Investigations into the Origins of Spens of Lathallan

Investigations into the Origins of Spens of Lathallan

By Dr. Jeremiah P. Spence, Ph.D.

In 1982 and 1983 two preeminent scholars of Scottish history and heraldry exchanged letters in the little known publication “NOTES & QUERIES of the Society of West Highland and Island Historical Research” on the question of the Heraldry of the family of Spens of Lathallan.

Alastair Campbell, Past Chief Executive of Clan Campbell, Unicorn Pursuivant of Scotland, in Vol. 19, page 23 explains his concern:

“The heraldry of the Spens family shows a wide variety, of derivations which include the red lion on Gold of the Dalrindie Clan MacDuff, the mascles of the deQuincy family and the pretty coat born by the Despensers (and incidentally by the family of Her Royal Highness, the Princess of Wales).

Spens of Lathallan first matriculated arms in 1764 and then changed them in 1768 and again in 1780 showing a certain degree of uncertainty!

In the later two matriculations are quartered the CampbelI Gyronry of eight or and sable. This is repeated as a quartering in the modern coats of Lord Spens and of Michael Spens of Wormiston with however the two dexter chief gyroun being blue and silver, instead of the black and gold of the remainder.

This is supposed to commemorate the marriage of William de Spens de Lathallan (d. 1432) with Isabel, daughter of ‘Duncan Campbell of Glendouglas and Tarbort’.

I can find no trace of a Duncan Campbell under that territorial designation. Also, annoyingly, I have it in the back of my mind that I have seen a reference somewhere that, Isabel was not an heiress and what actually happened was that Campbell swapped some land in Fife which he held, in return for Spens’ lands in Dunbartonshire. Can any reader help please?”

David Sellar, MVO, MA, LLB, FRHistS, FSA (Scot), Past Lord Lyon King of Arms of Scotland, provides a lengthy reply in Vol. 22, pages 21-27:

“According to the account of Spens of Lathallan in Douglas’ Baronage, William Spens, the undoubted ancestor of the later family of Lathallan, married towards the end of the fourteenth century ‘Isabel, daughter and heiress of Duncan Campbell of Glen-Douglas with whom he got a considerable fortune, particularly the lands and barony of Glen-Douglas, Tarbet, etc. in Dunbartonshire and several others in Fifeshire.

The fourteenth century is early for a Campbell heiress and Isabel is not mentioned in the later traditional accounts of the Campbells. Yet the family of Spens into which she married have continued to display the Campbell gyronny in their heraldic achievement to this day. Who then was this Isabel Campbell and what lands did she inherit?

I have been interested in following the trail of this heiress since Alastair Campbell first discussed her with me several years ago. His Query has been a further spur. The trail has led to unexpected places, and the pursuit continues, but it is clear that Isabel Campbell was indeed an important heiress. Her story sheds light not only on the early history of the Spens family and the Campbells, but also on the Drummonds and the Macfarlanes.

The surviving record leaves no doubt that Isabel was, as Douglas says, the daughter and heiress of a Duncan Campbell, that she inherited the lands of Glendouglas (that is lower Glendouglas which issues at Inverbeg on Loch Lomond) and Tarbet, and that she married William of the Spens (de Spensa, de Dispensa), burgess of Perth. Sir William Fraser printed two documents, Lennox, ii,45 and 48, to which William and Isabel were parties, both dated at Stirling, 25th July 1392. One is an indenture between Duncan, Earl of Lennox, and William of the Spens, burgess of Perth, and Issabel his spouse concerning the lands of Tarbet and Glendouglas with Tarbet isle, lying within the “pluchlande of Macgylcrist,” that is, within the later parish of Arrochar.

These lands had been recognized by the Earl or his father, but he had re-infeft William and Isabel who had agreed to let the lands to the Earl for life. It is clear from the terms of the document that it was Isabel, rather than William, who had the right to the lands. It is also clear that Isabel claimed a right to other lands in the ploughland of MacGilchrist. The second document is an obligation entered into by William and Isabel in connection with the same transaction. Isabel’s surname is not given in these documents and may not have been known to Sir William Fraser. However, the two seals remaining on the indenture are clearly those of William Spens and Isabel Campbell, and Isabel’s surname can be verified from other sources, as will be seen.

The Spens seal shows a lion’s head erased within a border engrailed and the Campbell seal a gyronny of eight with a label of three points in chief. Alastair Campbell has recently pointed out to me by letter that these arms, slightly differenced, re-appear in Sir David Lindsay of the Mount’s Armorial of 1542 as those of Spens of Lathallan: a gyronny of eight argent and azure; over all on an inescutcheon argent a lion’s head sable langued gules within a border gules.

Douglas mentions a precept of sasine for the infeftment of William Spens and his wife Isabel in the lands of Lathallan, Kittedie and Craigsanquhar, as also Glendouglas and some tenements in Perth – dated 5th May 1385. An eighteenth century copy of the sasine following is preserved among Spens of Lathallan papers in the Scottish Record Office; this records that William de Spensa, burgess of Perth, and Isabel, his spouse, took sasine of Lathallan, Kittedie and Craigsanquhar on 16th May 1385 proceeding in a charter from Robert, Earl of Fife and Menteith.

Further light is thrown on this transaction by the confirmation in the Great Seal Register on 13th February 1430/13 of a grant made by Robert, Earl of Fife and Menteith (later the Regent Albany) to William de Spensa, burgess of Perth, “et Isabelle Cambell sponse ejus, filie et heredi quondam Duncani Cambel.‘ This grant is narrated to have been in exchange (in ex cambium legitimum) for the lands of Drummond, and the destination in Earl Robert’s charter leaves no doubt that it was Isabel, rather than William, who was the heir of Drummond.

Later, in 1400/1, we find that Earl Robert granted to Duncan, Earl of Lennox, the office of Coroner of the ‘Lennox ‘which belongs by hereditary right to the Lord of Drummond.

It would appear then that Isabel Campbell, heiress of Glendouglas and Tarbet, claimed further territory in the Macfarlane patrimony of Arrochar, and was also heiress of the lands, and presumably of the family of Drummond, and hereditary Coroner of the Lennox. Two further grants confirmed by James I in 1430/1 along with the grant of Lathallan already mentioned provide further evidence for these propositions. The first of these confirms the charter granted by Malcolm, Earl of Lennox, to Duncan, son of Gilchrist, itself confirming the charter by Maoldomhnaich, Earl of Lennox, to his brother Gilchrist (incorrectly described by the editor of RMS, ii as fratri dicti Duncani) of the upper arrochar of Luss, later known after Gilchrist as MacGilchrist’s land. The second confirms a grant by Murdoch, Earl of Menteith, to Gilbert de Drummonde (who was probably the head of his kindred) of part of Bohapple in Menteith, with a destination-over, failing heirs male of his body, to Gilbert’s four named daughters in turn.  As will be seen, these lands of Bohapple reappear in the hands of the descendants of William Spens and Isabel Campbell, and so it seems likely that, once again, Isabel was the heiress.

This reconstruction of tho landholdings of Isabel Campbell raises many important questions, not least about the accuracy of the received accounts of the early history of the families of Drummond, Spens of Lathallan, and Macfarlane which I hope to consider more fully elsewhere. Unfortunately, it throws little light on Isabel’s Campbell forebears. The only indication I can find as to which branch of the Campbells her father Duncan belonged to is in the record in the Strachur writs that Donald, Earl of Lennox, who died in or before November 1364, sold to Ivar Campbell of Strachur – the ward and marriage of the lands of Drummode for £40. This sale or grant of the wardship can now be seen as a link in the chain of events which brought the lordship of Drummond to the Campbells, and it seems not unreasonable to suppose that Isabel’s father Duncan was close kin to Ivar of Strachur.

According to Douglas, the eldest son of William Spens and Isabel Campbell was Sir John Spens of Glendouglas, described as “a man of parts and spirit, and extremely active in business.” Although much of Douglas’ account can be shown to be inaccurate, this relationship appears to be correct and the description apt.

Sir John Spens had a distinguished public career in the time of King James I and is probably to be identified with the John Spens who was Steward of the Household to the Duke of Rothesay (later James II) and Comptroller. Although the record is silent, it was probably for him that the three grants already mentioned were confirmed under the Great Seal in 1430/1. The last mention I have found of him is in January 1435/6 as ‘John of Spens, Lord of Glendouglas, and the earliest in August 1419 as ‘John of the Spens Williamson, Burgess of Perth. He appears on an assise at Perth in 1434 as John Spens of Bohapple.

According to Douglas he had a charter of Lathallan, Kittedie and Craigsanquhar in 1433, after his father’s death.  It would appear then that Sir John Spens inherited all his parents’ lands. It is also, I think, likely that the Spens of Lathallan coat recorded in Sir David Lindsay’s armorial is his. This is not the place to consider in detail the dispersal of Isabel Campbell’s lands among her descendants.

But the story of that dispersal, like the story of their accumulation, casts doubt on accepted family history. In particular, the descent of Spens of Lathallan as given in Douglas and more recent accounts as deriving directly from Sir John Spens through his eldest son cannot stand. On the contrary, we find two ladies, Christian and Isabel of Spens, litigating in 1476 and 1478 as “Airis to Johne of spens knycht,” and as “the aieris of umquhile Johne of spens of glendouglas knicht.” They were perhaps granddaughters of Sir John Spens, and appear to have inherited Glendouglas and Tarbet, Bohapple and part of Kittedie and Craigsanquhar.

Christian married James Nory, and both he and their son Robert are described as “of Tarbet.”

Isabel married Andrew Balfour, familiar and armour-bearer to King James III.  She is described as “laidy of glendowglas” in 1495.

The later family of Spens of Lathallan descend from Robert Spens and his son John, who were active towards the end of the fifteenth century, and probably represented the male line of William Spens and Isabel Campbell. Robert may have been a younger son of Sir John Spens. They had Lathallan and part of Kittedie and Craigsanquhar. The family settlement between heirs-male and heirs-general does not seem to have been an amicable one, fortunately for the genealogist and historian, as the records of continual litigation between Balfours, Norys and Spens before the Lords of Council in the latter half of the fifteenth century provide evidence which makes doubly certain the importance of Isabel Campbell and her lands.”


1. SRO. GD 334/78.

2. l am grateful to Miss Elizabeth Ewan for this reference.

3. RMS. ii. no. 187.

4. In hereditate ad dominum de Drummonde. Cartularium de Levenax, 95.

5. Highland Papers, iv. 17-18.

6. NLS.  Adv. MSS. 35.4.12a.

7. SRO. GD. 334/39.

8. De Bothguhopill. Coupar·Angus, ii. no, 128.

9. Acta Dominorum Auditorum, 55,63.

10. RMS. ii. no. 1031; Fraser’s Lennox, ii. 128; Fraserts Colguho ii. 326.

11. RMS. ii. no. 1274.

12. Acta Dominorum Concilii, i. 395.

In volume 23, pages 16-17, David Sellars provides additional information to supplement his preceding explanation:

“The fourth volume of the Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome, published since the above was written, contains a supplication, granted 6 July, 1435, by Sir John Spens (“Sprus”  in the text, but recte “Spens”),  as founder of the Hospital of St. Paul in Perth, which he is styled Lord Drummond,

Whatever the exact significance of this style – and it may reflect a summons to Parliament – its use makes it virtually certain that Isabel Campbell was the heiress of Drummond, as argued above. No Lord Drummond of the name of Spens is listed in any history or peerage.

1.  Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome, lv  (1433-1447),  Ed. Annie I. Dunlop and David MacLauchlan, Glasgow, no. 199. The original Latin is not given.”