The Origins of the Beatons

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The MacBeth Crest

Recently, I obtained a book entitled The Beatons: a medical kindred in the classical Gaelic tradition by John Bannerman, Department of Scottish History, University of Edinburgh. The book was published in 1986. Professor Bannerman's interest in the Beatons arose from their position as a family of physicians practicing in the Hebrides and Western Highlands during the late medieval and early modern periods. The story of the Beatons provides a contrast to the usual picture of the Scottish Highlands as wild and uncivilized during the period and is what drew Professor Bannerman to them. Professor Bannerman's research clears up some of the confusion surrounding the origin of the Beaton name and may provide some insight into our particular branch of the family.

The oldest form of the name was MacMeic-bethad. This evolved into MacBeth. The name means "son of life" and is an indication that the family identification with the profession of medicine goes back a very long time. The name is unusual in that it is not a patronymic despite the Mac- prefix. Most Mac names honor a famous ancestor. The MacDonalds, for example, honor an early member of the family named Donald. The MacBeth family is not related to King Macbeth in Shakespeare's play. The family may have come from Ireland after the time of King Macbeth. Also, "Macbeth" was the king's given name--it is the MacBeth family's surname.

According to very old traditions, the family descends from an Irish High King, Niall Noigiallach from whom are descended the Ui Neill or O'Neals. Professor Bannerman doesn't think much of this ancestry, but offers no better. Another very old tradition is that the Beatons came from near Coleraine in County Derry, Ireland, in the late 13th century as part of the retinue of Aine (Agnes), the wife of Angus "Og" MacDonald. Angus Og ("Little Angus," apparently a small man) was a follower of Robert I (Robert the Bruce) who led the MacDonalds at the Battle of Bannockburn. During a critical portion of Robert's quest for the Scottish crown, he sheltered under the protection of Angus Og. The very first record of a Beaton practicing medicine in Scotland is Patrick MacBeth, principal physician to Robert I.

In the late 16th century, there are the first recorded instances of MacBeths adopting the name "Beaton" as a surname for use in non-Gaelic contexts. This was the name of a prominent family of Lowland Lairds who are said to derive their name from the city of Bethune in French Flanders. This was a fairly common practice among Highlanders of the time; adopting a non-Gaelic name that was similar to their Gaelic name. This would have been shortly after the time of Dr. Peter Beaton, the supposed ancestor of medical Beatons on the island of Skye and Professor Bannerman goes to considerable effort to document that these earliest Highland Beatons were, in fact, MacBeths.

The story of Dr. Peter Beaton first appeared in print in 1778 in a book titled An Historical and Geneological Account of the Bethunes of the Island of Sky by Rev. Thomas Whyte. Rev. Whyte was interested in tracing the ancestors of his wife, Anne Bethune or Beaton, a daughter of Mr. Daniel Beaton. Minister of Rosskeen on Skye. Rev. Whyte based his account on a "Manuscript History of the Bethunes of the Island of Sky" which was written after 1750, perhaps by his wife, and perhaps based on material gathered by her uncle, Mr. Fearchar Beaton, minister of Croy also on Skye. It is quite clear that the various accounts naming Dr. Peter Beaton as a Beaton ancestor, including Mabou Pioneers by A.D. MacDonald, derive from Rev. Whyte's account.

Rev. Whyte traces Anne Beaton's ancestors back to an Angus Beaton, physician to Sir Ruairi Mor MacLeod of Dunvegan. Angus's ancestors are given as Fearchar, son of Angus, son of Peter, son of Archibald of Capeldra (called Archibald, laird of Pitlochie in Burke's), son of John the fifth Laird Beaton of Balfour. John of Balfour is the grandfather of Cardinal David Beaton, an advisor to Mary, Queen of Scots. John of Balfour did have a son, Archibald of Capeldra, but Archibald had no known son named Peter. Not only does Peter Beaton not fit into the known descendants of the fifth Laird of Balfour, he doesn't fit well into the known ancestors of Angus Beaton. Professor Bannerman's research indicates that Angus's great grandfather was named Fearchar, not Peter. Fearchar's approximate dates are too early for him to have been a descendant of Archibald of Capeldra.

So, who was Peter Beaton? Rev. Whyte says he was "a famous physician." It happens that every time Professor Bannerman can identify a "Peter" in Whyte's account with a person mentioned in MacLeod records, that person's name is "Patrick." Apparently, the use of "Peter" as a non-Gaelic substitute for "Patrick" was common. Professor Bannerman considers it significant that "Peter" Beaton and the very earliest known medical Beaton, Robert I's physician, shared the same Christian name. Perhaps "Peter" was a descendant of the much earlier Patrick Beaton.

It may be that, by the early 18th century, some of the Beatons forgot that their name had originally been MacBeth two centuries earlier and invented the connection as an explanation of why they had the same name as the Lowland Beatons of Balfour. Some went so far as to adopt Bethune, the original form of the Lowland name as an authentic form of the Highland name of Beaton.

I can only make the most tenuous connection between the account of our ancestors found in A.D. MacDonald's Mabou Pioneers and any of the lineages recounted by Professor Bannerman. According to A.D. MacDonald, the Donald Beaton who went to Galena, Illinois was the son of Angus, son of Donald, son of John, son of Alexander of Skye, son of Donald, son of Ronald, son of Malcolm, son of Donald. Alexander of Skye is pivotal in this account. He is the Beaton who left Skye for Lochaber. His brother-in-law died famously at Culloden and three of his sons, including our ancestor, John, "took an active part" in the Culloden campaign. Culloden was fought in 1745 which dates Alexander to the early part of the 18 th century.

As it happens, Professor Bannerman records an Alexander Beaton living in Kinloid in Lochaber in 1739 and 1748. These years correspond well with the likely dates for Alexander of Skye. Professor Bannerman records only one other Alexander Beaton. He lived in the late 16th century and was the earliest example of a person using both MacBeth and Beaton as surnames. The Alexander mentioned by Professor Bannerman had a brother, John, who was also living in Kinloid. There were several other Beatons living in the Kinloid area in the decades before the records of Alexander. This is one of the Beaton groups for which Professor Bannerman has little information. It may be that the Alexander of Professor Bannerman is not descended from the earlier Kinloid Beatons but was a native of Skye and was our ancestor. It is not possible to be certain and Professor Bannerman provides no information as to his ancestors or descendants.

A.D. MacDonald makes it quite clear that our ancestors were from Skye and Lochaber and were married into, and part of, Clan Donald. Beatons have been associated with Clan Donald since at least the late 13 th century. These were the Gaelic Beatons who were originally known as MacBeth and who may have come form northern Ireland. They weren't related to the Beatons of Balfour despite the similarity of the name. The supposed connection, Dr. Peter Beaton, may never have existed and, if he did, was almost certainly not a descendant of the Beatons of Balfour.

Our Beaton ancestors were famous for their knowledge of medicine. They wrote medical manuscripts in their native Gaelic. Professor Bannerman concludes that in medieval Europe medicine was studied in only four languages: Latin, Greek, Arabic, and Gaelic. Our ancestors were an important part of that learned tradition.

Professor Bannerman's book, though rather turgid in style, is much more believable than other accounts that postulate two, unrelated, families, both named Beaton and both practicing medicine as a family tradition in the Hebrides and Western Highlands. It may be that his conclusions are wrong but, for now, they make the most sense to me.

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The MacBeth Crest
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This page last modified on Sunday, November 25, 2007

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Aunt Annie

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