Ross was one of the ancient mormaerdoms of Scotland, and grew out of the earlier Pictish kingdom of Fidach, or Moray, which at one time covered a much larger area. Though its early extent was restricted to what is now known as Easter Ross, the area between Moray and Sutherland around the firths of Dornoch and Cromarty, it was extended under succeeding holders to include much of the upper west coast. The mormaers of Ross were for long a threat to the stability of the kingdom and frequent attempts were made to keep them under control. The earliest known holders are of the family of MacHeth, named after Aedh, Mormaer of Ross. The first recognised holder is Malcolm MacHeth, who died around 1168, although he is sometimes confused with Malcolm MacAlexander, a bastard son of King Alexander I, and it is possible that they were involved together in various dynastic struggles against the ruling house. Malcolm MacHeth may have been followed by Donald and then Adam MacDonald, though is dubiety whether these follow as father to son. Adam may instead possibly have been son of Donald MacWilliam, a descendant of King Malcolm III who believed himself to be the rightful heir. By 1200 the MacHeth seem to have been ousted as mormaers, but one Kenneth MacHeth joined with Donald Ban MacWilliam to invade Ross in 1215. This invasion was defeated by the next holder.
Earls of Ross (c.1223)
1st Earl of Ross, Ferchar mac in t’Sagairt, b.?, a.c.1223, d.1251
Ferchar, anglicised as Farquhar MacTaggart, is considered the first earl proper. He was probably a member of a noble family in Ross, and with the backing of King Alexander II he defeated the combined forces of the MacWilliam and the MacHeth, for which he was installed officially as earl. Before this time, Ross had probably been considered more of a buffer against depradations by the Vikings, with successive kings content for local chieftains to maintain strong local forces as long as they remained well away from the centres of power. In 1235 Fergus aided Alexander in suppressing the revolt of Gille Ruadh, or Gilroy, in Galloway after the death of Alan, the last Lord of Galloway, and he was present at the Treaty of York in 1237. Marrying off his daughters to some of the most powerful men in the areas bordering the Irish Sea is evidence of his ambition.
2nd Earl of Ross, William I, b.?, a.1251, d.1274
Son of Ferchar. He was responsible for re-taking control of the Hebrides from the kings of Norway, and was rewarded by having Skye and Lewis added to his domains.
3rd Earl of Ross, William II, b.?, a.1274, d.1323
Son of William I and Johanna Comyn, daughter of William Comyn, Earl of Buchan. During the Wars of Independence he was captured by the English at the Battle of Dunbar and afterwards committed himself to their side. As was common amongst the surviving Gaelic lords in Scotland, overlordship by England was seen as a way of preserving, if not expanding, their domains at the expense of the lowland Scots. He even handed over Bruce’s wife Elizabeth de Burgh, and daughter Marjorie, to the English, after they had been captured in Tain. By 1306, this had put in him direct conflict with Bruce, and when Bruce brought an army north in 1308, with support from some of William’s neighbours in Skye, William submitted, receiving Dingwall as a reward or bribe. He led the Ross forces at the Battle of Bannockburn and was a signatory to the Declaration of Arbroath.
4th Earl of Ross, Hugh, b.c.1275, a.1323, d.1333
Son of William II. His mother was possibly Euphemia de Balliol, sister of the famous King John Balliol, or Euphemia de Barclay, daughter of Sir Hugh de Berkeley, Justiciar of Lothian. Hugh was a favourite of Bruce, receiving extensive estates, in particular Skye, and married the King’s sister Matilda (also known as Maud). When she died he married Margaret Graham, and their daughter Eupheme became Countess of Moray by marriage to Sir John Randolph, 3rd Earl of Moray. When Randolph died, Eupheme married Robert Stewart, 6th High Steward and eventual King Robert II. Hugh of Ross died at the Battle of Halidon Hill.
5th Earl of Ross, William III, b.?, a.1333, d.1371-1372
Son of Hugh and Matilda Bruce. He was friendly with the Stewarts, and was made Justiciar of Scotland. However, the Lordship of Skye, handed to his father by Bruce, was handed back to Reginald, Lord of the Isles, by King David II. When David invaded England in 1346, William, in revenge, refused to accompany him. David was captured at the Battle of Neville’s cross and kept as a prisoner in England until 1357 on agreement to pay a large ransom. William continued to ignore any requests for help and in 1370 he was made forfeit, with the earldom being passed to his daughter Euphemia and her husband Walter Leslie.
6th Earl (Countess) of Ross, Euphemia, b.1342-1345, a.1370, d.1394-1395
7th Earl of Ross, Alexander Leslie, b.?, a.1394-1395, d.1402
Son of the Countess and Sir Walter Leslie (b.?, d.1381-1382). His widowed mother married Alexander Stewart, the Wolf of Badenoch, son of King Robert II, who was granted substantial lands formerly within the earldom of Ross. Shortly after the marriage in 1382, he was also created 1st Earl of Buchan, leaving a greatly reduced inheritance for Leslie, and alienating the powerful Leslie and Lindsay families from the King. However, with Robert III coming to the throne, backed by the powerful influence of his brother, Robert Stewart, Earl of Fife and later Duke of Albany, Buchan’s power was eroded and his marriage annulled by the Pope due to his having co-habited with his mistress for many years. This situation allowed Leslie to succeed his mother with little trouble.
8th Earl (Countess) of Ross, Euphemia Leslie, b.?, a.1402, d.1394-1398
Daughter of the 7th Earl and Isabella Stewart, daughter of Robert Stewart, 1st Duke of Albany. She was under total control of her grandfather Albany, and she eventually resigned the earldom to his own son rather than her father’s sister Mariota (b.?, d.1440). Mariota married Domhnall of Islay, Lord of the Isles, and they pressed Mariota’s claim, having control of the earldom’s main seat at Dingwall Castle and the nominal backing of the young King James I, then being held captive by the English. In 1411 Domhnall led a strong Highland army into Aberdeenshire, but was repulsed at the Battle of Harlaw by Alexander Stewart, 11th Earl of Mar, an illegitimate son of Buchan. This battle is often portrayed as being a conflict between the Gaelic-speaking Viking influenced tribal Celt and the English-speaking Anglo-French influenced Celt, but in my opinion this is giving it too much weight as a mirror of the times. In any case, it was a fiercely fought contest with large numbers of casualties. With the outcome undecided, Domhnall retreated to the Isles, giving Albany time to raise another army and send it north. This force was large enough to push right into Easter Ross, taking Dingwall, and forcing Domhnall to surrender his claim. In 1415 Albany persuaded Euphemia to resign the earldom to his son John Stewart, who was already 3rd Earl of Buchan. By the time that James returned from captivity in England, both Albany and Domhnall had died, Albany having been succeeded by his son Murdoch Stewart. James removed Murdoch from power and had him executed for treason, and gave support to Mariota’s claims, allowing her son to succeed as earl in 1437.
9th Earl of Ross, John Stewart, b.c.1381, a.1415, d.1424
Son of Robert Stewart, Earl of Fife and Duke of Albany, and Muriel Keith. He is principally known as 3rd Earl of Buchan and had little involvement in the Ross earldom.
10th Earl of Ross, Alexander Macdonald, b.?, a.1437, d.1449
Son of Mariota Leslie, sister of the 7th Earl, and Domhnall of Skye, Lord of the Isles. Himself Lord of the Isles from 1423, he was a supporter of James I against the Albany Stewarts. However, once Murdoch Stewart and his allies were removed from power, Alexander declared himself Earl of Ross, whereas the King also had a justifiable claim being a cousin of the previous holder. In 1428 James travelled north to enforce his authority and arranged to meet Alexander at Inverness, but took him prisoner along with his mother and several close allies such as MacKay, Munro, Mathieson and MacKenzie. James had to release his prisoners to save face after Alexander’s uncle John Macdonald was killed by a royal messenger. The following year, the Macdonalds went to war, taking Inverness, with the aim of replacing the King with James Stewart, son of Murdoch of Albany, who had support in the Albany Stewart earldoms of Fife and Menteith and also from England. This James Stewart died suddenly, fortunately for the King, and he led a large army north into Badenoch, where Clan Chattan and the Camerons came out on his side. Alexander fled the battlefield and the King took the major castles of Urquhart and Dingwall. With the threat of artillery now being used against him, Alexander turned himself in, and he was confined at Tantallon Castle under the control of William Douglas, 2nd Earl of Angus. James now handed the task of quelling the rebellious provinces to Alexander Stewart, 11th Earl of Mar. However, in both Lochaber and Strathnaver, the King’s men met with defeat, and not being able to afford a protracted campaign, James released Alexander. In 1435 Mar died without an heir, and with him went King’s influence over the north-eastern highlands. James had no option but to recognise Alexander as Earl of Ross. In 1439 Alexander was made Justiciar of Scotland, and in the last few years of his life parcelled out large areas of Ross to his chief vassals.
11th Earl of Ross, John Macdonald, b.c.1435, a.1449, d.1503
Son of the 10th Earl and Elizabeth Seton, daughter of Sir Alexander Seton, Lord of Gordon and Huntly. As Lord of the Isles he had pretensions for kinghood, if not of the whole of Scotland, then all of Scotland north of the Forth. He was encouraged, possibly by the King, to marry Elizabeth Livingston, daughter of James Livingston, 1st Lord Livingston (for whom see the earls of Linlithgow), who was highly influential at Court, but when Livingston briefly fell from favour and fled to his son-in-law’s protection, Ross used the opportunity to rise in rebellion, and started out by taking the royal castles of Inverness, Urquhart and Dingwall back into his possession. He also made a bond with William Douglas, 8th Earl of Douglas, and Alexander Lindsay, 4th Earl of Crawford, the most powerful of the southern nobles. However, when James II murdered Douglas for refusing to break this bond, Macdonald did nothing untoward, and after the collapse of the Black Douglas, took the opportunity to extend his influence into the borders. Soon after James died in 1460, the Lancastrian Henry VI sought refuge with the Scottish court after being forced out by the House of York. Ross was approached by James Douglas, the exiled last earl of Douglas, acting as an emissary of Edward VI, and in return sent his own representatives to London to negotiate a treaty for him to pay homage to Edward in return for control of Scotland north of the Forth. In reality, Edward was using Ross as a diversion in order to put the Scots under pressure not to support the Lancastrians. Ross, as part of the agreement, advanced his forces further eastwards, with the quickly-desired effect that the Scots washed their hands of Henry. Ross, possibly seeing through the deceit, retired his troops and everything went quiet. However, some years later, when Edward needed to keep the peace with the Scots while at war in France, he informed James III of the terms of his treaty with Ross. Ross was immediately declared forfeit as a traitor and forced to submit himself to the King in the summer of 1476. He was treated comparatively leniently, but was stripped of much of his domains, and created Lord of the Isles anew as a vassal of the King, with much loss to his personal standing. The pressure was too much, and he was ousted as Lord of the Isles and head of Clan Donald by his son, Angus Og Macdonald, and defeated at sea in the Battle of the Bloody Bay, off Tobermory, in 1481. Angus retook Easter Ross but was initially pressurised by the earls of Atholl and Huntly. In 1488 Angus took the opportunity caused by a rebellion in the south of the country to take Inverness again, but he was murdered in his sleep in 1490, after which John re-appeared under the influence of his nephew Alexander Macdonald of Lochalsh. They attempted to resume control of Ross but where beaten by the Mackenzie Clan, and in 1493 James IV abolished the title of Lord of the Isles. John Macdonald died in idle captivity some years later.
Earls of Ross (1481)
1st Earl of Ross, James Stewart, b.1476, a.1481, d.1504
Son of King James III and Margaret of Denmark. He was also created 1st Lord Ardmannoch and 1st Lord Brechin and Navar. In 1488 he was created 1st Duke of Ross.
Dukes of Ross (1488)
1st Duke of Ross, James Stewart, b.1476, a.1488, d.1504
He was made Archbishop of St Andrews in 1497 and Lord Chancellor in 1502, but died young, all his titles becoming extinct at his death.
Duke of Ross (1514)
1st Duke of Ross, Alexander Stewart, b.1514, a.1514, d.1515
Fourth and youngest son of King James IV and Margaret Tudor.
Earls of Ross (1565)
1st Earl of Ross, Henry Stuart, b.1545, a.1565, d.1567
The son of Matthew Stuart, 4th Earl of Lennox and Lady Margaret Douglas (b.1515, d.1578), daughter of Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus. He was born in Yorkshire during his father’s exile from Scotland, and was known as Lord Darnley from his baptism, as heir to the earldom of Lennox. In 1564 the family returned to Scotland when his father’s rights were restored by Parliament. By birth he was in the succession for both the English and Scottish thrones, as was his cousin Queen Mary, to whom he was related in several different ways, and they were married in 1565. As consort of the Queen, he was given the titles of 1st Duke of Albany, 1st Earl of Ross and 1st Lord Ardmannoch. However the marriage was strained from the beginning, he being an unpleasant character, unpopular with the other nobles, and with a drinking problem that exacerbated a violent streak. Although they managed to produce an heir between them, their relationship went from bad to worse, and he had her secretary David Rizzio murdered in a fit of jealousy. Things settled down briefly when Mary gave birth, but he had made too many enemies at court, and his body was found in the gardens of the Kirk o’Field in Edinburgh where he had been staying, having fled his bedchamber after an explosion had taken place in the house. He had probably evaded the first attempt to murder him only to be run down by the conspirators outside. Suspicion initially fell on James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, Mary’s next husband, but he was too powerful to take on at the time, until other events took over. Much later, Esme Stuart, Darnley’s uncle, became a major influence over the young king and used the murder as an excuse to get rid of his rival James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton, who was executed in 1581. Much conspiracy theory still surrounds the death, stirred up the famous Casket letters from Mary to Bothwell, purportedly written between 1566 and 1567, that later appeared in public and were debated by the Scottish Parliament, which was keen to see Mary tried for murder. Elizabeth of England ordered an enquiry into the question but was little interested in its outcome, and nothing was ever proven. The original letters were destroyed by James VI in 1584 but some copies and possible forgeries, and even forgeries of forgeries, have kept the conspiracy going to the present day.
2nd Earl of Ross, James Stuart, b.1566, a.1567, d.1625
Son of the 1st Earl and Mary, Queen of Scots. In February of 1567 he succeeded to the titles that had been awarded to his father and in July of that year became King James VI.
Earls of Ross (1603)
1st Earl of Ross, Charles Stuart, b.1600, a.1603, d.1649
Son of King James VI and Anne of Denmark. As second heir after his older brother he was created Duke of Albany, Marquess of Ormonde, Earl of Ross and Lord Ardmannoch. In 1605 he was created Duke of York, and in 1612 he became heir after his brother’s death and was additionally made Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, to be followed in 1616 by Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester before becoming King Charles I.
(Last updated: 22/04/2011)