Isabel Douglas Drummond,
Countess of Mar and Garoich
When I research the people in my family tree I often fall in love with them as I did with James Douglas or Thomas Randolph. How could I not? They were men perfect to be heroes of the romance novels I pen. Or I see their lives unfold, almost as if designed for a movie as in the romance of Margaret de Seton and Alan de Wynton— a love and marriage that nearly sparked a war. Sometimes, I am overcome with sadness at the fate of my ancestors. Such as the valiant hero Alexander Ramsay, who was abused and starved to death by William Douglas of Liddlesdale (who was then killed by another William Douglas—his uncle, the first earl of Douglas—in revenge for Alexander’s horrible death). Another poor soul that touched me was my second great-grandmother, Rebecca Ellen Knight Montgomerie, who starved to death in 1937 in Nicholasville, Kentucky, ten years after her beloved husband had died and left her alone and destitute. My grandfather remembered both Rebecca and Toby—his grandparents, and spoke of them with love and pride. No one cared about her fate.
One that especially haunts me is Isabel Douglas, my cousin eighteen times removed. Born in Scotland, Isabel was beauty, a rich woman, well-titled and endowed with castles and money. She came with a rich heritage, so vital to the forging of Scotland into a nation. And yet, all that power, wealth and influence failed her in a most spectacular, and horribly sad fashion.
Her bloodlines came from the great Scottish houses of nobility. Her great- grandfather on her father’s side was William ‘le Hardi’ Douglas – the valiant commander of Berwick Castle, who gave his life supporting William Wallace. He was the first noble to back Wallace in his rebellion. His son went on to be the fiercest fighter Scotland has ever known—Sir James ‘the Black’ Douglas. Yes, Robert the Bruce’s most trusted commander was her great-granduncle. But then, on her mother’s side you can see the ancient Stewart and Mar lines, going back to Bruce himself. She was his great-grandniece, as well. Her father was William Douglas, 1st earl of Douglas, Mormaer of Mar (the very one who killed his nephew William Douglas over the murder of Alexander Ramsay). Her mother was Margret Stewart Swinton Mar, Countess of Douglas (through her husband), but also Countess of Mar and Garioch, in her own right.
Isabel was thus courted by all the men in the Highlands, the most sought after woman in all of Scotland, looking to align themselves with these royal houses of Douglas, Stewart, Bruce and Mar. Of all the swains vying for her hand, Isabel chose Sir Malcolm Drummond, the son of John Drummond, 11th earl of Lennox, to be her husband, a fine match. He was brother-in-law to King Robert III of Scotland. Matters went along well for the couple for nearly a decade. Her husband was a trusted advisor to the king, and was often traveling on business of the realm. They seemed happy, outside of Isabel bearing no children. That last detail would soon come back to haunt her.
She was a prize, indeed, but she expected all the castles and titles that went with her family name to go to her older brother, James Douglas. He became the 2nd earl of Douglas and Mar upon the death of their father. She was married, so beyond the covetous eyes of Scotland’s power-hungry men. However, her heroic and dashing brother gave his life leading the Scots to victory at the Battle of Otterburn in August 1388. He died without leaving any legitimate children, and with his death, all his titles and wealth, outside the Douglas entailment, were left to his sister. She also inherited the titles through her mother, Countess of Mar and Garioch. Like her brother, Isabel had no children—heirs, and worse, no powerful husband, brother or father to protect her. Suddenly, she was left wide open to plots and devious plans to seize her and control the fortune, castles and the prestigious titles that came with her.
Death of James Douglas, 2nd earl of Douglas at Otterburn
In 1402, Isabel was left behind at Kildrummy Castle, the seat for the Earldom of Mar, while Malcolm was off for business at one of their other castles. No sooner had he reached his destination than he was set upon by a band of Highlanders, led by Alexander Stewart, the illegitimate son of Alexander Stewart, earl of Buchan, ‘the Wolf of Badenoch’. Alexander tossed Malcolm into the dungeon of his own castle, where he soon died at the hands of his captors. Isabel was left alone and increasingly isolated.
A crime such as this would have been dealt with swiftly in better times, but Scotland was undergoing a period of upheaval. The king was old and sick, nearly infirmed by this point, and the real power in the country was Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany, who virtually was king from 1388 to 1420, during the final years of reign of his brother Robert III, and even into the early reign of James I, who had been imprisoned in London. His nephew David, duke of Rothesay was heir to the crown, but he died after Albany imprisoned him at Falkirk. When one plays fast and free with laws and decency, I suppose it’s not surprising that he turned a blind eye at what his nephew Alexander did to Malcolm Drummond.
In August of 1404, Alexander and his gang fell upon Kildrummy Castle and forced Isabel to sign over the earldoms of Mar and Garloich to him and his descendants. I am sure after Alexander murdered her husband, she signed anything put before her just to save her life. The next month, she anticipated that the charter would be invalidated for reason of duress. It’s unclear what happened, whether the charter was voided or not, but Alexander took steps to seal her fate by forcing her to marry him on 9th December 1404. Since she was now legally his wife, the king (Alexander’s cousin) confirmed Alexander as the earl of Mar and Garloich.
The events shocked the kingdom, but Alexander escaped any punishment due to his close relationship with the royal family. Isabel was held prisoner for the last four years of her life, dying in Douglas Castle in 1408. No one cared that the murderer of her husband forced her to wed him so he could usurp her titles and inheritances, or kept her prisoner during the final years of her life. After all, she was just a woman. She was barely forty-seven years old when she died. She died childless. Totally alone.
In 1424 his self-styled titles of earls of Mar and Garioch were regularized by James I, his cousin. Alexander Stewart lived on, dying in August of 1435. He had remarried in 1410, to Marie van Hoorn, daughter of the Lord of Duffel. She failed to give him any heirs. He did have an illegitimate son, Thomas Stewart, who married Elizabeth, daughter of Archibald Douglas, 4th earl of Douglas, duke of Toraine, and great-granddaughter of James ‘the Black’ Douglas. However, since he was illegitimate he could not inherit the titles his father had stolen. Oddly enough, Alexander was on a jury of twenty-one knights and peers that convicted his first cousin, Murdoch Steward, 2nd duke of Albany and two of his sons for treason just before his death, destroying the Stewarts of Albany. Another son, James fled to Ireland to escape the same fate.
Since the earldom could not pass to Thomas, it reverted to the crown, and was later given to John Erskine, 6th Lord Erskine, whose descendants hold the title to this day. I have a feeling Isabel perhaps found some measure of peace in Stewart losing in the end what he fought so hard to gain.
My writer’s imagination can envision the terror of a woman finding herself alone in the world, and her only value is the material things she can offer a man. I often wonder about her death, how she died at such an early age. I can see her in my mind’s eye, walking a dark corridor and knowing there was no saving herself. As I said, she haunts me.
Deborah writes a Scottish Medieval Historical series the Dragons of Challon in the time of Robert the Bruce,
and Contemporary Paranormal Romance series
and Contemporary Paranormal Romance series
the Sister of Colford Hall.