The name Urquhart is derived from a place name, Airchart, which is first recorded in an early life of the great Celtic saint, Columba. Today there is a Castle Urquhart on the banks of Loch Ness, and parishes of the same name in Elgin and the Black Isle. The meaning of the word itself has been variously translated from the Gaelic, including ‘woodside’, or ‘by a rowan wood’, or ‘fort on a knoll’. One legend associated with Castle Urquhart concerns Conachar of the royal house of Ulster, who is said to have come to Scotland to fight for Malcolm III and was rewarded with the castle. Conachar was out hunting with his faithful hound when they were attacked by a massive and savage wild boar. Conachar was on the point of being gored when his dog attacked the beast, and although it died in the effort, it saved his master. This tale of a noble rescue from death in a hunting accident is common throughout Celtic history, but it is offered by some as an explanation of the boars’ heads and the hounds which appear on the arms of the Urquhart chiefs.
Willliam de Urchard is said to have defended the Moote of Cromarty against supporters of the English Crown in the time of William Wallace. The Urquharts were hereditary sheriffs of Cromarty from the reign of David II. In the early sixteenth century, Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty is said to have sired twenty-five sons, seven of whom were killed at the Battle of Pinkie in 1547. The eldest son was Alexander, one of whose younger sons, John Urquhart, commonly known as the Tutor of Cromarty, was guardian of his grand-nephew,Thomas, who was knighted by James VI in Edinburgh in 1617.
His son, Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromartie, was a student at Kings College in Aberdeen at the age of eleven. By the age of thirty he had become a scholar, writer of note and a soldier, and was knighted by Charles I in 1641. After the king’s defeat in the civil war he travelled on the Continent and became familiar with the works of the French poet, Rabelais. His translation of Rabelais’ work is still considered to be a masterpiece. Literary undertakings did not prevent his rejoining the royalist army, and he fought at the Battle of Worcester in 1651 where he was taken prisoner. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and while there published his family tree, which traced the origins of the Urquhart family to Adam and Eve. This may have been true, but it is doubtful whether Urquhart could have submitted appropriate proofs to satisfy the rigours of the present day Court of the Lord Lyon. When released, he returned to the Continent, where he died in 1660, allegedly from laughter while celebrating the Restoration.
Captain John Urquhart of Craigston, born in 1696, was ultimately a man of great wealth, but the origins of his fortune were shrouded in mystery. He was, however, called ‘the pirate’ by his family. He had been recruited into the Spanish navy, and probably amassed his fortune from the prize money paid for captured enemy vessels. He narrowly escaped death at the Battle of Sheriffmuir, fighting for the Jacobite cause. The Urquharts of Craigston rose to such social eminence that they were able to secure the services of the great Henry Raeburn to paint family portraits. Adam, son of William Urquhart of Craigston, became sheriff of Wigton. Craigston Castle in still in family hands.
Colonel James Urquhart rose for the ‘Old Pretender’ in 1715, and served in the army of the Earl of Mar at Perth. In the last years of his life, he was the principal Jacobite agent in Scotland. With his death in 1741 the chiefship passed to his cousin, William Urquhart of Meldrum, a cautious Jacobite who avoided the disaster at Culloden. His cousin, Adam Urquhart of Blyth was more open in his loyalties and was a member of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s court-in-exile at Rome. The last of this line, Major Beauchamp Urquhart, was killed in the Sudan at the Battle of Atbara in 1898.
In 1959, a descendant of the Urquharts of Braelangswell, whose family had emigrated to America in the eighteenth century, established his right to be chief of Clan Urquhart. The title of ‘Urquhart of Urquhart’ is now held by Wilkins Urquhart’s son, Kenneth Trist Urquhart, recognised as the twenty-sixth chief of the clan. His seat in Scotland is now established at the ancient Urquhart stronghold of Castle Craig on the southern coast of the Cromarty Firth which was gifted to his father by Major Iain Shaw of Tordarroch as a unique symbol of amity between two great Highland names.