This name is a simple patronymic. The Johnstones were at one time among the most powerful of the Borders clans. They settled originally in Annandale, and have for over six hundred years held extensive possessions on the western marches where they kept watch against the English freebooters.
The first recorded of the family was John Johnstone, whose son, Gilbert, is named in records dated after 1194; John must therefore have been a prominent settler before that date. Sir John Johnston, knight of the county of Dumfries, appears on the Ragman Roll swearing fealty to Edward I of England in 1296. His great-grandson was appointed one of the wardens of the western marches in 1381. His son, Adam Johnstone, was Laird of Johnstone before 1413, and took part with the Scottish army in the Battle of Sark in 1448. Adam’s son took part on the royal side in the desperate struggle between James II and the Douglases, and was instrumental in the suppression of the rebellion of that great house by the Crown. He was rewarded by the king with a grant of the lands of Buittle and Sannoch near Threave Castle, formerly part of the Douglas lands of Galloway. Adam’s eldest son, John, was the progenitor of the Annandale or main branch of the family, while another reputed son, Matthew, who was said to have married a daughter of the Earl of Angus, chief of the Red Douglases, was the ancestor of the Westerhall branch.
The Johnstones, unlike many of their neighbours, who raided one another’s lands, ‘sought the beves that made their broth’ only in England but they had a hereditary feud with the Maxwells. Lord Maxwell, the head of this great family, was the most powerful man in the south-west of Scotland in the sixteenth century. He was slain, with many of his men, at the Battle of Dryfe Sands near Lockerbie on 7 December 1593. In turn, at a meeting held in 1608 to reconcile their differences, Johnstone was treacherously killed by the ninth Lord Maxwell. He paid with his life on the scaffold in 1614.
James Johnstone, the chief of the clan, was created Lord Johnstone of Lochwood by Charles I in 1633. Ten years later he was made Earl of Hartfell, which title was designated to him and his heirs male only. He joined Montrose after the Battle of Kilsyth in August 1645. He was captured at Philiphaugh, but was spared through the intercession of Argyll. The eldest son of Lord Hartfell, James, was imprisoned for a time with his father in the Castles of Dumbarton, Glasgow, St Andrews and Edinburgh. To recompense Lord Hartfell for the hardships he had suffered in the royal cause, Charles II created him Earl of Annandale and Hartfell, Viscount of Annan, Lord Johnstone of Lochwood, Lochmaben, Moffatdale and Evandal. As James, the Earl of Annandale and Hartfell, had at that time daughters as his heirs, the king granted a charter in 1662 erecting the land into a territorial earldom entailed to the heirs male of his body, and failing that to heirs female. Although James later had a son, William, this grant was to be of consequence two centuries later.
In 1701, William, third Earl of Hartfell and second Earl of Annandale and Hartfell, was raised to the rank of Marquess of Annandale. He held many important state offices including Secretary of State and President of the Privy Council. James, second Marquess of Annandale, died at Naples in 1730, having enjoyed the family dignities and estates for only nine years. His half-brother, George, third and last Marquess, who succeeded him, was found on 5 March 1747 to be incapable of managing his affairs, and a curator was appointed. On the Marquess’s death in 1792 the family titles became dormant and the estates devolved upon his grand-nephew, James, third Earl of Hopetoun.
Unsuccessful attempts were made in the nineteenth century to revive the Annandale titles, but it was not until 1971 that real progress was made. It was decided to proceed upon the basis of the charter of 1662, which re-granted the earldom of Annandale and Hartfell as a territorial earldom capable of descending through the female line. The first step was to confirm the Annandale families as chiefs of the Johnstones, and to update their family pedigree. On 16 February 1982, the Lord Lyon recognised Major Percy Johnstone of Annandale and of that Ilk as baron of the lands of the earldom of Annandale and Hartfell and of the lordship of Johnstone, Hereditary Steward of the Stewartry of Annandale and Hereditary Keeper of the Castle of Lochmaben. From there the case was presented to the House of Lords in June 1985, and the Court found in favour of Major Percy’s son, Patrick, who is the present Earl of Annandale and Hartfell and chief of the name and arms of Johnstone.
Other senior branches of the clan also flourished, particularly the house of Caskieben. Sir George Johnston of Caskieben was created a Baronet of Nova Scotia on 31 March 1626. The third Baronet fought in the army of William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The eleventh Baronet resides in America. The seat of the chief is the mansion of Raehills south of Moffat