“NOTES ON THE BLACKS AND McCURDYS OF THE GLENS AND RATHLIN”. Brian S. Turner

An apparently simple family name like Black can present quite a problem of identification. Its very simplicity makes it universal as a descriptive name and even in our small country it can come to us from several sources. In England and Scotland the name can derive from the Old English word “blaec” or “blac” meaning black, or from Old English “bla`c” meaning bright or white.1 This is a genuine case of ‘Black being White’.

In the matter of surname origin it is always advisable to remember the possibility of exceptions to the general rule which can only be traced by reference to individual family history. Subject to that caution the historical references to the Blacks of the Glens seem to imply a connection with highland Scotland.

In the ‘Census’ of 1659 the name is not mentioned commonly in Glenarm barony, where it is now numerous, yet ten Blacks are recorded in Dunluce, Carey and Kilconway, which are listed together. 2 Ten years later the 1669 Hearth Money Roll records nine heads of family called Black in the Glens and Rathlin. Two of them are in Rathlin, two about Ballycastle,‘ and five in the parish of Tickmacrevan (Glencloy and Glenarm). At this time also the name is widely but thinly distributed throughout the rest of County Antrim with thirty individuals appearing in eighteen parishes. Judging by their Christian names and the predominant surnames of those amongst whom they appear, the Blacks of the Glens recorded in this Roll generally seem to be Gaelic Scots in origin.3

It In relevant to note the consistent claim of the Lamonts of southern Argyll that the Blacks are part of their clan. This relates, not so much to evidence of a direct change of name from Lamont to Black, although there are also such claims, but to the traditional connection to the clan Lamont of a family called ‘MacGiolla Dhuibh’ — ‘son of the black lad’ , which was anglicized as Black. This name has occurred in various parts of the western and southern Highlands of Scotland in several anglicized forma, and its bearers believed themselves to be Lamonts although not always living under their influence. Writing of the family in Perthshire in 1661 Sir James Lamont in his ‘Declaration of the true extraction of the MacIldowies alias Lamont’ says that “all the Macilldowies are my true native kindly people and kinsmen”.4 In Argyllshire the name has been much shortened to the form ‘Huie’ and this has also been anglicized ‘Black’.5 Both Huie and Black are fairly common in Campbelltown.6 Also among the several forms of the name in English are MacIlghuie and MacGillewie. A mid sixteenth century lnverness burgess of the name is also recorded as ‘McIlleve’.7

Remembering these Scots people we can now return to Antrim. Black is regarded as being one of the oldest names on Rathlin and our seventeenth century sources record it there under that form. This is after at least three massacres on the island in 1557, 1575 and 1642 which are supposed to have cleared its population.8 But traditionally the connection of the Blacks with the island goes back well before these comparatively recent occurrences. Although the name has long been anglicized there is some evidence to identify it with ‘Mac Giolla Dhuibh’. Rathlin’s history has given it many stories of Scots invasion. One of these stories which may or may not be modern, but which is represented as happening before the arrival of Robert Bruce in 1306, tells of the defeat of the invaders by the Rathlin men under the leadership of Turlough MacIlieve, whose name in English is given as Charles Black.9 Monsignor James O Laverty, writing in the late nineteenth century, recorded that the Rathlin Blacks of his time said that their name was ‘Maelduv’, which looks like a contraction of the Gaelic form.10

The old Rathlin Blacks therefore seem to be identified with the family of ‘Mac Giolla Dhuibh’ found in various parts of the west and south Highlands. This family had a strong connection with the clan Lamont although its precise nature is not known. They may have been broken or landless people forced at an early period to make their way in places as far apart as Perthshire and Rathlin and other parts of the Antrim coast. So far I have not been able to detect any evidence for a difference in origin between the Blacks on Rathlin and those in the adjacent Glens.11The present distribution of the Blacks in the Glens shows their occurrence from the west end of Rathlin in the north to Glenarm in the south. Those in Rathlin and the parish of Culfeightrin have declined in numbers while those in Lower Glenarm barony have increased. Within the inner Glens, Glenariff is clearly picked out as the present home of the Blacks.11 Further research may well reveal more information about the connections and fortunes of the family. However at present, given the probable Gaelic origin of most of the seventeenth century representatives, including those in Glencloy. I think it likely that most of the Blacks are representatives of the mysterious West- Highland family of ‘Mac Giolla Dhuibh’.

McCurdy is well known as a Rathlin name and has long been the most common name in the island, holding that position despite the great decline in population since 1800.12 People of the name have also been long time residents along the mainland coast of north Antrim. The Hearth Money Roll of 1669 shows two families in Rathlin,but there are five in Culfeightrin and many more westwards towards Portrush.

A search for the derivation of this name leads towards Arran and Bute in the Firth of Clyde. There are other well established Scottish names in north-east Antrim which may relate more to Arran and Bute than to Argyllshire, and this could suggest a possible connection with the Stewart family, principally of Ballintoy, who settled in north Antrim in the mid sixteenth century after the loss, due to rebellion, of their extensive lands in Bute. Be that as it may, in recent times McCurdy in Arran has been widely changed to Currie, e.g. ‘Mr. James Currie or McCurdie’ (1790—1887) was Minister of Kilbride in Arran. Mac Vurich, ‘Mac Mhuirich’ is also anglicized as Currie in Arran.13 Investigation reveals that in the late twentieth century Currie is the most numerous name in Arran but that McCurdie and McKirdie have completely disappeared from there, nor can they be found anywhere in Kintyre, Islay or Jura. :ill of which are visible from Rathlin.l4 Modern scholars agree in giving ‘Muc Mhuircheartaigh’ (‘muirceartach’ —— sea ruler’) as the Gaelic form, and Enri`O`Muirgheasa, in a book published in 1915, names the Rathlin lady from whom he got the song of ‘Mo Mha`ire Og’ as ‘Nic Mhuirchaertaigh’.15

There is one additional point to be noted for those who wish to pursue the history of this family. Dr. George Black, in listing early spellings of the name, gives examples which seem to include the remnant of the word ‘giolla’ (meaning servant) which may add something to the derivation from simple ‘muircheartach’, e.g. “James MaKilveritie, chaplain in the chapel of S. Michael the Archangel in Rothsay Castle, between 1590 —l600, appears in the Exchequer Rolls as McQuhirertie McQuhirirtie, McQuheritie (these three spellings in 1595), McIllquharartie (1598) and Makquhirrirtie (1600).16 To this may be added the appearance in the County Antrim Hearth Money Roll of 1669 of a ‘John McEluridy’ registered in the townland of Drumbare, next to the present Cloughmills, much to the south of the McCurdys on that list.17 Modern distribution of the McCurdys shows a secondary concentration around Slemish mountain, south-east of Cloghmills and west of Glenarm,18 and this could be a profitable point of investigation in a detailed history of this family.

NOTES AND REFERENCES

1. Black, George F., The Surnames of Scotland (New York 1946), 78.

2. Pender, Seamus, A Census of Ireland, circa 1659 (Dublin 1939)

3. Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Hearth Money Roll, County Antrim (1669) T.307

4. Black,op.cit.,500 in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology (second series) viii,177, there is printed a letter of 1723 from the Laird of Lamont to John Black, merchant of Belfast, which again sets out this belief.

5. Black, op. cit., 78.

6. Turner, Brian S., Distributional aspects of family name study illustrated in the Glens of Antrim, Appendix F., Ph.D. thesis, Queens University, Belfast, 1974.

7. Black, op. cit., 501.

8. The names Mc Curdy and Black appear in tradition as sole survivors of the massacres, but this may be affected by later rationalisation based on the fact that these were among the most numerous and firmly established families in the popular memory. Rev. George Hill An Historical Account of The Mac Donnells of Antrim, 186, mentions a family tradition that the only person left alive after the 1575 massacre by the forces of the Earl of Essex, was a woman named McCurdy. Hill also (p73) records the tradition that after the Campbell massacre of 1642, a young woman survived and was carried off to Islay, but returning in old age found that her son had survived and was farming on the island. Monsignor O Laverty An Historical Account of the Diocese of Down and Connor (Dublin 1887) iv. 369, repeats this and adds that it was said that a man named Black survived by hiding on a sea rock near Bull Point and living on seaweed and shellfish.

9. Campbell, Mary, Sea Wrack or Long-ago Tales of Rathlin Island (Ballycastle 1951) 16, quoted without reference to source.

10. O Laverty, op. cit., 388

11. Ibid., O Laverty quotes Fr. McKenny, parish priest of Rathlin 1844-1846, as writing in 1845 “there are in this island three races of people called Black, one came from the west of ireland, it is nearly extinct and is likely to become extinct after the death of some old men; another race came from Scotland and became Protestants here; and a third race is descended from a young man named John Black who came here on some sea-faring business, his father, Bernard, afterwards resided with him. The last of John’s grandsons died in the year 1773 aged 84 years”. I include this reference for the sake of completeness. Its specific statements deserve investigations, but it is unlikely to affect the evidence for most of the Rathlin Blacks presented in this article.

12. For instance, in 1766, according to the Reports presented to the House of Lords in that year by the Established Church incumbents, there were thirty-five McCurdy families in the island. The Blacks were second with fourteen families. From the General valuation list of 1861 I estimate that there were then about twelve McCurdy families, with the McQuaigs (now spelt McCouaig of McCuaig) second with seven. A count of the Electoral Register for 1962 showed sixteen McCurdy electors in Rathlin and the second name was McQuilken with thirteen elecors.

13. Black, op. cit., 532 and 569.

14. Turner, op. cit., Appendix F.

15. MacLysaght, Edward, The Surnames of Ireland (Dublin 1978), 70; Black, op. cit., 532. O Muirgheasa, Enri`, Cead de cheoltaigh Uladh (Dublin 1915).

16. Black, op. cit., 531.

17. Note in passing, Hill, Rev. George. op. cit., 186, where he refers to Norse chroniclers of the twelfth century corrupting the name of Somerled Mac Giolla Bhrigdhe, the ancestor of the MacDonnells, into ‘Sowrdy MacIllurdy’.

18. Electoral Register, County Antrim.

12 thoughts on ““NOTES ON THE BLACKS AND McCURDYS OF THE GLENS AND RATHLIN”. Brian S. Turner

  1. Thank you so much for this, I’m knee deep in a bit of family research and can confirm much of what you have here is in my own extended family research and I have seen a copy of the letters that went between the Laird of Lamont and John Black in 1723.

  2. This is superb. Thank you so much for this overview. My Great-grandfather, Daniel Black, was born in Glenarm, and I’ve been trying to follow the family tree back on his line for a while now…

    My Great-Aunt who is no longer with us once told us that our family originated from Rathlin Island.

    I’ve been trying to see if this was true for a while now, but records are scant. I’m reasonably confident my Blacks are all from Glenarm/Antrim back to ~1750, so this was really interesting to read!

    Thanks again,
    – Terry

  3. Thanks so much for this incredibly interesting article!

    My Great-Aunt, who is no longer with us, had apparently said that our family had originated on Rathlin Island. Unfortunately, she gave no more information than this!

    I’ve been trying to look into it, and have traced my Great-great-grandfather, Alexander Black to Glenarm. There’s a bit of a gap in the records, so I’m not 100%, but reasonably sure that the family goes back another couple of generations to ~1750 in Glenarm, or nearby.

    Not sure I’ll ever get further than that with specific individuals, so this is therefore incredibly interesting to know!

    Thanks again,
    – Terry

    • I would love to follow up with Terry Black, as I also have an ancestor, Alexander Black from Rathlin, settled in Lubec Maine USA. Born 1778, died 1870. Let me know if we can share info.

  4. Fantastic article, thank you for your work! I’m researching my family name and have my great-grandfather’s (x6) diary from 1806. His name was John Black (b 1781) born in Cambletown, settled in Dunkeld. His father’s name is John (b1745) as is his father’s name, John (b1713) — but locations unknown. This provides me with a great lead on their history. I’m going to enjoy looking up your references and look forward to any more information you may gather and add to this.

    Thanks again,
    Michael

  5. My 3rd great grandfather, Aaron Stewart Black, was born in 1815 on Church street in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, his mother was Isabella Shields and his death certificate (1905) states his father was Robert Black, but I have yet to see it stated elsewhere. He immigrated to the US in 1832 and remained in New York, becoming an umbrella maker. He did return to his birth home at the age of 69 and I have a bio he wrote describing the area and listing some family members, namely Stewart’s who came from Scotland. If I read it correctly for the millionth time, the Black’s he is from came to Ireland from Scotland. Would sure be interesting to be able to share this bio I have with others and see if there are any connections. Would really like to connect to any family that may be related!!

  6. This is excellent. Thank you! I see this was written in 2014. Any new developments regarding Black origins and the Lamont connections? Also, where could I find this Declaration of the True Extraction of the MacIldowies alias Lamont?
    Thank you much,
    Jay

  7. Something else I was wondering about. Can you comment on the idea that there are Blacks on Rathlin that claim a purley Irish origin? And a relationship to a “Brian Deagan” who was supposedley some sort of ancestor or patriarch?
    Thanks Again,
    Jay

  8. Susen My father’s Amily Tree DNA connected us to Rathlin Islnd. The only ancestor info that I have is that our oldest ancestor James Black was born in 1792 in Ireland. His son, Dennis, was born in 1824 in Belfast. He went to Argyle, New York in the early 1840s.

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