Keith, Great Marischals of Scotland

Originating in French (“Marechal”), and pronounced as “Marshall”, the Scottish office and title of King’s Marischal is like that of a general. France had several such generals at any one time, while the English had only one (called “High Marshal”) and Scotland had only a “Great Marischal”. Duties of this office are less clearly recorded than we would like. During early centuries of the Keith tenure, many (with their sons and cousins in the family) fought in the seemingly endless battles on Scottish soil, but in later times the Marischal, himself, was more often occupied in various diplomatic chores for the kings.

The title of Great Marischal was conferred upon Robert, a warrior of the Catti tribe, in the year 1010, and remained hereditary with his heirs for over 700 years (See “Origins of the Keith Name”). As with noble families, generally, the long string of Keith descendants who held the title are discussed in numerous writings, along with narratives about their accomplishments. Each Keith heir in succession gathered additional land and stature– some of it by valor, some by marriage. (See Battle of Bannockburn.) Around 1380, Sir Edward Keith-Marischal was elevated to Lord Keith, which title continued for a few generations, until William Keith, 4th Lord Marischal, was made an Earl. There followed a string of 10 Keiths in the title of Earl Marischal, until the title and many of the Keith lands and offices were snatched from this line for taking the Stewart’s side in risings of the early 1700’s.

marishelPerhaps the best known of Keith armoral bearings is that of Keith-Marischal (represented at left). This blazon was borne by the ten Earls. The crowned battons, crossed behind the shield, signify the office of Great Marischal (which symbols replaced the axe, used in earlier times), Since George Keith, 10th Earl, died without children and without the title, these arms are extinct. The shield, however, continues on in Keith arms.

Meanwhile (in 1660), Sir John Keith, third son of William, 6th Earl Marischal, had been made Knight Marischal (for keeping royal honors from capture by Oliver Cromwell), and later (1677) was made Earl of Kintore. When George Keith, 10th Earl Marischal, was stripped of the old titles (by “writ of attainder”), the then Earl of Kintore was the highest ranking Keith remaining in Scotland. At Marischal’s death, in 1778, Kentore became Chief of Clan Keith, a position still inherited through this family line (see “Earl of Kintore”).

The succession of titles can be confusing. It should be noted that titles were not always inherited in an orderly, father-to-son fashion. The 1st to the 16th generation in a long line of Keiths-Marischal were numbered as Knights. Several succeeded their grandfathers; a few succeeded their brothers. When the mentioned Sir Edward Keith (16th Knight Marischal) was made Lord Marischal, a new numbering begins — Edward then being called 1st Lord. There were three more Lords Keith Marischal, and then William, 4th Lord Marischal was created Earl, and the numbering starts all over again. This William’s son, also called William Keith, became 2nd Earl Marischal and was followed by 8 more Earls Marischal of the Keith family. In other words, for something like (but not precisely) 28 generations there were Keiths serving Scotland as Great Marischal–700 years of service. The office of Great Marischal remained constant, while the titles of Keith who held that office occasionally changed, along with the numbering of their generation of heirship in that title.

Several accountings of the noble Keith families are detailed in authoritative books, such as: “An Historical and Authentic Account of the Ancient and Noble Family of Keith, Earls Marischal of Scotland, &c.“, by P. Buchnan, 1820, London; and the two-volume “A System of Heraldry, Speculative and Practical…” by Alexander Nisbet, 1722 (reprinted in the 1984). In this latter work (vol. II) is an accounting of the chain by which the title of Great Marischal passed down the generations. (See “Succession of the Keiths” for a listing and brief discussion of each who served as Great Marischal. Also see related topics, below.)

For related topics, see the following pages in this web site: