mcwhorter lives and times
 McWhorter Lives and Times 

How did we get to be McWhorters?

The origin of the name McWhorter (or any of its spelling variants) is said to be MacChruitter by Dr. George F. Black in his 1946 book, “The Surnames of Scotland.” If you say it aloud several times, you can hear the connection.

Black, as transcribed by Alan D. McWhirter, wrote:

    MacChruitter: From the occupation of profession of cruiteir, or harper, often hereditary in the Highlands in past times. In 1346, King David II granted a charter of the land of Dalelachane in the earldom of Carrick to Patrick, son of the late Michael, harper of Carrick (Patricio filio quondam Michaelis Cithariste de Carryk). In 1385 we find this same Patrick referred to by the Gaelick form of his name. In this year Duncan M’Churteer, son and heir of the late Patick M’Churteer, alienated to Sir Thomas Kenedy, lord of Dalmortoun, the whole land of Dalelachane (Laing, 40, 69).

Chruit, cithar, crwth, guitar, all refer to a stringed instrument like the one Mr. Pointy-head is shown playing in the stone relief in the picture.


Discovering the pointy-headed guy

In 2003, the McWh*rter Clan gathered in Ayrshire, for a weekend of song and story organized by a number of people who had come to know each other through Alan McWhirter’s genealogy website. (See my links page, and visit Alan’s website for an account of the weekend. It  is so thorough I don’t have to give a complete report here on this site.)

On the bus en route to Blairquhan (pronounced blare-whon), we read an account of the history of the site upon which the stately country home now stands.

Sir James Hunter Blair, now laird of the castle, says the original tower keep was built by the McWhirters in 1346. It was enlarged in 1573, but had fallen into ruins by the time the Hunter Blairs came into possession of it. The present building was built between 1820 and 1824 by David Hunter Blair, 3rd Baronet.

The kitchen courtyard of the 19th century house incorporates decorative stonework from the 16th century building. Among the beautiful ancient bas-relief sculptures is a little pointy-headed guy with his lute. There’s no reference to it in the published descriptions of the house. He must have seemed to recent visitors like just another of the curious figures decorating the walls.

It astonished me to find the ancient chruiter represented here, and brought all the threads of the old story together. Though he may be but a legend, it is a legend I like, and I’ve decided to believe it.

Why would King David award a large estate to a musician?

Music may not have been the most important part of the harper’s responsibilities. The chruit was played by the bard, who carried the oral history of a clan, reciting it to the tones of the instrument.

As in many places in the Middle Ages, the king was able to retain his power only by fighting and defeating rival lords. The chruitter, with his ability to weave a spell with his words, would address the troops, stirring them into a proud force of warriors ready to follow the king. The skills of his bard could mean the difference between success and failure on the battlefield. In triumph, a king could reward the harper with new estates.

On the other hand, Henry George Farmer, in his book, “A History of Music in Scotland,” is quoted by Eoghan Og mac Labhrainn (, as saying that in the Celtic period in Scotland…

    …the ollamh, or "learned man," who specialized in poetry, song, and literature, was a “file.”  A file would compose verse as well as music, and perform his compositions, usually to the accompaniment of a cruit (rote1) or clairseach (three-cornered harp)...The ollamh class demanded a regular stipend and land grants, a practice which continued for centuries in Scotland.

Calling the file a “bard’ would have been something of an insult. Farmer says the bard performed for the common man. He cites the Irish Book of Rights as saying, "It is not the right of a bard, but the right of a file, to know each king and his right." 

In the Anglo-Norman times of King David II, Farmer goes on to say, "The King's Harper was . . . a privileged artist who sang and played in the privy chamber.” Other entertainers worked under the supervision of the King’s Harper, usually performing for the lower echelons of the household.   


Inspirational speaker or boss musician, the chruitter was something of a big shot. And to tie this history lesson to the apparent verbal, not so musical, talent of the McWhorters I know, it was his poetic skills that we may have inherited.


McWhorter bards today

Norris McWhirter, who with his brother Ross launched the “Guinness Book of Word Records,” was the keynote speaker at our first clan reunion dinner together. (Could “keynote” come from the long-ago musical accompaniment of a storyteller?) Norris spoke of the origin of the family name, and went on to talk about McWhirters who had become writers in our family’s past.


I thought about my grandfather, father and uncle, who liked nothing more than a chance to tell a good story. My brother, John McWhorter, at the time a radio journalist for NPR and now blogging about his adventures teaching yoga in China. And here I am, writing about these pieces of our family history.

1. More than you ever wanted to know about a rote or chruit:
Rote (The Oxford English Dictionary): Celtic word recorded by Venantius Fortunatus (6th cent.) as chrotta (see "crowd") - a medieval musical instrument, probably of the violin class.
Crowd: (Welsh crwth, Gaelic cruit) - An ancient Celtic musical instrument of the viol class, having in early times three strings, but in its later form six, four of whick were played with a bow and two by twithcing with the fingers; an early form of the fiddle.
Used in 1310, "there nis fiele ne croth that such murthes maketh." Used by Scott, 1820, in Ivanhoe, "Saxon minstrels and Welsh bards.. extracting mis-tuned dirges from their harps, crowds and rotes."

Last updated 10/15/2006      Copyright© 2006 by Karen McWhorter Wilhelm