The title High Steward of Scotland was first bestowed on Walter the Steward in about 1150 by David I. Malcolm IV made the position hereditary, and Walter's son inherited the title and took the surname Stewart. The historical origins of the title lay in the role of the king's food bearer: in practice it meant a very senior adviser and member of the court.
The 6th High Steward played an important role at the Battle of Bannockburn and married the king's daughter. They had one child, Robert Stewart. Robert acted as Regent during the enforced absences from Scotland of his cousin, King David II. And when David died without children in 1371, Robert became King Robert II, the first King of the House of Stewart.
Taken as a whole, the Stewarts were not an especially impressive bunch. It took until the reign of James II in 1437 until the family threw up a king of any real promise, and he came to an untimely end through his enthusiasm for artillery. James III made a good wedding, acquiring Orkney and Shetland for Scotland, but was otherwise of little note.
Without doubt the most impressive member of the dynasty was James IV, who worked hard to produce a relatively stable and prosperous country. Indeed, he had all the makings of a really great king, right up to the moment in 1513 he unnecessarily led a Scottish army across the border into England and got himself, and most of the Scottish nobility, killed at the Battle of Flodden.
Mary Queen of Scots is perhaps the most famous Scottish monarch. But on any objective basis she wasn't a great success, either as a monarch or in her personal life: and it was the intertwining of the two that led to her downfall. Her son James VI is usually considered to have been a highly effective King of Scotland, though this overlooks his attitude towards his Gaelic subjects, who he seemed to view as barely human, and certainly not worth treating as such. It also has to be said that when in 1603 James VI of Scotland became James I of England he headed south with alacrity, barely pausing to give Scotland a backward look: and only visiting it once in the remaining 26 years of his life.
Charles I managed to provoke two Civil Wars and bring about his own execution and a Republic in England through his high-handed approach to his subjects, and his belief in the Divine Rights of Kings. After Charles II was restored to the throne, the key issue became the conflict between monarchs increasingly sympathetic to Roman Catholicism and a people who were virulently anti-Catholic. Charles II converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, and his successor, his brother James VII/II had already converted to Catholicism.
When James' second marriage produced a male Catholic heir, he was ousted in the "Glorious Revolution" by his Protestant daughter, Mary II and her husband, William of Orange. They in turn were succeeded by James' younger daughter, Queen Anne, who was the last of the Stuart line to serve as monarch, and the one who oversaw the Act of Union between England and Scotland.
However, a Stuart monarchy in exile continued beyond Anne's death in 1714, via James' son, known to the Jacobites as James VIII/III. The claim passed in turn to his son Bonnie Prince Charlie, or Charles III, and to Charles' brother, who the Jacobites knew as Henry IX. Some would say that the Stuart claim to the throne remains in place today.
Stewart or Stuart?
Until Mary, Queen of Scots the family name was "Stewart." However, while in France she adopted the French spelling of "Stuart", there being no "w" in the French alphabet at the time.
The two variants were used almost interchangeably by later generations of the House of Stuart, depending in part on how close relations were with France at the time.