at Bonshaw in 1696.

Donald Cargill, the prominent Covenanter and denouncer of the Restoration, was outlawed in 1680, and a reward of 5,000 merks offered for his capture, dead or alive. James Irving, who had evolved into a tireless persecutor of the Covenanters and part-time highwayman, and who was still designated “of Bonshaw,” was given a force of Dragoons and a general commission to arrest Cargill. He finally caught up with Cargill at Covington Mill in Lanarkshire and took him prisoner. After a stop at Lanark, during the journey to Edinburgh, Irving bound Cargill's feet below his horse so tightly that his prisoner rebuked him saying,

“You will not long escape the just judgment of God, and if I be not mistaken it will seize you in this very place.”

Cargill was taken to Edinburgh, tried and executed on  July 27, 1681. His prophesy came true, however.  Irving quarreled with one of his companions the following year, and the latter's anger was so great that he turned on the unarmed Irving and ran him through with his sword.

On the death of James, William Irving of Woodhouse, the next heir of line of the Irvings of Bonshaw, went to court to try and recover Bonshaw from William Irving, Herbert's son and heir. The case lasted for seventeen years, but on December 22, 1699 the Laird of Woodhouse finally succeeded in gaining possession of the estate and a charter of adjudication in his favor from the Earl of Annandale.

Paulus AEmilius Irving was born in 1714 at Bonshaw, the ninth son of the laird. He joined the British Army, and in 1759, as a colonel, was given command of the 15th Regiment of Foot under General Wolfe during the capture of the Heights of Abraham in Quebec, where he was wounded. Afterwards he was appointed the acting Governor of the Province of Quebec. Later he fought in the Revolutionary War, and was taken prisoner by the rebels. He finished his military career as Sir General Irving and the Governor General of India.

In 1770 William Irving razed all of the outbuildings and courtyard at Bonshaw and built a new mansion, which now forms the principle living quarters. William died two years later, leaving an only son, less than six years old.

John Robert Irving, the son and heir, studied law, and in 1793 was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates. Subsequently he was Professor of Civil Law at Edinburgh University from 1800-1827. His profession kept him in Edinburgh for most of his time, while the Bonshaw estate was sadly neglected and became heavily in debt. He died in 1839, leaving only two daughters as co-heiresses.

The Reverend John Irving, who succeeded as heir of line, was a good and conscientious laird. He drew up a new plan for the estate, and managed it well. He died in 1870, leaving no male issue, whereupon the estate passed to Robert Nasmyth Irving, the next heir of line. It was not long, however, before he had to sell part of the land to help meet outstanding debts.

Robert spent the early years of his manhood in the army and served with the rank of lieutenant in the Kaffir War; later he just wasted away his life, losing all interest in his Irving heritage. He died unmarried in 1894, leaving Bonshaw – heavily mortgaged – to his friend, Mrs. Benyon Barton.

Colonel John Beaufin Irving, the next heir of line and Clan Chief, was the exact opposite of his predecessor. A grand old soldier and a member of the Royal Company of Archers, the Sovereign's bodyguard in Scotland, he had a keen interest in Bonshaw and Clan Irving. On Robert's death he went to court to recover the estate, with no inheritance right to help him. After a long and expensive lawsuit, he finally won and settled down at Bonshaw, dedicating the remaining thirty-one years of his life to the clan and its interests. In 1907 he published his famous and monumental work, The Book of the Irvings, which—although it contains a few obvious contradictions—is a goldmine of information for serious students of the clan's history.

Colonel Irving was succeeded by Captain Sir Robert Beaufin Irving—his youngest child and only surviving son who had a long and distinguished career at sea. He was active with the Royal Navy during the World War I, serving with the cruiser Yarmouth at the battle of Jutland. He was later promoted to the rank of Commander, and was awarded the O.B.E. for his services in Palestinian waters. After the war he returned to the Cunard Line and was captain of the liners Vennonia, Aquitania, and Majestic before being appointed Captain of the Queen Mary in 1937. The following year he reached the highest position in the Merchant Navy when he was appointed Commo­dore of the Cunard White Star Line. In the same year he achieved high acclaim when he docked the Queen Mary at New York unaided, during a general dock strike there. Robert was knighted in 1943, and retired the following year.

When Sir Robert died in 1955, leaving no issue, his heir, Commander Snow-Irving, Royal Navy, eventually put Bonshaw up for sale. It was purchased by Mrs. Eileen Keys-Irving Straton-Ferrier, a descendant of David Irving of Wysebie, sixth son of Edward Irving of Bonshaw (1510-1605). She established a Bonshaw Preservation Trust in 1975 and enthusiastically dedicated herself to the preservation of Bonshaw.

Mrs. Straton-Ferrier was ninety-six when she passed away in 1986. Although older son John Straton-Ferrier had been very much involved in Bonshaw affairs, he felt—due to his own age—that he could not continue. At a meeting of the heirs it was decided to sell the estate. A search was made, and Bruce and Margaret Irving, both doctors, were chosen to carry the torch. Bruce is a first cousin of Alastair Maxwell-Irving  who wrote the book The Irvings of Bonshaw, and the son of Edward Irving.

Bruce and Margaret were always hospitable, frequently hosting clan events, and often opened the Tower and the surrounding grounds to visiting groups from the “colonies.”

Bruce Irving passed away June 8, 2005. He will be missed. It is hoped that son Christopher will continue the work of maintaining this very important historical site. All Irwins-Irvines-Erwins wish him well in this endeavor.


From various sources, including The Irvings of Bonshaw by Alastair M. T. Maxwell-Irving, B.Sc., F.S.A. Scot. (of the house of “Irving of Dumfries”), and back issues of  The Holly Leaf Chronicle.



Ruth Flaherty Erwin, Mary Erwin Plog, Helen Erwin Campbell, and Elizabeth, Bruce Irving’s sister, with “Beaufin,” Bruce’s dog, at Bonshaw in 1993. Note that Beaufin is sporting the Irving tartan. In 2000 Bruce commented in an e-mail to Don Erwin: “Sadly Beaufin died aged 13—a good age for a good dog."