One of the more turbulent Border families of reiving fame, the Turnbulls are believed to have descended from William of Rule (known also as ‘Will-o-Rull’), who, around 1315, saved King Robert I’s life by wrestling to the ground an angered bull which the King’s hunters had injured, during a hunting expedition in the ancient Caledonian Forest. Legend says that Robert the Bruce awarded William of Rule the name ‘Turnebull’ in honour of this feat (the ‘e’ being later dropped), along with lands in Philiphaugh (in the Ettrick Forest, Selkirkshire) and perhaps the barony of the Rulewater area (home of the ancient Rule family). Descended from the de Roules – first mentioned historically in the late 12th century – William Turnebull took three bulls’ heads for his newly-founded-clan’s coat of arms, as well as a motto: “I saved the King”.
Over the years, the Turnbulls became a large and powerful family. Sometime in the 14th century, they were installed at Bedrule Castle (settlements in the area such as Hallrule and Abbotrule the sign of deep-seated Rule presence), and in the 16th century, toward the height of their reiving infamy, the family built both Fatlips Castle on Minto Crags, and Barnhills Tower on the fields below. At the skirmish of Sclaterford in 1513, following Scotland’s defeat at Flodden, George Turnbull of Bedrule led a force of Turnbulls alongside Kerrs, Douglases, and the Scotts of Hawick to victory over Lord Dacre. It was even said that during the later warring years between Scotland and England (for example during the War of the Rough Wooing 1543-51, in which the Earl of Hertford sacked and burned Minto Crags and Barnhills Tower) that the Turnbull Clan could quickly put five-hundred reivers to saddle.
In more recent times, it seems that a family of Turnbull brothers and cousins were part of the famed charge of the Royal Scots Greys alongside the British heavy cavalry at the Battle of Waterloo, 18th June 1815 – an ill-conceived yet unarguably courageous charge on French lines, which may have played an important part in Wellington’s victory. The Greys, including the Turnbulls had, according to Wellington, “little tactical ability or nous [common sense] […] but fought like raging bulls.”
‘Where roamed … white bulls … like fierce lions … more wild than any other beasts. One of the bulls, after being sorely wounded by hunters, rushed fiercely on the King who had … no weapon … to defend himself. Then, a man of great spirit … leapt before the King and, grappling with the bull, cast it to the earth with great force and held it there while the remaining hunters slew it with their weapons. The man who rescued the King was called thereafter Turn-e-bull and awarded with rich lands by the King.’
- excerpt translated from Historia Gentis Scotorum by Hector Boece 1527, as quoted in I Saved the King The Story of the Turnbulls by R.E. Scott
‘Where Turnbulls once, a race no power could awe,
Lined the rough skirts of stormy Ruberslaw.
Bold was the chief, from whom their line they drew,
Whose nervous arm the furious Bison slew
The Bison, fiercest race of Scotia’s breed,
Whose bounding course outstripped the red-deer’s speed.
By hunters chafed, encircled on the plain,
He, frowning, shook his yellow lion-mane,
Spurned, with black hoof, in bursting race, the ground
And fiercely tossed his moony horns around.
On Scotia’s lord he rushed, with lightning speed,
Bent his strong neck, to toss the startled steed
His arms robust the hardy hunter flung
Around his bending horns, and upward wrung,
With writhing force his neck retorted round,
And rolled the panting monster on the ground,
Crushed, with enormous strength, his bony skull
And courtiers hailed the man, who turned the bull.’
- excerpt from Scenes of Infancy by John Leyden 1803