The Hope of the Border


'Tis sung on harps of high acclaim

That here the IRVINGS (mighty name?)

Erst held, in all the pride of yore,

Their wide domain from fell to' shore;

That glory starred their battle-crown,

That honor wove their high renown:

From "Fair Helen"

by Washington Irving.


Historians have given us a blow by blow account of the history of the Scottish Border. It covers one of the most valiant struggles for political and human freedom the world has ever seen. Drummond, a Scottish artist, has also left a painting, "The Hope of the Border," that tells a part of that story. In this compelling piece of art are three mounted armored clansmen, a fallen tree, and in the distance a tower, said to be Bonshaw, the seat of the Irvings. There is no field of waving grain, no cottage, nor manor, nor aught but the clansmen and their refuge, the tower. The hope was that such clansmen might save the Border for Scotland, and this they did. Their hope was that they might return safely to their refuge, the tower. Many, however, did not return.

In the war, turmoil, and strife, which lasted for centuries between England and the tiny emerging nation of Scotland, there was little to bold onto save hope. Most of the Border was "wasted" periodically as the English army contested for supremacy over the Scottish clans. An area in particular that neither side could call its own was the Debatable Land. Bonshaw Tower was not far from this troubled area. There is, perhaps, no more historic part of Scotland than this seedbed of freedom.

Both Nature and man play a great role in the interplay of time and events. It is a lesson that never fails to be taught in Nature's school of evolution and in mans philosophy of history. The image-laden symbols that come down to us out of the past are a valuable part of that lesson. Bonshaw Tower is such a symbol, rich in history as the Border is rich.

Cumbria, later called Galloway and Strathclyde, where the Border area is located, was never a peaceful land. It was in fact the battleground of several peoples. It was there that the Romans, during their occupation of England, met the Picts of Caledonia who stopped their northern advance. It was in Cumbria that King Arthur and his Knights of the Round won supremacy over the heretical Pelagius who was backed by the pagans. But too soon that supremacy was lost through internal quarrels among the Britons who were led by Arthur. For nearly a century, doctrinal differences plagued the Border Christians until "The Christian religion in Strathclyde and Cumbria was nearly destroyed."

Christianity in Britain was made secure for a time following the Battle of Ardderyd which was fought in 573 AD near the site of present-day Bonshaw . Rhydderch, the champion of the victorious Christian forces, set up his castle at Hoddom, which nearly a millennium later became the seat of the Dukes of Hoddom, a branch of the Irvings of Bonshaw who still live in their modern Castle on the site.

Only a few centuries later Cumbria, now better known as Strathclyde, was the scene of conflict between the Danish Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons, the Scots, and the Picts who crowded into the area from all sides. It was into this mixture of races that Prince Duncan, grandson of Malcolm II, King of Scotia, came as sub-king of Strathclyde to maintain the king's peace. He was accompanied by Crinan Eryvine, his father; by Dunegal his uncle; and by Maldred, his brother. Prince Duncan was then (1016-20) about seventeen years old. Strathclyde, with these principals in control, came under the Crown of Scotland.

During the next decade Prince Duncan and Dunegal, as the Governor, set up three seats of government of Strathclyde. One was on the west coast, mentioned by Hoveden in 1184 as Castle Irwin. The present Royal Burgh of Irvine grew up around this site. Another seat was on the River Esk where a castle was built and called Owyrn. Between the two, on a little stream called Kirtlewater, some years later, was built the Tower of Bonshaw, and has since been the seat of the Irving Clan. Originally built of timber, and several times destroyed, it now consists of a manor house and a very rugged stone tower which has withstood the elements and Border warfare for centuries.


Bonshaw manor house and tower in 1993.   Photo by Don Erwin


From the earliest times, possession of Bonshaw Tower was documented by the claymore and the presence of armed borderers behind the shield and arms of Irving/Irwin/Irvine, as the name has been variously spelled (often with a capital E). While sovereignty of the locale of the Tower has shifted for brief periods to England, and various feudal lords have held the area "in chief," immediate possession has rested with the Irving Clan. It may well have been the residence of Prince Duncan and his bride Sibylla, sister of Siward, Earl of Northumbria. This was a marriage of much significance a generation later. Macbeth, seizing the throne after he murdered Duncan I (erstwhile of Cumbria, then King of Scotland) ruled until 1057 when be was defeated by Malcolm, son of Duncan I, with the assistance of the Northumbrians under Siward. There followed after Macbeth a line of kings over Scotland, now acclaimed as the first nation in Europe, that were closely related to the Chiefs of Bonshaw.

Prior to 1286, Scotland's Dunkeld Dynasty of Kings, of which Duncan I was the first and Alexander III was the last, provided strong leadership on the throne. Thereafter, Scotland as a nation barely survived. The death of Alexander III, and shortly thereafter his grandchild, known as the Princess of Norway, left Scotland without an immediate heir to the throne. Among twelve contestants for the throne were two Border Lords, John Balliol and Robert Bruce. Both were of Anglo-Norman descent and held estates in England. Lack of leadership among the Scottish nobles was an invitation to Edward I, King of England, to annex the whole of Scotland, which he managed to do, at least temporarily. Balliol was crowned King of Scotland, recognizing Edward I as his feudal superior. Events soon led to the War of Independence, Balliol’s defeat, and of his renouncing the Crown.

After eleven years of indecision the Border produced a young knight, William Wallace. During a scuffle in the Border town of Lanark he killed an English sheriff. Out of this brawl arose a rapidly expanding movement of national resistance led by Wallace. He and his followers were successful for a time, but in 1305 Wallace was finally captured and executed.

Resistance continued, however, and the Border produced another leader, Robert Bruce, son of the claimant for the throne. He had himself crowned king and thus formalized the struggle for independence. Bruce and his followers—at first unsuccessful—soon got the attention of the English, and Bruce became a fugitive from the English forces. During this period he was hidden briefly in a cave near Bonshaw by the Irvings. A story is told of how Bruce learned persistence from a spider that, after seven attempts, was successful in spinning his web. Bruce, thus inspired, went on to win independence for Scotland.

On leaving Bonshaw, Bruce took with him a younger son of the Chief of Bonshaw as his armor-bearer, confidant, and later his secretary at Court. This younger son was William de Irwin to whom he gave in 1323 a charter for the lands and Castle of Drum in recognition of his loyal service. He was also knighted. Sir William was the progenitor of the present Irvines of Drum.

Following the reign of Robert the Bruce, indecisive leaders, regency rule, and captive and minority kings, spawned an unruly nobility throughout Scotland. The clan chiefs displayed an excess of power which resulted in considerable lawlessness.

The Treaty of Northampton acknowledged the independence of Scotland. England, nevertheless, used every opportunity to ferment unrest and bickering between the nobles and their uneasy and ineffective kings. Scotland and the Border country, having survived the continuous thrust and counter thrust of military forces for more than a century, now saw the source of trouble shift in emphasis from the political to the religious, the principals remaining the same; Scotland versus England; the Crown versus Nobles; Catholicism versus Reformation. This did not mean that the political strife was ended; it did mean that the religious element added another dimension to the existing problems.

Such a history is not without effect. The Border clans were acutely aware of the realities. Exposure to lawlessness led them to the conclusion that only the clan offered a means of protection and survival. Security lay in the number of hard-riding members the clan could assemble by means of the fiery cross or signal fires. The chief of the clan became supreme. The demonstrated art of staying alive was at a premium. The Borderers were second to none in that art and in its application to the cause of freedom.

The power of the nobles reached a peak during the reign of James III, and resulted in actual rebellion against the king and his ill-chosen associates. In the Battle of Sauchieburn he was assassinated by the rebels who had already crowned his son James as his successor. Almost as proof of the lack of leadership as the cause of revolt, the reign of James IV, a strong leader, brought the clans and nobles under control. It was a cruel fate, however, that in their support of their king they were led into a battle which they had advised against, and with him were sadly defeated at Flodden Field. Among the thousands slain were many Irvings, including their Chief, Christopher of Bonshaw. By an act of Parliament in 1587 Bonshaw was recognized as the Chief of the Name.

The union of the Crowns in 1605 had a quieting effect on the Border. Following closely on this, however, was the growing religious turmoil which was causing more and more political repercussions. Bonshaw and the Border were caught in the center of these. The Covenanters, having gained complete control over Scotland, levied fines and taxes on land owners who were anti-Covenanters. William of Bonshaw, being a Royalist, was forced to give possession of the property to Herbert, his son, in order to avoid the complete confiscation of Bonshaw. He, by some means, held the property intact. In 1680, the tide having turned, James, the Laird of Bonshaw, lost his life in the support of the Government, his commission being to arrest treasonable Covenanters.

After the uprisings of 1715 and 1745, peace gradually returned to the area of the Border where Bonshaw is located, still in the hands of the heirs of the name. In 1894, however, Bonshaw came near to extinction, but was brought through legal travail and sacred by John Beaufin Irving, hereditary Chief of the Clan. His line became extinct after the next generation, and the property was sold to settle accumulating debts and inheritance taxes.

The land, manor house and tower were purchased by Eileen Keys Irving, and she became the Keeper Of The Tower. This very capable manager pointed the way for posterity by setting up the Bonshaw Preservation Trust, with Irving descendants serving as Trustees. The courage with which she set up this arrangement was tremendous, the labor trying, and her success is devoutly prayed for. Dame Eileen is descended from David Irving of Wysbie, sixth son of Edward, Chief of Bonshaw (1510-1605). Wysbie was one of the seven Towers held by the Irvings near Bonshaw, which were symbolized by the seven holly leaves in the crest of the arms of Irving of Bonshaw. Descendants of David emigrated to Australia. Dame Eileen returned to Scotland in 1958 (Editor’s note: The current resident-owner of Bonshaw is Bruce Irving).

Another chapter in the history of Bonshaw began with her return. It involves the matriculation of the Arms of Irving of Bonshaw under the name of the hereditary Chief, Gugy AEmilius Irving III, Captain USAF, in the College of Arms of Scotland. This action, now pending in the Court of Lord Lyon, Kind Of Arms of Scotland, has long been awaited by the Keeper Of The Tower as the figurative rebirth of the Clan, a basic objective of her plan.

Captain Irving is descended from James Irving, eighth son of William, Chief of Bonshaw (1665-1742) and his wife Emmilia, daughter of Lord Andrew Rollo, Third Baron of Duncrub. James Irving, born 1713, went out into the world to seek his fortune, first to Russia, then to Bermuda, and later to South Carolina where he married Elizabeth Motte, and eventually to Jamaica. There he established his plantation home "Ironshore" and reared a considerable family. In 1775 he inherited the Chiefship of Bonshaw, and returned to Scotland, and died the same year.

The numerous members and descendants of the same ancient Clan Irving scattered over the world now express the hope that Bonshaw, symbol of the Border, will not go the way of so many seats of clans into oblivion, nor remain only as a monument to a valiant past, but will continue as a living center around which the Clan can rally figuratively, if not in fact.

Standing before the rugged structure, tracing the arms with the holly leaves carved on the stones, and climbing the ancient worn stair to "Bruce's Room", one ponders the ardor and drive that carried generation after generation through the "killing time" that led finally to peace and independence. Or scanning the Scottish landscape with the moss covered heaps of rubble and ruin that mark the site of once proud clans, but that now reflect the disavowal of their long history, one is thankful that our Keeper Of The Tower has thus far saved Bonshaw from that fate.

A phenomenon of the unique culture which the Scot has plant­ed wherever he has gone and stayed for long, is the list of clan and other Scottish organizations his descendants have formed through the last century, a long enough period to war­rant comment, and that by no means casual. In the United States that list now exceeds a hundred clan organizations and the number of Scottish societies is still higher. Among then, of course, were descendants of Bonshaw, now or­ganized in Clan Irwin Association with a membership in thirty-two states as well as in several provinces of Canada, their names spelled as you will. They anticipate with all the pride of yore the role they are to play in future of Bonshaw.

What does the future hold for the historic seat of the old Irving Clan in the modern world? Doctor Christopher Irving of Bonshaw, erstwhile Historiographer to King Charles II, has wisely pointed the way to a role through which a myriad of descendants of The Name might quench that almost universal thirst for knowledge of their ancestry. He compiled The Original Of The Family Of The Erinvines, Or Irvings in 1678. Other more recent historians of the Clan have charted the genealogical connections with The Kin Of Columba, Nial Of The Nine Hostagas, and with, of course, the Emperor Charlemagne. These are sources of hard-to-find data being sought continuously by the growing membership of Clan Irwin.

Scotland's past is visible in her tartans, her castles and towers; it is heard in the songs and ballads; and her future is felt in the skirl of the prophetic pipes, for they generate action and a desire for "what ought to be." All of this remains a continuing, almost miraculous treasure. In this culture there remains the still viable claim on the hearts, the minds, and the energy of a people who recognize, and will labor to maintain, the best of western civilization that is the hope of this uncertain world.         


Author unknown; probably written in the 1970s. –Ed.