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CHALMERS - Genealogical History: Balnacraig


Origin of the Surname Chalmers and an account of the Arms of the Family

The following is the first chapter of "A Genealogical History of the Family of Chalmers of Balnacraig and Cadet Branches," by Alex. M. Munro and published in 1901. The Chapter is entitled "Origin of the Surname Chalmers and an Account of the Arms of the Family."

I would like to thank Guy Ingram of Australia for bringing the book to my attention, and for sending me large extracts from it - and Eileen Young, Library Assistant at the Aberdeen Central Library, who bore with me with great patience, whilst I organised payment for a copy of the entire book from the library.


It is generally accepted the the surname Chalmer, Chalmers of Chamber is derived from the latin de Camera, and that again from the office of the King's Chamberlain - Camerarius Regis - being assumed as a surname by the holders of the office of Chamberlain. While this is so as regards families bearing the surname in the south of Scotland, the origin in the North has been attributed to quite different sources.

Nisbet quoting Sir George Mackenzie gives it as an opinion that the northern family are a branch of the Clan Cameron, and the latter writer in his Genealogical Manuscript of the Families of Scotland tells us how the change was effected.

He says "that one of the clan going to France put his name in Latin dress, by designing himself Camerarius, which in French is de la Chambre, who, on his return to Scotland according to our dialect was called Chalmers; which tradition is more confirmed by the fleur-de-luce carried in base in their arms; which addition their predecessor has no doubt got when in France for some meritorious action done there"

An appeal in favour of this theory is made to the fact that a certain resemblance exists betweeen the arms of the two families.

The apparent reason for not accepting the ordinary and more likely view of the surname was the recognised difficulty of connecting in any way the family of Balnacraig in Aberdeenshire with that of Gadgirth in Ayrshire, the members of which latter family appear in records so early as the twelfth century

There are some reasons however for supposing that both families had a common origin, although the bond of connection cannot now be traced. The similarity of the armorial bearings and the occurence of the same christian names are part of the evidence for this propinquity.

In this connection it is worthy of observation that the lands of Scotland viz. Gadgirth and Kintore, with which the family of Chalmers first appear both belonged to the Bruce family and a more extended search through early charters might disclose the connection between the families.

In the "Cartularium Prioratus de Gyseburne" printed for the Surtees Society (1880) there are preserved a number of charters dated early in the thirteenth century where several members of this family appear as witnesses to the donations of the Brus in favour of the Augustinian Priory of Yorkshire. The christian names of these witnesses are Ambrosius, Gilbert, Walter and William.

The probability is that they were Normans who had come over with the Conqueror and followed the fortunes of their over-lord in the north

Another solution of the origin of the surname in the North can however be suggested, which in the circumstances of the case presents less difficulty of acceptance than the statement given by Sir George Mackenzie. Nisbet, in speaking to the arms of the family of Gadgirth, says that the predecessor of that family was unquestionably one of the vassals of the Great Steward of Scotland, and that " it has been on the account he hath assumed and still carries the fess cheque, and probably being one of his Chamberlains his descendants hath afterwards taken the surname of De Camera or Chalmers."

In Aberdeenshire, prior to the fixing of surnames, there were at least two families - the Earls of Mar and Buchan - who might have had in their semi-regal establishments chamberlains who filled that post from father to son, and whose descendants may have assumed the surname from their office.

This supposition is I think as plausible as that the northern family are a branch of Clan Cameron.

The Armorial bearings of the Family

The arms used by the ancient family of Balnacraig were argent, a demi-lion rampant sable, issuing out of a fess gules, with a fleur-de-lys in base of the last, and for a crest an eagle in a rising posture proper, with the motto "Spero." At what period these arms came to be assumed it is impossisble to say.

The earliest example of these arms now in existance is that sculptured on one of the stone bosses in the roof of St. Mary's Chapel, Aberdeen built during the last quarter of the fifteenth century.

A carving in wood, which was within the East Parish Chuch, Aberdeen until its demolition in 1836 represents the arms as above, with the addition of two angels as supporters, and the date 1313. This beautiful panel when last seen formed one of the doors of an oak side-board in a private house.

Nisbet speaking with reference to this same panel says "But though the arms of this family be cut on their seat in the said church, adorned with all suitable exterior ornaments, to which are added supporters, viz: two angels, yet on the consideration that the House of Balnacraig is of greater antiquity then the usage of supporters in arms, it is more probable to think that this addition has been but a fancy of the carver to decore his work, seeing the oldest books of blazons we now have that are extant, though the above arms of this family be therein recorded, yet nothing of supporters is to be found as proper thereto.

In all Nisbet is perfectly correct, for the panel has the appearance of having been carved during the early part of the seventeenth century, about which time the other specimens of carved work now remaining in St. Mary's Chapel were executed. This is further borne out by the inscription which is said to have been cut on the seat below the arms as follows - "Alexander (?) de Camera consulis ejusque familae multorum sasculorum prosapia honoribus que conspicuae requietorium and cathedra 1313."

The translation of which might be given as, "The last resting place and chair of Alexander Chalmers, provost (?) and his family, renowned for the ancestry and for honours of many centuries".

The date it is believed was an honest attempt to decipher the rather puzzling Roman figures on Provost Chalmers tombstone now in Collison's Aisle dated 1463; the supporters were as Nibet suggests intended perhaps "to decor the work", and may have been suggested by the angelic figure on the boss in St. Mary's Chapel already referred to. The seat or pew was in all probability erected to the order of Alexander Chalmers of Cults, provost of Aberdeen in 1597.

An antique chair of beautiful workmanship with a replica of the above panel, with the supporters, has within recent years been gifted to the congregation of the West Church of St. Nicholas in which most probably the original "dask" was erected.

The suggestion made by Sir George Mackenzie, that some member of the family for distinguished services in France was granted the fleur-de-lys as an augmentation to his armorial coat, is quite possible, for the fact is that during the first half of the fifteenth century many members of the family are found in positions of trust and honour at the court in France. Examples are not wanting either to prove that the reward for faithful service often took the form of an augmentation of arms, such as incorporating part of the arms of France in the original coat, or quartering the paternal coat with that of France.

In the second edition of "Nisbets's Heraldry" an account of the family of Chalmers of Gadgirth is given, where it is stated that the ancient arms of the family were, quarterly 1st. and 4th. azure, a mullet argent; 2nd. and 3rd. or, a fess cheque argent and azure; crest a demi lion and for motto 'Quid Non Deo Invante'. At a later date these arms were supported by a sagitary drawing a bow on the right and on the left a syren or mermaid, all proper.

According to this account of the family, which may or may not be true, it is stated that a John Chalmer of Gadgirth went over to France with the Scots auxiliaries in 1419, to the assistance of Charles VII against the English, under the Earls of Douglas and Buchan. At the battle of Vernoil this John Chalmer behaved with great resolution, bravery and courage. As a lasting tribiute and testimony of the favour of the Crown of France he had a fleur-de-lys, a part of the royal bearing of France, added to his coat of arms, which a lion held in his dexter paw. This the family used as their crest in place of a hawk volant, the former bearing.

After a time, says the history, thinking the augmentation the more honourable coat they relinquished the quartered coat and carried the lion issuing out of the fess as their principal bearing.

As already mentioned several members of the family appear at the court of Charles VII of France, among whom may be mentioned Nicolas Chalmers, captain of the Scots Guard; Richard, David and John, archers in the same body, and Job Chalmers who appears among the garrison at Tartas, and married Mathine de Curdosse as is proved by a deposition of the principal inhabitants of that town, dated 2nd. November, 1451.

Michel [Michel - "Les Eccossais en France"] states that one David Chambre had in 1440 all his books stamped with his arms, which were, Or, a fess azure, surmounted by a demi-lion gules, with a fleur-de-lys in point. The close similarity of these arms to those already described plainly proves that this David Chambre must have had a close connection with one or other of the branches of the family in Scotland.

From some of the members of the family above mentioned was apparently descended Monsieur...Chambre, Baron of Tartas, claiming to be a descendant of Gadgirth, who recorded arms in the Lyon Register about 1661 as follows, Argent, a demi-lion rampant sable, issuing out of a fess; and in base a fleur-de-lys with a burdure gules; crest a falcon belled propre, with the motto "Non Praeda, sed Victoria" [Paul's "Oridinary of Scottish Arms."]

The cadet branches of Gadgirth, such as Ashentrees in the county of Stirling and Chalmerston in the same county, carry arms closely resembling those borne by the northern family.

In 1886 Mr. James Chalmers of Westburn matriculated arms of which the following is a description - "Argent a demi-lion sable armed and langued gules issuing from a fess azure charged with a bear's head couped of the first, muzzled of the third, in base a fleur-de-lys also of the third, abordure of the second for difference. Above the shield is placed a helmet befitting his degreee with a mantling gules doubled argent, and on a wreath of his liveries is set for crest, a dove holding an olive branch in his beak, proper, and in an escrol over the same this motto "Spero".

The late Mr. John Gray Chalmers, his younger brother has also the same recorded, with a crescent of the field in the bordure for difference.

Other variations of the paternal coat will be referred to when dealing with the various branches of the family


"Prefatory Note" to Munro's book.

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This page was updated 02-Jan-2001