This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 19th April 2004, reproduced by kind permission of the author, the late Desmond Holden.

The “What's in a Name” series was a regular feature in the Advertiser over the period 1993‑2004, taking a refreshing look at the derivation of some typically Derbyshire surnames.

Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames, and do not indicate any particular interest on Desmond's part in the genealogy, descent, or family history of individuals bearing the surnames featured.

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 MACARTHUR?

Shortly after the evacuation of the Romans from Britain, the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons followed and overwhelmed the native Celtic inhabitants. The most celebrated opponent was a chieftain upon whom the name "Arthur" has eventually settled. His real name and status is problematical and details of his life are scanty. Upon a few hazy historical facts has been superimposed much mythology from Celtic and Christian sources.

The Celts originated from central Europe (St. Paul knew them as the Galations). Sometime in the 4th century BC they had crossed the channel and settled, eventually, in these islands. They brought with them a mythology which is known to have featured the bear - venerated, no doubt, for its strength and ferocity. It had been known to their Greek counterparts as "arktos" (c.f. Arctic, Arcturus) and was transmitted here as "artos". (Compare Welsh "arth" and Irish "art").

This Chieftain who had successfully repelled the invaders was likened to the bear and was accordingly dubbed "Artoris". However, during the turbulent centuries which followed, historical fact and a wishful re-interpretation of legend became inextricably blended and the legend of "King Arthur" and his return from the dead became established in folk-memory. The several chroniclers, endeavouring to provide a history of events during the centuries between (roughly) 500 AD and the Norman conquest, incorporated into their writings much of these traditions and thus encouraging a belief in their authenticity.

Now it might have been thought that the high place occupied by Arthur in English tradition would have guaranteed the frequency of his name as a masculine personal name. But this is not so. Although the name certainly does occur in Domesday, examples are not many, and from about 1200 until the mid-19th century the name was not popular as a first name, and has not appeared in the "top twenty" names since 1925.

The earliest spelling uses only "-t-" but after the 1500s an intrusive "-th-" appears. (Compare Gaelic; Artur, Italian, Spanish: - Arturo). Its presence is not convincingly explained. It occurs, for instance in "author" (auctor) and "Anthony" (Antony). Because of the infrequency of the name, corresponding surnames are comparatively rare. In the National Biography there are only 7 entries for "Arthur" and none at all for "Arthurian".

But in Scotland, things are very different. The records indicate that forms of Arthur were frequently bestowed as a personal name - e.g. King Art of Dalriada (West Coast). In the matter of surnames, the Scots practice was to tag the name on to the prefix "Mac-" which means "son of -". The ensuing construction "MacArthur" was and remains so widespread that it would be superfluous to list examples - other than to mention that spellings such as "M'Arthur", "McArthur", "Mcarthur" etc. are held invalid by authorities in Scottish genealogy. (Compare Welsh "Map").

The Scots, like the English, seem to have regarded King Arthur as a great hero, and were diffident in extending it to any specific personality. There is an old Gaelic saying which asks (briefly) "We know how the hills and streams got their names, but who were the first Arthurites? The story seems to begin with a Clan in the region of Strachar (Argyll) whose Chieftain was an ardent supporter of Robert the Bruce (1306-1329).

In Ireland the name "Arthur" was already established even before the Norman conquest (Limerick). Later Scottish settlers brought "MacArthur, which is sometimes found now as "MacCarte" - thus preserving the original pronunciation.

Some "MacArthurs" chose to drop the prefix and assume only the name "Arthur". Hence Chester Arthur, American president (1881-1885) whose predecessors had emigrated from Scotland and settled in Belfast. Another of emigrant ancestry was General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964), the hero of the Pacific war. Locally we have Miss Ellen MacArthur of Wirksworth, the celebrated yachtswomen. Otherwise there are some 23 entries in the local directory.

It may be noted that the hill outside Edinburgh, known as "Arthur's Seat" is a misrendering of the Gaelic "Ard-na-said" meaning "vantage point for arrows" and has no Arthurian connection - so they say!

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 19th April 2004.

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