Many Families, One Surname

We’ve been unable to define a specific origin of the surname “Bell”, but history shows kinship played a prominent role in establishing regional authority and justice in rural Scotland and England:

  • Scottish Highlands and the Border lands were harsh places to live and the few who did followed clans with a solitary Chief (or Branch Chiefs) powerful enough to provide protection and food as needed. Dependent families (Septs) sometimes adopted the clan surname to show fealty, but weren’t treated the same as those of the Chief’s bloodline.
  • Scottish Lowlands and English lands south of the border were more populated and communities sometimes followed dominant families of the same name (“graynes”), with a Head (or Heads) that served the same role as Clan Chief. These families did not have septs of affiliated families or a military structure for protection.

Historical records show several areas in the UK with established Bell families prior to 1603, when Scotland and England united under King James I (VI) and the “unruly” clans along the border such as Clan Bell were pacified or forced to leave:

  • Scotland’s West March – home to Clan Bell, one of the border clans mentioned in 1587’s Acts of the Scottish Parliament (RPS, 2 9 Jul 1587) . The clan’s chief, William “Redcloak” Bell (PCS, Vol 1-5, pg 497), was frequently charged (along with other clan members) with stealing cattle and other valuables by rival families and landowners on both sides of the border in a practice known as “reiving”. He was also listed as a participant in the notorious rescue of Kinmont Willie from his English captors in 1596 (Border Papers, Vol 2, pg 122).
  • England’s West March – home to a number of Bell families in the Cumberland region, according to a muster of Eskdale Ward in 1581 (Border Papers, Vol 1, pg 37-41), as well as a petition offered Nov 1597 to Lord Scrope, English West March Warden (Border Papers, Vol 2, pg 454). Interestingly, Scrope’s papers are the clearest surviving records we have on Border law and it was written by his clerk, Richard Bell!
  • Scotland’s Eastern Lowlands – The first recorded use of the surname Bell in Scotland is John Bell, who served as a notary in St. Andrews, 1248. (Papal Letters, Vol 1, pg 245). Records also show a thriving community of Bells in St. Andrews (Bells of St. Andrews) with notable descendents like Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, and Col. Ninian Beall who helped hundreds of his family members emigrate to America and settled what is now Washington DC.
  • England’s southeast country – One of the most prominent Bells of the era was Sir Robert Bell, who was Speaker of the House of Commons (1572-1576), was knighted by Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1577, and served as Chief Baron of the Exchequer (History of Parliament). One of his descendants is believed to have settled in Jamestown, VA around 1623.

New families have evolved over the nearly four centuries since Redcloak claimed the title of Chief and no doubt each holds members with equally interesting contributions worthy of inclusion to this list. 

Works Cited

Bain, J., “The Border Papers. Calendar of letters and papers relating to the affairs of the borders of England and Scotland, preserved in Her Majesty’s Public Record Office, London” London, 1894 (Internet Archives, Vol 1, Vol 2)

Bell, A.G., “The Bells of Saint Andrews : Births, marriages and deaths of persons of the name of Bell from the records of St. Andrews, Scotland / Compiled by Alexander Graham Bell from information supplied by the late Rev. Walter MacLeod, genealogical research worker of Edinburgh, Scotland.“, 1918 (Library of Congress, CS479.B47)

Bell, C.D., Memorial of the Clan of the Bells: More particularly of the Bells of Kirkconnel and Bells of Blackethouse, Chiefs of the Name“, 1864 (Internet Archives)

Black, G., “The Surnames of Scotland, their origin, meaning, and history.“, New York, 1962 (Hathi Trust)

Bliss, W.H., “Calendar of Entries in the Papal registers relating to Great Britain and Ireland: Papal letters, 1198-“, London 1893 (Hathi Trust)  

Brown, K.M., “The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707 (RPS)“, (University of St. Andrews, 2007)

Durie, B., “What is a Clan?“, (article) Council of Scottish Clans and Associations (COSCA), 2014 (www.cosca.scot)

Hasler, P.W., “BELL, Robert (d.1577), of the Middle Temple, London and Beaupré Hall, Outwell, Norf.“, The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603 (History of Parliament, 1981)

Masson, D., “The Register of the Privy Council of Scotland (PCS), Vol V, A.D. 1592-1599.“; Edinburgh 1881 (Hathi Trust)

Pease, H., “The Lord Wardens of the Marches of England and Scotland: Being A Brief History Of The Marches, The Laws Of March, And The Marchmen Together With Some Account Of The Ancient Feud Between England And Scotland. ” London, 1912 (Internet Archives)

Thompson, T., “Instrumenta Publica Sive Processus Super Fidelitatibus Et Homagiis Scotorum (Ragman Rolls)”, Edinburgh, 1296 (Internet Archives)

Excerpts from the Rammerscales Manuscript

“…above the principal gate was cut in freestone, in a Skutcheon, three Bells, and for a Crest, a hand holding a dagger, paleways proper.”

“It is a fact uncontroverted, the Bells of Kirkconnel were a very brave and warlike race of men, and upon all occasions they stuck firm to the House of Douglas, with whom they were allied in blood as well as their Vassals; that they generally accompanied any of the family in their expeditions and invasions into England; and the Bells of Kirkconnel being valient men, were always sent upon the most hazardous enterprises, especially on the borders, where sometimes much blood was shed and great booty was carried off from the enemies of the country.”

“The first Charter that appears from Records and Vouchers relating to the Bells is a Charter granted by Archibald, Earl of Douglas, to William Bell, of the lands of Kirkconnel, which is ratified by a Charter under the great Seal of King James the first, anno mccccxxiv.” 

Notable Bells in History