by Thor Ewing (Thor at HistoricalArts dot co dot uk)
The surname ‘Ewing’ first appears in Scotland around the year 1500. In his Clan Ewing of Scotland, E. W. R. Ewing claims that the name was used in Lowland Scotland from a much earlier date, but all the examples he lists refer to the use of the name ‘Ewan’ as a forename rather than as a surname. However, from the late fifteenth century through the sixteenth century the surname becomes common, though spellings vary. The most usual spelling is ‘Ewyne’, which is also the standard sixteenth-century spelling for the forename 'Ewan', but the spelling ‘Ewing’ appears at a surprisingly early date (at least by 1566) and is used consistently in a fairly well-defined area centered on Loch Lomond.
Ewings across the world today can frequently trace their origins to this same small area of sixteenth-century Scotland. But where did these Ewings come from? Why do they suddenly appear here at this time?
The sixteenth century was marked in Scotland, as in other northern European countries, by the Protestant Reformation which reached Scotland in the 1560s. When the exiled priest John Knox returned to Scotland from Geneva in 1559, the country was crying out for real religious leadership. His return was the spark that set fire to the whole nation. In 1560, the Scottish parliament approved the Scots Confession, which adopted a Calvinist position; the Confession was finally given royal assent in 1567. As part of the process of Reformation, the monasteries and nunneries were suppressed.
This loss to the church was a windfall for any monarch wanting to reward faithful followers. So it is interesting to find that in 1589 the will of Findlay Ewing shows him settled on an estate at Ladytoun, Dumbartonshire, which had previously been the site of a nunnery.
It can not have been before the Confession of 1560 that the Ewings were granted land at Ladytoun, and perhaps not before 1567 when it was given royal assent. Findlay Ewing’s will is dated 1589, so the Ewings must have arrived at Ladytoun at some point between 1560 and 1589. Very likely, they arrived during or shortly after the Protestant Reformation of the 1560s, when the estate would have become available.
Around the same time as their settlement at Ladytoun, it seems the Ewings were granted arms. The heraldic catalogue known as the Workman Armorial records a grant of arms in the name ‘Ewing’ which can also be dated to the 1560s. The armorial belonged to Sir Robert Forman, who held the post of Lord Lyon (chief herald) from 1555 until 1567, and it bears the date 1566. It seems practically incontrovertible that these grants of land and arms in the 'Ewing' name were both made to the same man, probably in the year 1566 or thereabouts.
The 1560s were an interesting time in Scottish politics. Not only did John Knox’s return in 1559 spark the Protestant Reformation, but it was in 1561 that Mary Stewart first set foot on Scottish soil as Queen of Scots. Everyone wanted to know who the young queen would marry; though she was already a widow, she was still just 19 years old, charming and beautiful. A good deal rested on her choice of husband, and in 1563 Knox famously admonished her over her apparent plan to wed Don Carlos of Spain. When she did marry in 1565, it was to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.
Darnley was the son of the Earl of Lennox, whose lands included the area around Loch Lomond where the Ewings lived. It is not improbable that the preferment of the Ewings in 1566 or thereabouts was in some way linked with the royal marriage. Certainly, this would have been a new opportunity for followers of Lennox seeking favor at court. But the good times were not to last. In 1567, Darnley was murdered.
Many suspected that the queen herself had been involved in the plot. She was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle and forced to abdicate. However, on May 2, 1568, Mary escaped from her prison and quickly raised a small army. Less than two weeks later, Darnley’s father, Matthew Stuart, Earl of Lennox, defeated her at the Battle of Langside. Mary fled across the border to England, never to return.
According to James Finnegan, one of Mary’s banners at Langside was carried by one William Ewing. This was a role of rank and responsibility; William Ewing must have been known to the queen before the battle and may have been appointed to his role before her imprisonment. It would seem highly likely then that it was this William Ewing who had been granted arms and land by her just a year before. All the more so, when we note that the Ewing arms portrayed in the Workman Armorial are ensigned, that is to say that they display a flag. Although the flag is not shown in detail in this armorial, later armigerous tradition shows that it should bear the Red Ensign of Scotland.
Flags are very unusual as heraldic devices. Where they are used, it is often as a mark of special favor. In this case, it seems likely that the ensignment recognizes an official role for William Ewing as Bearer of the Ensign of Scotland. If so, this would have been a high honor indeed. The Bearers of the Royal Banner were the Scrymgeours, who had held the honor since 1298. It seems curious that such a role should have been bestowed on a man without any apparent ancestry – as we have said, the name 'Ewing' appears to have been more-or-less unknown before the sixteenth century.
Earlier Ewynes include merchants, burgesses and priests. Some of them do indeed seem to have been men of note, but not the sort of men to appoint as bannermen. What is more, none of them fits with the suggestion that the Ewings had come to prominence through their association with the Earldom of Lennox. So, who were these Ewings from the lands of Lennox? And, if the name is unknown before about 1500, why did they suddenly find favor at Queen Mary’s court as if they sprang from an ancient and noble line?
The answer lies in the old, traditional understanding of the name ‘Ewing’, on which E. W. R. Ewing poured such scorn in his book of 1922. The name 'Ewing' is derived directly from the old highland clan, Clan Ewen of Otter. This clan had lost its traditional homeland in the late fifteenth century and had relocated to the lands of Lennox on the shores of Loch Lomond, precisely where the 'Ewing' name is commonest to this day.
It was this origin for the name which was believed by the leading Ewing families before 1922. Thus, E. W. R. Ewing recorded the tradition that "the Ewings of America trace their origin to six stalwart brothers of a Highland clan,"  and he quoted a letter from John G. Ewing, which states:
The name was originally MacEwen, and originated about 1400 in Argyllshire, in Cowal. The members of the clan about 1500-1600 took refuge in the adjacent Lowlands district of the Lennox, which includes Dumbarton and the greater part of Stirling. Here many lost the mac, and others Anglicized the Ewen to Ewing.
I shall return to the issues raised by E. W. R. Ewing later in this article, but for now it is enough to point out that an origin in Clan Ewen of Otter is the only account of Ewing origins known to have existed before the twentieth century. In the case of the Ewings of Balloch, the belief in descent from Clan Ewen of Otter appears to represent an oral tradition with roots at least as early as the seventeenth century. Although based on the banks of Loch Lomond, the Ewings of Balloch seem to have gone out of their way to buy land on the Cowal peninsular, where the old MacEwen homeland had been; the estates of Bernice and Glenlean were in the possession of the Ewings before the reign of James VII (1685-89).
Yet it was not merely because he represented an ancient clan that William Ewing was treated as a man of rank by Mary Queen of Scots, but because he represented the chiefly line of that clan. According to accounts of the history of Clan Ewen, the clan fought for Mary at Langside under a new clan banner. A new clan banner is dependent on a heraldic grant of arms to the clan chief. The only possible candidate for such a grant of arms is the shield recorded in the Workman Armorial in the name of ‘Ewing’.
What is more, at this time the MacEwen clansmen were living on lands belonging to the Earl of Lennox, and so they would normally have been expected to turn out to fight for their feudal lord against the queen. The fact that they fought against him shows that they were loyal to an independent chief, who had been granted land directly by Mary Queen of Scots. Thus, in 1568 the men of Clan Ewen obeyed the call of their chief William Ewing of Ladytoun, and turned out to fight under his banner against their feudal lord.
What I think makes all this especially interesting to members of the Ewing Family Association is that many of us are probably descended from the same line. Y-DNA tests have shown that the great majority of Ewings in Ulster and America share the same genetic signature, making it likely that we all share a common ancestor some time around the sixteenth century. Oral traditions tracing the family back through Ulster to Scotland are consistent with an origin in the Ewings of Ladytoun or a closely related family. The first Ewing in Ireland was one Finley Ewing, and the name Finley is so unusual that he must have been related to Findlay Ewing of Ladytoun. Somewhat more circumstantially, perhaps the commonest name among the Ewings of Ulster seems traditionally to have been William (according to data in Griffith's Valuation and in my own family tree, where more than a quarter of all Ewing men are named William).
But what is particularly noteworthy is that two branches of the Ewing family in America have independently preserved a memory of the Ewing arms which were granted by Mary Queen of Scots. One branch descending from Nathaniel Ewing (1693-1748) is represented by Dr. John Ewing and Joseph Neff Ewing Jr., while the other is represented by the family of Hon. Thomas Ewing. The earliest American records of the Ewing arms predate their publication in Stoddart's Scottish Arms of 1881.
A coat of arms is often misunderstood to belong to a particular family. In fact, any given coat of arms belongs only to the man or woman who bears it. Thus in the sixteenth century, these arms were granted to William Ewing for his personal use alone. Only he could wear a shield emblazoned with the Ewing arms. William’s clansmen at Langside would probably have marked their allegiance by wearing his crest of a red lion clutching at a star, perhaps accompanied by his motto Audaciter. Any banner bearing this arms was his, and to this day under Scottish law, items bearing a coat of arms without permission of the armiger may be confiscated by order of Lyon Court. On his death, the entitlement to the Ewing arms would have been inherited by William Ewing’s eldest son.
So, for the memory of these arms to be preserved in family tradition strongly suggests that the families in question are directly descended from William Ewing of Ladytoun. In the case of Nathaniel Ewing (1693-1748), we know that this branch of the family belongs to the group of closely-related Ewings identified by David Neal Ewing in his analysis of the Ewing Surname Y-DNA Project's results. This would mean that everyone in this group is descended from the same line as William Ewing of Ladytoun, very probably from William himself, his brothers and his cousins. This would also mean that the group of closely-related Ewings represents the descendants of the chiefly line of Clan Ewen of Otter.
The last acknowledged chief of Clan Ewen of Otter, Swene MacEwen, died without legitimate issue in 1493, so it is unlikely that the Ewings can claim descent from him. But there is no reason to imagine that the entire chiefly line died with him. We know the names of four generations of MacEwen chiefs and it is hard to imagine that none of them had surviving male descendants.
The few surviving charters of Swene MacEwen mention one William MacEwen, who seems to have acted as his right-hand man. Swene lived most of his life in the knowledge that his clan would have to leave its traditional lands when he died. Without an obvious heir in the shape of a legitimate son, he might have appointed a Tanist from among his male relatives who would have acted as his deputy. Is it too much to suggest that this William MacEwen was Swene’s chosen heir, and that it was William MacEwen or his son who led the clan to its new home on the banks of Loch Lomond? If so, then we are his descendants.
The results of Y-DNA testing raises another possibility. The group of closely-related Ewings are M222+,13 which according to conventional wisdom means we are descended in the same line as the Irish King Niall of the Nine Hostages. This is in fact precisely what we would expect if we are indeed descended from the chiefly line of Clan Ewen of Otter. According to the medieval genealogy of the clan (preserved in MS1467), this line is descended from Anradhan, and Anradhan was descended from King Niall.
It is true that not everyone is willing to go along with the Gaelic genealogies as they are preserved in medieval manuscripts. But it is also true that they represent an unexpected window on how people believed the ancient families of Gaelic Scotland and Ireland were connected. And it seems unlikely that these genealogies, which once commanded great respect, were entirely concocted by later fantasists.
I have argued elsewhere that whilst the conventional genealogy of Anradhan cannot be right in detail, it is also unlikely to be wrong in essence. If I am right, and Anradhan was indeed the descendant of King Niall of the Nine Hostages as has traditionally been claimed, then the Ewing Surname Y-DNA Project's results would appear to confirm the supposition that we are descended from the chiefly line of the MacEwens. Conversely – and I am aware that taken together these statements involve a certain element of circularity – the probability that the closely-related group of Ewings are descended from the chiefly line of Clan Ewen greatly strengthens the evidence provided by the Ewing Surname Y-DNA Project's results in support of the traditional genealogies. It does not much matter if other MacEwens and other Ewings do not yield the same Y-DNA signature. Despite the deliberate fiction that the whole clan was descended from a single founding father, it would be naive to expect a single male line for each clan, and there is in any case good reason to believe that MacEwen surnames have roots in several different clans.
So, how does this square with the theories set out by E. W. R. Ewing in Clan Ewing of Scotland? E. W. R. Ewing claimed that the 'Ewing' name was a distinctive Lowland Scots surname which had its origins among the ancient Brythonic princes of Dumbarton. At the time, the later medieval origins of British surnames were not so widely known, and a very early origin for the name clearly convinced many readers. Nowadays, I think that very few serious investigators would argue that the name could have existed as a surname from the ninth century up to the present day. However, the independent Lowland origin of the name is still a popular theory among Ewings today, at least in America.
Followers of the theory can point to the fact that, whereas the surnames MacEwen, MacEwan, McEwen and McEwan are common across the Scottish Highlands, the surname Ewing is common in the area around Loch Lomond, spreading into Argyll and across the Lowlands to the southwest. Whilst this does not quite represent the specifically Lowland distribution that E. W. R. Ewing claimed (Argyll and Loch Lomond are both in the Highlands), it is certainly distinctively different from the distribution of the group of names beginning in ‘Mac’ or ‘Mc’.
However, the distribution actually varies significantly for every individual spelling of the name, not just for the ‘Ewing’ version. The spelling ‘MacEwen’ for instance is limited almost exclusively to Caithness and Sutherland in the far north. Furthermore, ‘Ewing’ is by no means the only spelling which has dropped the prefix ‘Mac’ or ‘Mc’. The names ‘Ewan’ and ‘Ewen’ are common in the Lowlands of North East Scotland, while the name 'Ewans' is common around the River Forth. Looked at from this perspective, what is really remarkable is that the name 'Ewing' is the only variant without a prefix ‘Mac' or ‘Mc' which does occur with any frequency inside Highland areas.
A word of explanation needs to be given here about Scottish clan names. Nowadays, most people of Scottish descent can tell their ancestral clan by their surname. These surnames are derived from the clan names of history. But in historical times, a clan name was not exactly equivalent to a modern surname.
Let us assume that you are a Highlander in sixteenth-century Scotland by the name of Angus. Like your father Donald before you, you are a follower of Clan Gregor. Thus, you might be known by your clan name as Angus MacGregor. The ‘Mac' part of the name simply means ‘son of’, an honor you may claim as a follower of the chief of Clan Gregor. If you transfer your allegiance to another clan, say Clan Dougall, then your clan name would change to MacDougall. Of course, your real father was called Donald, so you can also be known by your patronymic as Angus MacDonald, but this doesn’t make you a member of Clan Donald.
All this might seem complicated to us today, but in the context of medieval Scotland the system worked very well. By late medieval times, people in the Scottish Lowlands had started to use surnames much as we use them today. It seems that when Highlanders moved into Lowland areas, they used their clan name as a surname. Thus, men of Clan Dougall would take the surname Dougall, while men of Clan Donald or Clan Gregor used the surnames Donald or Gregor, respectively. The names of the clans themselves did not include the prefix 'Mac', which was used to show an individual’s affiliation to a given clan. Each clan looked back to a founding father, who gave his name to the entire clan. The word clan means ‘children’, so that Clan Donald means ‘Children of Donald’. Clan MacDonald would mean ‘Children of the Son of Donald’, and this form of clan name was not used in the sixteenth century when Gaelic was still widely spoken and understood.
Thus a follower of Clan Ewen adopting his clan name as a surname in the sixteenth century would have called himself ‘Ewen’ not ‘MacEwen’ (though he would probably have spelled it ‘Ewyne’). Among Gaelic speakers, he would be known as Uilleam Mac Eoighainn, but to speakers of Scots (or Inglish, as it is sometimes called) he was William Ewyne or Ewing. When Highlanders came to adopt their old clan names as surnames in the eighteenth century, they incorporated the prefix ‘Mac' or ‘Mc' in their new names, but it is evident that early settlers in Lowland areas usually did not do so.
- W. R. Ewing also notes that the Ewing motto Audaciter is identical with the motto of the eleventh-century prince, Ewen (or Eugenius) of Dumbarton. It is likely that the Ewings of Ladytoun adopted this motto precisely because it gave them a spurious connection with an ancient local prince who shared their name. In all probability, they had never been conscious of a family motto before they were required to adopt one when they were granted arms in around 1566. At this time, The Hystory and Chroniklis of Scotland by Hector Boece was widely available, and it was almost certainly from this source that they took the motto.
In short, there is no reason to doubt that the name ‘Ewing’ is in fact derived from the clan name 'Eoghainn' or ‘Ewen’, and there is no evidence to support the alternative origin suggested by E. W. R. Ewing.
History is in the past. But this historical information is not entirely without consequence in the present. Recent years have seen a remarkable revival of interest in the Scottish clans. Many clans still have a chief, who can trace his descent through the generations to the founding father of the clan. However, in some clans the tradition has been broken. Many of these chief-less clans are now actively looking to choose someone as their chief. As a part of this process, for example, the Clan Ewen Society has instituted a chief-ship fund, in order to help the process of appointing a chief (or chiefs) for the clan (or clans) it represents.
Without certain knowledge of the line of descent from William Ewing of Ladytoun, it is impossible to know who might have the best title to be chief by right of ancestry. Unless direct descent from the last chief can be proven and legally documented, the new chief is appointed by a meeting of the armigers and landowners of the clan. In these circumstances there are various ways in which a chief may be chosen, but descent from the line of chiefs is by no means irrelevant.
One of the most interesting lines of descent would be through Thomas Ewing, born 1690. It was his family which held the sword given by King William III at the Battle of the Boyne to his father Findley, and they also preserved the memory of the coat of arms. So, there are some grounds to imagine that this might be the most senior Ewing line. Of course, there is no absolute reason to assume that King William bestowed his sword on the most senior Ewing rather than on the bravest. Nor can we necessarily assume that the sword was inherited by the eldest son; it could equally have been a parting gift to a younger son bound across the ocean. But we have no hard facts to work with, and this line has at least circumstantial evidence for historical precedence.
I have tried to trace the direct line of Thomas Ewing, born 1690, but so far to no avail. Using the excellent database compiled by Marilyn Price-Mitchell, I have managed to get up to Wallace Maskell Ewing, born 1866. Wallace Maskell had four sons, but I have not been able to trace their descendants. The line of descent is as follows:
The eldest son of Thomas Ewing, born 1690, was Maskell Ewing who died in infancy; his second son was Thomas Ewing, born 1722 (individual #313 in Marilyn Price-Mitchell's data).
The eldest son of this Thomas Ewing was Joel Ewing who died in infancy; his second son was George Ewing, born 1754 (individual #69).
The eldest son of George Ewing was George Ewing, born 1779 (individual #2001).
This George's eldest son was Nathaniel Harris Ewing, born 1811 (individual #1555).
Nathaniel's eldest son was Maskell J. Ewing, born 1836 (individual #1775).
Maskell J.'s eldest son was Charles Walter Ewing, born 1861 (individual #2570).
Charles Walter is known to have had a daughter Laurel Mae, but Marilyn Price-Mitchell's database does not record a son, so the line reverts to other sons of Maskell J. Ewing. The second son Elmer Curtiss Ewing (individual #2575) seems to have died without issue, so the line goes through Wallace Maskell Ewing, born 1866 (individual #2576).
So, the direct heir would be descended from Wallace Maskell's eldest son Elmer Opie Ewing. If Elmer Opie has no direct male descendants, it would be in the line of one of his brothers (Walter de Alma Ewing, Cecil John Ewing or Wallace Ewing).
If any readers might know the whereabouts of their descendants, then I believe this line would have as good a claim as any, and better than most, to stake a claim for the chief-ship by dint of ancestry.
Of course, it is not just these folks who are descended from the chiefs of Clan Ewen. All of us who are in the closely-related group are descended from the line of chiefs, and even if you have not had your Y-DNA tested, it seems likely that the great majority of Ewings who made their way to Ulster and thence to America are part of the same family.
So, what about the other Ewings who are not part of this closely-related group defined by Y-DNA? Are they not also part of the same family? As far as I am aware, we can not prove this either way by Y-DNA tests. However, in most cases they probably will be descended from the same ancestral clan, it is just that their direct paternal ancestor was not the same. People commonly married within the clan, or within a small group of clans, so everyone from the clan is related. Thus, whilst I believe the closely-related group is directly descended in the male line from the fourteenth-century Ewan, Lord of Otter, his sister's children might have remained within the clan but will not have shared the same paternal Y-DNA. The 'Ewing' name seems to originate in the area around Loch Lomond where the descendants of Clan Ewen of Otter settled in the late-fifteenth century. Since it seems that all the Ewing families came from here, it can hardly be doubted that they all represent the descendants of the same clan, and that several families within the clan followed the lead of their chiefs in adopting the surname 'Ewing'.
This means that the answer to the question in the title of this article – Who were the Ewings? – is a simple one: They were a part of the sixteenth-century Clan Ewen of Lennox, and before this their ancestors had lived in Argyll as Clan Ewen of Otter. In particular, for the closely-related group of Ewings identified by the Ewing Y-DNA Project (which appears to represent the majority of Ewings in America and probably in Ulster today), it means that our Ewing ancestors come from the chiefly line of the clan, represented by William Ewing of Ladytoun, who fought at the Battle of Langside in 1568.
Black, George F. The Surnames of Scotland: Their Origins, Meanings and History, Publishing Center for Cultural Resources (New York), 1946 (new edition 2007).
Ewing, David Neal. Ewing Surname Y-DNA Project – Article 11, J. Clan Ewing, Vol. 13, No. 3 (August 2007). Available online.
Ewing, Oscar R. Oral History Interview with J. R. Fuchs for the Truman Library, 1969. Available online.
Ewing, Thor. New Notes on Clan Ewen: A history of the clans and families MacEwen, MacEwan, McEwen, McEwan, Ewen, Ewan and Ewing, 2009. Click here for information about availability.
MacEwen, R. S. T. Clan Ewen: Some Records of its History, John MacKay (Glasgow), 1904.
McEwan, John. Origins of the MacEoghainn clan: What information can Y chromosome markers provide?, J. of Clan Ewing, Vol. 11, No. 3 (August 2005). Available online.
McLaughlin, John D. The Clan Ewing of Loch Lomond - An Alternate View, J. of Clan Ewing, Vol.12, No. 4 (November 2006). Available online.
Thor Ewing is a writer, historian and historical performer in the UK; he has published studies of Viking and Anglo-Saxon culture and translations of medieval Scandinavian and Celtic poetry. He joined the Ewing Surname Y-DNA Project in 2007 (he is JT in Group 2*), and his own line comes through Lurgan, County Armagh, in Northern Ireland. He is web master for the Clan Ewen Society, and his recent New Notes on Clan Ewen (2009) looks at how modern Ewings and MacEwens originate in the clans of medieval Scotland. Thor Ewing's Home Page
 Ewing, Elbert William R. Clan Ewing of Scotland, Corben Publishing Co. (Ballston, Virginia), 1922. Available for purchase from Higginson Books. Also available online. [Short Citation: Ewing, E. W. R.]
 Information about registered Coats of Arms is available at www.heraldry-scotland.co.uk/mitchell.html. Information about the Workman Armorial may be found in Stoddart, R. R. Scottish Arms, being a collection of armorial bearings A.D. 1370 – 1678, 1881, which is available online.
 Ewing, E. W. R., p. 152. Available online.
 Ewing, E. W. R., p. 87. The letter is quoted from: Ewing, Rev. Joseph Lyons. Sketches of the Families of Thomas Ewing and Mary Maskell ..., The Stratford Commercial Job Printery (Stratford, N.J.), 1910. Available online.
 Joseph Neff Ewing's lineage is available online.
 McMichael, James R. Coat of Arms, J. Clan Ewing, Vol. 2, No. 3 (August 1966), p. 16. Available online.
 Stoddart, R. R. Scottish Arms, being a collection of armorial bearings A.D. 1370 – 1678, 1881. Available online.
 Ewing, David Neal. Discussion of Ewing Surname Y-DNA Project's Group 2 Results. Available online.
 From Wikipedia: [A] Tanist was chosen from among the heads of the roydammna or 'righdamhna' (literally, those of kingly material) or, alternatively, among all males of the sept, and elected by them in full assembly. The eligibility was based on patrilineal relationship, which meant the electing body and the eligibles were agnates with each other. The composition and the governance of the clan were built upon male-line descent from a similar ancestor. The office was noted from the beginning of recorded history in Ireland, and probably pre-dates it.
 Ewing, Thor. The Anradhan Kindred, 2008. Available online.
 Boece, Hector. The History and Chronicles of Scotland, Volume 1, Written in Latin by Hector Boece, Canon of Aberdeen; and Translated by John Bellenden, Archdeacon of Moray, and Canon of Ross, Reprinted for W. and C. Tait (Edinburgh), 1821. This book forms parts of the original library of the University of Michigan bought in Europe in 1838/1839 by Asa Gray. Available online.