Tradition has it that the Cochrane ancestry goes back to a Viking invader who settled in Renfrewshire between the eighth and tenth centuries. In keeping with the character of their traditional ancestor, the Cochranes took as their heraldic beast a boar; the three boars’ heads adorning the chief’s shield were said to mark the exploit of a warrior who is reputed to have slain three wild boars then terrorising the countryside. The name of Cochrane may be the combination of two Gaelic words, meaning ‘the roar of battle’ or ‘battle-cry’. There is another, more fanciful explanation which states that, in ancient days, there was a great battle in which an early member of the family fought with such outstanding bravery as to bring about victory for his side. In recognition of his exceptional valour, his leader singled him out from the other warriors and clapping him on the shoulder, called him ‘coch ran’, meaning ‘brave fellow’.
In his History of Paisley, Metcalfe refers to the purchase by William, Lord Cochrane, of the lordship and barony of Paisley from the Earl of Angus in 1653, stating that ‘the Cochranes who had been connected with the county of Renfrew for upwards of five hundred years now took up their residence in the Palace of Paisley’, which puts their original settlement back to the early 1100s. The first certain record of the name appears to be Waldev de Coveran, who appears as witness to a charter in 1262. William de Coveran is mentioned as a person of consequence in the Ragman Roll of 1296, rendering homage to Edward I of England. John de Coveran appears in 1346 as a witness in the election of an abbot of Paisley. Again in 1366, Goseline de Cochran is witness to several grants made by Robert the Steward to Paisley Abbey, which he assumed into his particular patronage. de Cochran appears to have been in particular favour with Robert II, as he appears frequently as a witness in royal charters of that time. William de Cochran of that Ilk obtained from Robert II a charter of the lands of Cochran, which had hitherto been held as vassals of the High Steward of Scotland. About 1350 Robert II built a castle at Dundonald in Ayrshire. It became a favourite residence of both himself and his son, Robert III; both monarchs were to die there, the latter in 1406. Yet another Robert Cochrane was the architect of the Great Hall of Stirling Castle. He was created Earl of Mar but when his alternative career as a counterfeiter was discovered, he was hanged from Lauder Bridge in 1481.
The Dundonald estate, with its castle, came into Cochrane hands around 1638, and it was from these lands that the first Earl of Dundonald, William Cochrane, took his title in 1669. The chiefship had almost been lost at the beginning of the seventeenth century, when William Cochrane of that Ilk was unable to produce a male heir. However, he made prudent provision in the marriage negotiations of his daughter, Elizabeth, requiring that her husband assume both the name and the coat of arms of Cochrane. Sir John Cochrane, the eldest son of Elizabeth and her husband, Alexander, served in the army of Charles I, and in 1650 became ambassador to Poland for the exiled Charles II.
There then followed a most remarkable succession of chiefs who served their country with distinction, both on land and at sea; they have been called the fighting Cochranes. In October 1745, the seventh Earl, a supporter of the Hanoverian succession, had his horse shot from under him at the West Port of Edinburgh while Jacobites were in possession of the capital. The most renowned of the fighting Cochranes was undoubtedly Thomas, the tenth Earl, who, in 1801, was in command of a brig and its crew of only fifty-four men. He boarded and captured a Spanish frigate of thirty-two guns and a complement of over three hundred men. This was considered a feat almost unparalleled in British naval history. In 1807, before he inherited the earldom, he became a Member of Parliament although still a serving officer. A dedicated sailor and compassionate officer, he attacked the corruption and abuses which riddled the Admiralty of his day, and as a consequence he made many enemies. He was ultimately prosecuted on a trumped-up charge of financial irregularity, was convicted and was struck off the Navy List. In 1817 he accepted an invitation from Chile to organise and command its navy. He helped to secure independence, not only for Chile but also Peru, Brazil and Greece. In 1832, a more liberal government restored him to all of his previous privileges, and he was promoted to rear admiral. He is buried in Westminster Abbey. The fourteenth Earl of Dundonald, father of the present chief, was born in 1918. He served with the Black Watch from 1938, and during the Second World War he was on the staff in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and Greece. After the war he served in Germany and with the War Office until retiring in 1953.