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The thanedoms of Colpney/Belhelvie in Aberdeenshire; Kincardine Castle and Balbegno Castle on the River Norh Esk in Kincardineshire; Craig Castle in Angus by Montrose; the barony of Largo in Fife; Grange, Orky, Anstruther and Lambieletham in Fife; Bonnytoun Castle (Bonnington) in Angus; (other land holdings in Lothian, Perthshire, Nairnshire and Banffshire).
The fortunes of every clan/family's territories have waxed and waned over time; their extent and jurisdiction have fluctuated enormously and continually. The same applies to the clans themselves, and Clan Wood being distinguished by the heraldry of its lawful Chief and recognised by the Sovereign is just another part of that enduring process.
Independent researchers in previous centuries to our own evidently saw ancient records in which the heads of Wood families holding lands in Aberdeenshire, Kincardineshire and Angus were described at various times as hereditary Chief of the Name. The earliest surviving mentions of the name in Scottish annals date back to Wilhelmus (Wm.) de Bosco (bosco = a Latinised form for wood), Chancellor to Kings William the Lion and Alexander II who ruled between the years 1165 and 1249 when the dominance of powerful Normans in Scotland was at its height. William was associated with Inverness-shire in the Highlands, and it was a *Sir Andrew de Bosco who was laird of Redcastle close by on the Black Isle, whose wife Elizabeth de Bisset possessed Kilravock on the River Nairn. Their first daughter Mary married Hugo (Hugh) de Ros, who acquired Kilravock Castle through her in 1293 (probably in dowry), and it has been the seat - rebuilt from 1460 - of the Chiefs of Clan Rose ever since. In 1295 a William Wod (Sir Andrew's heir and Hugo's brother-in-law?) was witness to an Inquest at nearby Cawdor into the extent of the Kilravock estates. In later times there lived a significant William de Bosco, Thane of Colpney (aka Overblairton, Belhelvie where Donald Trump has installed his controversial golf course) near Aberdeen, from whose third son, Walter, derived the name Walterson which, we are apocryphally assured, evolved into the short form 'Watson'.
Redcastle, Black Isle
At the foot of this page is an article, written for and about Cawdor Castle, which is pertinent to the Woods and describes what a thane was in mediaeval Scotland.
For generations, significant families in the region, like the Woods, ineluctably shared elements of their culture with nearby Highland clans (some of whose territories were but a moderate horse-ride from Belhelvie, for instance) and with families to the south of them. Such factors will have helped to spread the adoption of practices associated with the Norman feudal system which seem to have suited the Highlanders' way of doing things.
The de Boscos/Woods and their kinsmen, along with their complement of vassals and retainers requisite for such dynasties to exercise their superiority and ensure their defence, appear to have remained settled in the region for several centuries. Then the thanedoms of Fettercairn and Aberluthnot, entailing the sheriffdom and bailliewick of Kincardine, were confirmed by a charter of King James III to Andro Wod of Overblairton, Belhelvie ('our loyal and familiar servitor').The charter explains that the family had occupied those lands 'even for a long time bypast', and had served the household of his father, James II. [The Woods were still there when James Wood, Laird of Balbegno, and Alexander Wood of Nether Benholm were both appointed in 1646 by the Scottish parliament to serve on King Charles I's Committee of War for the Sheriffdom of Kincardine. Such appointments, though honours, carried with them ruinously costly liabiliies like the duty to raise, train and arm a body of men from among their followers to fight in the king's cause. When the king lost the Civil War and his head, many such leading families forfeited their estates. Most were reinstated after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, but the price had been too high for some families to avert steady decline and eventual insolvency.] With forenames like William, Ralph, Hugo and Walter, the earliest de Boscos (also referred to in Latin chronicles as de Vosco, de Boreo, Bois, Boys and Bosch) were Norman aristocrats who were quite close to the sovereign. There exists a 'family tree' that stems from one Guillaume (Wm.) de Boissay, born around 1010 AD in the village of Boissay (= woodland) near Rouen, capital of Normandy, whose named children are subsequently recorded in England, which tells us that the family crossed the Channel following William the Conqueror in or soon after 1066. Just a few generations in time later appears our aforementioned Wilhelmus de Bosco, a favourite of the Scottish Crown. At the close of the twelfth century, a Walter de Bosco held Carruthers, a then populous corner of Annandale of which the Bruces were famously the lords. In 1320, Sir Thomas de Bosco is recorded as Baron of Ogilface near Edinburgh. (Both of these latter estates were ultimately gifted to the Church.) Were those de Boscos the progenitors of our line of chiefs? Well, that is one possibility, for royal gratitude and patronage tended to accompany the Woods and their following even from those distant centuries when the modern nation was being founded, and several of them, right down to the Andrew Wood of Largo in James VI's time, were appointed to high offices such as Chancellor and Comptroller of Scotland. Obviously, we have much work to do to locate those original primary source documents. Many, if not most Scottish clans have similar difficulty in identifying their founders with absolute certainty.
[It is worthy of note that a number of members of this Society reside in, or have their origins in the Wood homelands referred to here.]
* * * *
Historical Revisionism about Scotland's people has been rife down the centuries, so here is an attempt to put a few records straight.
The erroneous notion that clans are Highland groups and families are Lowland units is very much a Victorian (19th century) one. In fact, the terms are interchangeable, and many a Lowland laird has held from the Lyon Court the title ‘Chief of the Name and Arms’, together with a Standard and Pinsel (heraldic flags) granted to those, like the Woods, with a clan following. (Vide the authoritative treatise written by Sir Crispin Agnew QC, Rothesay Herald of Arms in Ordinary at the Court of the Lord Lyon, reproduced at - http://www.scotarmigers.net/pdfs/info-leaflet-11.pdf .) Another myth - that only Highlanders wore tartan - was perhaps propagated by those Lowlanders wishing to distance themselves from the defeated Jacobite clans (though some of those clans were divided in their loyalties), during the dangerous years of retribution following the1746 Battle of Culloden. However, the Scottish Tartans Authority has plenty of evidence to show that it was quite usual for Lowlanders, too, to wear district tartans that later became family-associated, and indeed that the central and border counties of the south had always been a major centre for weaving tweed and tartan cloth of the finest quality. They still are.
This is not to say that the powerful Lowland families organised themselves in the same way as those of the Highlands and of the Borders. But the differences and the bounderies between them were never as clear-cut as some would have it. Human social structures simply do not work as conveniently as that. Lots of Scottish families had their origins in the north, south and middle of the country, not to mention continental Europe. It is probable that most Scots were never part of a clan system: typically but with exceptions, those occupying the well populated Midlands or Central Belt and the country to the south - apart from that of the Border "reiver" clans. The traditional centre of Wood influence was evidentially seaward of the 'fuzzy' eastern margins of the Highlands. Society and boundaries change, often piecemeal, and with them people's perceptions and aspirations. History still exerts an enormous impact on the present, but that does not mean that people of the 21st century want their lives actually to be governed by the conventions of the past. Modern clan societies record, commemorate and celebrate their members' shared heritage partly because the great appeal of those activities can forge global fellowships and personal friendships. In the process we must never forget to learn from our history - but let our understanding of that history not be skewed or tainted by misplaced zealotry.
* * * *
Before family surnames that pass unchanged from father to son had become commonplace by the late14th century, most people possessed only the name that was chosen for them by their parents - which, as Christendom expanded, came to be at their baptism. This meant that large numbers of individuals had the same name as others in their community, so ways of better distinguishing each from the others evolved. Many were identified with features that described where they lived (e.g., John [of the] ford, hill, brook, heath, wood, field, moor and so on, or the name of a village, town or district that they came from - in Norman and later Huguenot French, de Wherever); or with their occupation (John [the] miller, archer, mason, carpenter, wheelwright, potter etc.). But people exclusively so surnamed are today nowhere near as numerous as the Woods. In fact, during the early Middle Ages much of the population lived either in or near woodland, so there was nothing especially distinctive or 'nameworthy' about it; moreover, using their own woodcraft skills was essential to the workaday life of all peasants and farmers. It is often said that the surname Wood derives from Anglo-Saxon 'wudu' meaning a wood or forest. No doubt that is true of the word, but not necessarily of the surname. It seems there are too many of us for that to have been the sole origin.
In the year 2000, Wood was the 61st of Scotland's top surnames, and the 25th in the UK as a whole.
It is apt that the Arms escutcheons of the heads of several prominent Wood families in the UK (including the Woods of Bonnytoun) are surmounted by a Crest that proudly depicts a naked Savage - the storm god himself? - bearing a club, and the motto, Defend. Even so, the great Admiral described in the next section chose for his personal crest a portrayal of the weapon he mastered in defence of Scotland's coasts and vital maritime communications: a ship under sail.
Individuals were also known by nicknames reflecting their physical or behavioural characteristics (John [the] Short, Wise, Cruickshank, Sweet, Toogood, Armstrong, Peacock etc.). The most frequent surname throughout the United Kingdom is Smith. That derives from 'smitan' the ancient word for 'to smite' (a blacksmith is an iron beater). It is understandable that members of the bellicose warrior tribes of those centuries would want to be famous for being smiters, hence the popularity today of the name Smith. Similarly then, Wood as a nickname probably came from the Anglo-Saxon Wode or Wod, the Germanic storm god of great antiquity known for his wildness (links with Woden/Odin/Wotan, from whom we get Wednesday). Wod, therefore, generally came to mean 'wild' or 'crazy', signifying one who becomes frenzied or savage in the midst of battle - surely a compliment in an unstable, warlike society, and one to prize as a patronymic. It was how our chiefly family, the Woods of Largo, were still spelling their name well into the 17th. century. Writers as late as Shakespeare used 'wod' in the sense of being wild. Arguably, in a fiercely Christian world, that association with an unmentionable pagan god would not have gone down very well, so it can be imagined how comfortably a collective forgetfulness of the connection might have set in. By the 15th century, there were surnames spelt both Wod and Wood (they may have sounded the same) of families resident in the main towns, and supposedly it was when the former had finally become 'modernised' to Wood by the late 17th century that the large numbers of us became evident.
It is believed that numerous Scots Anglicised their Gaelic name Coil/Coyle to Wod/Wood.
Furthermore, the Oak tree is closely associated with the storm god whose thunderbolts frequently struck it, but seemed only to imbue the damaged tree with extra vitality for growth. The Oak was therefore held to be sacred - a conduit of virility and power. It features prominently on the escutcheons (shields) of all the Woods' coats of arms, and a Sprig of Oak is the proper plant badge of Clan Wood. [Practically all the clans have a traditional plant badge. The Crest Badge, on the other hand, specifically signifies the wearer's loyalty to the Chief, the Crest of whose amorial bearings it depicts - in our case, the ship under sail, as shown at the top of this page.]
Personal names that became surnames.
What we now think of as 'given' first names mostly had descriptive meanings of their own (e.g., Peter = Rock; Robert = Bright with glory; Phillip = Lover of horses), to which was often added "son of" (or more precisely, the possessive "[hi]s son" - 'his' then simply meaning 'belonging to' or 'pertaining to' regardless of gender, number or case) when surnames became necessary in the Middle Ages. So, compare the following few examples: Peter, Peters, Peterson; Adam, Adams, Adamson; John, Johns, Johnson; Stephen, Stevens, Stevenson; Will, Wills, Wilson; Robert, Roberts, Robertson; Wood, Woods, Woodson, and scores of others that readily come to mind. Surname etymologists say that early regional practices determined whether -son or just -s expressed 'son of''. [So-called 'possessive apostrophes' - in place of the 'hi' missing from 'his' - did not enter English language texts till the mid 18th century.] It can be safely asserted that surnames ending with -son always stem from 'given' personal names as illustrated here, so the very existence of Woods and Woodson confirms that Wod/Wood was once, perhaps as often as not, a descriptive nickname.
Before Scotland became the nation we know today, all of the south-eastern region - essentially Lothian - was part of the mighty Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, which stretched from the River Humber (where the port of Hull is located) to the River Forth (where Edinburgh - a Brythonic and English name - stands) and sometimes beyond that. The principal language here has been Anglian Scots ever since. By the late 10th century, Northumbria had been so weakened and divided by incessant Viking incursions along its extensive coastline and river systems and by the emergence of an expanding England united under Wessex as the dominant power that, in 1019, it lost its territory north of the River Tweed to what would later become Scotland. It is very conceivable that among the long-settled peoples left behind were families headed by men known as Wod, some of whom would acquire lands up and down the east side of Scotland, and form confederacies to extend and defend their interests.
[Tellingly, even today in and around the modern county of Yorkshire resides one of the largest concentration of Wood families in England.]
This story is typical of how a number of Scottish clans melded into being. Some clan families were founded by well-born Norman and Flemish mercenaries in the pay of warlords or the likes of King David I. Could it be that the Wods accepted the protection and leadership of one of those powerful Norman families who subsequently anglicised their name?
[It should be remembered that the regulation of word spelling was not seriously attempted until the mid-17th/18th century. To make a simple comparison here, note that the surname Cook was once usually spelt Coc, and it may very well be that 'Wod' - which derived from earliest Anglo-Saxon values - was previously pronounced somewhat as we say 'Wood' today. So these pages ought to be read with that possibility in mind.]
Admiral Sir Andrew Wood of Largo, Fife, (circa 1455 – 1515) was certainly an offspring of the venerable family referred to at the top of this page. He was famous for inflicting many defeats on foreign pirates and privateers as well as squadrons of ships sent by the English government to harass the Scots. In the true patriarchal tradition, his successors built a hospital and a school in Fife specifically for their kinsmen named Wood, and often appear in Scottish archives most especially for their political and military involvements. They continued to be an influence in British politics and were among the foremost of the thousands of Scots who contributed enormously to the economic and armed expansion of the British Empire well into the 19th century. [Right up to modern times, numerous Scots have been outstanding members of the United Kingdom Parliament: they include Leaders of all the main political parties and several Prime Ministers like the last three: Blair, Brown and Cameron.] The main line of Sir Andrew’s descendants is considered by the Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms to be the chiefly one. The family's record of succession is complete right down to modern times. Our Chief today is Timothy Michael Herbert Fawcett Wood, Representative of the Ancient Family of Wood of Largo and Chief of the Name.
Lower Largo, on the north bank of the Firth of Forth
Footnote. This old fishing village is also where Alexander Selkirk (properly Selcraig) 1676 -1721, son of a local shoemaker and tanner, was born. His adventures as a castaway on a Pacific island prompted Daniel Defoe's tale of Robinson Crusoe, and were the inspiration for William Cowper's eloquent lines: I am monarch of all I survey, / My right there is none to dispute: / From the centre all round to the sea, / I am lord of the fowl and the brute.
* Sir Andrew de Bosco (Wood) of Redcastle is an ancestor of the Campbells,Thanes and Earls of Cawdor.
"The Thane of Cawdor lives, a prosperous Gentleman," wrote Shakespeare with confident grace, but we have no more notion than he did, as to how the thanes began to thrive. The first recorded Thane of Cawdor, Donald, comes into the candle-light of history as one of the witnesses to a humdrum legal document in 1295 [the same document that was also witnessed by William Wod]. The dynastic dignity of a thane was the equivalent, in Scotland, of a feudal baron holding lands from the Crown. A thane was frequently the chief of a clan, always the administrator of his district, usually an influential individual with power of life and death, and was only answerable to the King or to his deputy or to God. The word 'thane' was borrowed from the Saxons who had adapted it from the Norse title thegn - meaning a trusted servant of the King - just as 'earl' was taken from the Norse title of jarl; these were the oldest distinctions of nobility in the Middle Ages. King Edward I of England (d. 1307) had defined penalties for injuring the various grades of society: the Cro (fine) for killing the King's son or an earl was 150 cows, and for an earl's son or a thane 100; an ingenious tax - index-linked, quality-controlled, mobile and edible. In Scotland, a total of sixty-three thanedoms once existed, from Haddington south of Edinburgh and Fortingall west of Perth, across the vale of Strathmore to Fettercairn [long held by the Woods of Balbegno and of the royal Castle of Kincardine]; up to Aberdeen and over to Dingwall and down to Rothiemurchus. Wherever there was rich red soil, fertile enough to feed warriors, there were sure to be thanes waiting, patiently, for trouble.
While we are thinking about names and their origins, where did the word ‘America’ come from?
Those who accept the most popular notion that America was named after Amerigo Vespucci are actually espousing what would have been considered at the time an unpardonable heresy. To have a place or feature named after your forename, you had to be either a saint or a senior royal. The city of Washington was named for the first US president; neighbouring Georgetown for King George II - after whose Queen the Carolinas were named. The Cook Islands, Sidney, Telford, Canberra, the Hudson River, Buckingham Palace, Columbia are all named for prominent commoners – non-royals. Louisiana, Victoria, San Francisco, Willemstad, Jamestown, St Petersburg, Charlotte all respect the names of kings, queens or saints. Maps of territories all over the world named by Europeans are covered with examples of this standard observance, occasional exceptions not creeping in till the 20th century with the likes of Alice Springs. So, which commoner of the early 1500s might have given their surname to the New World?
Well, when the navigator John Cabot sought financial backing for his planned expedition to the fabulous Indies by a westerly route north of the one taken by Columbus, he went to the notoriously abstemious King Henry VII who granted him a licence, or letters patent, to claim for the English Crown any lands not already known to Christian men, but adding the caveat that the crew’s voyage must be ‘at their own proper costs and charges’.
Intensive research is ongoing, but it is possible that Italian bankers in London made some contribution to Cabot’s first voyage of 1497. It is certainly known, however, that a consortium of wealthy Bristol merchant-mariners was the prime financer of the expedition, headed by the High-Sheriff of Bristol, Richard Americk (possessed of an anglicised Cornish or Welsh surname given various spellings), members of which may have been among Cabot’s adventurous crew of 18 or 20 men aboard their pocket-size carrack ‘Matthew’. They became the first recorded Europeans to discover the coast of mainland America, between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia (Columbus having found only the islands of the Caribbean five years earlier, then he and Vespucci the South American coast between 1499 and 1502).
Scandinavian, Scottish and English fishermen had been working the abundant cod banks over the continental shelf east of that mainland for many decades prior to Cabot’s voyages. If any of them ever espied or even landed on the coast unaware of its extent, it would not have been their concern or in their commercial interests to make the fact known.
So, whose surname really did become attached to that ‘new’ continent? Hmm?
It was probably a mistake.
To speculate: what if the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller, who produced a famously influential map of the known globe in 1507 which he very soon revised, got hold of a fisherman’s simple chart with the single possessive word ‘America’ noted somewhere on the seaboard, indicating the location of a mundane but essential fish-salting station belonging to a Mr Americ of Bristol?
Last reviewed and updated 10th April 2014