The Gordons are one of the great families of the north-east of Scotland, and their surname has many suggested meanings, although the family originally were almost certainly of Anglo–Norman descent. There is also a tale which makes the first of the family the saviour of a Scottish king, in this case from a wild boar. This is said to explain the boars’ heads which appear on the Gordon arms.
The first certain record of the name places the family in the Borders during the reigns of Malcolm IV and William the Lion. Richard de Gordon appears in numerous charters, and probably died around 1200. Sir Adam de Gordon was one of the wardens of the marches in 1300, and in 1305 was appointed one of the commissioners to negotiate with Edward I seeking settlement to the competition for the crown of Scotland. He became a staunch supporter of Robert the Bruce, and was one of the ambassadors sent to Rome to petition the pope to remove the excommunication which had been placed on Bruce after his murder of John Comyn. For his services the king granted to Gordon the lands of Strathbogie, which had been confiscated from the Earl of Atholl for treason.
The Castle of Strathbogie was to be renamed Huntly after a portion of the Gordon lands in Berwickshire. In 1436 Sir Alexander Gordon was created Lord Gordon, and his son was raised to the title of Earl of Huntly. The family became embroiled in the deadly battle for power between the king and the Douglases. Huntly was for the king, but when he moved his forces south, the Earl of Moray, kinsman and ally of the Douglases, devastated the Gordon lands and burned Huntly Castle. The Gordons were recalled and soon defeated their enemies. After the fall of the Douglases, the power of the Gordons grew unchallenged. Their control over their lands was almost regal, and the chiefs are to this day fondly referred to as ‘Cock o’ the North’. A grand new castle at Huntly rose from the ruins of the old, and it soon rivalled any of the great houses of the realm. In 1496 Huntly Castle hosted the marriage of the pretender, Perkin Warbeck, believed at the time to be one of the missing sons of Edward IV (the ‘princes in the tower’), to Lady Catherine Gordon. James IV honoured the couple with his presence, although he was a frequent visitor to Strathbogie in any event.
George, fourth Earl of Huntly, became Chancellor of Scotland in 1547 and was a close confidant of the regent, Mary of Guise, the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots. The Gordons paid scant attention to the Reformation, remaining firmly Catholic. However, they disagreed with the young queen; Huntly died at Corrichie, leading his men against the royal army, and his son, Sir John Gordon, was later beheaded before Queen Mary at Aberdeen. The Gordons eventually made peace with the Crown, and in 1599 the chief was created Marquess of Huntly. The second Marquess was a fierce supporter of the royalist cause in the civil war, and his followers have passed into history as the Gordon Horse, which figured so prominently in the campaigns of the great Marquess of Montrose. Huntly’s pride was such that he found it impossible to co-operate with Montrose, and some historians have suggested that had he done so wholeheartedly, the whole course of the war in Scotland might have been very different. Huntly was captured in Strathdon in December 1647 and was taken to Edinburgh, where he languished until March 1649, when he was beheaded. Lord Louis Gordon was restored to the family estates and titles in 1651, and was raised to the highest rank of the peerage as Duke of Gordon in 1684.
The Gordons fought on both sides during the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745. The second Duke of Gordon followed the standard of the ‘Old Pretender’ at the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715. He later surrendered, but although he was imprisoned for a short period, no further proceedings were taken against him. The third Duke remained loyal to the Hanoverians when Prince Charles Edward Stuart reasserted his father’s claim in 1745, but his brother, Lord Louis Gordon, promptly raised a regiment of two battalions. After Culloden he escaped to France, where he died in 1754. George, fifth Duke of Gordon, was a general in the army and for a time governor of Edinburgh Castle. He died without issue, and the dukedom became extinct. The marquessate passed to a kinsman, from whom the present chief descends.
Another branch of the clan were created Earls of Aberdeen in 1682. The fourth Earl was a Prime Minister in the mid nineteenth century. This branch, too, were advanced to the dignity of Marquess, and established their seat at Haddo House near Aberdeen.