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Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Origin of the Name McKnight

North ArgyllMcKnight is one of many variations on the name MacNaughton.  MacNaughton is the Anglicized version of mac Nechtan, which means son (or descendant of) Nechtan.  So who was Nechtan?  Why, Nechtan Morbet, known as Nechtan the Great, ancient King of the Picts, or so it is often said.  But there were three Pictish kings named Nechtan, not to mention two Dál Riata kings with sons and grandsons named Nechtan.  And then there was Nechtan of Moray, a noble who was loyal to his king, Malcolm IV, and rewarded with an estate.  In other words, it's not at all clear who Nechtan was.  In a sense, he was all of them.

The Dál Riata were the people who lived on the Scottish west coast, in what is now called Argyll.  Their roots were in Ireland, part of a larger collection of Celtic people called the Ulaid, and after whom Ulster is named.  By the fifth century AD the Dál Riata had become unified into a kingdom that included what is now north Antrim, Argyll, and many of the islands between in the Irish Sea.  The people, called Scots by the Romans, identified themselves as members of various kin groups, or cenéla, which were a broader version of the smaller clans yet to come.  Each cenél was said to descend from a particular king - whether this was actually true or not, or even whether the king actually existed, was beside the point.  The point was not to delineate a factual genealogy, but instead to invoke a heroic genealogy.  This was a way to honor one's ancestors (whoever they may have been) and to bring their spirit into one's present life.  One aspired to emulate the ancestor's character and deeds, as understood in the present, at whatever scale one was capable of.

The Cenél Loairn were the great kindred of northern Argyll.  They claimed descent from the mythical second king of Dál Riata, Loarn mac Eirc.  This cenél was further divided into cenéla descending from Loarn's sons and grandsons.  The ancestors of those who came to call themselves mac Nachten were of one of these cenéla, the Cenél Báetáin, a branch of the Cenél Muiredaig.

The Picts were a Celtic people who preceded the arrival of the Dál Riata by a millenium or so.  The northern Picts of Scotland were established around the Great Glen of what is now Inverness, around the Moray Firth, and further north.  The southern Picts lived south and east in what is now Aberdeen, Perth, and Fife.  The northern Picts and the Cenél Loairn shared a lot of territory, sometimes peaceably and sometimes not.

It is said that Nechtan is a Pictish name, yet the name appears among the Cenél Loairn and Cenél Comgaill nobility around the end of the sixth century.  This could indicate a diplomatic bowing to the Picts, a genuine trend of intermarriage, or simply the use of a similar and apparently popular name.  But by the beginning of the seventh century, there likely was intermarriage among the nobility.  It would not be long before the more important families of both the Dál Riata and the Picts could claim a mixed heritage.  In time, there was sufficient cultural intermixing and intermarriage to diminish the ethnic difference between Pict and Dál Riata Scot, though the political differences remained.  After the Viking invasions in the ninth century, these Picto-Scots began to consider themselves Gaelic, which was their shared language, and the vast shared territory came to be called Moray.

But before then, toward the end of the seventh century, the Cenél Loairn for the first time began to dominate the kingship of Dál Riata over the Cenél nGabráin to the south.  This might have been a benefit of the cultural alliance with the northern Picts, and may have paved the way for Pictish dominance over all of Dál Riata by Óengus I in the middle of the eighth century.

The mac Nachten line apparently descends from a son of one of these Cenél Loairn kings, Domnall Dunn mac Ferchair Fota mac Feredaig (bearing in mind how uncertain these medieval genealogies are).  Descended from Domnall are a remarkable string of Nechtans - father, son, and grandson.  To tell them apart, one is called the Elder (Nechtan Mor), another the Younger (Nechtan Og) and the one between is called Nechtan Nisin, Nechtan of the Wounds.

This Nechtan Mor is definitely not the great king of the Picts, Nechtan Morbet, who lived three centuries earlier, nor Nechtan II of the Picts.  His birth was probably in the early or mid eighth century, which means that his father lived in the time of the Pictish king Nechtan mac Der-Ilei.  Perhaps Nechtan the Elder was named by his father in honor of some connection with the king, and this honor was passed down three generations.  If so, it would probably have been a political connection rather than familial.  Still, at this early point, there would be no Clan MacNaughton as we think of it, the source of a surname.  Yet I'm sure there came to be a kin group who identified themselves as the sons of these Nechtans, and perhaps, in the heroic sense, of King Nechtan himself.

In about 1160, Malcolm IV, King of Scotland, moved several families from Moray to Perth as part of an effort to tamp down rebellion in Perthshire.  Among these families was a Nechtan of Moray, who was granted land in Strathtay, apparently as thane of Loch Tay.  It is almost certainly this Nechtan who is the eponym of the subsequent Clan mac Nechtan, honored as he was with land and title.  Over time, the MacNaughtons acquired lands to the southwest, and established a stronghold in Argyll, between Lochs Awe and Fyne.

Nechtan the Elder lived three and a half centuries before the MacNaughtons of Strathtay, some ten generations back.  It's possible that Nechtan of Moray knew about his Nechtan ancestors, but I'd bet that it was later generations of MacNaughtons who celebrated their name with a heroic genealogy stretching back to antiquity, containing a half dozen Nechtans and hinting at Pictish nobility.


Related websites:
Clans and Families of Ireland and Scotland
Electric Scotland
Clan Macnachtan Association
The Records of Argyll (PDF document)
Celtic Scotland
Moll's 1745 Map of Argyle


  1. Hello Bill,
    I've been enjoying your blog - both the information and your writing style - and today I nominated you for the Kreative Bloggers Award.
    Please pick it up at my site and feel free to nominate up to 7 more deserving blogs.
    Have a great day,
    Evelyn in Montreal

  2. Why, thank you so much! It's nice to know I have an audience.


  3. So is McKnight Scottish or Irish??