The Ancestral Roots of the Bell Family in the Scottish Borders

Since the early 12th century, the Bells, a prominent clan of the old West Marche, stood as one of the eight influential riding families of the Scottish Borders. They were interlinked with the foremost border families, not only through marriage and kinship but also through alliances formed in mutual defence and friendship. Their expansive territories were maintained through both legitimate and raiding activities, known as ‘reiving,’ characteristic of that era. In their struggle for survival, they frequently clashed with English forces.

The Bell family had significant presence in Middlebie Parish in Dumfries and Galloway (formerly Dumfriesshire) and was acknowledged as a prominent Border family since the early 1100s. They used the motto ‘I beir the bel’ historically. This phrase, meaning ‘I bear the bell’ is connected with the Bells of Blackethouse, who were considered chiefs of the surname Bell. The phrase is believed to have originated from the tradition where winners of contests or races would be awarded a silver bell, hence the winner could proclaim “I beir the bel” as a symbol of their victory​.

The Bells of Albie, located in Pennersax Parish, held a significant position in the region and were likely among the earliest Bell ancestors to own land in the area that was established as Middlebie Parish in 1609, dating back to before the year 1300. Middlebie Parish, an area spanning 40 square miles, was historically settled by over thirty principal Bell families, along with their various branches. Indeed, there was an old Scottish saying ‘As numerous as the Bells of Middlebie’, reflecting the dense population of the Bell family in that region.

In the mid-17th century, a significant change occurred in the lives of the Bell family, a lineage deeply rooted in the rolling hills of Dumfries and Galloway, just north of the England-Scotland border. When he emigrated to England and took up residence in Norfolk, Thomas Bell, a descendant of a long line of cattle herders, left behind centuries of tradition.

The unruliness attributed to the Bells by the Scottish Parliament led many to relocate to the Ulster Plantation post-1610. Following the death of William Bell, known as “Redcloak” who was the acknowledged Chief of the Clan, around 1627/28, the leadership line ceased. With the chiefship dormant and lacking central leadership, the Bells’ presence as an active and recognized clan gradually diminished.

The Cattle Trade: A Lifeline Across Borders

The Bell family, for generations, had been engaged in raising cattle. Their lives were intertwined with the rhythms of these animals, as they periodically herded them all the way to the bustling markets of London. This journey was no small feat, often involving a stop in East Anglia to allow the cattle to fatten up, benefiting from the lush pastures offered by local farmers.

A Tough Family

Life in Dumfries and Galloway was not without its challenges. The Bells were known to be a fierce and, at times, unruly clan. They were deeply involved in feuds with neighbouring families and notorious for their participation in cross-border raids, a common practice in this tumultuous region for over 300 years.

The End of an Era: The Scattering of the Bell Family

The 17th century brought a turning point for the Bells. The family head, William ‘Redcloak’ Bell, passed away without an heir, marking the beginning of the dispersion of the family. Many sought new beginnings, with some moving to the Ulster Plantation, others to Northern England, and some venturing further into the expanding British Empire.

Thomas Bell: A New Chapter in East Anglia

Amidst this family upheaval, Thomas Bell chose a different path. He set his sights on East Anglia, the very region where he used to fatten his cattle, and eventually settled near Denver in Norfolk. This decision marked the start of a new chapter for the Bell family in England.

Four Generations in Norfolk: The Bell Legacy Continues

The Bells made north-west Norfolk their home for the next four generations. Here, they adapted to new surroundings, forming a part of the local tapestry and contributing to the community in ways distinct from their ancestral cattle-herding traditions.

The Bell Family Today: Remembering Our Scottish Roots

Today, as we trace our family history, we find a rich mosaic of stories and migrations. From the rugged landscapes of Dumfries and Galloway to the pastoral beauty of Norfolk, the journey of the Bell family is a testament to resilience and adaptation. As descendants of Thomas Bell, we remember and celebrate our Scottish roots, acknowledging the diverse paths our ancestors took in shaping the family we know today.

This article is dedicated to all members of the Bell family and those interested in the intertwined histories of Scotland and England. If you have any stories or information about this branch of the Bell family, we encourage you to share them with us (mail as we continue to piece together our shared heritage.

Thomas Bell (1654-1714)

Border Reiver, cattle drover, and merchant

William Bell

Farmer near Sandringham

Christopher Bell

Surveyor, Brewer and Publican

Dr William Bell (1764-1828)

Country Doctor in Terrington St John

Dr FREDERIC Bell (1812-1860)

Aldeburgh’s surgeon and apothecary

Dr DANDERSON COATEs Bell (1793-1853)

Inspector-General of Hospitals in Mumbai

James Thomas Hillen (1850-1934)

Cordwainer (bootmaker), Salesman, Photographer, and Publican

Alan Robinson Hillen (1893-1979)

Goldblocker (in bookbinding) and Hire Purchase Collector


Draftsman, publican, Operations Director

Work in progress

Work in progress

Work in progress

Work in progress