THE family of Wemyss is the only family in the Scottish Lowlands having a really Celtic origin, and one of the very few great families in Scotland which, through the male line, can claim kindred with Celtic blood. The lands now forming the parish of Wemyss are said to have been part of the estate of Macduff, the great Maormhor, Shakspeare’s well known ‘Thane of Fife.’ According to Sibbald, Gillimichael, the third in descent from Macduff, had a second son named Hugo, who obtained the lands from his father, with lands in Lochoreshire, and in the parish of Kennoway, with the patronage of the church of Markinch. He is mentioned in the chartulary of Dunfermline, as Hugo, the son of Gillimichael, during the reign of Malcolm IV. According to a manuscript account of the family, in the possession of the Earl of Wemyss, the first of his family is said to have been Michael Wemyss, second son of Duncan fifth earl of Fife, who died in 1165. We give most faith, however, to Sibbald’s account, deducing the family from Gillimichael, the father of Duncan, as it seems sanctioned by ancient charters.
Sir John Wemyss of Wemyss the eighteenth in direct descent from Hugo, the son of Gillimichael, was created a baronet in 1625, and had a charter of the barony of New Wemyss in Nova Scotia. In 1628, he was raised to the peerage by the title of Lord Wemyss of Elcho; and in 1633, was advanced to the title of Earl of Wemyss, Lord Elcho, and Methill, by patent to him and his heirs male for ever. He was succeeded in 1649, by his eldest son David, second Earl of Wemyss, who in 1672 made a resignation of his titles, and obtained a new patent of them in favour of his daughter, Lady Margaret Wemyss, and the heirs male of her body; which failing, to the heirs of entail contained in her contract of marriage, with the former precedency. Margaret, Countess of Wemyss, his only surviving daughter, succeeded to the title and estates of her father, and married Sir James Wemyss of Caskyberry, who had a charter of the castle of Burntisland, and, after his marriage with the Countess, was created a peer by the title of Lord Burntisland, but for life only. The Countess of Wemyss died in 1705, and was succeeded by her only son David, the third earl, who took his seat in the Scottish parliament in June of that year. He was appointed High-Admiral of Scotland in 1704, and steadily supported the Union in parliament. James, the fourth earl, succeeded his father in 1720. He married Janet, only daughter and heiress of the well-known Colonel Charteris of Amisfield, and died in 1756. His eldest son David, Lord Elcho, when a young man of twenty-four years of age, engaged in the rebellion of 1745. He was colonel of the first troop of horse-guards of Prince Charles, and, after the battle of Culloden, made his escape to the continent. He was attainted by act of parliament, and of course could not succeed to the titles of the family on his father’s death, which consequently fell dormant, and so continued till his death at Paris in 1787, when they vested in his next youngest brother Francis, who then became fifth Earl of Wemyss. He succeeded to the great property and extensive estates of his maternal grandfather Colonel Charteris of Amisfield; and, in 1771, obtained an act of parliament authorizing him to use and bear the name and arms of Charteris, notwithstanding the descent to him or his heirs of the honour and title of Wemyss, or any other honour and title. On the death of his elder brother Lord Elcho, he succeeded to the title of Earl of Wemyss, which title and honour his descendants still retain. The honourable James Wemyss, his younger brother, third son of James, fourth Earl of Wemyss, entered the royal navy ay an early age, and, in 1756, on the death of his father, by a family-arrangement succeeded to the estate of Wemyss, which had previously descended to the oldest son. He was elected member of parliament for the county of Fife i n1762; and for the county of Sutherland in 1768. He was re-chosen for Sutherland in 1774, and again in 1780. He died in 1786, and was succeeded by his eldest surviving son, William Wemyss of Wemyss. He was chosen member of parliament for the county of Sutherland in 1784; and, in 1786, was appointed deputy-adjutant-general in Scotland, with the rank of major in the army. On the death of General Skene, he resigned his seat for Sutherland, and was chosen member of parliament for the county of Fife; for which county he was re-chosen at the general election in 1790, and again in 1807. He raised the 93d regiment of foot, of which he was made colonel in 1800; and was appointed major-general on the North British staff in May 1803, which he held till his promotion to the rank of lieutenant-general in November 1805. At his death he was succeeded by his eldest son James Erskine Wemyss of Wemyss, the present proprietor, who is the twenty-fifth proprietor of the estate of Wemyss in direct descent from Hugo, the son of Gillimichael, fourth Earl of Fife, and therefore of the twenty-ninth generation from Macduff the great Maormhor of Fife. He is a captain in the royal navy, and member of parliament for the county of Fife.
A short way east of the village of West Wemyss, is Wemyss Castle, the residence of the family. It is a large and magnificent building, – part of it of considerable antiquity, – situated on the top of the rocks, about forty feet above the level of the sea, and commands an extensive view of the Firth of Forth. Here the unfortunate Mary Stewart is said to have first met Darnley, her ill-fated husband. In July, 1650, Wemyss Castle was visited by Charles II. who spent a day in it; and on the 13th of July, 1657, he again slept a night at the castle. Among other reliques of the olden time preserved in the Castle of Wemyss, is a silver bowl presented to Sir Michael Wemyss of Wemyss, by Eric King of Norway, in 1290, when he, and Sir Michael Scott of Balwearie, went to bring home the princess Margaret on the death of Alexander III. It has for some time been only used we believe on baptismal occasions. Our view of Wemyss Castle is taken from the sea, to the south-west. On the top of the cliffs which bound the sea-shore, a short way to the east of the village of East Wemyss, are the ruins of the ancient castle of East Wemyss. It must at one time have been a place of great strength, and of some extent; but all that now remains of it are two square towers, and a portion of the wall. It is usually called Macduff’s castle, and is said, in vulgar tradition, to have been built by Macduff, created Maormhor of Fife in 1057. The style of the building, however, very distinctly shows that it could not have been the work of that Celtic chief; but must have been erected in the 14th or 15th centuries. There are two caves at the bottom of the cliffs, immediately under the ruins, one of which is called Jonathan’s cave, from the fact of a man of this name and his family having at one time resided in it; the other is narrow at the entrance, but spacious within, and contains a well of excellent water. Another of the caves on the coast here is called the Court cave; because, says one tradition, during the time the barony of East Wemyss belonged to the Livingstons, or the Colvilles, they held their baron-courts within it. According to another tradition, James V., when rambling the country in one of his frolic moods, discovered a company of gypsies here enjoying themselves, whom he joined in their merrymaking. When the liquor began to operate, the gypsies began to quarrel among themselves, and the King attempting to interfere, was likely to have been rather roughly handled, had his majesty not discovered himself: hence it was afterwards ironically called the Court cave.