Douglas, the name of one of the most ancient and powerful noble families of Scotland, descendants, according to one tradition, of a Fleming, Theobald, to whom Arnold, abbot of Kelso, made a grant of lands on the Douglas or Blackwater, in Lanarkshire, about the middle of the 12th century. According to another story, their progenitor was an unknown chief who, as a reward for success in battle, received lands in the same locality about 770. The best historians do not give credence to either of these legends, but pronounce it impossible to trace the authentic history of the race further back than "William de Douglas, about 1175-1213. From him were descended, through Archibald, William and Andrew, successive heads of the house, Sir James Douglas of Loudon, and his cousin, "the good Sir James," who fought with Bruce at Bannockburn, and commanded a portion of the Scottish army. After Bruce's death he was intrusted with the duty of carrying the king's heart, as he had directed, to the Holy Land, and on his journey fell in a combat with the Saracens. From Sir James of Loudon was descended William de Douglas, lord of Liddesdale, called " the flower of chivalry," and from " the good Sir James " Sir William Douglas, knight of Liddesdale, called by Fordun " England's scourge." These two leaders were among the most famous feudal warriors of their time.
Sir William, being a natural son, did not inherit the family estates, which passed to Hugh and Archibald, his uncles, through the latter of whom they descended to William, who was made earl of Douglas and lord justiciar of Lothian at the accession of King Robert II., in 1371. By marriage with a daughter of the earl of Mar he became earl of Douglas and Mar. His son James married the daughter of the king, but died without male issue, and the combined titles and estates were again divided, those of Mar going to his sister, and those of Douglas returning into the family of "the good Sir James " in the person of a second natural son, Archibald the Grim, who thus became third earl of Douglas. Meanwhile, George, a descendant of William, the first earl, and Margaret, sister of the third earl of Angus, had obtained in 1389 the earldom of Angus through his mother's resignation of her claim; and another of the family, a descendant of a younger brother of William, lord of Liddesdale, was in 1458 made earl of Morton; so that three separate earldoms were held by the house of Douglas by the middle of the 15th century.
The power of the family was so great in Scotland that a current proverb declared, "No man may touch a Douglas, nor a Douglas's man; for if he do, he is sure to come by the waur." - The two great-grandsons of Archibald the Grim, whose power had been greatly increased through the influence of their father (who had been one of the council of regency after the death of James I., and afterward lieutenant general of the realm), brought the main branch of the family to its highest point of distinction. Taking advantage of the infancy of the heir to the throne, and of the quarrels of the feudal nobles, they made themselves independent of all authority, assumed the state of kings, and for a long time practically maintained a kingdom of their own. Their ruin was effected through a series of political complications, and both were executed for treason in 1440, the earldom passing to a granduncle. By the latter's son William the power of the family was for a time restored, but he was also finally defeated in conflicts with the crown. He was murdered by James II. in 1452, leaving no issue; and with the final defeat of his brother James, after similar attempts to maintain a separate authority, this branch of the house of Douglas was overthrown.
The earldom expired by forfeiture in 1455; and Earl James was compelled by James III. to become a monk, and died in the abbey of Lindores in April, 1488. - Meanwhile the Angus branch of the family, in the persons of the descendants of George, had remained loyal during these complicated conflicts, and had consequently increased in power with the waning influence of the older line. In 1455 George, fourth earl of Angus, was rewarded for his devotion to the royal cause by a grant of the old family estate of Douglas Dale, taken from the earl of Douglas. Dying in 1462, he was succeeded by his son Archibald, called " Bell-the-Cat" or "the Great Earl." He derived the former title from an exclamation which he made at a deliberation of the nobles regarding the best means of removing Cochrane, one of the king's favorites, who had become obnoxious. Lord Gray compared the meeting to that of the mice, who decided that the best plan to deliver themselves from the cat's tyranny was to hang a bell about her neck.
On the question being raised as to who would dare to perform this feat, Douglas boldly replied, " I will bell the cat." He was warden of the east marches and lord high chancellor, an office which he resigned in 1498. He used his whole influence to dissuade the king (James IV.) from the invasion that ended in the battle of Flodden (1513); and, heart-broken at the results and at the loss of his own sons, two of whom fell in the battle, he retired to the priory at Whit-hern, in Galloway, where he died shortly after. One of his surviving sons, Sir Archibald Douglas of Kilspindie, sustained the family power in protracted contentions with the Hamiltons, and after holding other offices was made lord treasurer in 1526 by James V.; while the title passed to the great earl's grandson, Archibald, sixth earl of Angus, who also took a prominent part in political affairs, and became lord high chancellor in 1527. He had married in 1514 the queen dowager of Scotland, Margaret, the sister of Henry VIII. of England, and by her became the father of Margaret, afterward wife of the earl of Lennox, mother of Lord Darnley, and grandmother of James VI. In the lawless state of Scotland at this time, Angus held his power by keeping the young king, James V., for a long time a positive prisoner, carrying on meanwhile a constant warfare with other powerful nobles of the kingdom (see James V. of Scotland); but in 1528 James escaped, took affairs into his own hands with the greatest energy, and, turning upon the family that had so long oppressed him, made a vow that during his reign the Douglases should "have no peace" in the kingdom.
Angus was exiled, and sentence of forfeiture passed against him; he remained in England till James's death, after which he was restored to his title and estates. He died in 1556, and was followed by his son and grandson in regular succession; but on the latter's death without male issue the title passed to Sir William Douglas of Glenbervie, great-grandson of Archibald Bell-the-Cat. To him James VI. granted a charter confirming all the ancient rights of the family. He died in 1611, and the title from this time continued in the regular male line of descent, until William, 11th earl, was made marquis of Douglas in 1633. In 1703 the title duke of Douglas was created, but the head of the house, Archibald, dying childless in 1761, this latter became extinct, and the marquisate passed to a relative, the duke of Hamilton. The next succession became a subject of litigation among several branches of the family; but in 1771 the house of lords gave judgment in favor of the son of Lady Jane Douglas, the duke's sister, as the rightful heir; and he was made a peer in 1790, under the title of Baron Douglas of Douglas castle, Lanarkshire, which became extinct at the death of his son James in 1857, when the Douglas estates passed to a niece, the countess of Home. - It has been said that a descendant of a younger brother of William of Liddes-dale was made earl of Morton in 1458. This one of the family titles descended in due course for three generations; but the third earl died without male issue in 1553, and the earldom passed to his son-in-law, James Douglas, famous as the regent Morton, and a descendant of Archibald Bell-the-Cat. (See Morton, Earl of.) After the execution of the regent in 1581 the Morton title passed to the Angus branch of the family, in the person of Archibald, eighth earl; but when he died without issue in 1588, it devolved upon Sir William Douglas, called "of Lochleven," a descendant of the knight of Liddesdale's brother.
The civil war compelled him to sell a large portion of the Douglas lands. What remained of his part of the family property descended with the title in due course to the present earl of Morton, who bears with it the titles attaching to two portions of the Douglas estates, viz., that of Baron Douglas of Lochleven (conferred on George, 18th earl of Morton, in 1791), and Lord Aber-dour (created at the same time with the Morton earldom). - Other titles have been conferred at various periods on members of the main family, not mentioned in the history just given of the direct lines. Thus, in 1646, the title of earl of Selkirk was conferred on the third son of the first marquis of Douglas, and in 1651 the oldest son of that marquis was made earl of Ormond, and in 1661 earl of Forfar. In 1675 a fourth son of the same family was made earl of Dumbarton. In 1641 the title of Lord Mordington was conferred on the second son of the 10th earl of Angus. All these titles are now extinct or dormant excepting that of earl of Selkirk. The descendants of Sir William Douglas of Drumlanrig, an illegitimate son of the second earl of Douglas and Mar, form another important branch of the Douglas family.
They were created successively viscounts of Drumlanrig (1628), earls of Queensberry (1633), marquises of Queens-berry (1682), dukes of Queensberry (1684), earls of March (1697), and earls of Solway (1706). The title of duke of Queensberry passed, however, in 1810, to the duke of Buc-cleuch; the title of marquis of Queensberry is still borne by the lineal descendants of the family. In the Angus branch of the Douglas family certain privileges were vested, among them the right, in ancient times, to cast the first vote in parliament, to lead the vanguard in battle, and to bear the crown in public solemnities. The right to bear the Scottish crown in its coat of arms was retained by the family to the present century. The motto Jamais arriere probably commemorates these hereditary honors of the earls of Angus; while " the good Sir James Douglas " added to the armorial bearings the conspicuous device of the bloody heart, commemorative of the bequest of Robert Bruce. The Douglases also bear upon their arms three stars (mullets), which is also a device of the Murrays, and lends a degree of probability to the theory of some genealogists, that the families descend from a common stock. - For the history of the Douglas family see especially " A History of the Houses of Douglas and Angus," by David Hume of Godscroft, first printed in folio, 1644, and reprinted in 1748. This work, though valuable to the antiquary, is not always historically accurate.