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Friday, January 14, 2022

Isabel Douglas Drummond Stewart, Countess of Mar


Isabel Douglas Drummond,
Countess of Mar and Garoich

She was the richest, most sought after woman in Scotland. The great-grandniece of Robert the Bruce and James "Black" Douglas. Her brother died a hero leading Scotland to victory at the Battle of Otterburn.  Her father was the mighty William Douglas, 1st earl of Douglas....and none of that could save her.

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.

arms of James Douglas, 2nd earl of Douglas

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. 

Kildrummy Castle

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 in the summer of 1404 Isabel Douglas Countess of Mar and Garioch and Stewart held a major meeting in the fields in front of the gates of Kildrummy Castle. The "purpose" was to "consider the needs of the state and local government" with Alexander, Bishop of Ross, Andrew Leslie of Sydie, Walter Ogilvy of Carcary, William Chalmers, Richard Lovell, Thomas Gray and all the people of the neighborhood. In presence of this noble assembly, Isabel agreed to marry Alexander Stewart, and handed over to him the castle of Kildrummy, with all its charters and rich goods and the earldom of Mar.  Oddly handled affair, for if she was marrying him of free will, then why make a demonstrations of giving him all her money, titles and castles?  The marriage took place 9th December 1404 sealing her fate.  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.

Castle Douglas

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.

There is an interesting side note to this, just my supposition.  Isabel's brother, James, the 2nd earl of Douglas, married Isabella Stewart, the illegitimate daughter of Robert II and Elizabeth Mure.  Like her brother Alexander Stewart, the Wolf of Badenoch, when Robert II married Mure, both Alexander and Isabella Stewart were made legit.  

However, after James Douglas' death at the Battle of Otterburn, the bulk of his monies went to his sister, along with all lands not entailed to the Douglas line.  I have to ponder if Isabella, a "princess" of the Stewart line, was forced to wed a second husband after James' death, wasn't a bit jealous of Isabel Douglas, her sister-in-law.  Isabel was younger by a decade, considered the most sought after woman in Scotland, beautiful, with dozens of castles and the most wealthy woman in Scotland, thanks impart to her brother.

It was the son of Isabella's brother who murdered Murdoch Drummond, and took Isabel Douglas hostage, later forcing her to marry.  Maybe it's the writer's mind in me, but it makes me curious what, if any, part Isabella Stewart Douglas played in the plotting for her nephew to seize control of Isabel Douglas Drummond?

Deborah writes a Scottish Medieval Historical series the Dragons of Challon in the time of Robert the Bruce,
and Contemporary  Paranormal Romance series 
the Sister of Colford Hall.


  1. A sad and tragic history. Haunting, as you say, Deborah. Women at that time could be so horribly vulnerable and so easily abused.

    1. I was eager to see The Last Duel, since it was being presented as a #MeToo sort of drama -- a woman who claimed rape, which in turn was pushed to the last legal duel in France. While parts of it was very good, others felt a story still told by men about men-- the woman was just the cause. It is horrible to think a woman who descended from heroes could be used as a pawn in the games of evil men and literally had no means to save herself.

  2. In many ways it seems better to be poor, than born into so much wealth it becomes a rat's nest of menace and intrigue like this. What a horrible life that poor woman endured.

    1. You often see women of this period married off time and time again. First marriages at 12-15 years old and three more husbands after the death of the first one, and with the women dying in the 30s and 40s, or eventually shoved into a nunnery so husbands could marry an "upgrade". Women were property, a means to gain alliances, money or titles, or even used to settle feuds between clans. They had little or no say in these "men's" matters. And as you point out, the richer, higher titled a female was the bigger the target she became.

  3. How you can put together all this history about these people is quite beyond me. You must spend most of your days researching.
    I was told Isabel Douglas was related in some way to my family as well, but just how I have no idea.
    It is disheartening to me how women were held in such low esteem by men, considered possessions and good only for producing heirs and contributing to the men's treasury.
    An exceptionally written article. All the very best to you, Deborah.

    1. Thank you, Sarah. This story has consumed a lot of research time because it deals with more than just her heartbreaking tale. Surrounding her tale was a massive power struggle between the Sinclairs', Sutherlands' and Stewarts' efforts to destroy clan Douglas, Basically, the three clans spent a hundred years working to bolster their own claim to the Scottish throne. After Bruce's death, each saw a chance to position their sons as the true heir to the Scottish crown. There was so much backstabbing, double-dealings and several instances of uncles murdering nephews, fathers murdering sons, sons killing their brothers that the mind boggles. One small woman left alone stood no chance in that violent power struggle.

  4. Life was so different from what most of us live today. Such a sad tale, and I can see how it could touch someone deeply. Thank you for continuing to tell the tales of your ancestors. Doris

    1. I recall a conversation on Facebook, discussing how females of age and with a good job couldn't get credit cards, buy cars or a home on their own name in the 1970s. Female under 30 think this is a joke. It was real. So women are on a continual journey of fighting for their rights. There were a few women who bucked the trends during these periods, but most were little more than pawns in the men's games of chess.

      Thank you for taking the time to read the blogs about my ancestors. I am delighted someone takes an interest in them.

  5. I am in awe of your wonderful, detailed blogs, and not only your dedication to researching your fascinating ancestors, and ensuring historians are getting the facts right. What a sad life Isabel had, despite or because of her lineage and wealth. You know your history so well that you could write dozens of fascinating medieval romance, inspired by not only Isabel but so many of your female ancestors. You have a gift for capturing medieval times with your writing and dialogue that transports me into that time. Research takes up a lot of time, but you have that down solid and I look forward to a new novel. You are blessed with such a special gift for storytelling.

    1. My problem is my DNA requires a I thought when I wrote the burb for this article that it sounded like the backcopy on a historical romance, and wondered if people would think I was pushing one of my novels instead of Isabel's story.

      Thank you for your kind words. The magic of these people, this era has always drawn me. I never see them as dead, and their lives defined in stale dates and places. I see these women as living figures. Maybe Einstein was right about time, that it isn't in a line, but curved, and perhaps sometimes you can look out from one time and across to one of those curves in the distant past, and suddenly things are so “distant”. Ever since I was five I knew this period was where my heart belonged.

  6. Awesome research! I think doing the research is sometimes more fun than creating a story from it.
    It’s also interesting how many “titles” were obtained by “commoners” and not by the blue-blood the nobility would like everyone to believe.

    1. Cindy, it was a true "game of thrones". The Mars had the ancient lineage going back to the royal houses of The Picts. However, Bruce's father-in-law (earl of Mar) saw by backing the Bruces’ claim to Scotland, and marrying his children into the Bruce line, (Bruce's first wife was Mar’s daughter, and Bruce’s his sister, Christian, married Gartnait, the earl's son), he was putting his grandchildren on the throne. On the other hand, the same games of marriages, murdered and plottings were happening with the Sinclairs, Stewarts, Sutherlands and Douglases, all with similar royal heritages and with a long-range plan of putting the crown of the Scots on their sons and grandsons. These men weren’t looking to seize the throw for themselves, but were working for 100-150 year plans of dynasty building. The poor women of this century were really caught in the center of this storm and had little control over their fates. When Bruce died it opened the door for all these clans to see the “time was right” for them to make their moves.

  7. So glad to see another of your fascinating posts!
    A very sad story for her, but so well written by you with your vast knowledge of that era. You always make the people you post about come to life and I've learned so much from your posts! Can't wait for the next one!

    1. I have several Bruce sisters left to do. Then will be turning an eye to his daughter and granddaughters. But I never know when one calls out "do mine!". Isabel just wouldn't take a place in line :-)