Napier Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Napier Surname Meaning

The Scottish Napier name and the less-common Napper name, found in England, both probably had their derivation from the old French word nappe meaning “table cloth.” A napperer or naper would describe an official in a royal or noble court who was in charge of the linen in the great house. 

The Scots had an alternative version for their Napier name, that it was bestowed by the Scottish king on the field of battle. But this seems a less likely explanation.

Napier Surname Resources on The Internet

Napier and Napper Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Lowland), Southern England and Ireland
  • to America and Australia

Scotland. The Earls of Lennox ruled during the 13th century in the ancient sheriffdom of Dumbarton on the north shores of the Clyde river. It was Malcolm the fifth Earl who granted land to John Naper at Kilmahew in Dumbarton around the year 1290.

Kilmahew.  Kilmahew castle became this family’s fortress in the 16th century and the Napiers were to remain at Kilmahew for eighteen generations, until 1820. The surname spelling was various in medieval times – sometimes Naper and sometimes Napare and sometimes something else – and it was really not until the 17th century that the Napier spelling took precedence.

The Napiers of Kilmahew were notable for being the progenitors of Napiers who made notable contributions in the field of engineering in the 19th century – namely Robert Napier “the father of Clyde shipbuilding” and David, James, and Montague Napier who owned the engineering company of Napier & Son.

Merchiston.  Some think that the Alexander Napier found in Edinburgh in the 1400’s had been descended from these Kilmahew Napiers, although there is no documentary evidence to prove the case.

Alexander prospered as a merchant, amassed a fortune, became the provost of Edinburgh in 1403, and obtained a charter for the lands of Merchiston. His son and grandson, both named Alexander, were also provosts and were in high royal favor, both serving as Master of the Royal Household.

Starting with these two Alexanders, the Napiers were to remain as Lairds of Merchiston until 1920:

  • John Napier, born in 1550 and the eighth Laird of Merchiston, devoted much of his time to scientific studies and is remembered today for his invention of logarithms.
  • Archibald Napier, his eldest son, was ennobled as Lord Napier in 1627 and fought on the King’s side in the Civil War when he was over seventy years of age. He died in 1645 and his son Archibald, also a Royalist, died abroad before the Restoration.
  • while – much later – Francis Napier, the 13th Laird of Merchiston, distinguished himself in the diplomatic service and was made Baron Napier of Ettrick in 1872.

Thirlestane.  There was another Napier line at Thirlstane in Selkirk on the Scottish borders. Francis Napier had taken the name of his maternal grandmother after the death of his father Sir William Scott in 1725.

His younger son George, who married Lady Sarah Lennox, was a British army officer and the father of three sons – Charles, William, and George – who were collectively known as Wellington’s colonels at the time of the Napoleonic Wars.

The city of Napier in New Zealand was named after Sir Charles Napier, the town of Napier in the Western Cape of South Africa after Sir George Napier.

England. Two Napier lines in England appear to have had descent from the Scottish Napiers of Merchiston – the Napiers of Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire and the Napiers of Middlemarsh Hall in Dorset.

“Alexander Napier, killed fighting the English at the Battle of Pinkie in 1547, had a younger son named Alexander. This Alexander came to England a year later and married an English woman named Ann Birchley in Exeter. Of this marriage there were two sons – Robert the Turkey merchant and the Rev. Richard Napier the astrologer.”  

Robert amassed a fortune and was knighted by King James I in 1611. The King subsequently made him a baronet of Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire.  

“Once after King James had bestowed a baronetcy on a Napier, jealous English courtiers complained: ‘Who after all are these Napiers?’ The King replied impatiently: ‘By my soul they are all gentlemen these many hundred years.'”  

The Scottish connection is a little less clear-cut with the Napiers from Puncknoll in Dorset. The spelling here seems to have varied between Napier and the more English Napper.

The family had Catholic leanings during Elizabethan times. Edward Napier who had married the heiress of Holywell manor in Oxfordshire had a son named George Napper who was executed in 1610 for being a Catholic priest. However, Sir Gerrard Napier or Napper of the main line in Dorset emerged through these turbulent times as a baronet in 1641. His son Nathaniel was a traveller and dilettante in Restoration England.

Nappers outnumbered Napiers in England in the 1881 census. The English Napper name had its origin and presence in Sussex and in Somerset along the south coast:

  • the Napper presence in Sussex dated from the 14th century. One Napper line from Horsham in the mid-1600’s extended to Dr. Albert Napper who founded in Kent in 1859 the Cranleigh Village Hospital, England’s first “cottage” hospital. 
  • while Edward Napper was assigned the tenancy of the parsonage at Tintinhull near Yeovil in Somerset in 1546. Within two generations his family had acquired the lordship of the manor and the three largest houses in the village. They were to remain here until 1800.

Ireland.  Sir Robert Napier or Naper, a younger son of the Napiers in Dorset, managed to secure a judgeship in Ireland during the latter years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Although he himself was considered a failure, he turned out to be the forefather of a long-lasting Anglo-Irish family.

His grandson William surveyed Ireland on behalf of Oliver Cromwell in the 1650’s and made a fortune in doing so. His reward was the Loughcrew estate in Meath. William’s descendants, all known as Naper, have held the estate until today.

America.  Virginia was the starting point for many Napiers in America, thanks to Dr. Patrick Napier.

Virginia.  Dr. Patrick Napier, a descendant of the Dumbarton Napiers, arrived in Virginia with other defeated Scottish Royalists in 1651. He settled in Hampton parish in York county as a planter and surgeon. The line of descent – from his son Robert and Robert’s four sons Booth, Robert, Patrick and Rene – accounts for the largest share of Napiers in America.

One line through Richard Napier led to Tennessee. Richard was a colonel in the Revolutionary War, having himself raised and equipped a regiment. After the war he departed for Tennessee, bringing with him “his wife and children, one hundred negroes, carriage and wagons.” His house at Barton’s Creek, built around 1800, is still standing. His son Richard C. Napier operated the Carroll furnace and ironworks there until the Civil War.

Another line via Patrick and Fanny Napier came to Kentucky in the early 1800’s and settled in Perry county. This line produced a plethora of McCager Napiers, five by one researcher’s count, in the mid-1800’s. All five of them fought in the Civil War, the last of them dying in 1912.

Elsewhere.  Robert Napier from Stirling in Scotland came to Vermont around 1789 and moved with his family in the 1820’s to Ohio where several of his sons were engaged in Great Lakes ship building and trading:

  • one son Benjamin Napier was a ship builder in Sandusky, Ohio and later became a Great Lakes sea captain. Benjamin’s sons Nelson and Jack followed in his footsteps; and Joseph was made the Chicago Harbor Master in 1852.
  • while another son Joseph Naper, more adventurous, founded in 1831 the oldest settlement in Illinois west of Chicago, now known as Naperville.

Joseph Napier, a mariner from England, had come via upstate New York to Huron county, Ohio in the early 1820’s. But he drowned in Lake Erie around 1827. His son William, forsaking that life, settled down to farm at Vermillion township in Huron county.

Australia. Thomas Napier, a builder from Montrose in Scotland, was an earlier settler in Melbourne, arriving there from Tasmania in 1837. Eight years later he moved to an area now known as Strathmore and built his home Rosebank there. This was to be the family home until the 1920’s. His son Theodore donated land in Strathmore in 1920 for what came to be known as Napier Park.

Nappers from Seavington in Somerset came out to Sydney in the 1850’s. The first to arrive was Charles Napper and his wife Sarah who came of the Bombay in 1852. They were followed five years later by his brother Edmund who arrived with his wife Eliza on the Herefordshire. Edmund moved to the Clarence river, settling in Ulmarra. When he died there in 1915 at the age of eighty, he left thirty grand-children and ten great grand-children.

William Napper, also from Somerset, arrived in South Australia with his wife Ann in 1855, settling in Lake Bonney. They ran there the Lake Bonney Hotel and later the Overland Corner Hotel. William died in 1908.

Napier Surname Miscellany

An Alternative Version of the Napier Name.  According to an old tradition of the Napier family, written by Sir Archibald Napier in 1625, the Napier name was earned in battle during the reign of the Scottish King William the Lion in the late 12th century.

“One of the ancient Earls of Lennox had three sons.   The eldest succeeded him in the earldom, the second was named Donald, and the third Gilchrist.

The then king of the Scots being engaged in war and having convocated his subjects to battle, the Earl of Lennox was called upon, amongst others, to send such force as he could collect to the king’s assistance. He accordingly did, keeping his eldest son at home with him, but putting his men under the command of his two younger sons.

The battle went hard with the Scots who were not only forced to lost ground but were actually running away.  At that point Donald snatched his father’s standard from the bearer and charged the enemy with the Lennox men.  He changed the fortune of the day and obtained a victory.

After the battle, as the custom was, everyone reported his acts and the king said:  ‘You have all done valiantly.  But there is one amongst you who had nae peer, that is, no equal.’  He called Donald to him and commanded him to change his name from Lennox to Napier.  He bestowed upon him the lands of Gosford and lands in Fife as a reward for his service.”

It is doubtful whether there is any truth to this story.  Similar stories were made up by other noble Scottish families to invent a more glorified origin of their name.  The Victorian genealogist Mark Lower commented:

“It is proper, however, to remark that the Napiers sprang from the house of Lennox and that their early members wrote themselves Lenox alias Napier.  And it is no derogation of the dignity of this illustrious family to suppose that an earl’s son, their ancestor, should have held the office of Napier in the royal household.”

John Napier, Napier’s Bones, and the Devil.  Adjoining the mill at Gartness are the remains of an old house in which John Napier of Merchiston, the inventor of logarithms, resided a great part of his time when he was making his calculations.

It is reported that the noise of the cascade, being constant, never gave him uneasiness.  But the clack of the mill, which was only occasional, greatly disturbed his thoughts. He was therefore when in deep study, sometimes under the necessity of desiring the miller to stop the mill that the train of his ideas might not be interrupted.

His discussion of logarithms was first to be found in the Latin work Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio published in 1614. Two years later an English translation appeared.

In 1617 Napier then presented a mechanical means of simplifying his calculations in Rabdologiae.  Napier’s numbering rods were made of ivory so that they looked like bones.  That explained why they are now known as Napier’s bones. To multiply numbers the bones were placed side by side and the appropriate products read off.

It would be surprising if a man of such great an intellect as Napier did not appear as rather strange to his contemporaries.  Given the superstitious age in which he lived, weird stories began to circulate. Many traditions suggest that Napier was “in league with the powers of darkness.”

Mark Napier, his descendant and biographer, wrote that John Napier deliberately played upon the primitive beliefs of his servants by going around with a cock which he had covered in soot.  And this was another account:

“John Napier used frequently to walk out in his nightgown and cap. This, with some things which to the vulgar appear rather odd, fixed on him the character of a warlock. It was formerly believed and currently reported that he was in compact with the devil; and that the time he spent in study was spent in learning the black art and holding conversation with Old Nick.” 

Early Nappers in Sussex.  Napper has been a name of West Sussex.  Its first occurrence was in the village of Stedham in 1296.  By the 1400’s Napper had spread to Racton and Petworth.  Whether this reflects one family who had migrated or two or more distinct families is not really clear.

In the 16th and 17th centuries the surname could still be found at Petworth and had also extended to places further north such as Rudgwick where John Napper, a yeoman farmer, had married Mary Gibbons in 1665.

Napper in Sussex might have described someone charged with the care of the napery or linen.  It could also have been someone who sold napery.

The Napers at Loughcrew in Meath.  William Naper secured the Loughcrew estate near Oldcastle in 1655 and served as the High Sheriff of Meath in 1671.  Over the ensuing century William’s descendants inter-married with other well-established landed gentry and aristocratic families in the area – such as the Earls of Darnley and Leicester, the Ingoldsbys, the Duttons and the Tandys (from whom the enigmatic 1798 rebel Naper Tandy claimed descent).

After the original 1600’s-built house had been destroyed by fire, James Naper commissioned the English neo-classical architect Charles Cockerell in 1821to build him a new stately home.  Cockerell set about applying his knowledge of Greek architecture to his new commission. Eight years and £22,000 later, the building was complete.

However, this once indomitable mansion was a victim, some say, of an ancient curse.

“Three times will Loughcrew be consumed by fire. Crows will fly in and out of the windows.  Grass will grow on its doorstep.

The first of these fires occurred in 1888, the second in 1959, and the last in 1964.  This reduced the house to a state of roofless dereliction, its only tenant being a Massey Ferguson tractor.

But Charles and Emily Naper who had inherited Loughcrew were a determined couple. The original house was clearly beyond repair. But that did not deter them from building a new house.  In 1982 they recruited the architect Alfred Cochrane and set about converting the roofless Orangery into their family home. The rooms that make up the house were originally the palm houses, the azalea houses and the furnace rooms.   Charles and Emily opened up the gardens to the public and ran an annual opera festival.

Today, all that remains of the original Loughcrew House is its portico entrance, subsequently reassembled to look like some sort of mini-Acropolis.

Dr. Patrick Napier, the Scottish Surgeon Who Came to America.  Dr. Patrick Napier’s forebears were from Kilmahew in Dumbarton.  His grandfather Mungo Napier, a Burgess of Dumbarton, had migrated to London around the time of King James’s accession to the English throne in 1603.

His father Patrick, based in London, became Barber and Chirurgeon to King Charles I.  However, King Charles lost out in the Civil War and was imprisoned on the Isle of Wight in 1648. Patrick may have been the Napier that Parliamentary spies reported had tried to free the King from this prison. Soon after, the King was beheaded in London in January 1649.

Three months later in Edinburgh in May 1649, Patrick Napier apprenticed his namesake son Patrick to the chirurgeon Alexander Pennycuik.  Pennycuik was the surgeon to the Scottish troops who were defeated by Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650. It seems that Patrick Napier emigrated to Virginia with other Scottish Royalists after that defeat. He settled in Hampton parish in York county as a planter and surgeon.

Near Williamsburgh, Virginia today there is a historical marker which reads that Patrick Napier, colonial surgeon, lived in the vicinity. 

The McCager Napiers of Kentucky.  Five McCager Napiers from Perry county enlisted in the Civil War.

McCager Napier No. 1 Enlisted in February 1862 aged 28
Served in the 5th Kentucky
Mounted Infantry.
McCager Napier No. 2 Enlisted in September 1862 aged
Served in the 14th Kentucky
McCager Napier No. 3 Aged 19 in 1862.
Served in the 14th Kentucky
Cavalry but probably deserted.
McCager Napier No. 4 Aged 19 in 1862.
Served in the 10th Kentucky
McCager Napier No.5 Enlisted in July 1863 aged 17
Served in the 47th Kentucky
Infantry but probably deserted.

They all survived the war.

Napier Names

  • John Napier is remembered today for his invention of logarithms which he first had published in Scotland in 1614.
  • Sir Charles Napier was the cavalry general under Wellington during the Napoleonic Wars. 
  • Robert Napier, a Scottish shipbuilder in the mid-1800’s, is considered to be the father of Clyde shipbuilding.

Napier Numbers Today

  • 8,000 in the UK (most numerous in Midlothian)
  • 8,000 in America (most numerous in Kentucky)
  • 6,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Napier and Like Surnames 

These are surnames from the Scottish Lowlands.  Some are clan names; some – like Gordon, Graham and Hamilton – have Anglo-Norman antecedents that crossed the border into Scotland; and some – like Douglas and Stewart – were very powerful in early Scottish history.  Stewart in fact became the royal Stuart line.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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