The Clan Napier and the name of Napier

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Although Clan Napier is one of the smaller clans of Scotland, the name Napier is one of the oldest in the country. Clan Napier has no known septs or dependent names. The name Napier is recorded in Scotland in documents dated before 1300, however, the present spelling only came into common usage in the late 17th century. Up until that time, the most common spelling of our name was Naper, but was also spelt Naeper, Naiper, Napair, Napeir, Napeire, Naper, Napir, Napper, Neaper, Neiper, Nepar, Nepair, Nepeir, Neper, Nepere, Neppar, Nepper, and Naperus.

People bearing the name Napier (or something very similar) existed in England (and possibly in France) prior to the date generally attributed to the beginnings of the Napier families in Scotland. An "Oinus Naperius" is recorded in 1140, a "Peter Napier" in 1148, a "Ralph (le) Naper" or "le Napier" in 1167-71, a "Radnessus le Naper" in 1168, a "Johannes le Naper" in 1239, a "Reginald le Nappere" in 1225, a "Walter de la Naperye" in 1248, and many others in various counties of England. There is evidence that a "Bartholomeus Napare" who had one dapple-grey pack-horse, was in the army of King Edward I of England during his campaign in Scotland in 1298, and specifically at the Battle of Falkirk. He must have been English. However, there is not, as far as is known, any connection between the early English Napiers and the Scottish Napiers. There is no reason why two completely separate families of the same name should spring up in different parts of the country. Nor is there any reason why the names should not have different derivations. The existing evidence of the name Napier in England certainly gives credence to the derivation usually given in existing dictionaries of surnames, namely the "napery" theory. Even the eminent family historian, Mark Napier, writing in his book The Partition of the Lennox, published in 1835, supports this derivation theory for the English Napiers. However, this does not mean that the Scottish name of Napier is necessarily derived from the same source. Why should the derivation of the Scottish Napier name not be different? Why should we Scottish Napiers not believe in the "nae peer" derivation?

The "napery" theory goes something like this. The Latin word for a napkin or a cloth is "mappa" which became "nappe" in Old French (or sometimes just "nape"), and which itself is defined as a tablecloth in a modern French dictionary. The 1993 edition of the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines "napery" as (1) linen used for various household purposes, especially table linen; (2) The charge or custody of the royal linen; the position or office of naperer (obsolete Middle English, late 15th -early 17th centuries); (3) a storeroom for linen (early 19th century). It also defines a "naperer" as "a person in charge of table linen in a royal or manor house (Historical, late Middle English)". It is interesting to note, in passing, that "naperer" is not mentioned in the New English Dictionary before 1880.

Sur (or additional) names did not really come into use until about the 12th century. On a charter granted by King Duncan to St Cuthbert in 1094, no surnames appear. The king and witnesses made their marks (crosses) and the scribe added the names above them. Even in a charter granted during the reign of David I (1124-53) no surnames as such appear but the beginnings of surnames can be detected; " William of Copeland" and "Adam the Steward" which developed into "William Copeland" and "Adam Stewart". This demonstrates two sources of surnames, place names and occupations or offices. There are three other sources to which surnames can be allocated, some of them overlapping: surnames of relationship (such as patronymics); surnames derived from nicknames, personal traits or characteristics; and divergent surnames derived from plants, flowers, animals, birds, medieval pageantry and religious festivals (such as Mustard, Primrose, Lamb, Swan, Herald, Prophet, and Bishop).

There is no denying that some surnames are derived from occupations or positions (offices) within a royal or lordly household. A Dictionary of Family Names of the UK (Lower, 1860), Our English Surnames, Their Sources and Significances (Bardsley 1873), and The Story of Surnames (Bowman 1931) all tell the same story, namely that because forks were unknown in medieval times, fingers were used and the services of the "Ewer" and the "Napper" were indispensable. The "Ewer" brought water in a bowl or ewer for the diner to wash his fingers and the "Napper" handed the diner the napkin or cloth on which to wipe his fingers. Bowman says "To these old names the present-day Ewers, Nappers and Napiers owe their surnames". A History of Surnames (Ewen 1931), The Origin of English Surnames (Reaney 1967), and A Dictionary of Surnames (Hanks and Hodges 1988) all tell a slightly different story, that our name comes from the office of keeper of the linen (napery) in a household. The use of the word "le" in the name, as in "Johannes le Naper" could be taken to mean "John the Naperer" if one believes this derivation.

There is no doubt that such an office existed both in the early English and Scottish royal courts. In the Scottish Exchequer Rolls (records of the income and expenditure of the Scottish royal court and household) which exist from 1264 to 1600, payments to persons holding such an office are recorded. In Volume I of the Exchequer Rolls (1264-1359) the index indicates that for "Naperer" one should look up "Mappor" and "Mapper". There are two references, one in 1266 for payment for the guardianship and relief of one "Robert Mappor" (no indication of who or what he was), and in 1392 is reported payment of a legacy of ten shillings from Queen Elizabeth (second wife of Robert the Bruce) to "Willelmo de mappariis" (translated as William Mapper, but could it also be translated as "William of the Linen"?). There is nothing, apart from perhaps the surname and its possible connection to the Latin "mappa", to indicate that either of these persons was connected with the royal linen. It is not until 1492 that a Keeper of the Royal Linen is named, one Alexander Stevenson. Incidentally, one "Johannis Naper, janitoris" (a doorman) who is to be paid ten pounds annually, is named in the same paragraph.

The argument that the name Napier is derived from the office of Keeper of the Linen in a royal or lordly household is really quite convincing. In medieval times, positions at court generally went to nobility and members of noble families, and junior positions would more than likely go to the younger sons and daughters of nobles. A tradition which is carried on even to this day. But if this was the case with regard to the Napiers, why was it necessary to invent another story? Having a position at court, or as a member of the royal household, was something to be proud of and not to be ashamed of and hidden. After all, did not the Royal House of Stewart all start with Walter, who was created Lord High Steward of Scotland, in 1158?

Suppose a son of one of the Earls of Lennox in the 12th century, was given the position of "Napper" (napkin bearer) or "Keeper of the Linen" in the royal household, it is quite possible that he might call himself "Lennox le Napper", or something similar, which in time could have become just Lennox Naper and eventually just Naper. It is reported that early Napiers did call themselves Lennox alias Napier (see below). It is as good a theory as any other one.

In a way, this would tie in with the other postulated derivation of our name, and the almost undoubted descent of the Napiers from the ancient celtic earldom of Lennox, which is shown heraldically by the close similarity between the Lennox arms and the [Merchiston] Napier arms.

In 1625, Sir Archibald Napier of Merchiston, son of John of Logarithms, and who became the first Lord Napier, presented an affidavit to the College of Heralds in London to confirm that certain Napiers who had moved to England in earlier times, were descended from the same branch of the family as he was, namely the Napiers of Merchiston. The affidavit has the following introduction:

The original certificate was in the hands of Sir Robert Napier of Luton; when his line became extinct it came into the possession of Sir Nathaniel Napier of Crichel in Dorset, and was later burnt in a fire there. Fortunately it had been copied by other members of the Napier family, but there may of course be slight copiest errors; but probably only in Christian names here and there. Its original title on the folder was - The genealogy of the noble and ancient earls of Lennox, out of which descended Napier of Merchiston in the realm of Scotland, Sir Robert Napier of Luton Hoo, Co. Bedford, Knt. and Bt., Sir Nathaniel Napier of Middlemarsh Hall, Co. Dorset, Knt. And Bart., Edward Napier of Hollywell, Co. Oxenford and many other families of that name being houses of good repute.

A copy of this affidavit was kindly furnished by our Chief, The Lord Napier and Ettrick.

There is one more piece of evidence to support the "Nae Peer" derivation. That is the Great Vowel Shift which occurred in the English Language in the 15th and 16th centuries. This was prepared by Lt. Col. (now Brig. Gen.) John H Napier III, Lieutenant to the Chief, Clan Napier in North America, and presented in the Spring 1997 issue of Sans Tache, the newsletter of that society:

To quote The Encyclopedia Brittanica (1955 Edition, Volume 8, page 562) "The most important change distinguishing the pronunciation of modern from Middle English is the Great Vowel Shift which took place in the 15th and 16th centuries and modified the entire vowel harmony of the language". There seems to be no one explanation for why it occurred, but it may help to explain the change in the spelling of our name, beginning in the 16th century, from Naper to Napier.

A few years ago I [JHN III] got into an epistolary argument with a California bookseller specializing in Scottish titles, who, for some unknown reason took strong exception to our "Lennox Legend" - "Tha hast nae peer". He insisted that because our ancestor, the first John Napier of Kilmahew, was listed in the Ragman Roll of 1296 in French as "Johan le Naper", the article "le", or "the", proved that he was the Naperer (but note the extra syllable "-er") or keeper of the royal linen. I tried to refute his argument by getting copies of all early documents mentioning the Napiers. Many were in Latin ("Johanne Naper") which was no help since there is no article in Latin grammar! However, the first citation I saw in English (c. 1343) listed "Duncan Naper" without the article "the". The only other references with "le" were in French in 1304 and 1305, when the first John Napier of Kilmahew was listed as one of the heroic defenders of Stirling Castle, taken prisoner to London and fined three years' rent of his estates.

My collection evolved into a Source List that Charlie Napier of Morningside, Edinburgh, and I compiled and sent to leading depositories in the UK and USA that already hold my book Dr Patrick Napier; His Ancestors and Some Descendants, as a supplement to it. In Appendix II [of the Source List] Charlie mulled over the different spellings of our name and found the first insertion of the letter "i" in a document of 5 September 1531 ("honorabile viro Joanni Napeir de Kilmahew"). In about 1620 began the modern accepted spelling of "Napier". Charlie couldn't account for the change, but recently in re-reading his speculations, I remembered suddenly The Great Vowel Shift and began more research. All the sounds of English vowels and diphthongs changed. Of particular interest to us is that medieval "close |o" was long, rather than short as is the single "e" ("eh") or unvocalized ("uh") today. To preserve its value, the "close |o" had to be re-spelled as "ee" , as in "see" and "keen", or "ie", due partly to the French influence, as in "field" or Napier! So, medieval "Naper" and modern "Napier" sounded exactly the same - nae-peer!

Remember that there was no standardized spelling (or orthography) in English until Dr Samuel Johnson's dictionary in Great Britain in 1755 and Noah Webster's American dictionary in 1828. John Napier of logarithms fame (1515-1617), "Marvellous Merchiston", wrote his name with perfect indifference as Nepair, Naipper, Naper, Napper, Napeir, and Napare. Significantly, as his fame spread to Europe after publication of his Playne Discovery of the Whole Revelation of St John in 1594, 20 years before his Logarithms, German scientists and divines referred to him as "a Scottish gentleman named 'Peerless'", and on the title page of the French translation he is called "Jean Napeir (NOMPAREIL), Sieur de Merchiston".

Let's give our favorite family author, Priscilla Napier, the last word: "If the Napiers were Naperers, why should they have pretended otherwise, in an age of vain glory, when personal attendance on a king was the sure way to fame and fortune? Who can know the truth? But as long as any of them could remember the Napiers have been Ne parium, Ne par, Unequalled....". Well put!

Well, there are the two stories about the derivation of our name. "You pays your money and takes your choice." At the end of the day does it really matter what the derivation of our name was. What matters, surely, is the friendship and fellowship that comes from being able to say that we who bear the name Napier, or are descended from a Napier, belong to the great, extended, world-wide family of Napier. The Clan Napier is not the biggest of the Scottish clans, but it has produced a lot of notable people and we can be justifiably proud of belonging to it.

A word of warning. Beware of mistakes in books. Do not believe everything you read. Some weird and wonderful stories have appeared in print about the derivation of our name. Clifford Stanley Sims, in his book Origin and Signification of Scottish Surnames (Albany, NY, 1862) quotes more or less the same story as Sir Archibald except that the king is David II, the year is 1344, and the lands granted to Duncan Na Peer were Gosfield in Fife. All wrong of course! Hanks and Hodges in A Dictionary of Scottish Surnames (OUP 1988) state that "An extensive Scottish family called Napier, who once held the earldom of Lennox,......". Wrong again! David Dorward in his pocket reference book Scottish Surnames (Harper Collins, 1995) states "The Napiers were at one time earls of Lennox" (wrong!) and then "a famous branch of the family produced John Napier (1550-1617) the mathematician and engineer who invented logarithms" (correct!) followed by "Another branch became Lords of Napier and Ettrick in 1627 with their seat at Thirlestane Castle." Wrong, wrong, wrong !!! The second edition of the Penguin Dictionary of Surnames (Basil Cottle) says "A family motto is N'a pier 'has no equal'". We know better however. To borrow a phrase from that well known American TV series, Hill Street Blues, "Let's be careful out there" especially when we get into the minefield of historical research.


© Charlie Napier,
Morningside, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Last modified:
31 October 2015

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