This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 7th April 1997, 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 MOFFAT?

Although this name is sometimes held to be Northern Irish, especially if spelled "Moffett", it belongs to Scotland. The Irish connection arises from developments during the reign of James I (1603-1625) when it was taken across the water by Scots settlers when they were established under the "Plantation of Ulster" scheme of 1610. Otherwise, although there are at least another half-dozen variations in the spelling of the name, as well as "Moffat" and "Moffett", none of them is significant.

It is a location-name and "Moffat" is a Scots Burgh in the old County of Dumfries. It stands on the River Annan, about 2 miles north of the confluence of several rivers, including the Moffat and Garpol. Using an Atlas, it is easily found since it lies only 2 miles east of the Main A72 Road which, together with the M74, links Carlisle with Glasgow, from which two places it is almost equidistant.

The name is Gaelic and means "the long plain". This feature is readily discernible and it greatly facilitated the construction of the modern highways. Even the Romans took advantage of it and the course followed by their own road from Carlisle to Edinburgh can still be detected most of the way from Lockerbie, through Moffat and as far as Beattock Summit.

There are two units in the name: "magh", which means "a plain"; and "fada", signifying "long". Hence the combination of "Maghfada" which over the centuries has emerged today as "Moffat".

The characteristic of any plain is that of its flatness and this is shown up in another related Gaelic word "Machair". (In Ireland it is "Machaire"). This expression describes level, low-lying coastal land, which frequently lies above shell-beaches. It must be familiar to visitors to Scotland especially if travelling with caravans, because they will often be directed to a particular "Machair" where there are camping facilities. In geographical and agricultural writings, these "machairs" are regularly commented upon not only for their low contours but also for often being sufficiently fertile to allow for the cultivation of crops and the grazing of animals. The particular notice conferred upon such flat ground is perfectly understandable in regions, like Scotland, which are more distinguished for their magnificant peaks than rolling plains. Indeed, not so very long ago an appeal was launched in one of the Islands for the use of any reasonably flat area, specifically a "machair", in a bid to promote Rugby Football. Finally, it is safe to speculate that the sense of the second unit "fada" may be followed back to the same source which give us "far" and "further".

In Scotland, whereas Clan Names belong more to the Highlands, surnames based on location occur more frequently in the Lowlands where the town of Moffat is situated. Hence people bearing the name can interpret it as: "One whose ancesters came from Moffat" - and, by reasonable extension, it may be read as: "The settlement in the long valley through which flows the River Annan".

The earliest record of the name is to a Nicholas de Mufet (1232 - possibly earlier) and Thomas Moffet (1296). It certainly prevailed in Southern Scotland and travelled to Cumberland and Northumberland.

It is possibly among the very first surnames of which children become aware beyond those of their family and friends in that they make the early acquaintance of "Little Miss Muffet". Who she was exactly has never been definitely settled although a fairly convincing case can be presented on behalf of Patience, the daughter of a certain Dr. Thomas Muffet (1553-1604) of Scots descent. He was an able physician and entomologist. His interest in silk-worms, flies and spiders was generously acknowledged by his contemporaries and out of which there might very well have sprung the well-known Nursery Rhyme.

The name is fairly evenly distributed across these Islands but with decided concentration in South-West Scotland. In the Directory covering Edinburgh there are over 300 entries under "Moffat" but there is a curious decline with regards Glasgow. As one would expect, the form "Moffett" prevails in Northern Ireland. Otherwise London includes about 50 and the larger centres of population, such as Liverpool and Leicester mention barely a dozen each. In the Local Directories, if one takes in all the variations in spelling, there is a total of about forty. have sprung the well-known Nursery Rhyme.

No doubt the most distinguished bearer of the name was James Moffatt (1870-1944) whose contribution to Bible Studies has hardly ever been surpassed. Older Readers will no doubt recall with amused affection the comic actor Graham Moffatt who was one of the two "lay-abouts" who regularly appeared with that brilliant funnyman, Will Hay (1888-1949).

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 7th April 1997.

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