Believed to have been derived from the Brythonic word ‘irafon’ meaning ‘green water’, the first lands bearing the name of Irvine appear to have been in Dumfriesshire.
According to family tradition, the chiefly family of the clan are descended from the early Celtic monarchs of Scotland and can also claim ancestry dating back to the High Kings of Ireland. They would remain close with royalty, marrying into the family of Malcolm II, before being brought to their traditional lands at Drum by Robert the Bruce, during the 14th century.
Thought to have been armour bearers for the King, research has shown that one of the clan’s early chiefs, William de Irwyn, instead took his name from the town of Irvine in Ayrshire and would serve as a clerk in the Royal Chancellory. Regardless of his job, it is known for definite that William would gain sufficient respect from the monarchy to be made the King’s representative for the Royal Forest of Drum. He would also be given the Barony of Drum, along with the tower which stood there.
Originally built during the 13th century, the tower would soon be expanded into the clan’s traditional seat, Drum Castle. Sitting near the banks of the River Dee, the clan would often become involved in lively disputes with their neighbours, particularly the Keith Clan, who would live on the other side of the river. Coveting each others’ lands, the two clans would often be drawn into battle, most notably in 1402, when the Irvines slaughtered the invading Keiths at the Battle of Drumoak.
Using their military experience, the Irvines would also fight in a number of important national battles, especially the Third Laird of Drum, Alexander, who is said to have been a ‘knight of almost legendary powers’ who would fight behind the Earl of Mar during a number of battles in France. Alexander would also feature at the Battle of Harlaw in 1411, the last great challenge by the Lords of the Isles to royal authority. Engaging in a legendary struggle with the famous MacLean of Duart, both men would die of their wounds, such was the power of their contest.
Alexander’s predecessor, the fourth Laird, would play a prominent part in the negotiations to ransom James I from the English and would be knighted for his services to the monarchy. A popular figure, he would also take control of the city of Aberdeen to try and restore order after the King was murdered in Perth and would be followed by another peacemaker, the sixth laird, who would be rewarded by the King for his efforts to suppress a long list of unsavoury characters.
Remaining loyal to King and Crown, the tenth laird, Alexander, would be a staunch royalist and supporter of Charles I. Serving as Sheriff of Aberdeen, he was on the verge of being offered the earldom of the city when the King was executed before the grant could be confirmed. Sadly for the clan, a position that had once made them among the most prominent families in the country would then make them one of the most targeted, as the majority of Aberdeenshire supported the opposing Covenanting side during the 1640s. This made their home, Drum Castle, an obvious target for anti-royalist forces, and this would prove to be the case as it was attacked, occupied and looted during the conflict. Attacked again later in the Civil War, the building would prove to be a sticking point when the laird was again offered a peerage in the aftermath of the conflict, as he refused to accept unless the King offered to pay for the restoration of his home.
Despite this refusal, the family would continue to remain loyal to the Stewarts, fighting for the Jacobite cause during the first half of the 18th century as the fourteenth laird passed away with wounds received at the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715. Following the collapse of the Jacobite cause after Culloden in 1746, the seventeenth laird would be forced into hiding, first in a secret room at Drum Castle and then in exile in France. He would eventually be allowed back to the country to regain his estates but this would mark the end of the family’s time as a powerful clan.
Until recent times, the family had continued to live on their estates at Drum Castle, only giving them up to the National Trust for Scotland in 1976. They would complete their biggest act of clan business for two and a half centuries in 2002, when the chief entered into a peace treaty with the thirteenth Earl of Kintore, Chief of Clan Keith, finally ending the feud between the clans that had been ongoing for 600 years.
The current chief of Clan Irvine is Alexander Irvine of Drum, 27th Baron of Drum.