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The Napiers of Kilmahew

The first known documented reference to a Napier in Scotland is in two charters of Malcolm, Earl of Lennox, who lived at the end of the 13th century. This was John Napier, who was granted, by one of the charters, - "all that quarter lands called Kilmahew lying between Muydugwen and Archerreran." The full extent of these lands cannot be determined exactly at this time, but a "quarter-land" was usually a quarter of the area which could be tilled by an eight-oxen plough in a year, usually taken to be 104 Scots acres, thus a "quarter-land" was about 26 Scots acres (32.5 Imperial acres or 13.26 hectares). The ruins of Kilmahew Castle still stand on the north side of the present village of Cardross, which is four miles from Dumbarton on the Helensburgh road. Dumbarton itself lies 14 miles to the north-west of Glasgow. This John Napier was probably also the person listed in an Inhibition by Robert, Bishop of Glasgow, directed at Malcolm, Earl of Lennox, and his adherents, dated 24 August 1294. The present-day Cardross should not be confused with the Cardross where King Robert I (the Bruce) died in 1329, which is actually where the Dumbarton suburbs of Castlehill and Kirktonhill are today.

Kilmahew takes its name from St Mahew (or Mochta), a companion of St Patrick, who has been adopted as the patron saint of Cardross. A small chapel has existed there, on a piece of land known as Kirkton of Kilmahew, since earliest Christian times. By the mid-15th century the chapel must have been in ruins because it is recorded that it was rebuilt in 1467 by the then Laird of Kilmahew, Duncan Napier, and rededicated on the Sunday after the Ascension of that year by George Lauder, Bishop of Argyll and the Isles. The chapel was not used after the Reformation and again fell into disuse. It was repaired and refurbished in 1955 and reopened and rededicated by Archbishop Donald Campbell of Glasgow (who was formerly Bishop of Argyll and the Isles), again on the Sunday after the Ascension. On that same Sunday in 1997, Lt. Col. John Hawkins Napier III (USAF Ret'd), of Montgomery, Alabama, USA, a direct descendant of Duncan Napier, took part in a service in the chapel to commemorate the 530th anniversary of the original rededication. Colonel John is the Lieutenant to the Chief, i.e. the head, of the Clan Napier in North America.

The 13th century John Napier was probably the person referred to as "Johan le Naper del Counte de Dunbretan" in the Ragman Rolls, the document which records all the Scotsmen who were forced to swear homage to King Edward I of England between the years 1291 and 1296. As well as John Napier of Kilmahew, two other Napiers signed the Ragman Rolls, "Matheu le Naper de Aghalek (del Counte de Forfare)" and "Johane le Naper ---(tenant le Roi du Counte de Pebbles)". This shows that there were other Napier families in Scotland at the end of the 13th century. So far, nobody has shown that they were related to the Kilmahew Napiers. In fact, nothing is known about the Earl of Peebles' man "Johane le Naper" but of the other "Matheu le Naper", it is likely that he lived in a castle or house where Affleck Castle now stands. Affleck Castle is a fine example of a 15th century Scottish tower house, similar to Merchiston Tower, that stands near the hamlet of Monikie, about 8 miles (13 kms) south of Forfar, in the County of Angus. Affleck was the seat of the family of "Auchinleck (often pronounced "Affleck") of that Ilk", who held the land in chief from the Crown. There is a local story that the "Napers" changed their name to "Affleck". This would not be surprising as place names were a common source of surnames in the early days of surnames.

The above John Napier of Kilmahew is probably the same person who is listed as being one of the 26 defenders of Stirling Castle who was forced to surrender to King Edward I of England in 1304, and who is listed as a prisoner in Shrewsbury Castle from 23 August 1304 to Michaelmas 1305, and to whom the King ordered William de Bevercotes, Edward's Chancellor of Scotland, to return his lands on 10 October 1305.

There were 18 Lairds of Kilmahew until the last heir sold the last of the estate in 1820, diminished by having to be sold off to pay gambling and other debts incurred by profligate predecessors. The father of the last Laird emigrated to Virginia, USA. There were Napiers still living in Cardross in the latter half of the 20th century.

The Kilmahew Napiers produced some very eminent men in the field of engineering during the 19th century. One of the most eminent was Robert Napier (1791-1876). Called "The Father of Clyde Shipbuilding", he developed a new steam engine for ships which was so successful that between the years of 1840 and 1865 his firm furnished the entire Cunard fleet with engines. He was partnered in his business by his cousin, David Napier (1790-1869), also an eminent marine engineer. There was another cousin, also confusingly called David Napier (1785-1873), who started an engineering firm in London in 1808. This became the renowned firm of D Napier & Son that was responsible for the design and building of the Napier motor car, the Lion aircraft engine, and many other developments in the field of transport. More information on this company and its achievements can be obtained from the Napier Power Heritage Trust.

The Kilmahew Napiers also produced the ancestor of most of the Napiers presently in the USA. Mungo Napier (c1579-c1633), a Burgess of Dumbarton, went to London c1603. His son, Patrick, became barber (and chirurgeon) to King Charles I, and Patrick's son, also called Patrick, was an apprentice to Dr Alexander Pennycuik, surgeon-general to the Scottish Army crushed by Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650. Although it is not known how Dr Patrick Napier got to America, he was there probably about 1651, but certainly before 1658, practising medicine, together with his brother Valentine. However it is from Dr Patrick that most of the American Napiers are descended. Patrick was not the first, or only, Napier to go to the "Colonies", but he is the one whose descendants are best documented and researched. There is a history of the families of the Southern States of the USA that claims that the first was a George Napier, of Oxford, England, who arrived in the "Colonies" before 1650. It is true that there was a family called Napper/Napier living in Oxford, England, in the early 17th century, who were descended from a branch of the Merchiston Napiers who had gone down to England in Tudor times, but unfortunately, no documentary evidence of the existence of a George Napier in this family has been found. Until such time as it is, we will have to accept that Dr Patrick Napier was probably the earliest.

There are two other branches of the Napier family in Scotland about which something is known, these are the Napiers of Wrychtishousis (Wrightshouses) and the Napiers of Merchiston, both in Edinburgh.

Summary of the Descent of the Kilmahew Napiers
Dr Patrick Napier of Virginia

This information is taken from Col John H Napier III's book Dr Patrick Napier of Virginia. His Ancestors and Some Descendants, to which reference should be made for fuller details. Apart from the first two names on the list, whose relationship to each other is not absolutely certain, it can be taken that a named person is the father of the person below him in the list (Note: fl = flourished, i.e. is known to be alive at that time). It should be noted that the modern spelling of the name Napier is used here. In fact, the name was spelt a number of different ways in the documents of the time, up until the 17th Century, when the modern spelling became more or less universal. The more common variations include Napar, Naper, Napere, Neper, and Nepeir.

John le Nae-Peer
pre 1300

Donald le Nae-Peer
pre 1300

John Napier of Kilmahew
fl 1280 - 1304

John Napier of Kilmahew
fl 1333

Duncan Napier of Kilmahew
pre 1400

John Napier of Kilmahew
fl 1407

John Napier of Kilmahew
fl 1441

Duncan Napier of Kilmahew
fl 1462

Robert Napier of Kilmahew
fl 1497

John Napier of Kilmahew
c1500 - 1548

Patrick Napier of Blackyards
1536 - 1585

Mungo Napier, Burgess of Dumbarton
- went to London c1603
c1579 - c1633

Patrick Napier, Barber to King Charles I
c1608 - 1659

Patrick Napier, Chirurgeon
- went to Virginia before 1658
c1634 - 1669

Although there is some circumstantial evidence to indicate that the Merchiston Napiers are descended from the Kilmahew Napiers, it cannot be proved at this time. There is also another branch of the Napiers, the Napiers of Wrychtishousis (or Wrightshouses) in Edinburgh. Again there is some evidence to indicate that the Wrychtshousis Napiers are also descended from the Kilmahew Napiers, but nothing definite has been proved yet. A Merchiston Napier daughter married a Wrychtishousis Napier in 1513 which might suggest that there might not have been too close a relationship between the two families, although it was not uncommon for first cousins to marry each other. (The Wrychtishousis Napier line died out at the beginning of the 19th century).

For information about the Napiers in America, you will need to visit the Clan Napier in North America page.

© 1998 Charlie Napier,
Morningside, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Last modified:
25 September 2016

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