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History of Bonshaw




The Name

About 1020, DUNCAN OF Eskdale's eldest son married an heiress of the ancient British royal line of Coel Hen and took up residence at her ancestral home, the ancient hill-fort of Dumbretton (the name means 'Fort of the Britons'). Shortly afterwards, either she, or one of his descendants, built a new castle in Kirtledale, two miles further east and on or near the present site of Bonshaw; he took up residence there and gave it the name Irwyn which had by then become firmly associated with the family-as Irewyn in Ayrshire, Owyrn in Eskdale, and Heryn (the seat of Crinan's brother Grim, Thane of Strathearn) in Strathearn.


Bruce's Cave

The Irvings and Bruces became very close friends and allies. Tradition relates that "The Bruce" was a guest at Bonshaw in 1298, and when he fled from the court of Edward I of England, in 1306, his first night back in Scotland was spent in the security of its fastness. - There is a cave in the Kirtle cliffs at Cove, in which the Irvings ae reputed to have hidden Bruce from the English on at least one occasion around this time.


History of Bonshaw

The earliest surviving contemporary reference to Bonshaw is not until 1506, when William Irving of Bonshaw was laird, although a subsequent reference implies he had entered into an agreement in 1484.  William was succeeded by his eldest son Edward, who had died by 1522, when Christopher Irwyng of Bonshaw had title to lands in Boneschaw and Dumbretton. In the 1540s the tower of Bonshaw is presumed to have been a timber peel, for in 1544 Boonshaw and Robgyll were amongst many towers reported burned by Lord Wharton, “wyth all the corne fownde by the way”. Wharton burned Bonshaw again in 1547. Dr Christopher Irvin claimed that his namesake was killed while commanding the Light Horse at the Battle of Solway Moss in 1542, but it is now known that Christopher lived until 1556 when he was succeeded by his son Edward.

For nearly 50 years of his chieftainship, Edward and other members of the surname played a leading part in inter-surname and Border warfare and even in national politics. Throughout this period a feud existed between the Johnstons, Irvings and their supporters on one side, and the Maxwells, the Kirkpatricks and their supporters on the other. In 1554 Kirkpatrick slew a younger son of Christopher, and in 1563 the latter’s brother Edward, the new laird, slew the Chief of the Kirkpatricks. A year later the Privy council forbade the marriage of Edward’s son Christopher to the daughter of Johnston of that Ilk, but the marriage nevertheless went ahead in 1566. About this time the Laird of Bonshaw had 63 horsemen and over 500 clansmen under his command. In 1570 Bonshaw was one of several Border towers destroyed with gunpowder by raiding Englishmen, and shortly afterwards Edward was briefly imprisoned. The present Bonshaw Tower, “one of the strongest howses of that border”, was built c.1570, and it seems likely Edward later built several other Border towers for members of his family, implying his reiving activities had been particularly profitable. In 1583 Douglas of Drumlanrig with 50 men forcefully entered Bonshaw and “maisterfullie sett at libertie” some eighteen Bells and Irvings, “notorious offendouris, rebellis and dissobedient personis”. From 1585 the Irvings and Johnstons were openly at war with the Maxwells, who laid siege to Bonshaw four times. An Act of Parliament in 1587, naming the chief of the Irvings as one of the Border chiefs made accountable for all persons of the surname, was one of several attempts about this time by parliament and the Privy Council to counter lawlessness in the Borders. In 1592 Edward and three of his sons were amongst 60 Borderers who supported the Earl of Bothwell in his unsuccessful coup against the king in Falkland Palace. In 1593 the Johnstons and Irvings inflicted a crushing defeat of the Maxwells at Dryfe Sands, the last clan battle to be fought in Scotland. Edward was one of many to be granted a respite by the king a year later. The king spent a night at “Boneschaw” in 1602 during a military expedition to the area to punish rebels.

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Bonshaw Tower and mansion, from the east

The tone of life on the Borders quietened down considerably after the accession of King James VI of Scotland to the throne of England. Edward died in 1605, succeeded by his grandson William. William acquired the lands of Sarkshields in 1610, and of Allerbeck and Bellorchard in 1635. After the death of William in 1646 Bonshaw passed to his eldest son, Edward, a Royalist and anti-Presbyterian, who two years later handed the estate over, at least nominally, to a younger brother, Herbert Irving of Hairgills, in order to save it from the Covenanters. Edward died in 1647, his rights inherited by James, “the Wild Bonshaw” who died without issue in 1682, a year after capturing Donald Cargill, a prominent Covenanter. Meanwhile Herbert had died in 1660, to be succeeded by his eldest son William who in 1673 registered the ancient armorial achievement of Irving of Bonshaw even though he himself had no right to the undifferenced arms, not being the heir of line.

On the death of the Wild Bonshaw, Sarah Douglas, daughter-in-law of William Irving the elder, a brother of Herbert, began legal proceedings to recover Bonshaw on behalf of her young son William who finally won the case and took possession in 1696, the displaced laird William (the armiger) moving to Allerbeck. The new laird embarked on a new building at Bonshaw despite have been crippled financially by the protracted litigation. Masonry bearing the date ‘1696’ and the initials ‘W.I.’ was later reused in the walls of the nearby Bonshaw Mill. In 1699 William married Æemelia, daughter of Lord Rollo, by whom he had 14 children including Dr James Irving of Ironshore in Jamaica, ancestor of John Beaufin Irving, a later laird of Bonshaw, and Paulus Æmelius Irving.  The latter commanded the 15th Regiment of Foot under General Wolfe at the capture of Quebec in 1759 and was the father of General Sir Paulus Æmelius Irving who was made Baronet of Woodhouse and Robgill in 1810, a title which became extinct on the death of the third baronet in the 1850s.

William in died in 1742 and was succeeded by his eldest son John. John died five years later, to be succeeded by his son William who entailed the estate in 1765 and built the present mansion of Bonshaw in 1770. He died in 1772, leaving as heir his only son the five year old John Robert. This laird studied law, was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1793, and was a Professor of Civil Law at Edinburgh University from 1800 to 1827. He neglected Bonshaw and fell heavily into debt, leaving the estate virtually ruined when he died in 1839 without a male heir. John Robert was succeeded by his first cousin once removed, Rev. John Irving, an army chaplain who had to sell land to meet outstanding debts and afford improvements to the tower and house, and to build the church at the entrance to Bonshaw. Rev. John disentailed the estate in 1853 and died without male issue in 1870. The estate then passed to his second cousin, Lieutenant Robert Nasmyth Irving who served in the Kaffir War. Robert Nasmyth died unmarried in 1894, having neglected the estate and bequeathed it, together with a heavy mortgage, to his housekeeper, Mrs Benyon Barton.

John Beaufin Irving, a great-grandson of James Irving of Ironshore, second cousin of Robert Nasmyth, successfully contested the will. He too was in the army, serving in Abyssinian campaign of 1868, and becoming a Major of the 3rd Battalion (and latterly an honorary Colonel), The Manchester Regiment. Later he was a member of the Royal Company of Archers, the Sovereign’s bodyguard in Scotland. He devoted the rest of his life to restoring Bonshaw and enjoying his chieftainship even though he was never recognized as such by the Lord Lyon. In 1907 he wrote, with help from his kinsmen, his famous and monumental work The Book of the Irvings.


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Col. John Beaufin Irving, Laird of Bonshaw 1894-1926


On his death in 1926 Col. Irving was succeeded by his only surviving son, Captain Sir Robert Beaufin Irving, KB, OBE, RD, JP, DL, RNR (Retd.). He served on the cruiser HMS Yarmouth at the Battle of Jutland, where he was mentioned in dispatches. After the war he returned to the Cunard company and later commanded RMS Acquitania, Majestic and, in 1937, Queen Mary. The following year he was appointed Commodore of the Cunard White Star Line, won the Blue Riband from the Normandie (retained by Queen Mary until 1952), and achieved further acclaim when he docked the Queen Mary without tugs during a dock strike in New York. He was knighted in 1943, retired in 1944 and died without issue in 1954.

Captain Irving was succeeded by his niece’s husband, Commander RIS Irving RN, formerly RI Snow, who four years later sold the estate to Mrs Eileen Mary Irving Straton-Ferrier, a descendant of the last male Irving of Wysebie. On her death in 1986 the estate was bought by Dr. Bruce Irving, a descendant of the Irvings of Dumfries and Gribton and his wife Margaret. Bruce died in 2005 and Bonshaw today is owned and occupied by his elder son Christopher Irving, a former army officer who is a member of the Royal Company of Archers. Christopher and his wife Claire have four children.

In 2014 the Lord Lyon accepted a petition by Captain RAS Irving RN, son of Commander RIS Irving, that he be recognized as Chief of the Name and Arms of Irving of Bonshaw, “for aught yet seen”, i.e. subject to a successful rival claim not being recognized during the next 20 years.

This history is adapted from The Irvings of Bonshaw Chiefs of the Noble and Ancient Scots Border Family of Irving, written by Alastair M.T. Maxwell-Irving, B.Sc., F.S.A. Scot. (of the Irvings of Dumfries and Gribton), printed in 1968.


Bonshaw Tower

Bonshaw Tower stands 6 miles northwest of Gretna Green and English/Scottish border, close to the M74 motorway between Carlisle and Glasgow.  The tower and the modern house adjacent to it stand on level ground, bounded on the east by a high cliff with the Kirtle Water washing its base; on the south by the steep ravine down which the Old Caul Burn runs to meet the Kirtle; on the west by rough ground and the farmyard of Bonshaw Mains where ramparts and ditches once stood. To the west lie the lands of Dumbretton, Robgill lies to the south, Woodhouse a little further downstream, and Cove beyond. Wysebie is across the river, and further upstream lies Braes and Old Kirkconnel. Of the numerous Irving towers that once guarded the central Irving territory of Kirtledale, only Bonshaw, the ruins of Woodhouse, Stapleton, and New Kirkconnel (at Ecclefechan), and part of Robgill (incorporated in a modern mansion) now remain.


Bonshaw Tower and mansion, from the west


The present tower is thought to date from c.1570.  It is a solid rectangular keep 52 ft high. A 58-step wheel stair climbs from the ground level basement (prison floor) to the parapet walk above the third floor. The first floor was the Great Hall with a great fireplace, 9ft wide x 7ft high; the second floor was the principal family room, serving as withdrawing room and bedroom; the third floor, former garret, now serves as the history room, having a long, handwritten ancestral chart hanging on the wall. Mounted just below the top of the north gable is the old clan bell which once summoned the clan in times of danger.

Bonshaw Tower is still privately owned and prospective visitors should first contact the laird (see www.bonshaw.org ).


Click for a Pedigree Chart of 

The Lairds of Bonshaw