[Clan Sinclair]
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The Early Sinclairs of Argyll

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 craftman 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 intinerant artificers, patchers of pots and pans, and equated with Scots tinker." Black then quotes part of Robert Burns' poem The Jolly Beggar, which I include more fully:

"When thus the caird address'd her:
My bonie 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* 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 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. The first family is that of Malcolm McNokaird and Ann Crawford, who were "of Stronshiray" in Inveraray & Glenaray parishes. Their first three children (daughters) were: Jonet, christened 17 Apr 1705; Margaret, christened 4 May 1707; and Mary, christened 30 May 1708.

Then Malcolm SINCLAIR and Ann Crawford, "of Stronshiray" had the following two sons christened under the name Sinclair, not McNokaird: Donald Sinclair, christened 7 March 1721; and Patrick Sinclair, christened 25 August 1723.

The coincidence of same names and same locale, with the only variation being the surnames of McNokaird and Sinclair, cannot be quickly dismissed. Indeed, it suggests a definite time period when Malcolm's surname underwent its transformation. (The gaps in birth years of children is explained away by many years when christening records weren't kept and various other losses.)

The second suggestion or `proof' was also found in parish registers and is illustrated in the following: Archibald Sinclair, son of Neil Sinclair, married Janet Reid, sister of John Reid, on 14 November 1720. When Archibald Sinclair and Janet Reid christened their daughter Mary on 13 November 1721, the witnesses were recorded as John Reid and Neil McNokaird. It appears that the father Neil was known interchangeably as both Sinclair and McNokaird.

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.

Donald MCNAKEARD "alias Sinclar" married Kathren Anderson on 8 December 1739 in Kenmore parish, Perth. Six years later, John SINCLAIR, born to Donald SINCLAIR "alias McIncaird" and Katrine Anderson, was christened 7 January 1746 in Kemore. The distinction that Donald was known by both names, first McNakeard [sic] and later by Sinclair, leaves no doubt that the name change did take place.

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 change-over 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 penninsula) came in response to advertisments and demand for labor, and were members of the traditional clan Sinclair whose origins can be found in Caithness, the Orkneys, 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.

From: "Matheson"
Date: Tue, 11 May 1999 12:58:50 -0600

Hi Rory,

I used George F. Black's Surnames of Scotland, Their Origin, Meaning and History as the basis for my article, as I'm sure was obvious. George Fraser Black (1866-1948) held a PhD, and the above book was published in 1946. Surnames of Scotland, of course, has become the most authoritative source for Scottish surnames. This view is held by Sharon L. Krossa, whom I also used as a source. Ms. Krossa is affiliated with Aberdeen University and maintains a website called "Scottish Names 101" at scotnames/scotnames101.shtml

I then used the LDS church's database of Scottish Church Records as a means of sorting and collating information, while I also had available to me on microfilm the original, hand-written parish registers. Through the use of these, I was able to document the transition of the name and "prove" (as far as possible at this point in time) George F. Black's statements regarding Argyll Sinclairs.

Whether they were shinglers or tinklers is not terribly important—what is important is that the Argyll Sinclairs (and those in the Western Isles) had roots in the Clan mac na cearda (gaelic). The Scots form of this name was McNokaird, and from approximately 1685-1750 the use of McNokaird made its transition to the English Sinclair. I believe it's important for Sinclairs who trace their roots back to Argyll to have this information. However, I'm sure that not every single Sinclair in Argyll were McNokairds—some undoubtedly originated in the traditional Sinclair locales.

I agree with you that under the Restoration of the Clans promoted by Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria from 1790-1820, all Sinclairs can unite under the current Clan and Tartan with pride!

I appreciate your interest and your comments.

Karen Matheson

Date: Tue, 11 May 1999 16:22:23 -0400
From: Juli <>
Subject: RE: McNokairds--The Early Sinclairs of Argyll

The research on the McNokairds is sound. I know because I have spent hours rolling microfilm staring at the old hand-written parish records until my eyes hurt. I have spent countless dollars printing out pages from many different Argyll parishes' records. WHY? Because it is important to me to be accurate. Karen and I began researching the McNokairds separately - neither knowing the other was doing so.

When Karen shared with me her findings - as much as I respect her - I did not take a word for it. I went back and rechecked her entries and continue to push for more. I have spent hours on the phone with the District Archivist and others in Argyll, letters to every contact I know or can find connected scholarly with the history of Argyll, bought every book, hunted down every magazine article I can find or entry from Historical Review. Hours.

I am sure for every hour I have put in Karen has put in 2. Karen I applaud you for your diligence in your research and your deep commitment to help other Sinclairs with Argyll roots know their heritage.

I have three of my granny's kilts that she gave me - all various Sinclair tartans and I am proud to wear them as my own.

Most importantly - everybody should check and recheck everything they are ever told. We have been given a great gift from the LDS Church of both their on-line site and the microfilmed parish records. Remember never take the IGI INDEX or the Scots Origin INDEX at their word - get to your local FHC and have fun actually researching your lineage. The Clan and Tartan are the trimmings - rejoice in knowing your ancestors through little snap-shots of their lives. Then follow-up and read everything you can on the local history during the time period you are researching - it puts much into context.

Again- Karen thanks for a great article. Keep up the great work. And John, thanks again for a great site and this chance to "chat" with other Sinclairs.

Juli Anderson
Princeton, NJ USA
But Always Argyll
From: "Neil Sinclair/Peggy Rintoul" <>
Date: Tue, 11 May 1999 18:08:25 -0400

Argyll is a Sinclair homeland unique in its beauty and profound in its mysteries.

I was going to add a bit of electronic applause to Karen, Juli and Rebecca, who are three of the finest researchers I have has occasion to every know and work with. The material on Argyll is accurate from the perspective of first language, secondly geography, and then from known genealogy and in the context of an appreciation of social history. Members should be cautious not to draw conclusions which are simply conjecture from the evidence.

There are unanswered questions and mysteries. Also the original material we have from Argyll is also limited in the sense that it is not always complete, there are gaps and there is a period beyond which it is hard to conclude there will be any original evidence, mostly because it never existed in the first place and many questions and mysteries will continue.

The Argyll Sinclair history and genealogy is unique and singular back to the mid 1600's. Many of the early Sinclairs were descended from the McKokairds in the mid Argyll region around the head of Loch Fyne. There is no evidence at all to suggest that they were or were not connected to the clan in Caithness at the time and if so, exactly how they were. The is solid evidence to being connected by name in any event. Members need to be cautious as to just how the clan system worked and much of the current appreciation and conceptions does come, (as Karen astutely points out), from the romantic revival of the clans in the 1800's which reinvented the clans from a system that had been made unlawful.

Many Sinclairs originally from Argyll do have their roots directly from the McKokairds, but some others which have been located in Argyll in the early 1700's may, or may not, have been directly related to the earliest McKokairds. Like Sinclairs of today, the Sinclairs of 1600-1700 moved around and were not staying neatly within the borders of Caithness. Those with applied mechanical skills or crafts were more mobile. By mid 1700 to 1900 there was a further influx into Argyll of many clan members (Sinclairs among many others), including both Scots and English names in response to migrations departing from Argyll opening up new economic opportunities within the county. Argyll is in the Highlands NW of Glasgow, and the Sinclairs can take pride in the contribution they made through their talents and their hard work to Argyll to this very day.

Forever Argyll, yours aye;

Neil Sinclair, Toronto, P.E.I., Argyll

The Evolution of Clanship in Argyll

Date: Wed, 12 May 1999 10:34:53 -0400
From: Juli <>

For a well written, concise education on the evolution of Clanship in Argyll I highly recommend Eric Cregeen's (late Reader in Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh) article 'The Changing Role of the House of Argyll' in the book Scotland in the Age of Improvement edited by N.T. Phillipson (Reader in History at the University of Edinburgh) and Rosalind Mitchison (Emeritus Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Edinburgh). (pgs 5-23) Mr.. Cregeen covers the political situation in the highlands, the traditional clan structure and land-tenure, the cultural influence of the south and the economic conditions among other areas.

Great reading as are other articles in the book such as 'Law and Society in Eighteenth-Century Scottish Though' by Peter Stein, 'The Government and the Highlands, 1707-1766' by John M. Simpson and 'Education and Society in the Eighteenth Century' by Donald J. Withrington.

Each article lists notes with the reference material for further investigation should you wish to understand more.

Juli Anderson
Princeton, NJ USA
But Always Argyll

Re: Origin of Irish Sinclairs: Sinclair -> Nokaird?

Date: Thu, 19 Sep 2002 14:10:17 -0400
From: "Toni Sinclair" <>

Just to put in my 2 cents worth:

I've been researching the Sinclairs on the little Isle of Islay, Argyllshire for several years. Of all the documents I have found prior to 1749, I've only found one mention of a Sinclair (1732 baptism of an Effie Sinclair. Father's name unreadable). LOTS of McNokairds (various spellings), back to as far as 1541. After 1745, there is no mention of any McNokaird anywhere on the island,but LOTS of Sinclairs. I know this is not conclusive, but I did discuss this with Dr. David Caldwell, Curator of Antiquities, National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh, who could also find no McNokairds on Islay after 1745. He actually mentioned it in his article for the Argyll Colony Plus (Journal of the North Carolina Scottish Heritage Society), vol. 16, #2, July 2002, "The Ilich - People of Islay."

"......There is another Islay family of interest in this context, the MacNocards. Their name is derived from the Gaelic for the son of the ceard, meaning a smith or metalworker, often with the sense of someone who worked in copper and silver rather than iron. There was a Gilchrist McNarkerde in Braid (Kilchoman P.) in 1541 and several tenants with this surname occur in later rentals on various Islay lands, including Gearach in the Parish of Kilchoman (Donald McNokard in 1733 and 1741). It is believed that at a later date MacNokards in Argyll generally adopted the name Sinclair (Book of Islay, p 488 ), and Sinclairs do indeed turn up in Islay rentals of the eighteenth century.

The lands of Braid and Gearach are adjacent to each other, and the former possibly indluded, or was certainly near, Caonis Gall, said to have been the home of the MacEachern smiths (Exchequer Rolls, vol. 17, 555 ). There is also a small valley called the Gleann na Ceardaich (glen of the smiddy)less than a mile to the north. It is possible that the MacNokards were also descended from the MacEachern smiths of the Lords of the Isles. It is worth pointing out that the tenants of Gearach in 1733 included Donald McNodard, Archibald McKecheran and Donald Smith, perhaps all distantly related.(Cawdor Papers, Cawdor Castle Estate Office, Bundle 655, Rental of Islay for 1631)".....

I've tried for ages to connect one tenant list with the name of McNokaird to the later tenant list naming Sinclair with the same first name. No luck. Some lists were in deplorable, unreadable condition (Sandy and I actually received permission from the Countess of Cawdor to read all the documents in bundle 655), and there were many gaps, because leases often ran for several years, and it wasn't necessary to list the tenants each year.

I've narrowed the gap, I THINK! I am quite sure that the grandfather of Archibald Sinclair, founder of the Celtic Press in Glasgow, was Archibald McNokaird, mentioned in the Stent Book of 1745. since the younger man was in publishing, and a fairly prominent businessman in the mid-1800s, I'm trying to find an autobiography or biography about him. Apparently there is one in a back issue of a magazine in Edinburgh. I've written several time to purchase it, with no response. I've finally asked a friend near Edinburgh to go to the shop to purchase it for me. I will keep you all posted.

Cheers, Toni

Last changed: $Date: 2002/11/15 14:19:46 $ [Clan Sinclair]