Sic Transit Gloria

On this day in 1640, Sir William Alexander, 1st Earl of Stirling, died in London, bankrupt.[1]

Sir William belonged to the Menstrie family, whose exact origins are unclear but who have always been recognised as a branch of the Clann Alasdair (the Macalisters). He was to be the most prominent of that family. He was well educated, a noted poet and a close friend of the Earl of Argyll, who introduced him to King James VI. The king also became a friend, and Sir William followed him to London in 1603. He was tutor to both of James’s crown princes, collaborated with the king on a version of the Psalms of David[2], and held numerous important posts under both James and his son, Charles I, including Secretary of Scotland. In 1621, James gave him an extensive land grant in North America, and Sir William set about establishing a colony there, which he called New Scotland. Today it is the province of Nova Scotia.

Sir William’s close association with the royal family continued throughout his life, but in the reign of Charles I his fortunes began to change. Articles of peace signed in 1629 to end a war with France ultimately involved the return to France of the lands on which New Scotland had been established. Sir William’s personal fortune had been significantly reduced in the effort to establish the colony and promised compensation never materialised. Although he spent the rest of his life trying to restore the family’s wealth, he was never able to do so. (Even if he’d managed, political changes were brewing in Scotland and England that would sweep his royal patron from the throne and would probably have left his family ruined.) Added to financial disaster was personal loss: his two eldest sons died within a year of each other.[3]

Sir William’s final years are described by Rev. Slafter in his memoir of the earl:

The disappointments which he had met in his colonial undertakings, the melancholy aspect of the civil affairs of the nation, especially the dark and menacing cloud that hung over his native Scotland, . . . the sudden death of his eldest son, in whom were wrapt up his chief hopes for maintaining the distinction of the family for which he had assiduously labored so many years, the financial embarrassments that had been gradually accumulating, and were now overwhelming his private fortune, all these burdens . . . were more than he could well sustain.[4] 

Sir William Alexander’s body was taken home to Scotland, where he was buried in the Grey Friars’ Church in Stirling.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014


[1]The date is debated, but most reputable sources agree it was in February and this seems to be the generally accepted date.
[2]This version of the Psalms later formed a part of the prayer book that Charles attempted to impose on Scotland, sparking the Bishop’s wars (Edmund F Slafter, Sir William Alexander and American Colonization. . . . [Boston: the Prince Society, 1873], pp. 14-5).
[3]The third son, Robert, had already died.
[4]Slafter, pp. 100-101

James Alexander, Earl of Caledon

On this day in 1800, James Alexander was created Earl of Caledon in the peerage of Ireland.

James was born at Londonderry in 1730. His great-great-great-grandfather, John Alexander, was an Ayrshire tenant farmer who followed his landlord, James Cunningham, to northern Ireland in the early 1600s. By his grandfather’s time the family had acquired land of its own, and his father became an alderman in Londonderry. James made his fortune with the Honourable East India Company, a relatively unusual path for an Irishman, holding several important positions in India before he returned to Ireland[1] with enough money to purchase the Caledon estate, as well as several other properties, in 1776. Caledon House was built in 1794.[2]

Although earlier genealogies claimed that the Caledon family descended from the Alexanders of Menstrie, no details of this descent were given, and as John Alexander’s parentage is not known, this connexion cannot be proved.[3] If they are related, then the Alexanders of Caledon, like the Menstrie family, belong to the Clann Alasdair. Regardless of their ancestry, however, the two Alexander kindreds are linked by history. James Cunningham, who obtained the Donegal lands on which John Alexander originally settled, had sold his family’s properties in Scotland to pay off his debts. The purchase of his Irish lands was made possible by means of two substantial loans: one from Robert Alexander, ‘a scion of the Menstry family’, and the other from Sir William Alexander himself. Several years later, when Cunningham’s creditors caught up with him, Sir William foreclosed on the loan. By doing so, he kept the property out of the creditors’ hands until Cunningham’s son was able to purchase it back in 1629, allowing the tenants, including the ancestors of the Earl of Caledon, to remain on the land.[4]

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1]Service with the HEIC was quite common for younger sons of landed families in Scotland and England, and more than a few family fortunes were established or restored in this way, but few Irish families followed this path (Introduction to the Caledon Papers, p. 5, Public Records Office of Northern Ireland).

[3]Sources for the information about James’s descent from John are given at The Peerage.

[4]C. Rogers, ed., Memorials of the Earl of Stirling and the House of Alexander (Edinburgh, 1885), pp. 59-63

The Last Earl of Stirling

On this day in 1739, Henry Alexander, the fifth Earl of Stirling, died. The earls of Stirling belonged to the Alexander family of Menstrie Castle in Stirlingshire. They are thought to descend from Gilbert ‘de Insula’, a son of Alasdair Mòr, who settled in the Lowlands in the mid-1300s. Although the exact descent is unclear, it has always been accepted that the Menstrie family – unlike many other Scottish Alexanders – do in fact belong to the Clann Alasdair. Certainly earlier generations of this family had a good deal of interaction with the Macalisters of Kintyre.

The fifth earl was a private individual who refrained from civic participation, and little is known of his life. His family, however, once wielded considerable influence. They first appear on record in 1505, when Thomas MacAlexander ‘de Menstray’ is named as arbiter in a local land dispute. The fact that he is ‘of’ Menstrie suggests he was the owner of this property; his role as arbiter suggests some degree of local authority. Thomas’s descendant Sir William Alexander (d. 1640) was part of James VI’s court in Scotland and in 1603 he followed the king to London, where he served as tutor to both of James’s crown princes.[1]He was acclaimed as a poet and was an active coloniser, establishing a settlement in Ireland and a colony at Nova Scotia. He already held several titles by the time he was named Earl of Stirling in 1633. Sir William’s eldest son was knighted, briefly governed the Nova Scotia colony, and served on the Privy Council; the second son, a noted architect who served as King’s Master of Work in Scotland, was also knighted. Henry’s grandfather, the third earl, succeeded his brother as Master of Work[2]and established a trading company, and his father was elected Member of Parliament for Berkshire.

The Alexanders’ close association with the Stuarts cost them their position in Scotland after the Civil Wars, and by Henry’s time Menstrie Castle had long since passed out of their possession. With Henry, the family’s titles too would be lost. The fifth earl left no heirs, nor did his brothers, and when Henry Alexander died on this day in 1739, his titles fell dormant. Although the earldom has been claimed by other branches of the family[3], none of these claims have ever been recognised.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1]Sir William’s first charge was James’s eldest son, Crown Prince Henry. After Prince Henry died in 1612, William became tutor to the second son, the future Charles I.
[2]R. S. Mylne, ‘The Masters of Work to the Crown of Scotland’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. xxx (January 10, 1896).  
[3] Unlike titles in the English and, later, British peerage, some Scottish titles can pass to female heirs should the male lines fail. Although none of the 4th earl’s sons had children, some of his daughters did.

William Alexander and the Union of Crowns

On this day in 1603, King James VI of Scotland was crowned James I of England. He succeeded Elizabeth I, his second cousin, who had died without heirs. Among the many Scots who followed James to London was William Alexander, head of the Menstrie family, whose claim to be a branch of the Clan Alister is generally accepted (most importantly, by the clan itself) despite patchy documentation. 

William Alexander had been introduced to the Scottish court by the Earl of Argyll, to whom he was once tutor. When the court moved south Alexander went along as tutor to Crown Prince Henry, and on Henry’s death in 1612 he became tutor to Henry’s younger brother, the future Charles I. Alexander remained in service to Charles for the rest of his life. His association with the royal family led to a knighthood (1609), a viscountcy (1630), and ultimately an earldom (1633). He also held important positions under the crown, including Scottish Privy Councillor and Secretary for Scotland. (Before these, he was appointed Master of Requests for Scotland, “whose chief duty was to ward off needy Scots from the English court”![1]

In 1621, William was granted a considerable extent of land in what is now Canada and set about establishing a Scottish colony in North America. The colony he founded there eventually became Nova Scotia. To help finance his plans, he suggested a money-making scheme whereby interested parties could be named Baronets of Nova Scotia — if they were willing to pay for the honour. (This was not Alexander’s idea, originally. King James had done exactly the same thing in Ulster a decade earlier.) Still, the settlement of Nova Scotia entailed repeated set-backs and required considerable investment from Alexander himself. When the lands granted to him in 1621 were returned to France by treaty nine years later, Alexander’s colonial enterprise was simply shut down, leaving him deeply in debt.

William Alexander’s association with James VI took him to London and brought him national prominence. His elder sons, two of whom predeceased him, also held prominent positions under the crown (see Anthony Alexander, Master of Works), but an Episcopalian family known for its service to the Stuart kings was unlikely to prosper in Scotland after the mid-40s. Alexander’s home at Menstrie was mortgaged to a relative, who foreclosed after his death in 1640[2], and by the time Charles I was executed in 1649, “the family’s estates had been lost and the country was in the hands of its political enemies”.[3] The third Earl of Stirling, William’s oldest surviving son Henry, died in obscurity, probably in England; his mother and most of his siblings settled in Ulster.

 Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1]  ‘William Alexander, Earl of Stirling’ in Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
[2] Robert Menzies FergusonLogie: A Parish History (Paisley: 1905), p. 171

[3] Stevenson, Origins of Freemasonry, p. 72

A Charter for Menstrie

On this day in 1526, the lands of Menstrie in Clackmannanshire were granted by the Earl of Argyll to Andrew Alexander.[1] The superiority remained with Argyll, who had a tendency to change the details over the years, but the Alexander family retained Menstrie for more than a century, they built the ‘castle’ that stands to this day[2], and they are the family most associated with the estate.

The barony of Menstrie had been the possession of the Campbells of Argyll since at least 1322, but for much of that time the Argyll family had kept their local residence at Castle Campbell in nearby Dollar. Although the charter of 1526 is the earliest to survive, it appears that the Alexander family was holding at least part of Menstrie before that year. In a legal document of 1505, ‘Thomas Alexander de Menstray’ is one of seventeen men named as arbitrators in a quarrel between the Abbot of Cambuskenneth and Sir David Bruce of Clackmannan. The use of ‘de Menstray’ (of Menstrie) indicates that Thomas was the landholder, not simply a resident.

The Menstrie family reached its heights in the person of Andrew’s great-great-grandson, Sir William, who was born in Menstrie Castle about 1567. Sir William followed James VI to London in 1603 (when he succeeded to the English throne), tutored his sons, and remained in the court of Charles I. He eventually became the Earl of Stirling and is best remembered for having come up with, and partially funded, the scheme to establish a British colony at Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, the Nova Scotia colony failed when the land was given back to France and the venture left Sir William bankrupt. In 1639, the year before he died, William mortgaged the Menstrie properties to his brother-in-law, Robert Murray, who sold them in 1649 to Major-General James Holburne. Most of Sir William’s surviving children seem to have settled in Ulster.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1]There are many unrelated Alexander families in Scotland, and most of them are not connected to the Macalisters. However, although the precise descent is unclear the claim of the Alexanders of Menstrie to descend from the Kintyre Clan Alasdair has been widely accepted for centuries. The earliest of the family on record in the Lowlands is Gilbert de Insula, who had a land grant in 1330 for lands in the parish of Campsie, Stirlingshire. It has been suggested, though without much evidence, that Gilbert was a son of Donald of Islay, and thus a grandson of Alasdair Mòr. Gilbert’s son John used the name MacAlexander. Whatever their descent, the Menstrie family maintained close relations with the leading Macalister families and were recognised by them as part of the clan.   
[2]Menstrie Castle is in fact a tower house rather than an actual castle. Built about 1560, it was burnt during the civil wars but rebuilt. It fell vacant in the late 1800s and by the 1950s was almost a ruin. In 1960, a campaign was started to raise funds towards its preservation, and by 1964 it had been fully restored. At that time it was divided into flats; today it holds a museum related to the Nova Scotia colony and offers holiday accomodation.

Anthony Alexander, Master of Works

With the death of Sir James Murray of Kilbaberton on this day in 1634, Anthony Alexander became general surveyor and principal Master of Works in Scotland.[1]Anthony (second son of Sir William Alexander, who was later Earl of Stirling) belonged to the Menstrie branch of the Clan Alister. He had attended the University of Glasgow before spending three years on the Continent studying languages and architecture. When he returned he was appointed jointly Master of Works with Sir James, who had held the title since 1607. 

The position of Master of Works was an ancient one, involving responsibilities that seem to have varied over time. Originally concerned mostly with the financial aspects of building projects, it later became somewhat confused with the job of master mason or project overseer. By the seventeenth-century, the principal Master of Works was responsible not only for the financing of building projects, but also for the quality (and possibly design) of new construction, for keeping track of necessary repairs to older structures, and for ensuring that workmen were appropriately qualified.

Although there were a number of other Masters of Works in Scotland at this time, none of the others had the power of Anthony and Sir James, whose authority apparently covered any profession even remotely connected to construction of any sort: buildings, bridges, even ships. Kilbaberton’s death therefore left Anthony Alexander in a position of considerable importance and prestige.
[2] He was knighted the following year. 

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2011


[1]General works almost inevitably give Sir James Murray a death date in December. In his book The Origins of Freemasonry, Scottish historian David Stevenson writes: “According to his testament . . . Murray died in December, but this is an error; a contemporary diary records his death the previous month” (p. 61, note 24). That diary belonged to Sir Thomas Hope of Craighill and is available on-line; on Monday the 1st of December 1634, Hope noted that Murray had died the previous Saturday. 
[2]In fact, with his father, who tutored both of James VI’s crown princes and founded the Nova Scotia colony; his elder brother, Lord Alexander, who governed the new colony; and his younger brother, Henry, who succeeded him as Master of Works in Scotland and eventually became the 3rd Earl of Stirling, Anthony Alexander was part of perhaps the most widely influential single family in Macalister history.