Macnaughtan Families in Perthshire

History and Settlement in Western Perthshire 700-1900

Reprinted from The Red Banner: Clan Macnachtan Association Worldwide July 2014 15-19.



The surname Macnaughtan is derived from the Celtic/Pictish patronym mac Nechtan (mac Neachdainn). Nechtan was a popular name amongst Pictish tribal leaders in the post-Roman period, and also appears as a mythological character in Ireland. Georges Dumézil in La religione romana arcaica “proposed an etymology that brings together Neptunus with Vedic and Avestan theonyms Apam Napat, Apam Napá and Old Irish theonym Nechtan, all meaning descendant of the waters.” This places the name very far back into prehistory, to the pre-Christian Proto-Indo-European water god Népot-. In this interpretation, Nechtan is related to the Roman god Neptune, the Romano-British god Nodens, and the Persian and Vedic gods sharing the name Apam Napat. It may also be related to the Swedish mythological being Näcken, who dwells near wells and springs.  It is strongly associated with the mythology of water, lakes, rivers, the sea, and purification. [1]


Dark Age Picts

Pictish leaders with the name included Nechtan Morbet (456-480), Nechtan nepos Uerb (595-616), and Nechtan mac Der-Ilei aka Nechtan the Great (706-729).  The latter was an important figure in Dark Ages Scotland, as he introduced the usages  of the Roman Catholic church over the native Celtic Christianity. [2]

The name also appears on the Ackergill Stone in Ogham script, transcribed as NEHTEHRI. The stone is from a pagan cemetery in Ackergill, just north of Wick, in the far northeast of Scotland.  This slate slab is generally thought to date from 600-800AD, but recent research may place it as early as 300AD.  This would make Nechtan one of the oldest continuous recorded names in Europe. [3]


The Ackergill Stone – the Ogham script Nehtehri is  represented by the strokes on the left side of the stone.

A local tradition recorded by Duncan Campbell in The Lairds of Glenlyon (1886) states that the Macnachtans carried the body of the illustrious Irish Saint Adomnán of Iona to his burial place in Glen Lyon in 704.  They bore the body in ceremonial procession on a bier of withies, until the bier broke at Dull, near Fortingall, where the Saint was buried. The area around Fortingall and Dull became known as a center of learning for centuries after.  [4]


The patronymic Nechtan enters history again in 685, when it became the name of a decisive battle. The Picts under King Bridei Mac Bili annihilated the Anglo-Saxon Northumbrians at the Battle of Dun Nechtain (Nechtansmere in Anglo-Saxon). This resulted in the killing of the Saxon King Ecgfrith, and many historians think this saved Scotland from Saxon control. [5]


Depiction of the Battle

Some of the clan claiming descent from Nechtan the Great settled in the glen of Balnaguard around 750AD. This is just a few miles east of the heartland of later Macnaughtan territory around Fortingall and Glen Lyon. This branch gradually expanded west to Glen Lyon, and by the 1100s there were a number of Macnachtan farms up the Glen. According to tradition, these Macnachtans had several genetic peculiarities: their little and fourth fingers were the same length, and they had especially large feet. This was the origin of the Macnaughtan nickname “Cuarain Fada” or “Long Sandals.” Before a clan fight against the MacArthurs in the 1400s, the clan left their huge sandals in a pile: the number of unclaimed sandals afterwards represented the number of casualties. [6]


There may have been a later Nachtan immigration into Perthshire. According to Skene, the clan was founded in Moray by Nechtan Mor around 950, and were based in the village of Beauly (A’ Mhanachainn), west of Inverness. The tribe was transferred to Perthshire in 1130, when David I of Scotland suppressed the Mormaer of Moray. [7]

Moray was a large Gaelic kingdom just south of Norse holdings in Sunderland. DNA analysis of some clan members has revealed a characteristic patrilineal DNA marker (R-1a1a) from southern Norway, which may indicate a Norse presence from NE Scotland. This marker is quite uncommon in Scotland, where the predominant lineage is the “Celtic” Haplogroup R1b. This avenue of research is a fascinating but still unexplored area.

For a while in the 12th century, the Macnachtans were local chiefs in Perthshire, known as Thanes of Loch Tay. However, the chieftainship of the clan became established in Argyll around 1200, and the Macnachtans in Perthshire lapsed into obscurity. The political and economic focus of the clan moved to the west coast of Scotland around Loch Fyne and Loch Awe, leaving the Perthshire branch without strong local leadership.

The Macnachtan chiefs in Argyll engaged in the usual power politics and maneuvering typical of the day, and their fortunes have been well documented.  For a time, they appeared to be a force in the region. But eventually, they lost out on the local Game of Thrones, outwitted by the Campbells and undone by the own profligacy and bad luck. By the 18th century, the Chiefly lineage was defunct, bankrupt, and extinct. [8]


Dunderave Castle, seat of the Argyll Macnechtan chiefs

Although Perthshire was no longer a noted Macnachtan area, several Perthshire branches rose to prominence, including the well-known Remony branch, who have become established international textile producers. [9]

Surname analyses show that Macnachtan families remained concentrated in Perthshire, especially in Fortingall Parish. Between 1745 and 1820, 146 Macnachtans married or registered births in Fortingall Parish. In the 1881 census, there were twice as many of the name in Perthshire than in Argyllshire (430 vs 213). [10]

“Perthshire was certainly an area within the kingdom of the Picts. In 1881 the relative frequency of the MacNaughton name there was twice what it was in Argyllshire. We know a lot about the MacNaughtons of Argyllshire because of the charter of 1267, the three MacNaughton castles, and the copious writings of the dominant Campbells, who had the luxury of time to write and often included information about their MacNaughton neighbors. So we tend to read more about the MacNaughtons of Argyllshire than those in Perthshire … So although Nechtan and the Picts ruled northeast Scotland 448 to 843 A.D., it seems highly likely that the historic origins of the MacNaughton Clan lie in Perthshire.” [11]

Most Macnachtans remained as tenant farmers in the glens, but economic disruptions and political turmoil caused many to emigrate to the Lowlands and on to North America, Australia, and New Zealand.  As early as the 1640s, Perthshire was ravaged by raiding in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, in which competing war parties burned and looted.  In the 1680s, bad harvests led to widespread famine. Those who adhered to Presbyterianism often went to Ulster, then on to North America.  As late as 1745, cattle raiding for “black meal” was common.

The Jacobite Rising of 1745 left Western Perthshire relatively unaffected, although a Jacobite army marched through Aberfeldy, raising recruits. The local landlord, Old Menzies of Culdares, was a Jacobite supporter, and one of his tenants – “Honest” John Macnaughtan – attained fame by refusing to betray his master.  He was executed at Carlisle for treason and killing an English officer with a farm scythe. He was long remembered in Glen Lyon as an example of courage and loyalty. [12]

Between 1780 and 1850, most of Highland Scotland was deeply affected by the Highland Clearances, which were a traumatic and violent effort by landowners to evict tenant farmers and convert the land to more profitable sheep farming. There were apparently some clearances around Fortingall parish, but the area was not as heavily damaged as northeast Scotland and the Islands.

The clearances may have accelerated a long-standing pattern of young men leaving for greater opportunity by emigrating to Lowland Scotland or overseas, or often by joining the army.  The Black Watch was actually founded in Aberfeldy in 1740, and may have attracted many local recruits. Perthshire was also hit by the Highland Potato Famine, which lasted from 1845 to 1857; but the area had a more diversified agricultural base, so was not as badly affected.


Major landowners in Perthshire, 18th century

In the 18th century, my ancestors lived in the settlement of Drumcharry (Druim a’Chàraldh), a collection of cottages just east of the village of Fortingall. In 2004, archaeologists investigated the settlement before it was redeveloped, and revealed house platforms and garden plots. A ruined house was still evident when I visited in 2013.


In Drumcharry, everyone worked for the local laird as tenants, although not all were farmers. The local estates were owned by wealthy aristocratic families, mostly Scottish.  Landowners came and went depending on the economy and indebtedness – for much of the historic period, the most influential landowners around Fortingall were aristocratic branches of the Menzies and the Campbells. The locals were tenants, and paid yearly rent to the landowner.  Relations could be bad but were often surprisingly good: the landowner depended on reliable tenants as much as the tenant needed a good landlord.

At that time, everyone still spoke Perthshire Gaelic in Fortingall.

My ancestors appeared to be carpenters and joiners – which was the trade my dad took up. The very earliest record we have is Alexander Macnaughtan, who was born in 1766. He married Margaret Robertson in 1796 (we know Margaret’s parents: John Robertson, a shoemaker, and Kathrine Dewar, who married in 1761). Neither Alexander or Margaret ever left the valley. Alexander died in the 1840s, and Margaret at the great old age of 91 in 1863. Alexander worked as a joiner.

Following  the traditional Scottish Gaelic personal naming system, the boys in the family were named after fathers and grandfathers, so that only three first names rotated throughout the centuries:  Alexander (Alasdair in Gaelic), John (Iain), and Donald (Domhnall). We kept this tradition alive: I’m a “Donald”, my two cousins “John”; and we have one John in the next generation. “Alexander” seems to have died out.

Alexander and Margaret had 6 children between 1797 and 1816. The third (also Alexander) was born in 1801 in Drumcharry. In 1830, he married Janet McMartin (1802-1866) in Drumcharry. They also had six kids: Alexander, Donald, Margaret, Mary, Jessie, and the youngest John (1842-1896), who emigrated to New Zealand in 1862, after working in Edinburgh for a few years. This began the branch of our family in New Zealand.

We do not know what propelled my great-great-grandfather to leave for such a far-flung place, which was as far as it was possible to sail on the planet. He was a youngest son, so he was maybe following a long-standing tradition. We do know that he left after perhaps a thousand years of ancestral presence in the village of Fortingall.

John married Elizabeth Hooper (1842-1870) who was the daughter of an Edinburgh doctor. She died at age 28 in Thames, New Zealand. The other five children of Alexander and Janet remained in Scotland, changed the spelling slightly to Macnaughton, and are now settled in the Dundee area.

John turned to farming and helped found Helensville, on the Kaipara Harbour in New Zealand’s Northland. His son John (1866-1930) married Eleanor Entwistle in 1899. In 1900 their son Donald was born, my grandfather. At this point we enter the realm of living memory. We remember our grandfather well, and my father knew his aunts and uncles.

From the Dark Ages of Scotland to new lives in the New Worlds, our families have spanned an astounding range of the human story.


1. “Nechtan.” Wikipedia. Web.

2. “Nechtan mac Der-Ilei” Wikipedia. Web.

3. McNaughton, David. The Red Banner Dec. 2013. Print.

4. Campbell, Duncan. The Lairds of Glenlyon: Historical Sketches Relating to the Districts of Appin, Glenlyon, and Breadalbane. Perth: Cowan, 1886. Print.

5. “Battle of Dun Nechtain.”  Wikipedia. Web.

6. Macnaughton, James. “Glenlyon (The Valley of the Flooding River), Crom Ghleann nan Clach (The Crooked Glen of Stones): Home of the ‘Long Sandal’ Macnachtans.” A History of the Clan Macnachtan. CreateSpace, 2013. 35-41. Print.

7. Skene, W. F., and Alexander Macbain. The Highlanders of Scotland. Stirling: Mackay, 1902. Print.

8. Cock, Matthew. Dunderave Castle and the Macnachtans of Argyll. Walnut Creek: Dunderave Estate, 1998. Print.

9. Macnaughton, Donald A.  A Highland Family: The Macnaughtons of Remony, 1780-1930. Scotland: D.A. Macnaughton, 1985. Print.

10.  McNaughton, Ken. “Where Did the Macnachtan Clan Live?” The Red Banner Dec. 2011.

11.  ibid.

12. MacDonnell MacDonald, D. “These Are Your People: Clan Macnachtan.” Red Banner.


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