Origin of the name of the Rait family

This essay has been compiled by Lindsay Raitt from a number of sources which are mentioned in the text. Some further musings on our name, by me, are given on another page.

1. Introduction.

It would be very easy to accept the version of the origin of our name disseminated by  Victorian historians.  They thought that the family takes its name from the castle called Rait, lying south of Nairn, and that “Rait” is a modification of the Celtic word “rath” meaning a fortification.  Many of their publications anglicised the name of the first occupants of the Castle from “de Rathe” to “de Rait”.  As a matter of convenience in writing local histories, such a gloss was probably acceptable at the time, but merely causes confusion now that we have access to many more of the original documents.  It is only when we try to reconstruct the details of the history of the Rait family, and when we turn to the original versions of the various charters and other sources, that the subject becomes more complicated.

This search for the true origins of the family name requires implicit acceptance of the broad outlines of our history. The primary branch of the family, the Raits of Hallgreen in Kincardineshire, and their various offshoots in Aberdeenshire and Angus, were descendants, after 1405, of the de Rathes of Nairnshire. They were probably, though not definitely, an Anglo-Norman family who migrated into Scotland in the 13th century: their roots in England and Normandy are obscure at present.  The de Rathes were associated in some way with the building now known as Rait Castle, which itself was associated in some way with the chapel of St Mary and the barony in the same area and sharing the name.  All this is explained and justified elsewhere.  This essay considers only the evidence of the nomenclature associated with these elements of our history.

2. The evidence.

The chapel at the Castle of Rait.

The first documentary mention of the chapel comes from the records of the Diocese of Moray.  In 1187, Bishop Richard of Moray was confirmed in the ownership, or oversight, of extensive properties which included the “capella de Rathe” or “Rate” (in two versions of the same charter (1)).  The same source also includes charters of 1308 and 1451 confirming the bishop's rights to lands including the “capella de Rate” and “the capella de Rait” respectively (2).  The text of a charter concerning a Court held in Elgin Cathedral in 1343 to settle rights relating to the chapel of Kilravock, transcribed in the Latin of the original document, records “et Nicholaum Heritage heremitam capelle sancte Marie de Rath”, followed by a word which translates as “layman”.  In his English summary of this charter, the editor says that it “introduces the Hermit of St Mary's Chapel at Rate” (3).  This is just a brief summary of the data about the chapel which are relevant to the debate about the name Rait: the history of the chapel and the identification of its location are subjects worthy of a separate essay.

The barony.

As early as 1226, the Earl of Ross was granted the superiority of baronies which included East Geddes, Rate and Cawdor in Moray (4).  However, the Bishops of Moray also had rights over the lands at the same time (perhaps acknowledging the feudal superiority of the Earl).  In 1226 Bishop Andrew of Moray was confirmed in the lands of Whytefield at Rath, in 1238 in lands he had in Rate in the barony of Invernairn, and in 1242 he was given a charter for land at Rath (5).  As late as 1442, the Thane of Cawdor was given sasine on territories including half of “Rate”, and in 1493, resigned lands including half of the “ville de Rate” into the hands of the King in favour of his son (6).  Shortly afterwards, in 1497, the Cawdor scribes become rather confused, as we find the spellings “Rat”, “Ratt”, “Rayt”, as well as a first mention, in English, of “my half of Rait” and Halff Raitt”, then Rayt again in 1501, and eventually in 1511 “half of the ville of Rait” (7).  This seems to have been a "spelling transition" period, and I wonder why: surely its not just going from Latin to English, there may be something more to it. As with the Chapel, the story of the Barony is sufficiently complex to warrant a separate essay.

The Castle.

It is almost certain that the Rait Castle whose ruins we see today was built by Sir Gervase de Rathe about the year 1290.  He was the King's Constable of Invernairn, military commander of this area of Moray, under the Guardian of the North Sir Reginald le Chen of Duffus Castle.  He may possibly have been his deputy, but certainly his duties included oversight of the collection of the King's revenues.  He is by far the most likely person to have possessed the wealth and motive for constructing a luxury “palace” in such a strategically and tactically indefensible location.  The documents which inform us about the activities of Sir Gervase were removed to London by King Edward I, and were preserved in the Tower.  The ones which are relevant at this point are a number of receipts for payment which were signed by Sir Gervase “at Rathe”, as well as at Invernairn (8).  These were apparently the two locations which he used to conduct his business, so we may assume that it is the Castle which is referred to as “at Rathe”.

The Members of the Family before 1405.

The earliest member of the family that we can be fairly confident about was Sir Gervase.  The first documentary record, dating from about 1290, spells his name “Rath”, as written down by the clerk who compiled the charter, signed by Gervase (9).  The item of evidence which brings us closest to Sir Gervase is his seal, probably the one which he attached to his oath of allegiance to King Edward I at Elgin in 1296, although it is now detached from the charter.  As well as the engrailed cross, which has been carried down through succeeding centuries as the Rait coat of arms, the seal has the lettering “S. G'VASII DE RAHT MILIT” (10).  Surely, as this seal would have been used frequently by Sir Gervase in his role as Constable of the Castle, and as he may well have been literate, this should represent how he thought his name should be written.

Thereafter, through the century after 1296, the possible members of the family (Sir Gervase, Sir Andrew, Bishop John of Aberdeen, Thomas of Uras who was the King's scutifer or shield-bearer, Sir Alexander, and others more tenuously connected) are given various spellings, “Rat, Rate, Raat, Rathe, Raythe, Rayte”, in the original documents (too numerous to recount here), but never the spelling “Rait”.

The Members of the Family after 1405.  

Traditionally, the eldest son of Sir Alexander de Rathe, who fled from Nairnshire about 1405, was Mark, who acquired the farm-lands of Drumnagar in Kincardineshire, and, through his wife's inheritance, Hallgreen Castle at Inverbervie.  There is no extant documentary record of Mark to reveal how he spelt his name.  Our knowledge of him comes from “The genealogie of the honourable and ancient Surname of Raite” prepared about 1670, when the Rait spelling was in common use (11).  Mark's son appears in charters of the second half of the 15th century as “David Rate of Drumnager” (12), and his grandson as “William Rate of Drumnagar” in 1507 (13).  However, the next generation, from about 1500 onwards, were all given the “Rait” spelling.

Sir Alexander de Rathe may have had a second son, William, who owned the lands of Fiddes and Drumtochty in Kincardineshire.  He only appears in the documentary record as the father of “John Rate of Fothas and Drumtolti” (14).  John's son Henry, and his grandson, Archibald were both “Rates" (15).  And, here too, the next generation, from 1508 on, were called “Rait” (16).  

3. Analysis.


I find it very difficult to believe that the de Rathes took their name from a locality in Nairnshire.  In his role as Constable of Invernairn Castle, Gervase was responsible to the Guardian of The North (Sir Reginald le Chen), and, through him, to the King for the military security of the western approaches to the prosperous Province of Moray, and responsible to the King for the gathering of taxes.  As an incoming Anglo-Norman, who, at least in the 1290s, clearly showed his allegiance to King Edward I of England, he would have used every measure possible to demonstrate his position of power.  The use of a Norman name would be instrumental in this, emphasising his links to the premiere families in the area (the Bissets, Roses, Boscoes, etc, all clearly Anglo-Norman families), as would his building of his own personal home castle as an expression of his wealth and status.  Similarly, Sir Andrew, his brother, in his role as a military aide to the Court of King Edward, required the visible trappings of a member of that Anglo-Norman aristocracy used by Edward to expand his hold on Scotland at this time.  Considering the historical context of the last decade of the 13th century, and the methods available at that time of exerting power over an unhappy populace, it is unthinkable that these two important people would take their name from an obscure barony to the south of Nairn.

In the Norman French spoken by the ruling class in Scotland at the end of the 13th century, “Rathe” may well have been pronounced as “Rat”.  A long vowel “a” could result in the spellings “Raat”, and, more importantly, “Raht” as on the Gervase seal, when written down by the scribes from the spoken word.  In some similar circumstances the short vowel “a” would result in the spelling “Rat”, which has occurred, though rarely.  Only an expert versed in Norman French, its pronunciation, and script could resolve the differences.

In choosing such an inappropriate site, described by Simpson as “a wretchedly poor one” to build his own home, categorised by the expert Simpson as a “hall-house” (17),  Gervase may well have been influenced by the presence of a spring and a Holy Chapel at Rate, and the coincidence of its name, “Rate”, with his own “de Rathe”, pronounced “Rat”, may also have come into play.  The Castle was not called Rait, it was either Rate or Rathe.  Nor were the Barony or the Chapel of St Mary, and, as the older entities, it is a matter for further debate whether they would have borrowed their names from a distortion of the word “Rath” meaning a fort, when the nearest ancient fortification lies almost a mile away to the west.

What is quite certain, however, from the evidence of all the old documents, is that, with the one exception of the chapel mentioned above, the spelling “Rait” was not used in Nairnshire or for the family name until after 1500.

Post 1405.

After the flight to Kincardineshire, caused by the murder of the Thane of Cawdor by Sir Alexander de Rathe, we might have found a tactical change of the name used by the family, but clearly both the Drumnager and Fiddes branches were quite content to continue the use of “de Rate” in their charters and other documents, until about the year 1500, when, for no apparent reason, they all became Raits (also dropping the geographical designator “de”).  And this spelling, seemingly, was also applied to the territories in Nairnshire, even though there was no presence of the family there by that time, continuing to the present day.

Scrutiny of the written evidence through the centuries since 1500 shows that the addition of the extra “t” at the end of the name is quite arbitrary, and absolutely no meaning can be attached to it other than the personal preference of the individual involved.

4. Conclusion.

Reliable documentary evidence shows that in the fourteenth century there was a somewhat haphazard mutation from the earliest Anglo-Norman spelling “Rathe”, probably with a long ”aa” vowel, to a possibly more locally-based (perhaps Celtic) spelling “Rate” with a short “a” vowel, as occurred in the name of the barony and the chapel of St Mary.  This was followed by a more abrupt and universal change at the beginning of the 16th century to a new spelling “Rait”, with a diphthong “ai”.  

We will probably never know exactly how or why our current name, the “Rait/Raitt” spelling, was derived, or what happened round about the first decade of the 16th century for that spelling to replace all others in the written documents, though we might find some clue in an understanding of the wider context of the turbulent history of these times.  What is clear is that the common transliteration by our Victorian predecessors confused the true story of the family, and led to several myths which cannot be sustained today.

1) Innes C. ed. Registrum Episcopensis Moraviensis, The Bannatyne Club, 1837. Items 6 and 42. (REM)

2) REM op.cit., Items 159 and 223.

3) Innes C. ed. A Genealogical Deduction of the Family of Rose of Kilravock, The Spalding Club, 1848. p 118.

4) Cromartie The Earl of, A Highland History, The Gavin Press 1979.

5) REM op.cit. Items 29, 40 and 93.

6) Innes C. ed. The book of the Thanes of Cawdor, 1236-1742, The Spalding Club, 1849. pp 14 and 82.

7) Ditto, pp 85 to 88.

8) Bain J. ed. Calendar of Documents in the Records Office Relating to Scotland,  HM General Register House, Edinburgh, 1884. Vol.2, pp 138, 149.

9) Innes C. 1848 op.cit. P 29.

10) Bain J. op.cit., 1884. Vol.2, p 538.

11) NAS RH15/37/171.

12) Balfour Paul J. ed. Register of the Great Seal of Scotland, HM General Register House, Edinburgh, 1882 (Reg. Mag. Sig.) Vol.2, Items 1384, 1709, 1987.

13) Reg. Mag. Sig. op cit., Vol 2 Item 3043.

14) Reg. Mag. Sig. op cit., Vol 2 Item 216.

15) Reg. Mag. Sig. op cit. Vol 2, Items 251 and 1687.

16) Reg. Mag. Sig. op cit. Vol 2, Item 3261, and Kincardineshire Court Records.

17) Simpson, W.D. Rait Castle and Barevan Church, Nairnshire.  Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Jan 11, 1937.