Clan Little


Inherited surnames, as opposed to by-names (nick-names attached to individuals but not passed on to the next generation), came to the British Isles with the Norman Conquest in 1066.  Even then, they were only used by nobles who wanted to be associated with the new rulers.  Most people did not use surnames until at least a century later.

We have found early examples of the diminutive surname, such as Alan Little who received a grant of forest land on the south side of the river Ayr from the first Walter the Steward before 1177.  After 1204, this tract of land was granted by the second Walter the Steward to the monks of Melrose, on Alan’s conversion to the monastic life.  Was this person related to the Littles of Meikledale, near Langholm?

Hugo Parvus, clericus regis, served in Eskdale in the time of William the Lion 1165-1214.  Parvus is indeed Latin for “little.”  Was this the same Hugo Parvus who served as burgess of Dundee in 1202?  It seems unlikely, since Dundee is about 150 miles away from Eskdale.  Was he related to one R. Parvus, a chaplain who witnessed a charter in favor of the Hospital of Soltre sometime between 1214 and 1240?

Alan Little was a descendant of Richard le Lytle, who was from the fifth post-Conquest Anglo-Norman generation of a powerful family in Cheshire.  Richard le Lytle was the third son of Richard de Overton, himself a third son in the extended family descended via Robert FitzHugh (Baron of Malpas) from the ruthless Marcher Lord, Hugh “Lupus” (the Wolf), Comte d’Avranches (Earl of Chester and nephew of William the Conqueror).

Richard was was granted lands at Cairntable in Ayrshire by Walter Fitzalan (High Stewart of Scotland), his former neighbour over the county border in Shropshire.   These two would end their days together as lay brothers at Melrose Abbey.  In Ayrshire, the Littles seem to have intermarried with Crawfords and Wallaces.  Indeed, William Wallace’s mother was Margaret Crawford of Loudon, descended from a long line of Ayrshire sheriffs.  Her daughter (William’s sister) perhaps married a Little with whom she produced the enignmatic Edward.

In 1313, a John Litill participated in an inquest in Lanark.  An agreement was registered between the abbot of Scone and Robertus dictus Lytil in 1332.  Martin Litell at Abirdowyr in Fife witnessed a charter by William “Dominus Vallis de Lodell” in 1351 and might have been the same Martin Lytill who possessed land at Cardvyn (Cadwan) in 1358.  It seems that the name Little (in some form or another) appeared often in the general area where Wallace lived out his storied life.

There seems to have been some connection with the Douglasses in our own background.  Adam Lityll is listed as a tenant of Douglas in the barony of Kilbucho in 1376.  Nicol Litil is listed, among others, as debtors to the Earls of Douglas for the West Marche of Scotland as part of a truce on November 6, 1398.  Johannes Litill is listed as a vicar at Lestalrig in 1448.  But it’s mostly speculation to wonder whether any of these people were related to the Littles we find at Meikledale in 1426.


The earliest recorded landowners in Ewesdale (the valley around the Ewes waters) were the Lovels and de Kunyburgs.  Sometime between 1243 and 1247, Sir John Fraser married a daughter of Sir William de Kunyburg and thereby came into possession of the lands of Ewesdale.  In 1410, on the surrender of those lands by Alexander Fraser to the governor (after supporting the wrong side in some conflict), the Western dale of Ewes water was first granted to the Little by Robert Stewart.  Until his death in 1420, Robert was 1st Duke of Albany and Governor of Scotland.  Furthermore, since James I was in captivity in England, Robert was the King in all but name.

Sortly after James I’s return from exile, he confirmed the earlier grant by Robert Stewart to his “beloved and faithful Simon Lytil of all and whole the lands of Senbigil, of Mikkildale, of Kirktown, of Sourbie, of the Malnarlande, and of the Pullis, by and in the barony of Mallarynok, within the Sheriffdom of Dumfries, which lands belonged to Alexander Fraser of Ewisdale, and were fully resigned by him into the hands of the said governor; to be held by the said Simon and his heirs of the King and his heirs, in fee and heritage as freely as they had been held by the said Alexander Fraser or his predecessors, for performing to the King and his heirs the services due and wont from the said lands.  Given under the great seal at Edinburgh, 30th April, 1426, in the 20th year of the King’s reign”.

Most of the families in the area were tenants of the great landowners of Eskdale and Ewesdale—in succession the Douglases to 1455, the Maxwells to 1603, and thereafter the Scotts, Dukes of Buccleuch and Queensberry. In contrast, Simon and the succeeding chiefs of the Clan Little (just like the Elliotts across the river at Arkleton) held their lands as feudal tenants in capite (directly from the Crown).


Simon Lytil, 1st Laird of Meikledale, is considered to be the first chief of the name.  He probably did not live at Meikledale in the beginning, since he was identified as “Simon Littill of Kirktoun” (about a mile South or Meikledale) when witnessing a document on December 29, 1469.

Members of the clans in that area were considered to be Border Reivers (pronounced “reevers”).  During the Anglo-Scottish border wars of 1296-1603, when not being used as militia by one side or another, many were raiding and reiving (stealing and retrieving livestock) on both sides of the border.  They were skilled equestrians and by the close of the 16th century had earned a reputation as the finest light cavalry in Europe.  Less warlike clansmen served as monks in abbeys such as Sweetheart, Holyrood, and the Franciscan convent of Greyfriars in Dumfries.

Members of the Clan Little became established throughout that area: not only in Ewesdale, but also in nearby Eskdale and Wauchopedale.  Jeffra and William Litell were in court on October 27, 1479.  Simon Litell, along with John and Alan Litill, were cited for failing to appear as surety in 1504.  In 1543, Christopher Lytle was involved in a court case.  James and Johnne Lytill were mentioned in the pay list of the Lord High Treasurer, showing the expenses of a raid to Eskdale and the siege of Langholme Tower in July, 1547.


Heralds were first mentioned in Western Europe about the time of the First Crusade in 1095.  Since the early 15th century, the Sovereign has delegated the power to grant new Coats of Arms to officers (Kings of Arms), their juniors (Heralds), and their own juniors (Pursuivants).  In Scotland, these duties are handled by the Court of the Lord Lyon where he has the final word on all such matters.


In 1672, David was the last Laird of Meikledale and last Chief of Clan Little to register arms.  His full coat of arms consists of the shield and the crest [Workman’s Manuscript, Lyon Office].

The Shield shows the arms – a silver St.  Andrew’s Cross (often rendered as white) on a black background.  The dominant black and white comprise the livery colors of the Border Littles.

The Crest of the chiefs of Clan Little was a demi-lion in black spattered with silver saltires; in his right paw he holds a cutlass, in his left the cross of St.  Andrew.  The only splash of color is in the red claws.  The Crest rests on a wreath of the livery colors.  This would be traditionally be attached to the chief’s helmet, so that he could be recognized by this and his shield and surcoat even in his fighting armor.  No one but the chief may wear the crest.


Members of the clan may wear the chief’s crest, surrounded by a belt and buckle (to signify subservience to the chief).  Because there is currently no chief, we use the crest of Little of Meikledale of old with his motto.

The Clan Little at Meikledale had two mottoes:
Concedo Nulli — I yield to none.
(often mistranslated imperatively “Never Surrender,”
which would actually be Noli Concedere in Latin.)
Fidei Coticula Crux — The cross is the test of truth.
The Littles of Liberton (Edinburgh) had their own:
Magnum in Parvo — Great in Little.
Multum in Parvo — Much in Little.

PLANT: The Clan Little plant is Heather, ubiquitous in Scotland.


In the 1500s, members of the Clan Armstrong were rising to prominence as outlaws throughout the area.  It was said in 1528 that they could muster 3,000 horsemen, Littles amongst them.  Their leader, Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie, posed a threat to King James V who arranged in 1530 to meet him at Caerlanrig.  The King’s men ambushed 33 Armstrongs, Littles, Elliots, and Irvings, including Johnnie, and they were all hanged on the spot.

In 1568/9, more than 100 Littles rode with Batysons, Armstrongs, Glendinnings, and Thompsons as part of a raid on Stirling by John, the 8th Lord Maxwell.  Family tradition has it that the Littles returned with many more horses than they had when they left.  Near the end of 1581, Maxwell became the Earl of Morton briefly on the execution of James Douglas (the 4th Earl of Morton) and continued until Archibald Douglas (the 5th Earl of Morton) was confirmed in 1586.  On December 10, 1585, during his brief time as “the Earl of Morton 4.5,” he arranged a pardon naming more than fifty Littles including “Sim Little, laird of Meikledale” (presumably, another Simon Little).

On the 8th of July, 1587, a session of parliament was opened with five Lord Commissioners and three deputies in attendance. One of those Lord Commissioners was William Little [of Liberton], Provost of Edinburgh.  Although William was a cousin of the Littles at Meikledale (the home of the Clan Little), he helped to pass an act on July 29th “for the quieting and keeping in obedience of the disordered subjects: inhabitants of the borders, highlands, and isles.”  Attached to that Act is a list of the relevant clans, including seventeen from the Borders (Southern edge of Scotland).  They are further divided into the Middle March and the West March.  The third clan to be mentioned in the West March is the Littles (Litillis), behind only the Scotts (of Ewisdaill) and the Beatties (Batesonis).

In 1603, the next King James (James VI of Scots) became concurrently James I of England: an event known as the Union of the Crowns.  James now had no need for a fighting force in his ‘Middle Shires’ and the Border reivers had no place to hide.  A conscious effort was made to chase these troublesome clansmen out of Scotland, sometimes to Ulster and sometimes directly to New England.

The Littles of Liberton

In c. 1500 Edward Little, probably from his arms a second son of the Chief, went to Edinburgh, set up as a cloth merchant in the Boothraw and became involved in town politics.  William Little, the eldest of his three sons was killed at Flodden in 1513, but his brothers prospered.  The family later moved out of town to nearby Liberton.  Clement Litill, 2nd of Liberton, advocate, died in 1580 leaving his now priceless collection of over three hundred books to the town.  They were then gifted to the town’s new municipal University as the Clement Litill Bequest.  He is remembered as the “Founder of Edinburgh University Library”.

His younger brother William Litill, 3rd of Liberton, was twice Provost of Edinburgh towards the end of the 16th Century before his death on 24th November 1601.  The Litill brothers were involved in the planning for the new university.  .It was built on the site of Kirk o’ Field, blown up in 1567 by the murderers of Mary Queen of Scots’ second husband, Lord Darnley.  At a ceremony in November 2001 at the Litill Memorial in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh, Clan Little Society donated a plaque in memory of the brothers Clement and William Litill.  The plaque was unveiled by the present Lord Provost on the 400th Anniversary to the day of his distant predecessor’s death.

The Clan of the Sword and the Cross

The demi lyon of the Little chiefs’ crest holds a sword in one paw and St Andrew’s cross in the other.  Descendants of the ancient Eskdale clan became clergy or doctors on the one hand or cavalrymen and military airmen on the other, hence the winged stirrup in the Clan Society’s arms.  This can be seen in the lives of two twentieth century sons of the Border clan, both by coincidence born in Melbourne, Australia.  Fighter pilot Robert Alexander Little RNAS, killed in action in France in May 1918 at the age of 22, ranks in the top 15 Aces of the Great War of 1914-18.  The Cross is represented by The Right Reverend Thomas Francis Little, recently retired 6th Roman Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne.

Both at home and overseas people said, “If you see a Little, a horse won’t be far away”.  The descendants of Matthew Little (Baron Baillie of Langholm) kept up the Reiver cavalry tradition.  General Sir Archibald Little was the commanding officer 9th Lancers in the Indian Mutiny.  His brother, the dapper “Josey” Little (King’s Dragoon Guards) won the Grand National on ‘Chandler’ in 1848.  The General’s sons, Archibald Cosmo Little (5th Lancers) and Brigadier Malcolm Orme Little (commanding officer 9th Lancers) fought in the Boer War, and grandson Col. Malcolm A. A. Little (Royal Horse Guards “The Blues”) was killed in action in Italy in 1944.

Earlier Little clansmen turned from the rough, Godless, and violent life of the Borders.  Instead of going northwards to commerce and politics, they chose the contemplative life of a monk in one of the religious houses thirty miles to the west.  John Little in 1300 and a later John Little in the 16th Century, were both monks in the Monastery of Sacre Bois.  In the 16th Century, William Litill was a monk in the Abbey of Sacre Coeur.  Robert Little was Warden of the Convent of the Greyfriars in Dumfries where two centuries earlier Bruce had slain the Comyn before the High Altar.


This work is credited to Jim Lyttle, Ph.D

**This article was given with permission to publish by the author and may not be used outside the authors agreement with the publisher of this page without the authors consent.**