URQUHART

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 13rd July 1998, reproduced by kind permission of the author, Desmond Holden.

The "What's in a Name" series has been a regular feature in the Advertiser.
Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames and Desmond regrets he is unable to undertake research into the genealogy, descent or family history of individuals.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

"In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves."

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called URQUHART?

This is a Scots name. As a starter it is interesting to investigate the curious spelling - "Urquhart". It demonstrates how identical letters derived from the same Classical Alphabets can acquire very different sounds as they are adopted into other tongues. In Scotland alone, the progress of "Z" is interesting. The surname "Dalziel" is pronounced as if written simply "Dee-Ell" while "Menzies" can sound as if written "Min-giss".

The letter "Q" is especially interesting. It began life in Ancient Scripts with a thick, throaty sound and could stand alone - as it still does in many Arabic words - "Qantara" (Egypt) for example. It vanished in the Greek Alphabet, and "K" was used instead, but it was retained by the Romans who achieved much the same sound by linking it with "-u" ("QU").

When Latin was introduced into Britain the native language had already developed its own sound which was written "CW" and so for several centuries and until shortly after the Norman Invasion, the sound "kw" (as in 'quiet') was represented either by "CW" or "QU" (sometimes even in the same sentences!). Latin words, such as "quod" appear as "cwod" and "quick" regularly alternates with "cwick".

However there was also another pair of letters peculiar to dialects spoken in these Islands and it was "WH" (e.g. where, what). At the time the differences in 'sound between "WH" and "QU" were not so strong and like "CW" the combination of "WH" was regularly interchanged.

This notion is better grasped if it is realised that today, when we say, for example, "what", we unconsciously reverse the sounds and say something like "H-WOT". And, since in those days "H" was given a more throaty sound which didn't sound much different from "QU" this interchange is more readily understood. So "quat" appeared as "what" and "quele" was understood as "wheel". This usage was found in the South but prevailed very strongly in Scotland and in North.

Expressed with considerable simplicity at this point and omitting a great deal of fascinating examples, it can be summarised to the effect that scribes began to notice that "WH", "CW" and "QU" were all more or less pronounced alike. (Bear in mind that the pronunciation of English in the Middle Ages was vastly different from what it is today. Even during the time of Shakespeare, educated people spoke English with an accent which we would now describe as "broad Lancashire").

Returning to the matter of similarity of pronunciation, writers of the period thought, perhaps, that things could be simplified if they settled on one or the other combinations. So, by the end of the 12th Century "CW" had disappeared and "QU" took over. Words, whether of English, Latin or French origin were all spelled with "QU".

In the case of "QU" and "WH" things took a slightly different turn. The linguistic tradition of our own native language were sufficiently strong, that while "WH" triumphed over "QU" throughout much of the country, Scots and Northern Scholars preferred to run them together as "QUH".

This remained a characteristic feature of Scottish writing: "quhan" was "when" and "quhow" was "how". Eventually the older "WH" prevailed and the cumbersome "QUH" had virtually disappeared by the beginning of the 18th century.

The name itself is a territorial name derived from a district on the west side of Loch Ness. This is the main source but "Urquhart" in Morayshire (5 miles east of Elgin) and another location "Urquhart and Logie Wester" alongside Cromarty Firth are also associated with the Clan.

It is one on the few Pictish words surviving. The first unit "Ur-" means "covered". The second must be a supposed form "-quhard" describing trees and woodland. (It may be related to the Welsh "cardden" - thicket). Hence, by extension it means "the land covered in forest".

This is certainly the case today in Glen Urquhart which is a valley running east-west and known sometimes as "The Forest of Urquhart". Incidentally, the similarity of the second unit to words such as "garden" and "orchard" are deceptive and appear to have influenced earlier versions of the name such as "Hurcharde" (1381). Some families, taking this point, insist on pronouncing their name as "Orchar".

The most celebrated personality called "Urquhart" was Sir Thomas Urquhart (1611-1660) who translated the French Classic of Rabelais ("Pantageuel") so brilliantly that it is still read. He is said to have died of a fit of laughter upon hearing of the overthrow of the Puritan Regime (Cromwell).

The vagaries of the pronunciation and spelling are attractively illustrated by reference to Father Charles Urquhart a Jesuit Priest of Aberdeen. Known at first under the old spelling, the name appears as "Urcart", in the Register of Admissions to his Order and later in the Records of his death he is described as "Urgart" (1734).

Here in Bakewell the name is well-known on account of the Vicar, the Reverend Edmund Urquhart, whom the "Peak Advertiser" compliments on his 25 year Ministry.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 13rd July 1998.

URL of this page: http://names.gukutils.org.uk/Urquhart.shtml
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library