Misty Origins of the Erinvine, Irving, Irvine, Erwin Family

By Donald D. Erwin


The northern part of Ireland was once known as Scotia, and it was from there that bands of Gaelic-speaking Scots, descendants of the early Celts, began raiding across the North Channel beginning early in the third century AD. The early attacks were purely predatory, but over time some settlements were established in the Argyll area. These settlements resulted in a gradual inter-mingling of the cultures of the Scots and the native Pictish tribes.

According to ancient Irving/Irvine family traditions in Scotland, the early Erinvine/Eryvine family roots go back to the Irveni tribe in what is now Northern Ireland. Some believe that the family actually originated in Spain. Dr. Christopher Irvine, M.D. of Edinburgh, Physician-General and Historiographer of Scotland to King Charles II, wrote in his book The Origins of the Irvines or Erinvines, published in 1678, “The clans of the Gaelick nations came from the west-coast of Spain and seated themselves in the east coast of Erin and the isles of Albin that is now called Cuninghame (Cunningham)…” Dr. Irvine further wrote, “...The Erinvienes or Erinfienes, came to these islands them, and they gave their name to the river and to their palace, which is now called the town of Irvine (The River Irvine empties into the Firth of Clyde just south of Irvine)...”

One of the Irveni was Echu Mugnedon. He was born between 300 and 320 AD, and was the King of Ireland. He married Inne, and one of their sons was Niall Mor Noigialach. Niall was born in the mid-300s, and died in 406 AD. He became “High King” of both Ireland and Tara. During his active years he and his followers made frequent marauding expeditions into what is now Scotland, and he is thought to be the progenitor of the Duncan (Eryvine-Irvine) family there. He married Laorn. The known children of Niall and Laorn are Conal Mac Neil, who became the King of Meath, and Eoghan Muinrevar, who succeeded his father as King of Ireland.   

Ercc Dalriada was a son of Eoghan Muinrevar, and a First Knight of Ireland and Dalriada. He married Marca, and one of their children was Fergus Mor Mac Errc Dalriada, who was born about 495. Fergus  is credited as having been the first true King of Scots. At the time, however, the Scottish Kingdom encompassed only the general area of Argyll. All Scottish kings for the next several hundred years would claim to be descendants of Fergus.  

The Erinvine (Eryvine) clan, for the next four hundred years or so, is believed to have lived in the area facing the Firth of Clyde where the town of Irvine now stands. Some of the neighboring clans were  Montgomery, Cunningham, Wallace, Boyd,  Campbell and Maxwell. But in the ninth century  the MacAlpin kings induced most of the Erinvine clan, and parts of some of the others, to move south to the border area to help defend the kingdom. Starting about 848 AD the Duncan chief became the hereditary abbot of the old Celtic Monastery in Dunkeld, which exists today as the Dunkeld Cathedral.

Dr. Christopher Irvine was perhaps the first scholar to research and record Irvine family history. According to him, as well as others, the Irvings of Bonshaw are descended from Duncan, known to the family as “Duncan of Eskdale.” Recorded history of the Eryvines seems to start in the mid-tenth century AD. It was in 965 AD that Duncan, who was the Earl and Governor of Strathclyde, and who was known as “the first of the Erivine,” was killed at Dancrub while leading an army against a strong rebel force of fellow countrymen. His eldest son, also Duncan, inherited all of his father’s titles, including Abbot of Dunkeld. This Duncan was killed at the Battle of Lancarty, about 990 AD, while commanding the left wing of Scottish forces. He had three sons; Crinan, Grim and Duncan.

Crinan (Crinus Irvinius), the eldest brother, inherited his father’s titles as Seneschal of King’s Rents, Abthane of Dule and Abbot of Dunkeld, and stood second in rank only to the King. In 1004 he married Beatrix, the eldest daughter of King Malcolm II (r.1005-1034). Malcolm II was himself the great-great-great grandson of Kenneth I (MacAlpin), who was the first king after the Scottish and Pictish kingdoms were merged by marriage. He reigned from 841 to 859, and his successors were:

 Donald I, 859-863 (brother of Kenneth I)

Constantine I, 863-877 (elder son of Kenneth I)

Aed, 877-878 (younger son of Kenneth I)

Eochaid, 878-889 (nephew of Aed)

Donald II, 889-900 (son of Constantine I)

Constantine II, 900-942 (son of Aed)

Malcolm I, 942-954 (son of Donald II)

Indulf, 954-962 (son of Constantine II)

Dubh, 962-967 (elder son of Malcolm I)

Cuilean, 967-971 (son of Indulf)

Kenneth II, 971-995 (younger son of Malcolm I)

Constantine III, 995-997 (son of Cuilean)

Kenneth III, 997-1005 (son of Dubh)

Malcolm II, 1005-1034 (g-g-grandson of Kenneth I)

Dr. Christopher Irvine further commented in his book, “The male issue of Crinus Irvinius (Irving) and Beatrix, eldest daughter to Malcolm II, possessed the throne of Scotland from the said Malcolm II to John Baliol—viz, from 1034 to the death of Alexander III in 1285, 251 years. All the kings that reigned in that space of time were Irvings, and the succeeding kings to this day reign in right of the females of that family.” 

Little is known of Grim, the second brother, but Duncan, the third brother, was the ancestor of the Bonshaw Irvings. He moved to the borderlands in 1018 as Governor of Cumbria. Eruini, his eldest son, born circa 1020, married Beatrice, an heiress of the ancient British royal line of Coel Hen. Eruini and Beatrice took up residence at her ancestral home, the ancient hill-fort of Dumbretton. Soon afterward, however, a new castle was built about two miles east of the present site of Bonshaw, and they named it Irwyn. The inheritance of Beatrice also included the lands between the Kirtle and the Esk Rivers southeast of Lockerbie. These lands included the area where the current Bonshaw Tower now stands, and would become the ancient home of the Eryvine (Irving, de Irwyn, Irvine) clan.

The Irvine line evolved from the Irvings of Bonshaw. The Irvings were not one of the larger border clans, as were the Johnstons and Gordons, but they were well known. Macdonald Fraser, in his book The Steel Bonnets, comments: “A very tough bunch indeed. The Irvings contributed much to the general disorder, despite their comparatively small numbers.” There were several clan chiefs during this period:

Sir Gilchrist Eryvine-Irwyn, son of Eruini Eryvine-Irwyn, 1st Earl of Angus, born about 1060,             probably at Bonshaw.

Sir Gillibrede Eryvine-Irwyn, 2nd Earl of Angus, born about 1110, probably at Bonshaw.

Sir Gilchrist Irving, 3rd Earl of Angus, born about 1140, probably at Bonshaw.

William Irving, born about 1170 at Bonshaw

William Irving, born about 1220, at Bonshaw

Alexander Irwyn, born about 1260, probably at Bonshaw

Little is known of Alexander Irwyn. Some researchers believe that he was a brother of William Irving, Laird of Bonshaw, and that he was the Irving\Irwyn clan chief during the late 1200s and early 1300s. Alexander is reputed to have been an early supporter of Robert the Bruce in Bruce’s quest to free Scotland from the grip of Edward I of England. It is thought that Alexander was with Robert the Bruce at Greyfriars Church in Dumfries on February 13, 1306 when Bruce confronted John Comyn the Red, the only other serious contender for the Scottish Crown. It was a stormy meeting and tempers flared. Daggers were drawn, but Bruce got his blow in first and Comyn was killed. Alexander was supposedly among the small group of supporters that helped Bruce escape the Comyn followers.

Alexander was also probably present in the Abby of Scone on March 25, 1306 when Bruce was crowned King of Scots. In 1322, when firmly settled on the throne of Scotland, Bruce granted a portion of the Royal Forest of Drum to Alexander de Irwyn.

We do not, at this time, know the names of Alexander’s  parents or that of his wife. One of his issue, however, was William Irwyn (some records list his surname as de Irwyn, a  Normanized version). He was born about 1280 in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, and died in 1333 at Drum Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. He married Lady Marotte Bernard, probably in 1315. Records indicate that they had at least four children. They were:

-Alexander de Irwyn was born about 1322 at Drum Castle

-Robert de Irwyn.

-William de Irwyn, ancestor to the Irvines of Orkney

-Adam de Irwyn

The Irvings and the Bruces were close friends and allies. Robert Bruce, while fleeing from the forces of Edward I “Longshanks” one stormy night in 1298, took refuge with the Irvings of Bonshaw. The Irvings carried him down to the Kirtle Waters nearby and hid him in a cave in a precipice near Cove Tower, one of the many Irving strongholds. The cave door is in a perpendicular cliff twenty feet above the river and hidden by ivy. The current Bonshaw Tower (constructed in the 1500's), and the modern house adjacent to it, stands some one hundred feet from the edge of the precipice containing the cave.

It is the tradition of the Irvings of Dumfriesshire that when Bruce left the Bonshaw sanctuary, one of his cousins (probably a second or third cousin), William Irwyn of Woodhouse, and eldest son of Alexander Irwyn, the clan chieftain, left with him and joined his cause. William was later knighted by Bruce after a major battle. Throughout Robert Bruce’s efforts to gain, and hold, the throne of Scotland, William remained in his service.

On February 1, 1323, as a reward for long and faithful service, Bruce granted Sir William Irwyn a Free Barony in Aberdeenshire. The grant included the Castle of Drum (at the time probably just the tower and some primitive living quarters), and about 8000 acres of the original Royal Caledonian Forest. To honor his father Sir William took the name of Alexander, and thereafter Sir William was also known as Sir Alexander I, Laird of Drum.

Many of the Irvin, Irwin, Irvine, Ervin and Erwin families in America today are able to trace their ancestral line back to Scotland and Sir William Irwyn of Drum. My line began using Erwin, the most commonly accepted form in the United States, during the latter half of the eighteenth century. Shortly after Joseph N. Irvine, my immigrant ancestor, arrived in Pennsylvania about 1739, he changed his surname (pronounced “Ir-vin” in Scotland and “Ir-vine” in the U.S.) to Erwin (now pronounced “Er-win”).