The Chisholms in Scotland


The name Chisholm is said to be derived from a Norman French word "chese" meaning "to choose" and the Saxon word "holm" meaning "meadow.”  The family became established initially at Roxburgh (near Kelso), once an important wool town in the Scottish borders.  According to legend, two Chisholm brothers saved the life of the king of Scotland from a wild boar in the 14th century.

Through marriage, a Robert Chisholm inherited Erchless Castle near Inverness in the early 15th century.  This was to be the Chisholm clan seat for the next five hundred years.  The various chiefs of the clan were known as “the Chisholm.”  The lands in their possession at this time were Strathglass and Ard and they later came into the estate of Comar, making them proprietors of a large part of Ross-shire.  Their history shows many land skirmishes with neighboring clan families.  Erchless Castle and Comar Lodge, which clan chief Roderick Chisholm had built in 1740, still stand. 

Meanwhile, another Chisholm branch had settled in Perthshire.   They were, in the sixteenth century, Bishops of Dunblane and close to the kings of Scotland at that time.  However in 1592, Sir James Chisholm was denounced for his Catholic leanings as "a treason against the true religion" and he had to leave for France. 


The Gaelic form of Chisholm is Siosal and collectively the Highland Chisholms are known as An Siosalach Glaiseach, to distinguish them from the Lowland Chisholms.

In the seventeenth century a number of Highland chiefs became Protestant, although they were tolerant of the Catholic faith amongst their followers.  The Chisholms, however, remained staunch Catholics and actively supported Jesuit missions in their estates.  There were 609 Catholics recorded in Strathglass in the 1709 census.  Thus it was no surprise that Roderick Chisholm led his clan in support of the Catholic "Old Pretender" in 1715 and Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745.

Eighty of his men fought in the 1745 campaign under their white linen banner and their motto “feros ferio" (I am fierce with the fierce).  Thirty of them, including Roderick’s own son, were killed at Culloden.  After the defeat, Bonnie Prince Charlie entrusted his life to eight of his followers, three of whom were Chisholms, during his subsequent escape.  “Young Charles Stuart, it was your cause that destroyed me, you took away from me all that I had,” was the bitter lament penned by the wife of William Chisholm who had died at Culloden.

The Clearances. 
Although the Chisholms did continue as a landed family in their heartland until the end of the 19th century, it was the beginning of the end of the clan as a social force in Scotland.  Waves of emigration followed, starting with this defeat and continuing with the Highland clearances in which the clan chiefs participated.  Mary Chisholm, a daughter of the Chisholm, campaigned against the clearances, but to no avail. In 1801, William Chisholm, the twenty-fourth chief of the clan, burned his family’s supporters out of their homes in order to clear the way for Cheviot sheep.  Nearly 50 percent of the clan tenants were evicted.  The emigrant ship Sarah, which sailed from Fort William to Pictou in Nova Scotia, was crammed with 700 of them in its hold (of whom some fifty died of smallpox on the voyage).  The Dove and Nova, which sailed to Nova Scotia in the same year, contained more tenant emigrants.

After William's death, his wife and son continued with the evictions.  Between 1801 and 1809, over 10,000 Strathglass clansmen were evicted or emigrated.  It was said that only one tenant on the Chisholm lands was left.

And Later.  Chisholms did remain.  A number of the d
escendants of evicted tenants were allowed to settle in nearby estates.  Some continued as crofters.  The 1871 census listed 41 Chisholm households and 120 Chisholms in the Kiltarlity area, a mixture of farmers, farm laborers, and general servants.  But that was a far cry from the numbers of one-to-two centuries earlier.  Many of the older folk remaining were designated “paupers." Young folk in their twenties were scarce and grandparents often had grandchildren living with them.


The Chisholms were not only to be found in the Highlands.  A Lowland name continued from the early family roots in Roxburgh - often as Chisholme rather than Chisholm - in the Scottish border country.  This has been a distinctive part of Scotland with its distinctive border talk.

The Chisholmes were a prominent family who intrigued with other local chieftains in border skirmishes and cattle-raiding for many centuries.  However, Chisholme fortunes took a dive in the seventeenth century because of their support for the Jacobite cause and a number of financial setbacks that they then encountered.  This resulted in them having to sell their family seat in the Borthwick valley, Chisholme House. Even so, many Chisholms were still to be found in border towns such as Hawick, Melrose, Selkirk, and Jedburgh.

A Chisholme family from Selkirk, William and then James, became plantation owners in Jamaica.  Their profits from the Greenriver sugar plantation enabled William Chisholme to return to Scotland in the early nineteenth century and re-acquire Chisholme House. The house, which still stands, stayed with this family for a further sixty years.

Migrations.  Border life could be hard and, by the 18th century, many Chisholms had migrated north to Edinburgh and its environs.

Chisholm Distribution in Scotland in the Late 1700's
(according to parish records)
Highlands                                       25%*
Borders                                          20%
Midlothian (including Edinburgh)          35%
Elsewhere                                       20%
*  Possibly under-represented.

Samuel Chisholm’s father was a tobacco manufacturer in Dalkeith (near Edinburgh) in the 1870’s.  The son moved to Glasgow and became one of Glasgow's most formidable and outspoken civic politicians at the turn of the century.   Glasgow was, later on, the birthplace of two great musical Chisholms, the composer Erik Chisholm and the jazz performer George Chisholm.

Coal Mining.  Chisholms also made their way to the coalmines in Fife.  Henry Chisholm was the manager of the Lochgelly mine in the 1840’s.  Later on, one old-timer at the mine recalled:

“There were two Chisholms, father and son, who took Lochgelly work and kept it as long as they lived and their sons after them.  They invented the first machine for raising coal, a windlass, and raised the output from ten to fifteen tons.  The only machines for raising coal before that were the miners' wives.  As time rolled on, father and son got married to my two aunts.”

From these coalmining roots came two Chisholm brothers, William and Henry, who left in their twenties to seek new opportunities in America.  Both applied the skills that they had learnt to the new processes of steel-making.  Henry went on to found a major steel business in Cleveland.   


Initially, Chisholms departed for the Carolinas.   The next exodus saw them head to Canada.  There were later emigrations to Australia and New Zealand. 

Of course, many stayed.  The 1891 census listed 3,400 Chisholms in Scotland. There were also Chisholms to be found in Ireland and England.

Ireland.  Some Lowland Chisholms did settle in Ireland.  The name here became Chism.  Edward Chism was a Donegal merchant at the time of the famine.  There was much jubilation in 1846, as the local Ballyshannon Herald reported, when one of his cargoes was captured. 

“On Christmas Eve, a ship chartered by Edward Chism and bound for Liverpool lay at anchor in Ballyshannon while awaiting a favorable tide.  A group of salt-workers came alongside and suddenly produced their pistols.  After overpowering the crew, they stole a large quantity of its cargo of bacon and lard.  The men made off with as much as they could and no doubt an unexpectedly happy Christmas was enjoyed by many.”

But most Irish Chisms were to be found in county Antrim.  They were mainly Protestant, as the following incident would suggest:

 “As Chism was returning from the market, he was overtaken by nine men who asked him his name.  When he told them, they replied that it was a bad name.  Then they knocked him down, saying that he was an Orangeman and that they would make him more civil to his mother’s side (she being a Roman Catholic).”

In 1912, William Chism was an organizer for the Ulster Protestant covenant.

England.  Chisholms also moved to England.  The 1891 census recorded 1,270 Chisholms in England.

Chisholms in the English Census of 1891
Northern counties                    70%
London                                   20%
Elsewhere                               10%

Their presence was very much limited to the northern counties closest to Scotland.  Chisholms could be found in the Glendale area of Northumberland (where many were small farmers) and in border towns such as Berwick and Alnwick.  There were also a number of Chisholms in Durham, where many became miners. 

A Chisholm who arrived in London in 1730 walked all the way from Dalkeith in Scotland, according to the family story.  Being a great fellow in size, around six foot four, he was given a place in the Royal Household.