Douglas Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Douglas Surname Meaning

Myths surround the origin of the Douglas name. Linguistically, Douglas comes from the Gaelic dubh, meaning “dark” or black,” and glas, meaning “stream,” and was probably at first a place-name.  There are many such places with this name in Scotland.

However, it is thought that the Douglas in south Lanarkshire was the origin of the Douglas surname as this was the early stronghold of the Douglas clan in Scotland.  Douglass is an alternative spelling.

Douglas Surname Resources on The Internet

Douglas Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Lowland)
  • to Sweden, America, Caribs (St. Kitts), Canada and Australia

Scotland.  The forebear of the Douglas clan in Scotland is generally recognized as William de Douglas. His name appeared as a witness to charters between 1175 and 1211 around Lanarkshire, including a charter by the Bishop of Glasgow to the monks of Kelso.

The family rose to prominence during the Wars of Scottish Independence when James Douglas, known as “the Good” or “the Black, was Robert the Bruce’s closest ally, sharing in both his early misfortunes and his later triumphs. The Douglases were a power in the land from that time on.  

They steadily grew in influence in Scottish affairs and by the 15th century were even seen as a threat to the monarchy. The 6th Earl Douglas and his brother was invited to an infamous “Black Dinner” at Edinburgh Castle where they were both seized and beheaded.

The 8th Earl suffered a same fate in 1452. Three years later the 9th Earl and his supporters were defeated at the Battle of Arkinholm, bringing an end to the power of the “black” Douglases. The Earl of Angus was granted the lordship of Douglas.

Four main branches of the Douglases had emerged by that time:

  • the “black” Douglases of Douglasdale in south Lanarkshire
  • the “red” Douglases of Angus and Fife
  • the Douglas earls of Morton in Dumfriesshire
  • and a branch at Drumlanrig in Nithdale nearby.

The Angus and Morton Douglases were prominent in Scottish political life in the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1703 leadership passed to the Douglases of Drumlanrig on the Scottish borders. As supporters of the Royalist cause in the Civil War they had been ennobled as the Marquesses of Queensberry. They were influential in making possible the union between England and Scotland in 1707.

The family began a slow decline in the 19th century. It has been called the Queensberry curse. Unhelpfully, the men of the family were plagued by mental illness and by a tendency towards suicide. In addition, they had a nasty tendency to sue people for perceived slights and to be sued for libel, all of which was very costly.

The 19th century culminated with an affair between Lord Alfred Douglas and the playwright Oscar Wilde. Douglas’s father, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, did everything in his power to sever their relations. This led to an infamous libel trial and Oscar Wilde’s subsequent imprisonment.

Ireland. The Douglas name in Ireland is primarily a Scottish implant to be found in Ulster. Robert Douglass had arrived in county Down in 1640 and his family established themselves at Grace Hall. There were later Douglases in Antrim and Derry. Some emigrated to America in the 18th century.  

Sweden. Robert Douglas of the Whittinghame Douglases enlisted in the Swedish army during the Thirty Years War. Due to his prowess he was made Field Marshal in 1643 and then created a baron and a count in Sweden.

His descendant Count Ludwig Douglas was Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs in the late 1800’s. Douglas lines from there continued in Sweden and extended into Germany.

America. Family tradition has William Douglas, together with his wife and two children, arriving in Boston, Massachusetts in 1640. William was later deacon in New London, Connecticut and his family were to remain there for many generations. Stephen A. Douglas, famous for his 1858 debates with Abraham Lincoln, was a descendant.

Virginia and Maryland.  Colonel John Douglas was a tobacco farmer in Charles county, Maryland, who had arrived from Glasgow around 1654. He owned the Blythswood plantation on the Potomac river, the name of his family estate back in Scotland. His descendants were there for about a hundred years before starting a plantation in Fauquier county, Virginia. The Douglas family was described in H.W. Newman’s 1967 book A Branch of the Douglas Family.

Other Douglases in the area were:

  • the Douglass family from Antrim who settled around 1760 in Augusta county, Virginia and later moved onto Tennessee.
  • the Rev. Robert Douglas, a Presbyterian minister from Ireland who purchased the Ferry Hill plantation in Maryland in 1848. His eldest son Henry Kyd Douglas fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War.
  • and Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave from Maryland who became a powerful advocate for social reform in America before and after the Civil War.

Elsewhere.  A Douglas family was an important part of the development of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. George Douglas had come to America in 1848 and, working in the railroad construction business, migrated west to Cedar Rapids. There in the early 1870’s he started a family cereal business that combined with others in 1906 to form Quaker Oats.

An English Douglass family came to Bucks county, Pennsylvania in the 1860’s.  The great grandson of these arrivals was Michael Douglas, better known as the actor Michael Keaton.

Caribbean. There has been a long history of Douglases in the Caribbean, most noticeably in Jamaica and St. Kitts.

From a Douglas family of Dornock near Dumfries came Major James Douglas who died in Jamaica in the mid 1660’s. His descendants were merchants and sugar planters on the island. Samuel Douglas started the Windsor Castle plantation.

From the Douglas Baads family in Midlothian came merchants and planters in St. Kitts. Walter Douglas was Governor General of the Leeward Islands, but was suspended from that office in 1716 for embezzlement; and Robert Douglas died in St. Kitts in 1780 in most unfortunate circumstances.

Later there were many mixed and black Douglases on these islands. Denzil Douglas has been Prime Minister of St. Kitts since 1995.

Canada.  James Douglas, the son of a Scottish planter in the Caribbean, has been called the father of British Columbia. He arrived in Canada in 1819 and in the 1850’s began the process of making British Columbia a province out of what was then a remote Hudson Bay outpost on Vancouver Island.

Tommy Douglas arrived from Scotland with his parents in 1910. He rose to become Premier of Saskatchewan and is most remembered today for introducing universal health care into Canada. Daughter Shirley is a well-known Canadian actress.

Australia.  William Douglas from Lincolnshire was a First Fleeter convict to Australia, transported on the Alexander in 1787.   He married a fellow convict Mary Groves a year later, one of the first English weddings in Australia.  They were one of the first pioneering farmers in the Hawkesbury valley area of NSW.

Two other Douglas convicts arrived in NSW at an early date – Thomas Douglas in 1801 and William Douglas in 1804 – and there is uncertainty about who were the fathers of the Douglas children.

Douglas Surname Miscellany

Origin of the Douglas Name.  The traditional account, probably just a family fable, is that, around the year 770 during the reign of Solvathius, Donald Bane of the Western Isles, made a raid into Scottish territory and put to the rout the forces collected to repel his invasion.

An unknown warrior – with his friends and followers – came to their aid and in the conflict which ensued Donald was defeated and slain.  When the king inquired as to whom he owed his deliverance, the stranger was pointed out to him by one of them, with the Gaelic words, Sholto Dhu-glas, – “behold the dark man.” The king was said to have rewarded him with a large tract of land in Lanarkshire, which with the river by which it is traversed was called Douglas after him.

Another source derives the origin of the name from Douglas water, tracing it to the Celtic words Dhuglas, the “darm stream.”  The story here, also unsubstantiated, was that the founder of the family was a Fleming named Theobald who came to Scotland about 1150 and received a grant of some lands on Douglas Water.

James the Black or the Good.  James Douglas was called “The Black Douglas” by the English for his dark deeds in English eyes, becoming the bogeyman of a northern English lullaby:

  • “Hush ye, hush ye, little pet ye.
  • Hush ye, hush ye, do not fret ye.
  • The Black Douglas shall not get ye.”

There are also unsubstantiated theories that this was because of his coloring and complexion.  This is tenuous.  Douglas only appeared in English records as “the Black;” in Scots’ chronicles he was almost always referred to as “the Guid” or “the Good.”

“Good Sir James” died taking Robert the Bruce’s heart on a crusade to the Holy Land.  Later Douglas lords took the moniker of their revered forebear in the same way that they attached Bruce’s heart to their coat of arms, to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies and exhibit the prowess of their race.

Douglas the Black.  The association of Douglas with the color black originally came from its Gaelic base dubh meaning “black.”

But it is not the only surname with this dubh black base.  In Scotland there are the Dougall and Duff surnames as well; while in Ireland there are more –  Delaney, Donovan, Doyle, Duffy and Duggan – all based on this dubh. It is just that Douglas is the best known as black.

Douglas at Drumlanrig.  A charter of 1356 showed that the barony of Drumlanrig was originally a property of the Earl of Mar.  In 1388, when James 2nd Earl of Douglas and Mar died at the Battle of Otterburn, the Barony of Drumlanrig passed to his son William Douglas who then became the 1st Laird of Drumlanrig.

These Douglases played their part in Scottish affairs. James Douglas was appointed guardian of the Western Marches in 1533 but then got involved in the conspiracies against Mary, Queen of Scots.  She included him in her list of “hell hounds and bloody tyrants without souls or fear of God.”

His great grandson entertained King James VI at Drumlanrig in 1617 in what was probably the second of the three castles which have stood on the site.  He thereby fulfilled the old prophecy:

  • “He who stands on the Hassock hill
  • Shall rule all Nithsdale at his will.”

William, the 3rd Earl of Queensberry, was born in 1637 and built the present Drumlanrig castle.  A member of the Privy Council in 1667, he was made Justice General in 1680 and then in rapid succession Lord High Treasurer of Scotland and Governor of Edinburgh Castle. William died in 1695 and was succeeded by his son, James, remembered as “The Union Duke” for his role in the drawing up of the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707.

Today Drumlanrig castle is the Dumfriesshire home of the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch and Queensberry. 

The Queensberry Curse.  In 1858 the 8th Marquess of Queensberry, who was an MP and Lord Lieutenant for Dumfriesshire, shot himself dead with his own gun while out hunting rabbits.  Whether or not it was accidental is not known.

In 1865 his second son Lord Francis was killed while climbing the Matterhorn.  In 1891 his third son Lord James Edward Sholto Douglas committed suicide by cutting his throat with a razor in a London ­hotel.  A month earlier he had been summoned to appear in court on charges of defacing his census return.  He had described his wife as a “cross sweep” and “lunatic.”

The 9th Marquess, who had given his name to the Queensberry rules of boxing, was instrumental in the disgrace and ruination of the playwright Oscar Wilde.  Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s lover, was Queensberry’s son and it was Wilde’s ill-advised decision to sue the Marquess for libel that led to his exposure, trial and conviction for the then illegal offence of homosexuality.

However, despite winning in court, 1895 was a terrible year for Queensberry. As well as losing Bosie, who was driven abroad by the disgrace of the trial, he lost his eldest son Francis in a shooting accident and another son, Sholto, was arrested in California for insanity.  Bosie married in 1902 but his only child died insane.

The Queensberry curse continued into the 20th century. The most recent generation has included a former bank robber, the owner of a private investigation firm, and a brother of the world’s most wanted man Osama Bin Laden. In 2009 Lord Milo Douglas, a young man who had been troubled by manic depression, threw himself to his death from a London tower block.

Henry Kyd Douglas in the Civil War.  With the advent of the Civil War in 1861, Henry Kyd Douglas – a recently graduated lawyer – enlisted in the Confederate army.  Rising rapidly through the ranks he became in early 1862 the youngest member of the staff of Stonewall Jackson.  Henry kept a diary that would be published eighty years later as a book entitled I Rode with Stonewall.

The Douglas family bore direct witness to the challenges of war and life in the border state of Maryland. Following the Battle of Antietam, the house and outbuildings of their plantation home at Ferry Hill were used by both armies in turn as a hospital and as housing for officers.

The Rev. Robert Douglas, Henry’s  father, was taken prisoner and held at Fortress Monroe.  He was suspected of signaling to the Confederate soldiers across the Potomac river in Virginia via candlelight from an un-shuttered window.

Frederick Douglass and Daniel O’Connell.  In 1845, as Ireland was descending into the great famine, Frederick Douglass arrived for a four-month lecture tour of the island. Douglass had escaped slavery in Maryland seven years earlier and had recently published his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.

Douglass was greeted in Dublin, Belfast, and Cork by enthusiastic crowds and formed many friendships on his trip, most significantly with Daniel O’Connell, a figure revered in Ireland for his role in Catholic emancipation and for his fierce opposition to slavery. O’Connell and Douglass shared the stage just once, in September 1845 at a rally in Dublin, but retained a mutual respect and affection until O’Connell’s death less than two years later.  Douglass acknowledged O’Connell’s influence on his philosophy for the rest of his life.

The Death of Robert Douglas in St. Kitts.  Robert Douglas, who was in charge of the fortifications on the island of St. Kitts, died there in the most unfortunate way in early 1780.

He was leaning against the palisades which enclosed his courtyard; but being rather corpulent and heavy, the wood gave way. He fell with great violence.  This occasioned a contusion of the spine and he died within twenty four hours, laboring under the most excruciating torture although he remained perfectly placid and resigned during this time.

He left the bulk of his considerable fortune to his brother, Captain John Douglas of his Majesty’s ship the Terrible.

James and Amelia Douglas in British Columbia.  When Amelia was living with her family at Fort St. James she met an enterprising young Scottish clerk who was working for her father.

In the spring of 1828 sixteen-year-old Amelia married James Douglas, who was twenty-five. Douglas was a competent man who rose quickly in the fur trade, becoming a chief factor by 1839. The couple settled at Fort Vancouver and Douglas later became chief factor and Governor of Vancouver Island and later of British Columbia.

James was born of a native woman in the Caribbean and Amelia was part Cree. Early in their married life Amelia risked her life trying to rescue Douglas from an attack by some angry natives. Douglas had not understood the customs of the Carriers and Amelia had saved her husband by throwing bales of trade goods to their chief to restore his honor.  The warriors then released Douglas.

The Douglas family became the most prominent in British Columbia, and also the wealthiest.  Amelia lived in Victoria for forty years, but she often avoided its social life – perhaps because she was sometimes shunned because of her mixed-blood heritage and she had problems communicating in English. When James Douglas was knighted in 1863, the shy and modest Amelia became Lady Douglas.

Sir James died in 1877 and Lady Douglas lived a quiet life until she passed away in 1890 at the age of 78.  The remaining Douglas family then consisted of her four daughters, 16 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Charlie Douglas, New Zealand Explorer.  Charlie Douglas came to New Zealand in 1862 and for forty years explored and surveyed its West Coast region. Described as heavily bearded and with a slight frame, he was accompanied throughout his years of exploration by a dog, first “Topsy,” then “Betsey Jane,” and then others.

While exploring, Douglas carried little in the way of equipment beyond some basic provisions (including tobacco for his beloved pipe). He supplemented his food stocks by hunting native birds and living off the land. Although Douglas lived simply he supported himself by occasional work plus some infrequent funds sent by his family in Scotland.

He was a quiet, shy man, who was noted for his keen, accurate and entertaining observations in his journals, sketches, watercolors and survey reports (to be found in John Pascoe’s 1957 book on Douglas).

When he was not exploring he was known to be a heavy drinker. Later in his life he grew increasingly intolerant of tourists who were unwilling or unable to endure the hardships he had experienced.

Douglas Names

  • Sir James Douglas, known as Good Sir James and the Black Douglas, was the Scottish soldier and knight who fought beside Robert the Bruce in the Scottish Wars of Independence.
  • James Douglas of Drumlanrig was instrumental in drawing up the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707.
  • Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in Maryland and was a powerful advocate for social reform before and after Emancipation.
  • Sir James Douglas has been called the father of British Columbia.    
  • Count Ludwig Douglas was Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs in the late 1800’s.
  • Donald Douglas was an airplane pioneer and founder of the Douglas Aircraft Company (of DC-3 fame) in 1921.
  • William O. Douglas served on the US Supreme Court from 1939 to 1975, the longest term ever by a Justice.
  • Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch, is a famous American film actor; as is his son Michael Douglas.

Douglas Numbers Today

  • 34,000 in the UK (most numerous in East Lothian)
  • 33,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 28,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Douglas and Like Surnames 

These are surnames from the Scottish Lowlands.  Some are clan names; some – like Gordon, Graham and Hamilton – have Anglo-Norman antecedents that crossed the border into Scotland; and some – like Douglas and Stewart – were very powerful in early Scottish history.  Stewart in fact became the royal Stuart line.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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