Centre for Lifelong Learning

Tracing of Declaration of Arbroath signatories highlighted in report

Signatories of one of Scotland’s most-famous historical documents, and their descendants, have been highlighted in research by the University of Strathclyde.

Genealogy researchers at the University have compiled a progress report on the family histories of the men who put their names or attached their seals to the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, which asserted Scottish sovereignty.

The Declaration of Arbroath Family History Project has, to date, gathered information on 40 of the document’s 48 signatories, while the remaining eight were covered in the previous Battle of Bannockburn Family History Project. The new report focuses on 15 of them, along with King Robert the Bruce.

The report is based on research by Postgraduate Diploma students at Strathclyde and staff from the University’s Genealogical Studies Postgraduate Programme. It has been published to coincide with St Andrew’s Day today (Monday 30 November).

Graham Holton is Principal Tutor on Strathclyde’s Genealogical Studies Postgraduate Programme, based in the University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning. He said: “The project was devised to provide a learning opportunity for our Postgraduate Diploma students to carry out research in medieval genealogy, to research the lives and families of the ‘signatories’ of the Declaration, including present-day descendants, and to develop methodologies for the use of genetic genealogy in tracing early descents.

Brief biographies, four generation genealogies and coats of arms have now been compiled for the 48 signatories, forming a significant foundation for further research and covering a number of lesser known barons.

“The genetic genealogy research is very much ongoing and conclusions are likely to be refined and clarified in due course. However, considerable progress has been made in reaching a number of significant conclusions and it is appropriate that these should be made more widely known at this stage. Collaboration with several surname DNA projects has been an important aspect of the research.”

The researchers have reached firm conclusions about descents from four families: Dunbar; Seton; Boyd and Stewart.

The Dunbar family has what is likely to be one of the longest British unbroken documented male line ancestries, descending from Crinan the Thane, who was born around the late 10th century and has male line descendants to this day, as shown by both documentary and DNA evidence. Patrick Dunbar, Earl of March, who is named in the Declaration of Arbroath, left no male line descendants, but three baronetcies still exist, held by descendants of his brother Alexander. 

Research has identified DNA markers called SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms), which indicate descent from Alexander Dunbar. At least 10 descendants of Alexander in the UK and North America including three with documented unbroken descents to Alexander have tested confirming the markers as indicative of this descent.

It has been suggested that the ancestry of the Seton family was originally Flemish but it is certain that the family settled in Lothian, where Alexander de Seton held land which was probably granted to him by King David I of Scotland, in the mid-12th century.

The Alexander Seton who placed his seal on the Declaration left no sons of his own but his daughter, Margaret, married Alan de Wyntoun, who was very likely a Seton by descent the family having taken the surname from their estate of Wyntoun. Many of their male line descendants are living today.

Through changes of surname connected with inheritance, some Setons took the name Gordon. Any men of the surname Gordon who carry a specific SNP can now be identified as being from the branch of the family who are genetically Setons and therefore descendants of Alexander Seton, 1st Earl of Huntly, who lived in the 15th century.

Previous research by the project found that Philip Stead, a postgraduate student at Strathclyde, has ancestry to Alexander Seton, the signatory of the Declaration, being descended from a child of George Seton, the Fifth Earl of Winton, who lived in the first half of the 18th century.

The project has also identified descendants of the Boyd family, which includes Earls of Kilmarnock and which was first recorded in Irvine, North Ayrshire, in 1205. A member of this family was Sir Robert Boyd of Noddsdale, who was a prominent supporter of King Robert the Bruce, although not a signatory of the Declaration.

Considerable progress had been made in researching the Stewart family in the earlier Battle of Bannockburn Family History Project, in particular the identification of genetic markers indicating descent from two of the sons of King Robert II. This has now been supplemented by the significant discovery of a marker showing descent from another of his sons, Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany (1340-1420). This is an important development meaning that now, Stewart men carrying one of three specific SNP markers can be identified as descendants of King Robert III, the Duke of Albany or Sir John Stewart, Sheriff of Bute.

The researchers hope to be able to stage a public exhibition based on the project in 2021.

The Declaration of Arbroath Family History Project Report is published by the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy, on behalf of Strathclyde’s Centre for Lifelong Learning and can be ordered through their online shop at https://fmg.ac/shop/bookshop  Further information on the project can be seen at https://www.strath.ac.uk/studywithus/centreforlifelonglearning/genealogy/declarationofarbroathresearch/