In form at least the surname is Scottish, deriving from the place of the name in Annandale in Dumfriesshire [near the present-day English border], which was originally 'Johnstown'. The original John was a Norman landowner in the area in the twelfth century, and instead of taking on the straightforward patronymic 'Johnson', his descendants adopted the placename as their surname, becoming Johnston(e)s. This family, the source of virtually all Scottish bearers of the name, became one of the strongest and most unruly of the Border clans, and their long feud with another clan, the Maxwells, was notorious for its ferocity. When the clans were eventually 'pacified' and scattered by James II, many Johnstons fled to Ulster where, like large numbers from the other clans - Elliots, Armstrongs, Nixons and others - they settled mainly in Co Fermanagh [SW corner of present-day Northern Ireland], where the surname is today the second most numerous in the county. As well as these Johnstons, however, many others whose name was originally Johnson adopted the Scottish name. Such adoptions occurred predominantly in Ulster, and affected those of Scottish and of native Irish origin, with the Maclans of Caithness translating their surname as Johnson, and then altering it to Johnston in many cases, and the MacShanes of the Armagh/Tyrone district, a branch of the O'Neills, doing likewise.
(from a defunct web site)
Clan Johnstone consists of at least two distinct groups, those of Annandale in Dumfries and Galloway, and those of Caskieben in Aberdeenshire, as well as Johnston(e)s who cannot easily be classified as either, such as those who took their name from the former name of Perth (St. Johnstoun) or other places called Johnston or Johnstone.
A word about pronunciation and spelling: Americans and Canadians tend to pronounce Johnstone as "Johnstoan" and Johnston as "Johnston", suggesting two different names. In the U.K. generally, the name is pronounced "Johnston", no matter how it is spelled; native border Scots often pronounce it "Jawnson." Presently, the Chief of the entire Name spells his name "Johnstone," and the Head of the House of Johnston of Caskieben spells his name "Johnston." Actually, either spelling may be used by Annandale or Caskieben clansmen, although the "e" is more common among those of Annandale. The writer has tended to use the "e" in this short history because it is the way the Chief of the entire Clan spells his name, and also because that is the way the writer spells his name.
The derivation of the name Johnstone is Anglo-Saxon and means "John's settlement." The first known Johnstone was Gilbert, son of John, who received use of a small parcel of land in southern Annandale from William Bruce, Lord of Annandale, between 1195 and 1214. Gilbert soon was knighted and witnessed various charters as Sir Gilbert de Joneston. Later Johnstone lairds fought the English at the Battle of Solway in 1378 and the Battle of Otterbourne in 1388.
The Johnstones of Annandale were among the most intrepid reivers of the Scottish West March of the Borders. The tartan-clad Gaelic highlander of popular image certainly is not a Johnstone clansman. Yet the Johnstones (Johnston, Johnstoun, Jhonstowne, Joniston, etc.) were very much members of a tribal society. They were also products of a brutal frontier. Centuries of border warfare and scorched-earth campaigns, in which the Scots frequently lost all their possessions to the English, left the borderers disinterested in growing crops. Guerilla warfare evolved into a guerilla existence. The borderers became semi-nomadic, raiding the English and neighboring clans to replenish the cattle and horses which were their chief form of property. The Johnstones were excellent horsemen and, dressed in a metal helmet (steel bonnet) and reinforced leather jacket (jack), with a long lance, cutting sword and set of pistols, a Johnstone clansman was well adapted to his world. A monument at the Devil's Beeftub, a vast, sinister-looking hollow near the source of the Annan River, records that the Johnstones used the place "to hide cattle stolen in predatory raids."
Border lairds lived in stark, square stone peel towers, three or four stories tall, surmounted with battlements and built on inaccessible ground. The principal stronghold of the Johnstones was Lochwood Tower, a massive, L-shaped fortress surrounded by forest and marsh. On approaching Lochwood, King James V is said to have remarked that "He who built it must have been a knave in his heart."
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