Competing theories on the “How” of Cromar

An enduring part of the family mythology and the central concern of this exploration is the manner by which the Cromar family came to be the Cromars. Evidently, sometime around the end of the 17th Century, the escape of some variety of persecution—religious, or perhaps political or legal, the story would shift sometimes—was important enough to a certain pair of MacDonald brothers that they were willing to cover their tracks, erase their identity, invent a new one, and never look back. These guys did not want to be found. We can say they did an absolutely brilliant job. I have not been able to sleuth this connection. The Cromars, or whoever we are, have never been ones to do things halfway. Why do we have to be so damn thorough?

These MacDonald fellows ditched MacDonald and appropriated the name of a place where they had taken up residence in their refugee journey across the Highlands. According to our undocumented family theory, that place was Cromarty.

Scotia Depicta – Cromarty | Plate XXXIV/b – John Claude Nattes made drawings of suitable scenes on the spot; etchings are by James Fittler. 1804 | Collection of the National Museum of Scotland | Wikimedia, Public domain

On a map of Scotland, follow the straight arrow of Loch Ness up from southwest to northeast, past Inverness, and you find it aimed at Cromarty. Cromarty is an attractive, compact seaport town at the very tip of a peninsula that defines Cromarty Firth. It is sheltered from the ravages of the North Sea by a rise toward the east called the Sutors of Cromarty. All I can gather about the etymology of the term sutor is that it’s an ancient reference to a shoemaker. The thought of a gang of of cobblers hanging out at the end of the Firth holding back the winds may or may not be the image the namers of this place had in mind.

Ordnance Survey, Quarter inch to the mile, 1st Edition. Outline Edition Revised: 1894 Published: 1902 | Location of Cromarty indicated by blue dot | National Library of Scotland CC-BY

Cromarty is an ancient town. It went by Crumbathyn in the 13th Century, and it was the county seat of the historic, non-contiguous county of Cromartyshire (Gaelic: Siorrachd Chromba) until 1890, when that county was absorbed into Ross and Cromarty. In 1975, the name Cromarty lost its status as a regional moniker with the creation of the Highland council area. Nevertheless, with Cromarty Castle, Cromarty House, and so forth, there’s no shortage of Cromarty identity in the area.

Detail from 1892 map of Scotland, showing Cromartyshire in purple and Ross-shire in green | Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA

In the Scots Gàidhlig spoken in the Highlands, the town’s name is Cromba, combining the Gaelic terms crom for crooked and bati for bay—Crooked Bay, an apt description of Cromarty Firth. Another theory combines crom with àrd for height, referencing the Sutors, and meaning Bend Between the Heights, a very appropriate characterization of the landscape. It’s easy to see how the Gaelic can corrupt into English pronunciation and spelling out of either combination.

It’s a pleasing enough theory to situate our erstwhile MacDonald brothers in their new namesake of Cromarty, until you study the geographic distribution of the Cromar surname. Historical settlement patterns suggest we can ignore a Cromar presence in Norfolk, England, of the name Crowmere as a parallel but etymologically distinct Anglo-Saxon evolution (crow referencing crows, mere referencing a lake, hence “lake of the crows.”). With that unlikely link ruled out, we find the purely Insular Celtic derived name Cromar overwhelmingly appearing not near Cromarty, but in Aberdeenshire, far away to the west-south-west.

We described the Howe of Cromar in an earlier post, but we can compare it as an utterly distinct agrarian landscape, economy, and culture to the nautical life of Cromarty. Cromar is nestled in the foothills of the Cairngorms, but is properly described as a Highland version of a Lowland community. The Gaelic is Crò Mhàrr. The term crò can refer to a circle or an enclosure, and is associated with the shelter of sheep, all accurate characterizations for the oval valley. Mhàrr or Màrr is less certain, etymologically. Marr is currently a committee area, one of six in the council area of Aberdeenshire, and takes its name from Mar, a Medieval mormaerdom later administered by the Earl of Mar. Marr possibly came from Old Norse via Viking conquests, a term referencing the sea, a marsh, or a fen, but I find that etymology to be a bit of a stretch. Most likely are these explainers from a list of place-names collected by Iain Mac an Tailleir and hosted by the Scottish Parliament website:

Cromar (Aberdeen), Crò Mhàrr.
“The enclosure of Mar”. Braes of Cromar is Bràigh Crò Mhàrr and Bruthaichean Crò Mhàrr.

Mac an Tailleir, p 34

Mar (Aberdeen), Màrr.
This may be from a Brythonic personal name. The divisions of the area are Braemar or Bràigh Mhàrr, “the upland of Mar”, Cromar or Crò Mhàrr, “the enclosure of Mar”, and Midmar or Mic Mhàrr, which may be the “the bog of Mar”. Mar Lodge is An Dail Mór, “the big haugh”, and the place used to be known in English as Dalmore. A native of Mar is a Màrnach from which comes the surname Marnoch.

Mac an Tailleir, p 85

Brythonic, by the way, refers to a different language tradition than the Goidelic (Gaelic), but both are paired as part of the Insular Celtic language family, which is why I’ve discounted an Anglo-Saxon origin altogether.

Phonetically, Cromarty and Cromar have a lot in common, but etymologically they are clearly worlds away. And in a pre-industrial era characterized by insular clan culture, it seems unlikely that there was much exchange between the two locales. So, I’m skeptical about a theory that has the MacDonald brothers escaping from somewhere, arriving in Cromarty, taking that as a toponymic surname, and migrating to the Howe of Cromar. The two places are only separated by a 65 miles as the crow flies, but it’s an arduous journey against the grain of the mountainous terrain, so it’s more likely a much longer lowland trek, or even possibly a naval journey by way of Aberdeen. Skepticism aside, there is one odd fact that might support the theory: Peter Cromar (1690-1770), my sixth great-grandfather, was baptized in Clatt, some 25 miles or so due north of Aboyne in the Howe. Could this represent some migratory moment in the early history of the Cromar name?

A modern walking journey from Cromarty to Aboyne by way of Clatt | Image capture using Google Maps

A cultural distinction between variants on the name Cromar and their associations with various clans might also yield a clue among these competing origin theories. Common alternates to Cromar include but are not limited to Cromer, Crombie, Crummier, Creamer, Cromarty, Crom, and Crum. Clan membership is not distinguished exclusively by surname, though clans do derive out of powerful family names which evolved into clan names. Instead, many surnames, know as septs, claimed loyalty to a clan chief. So how do some of these names associate as septs?

  • Cromar is a sept of Clan Farquharson, whose small sphere of influence includes a portion of Aberdeenshire intersecting the Mars: Braemar, Cromar, and Midmar, from east to west. Clan seat is Invercauld in Braemar.
  • Cromartie, Cromartey, and Cromartiey are septs of Clan MacKenzie, whose octopus-like geography extends from east to west coast in the northern Highlands. Cromarty is located in Clan Mackenzie territory. Clan seat is Castle Leod near Achterneed.
  • Crow, Crowe, and Croy, are septs of Clan Ross, just north of Clan MacKenzie and containing the northern peninsula and coast defining Cromarty Firth. Clan historic seat is Balnagowan Castle near Kildary.
  • Crom, Cromb, Crum, and Crombie are, interestingly, septs of Clan MacDonald, who hold many non-contiguous territories in the western Highlands and Islands, including the secluded valley of Glencoe. Clan historic seat is the ruin of Finlaggan Castle on Islay, the power center for the Lord of the Isles.

To see more about these clan locations visit this Interactive map of Scottish Clans at Lochcarron of Scotland

What can all of this research into etymology and geography tell us about my family’s traditional theory? Let’s hypothesize:

  • The theory is bunk, and the surname Cromar simply and organically evolved toponymically out of the Howe. Perhaps the theory developed to explain away poor record-keeping or inflate someone’s ego.
  • The theory is true, and some MacDonald refugees fleeing persecution, possibly from the Massacre at Glencoe (as discussed in an earlier post), arrived first in Cromarty, taking their name therefrom, and later migrated to the Howe at Cromar. Peter Cromar’s baptism record could be a breadcrumb that suggests a possible route of migration.
  • The theory is partially true, but contains the following variations:
    • The MacDonalds fled Glencoe, but went directly to the Howe of Cromar, not Cromarty. Given the possible escape routes out of Glencoe, this seems plausible and may be the topic of a future post.
    • The MacDonalds fled Glencoe, but their names were not MacDonald: they were a sept named Crom, Crum or the like, and conveniently bent their identity to fit either Cromarty or Cromar. If they arrived in Cromarty, for example, they might have taken on the name Cromar to suggest they came from Aberdeenshire and not Glencoe to cover their tracks.

The key to this mystery remains unfound, but these are the leads.

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