Moffat Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Moffatt Surname Meaning

Moffat is a name of the Scottish borders where there is a small town called Moffat in Annandale in the Scottish borders.  The origin of the Moffat name is thought to have been an Anglo Norman family, originally Montealt and then Movat, that was first sighted in Scotland in the late 11th century.  They became de Moffets.  

Moffat comes in various spellings.  Moffat and Moffatt are the usual spellings in the UK, Moffat in Scotland and Moffatt more in England.  Moffett and Moffitt are the more common forms in America.

Moffat Surname Resources on Internet

Moffat, Moffatt, Moffett and Moffitt Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Borders) and Northern England
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America, Canada, South Africa and Australia

ScotlandThe early Moffats in Annandale seemed to have had a close relationship with the church as they included Nicholas de Moffat, the Bishop of Glasgow in 1268, and Walter de Moffat, the Archdeacon of Lothian in 1348.   Robert de Moffethe was treasurer of the church of Glasgow in 1467.

These Moffats may have been in a Christian minority of three because the Moffat clan was more normally associated with the lawless Border reivers that operated along the English/Scottish border.  In 1587 it was recorded that the “Moffettis of the West Marche” were included among “the unruly border clans” whose activities “were to be curbed.”

However, they were a spent force by that time.  Their most notable enemy was the powerful Johnstone clan. In 1557 the Johnstones murdered clan chief Robert Moffat and burned the building in which a number of Moffats had gathered, slaughtering those who tried to escape.  From that date the Moffats were a leaderless clan.

One Moffat family dates from Adam Moffat of Knock who fought at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.  His descendants remained the Lairds of Knock until 1609when their land had to be sold to the Johnstones because of rising indebtedness.  They were tenants at Midknock until 1905.  In 1759 the Moffats from Gardenholm in Annandale moved to Craigbeck in what is today Moffatdale.  The Moffats at Craigbeck had by the 20th century become one of the biggest sheep farmers in southern Scotland. 

England.  The border pacifications in the 17th century led to many led to some Moffat migrations south of the border into England to Cumberland, Westmoreland and Northumberland.  The Moffat name cropped up frequently in the village of Kirklinton in Cumberland.

Some Moffatts became miners.  John Moffatt, for instance, was a lead miner in Stanhope, Durham in the early 19th century.  Later Moffatts of this family emigrated to New Zealand.  James Moffatt died after a pit explosion in the Workington mines in 1888. Frederick Moffatt wrote up an account of the Northumberland mining industry in the 19th century.

Ireland.  The Moffats in Ireland are of Scottish origin.  Often the name changed in their new home.  Moffat predominated in Antrim.  But Moffatt, Moffett, and Moffitt were to be found elsewhere in Ulster Ireland.

The Donegal Moffitts were descendants of three brothers – Robert, Adam, and Thomas – who came sometime in the 1730’s. Robert and Adam Moffitt were recorded as leasing land at Ballymore in Clondahorky parish some thirty years later.  Moffitt descendants are still to be found there.

America.  Many of the Moffats (or variant names) who came to America were Scots Irish.

Samuel Moffat had fled Scotland to county Antrim in Ireland after the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679.  His sons William and Samuel embarked for America in 1710 and settled first in New Jersey and then in Ulster county, New York. This genealogy was traced in Burnham Moffatt’s 1909 book Moffat Genealogies.

A later Samuel Moffat started a trading post at Blooming Grove, New York in 1811.  His grandson David headed west in 1860 and made a fortune in railroads in Colorado.  Moffat county in Colorado was named after him, as was the Moffat tunnel through the Rockies completed in 1928.

A Moffett family in Virginia dates from the 1780’s and were descendants of John and Elizabeth Moffett of Virginia (who were probably Scots Irish in origin).  They were later to be found in Shelby and Anderson counties, Kentucky.

William Moffitt came from county Donegal in the 1760’s, fought in the Revolutionary War and settled in Randolph county, North Carolina. His descendants headed west, first to Indiana, then to Minnesota and Montana, and finally to Los Angeles – which was where the baseball pitcher Randy Moffitt and his elder sister the tennis great Billie Jean King (nee Moffitt) were born.

William Moffett meanwhile came to America from county Armagh in 1785 and was a successful merchant there.  Later Moffetts from the line of Samuel Moffett, who arrived in 1803, were to be found in Knoxville, Tennessee.  The family was traced in Linden Moffett’s 1919 book Descendants of Henry and Jane Moffett.

Thomas Moffett arrived in Philadelphia from Ireland sometime in the 1820’s.  His son Corporal Theodore Moffett was grievously wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 but survived another thirty six years. 

Canada.  Alexander Moffat from East Lothian came out to Ontario in the 1830’s and was an early settler at Pembroke in Renfrew county. His stone house is still standing there.  He built a grist mill on the Muskrat river and laid out the town.  His descendants migrated west to British Columbia.

South Africa.  Robert Moffat came out to South Africa as a Christian missionary a few years before the 1820 settlers arrived there.  In 1824 he and his wife Mary moved onto Kuruman in the northernmost outpost where he was to remain for fifty years.  His son John followed him in his missionary work, his daughter Mary married the explorer David Livingstone.

Australia.  Robert Moffat arrived in South Australia from Carlisle in NW England in 1870. He later worked as a blacksmith and engine driver at the Broken Hill mine in NSW.  He died from an apparent heart attack on his buggy near the mine in 1906.  His descendants have spelt their name Moffatt.

Moffat Surname Miscellany

The Origin of the Moffat Name.  Early writers thought that Moffat had Gaelic origins.

George Chalmers in his 1824 book Caledonia wrote: “The parish of Moffat derived its Gaelic name from Irish mai-fad, signifying ‘long plain,’ and this name is descriptive of the site of the Kirktown on a narrow plain that extends along the east side of the Annan for several miles.”  Meanwhile Harry A. Long held that it came from the word oua vat in the Gaelic language signifying “a long deep mountain hollow.”

But Alistair Moffat, the TV producer and writer on Scottish Border subjects, maintains that Moffat is not Gaelic at all but Anglo-Saxon English instead and derived from the word “moor foot.”

“A cadet of the English family of Montealt, who derived his name from a place in Flintshire, came into Scotland in the twelfth century.  Robert de Montealt was a witness to some of the charters of David I.  This family obtained from William the Lion a grant of the manor of Fern in Forfarshire.  William de Montealt was one of the Scottish barons who, in their famous epistle to the Pope, said they would never submit to England while one of them remained.  Montealt was vulgarized into Mowat.”

Scottish texts of the 18th century identified William de Monte, the progenitor of the Movats alias Moffats, as marrying Colobella Grant of Freuchy and Balachastle around the year 1094.

It is thought that William de Movat Alto, progenitor of the Movats, married the youngest daughter of Andlaw, who came from Norway to Scotland in the tenth century. Over the years the name became Montealt, then Movat, then Movest then eventually Moffat in its modern form.  By the twelfth century the family were recorded as “de Moffet” which showed that they were considered to be principal lairds or land owners.

Nicholas de Moffat was Bishop of Glasgow in 1286.

The Moffats of Craigbeck.  In 1759 the last Moffat in Gardenholm in Upper Annandale died and the family moved to Craigbeck in what is today Moffatdale.

William Moffat was the progenitor of the Craigbeck branch of the family. These Moffats were tenants at Crofthead and Craigbeck until 1920 when Francis Moffat purchased Craigbeck and Garrowgill, thus restoring the family, as the descendants of the Moffats of Granton, to land ownership after a period of three hundred years.

His son William added to these estates and when he died in 1948 he was one of the biggest sheep farmers in southern Scotland, owning some ten thousand acres. His son Francis remained at Craigbeck until 1977 when it was sold on his retirement from farming.

Moffats at Kirklinton in Cumberland, 1750-1760

1749 James Moffat at Prior Rigg birth of daughter Jane
1749 Thomas Moffat of Walkmill death of wife Elizabeth
1752 Robert Moffat of Broomhills birth of son George
1752 William Moffat of Stomeflats birth of son Thomas
1759 Thomas Moffat of Vitley Hall birth of son James

Robert and Mary Moffat.  Robert Moffat had moved from Scotland to Cheshire in England around 1810 where he obtained employment as a gardener working for John Smith in Dukinfield.  There he met Mary Smith and soon they wanted to marry and become missionaries.

Her parents objected to this and consequently Robert joined the London Missionary Society and left for South Africa in 1816. Mary overcame her parents objections and she left for South Africa in 1819. The couple married in South Africa in December that year.

Robert opened a mission station at Kuruman in Bechuanaland in 1824.  The Moffats and their colleagues built its church from hand-quarried stones and timber. During his time there Robert Moffat would travel fearlessly among the nearby tribes, defending their interests from predatory colonists and brokering agreements between warring parties.

At Kuruman, under an almond tree, their eldest daughter Mary met the man who was to become the famous explorer Dr. David Livingstone. She married him there at the “Cathedral of the Kalahari” in Kuruman despite the initial objections of her mother.

Robert and Mary were to live at Kuruman for fifty years and raise ten children there.  Only in old age did they decide to return to Britain.  After Robert’s death a memorial was built at Ormiston in East Lothian near Edinburgh where he was born.

Moffats, Moffatts, Moffetts, and Moffitts.  Moffat comes in various spellings.  The following is the approximate distributions (in thousands) of the main spellings.

Moffat Moffatt Moffett Moffitt
UK    9    4    1    1
America    1    2    3    3
Elsewhere    5    5    1    2
Total   17   11    5    6

Corporal Theodore Moffett Remembered.  Corporal Moffett, a Philadelphia native, was a painter, coach-maker, and mechanic who enlisted, at the age of 35, in 1861, and was severely wounded at the battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.

He was shot in the left shoulder and his left arm was shattered at the junction of the arm and the shoulder leaving a compound fracture. The arm was reset with many pieces of bone being removed leaving an arm three inches shorter than the other. One year after the battle a surgeons certificate states the wound is still open and unhealed with a puss filled.

Returning home after the War, his crippled left arm was virtually useless due to his wounds.  In spite of these injuries, he raised a family and lived onto the age of 73.  He died in 1899 and was buried in the Hillside cemetery in Roslyn, Pennsylvania in an unmarked grave, where he lay forgotten for over a hundred years.

Through the efforts of his great, great grand-daughter, Anita Corcoran, a Civil War Veteran’s gravestone was obtained and a ceremony to dedicate the stone took place.  The ceremony included a benediction, a laying of a wreath on the grave, the playing of taps, and a live-fire by uniformed Civil War re-enactors. 

Moffats in British Columbia.  Harry Moffat was born in Pembroke, Ontario sometime in the mid-1850’s.  He was the son of Alexander Moffat Jr. and his wife Rose Crapper whose father had been knighted for inventing the water closet.   Rose died while Harry and his younger brother Roy were quite young and the boys were subsequently raised by a German couple, William and Amelia Yokas.

When Harry reached the age of 21, he left Ontario and travelled through the United States, arriving in Victoria, British Columbia in 1875. He then moved north with his lifetime buddy James Craigto Kamloops where they both got jobs with the Grand Trunk Pacific Rail Company as surveyors.

Although he loved the nomadic life of the freighting business, it was the wilderness at Alexandria just 45 kilometers south of Quesnel that caught his attention. In 1883 he requested and received homesteading rights. When things were slow with the freighting business, he prepared his land for farming and he started building a two-storey house. When completed, he called the estate Lansdowne Farm after Lord Lansdowne who became Governor General of Canada the same year that Harry obtained his land.

After his children started arriving, Harry, being a Protestant, wanted his children raised as Protestants but his wife Jeannie was a Catholic and objected.  Harry was in Barkerville when Alex, the first-born came along. Jeannie took the baby to the Catholic priest for baptism.  Harry heard of this blasphemy and returned home, whisked the baby off to the Protestant church and had it re-baptized.

They negotiated for days before the two parents came to a compromise, which was that all boy children would be baptized Protestant and the girls Catholic.  They had five boys and four girls and the baptizing agreement seemed to work except that, once Harry died and the children started looking into their records, they discovered that Jeannie had had them all baptized Catholics.

Son Alex was the one who started the Northern hardware store in Prince George in 1919.  The store continues to run under the third generation of Moffats there.

Moffat Names

  • Nicholas de Moffat was Bishop of Glasgow in 1268.
  • Rev. Robert Moffat was patriarch of the Christian missions in South Africa during the 19th century.  His daughter married the African explorer David Livingstone.   
  • John Moffat was a Scottish-born entrepreneur who in the late 19th century developed a mining and industrial empire in northern Queensland which drove the development of northeast Australia.
  • Billie Jean Moffitt was the great American woman tennis star better known by her married name Billie Jean King.
  • Alistair Moffat has been the organizer of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival held every year in August.

Moffat Numbers Today

  • 15,000 in the UK (most numerous in Dumfries and Galloway)
  • 9,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 13,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Moffat and Like Surnames

The border between Scotland and England was a lawless area for well over three hundred years and the subject of many stories and hearsays.  Families on both sides of the border took part in the raids, attacking villages and stealing cattle on the way.  Eventually, following the unification of the Scottish and English crowns in 1603, the area was pacified.  There were mass executions and banishments, many to the new Protestant colony in Ulster.  These were some of the prominent Border family surnames at that time that you can check out.




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Written by Colin Shelley

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