The lands of Ruthven in Perthshire take their name from the Gaelic, ‘Ruadhainn’ meaning ‘Dun uplands’. The family are Norse in origin, and first settled in East Lothian, but they were in Perthshire by the end of the twelfth century. Swein is recorded as giving lands, including Tibbermore, to the Monks of Scone, between 1188 and 1199. His grandson, Sir Walter Ruthven, was the first to adopt the name. Sir Walter’s second son, Sir William, is listed among many of the Scottish nobility who swore fealty to Edward I of England in 1291 and in 1296. Despite this, in 1292, he led thirty men to help Sir William Wallace at the siege of Perth. He was also with Sir Christopher Seaton when Jedburgh was reclaimed from English hands. After Perth was recaptured in 1313, Robert the Bruce appointed Sir William to be sheriff of the royal burgh, then called St Johnston. The office was held by the family for many generations.
Sir William Ruthven of Balkernoch, a descendant of William the sheriff, spent three years in England between 1424 and 1427 as a hostage for the ransom of James. He was considered a substantial nobleman, whose annual income was stated to be four hundred merks (about £100 at the time). His great-grandson was created a Lord of Parliament in 1488, as Lord Ruthven, by James III. Lord Ruthven married twice. His sons by his first wife were granted a letter of legitimisation in 1480. His eldest son, William, Master of Ruthven, was killed at Flodden in 1513.
William, second Lord Ruthven, succeeded his grandfather in 1528, and in the following year was elected Provost of Perth. He was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court in 1539.
He was also one of the early supporters of Protestantism, and in 1543 he spoke out in Parliament in favour of the Scriptures being made available to all. He married Janet, eldest daughter and co-heiress of Patrick, Lord Halyburton of Dirleton. By this alliance, Dirleton Castle and extensive lands in East Lothian came to the Ruthvens. Patrick, third Lord, succeeded his father in 1552. In March 1556 Patrick Ruthven and his son, William, were among Lord Darnley’s co-conspirators when Queen Mary’s secretary and favourite, David Rizzio, was killed in her presence at the Palace of Holyrood House. They both fled to England when abandoned to their fate by Darnley.
William succeeded to the family title in June of that year and returned home, having received a royal pardon. He was among those who conducted Queen Mary to Lochleven Castle, where she was forced to abdicate. He voted against the queen’s divorce, and was at the coronation of the infant James VI in 1567 at Stirling. He was Treasurer of Scotland during the king’s minority, and was created Earl of Gowrie in 1581.
A year later Gowrie and several other nobles abducted James VI to remove him from the influence of the regents, the Earls of Arran and Lennox. What became known as the Ruthven Raid saw James being detained for ten months by the conspirators. When the king regained his freedom he appeared at first to be forgiving, but Gowrie was later arrested and beheaded for treason in 1584. The estates and titles were restored in 1586 to William’s son, James, the second Earl of Gowrie, who died two years later at the age of thirteen years. His brother, John, the third Earl, was educated at Edinburgh and Padua University, where it was later alleged he practised black magic. On his return to Scotland in 1600, he and his brother, Alexander, were killed in their town house at Perth in a mysterious affair which became known as the Gowrie Conspiracy. There was little clear evidence of what, if anything, the Ruthven brothers planned, but they were declared by Parliament to be traitors, and although they were physically beyond punishment, their very name was decreed out of existence. The family coat of arms was publicly debased, their estates forfeited and the title of Gowrie was forever outlawed. Sir Thomas Ruthven, who descended from a younger son of the second Lord Ruthven, partly restored the family reputation when he was raised to the peerage as Lord Ruthven of Freeland in 1651.
It was only in the twentieth century that the family honour was completely restored. The Honourable Alexander Ruthven, second son of Walter, Baron Ruthven of Freeland, was a distinguished soldier. He fought in the Sudan in 1898, where he won his country’s highest decoration for valour, the Victoria Cross. He was appointed Governor General of Australia in 1936. He was offered a peerage in his own right, and according to family tradition, declared that he would only accept this provided he was created Lord Gowrie. His wish was granted, and his triumph was capped when a new earldom of Gowrie was created in 1945. The present earl is a noted art expert.