The family originate from Annandale, North Cumberland and Liddesdale.
Today, the Bells are particularly numerous in Northumberland.There are various theories of the origin of the name Bell. Among those suggested are, the shortened form of Isabel, from the old French town of Belle and from an inn sign ‘The Bell.’ Maybe all, and others, could be correct.
There are many variants of the surname including Bel, Bellis, Belle, Beall and Beal.
The Bells were a great surname in the Scottish West March with branches in England mainly in the Gilsland region.
They were, at times, at feud with many of their neighbours including the Armstrongs, the Musgraves, the Irvines, and the Grahams. The feud with the latter was particularly bitter.
There is evidence that the family were settled in the southwest of Scotland in the 12th century, and possibly earlier. For long they have been associated with the parish of Middlebie in Dumfriesshire.
There is an old Scots saying, "As numerous as the Bells of Middlebie."
The region became overpopulated and, like other neighbouring clans, they were unable to support themselves. They were caught up in the almost constant warring between two hostile countries and local clan feuds. Again like other Border families they resorted to reiving and gained a reputation for being a most unruly clan.
However, their support in actions against the English and their allied clans was very effective.
The Bells allied themselves with the Black Douglases and accompanied them on many missions showing great courage and daring. The Black Douglases were eventually brought down and the Maxwells acquired much of the Bells' lands.
By the 16th century the clan had acquired lands in Annandale in addition to their holdings elsewhere in Dumfriesshire. Having been declared an ‘unruly clan’ they were harshly subdued during the pacification of the Borders after the Union of the Crowns in 1603.
The Clan chief, William Bell, known as Redcloak, died in 1628 and the position of chief lapsed. From then they ceased to be a cohesive clan.
Many clan members chose or were forced to flee to Ireland. Some found their way along the Tyne valley and settled in Northumberland where they are still numerous.
At the Battle of Dryfe Sands fought between the Maxwells and the Johnstones, the Bells played a decisive part.When Kinmont Willie Armstrong fell into English hands the Duke of Buccleuch led a party across the Border and succeeded in freeing Kinmont from Carlisle Castle where he had been imprisoned. The raiding party included the Chief William Bell, Redcloak of Blackethouse and three others of the Bell Clan. William Bell is believed to have been the brother-in-law of Kinmont Willie.
The Clan Bell Web site can be located at: www.clanbell.org.