Beginnings of the Keith Name

The manner in which KEITH ended up a surname comes to us not precisely as a history, but rather in a mix of fact and legend. The facts reveal that the name was long associated with several places in early Scotland, before it became attached to a person. Best known of these places is the island of Inchkeith. Another was the district of Keith, in East Lothian, half of which was held by a baron, in the time of King David I, designating his estate as “Keith Hervei”. This baron had a son who was first to hold the title of “King’s Marischal”, under Malcom IV, after which Keiths held the title of Marischal by inheritance for about 700 years. And it is the son who was first to appear in documents under signature styled as a surname, “Herveus de Keith”. (The town of Keith, shown on maps of Scotland, was founded years after the name had been established as a surname, and no connection is claimed with the family of Keith.)

Just how the particular family got to be owners of the estate, and thus “of Keith”, must be extrapolated from enticing tales which hopscotch along the line dividing fact from legend. These tales, however, are persistent, and have been accepted by some old authorities. Consequently, you and I need not be shy about claiming a certain truth abides therein, flattering though they be to our clan.

The mentioned tales speak of a young warrior, named Robert, whose exploits in 1010 AD attracted notice of Malcom II, Scottish king in that time. Said to be of a northern tribe, the Catti, Robert was participating in a series of skirmishes against Danish raiders, who were lead by a reputed giant called Camus. The Scots managed to gain the upper hand in a battle at Barry, and Robert’s bunch was among those who pursued remnants of the Danish force retreating toward Murray. Within a few miles, the Catti overtook their quarry, and here Robert is credited with felling Camus “in a single duel”.

At news of the “giant’s” demise, King Malcom traveled to the site for a look-see. He was apparently much impressed. Anxious to reward the day’s hero, Malcom had Robert brought forward. It is reported that the king then dipped his fingers in the blood of Camus, “and therewith drew three perpendicular strokes on the upper part of Robert’s shield”, gave him some estates, and made the boy a knight. The red stripes have ever since been central to coats of arms borne in the family of Keith. (See “Notes on Heraldry”, “Keith, Great Marischals of Scotland”, and “Understanding the “Coat of Arms”, in this web site.)

As a “crest”, that part of the coat of arms borne by the Earls Marischal, appears a “hart” (mature European red deer) head, having ten tines. This crest, enclosed in a belt, is shown at the beginning of this page. The belted crest may be displayed by descendants in a Keith line, to signify that we are of the Clan…”cadet” to lines of the Earl or of a sept family.

A second theory about the origin of “Keith” is also widely chronicled, and deserves comment for consideration. This second theory claims that the tribal name, Catti, in time and by usage in the Scottish tongue, came to be “softened” in its pronunciation. The ultimate version of such linguistic evolution culminates in “Keith” as we know it.

We use the generic “KEITH” to represent all who claim a tie with the family, primarily because this is the most widespread and, so far as we know, was the earliest used spelling of the surname. Even so, all spellings are equal in the scheme of things. Genetic identity is the more important factor in a clan bond, and not a particular spelling. In this instance, it IS the pen that matters, and not how you write your name.