This name is of territorial origin, and it seems likely to have been assumed from lands on Borthwick Water in Roxburghshire. The family is one of the most ancient in Scotland and some recent research suggests that they may have come to Britain with Caesar’s legions. It is traditionally asserted that the progenitor of this noble house was Andreas, who accompaned the Saxon Edgar the Aetheling and his sister, Margaret, later queen and saint, to Scotland in 1067. The family soon became prominent in Scottish affairs. Sir William Borthwick possessed substantial lands in Midlothian and the Borders, and he obtained a charter confirming his lands of Borthwick around 1410; these were the lands after which the family were named. During the fifteenth century the Borthwicks acquired immense influence and became Lords of Parliament.
The first Lord Borthwick was one of the nobles who went to England as substitute hostages for the ransom of James I in 1425. He erected what remains one of the most impressive fortified dwellings in Scotland on a strong position near Middleton in Midlothian: the tower is over 110 feet high, with walls 14 feet thick, while the great hall is 50 feet long under a 37 feet-high vault. The castle has remained in the ownership of the Borthwick family to the present day. The first Lord Borthwick died some time before 1458 and is commemorated by a splendid tomb in the old church of Borthwick.
The Borthwicks fought alongside James IV at the ill-fated Battle of Flodden in September 1513, and met the same end as most of the flower of Scottish chivalry. William, Lord Borthwick, succeeded his father who fell at Flodden, and his prominence was emphasised by his being given command of the strategic Castle of Stirling and charged with the safety of the infant James V. John, Lord Borthwick, opposed the Reformation of the Scottish Church and was an ardent supporter of Mary of Guise, the Queen Regent and mother of Mary, Queen of Scots. His adherence to the Church did not mean that he was in favour with clerical authority. In 1547, Lord Borthwick was excommunicated for contempt of the ecclesiastical court of the see of St Andrews. William Langlands, an officer of the court, was sent with the letters of excommunication for delivery to the curate of Borthwick. Langlands was seized by Lord Borthwick’s servants who promptly threw him in the mill dam north of the castle and later made him eat the letters, mercifully having soaked them in wine. He was sent on his way having been warned that any other such communications would ‘a’ gang the same gait’. His son, William, was a staunch friend and confidant of Queen Mary, who was a frequent visitor to the castle. She took refuge there with her husband, Bothwell, but they were forced to flee when the castle was approached by a substantial force under Lords Murray and Morton. The queen is said to have escaped disguised as a pageboy.
The Borthwicks formed alliances with other noble and powerful families by marriage. William, Lord Borthwick, married the eldest daughter of Sir Walter Scott of Branxholm, ancestor of the Dukes of Buccleuch, and his son, James, married Margaret Hay, eldest daughter of Lord Hay of Yester, from whom descends the Marquess of Tweeddale. David Borthwick of Lochhill was a prominent lawyer who became the king’s advocate, or principal legal adviser, in 1573. He may have been the first to bear the title, ‘Lord Advocate’, still in use today for the government’s chief law
officer in Scotland.
Not all the Borthwicks were nobles: one Robert Borthwick is named as Master Gunner to James IV around 1509. He is said to have cast seven great cannons, called the Seven Sisters, which were lost when taken to the Battle of Flodden.
The Borthwicks adhered to the royalist cause during the civil war, and their castle was besieged after the Battle of Dunbar in 1650. The splendid fortress was spared from inevitable destruction when Oliver Cromwell offered Lord Borthwick honourable terms of surrender, which he accepted. He was allowed to leave with his family and goods unmolested. Thereafter the direct line failed and the title became dormant. Henry Borthwick of Neathorn was recognised as male heir to the first Lord by decision of the House of Lords in 1762 and he assumed the title, but died without issue ten years later. Various branches of the family disputed the right of succession in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but in June 1986, Major John Borthwick of Crookston was recognised by the Lord Lyon, King of Arms, as Borthwick of that Ilk, chief of the name and arms of Borthwick. In addition, he became the 23rd Lord Borthwick in the Peerage of Scotland. He died in December 1996 whereupon his son, John, succeeded to the title and chiefship.