(This article was published in the December 2010 edition of "The Scottish Genealogist" by Roger Marjoribanks, our Clan Genealogist)

Edinburgh in the 16th century was a turbulent and violent place, buffeted by wars against the English, French occupation, the Reformation and a vicious little civil war.  It was also overcrowded, filthy and subject to frequent visitations of plague and other major diseases. Into this maelstrom stepped a group of brothers from Dumfriesshire; one might have expected them to be as much at sea as the traditional country yokel, but far from it - they, their sons and grandsons (and indeed later generations) made themselves one of the most distinguished dynasties in the city.1

Their father Philip had been the first to use Marjoribanks as a surname; he was probably a Johnstone by birth and adopted the name of his estate 2 to distinguish himself from the other Johnstones who were so numerous in the county.  The precise relationship with the Johnstones is still to be established beyond doubt, but he appears to have been descended from Gavin Johnstone of Esby who passed on the estate of Marjoribanks to his younger son William. He fathered a numerous progeny; the eldest son William(1) inherited the estate and stayed behind to exploit it, while his brothers John(1), Thomas(1), Simon(1) and James(1) (with possibly a fifth brother Edward, of whom more later) left to find their fortunes in the capital.

William did not live long to enjoy his inheritance; he was dead by 1506 and his next brother John(1), although by now established in Edinburgh, acted for the heir Robert(1), suggesting that Robert was still a minor and thus that his father had died relatively young.  Robert lived peacefully enough at Marjoribanks but lost his own heir William(2) shortly before he himself died in or after 1556, in which year he made over his lands and rights to his uncle Thomas(1), by then the only surviving brother.  His main claim to fame is that he appears to have adopted arms as Marjoribanks of that Ilk, 3 reminiscent in their display of a cushion to those of Johnstone, and similar in all respects save those of tincture to those currently used by the head of the Clan.

The most interesting of the remaining brothers was Thomas(1) (possibly because his career is so well recorded) but the most mysterious was Edward.  There is only one known reference to him, in a charter which tells that D. Edward Marjoribanks of Cruke, prebendary of the collegiate church of Edinburgh, granted lands at Craigcrook to Henry Adamson and his wife in 1543.  The D. is evidently a title (like Revd.), but all else is a mystery; we do not even know whether he was one of the brothers - the date might just have been late enough for him to have been a son of one of the original brothers.  For the moment we shall have to leave it there.

A fair amount is known about John (1), the oldest remaining brother, enough to show that he played an important part in early 16th century Edinburgh.  We have already met him as administrator of his deceased brother William (1) back in Kirkpatrick Juxta; he was also an important member of the city's governing class.  There are references to him as early as 1503 as a witness to various documents (he is known to have had his own seal, also bearing the cushion, which is still extant), and he became the owner of a tenement in Cowgate in 1511.  He was elected Guild Brother 4 in 1508 and was three times bailey 5 between 1516 and 1523; he was also Dean (or head) of Guild briefly in 1527.  What his particular merchandise was is unknown; he may have dealt in furs. The last mention of him comes in the late 1530s and he was dead by 1542.

Very much more is known of Thomas (1), the next brother, one of the most prominent lawyers in Scotland.  He had been educated at the University of Orleans, 6 which suggests that he (and possibly John as well, bearing in mind his obviously high standing) had a rich and powerful patron, or that Philip had been a much more wealthy man than might be expected from minor Dumfriesshire gentry.

He only became a Guild Brother in 1538, and then only by right of his wife, probably because the profession of advocate was regarded as a mere craft, rather than one of the elite mercantile trades. He is mentioned as an advocate in 1528 and must have by then been fairly well known, for two years later, when the College of Justice was instituted, he was named as one of ten advocates selected to "procure"7 before the Lords. In 1535 he became Advocate for the Poor, and commissioner for the burgh of Edinburgh in 1540 and 1546, in which year he was also appointed Lord of Articles. He reached the peak of his profession in 1549 as Clerk Register. A personal seal is attributed to him, again somewhat similar to the main arms described above. He was removed from this office in 1554 for a financial peccadillo (perhaps more because he was by then an old man and it was thought desirable to replace him) but there is no sign of his having lost favour and in his last years he became joint President of the Council in 1556 until his death in 1557 at a great (though unknown) age; he must have been at least 70 and probably more.

Meanwhile he had been accumulating property, most notably by the grant of lands in Ratho in feu to the Barony of Renfrew in 1540,8 which gave rise to the legend that our name derived from this acquisition (having been part originally of the lands of Bruce mentioned in the wedding settlement of King Robert's daughter Marjorie to Walter the High Steward). In 1556 he was bequeathed the lands of Marjoribanks in Annandale by Robert Marjoribanks of that Ilk, whence our chief's title of Marjoribanks of that Ilk ultimately derives. A revealing story is told of him in 1547; when forces were being mustered in 1549 to meet an English invasion, "Our wellbelovit familiar clerk mister Thomas Marjoribanks, now of grat age, corpolent and seiklie in his person, wherethrow he is nocht abill nor may not sustain travell and charges of war nor other ways may be usit by his common diet and ease without grat danger to his person….was excusit fra host and army….and to remane and byd at home."; Another sign of his sovereign's favour was a considerable exemption from any property tax..

A further feature is that he appears to have adopted arms of his own, with similar characteristics in some respects to those of Marjoribanks of that Ilk, which were recorded as  the arms of Marjoribanks of Ratho 9 for several generations before the family adopted the modern arms, referred to above.  The arms recorded are from 1624, so it is impossible to say that they were definitely adopted by Thomas (1), but it seems likely enough, in view of both his status and the fact the he would not have been entitled to adopt those of Marjoribanks of that Ilk until 1556, shortly before his own death. 10

Much less is known about Simon (1) and James (1), not even which was the elder; both became Guild Brothers, Simon in 1515 and James in 1517, both by right of their wives - that is to say, both had made good marriages and in effect inherited their fathers'-in-law status. Thus it can be assumed that both were merchants - indeed in 1520 James was given sasine11 of a shop on the north of Tolbooth, the open space next to St. Giles Cathedral. There are scattered references to them thereafter and it can be deduced that they lived on into the 1540s at least.

That leaves Edward, who, as observed above, is a complete mystery, since no other record of him survives.  From the fact that he was in a position to grant land in 1543 he was evidently a mature man with some worldly possessions, and therefore in all probability one of the older generation.  There is no reason not to assume that he was a sixth brother rather than a son of one of the better known five, and perhaps the youngest.  Beyond this, speculation is useless.

Much more is known about the next generation, for the simple reason that their careers were passed amidst the turmoils of the Reformation and the deposition of Mary Queen of Scots, with the civil wars that ensued. Records are much fuller and have been studied in detail by Michael Lynch in "Edinburgh and the Reformation."12 We have already dealt with the descendants of William (1): the sons of John (1) were William (2) and John (2): of Thomas (1), John (3), Robert (2), Thomas (2) and James (2): of Simon (1), James (3) and Simon (2): and of James (1), Michael, James (4) and Leonard.

William(2) is mentioned in a deed of 1542  as son and heir to the late John Marjoribanks, Burgess of Edinburgh, but was dead by 1554, when in a similar deed John(2) has become John(1)'s heir.  John (2) was admitted Guild Brother by right of his father, the late John (1) in 1561.  It was high time, for by the end of that year he was a bailie for the first of four times, an ordinary councillor the next and several further years, and thereafter rarely out of the public eye. 

Although he accepted the Reformation (he was listed as one of the "faithful brethren" who contributed to the building of a new poor hospital in 1562), he seems to have been a distinctly conservative figure - perhaps not unnaturally for one of the richest merchants in the city. 13 He spoke up vehemently in defence of William Roberton, the Catholic master of the grammar school, a case in which he and Roberton's other defenders were eventually successful; he seems to have suffered no damage whatever to his career for the time being.  He was, in spite of what is said below, no lickspittle of the royal court during Mary's years of power.  In 1561 he had been among those councillors who had vigorously opposed Mary's insistence on replacing the existing provost with her own nominee.14 he truth seems to be that he was a natural conservative with respect for the established forms of government.

However, apart from such occasional false steps, Mary governed well and with respect to existing conventions, while her personal charm retained the loyalty of many even after her two disastrous marriages, deposition and flight to England.. Thus in the early 1570s, we find this John(2) as a leading member of the Queen's party in the bitter little civil war between those faithful to the deposed Queen Mary, now a prisoner in England, against the King's men, followers of the Regent for the infant King James VI.  This war caused great ill-feeling, and John was on the losing side.  He was arraigned for treason, but it seems that he escaped completely unscathed, for in 1576/7 he became bailie for the fourth and last time.  He was by this time fairly elderly and was dead by 1583, for he does not appear in the tax roll of that year; nor do his wife and children, who seem to have disappeared without trace.  However, although it appears that none of us can claim descent from him, we can honour him as a decent and distinguished man who did his public duty and maintained his balance in difficult times.

Of Thomas (1)'s four sons John (3), who died before his father in 1550, was clearly the eldest, for his father's properties in Ratho and Marjoribanks passed to his own son Thomas (3). Of the remainder - Robert (2), Thomas (2) and James (2) - it seems logical to assume that Robert was senior to Thomas, who inherited his clerical offices; but where James fits in it is impossible to be certain. Since he died before Thomas one might assume that he was older, but there is no confirmation of the date of birth of any of them; all that can be said is that they were mature men well before their father's death.

Robert held a number of clerical appointments; he was prebendary 15 of Kirkmichael in Ross-shire, and also of Corstorphine (a village west of Edinburgh), and vicar of Cragy.  He died in 1548 and his brother Thomas, who appears to have lived on until at least 1590, inherited these appointments; he seems to have made the transition from papal to Presbyterian Kirk authority and other later changes entirely without problems - perhaps something of a Scots Vicar of Bray.

James is of interest, as much because he was for many years the "missing link" between the family branches of Marjoribanks of that Ilk and Marjoribanks of Lees as for any other reason.  Until 2009 all that was known about him was his name and the fact that he was a merchant in Edinburgh; in that year, however, DNA testing proved the genetic link between the two branches, leading to the clear conclusion that James the son of Thomas(1) and James the ultimate known ancestor of the Lees branch were the same person.  James was a merchant in a small way (he was assessed only for a small amount of tax in 1583) and probably died shortly afterwards.

Thomas (1) had an interesting daughter, Bessie, married to John Spottiswood, a member of the Guild and councillor in the 1550s, but also a prominent Roman Catholic who was later pursued by the council and excommunicated in 1569; unsurprisingly he was of the Queen's party in the civil wars, charged with treason and fined in 1573 and died in 1574.16 Bessie his wife was also true to the Old Faith, but was apparently not harassed strongly as a result. 17

Simon(1)'s two sons were James(3) and Simon(2). Of James very little is known; he was both burgess and Guild Brother, but what his trade may have been is not known. He paid tax of £5 in 1565, suggesting that he was a rather minor member of the merchant class; nothing else is known - it appears that he played no part on either side in the religious turmoil of the time - and he died in 1569. Simon is more interesting. He too was burgess and Guild Brother and was a more prosperous merchant (assessed at £20 in 1565) and is known to have traded extensively abroad, mainly to Flanders; there are several mentions of his concerns in that area. It is very likely that it was those concerns that made him a sympathiser with the "Queen's Men" in the 1570s, although in practice inactive on either side (indeed, in one record it is suggested that he was a King's Man); for Flanders at this stage was still Catholic and sympathetic with Queen Mary's plight. At any rate his attitude did him no substantial harm, for he became bailie for the second time in 1573 and councillor for the third in the following year. He died in 1583; his widow paid a small amount of tax on his estate in 1585.

James(1)'s three sons were named Michael, James(4) and Leonard; again, it is not possible to rank them in birth order. Michael is listed in the Roll of Burgesses and Guild Brothers as "one of the sons of the late James Marjoribanks" and was admitted in 1564; he seems to have been a little tardy in paying his dues. What his trade was is not known, but he appears to have been of clerical bent, for he was appointed clerk to the kirk sessions of 1565 and 1575 and to the two rival commissaries set up during the disturbances between "King's and Queen's" men in 1572. He fell foul of the kirk and King's Party, so is classified as a Queen's Man,18 but made public repentance in 1574. He cannot have been very prosperous, for in spite of his recently elevated status he does not appear in the tax roll of 1565.

James(4) had a much bumpier career.  He was a notary by profession, is first mentioned in a writ of 1554 and was assessed as such at £10 in 1565.  However, he retained a loyalty to the old faith and the kirk excommunicated him in 1568/9 for refusing to deny the validity of the Mass as a sacrifice for the dead; he had also lent money to the excommunicated John Spottiswood, his cousin Bessie's husband.  He was reconciled to the kirk in 1574.  He was still alive in 1585,19 but there is no mention of him thereafter.

One of the most interesting references to him, especially in the light of his known religious sympathies, comes in 1578 as the author of a charter "made by James Marjoribanks chaplain of the chapel of the Blessed Mary under the castle of Edinburgh."  Naturally, by this time this cannot have been a place of Catholic worship, but it is known to have been the meeting place of the first lodge of a guild of masons whose records have survived; they were not of course at this early stage Freemasons but members of the trades associated with building, and their minutes (which also record the so-called Schaw Statutes for the regulation of the trade) survive from 1599 but the document does suggest the possibility that they were sufficiently highly organised to require the services of a legally qualified official - in this case in the office of chaplain.

Less is known of Leonard; he is described in some records as a burgess, but his name does not appear on the Roll of Burgesses and Guild Brothers - in truth, those who were not also guildsmen seem to have been ignored on the list.  He is known to have been a Queen's Man, but only because his name appears on a list of ninety-two who submitted to the kirk in November 1572.  Just about the only other thing known about him is that he died in 1611.

One Marjoribanks of this era who is even more mysterious than Leonard is a certain Clement, who is also described as a burgess on the index entry to his will dated 1564, but equally does not appear on the Roll, probably for the same reason.  Unfortunately, the will itself does not survive.  There is one other brief reference, when he is mentioned as a witness in 1558, and another Clement appears in a similar context in 1588.  We cannot be sure even to which generation they should be assigned, let alone who were their closest relatives.

That completes the list of family members alive in Edinburgh before and during the Reformation period. Of course, between them they had plenty of sons to carry on their lines by the end of the century but these two generations cover one of the most interesting periods in the history of Scotland and of the city. They form an interesting group in themselves, and not just because of a natural pride in one's own family's origins. We have here what is known to have been only the second and third generations who called themselves Marjoribankses and emerged from a fairly minor estate in a rural area to play a distinguished part in one of the most important communities in the land; how they did it is still a conundrum remaining to be solved, although at this period (and not only at that time) "Who do you know?" was rather more important than "What do you know?" In other words, the acquisition of a powerful patron could boost the prospects of an able man of only moderate fortune very considerably. There was a number of influential Johnstones in the city at the same time - perhaps this was no coincidence?

A distinct thread appears to run through the whole family during this century of crisis; they appear to have been an able group and generally conservative in character.  Most made the transition enforced by the Reformation fairly smoothly, 20 although several clung to the old faith and the old monarchy as long as they could do so without serious danger to themselves.  They appear to have been upright and honest (Thomas(1) was accused of one misdemeanour in his old age, but it seems to have been a "political" ploy, which he surmounted without too much trouble).  There is not the material available to say much about the branch who stayed behind in Dumfriesshire, but in general it can be said that this was a family of solid worth and contribution to the history of their time.


1 To make identification easier, I have numbered the Christian names of significant characters which appear frequently.
2 The estate of Marjoribanks  (to use the modern spelling) was in the parish of Kirkpatrick Juxta, just south of Moffat.  Marchbank Farm still stands.
3 Workman's MS dated 1565/6 in the Lyon Office.
4 The Guild was the restricted membership of the merchant class who were eligible for election  to the city council, and so senior members of their trade.
5 Bailies in Edinburgh  (there were four every year) were members of the council who acted as its chief executive officers, responsible to the Provost and to the President of the Council.
7 This appears to mean "act as attorney."
8 Register of the Great Seal, No. 2208.
9 Pont MS, 1624, in the office of the Lord Lyon.
10 For the whole complex account of early Marjoribanks Heraldry, see John L. Marjoribanks in "The Double Tressure" No. 25 (2002), pp. 77-85.
11A deed in effect conferring ownership.
12 Pub. John Donald, Edinburgh , 1981.
13 This is known from the size of his loans  and tax contributions during the 1560s.
14 Lynch, p. 101.
15 A prebendary was a clergyman on the staff of a collegiate church, similar to the canon of a cathedral.
16 Lynch, pp. 292 and 354.
17 Lynch, p.290.
18 Lynch, p.341.
19 He is mentioned in the tax roll of that year.
20 Of course this applies only to the second generation; their elders were all dead.


The most important secondary source is Michael Lynch's "Edinburgh and the Reformation" based on a doctoral thesis of the University of London and published in its present form by John Donald Publishers Ltd. of Edinburgh in 1981.  In addition to the text it includes some most useful appendices.  Another very useful source has been an unpublished little work called "The Family of Marjoribanks"; written by Revd. Thomas Marjoribanks of that Ilk in 1943, although naturally after 66 years it has to be treated with some caution.  I also found an interesting article on Thomas(1) in the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB).  Much, too, has been learned from private correspondence.  I owe particular gratitude to Mrs. Rosemary Bigwood of Edinburgh, who supplied quotations from many of the sources cited below, without which it would have been impossible to construct a sensible narrative.

There are many primary sources and, since references are usually very brief though numerous, I have not overburdened this essay with constant footnotes referring to them.  They include:-

Roll of Edinburgh  Burgesses and Guild Brethren 1406-1700
Calendar of Deeds , Acts & Decreets 1542-1581; also Yester Writs
Register of the Privy Seal
Register of the Great Seal 1306-1633
Protocol Books of Gilbert Grote (1552-1573), J.Foular (1503-13) and (1514-28).
Roger J. Marjoribanks, Nov. 2009