By Ian Dickson

As my interest in Scottish historical enquiry has developed over the years, one intriguing matter is the connection of the Dicksons to the Clan Keith.

The staring point is the eponymous Thomas, Laird of Hazelside and Symington and Governor of Castle Douglas. This Thomas, the first Dickson on record, was a grandson of the Great Marischal of Scotland, Hervey de Keith (d ~1249), and his wife Margaret, the daughter of the 3rd Lord Douglas. Thomas’ father was Richard or Dick de Keith. Thomas was born ~1247. He was a cousin of the “guid” Sir James Douglas, as well as a trusted friend of him and his father, William “the Hardy”, even if the association would cost him his life on Palm Sunday 19th March 1307. Two of the oldest Scottish historians tell of him, Archdeacon Barbour who wrote in 1375, and Blind Harry, writing about 1381. Thomas features in Walter Scott’s last Waverly novel “Castle Dangerous” in the Douglas Larder episode.

But here is a curiosity because there is another family with a different name that claims to descent from Thomas and has no connection with Clan Keith.

The 1908 “Genealogy of the Symington Family” by Rev. Henry Paton introduces Thomas Symington, who as Thomas Dickson had been given the lands of Symundstun in 1306 for his services to William, Lord Douglas, by “guid” King Robert the Bruce. He was also made hereditary Castellan or Governor of Castle Douglas. Clearly the latter title went down the Symington line because in the 1500s William Symington of that ilk, is Captain of the Castle of Douglas. Various sources refer to a son, also named Thomas whose successors took the Symington name. Symington is a sept of Clan Douglas.

We can safely conclude that the patronymic Dicksons descend from a younger son of Thomas I or Thomas II, not the senior branch which took their surname from the Symundstun lands. But is this not odd? Why did the junior branch break away from the senior’s Clan Douglas affiliation? What schism in the family caused the younger son(s) to affiliate with the far off yet immensely powerful Keiths? Why would the junior line affiliate to their grandfather’s clan while the senior affiliated to their grandmothers’? To our knowledge there was no conflict between Keith and Douglas, although there was intense rivalry between the “Black” Douglas branch and the Crown. All very curious!

The Dicksons became numerous, powerful and “landit” enough to form their own “Lalland” clan had they wished. In “The Border or Riding Clans”, written by B. Homer Dixon in 1889, Dicksons feature as one of the principal 14th, 15th and 16th century Border Clans and known as “The Famous Dicksons”. Certainly, they were on the receiving end of a thrashing by English invaders in 1544, the first year of the “Rough Wooing” of Mary, Queen of Scots according to the report by the English Earl of Hertford who did the raiding. An affiliation to Keith and Douglas can be seen in heraldic symbols from this time, but the Douglas link was subsequently dropped. In the 15th century the Black Douglas line became so powerful as to rival the Stewarts and suffered for it, so perhaps it was a case of greater loyalty to the Scottish Crown. Whatever, by 1722 Dicksons were firmly associated with the now forfeit Keiths, the last Earl Marischal, George having been attainted for his part in the 1715 Jacobite rising. At least one Dickson was “out” in the ’15 too and fled to America in the aftermath.


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Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia by George Way, 1998

Collins Encyclopedia of Scotland, Ed. by John Key and Julia Keay, 1994

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