The Douglas Surname and Genealogy

The Douglas surname means black river

The DOUGLAS Surname and its Origins

This month’s blog is about the Douglas surname genealogy. Do you have the surname Douglas in your family tree? Ever wondered about the origins of the Douglas surname? Read on about this powerful Scottish family and how they were involved in Scottish history… or contact me if you need help researching your Douglas family tree.

Origins of the Douglas Surname

We are so familiar with Douglas as a first name that you might be forgiven for mistaking the surname for a patronymic.

In fact, the surname came before the first name.  Douglas was unknown as a first name until about the 16th century. The surname is a locative one, denoting someone from Douglas in Lanarkshire.  The placename is the name of a river from the Gaelic ‘dubh glais’ meaning black water.  Therefore, the dark colours of grey and black belong to the Clan Douglas tartan. Moreover, its motto is ‘Jamais Arriere’ which means ‘never behind’ and its clan crest is a salamander in fire.

The Douglas Genealogy

The first known member of the Douglas family was William de Douglas from the late 12th and early 13th centuries.  During that period, he witnessed many charters and held lands at Douglas in Lanarkshire. His descendants became one of the most powerful families in the Scottish Lowlands.  The heads of the Douglas house held the title of the Earl of Douglas, also known as Black Douglases. In addition, junior branches included the Douglases of Morton, Drumlanrig who became the Marquesses of Queensbury and the Red Douglases of Angus. The Douglas family have certainly played their part in Scottish history:

Sir James Douglas:

He was the grandson of William de Douglas who fought in the War of Independence against England under Robert the Bruce. Following the death of Robert, Sir James was asked to carry Robert’s heart in a casket to the Holy Land.  Unfortunately, he was killed on his way there in 1330 when he was fighting the Saracens in Spain.  The casket and the heart were finally returned to Scotland and buried at Melrose Abbey.

Sir William Douglas (c 1540 – 1606), the 5th Earl of Morton:

He was the custodian of Mary Queen of Scots when she was imprisoned at Loch Leven castle in 1567-1568. The castle was, and still is, located on an island on Loch Leven near Kinross.  Soon after arriving, she was forced to abdicate there. However, she managed to escape after being a prisoner on the island for a year. Today, the ruined castle can still be visited by hiring a boat from Historic Scotland.

James Douglas (1662 – 1711), 2nd Duke of Queensberry:

He was instrumental in bringing about the union of the English and Scottish parliament in 1707.  He was known as the ‘Union Duke’.

James Douglas (1702 – 1768), The 14th Earl of Morton:

He was very interested in science and astronomy.  He helped to raise the money to finance Captain James Cook’s voyage of discovery.  Unfortunately, the Earl died before the Endeavour set sail in 1768.  Moreton Bay in Queensland was subsequently named after the Earl by Captain Cook.

Some Douglas Personalities

Over the centuries, many Douglas families left Scotland for a better life in North America, Australia and New Zealand. Did one of your ancestors emigrate from Scotland to the New World?  

People bearing the surname, Douglas, have influenced or been involved in the arts, sports, politics, literature, business, science, law, military and religion. Some even got into trouble such as Neil Douglas (1750 – 1823) who was a poet and minister of the Relief Church.  He was accused of comparing George III to Nebudchadnezzar.  Consequently, the evidence was so scandalous towards the king that he was acquitted! 

There are too many to list but here are some contemporary Scottish personalities:

  • Colin Douglas (novelist) (born 1945), pseudonym of Colin Thomas Currie, Scottish novelist.
  • James Douglas (born 1932), Scottish composer.
  • Jenny Douglas (born 1991), Scottish singer and actor.
  • Donald Douglas (born 1933), Scottish actor.
  • Colin Douglas (born 1962), Scottish footballer.

If you need some help with your Douglas family history, then feel free to get in touch.

Good luck in tracking down your Douglas genealogy. Leave a comment below if you belong to the Douglas family. 

Or look for other Scottish ancestors in our growing guide to Scottish Surnames.


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