A warrior of the Chatti slew the Danish General Camus at the Battle of Barrie in 1010, for which valour Malcolm II dipped three fingers into the blood of the slain and drew them down the shield of the warrior, thereafter named Marbhachair Chamuis, or ‘Camus Slayer’. Ever since then, the chief of the Keiths has borne on his arms the same three red lines. This is depicted as early as 1316 on the seal of Sir Robert de Keth, marischal. Malcolm’s victory at the Battle of Chathem in 1018 brought him into possession of Lothian, and Camus Slayer subsequently held the Lothian lands of Keth from which his progeny took their names. A Norman adventurer, Hervey, married the native heiress of Marbhachair and received a charter for the lands of Keth from David I around 1150. Hervey’s son was styled ‘Marischal of the King of Scots’ in a charter of 1176, which office the family held until the attainder of George, tenth Earl Marischal. The Marischal was custodian of the royal regalia and charged with the safety of the king’s person within Parliament.
Robert the Bruce granted Halforest, the Aberdeenshire royal forest, to his friend, Sir Robert de Keth, in 1308, and it was there that the Marischal built his castle. His nephew, Sir William of Galston, returned Robert’s heart to Melrose Abbey after the demise of the Black Douglas at the hands of the Moors in Spain. By a charter of Robert in 1324, the office of marischal became hereditary in the family of Sir Robert de Keth, the cavalry commander at Bannockburn, conditional upon their bearing the ancient arms inherited from Marbhachair Chamuis. The young David II was escorted by Sir Robert the Marischal when he fled to the safety of France during Edward Balliol’s usurpation.
Sir William the Marischal (1350–1407) added great estates in Buchan, Kincardine and Lothian to his existing patrimony when he married the heiress of Sir Alexander Fraser, the High Chamberlain. His brother, John, married the Cheyne heiress, bringing to the Keiths the massive Inverugie estate with its castle which later became the chief’s seat of the earls marischal. Three of Sir William’s offspring married children of Robert II, while another daughter married Sir Adam Gordon, progenitor of the Earls of Huntly, and to whom she took substantial estates, forming the foundations of that great family.
The third Lord Keith was elevated to the peerage as Earl Marischal in 1458, the only peer to be styled by his great office of state. The third Earl Marischal, with the Earl of Glencairn, invited the reformer John Knox to return to Scotland in 1559, while the fourth Earl founded Marischal College in Aberdeen, endowing it with the Greyfriars lands and introducing radical teaching protocols which were later to be adopted universally. George, the fifth Earl Marischal and the wealthiest nobleman in the land, undertook the embassy to Denmark which culminated in the marriage of James VI to Princess Anne of Denmark.
After the coronation of Charles II in 1651 at Scone, William, the seventh Earl, was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he remained until the Restoration, when the king appointed him a Privy Councillor and later Lord Privy Seal, in recompense for the great sufferings he and his family had endured in the royal cause. There were rewards for those who had hidden the Scottish crown jewels on the Keith lands after Charles’s coronation: Ogilvie of Barras was created a knight baronet, and Marischal’s brother, John, became Knight Marischal and later Earl of Kintore, with an augmentation to his arms consisting of the royal crown, sword and sceptre. Kintore’s nephew, the eighth Earl Marischal, was appointed a Knight of the Thistle by James VIII, the ‘Old Pretender’.
The Keith family supported the Jacobite cause in the Forty-five, for which the tenth Earl and his brother, James, forfeited their lands, castles and titles. The Keith brothers thereafter played a part in Continental affairs during the eighteenth century. The earl was one of the very few Jacobite Knights of the Garter and also received Prussia’s highest order, the Black Eagle. James was invested by the Tsarina with the Russian Imperial Order of St Andrew.
Keith of Ravelston and Dunnottar was recognised as a representer of the Marischals by the Lord Lyon in 1801. His nephew was dubbed Knight Marishal for George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822. The flamboyant ninth Earl of Kintore, who was Governor General of South Australia from 1889 to 1895, decimated the Kintore estates. The twelfth Earl of Kintore promoted the clan internationally and was instrumental in appointing a hereditary sennachie to preserve the family’s history and traditions. The thirteenth and present Earl continues to reside on the Keith Hall estate in Aberdeenshire.