The progenitor of this family was Freskin, who flourished in the twelfth century. While it has been claimed that he may have been a Pict, it is more likely that he was a Flemish knight, one of many of that bellicose and ruthless group of warlords who were employed by the Norman kings to pacify their new realm of England after the Conquest. David I, who had been brought up at the English court, sought to employ such men to help him hold the wilder parts of his kingdom, and he granted lands in West Lothian to Freskin. The ancient Pictish kingdom of Moray, in Gaelic, ‘Moireabh’, was also given to Freskin, to put to an end the remnants of the old royal house. In a series of politically astute moves, he and his sons intermarried with the house of Moray to consolidate their power. There seems little doubt that royal Pictish blood flowed in the veins of Freskin’s descendants, and the lines descending from Freskin are linked heraldically by their use of three stars and the colours blue and silver in some fashion on their coats of arms. The Earls of Sutherland descend from what is thought to be Freskin’s eldest son. In charters, Freskin’s other descendants were designated ‘de Moravia’, and this, in Lowland Scots, became ‘Murray’.
Sir Walter Murray, who became Lord of Bothwell in Clydesdale through marriage to an Oliphant heiress, was one of the regents of Scotland in 1255. He started construction on Bothwell Castle, which was to become one of the most powerful and visually striking strongholds in Scotland. It was the seat of the chiefs until 1360, when it passed into the possession of the Douglases. The third Murray Lord of Bothwell died a prisoner in the Tower of London, whereupon his heir, Sir Andrew Murray, took up the cause of Scottish independence and rose against Edward I of England in 1297. He was joined by Sir William Wallace who, when Murray was killed at the great victory of Stirling Bridge, assumed command of the Scottish forces. Historians have suggested that, as Murray had shown considerable skill in pitched battle, which Wallace sorely lacked, the whole war against the English might have taken a very different course had Sir Andrew survived Stirling Bridge. Sir Andrew’s heir, the fourth Lord, fell at the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333. The lordship of Bothwell passed to the Douglases when the fifth Lord and chief died of plague in 1360, and his widow, Joan, took as her second husband the third Earl of Douglas.
There were many branches of the name who disputed the right to the chiefship, and it was not until the sixteenth century that the Murrays of Tullibardine are recorded using the undifferenced Murray arms in the armorial of Lord Lyon Lindsay of 1542. This work predated the establishment of the Lyon register in 1672, and is considered to be of equal authority. The Tullibardine claim seems to have rested upon descent from Sir Malcolm, sheriff of Perth, around 1270, who was a younger brother of the first Lord of Bothwell. In order to consolidate their position, the Tullibardines promoted two ‘bands of association’ in 1586 and 1598, whereby the numerous Murray lairds recognised the chiefship of Sir John Murray, later first Earl of Tullibardine. Among the signatories were the Morays of Abercairny in Perthshire. Sir John Moray had married a daughter of the ancient Celtic royal house of Strathearn around 1320, and as part of her dowry she brought the lands of Abercairny. Sir lain Moncreiffe has pointed out that when Sir John’s son, Sir Alexander, succeeded to Abercairny, he was probably the nearest heir to the house of Bothwell. Although by this family arrangement the Murrays of Tullibardine gained the ascendancy, Abercairny continued to prosper. The neo-gothic seat of the lairds was the largest house in Perthshire until it was demolished to make way for a more conveniently sized but still elegant twentieth-century mansion. Although the bands entered into put beyond doubt the rights of the Murrays of Tullibardine to be chiefs of the clan, Abercairny still ranked high in the family, and in a magnificent portrait of Colonel James, the sixteenth Laird, in his finery, commissioned for George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822, three eagles’ feathers (normally worn only by a chief) can be seen in his bonnet.
Sir John Murray of Tullibardine was created first Earl of Tullibardine in 1606. His son and heir married Dorothea Stewart, heiress to the Earls of Atholl. She brought with her a vast estate of over two hundred thousand acres.
The Stewart earldom of Atholl became a Murray earldom in 1629, and a marquessate in 1676. In 1703 the Murrays reached the pinnacle of the peerage when they were created Dukes of Atholl. The first Duke’s younger son, Lord George Murray, was the great Jacobite general and the architect of the early successes of the rising of 1745. Most military historians concur in the view that, if Lord George had been allowed sole command of the Jacobite army, the ‘Old Pretender’ might well have gained his throne. His elder brother, the duke, supported the Hanoverian Government. Lord George had already spent many years in exile as a result of his Jacobite sympathies, and at first was unwilling to join Prince Charles when he raised his father’s royal standard at Glenfinnan. He is believed to have been persuaded by a personal letter from his exiled sovereign, sent to him by the prince. He wrote a poignant letter to his brother on 3 September 1745, explaining his intentions and asking his forgiveness for opposing him in doing what he thought was ‘just and right as well as for the interest, good and liberty of my country’. A Gaelic speaker, his strategic skills were matched by his personal courage and popularity with his Highlanders. But his sound advice was ignored by the prince, and the tide of fortune turned against the Jacobites. Lord George Murray led a charge at Culloden which broke the Hanoverian ranks, although this was not enough to prevent the overall defeat. He died in exile in the Netherlands in 1760. Culloden was the last time that the Highlanders of Atholl went to war, but the ceremonial guard of the chiefs – which became known as the Atholl Highlanders – still has the unique honour of being the only private army in the realm. In 1845 Queen Victoria presented colours to the Atholl Highlanders, and they regularly attend upon the present duke on ceremonial occasions. Another unique honour passed to the family in 1736, when the second Duke inherited through his grandmother the sovereignty of the Isle of Man. As Lords of Man, the Dukes issued their own coinage and held their own Parliament. Although the third Duke transferred the sovereignty to the British Crown in 1765, the Atholl arms still display the trinacria, the symbol of the island.
Another royal connection was established when Sir David Murray was granted the lands of Scone by James VI in 1600. On the lands stood the ancient hill on which the kings of Scots were crowned, a ceremony which last took place in 1651, when Charles II was proclaimed king. Sir David was created Lord Scone and later Viscount of Stormont. His descendants became the Earls of Mansfield who built the magnificent Scone Palace which is their home today. The first Earl of Mansfield was one of the greatest jurists of his time, and rose to become Lord Chief Justice of England. His direct descendent, the seventh Earl of Mansfield, has held high Government office as a minister for Scottish affairs.
Although the heraldry of the Dukes of Atholl includes three separate crests (one each for Murray, Tullibardine and Atholl), the present chief has indicated that the demi-wildman and the motto, ‘Furth fortune and fill the fetters’, alluding to the capture of the last Lord of the Isles by the Earl of Atholl in 1475 – should be used as the crest badge for all Murray clansmen. The 10th Duke died unmarried on 27 February 1996 at the age of 64. The title and chiefship were inherited by the Duke’s distant South African third cousin, John Murray. The Atholl estates did not pass to the present Duke but were placed in trust for the nation