Early Sinclairs of Argyll

Article "The Sinclairs of Argyll: Some New Research", introduced by editor Rory Sinclair, in the Summer 1999 issue (Vol 3 No 16) of Roslin O Roslin.

In the editorial that begins this issue, your editor was extolling the virtues of the Internet. What follows is an example of what is best about being on-line.... you get to see and read things that you would never see in any other context.

On the Sinclair discussion list administered by John Quarterman, there is a very active Argyll Sinclair group in which Toni Sinclair of Grimsby and Neil Sinclair of Toronto are very active. Another very active member and who is down in the trenches doing hours of genealogical research is Karen Matheson. She is Argyll to the core and came up with the following paper which is a tribute to tenacity and keeping your wits about you when the genealogical slogging gets tough.

The Argyll Sinclairs have been a bit of a puzzle as it is quite clear that they are not known to be related to the Sinclairs of Roslin or Caithness. And if they are not, how then did they acquire the name?

Alexander M. Sinclair, the great Gaelic Scholar from Goshen, N.S. suggested that their acquisition of the name came from their being craftsmen/tinkers which in Gaelic becomes "tinkler" and hence became Sinclair. An inspired guess perhaps, but Karen has unearthed another possibility. Her paper may, at first, be hard to follow but, trust your editor, the rewards are great if you stick to it. Also, make no mistake here: Argyll Sinclairs are part of the broader family now. They are tough - we want them on our side!



By Karen J. Matheson

How is it possible that the McNokairds of Argyll became known by the surname Sinclair? For it is certain that the McNokairds of Argyll and their descendants became Sinclairs in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

The transformation of the name McNokaird to Sinclair was not as strange and convoluted as may first appear. Instead, the transition can be easily shown, its various stages occurring through the three languages that have been used in Scotland over the centuries: Gaelic, Scots and English.

The name change took place on both a phonetic level and a literal, or meaning, level. The same transformation occurred with the Gaelic Mac an fhucadair, which meant "son of the fuller of cloth". The phonetic Scots spelling became MacNucator, while the Scots meaning was "wauker". The English version of this name became Walker. Thus, many of the Walkers in Scotland descend from the clan Mac an fhucadair.

According to George F. Black's Surnames of Scotland: Their Meaning, Origin and History, McNokaird roots are in the Gaelic Mac na cearda, which means "son of the smith". Specifically, a cerd worked in brass.

Anciently, the ceard was a craftsman par excellence. Black states that these craftsmen created many of the fine old Highland plaid brooches of brass, which are exhibited at Edinburgh’s Scottish National Museum of Antiquities. However, "the term was degraded and applied to the poorest class of itinerant artificers, patchers of pots and pans, and equated with Scots tinker."

Black then quotes part of Robert Burns's poem The Jolly Beggar, which I include more fully:

"When thus the caird address'd her:
My bonnie lass, I work in brass,
A tinkler is my station:
I've travell'd round all Christian ground
In this my occupation;
I've taen the gold, an been enrolled
In many a noble squadron;
But vain they search'd when off I march'd
To go an clout [mend] the cauldron."

So, at the time Robert Burns wrote the poem (1780s-1790s), we know that the term caird was still associated with tinkler. One can imagine that this nickname derived from the actual tinkling sound made by the pots and pans as they were being re-shaped, pounded, molded and patched.

"Tinkler" replaced ceard and came to be negatively associated with wandering, gypsy-like pot-patchers. The word has further been refined to the English "tinker". Tinkler was found only once in the Argyll parish records as a surname: Duncan Tinkler, son of Duncan Tinkler and Cristin NcTaylor [sic], was christened on 6 September 1668 in Inveraray and Glenaray. No further reference to this family was found. A handful of other Tinklers were found in Renfrew and Stirling. Therefore, it seems that "tinkler" became a slang term, while Sinclair, as I will show, became the surname for those descendants of the early mac na ceards or McNokairds.

Black makes specific reference to McNokairds in early records, a few of which I include here:

  • Gillecreist M'Conoquhy Duy VcNocarde in record in Arygll, 1574; again in 1580 as Gillcreist Makonchy Duff V'Nokerd, native servant to Campbell of Glenurquhy;
  • Patrick Dow M'Nokerd in Auchinchalden and Angus M'Nokerd in Braklead, 1638;
  • Archibald M'Nokaird was merchant burgess of Inveraray, 1695; and
  • Dond. McNougard in Gerrich, ISLAY, 1741.

The lists of rebels and fencible men as seen in Duncan C. MacTavish's The Commons of Argyll include McNokairds. The List of Rebels in 1685 includes the following:

  • John McNokerd in Stonalbanach (Kilmichell parish, Glassarie);
  • Martin Mcinkerd in Lagandaroch (Kilmartin parish);
  • Gilbert Mcnokerd in Barbreckmore (Craignes parish);
  • ;
  • Malcom McNokaird in Durren (Dallaich parish);
  • Martin Mcinkerd in Bovuy (Kilchrenan and Inchaell parishes);
  • John, Duncan, Malcom McNokerd in Killean (Glenaray parish).

The 1692 List of Fencible Men lists numerous McNokairds. Included in Kilmore and Kilbride "excepting Lochnell's and Dunstaffnage's lands" are Ard. SINKALLAR and Jon SINKALLAR, as well as Ard. MCNACAIRD and Hugh MCNAKAIRD.

The McNokairds lived in northern Argyll and into present-day Perth as well, whose western borders adjoin Argyll. An article printed in The Kist made reference to Sinclairs, known as McNokairds, who lived at Coulfochan at the foot of Shira Glen in Argyll. "Their land stretched from the south end of the Dhuloch to Portinstonich, where the salmon for the table at Inveraray Castle was netted. The house of the Sinclairs has long since disappeared but was probably sited near the present day lodge house at the Boshang Gate, entrance to the Castle avenue. This family were not really Sinclairs at all, but McNokairds."

Parish registers in Inveraray & Glenaray are some of the earliest extant for Argyll. Available documentation does not show Sinclairs living in Coulfochan, but instead reveal that McNokairds did, indeed, live in Coulfochan: Donald McNokaird and Ann McNokaird of Cualfochan [sic] christened their son Duncan on 25 April 1860, while Duncan McNokerd and Mary McInturner lived in Cuilfochan [sic] in 1704.

Other residences for McNokairds noted in parish registers include Brenthoill/Bromhoil, Auchinbreck, Bralockan, Killian, Penmore, Bracherban and Stronshiray (spelling questionnable on all).

Analysis of families in Argyll reveal two in particular that appear to be the closest thing to proof of the name change.

McNokairds were found extensively in the parish records for Perth as well, under the spelling McIncaird. (A few McNokairds were also found in Stirling and Moray Shires.) The same name change took place in Perth as well, although the use of the McNokaird name continued here later than it did in Argyll. It was in Perth parish records that definitive proof of the name change was discovered.

The use of the surname McNokaird died out by about 1750. The parish registers and other records show the rising use of Sinclair in its place. The increase of Sinclair appearances in Argyll records is due to this changeover more than sudden populations of Sinclairs appearing in Argyll.

The name transformation also explains the close relationship between the "Sinclairs" of Argyll and the Campbells at a time when the Campbells and members of the traditional Clan Sinclair were engaged in a dispute over the title and lands of Caithness. This dispute culminated in the bloody battle at Altimarlach, near Wick, between these two clans.

It is certain that some of the Sinclairs in Argyll (possibly those listed as "strangers" in the Cowal peninsula) came in response to advertisements and demand for labor, and were members of the traditional clan Sinclair whose origins can be found in Caithness, the Orkney, and Lothian. However, most of the Sinclairs in Argyll are descendants of the craftsmen par excellence who were members of the Clan Mac na cearda.



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