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The Scottish Nation

NISBET, or NESBIT, a local surname derived from lands in the shire of Berwick. These lands, says Nisbet, (System of Heraldry, vol. i. p. 313,) “were of an ancient denomination, for, in the donation of King Edgar, the son of Malcolm Canmore, in whose reign surnames came first to be hereditary, to the monks of Dunfermline, to pray for the soul of his father and for the health of his own, amongst other lands he gives these of Nisbet, at least the patronage of the church called East Nisbet (of late Elmbank), and the teinds of Nisbet (afterwards called West Nisbet), where the castle of Nisbet stood, memorable in our histories for the fatal overthrow the English gave, by the assistance of the then rebel earl of March, to the flower of the youth of the Lothians.” The lands of Nisbet are in the parish of Edrom. East Nisbet, at one time called Allanbank, is now known by the name of Bighouse.

Philip de Nesbyth is a witness to one of the charters of David I. to the monks of Coldingham. Willielmus de Nesbyth is a witness in a charter granted to the monks of Durham in the reign of Malcolm IV., David’s successor, by Earl Patrick, one of the progenitors of the earls of March and Dunbar. Thomas Nisbet was prior of the monastery of Coldingham from 1219 to 1240. On 18th June 1221, he attended the dower-charter of Alexander II., at York, granting to his queen, Johanna, the baronies of Jedburgh and Lessudden (Rymer’s Faedera, vol. i. p. 252). Philip de Nesbit is mentioned in the bond of submission given by the barons of Scotland to Edward I. of England, in 1296. James and John Nisbet also appear there, and in the Ragman Roll is the name of Adam Nisbet, supposed to be the ancestor of Nisbet of Nisbet. A charter was granted by Robert the Bruce to Adam Nisbet of that ilk of the lands of Knocklies. In the reign of David II. this or another Adam Nisbet of Nisbet distinguished himself on the southern borders. He was succeeded by Philip Nisbet of that ilk.

The chief line continued to flourish until the civil wars in the reign of Charles I. Among those who were conspicuous for their loyalty to that unfortunate monarch was Sir Alexander Nisbet of Nisbet, who, during the peaceable part of his reign, was sheriff principal of Berwickshire. He strenuously opposed the Covenanters, but he and his five sons were at last forced to leave Scotland and join the king’s army in England. The eldest son, Philip, was on his travels on the continent when the civil wars broke out. Hastening home, he offered his services to the king, who knighted him, and made him colonel of a regiment. He was lieutenant-governor of Newark-upon-Trent, when besieged by the Covenanters. Afterwards returning to Scotland, he became one of the officers of the marquis of Montrose, with whom he continued till the battle of Philiphaugh, where he was taken prisoner. He was beheaded at Glasgow, 28th October 1646, with Alexander Ogilvie, eldest son of Sir John Ogilvie of Innerquharity, a youth scarce twenty years of age. Two of Sir Philip’s brothers, Alexander and Robert, both captains, were killed in the field, fighting under Montrose. Adam, his youngest brother, was the father of Alexander Nisbet, the celebrated antiquarian and heraldic writer, the last male representative in the direct line of Nisbet of Nisbet. His mother, Janet Aikenhead, was the granddaughter of David Aikenhead, lord provost of Edinburgh.

Alexander Nisbet, the heraldist, was born at Edinburgh in 1672. He was educated for the law, but devoted his time almost exclusively to the study of antiquities. His first work, published at Edinburgh in 1702, was entitled ‘Heraldie Essay on Additional Figures and Marks of Cadency; shewing the Ancient and Modern Practice of differencing Descendants.’ In 1718 he produced ‘An Essay on the Ancient and Modern use of Armories;’ and the same year appeared a work of a different description, being his collection of the ‘Decisions of the Court of Session from 1655 to 1687; with his Law Doubts.’ His principal work, the ‘system of Heraldry, Speculative and Practical, with the true Art of Blazon, with Cuts,’ which is considered the best treatise on that subject in the English language, was published at Edinburgh, in two vols. Folio, in 1722-42. A second edition appeared in 1804, price five guineas, and another in 1816. He also wrote a vindication of Scottish Antiquities, which remains in manuscript in the Advocates’ Library, Edinburgh. He died at Dirleton, in 1725, aged 56.

Several families, most of which are now extinct, branches off, at various periods, from the chief stock; such as, the Nisbets of Paxton; the Nisbets of Spittle; the Nisbets of Swinewood, Berwickshire; the Nisbets of Dalzell, Lanarkshire; the Nisbets of Carphin, in the same county; the Nisbets of Johnstone, Renfrewshire; the Nisbets of Dean, baronets; the Nisbets of Craigintennies, and the Nisbets of Dirleton, Haddingtonshire. The three last came of three sons of Henry Nisbet, merchant and lord provost of Edinburgh, in the reign of James VI., descended from Nisbet of that ilk. The Nisbets of Dalzell continued from the 14th century to the reign of Charles II. It came into the family by the marriage of a son of the laird of West Nisbet to the younger daughter and co-heiress of the laird of Dalzell, and he “and his successors, for distinguishing him from the laird, was commonly called the baron of Dalzell, and did possess the one half of the barony in right of that marriage,” until the first earl of Carnwath, when Lord Dalzell purchased it from him. (Hamilton’s Description of the Shires of Lanark and Renfrew, p. 45.) From them descended the Nisbets, eminent citizens of Glasgow.


The first of the Nisbets of Dirleton was the celebrated lawyer, Sir John Nisbet, Lord Dirleton. His father, Sir Patrick Nisbet of Eastbank, was the third son of James Nisbet, merchant in Edinburgh, a brother of the above-mentioned Henry Nisbet, by his wife, Margaret Craig, sister of Thomas Craig of Riccarton. He was admitted a lord of session, 1st November 1636, when he took the title of Lord Eastbank, and was knighted by the marquis of Hamilton as royal commissioner 14th November 1638. He was superseded in 1641.

Sir John Nisbet, his son, admitted advocate 20th November 1633, was in 1639 sheriff-depute of the county of Edinburgh. He was afterwards appointed one of the commissaries of Edinburgh. He purchased the lands of Dirleton in 1663, and was appointed lord-advocate and admitted a lord of session, 14th October, 1664. As lord-advocate he was very severe on the unfortunate Presbyterians, who were prosecuted at the instigation of the prelates, and as an instance of the zeal with which he persecuted them, Wodrow (vol. i. p. 293) relates that one Robert Gray having, when brought before the council, refused to tell the hiding –laces of certain proscribed individuals of that party, Sir John Nisbet took a ring from the man’s finger, and sent it with a messenger of his own to Mrs. Gray, with an intimation that her husband had told all he knew as to the Whigs, and that the ring was sent to her as a token that she might do the same. The poor woman, in consequence, revealed the places of concealment, which so affected her husband that he died in a few days thereafter. Lord Dirleton resigned his office in 1677, and was the last who held the office of lord-advocate with a seat on the bench. He was succeeded as lord-advocate by Sir George Mackenzie, a still more bitter persecutor, and died in April 1687, aged about 78. Bishop Burnet, (History, vol. i. p. 484,) describes him as a man of great learning, chiefly in the Greek, and adds, “he was a person of great integrity, only he loved money too much.” Forbes says that “at the burning of his house, Lord Dirleton lost a curious Greek manuscript, written with his own hand, for recovery whereof he offered £1,000 sterling.”

Lord Dirleton’s Law Doubts, methodized by Sir William Hamilton of Whitelaw, and his Decisions from 7th December 1665 to 26th June 1677, were published in 1698.

The Dirleton family ended in an heiress, Mrs. Hamilton Nisbet Ferguson of Raith, previously countess of Elgin, the daughter of William Hamilton Nisbet of Dirleton, the last proprietor in the male line. Mrs. Hamilton Nisbet Ferguson died in 1855, when R. A. Christopher, formerly Dundas, of Bloxholm Hall, Lincolnshire, became possessed of Dirleton, and for the second time changed his name to Hamilton Nisbet.


A branch of the Dirleton family, designated of Woodhill, settled in county Donegal, Ireland. Another Irish family of the name, the Nisbets of Derrycairne, county Leitrim, are descended from Captain James Nisbet, who went from Berwickshire to Ireland, about 1640, and engaged in the wars between King Charles I. and the Irish insurgents.


A family of the name of Nisbet, which settled in Ayrshire, was distinguished in the religious history of Scotland. One of the most eminent martyrs of the Covenant was John Nisbet of Hardhill, in the parish of Loudoun, in that county. Born about 1627, he was a lineal descendant of Murdoch Nisbet of Hardhill, one of those who, about 1500, were styled the Lollards of Kyle. He spent his youth in military service on the Continent, but returning to Scotland in 1650, he was present at the coronation of Charles II. at Scone, and swore the Covenants at the same time that that profligate monarch subscribed them. He soon after married, and went to reside at Hardhill. He was a man of a bold, decided, and straightforward character, and a fine specimen of the Covenanters of his class. In 1664 he incurred the displeasure of the Episcopalian incumbent of his parish, for having had a child baptized by one of the ejected ministers; and in consequence of his attachment to Presbyterianism, he was much exposed to the persecutions of those tyrannical times. In 1666 he joined in renewing the Covenant at Lanark, and in the engagement at Pentland Hills, November 28, he behaved with great courage and resolution, and was so severely wounded that he was left for dead among the slain. On his recovery he returned home, but was not allowed to remain long in peace, and again taking up arms, he distinguished himself at Drumclog and Bothwell Birg, where he had the rank of captain. After the defeat and dispersion of the Covenanters, he was denounced a rebel, and a reward of three hundred merks was offered for his apprehension. Lieutenant Nisbet, a cousin of his own, with a party of Colonel Buchan’s dragoons, surprised him and three others in a house called Midland, in the parish of Fenwick, upon a Sabbath morning, in the month of November 1685. His companions were killed upon the spot, but Nisbet was preserved for the sake of the reward. He was carried first to Ayr, and then to Edinburgh, where he was examined before the privy council, and finally condemned to be hanged. He behaved with much consistent firmness both during his confinement and at his trial, and he met his death with the utmost fortitude. His execution took place at Edinburgh, December 4, 1685. By his wife, Margaret Law, he had several children, but only three sons survived him, namely, Hugh, James, and Alexander. The second of these was author of the ‘Private Life of the Persecuted, or Memoirs of the first years of one of the Scottish Covenanters,’ published from the original MS., at Edinburgh, in 1827.

The first president of Dickinson college, Pennsylvania, United States, was Charles Nisbet, D.D., born at Haddington in 1736, and educated at Edinburgh. After being for some years minister of Montrose, in 1783, when Dickinson college was instituted, he was invited to become its president, and in 1785 he went to America. He held the appointment till his death, January 17, 1804. He is described as having been an admirable classical scholar, and particularly conversant with Greek. His memory was so retentive that at one period of his life he could repeat the whole of the Æneid and also the whole of Young’s Night Thoughts.

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