According to family legend, the Keith clan are descended from the Germanic Chatti tribe and first arrived in Scotland after fleeing from the Roman Empire.
As this story goes, the family then struggled for years to prove themselves to the Scottish natives, but would eventually begin their rise to prominence after their chief, Robert, slew the Danish chief, Camus, at the Battle of Barrie in 1010 – proving himself to the King. For this act, Robert would be rewarded with lands in East Lothian and the office of marischal of Scotland.
Unfortunately, while this story evokes a sense of romanticism about the arrival of the clan, it is perhaps more likely that they simply take their name from the lands of Keith in East Lothian. This would appear to make more sense as the first recorded Keith ancestor would be Hervey de Keith, a 12th-century man recorded as marischal to the king. This detail matches the original story of the Keith clan’s emergence and, as both facts are associated with Hervey de Keith, it is likely that this is where the story originates from.
Therefore, while there is debate over their origin, it is very likely that the family first resided in East Lothian and it is certain that they would hold the title of marischal as record state they remained in this position until late as 1715 – giving them consistent access to the King.
Despite their early association with East Lothian, however, the Keith clan would eventually branch out into other areas of Scotland and were granted Hallforest, the Aberdeenshire royal forest, in 1308 by Robert the Bruce. The Keith chief, Robert, would then play a big part in Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn in 1314 – leading the cavalry to a rout of the English archers – and the clan would soon after gain their iconic seat, Dunnottar Castle as they continued to grow their reputation.
By the 16th century, the Keiths were arguably the strongest clan in Scotland outside of the monarchy and would hold lands from the very north to the south of the country. Such was their hold over Scotland, it was even suggested by some that a Keith earl could travel from Berwick upon Tweed to Caithness and sleep every night on their own estates.
This would be the high point of the Keith clan’s dominance over Scottish affairs, however, as their fortunes would slowly go into decline in the coming years. This would begin with the capture of William, seventh earl, by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in 1651 – as he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The Earl would eventually be freed after the restoration but he and his Keith relatives would lose much of the land they had held before the Civil War.
Loyal to the Stewarts for generations, the family would then have no hesitation jumping to their defence during the Jacobite Rising of 1715 but this would lead to a further loss of land and titles as the tenth earl was forced to forfeit the remainder of his estates.
After this fall from grace, the earls would find themselves playing a part in continental affairs as they hurried to leave Scotland behind. The earl himself would thrive in this new situation, earning the highest order of Prussia, the Black Eagle, but this would be the beginning of the end for the family as an influential name in domestic or foreign politics as they would mostly be confined to the background as they lost their high standing within Scottish society. Despite this, they would remain a big part of life in Aberdeenshire and would continue to remain in charge of their seat at Keith Hall until the present day. It is here that the current clan chief, Sir James William Falconer Keith of Urie, lives and the clan also has a popular society that can be accessed online.