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Issue 77 - The Clan Urquhart

Scotland Magazine Issue 77
October 2014


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The Clan Urquhart

James Irvine Robertson explores the origins of the Urquhart family

The meaning of the name of Urquhart has long been mulled over by Gaelic scholars. Perhaps the most likely explanation is 'the fort on the knoll' after Castle Urquhart, the great Royal fortress on the north shore of Loch Ness that dominates Glen Urquhart and the eastern mouth of the Great Glen. Although one chief worked out his descent from Adam to while away the hours during a sojourn in the Tower of London for treason, along with Clan Forbes, the Urquharts claim as their progenitor Connacher Mor, a mighty hero who possessed a chunk of territory in the area. With considerable help from his hunting dog, he slew a particularly troublesome boar, as commemorated in the clan crest. Almost right, agree the Forbeses, but it was a bear that he killed not a boar as is shown in our arms.

William of Urquhart married a daughter of the Earl of Ross, the mightiest warlord in the north and a man rather late in the camp of King Robert Bruce who was, nonetheless, by his side at Bannockburn. Urquhart was already Sheriff of Cromarty. David II granted his son the same sheriffdom in 1358 and it became hereditary in his family. The chiefs married well, building up estates that came to dominate the Black Isle and they feuded with the neighbouring Roses of Kilravock. Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty is said to have sired 11 daughters and 25 sons in the first half of the 16th century. His wife, who surely deserves to be honoured, was Helen, daughter of Lord Saltoun.

Seven sons died at the Battle of Pinkie Cleuch in 1547, a defeat that may have cost 15,000 Scots lives when Henry VIII tried and failed to force the infant Queen Mary to marry his son. Nonetheless sufficient of their siblings survived to give a fine welcome when they turned up on white horses to greet the Queen when she came to Inverness in 1562. In order to prepare himself for the hereafter, this patriarch is supposed to have set up his bed in his sepulchre towards the end of his days, and have his servants winch him up to nestle in the rafters of his castle at Cromarty during the day so that he could be as near as possible to heaven.

The most famous of the chiefs was another Sir Thomas, born in 1611. He was a strong supporter of the Stuarts and bounced several hundred Covenanters out of Turiff as part of Huntly's army in 1639. He was knighted by the King in 1641, participated in a Royalist Uprising at Inverness and 1648, and led his clan down to the Battle of Worcester in 1651, ending up in the Tower of London after the defeat. Sir Thomas was bedeviled by the financial mess in which his affairs were left after his father's death in 1642. He spent considerable time on the Continent to avoid creditors and his absence allowed them to pillage his estates almost as they pleased. He seems to have been naturally funny and one of those people who charmed everyone he met.

His fame stems from his idiosyncratic writing. He loved words and used them, often of his own making, to contract elaborate fantastical ideas and images. 'I could have introduced, in case of obscurity, synonymal, exargastic and palilogetic elucidations...'

In 1641, he produced a volume of epigrams followed by a book on mathematics, but this latter is considered impenetrable. He wrote a couple of works proposing a universal language, but this never took off. And, of course, his mighty genealogical work on his own forebears. The Jewel is considered by some to have begun the tradition of Scots romances that led directly to Walter Scott.

Facing execution for treason in the Tower, he wrote to Oliver Cromwell offering to trade his life for his Universal Language 'a most exquisite jewel. It hath eleven genders, seven moods, four voices, ten cases, besides the nominative, and twelve parts of speech; every word signifieth as well backwards as forwards; and it is so compact of style that a single syllable will express the year, month, day, hour and partition of the hour.' Cromwell, a man not normally renowned for his sense of humour, ordered his release in 1653. There is a tradition that Sir Thomas died of an inordinate fit of laughter on hearing of the Restoration of Charles II.

The Urquhart family tradition of supporting the Stuarts continued with Captain James Urquhart fighting and being severely wounded at Sheriffmuir. He became the principal agent of the Jacobites in Scotland until his death in 1741. By then the Mackenzies of Seaforth had acquired the Cromarty estates and the chiefship devolved into the Meldrum line. John Urquhart of Craigston only just escaped with his life in the battle and he became the founder of the most potent family in the clan after he made a huge and somewhat mysterious fortune, probably as a privateer in the service of Spain. He employed William Adam to modify his beautiful castle that is still owned by his descendants. Adam Urquhart was with Prince Charles's court in Rome.

The last chief from the Meldrum branch of the family was Major Beauchamp Urquhart who was killed at the Battle of Atbara in 1898, one of 25 British dead as opposed to the 3,000 of the Dervishes. William McGonagall, Scotland's greatest bad poet, recorded his last words 'never mind me my lads, fight on,' in his poem commemorating the battle.

In 1959, a descendant of one of the 25 sons of the 16th century Sir Thomas was recognised by Lord Lyon as the 26th Chief of the Clan. With his seat at the ancient ruined Castle Craig on the northern shore of the Black Isle, his grandson Colonel Wilkins Fisk Urquhart of Urquhart is Chief of the Name today, one of three clan chiefs who are US citizens.