The family that first adopted the name of Dunbar was one of the great Celtic houses that continued to flourish throughout the centuries of Normanization by being powerful and loyal to the winners. It descended from Duncan, the lay-abbot who was killed in 965. His grandson was Crinan the Lord of Dunkeld, father of King Duncan I, who was murdered by MacBeth in 1040. Other involvements with Scotland's kings were no less dramatic.
By the reign of Malcom Canmore, its representative was Cospatrick, Earl of Northumberland, to whom the king granted the lands and Earldom of Dunbar, whose sear-girt stronghold was to witness so many dramas in Scotland's history. It was Patrick, the 10th Earl, who received Edward II of England into Dunbar Castle after his flight from Bannockburn, and enabled him to return to his own kingdom.
If he had detained Edward, the English might have been compelled to recognize King Robert and make peace, saving both countries from more years of bloodshed. However, Patrick came to terms with Robert the Bruce soon after, and was one of the signatories of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320.
When Edward Balliol returned as the rightful king in 1333 during the reign of Bruce's son, David II, Patrick supported him briefly - until he found Balliol was a puppet for the English. Then Patrick turned his allegiance back to David. The English brought an army to occupy Dunbar Castle during his absence in 1337, but his Countess, Black Agnes, held the fortress until a relieving force succeeded in reaching her by sea. A ballad preserves the exasperation of the English commander:
kept a stir in tower and trench
That brawling boisterous Scottish wench,
Came I early, came I late,
I found Agnes at the gate.
The 11th Earl was one of the victims of the greed of James I. Using the time-honoured method of stealing property, Dunbar was falsely accused of treason, and the estates were forfeited. After nearly four hundred years as an independent Celtic estate, the property was annexed to the crown, and the last Earl, Sir George Dunbar of Kilconquhar, died in 1455. But by this time, his house had established its branches of Morchrum in Moray and Westfield in Wigtownshire, and moved into the earldom and bishopric of Moray. The estates of Dunbar were never recovered.
Sir George's grandson was Columba Dunbar (1370 - 14350, Bishop of Moray, whose effigy is still to be seen in the ruins of Elgin Cathedral. By the mid-15th century, Dunbars of the Westfield line were established as far north as Caithness.
Several Dunbars made memorable contributions to the Renaissance when it reached Scotland. Gavin, Bishop of Aberdeen 1455 - 1532) was the 4th son of Sir Alexander Dunbar of Westfield. By 1503, he was a member of the Privy Council of James IV, and in 1518, he was appointed Bishop. He beautified the cathedral of St. Macher, where his marble effigy was smashed during the Reformation.
Bishop Gavin had a nephew of the same name, 3rd son of Sir John Dunbar of Mochrum. Through his uncle's influence, he followed him in the Deanery of Moray, and became tutor to the young King James V after his father's death on the field of Flodden. In 1524, he was made Archbishop of Glasgow, then Lord Chancellor, and died in 1547.