Manx Nomenclature

Genealogy is an impossible art where there is no established system of family names. Forces that undermine the stability of marriage and the necessity of its registration threaten the Family Historian very seriously. But of course for long ages there was no system of surnames and no recorded registration. Camden in the l6th century wrote that there was no evidence of hereditary surnames in England before the Conquest. He suggested that they then originated in the South of the country about the end of the 11th century, though in the North they were hardly universal till the beginning of the 15th. In Wales surnames were occasionally ignored up to the end of the 18th century. In Scotland Lowlanders began to favour them in the 12th century, though the process was not completed till the 16th or 17th. Isaac Taylor tells us that they usually began with Barons and Franklins, next they were adopted by tradesmen and artisans, and lastly by labourers - a pattern that suggests it was property and privilege they were designed to protect.

In Ireland however, patronymics have been found at the beginning of the 10th century, and developed over the next two. A more elementary protection was being sought here - that of existence itself. Blood is thicker than water and makes the best cement for defence. Here and in the highlands the patronymic banded together groups and clans that shared a common ancestry, e.g., O'Neills. Where then does the Isle of Man fit into all this?

No one has ever been able to explain the origins and ethnic make-up of the population of the Island. Orosius (c.416) says it was inhabited by a race of Scots. Bede, 200 years later, says it had a population of upward of 300 families (as against Anglesey's 960). Any pattern of natural expansion must have been shattered by the Norse invasions. Some scholars have suggested on linguistic and physiological grounds that on perhaps two occasions the whole population was exterminated and replaced. When the Island was under Norse control between 1095 and 1266, intermarriage replaced apartheid, and we expect the Island would have followed the Norse system of the variable patronymic of son or daughter of the father. On linguistic grounds, and probably with more justification, it has been suggested that there was a considerable immigration of Gaelic speakers from Scotland after 1266, whilst the Island was under Scots hegemony.

If this period influenced the Island, it never gave it a Clan system to match the Scots or Irish. Some Manx students, however, have thought they could detect traces of some such system in the concentration of certain family names in certain parts of the Island, particularly in those blocks of land held under the same patronymic, as found in the earliest landowning records at the end of the 15th century. These concentrations show particularly clearly in the northern parishes of Andreas, Bride, Lezayre, Jurby and Maughold, where the two families of McTeres and McNeils held between them a total area equivalent to the parish of Jurby.

The only light that can be thrown on the process of the development of the Manx surname comes from such documents. Certainly the first recorded names of those 15th century land-holders almost universally carry the prefix Mac. J. J. Kneen records such forms earlier, MacKerthac (1238), MacIotlin (1116) and MacMaras (1098). The same applies to the l6th century, but the Rolls which begin early in the 17th century show only 7 names out of 134 carrying a Mac. Instead the Mac has been reduced to an opening C or some other guttural, and most names are recognisable, despite varieties of spelling, as mainly the Manx surnames of today.

Another feature of these 15th century documents is the rich abundance of forenames, almost all of which evolve later into typical surnames. One such is Hawley McIssac. Hawley is a most unusual Christian name, but with Mac added it reveals itself as Cowley, a common Manx surname This coupling of seeming forenames by the prefix Mac, on the one hand, and the emergence of surnames so created, on the other, could well suggest that the start of the Stanley regime in 1405 marked the final stages of the adoption of family patronymics. Certainly if the new monarch was to establish a firm order of government after 150 years of relative laisser-faire, some system of surnames on the English pattern would be a pre-requisite for roll-making and taxation. In fact one of his early Tynwalds (in 1422), was interrupted by an armed intervention, allegedly against the imposition of a poll-tax, and in it Hawley and Donald MacIsaac were heavily involved.

But what of the origin of our particular family name ?

The title of this study, SEED OF ISAAC, is a double-entendre. My first personal family research revealed that I came of a sept of the family that began with an illegitimate child born in 1765 and intriguingly and uniquely baptised as Isaac. But the family name itself seems to mean Seed of Isaac too.

As such the name has forms all over the world. In Singapore I came across a Muslim ben Itzak. Israel has it`s Yitzaks too. The Christian Church counts it among the Bible names it uses for forenames. Probably it is the root behind Hungarian and Czech names like Husak and Cizek.

J. J. Kneen's Manx Personal Names regards Kissack as so deriving and categorises it simply as a Bible name. Yet this is to overlook the fact that no other Old Testament name has become a common Manx surname (obviously to disregard Cain). Is this then an oversimplification? Could the name derive through some other, more particular, personality ?

For one possibility we need look no further afield than the Calendar of the Saints of the Celtic Church. Here is an 8th century St. Kessog, who has his feast on March 10th, and his own piece of hagiography. Born at Cashel in Munster, son of the king, who would be one of the two high-kings of Ireland, he became a Culdee, a product of the early Celtic monasteries, who alternated monastic life with missionary journeys. One of these took him to Inch-ta-Vannach, an island in Loch Lomond. Ultimately he suffered martyrdom at Bandry, where there is still a stone to commemorate him, called Carn-na-Chessaig, in the parish of Luss, where also the church is dedicated to him. Other areas also have associations with him. Perthshire, Inverness, Caithness, Lennox. Soldiers had a special veneration for him and he is portrayed in military dress with arrows and a bended bow. As late as 1695 his Bell, a sacred relic was listed among the feudal investitures of the Earldom of Perth.

Such a figure would be sufficient to account for the name MacKissock in Scotland. Not, naturally, to claim descent from him, for although celibacy was not a rigid rule in Celtic lands, converts would be more likely to take the name of the missionary as a new, Christian, name.

But if we wish to explain the presence of the name of Kissack in the Isle of Man as having entered the north of the Island in the era of Scots ascendancy, we should expect that the Scots element of the family would outnumber the Manx. But this is hardly justified by figures. The Mormon microfiches which index the parish records of both Scotland and the Isle of Man enable a comparison for the 18th and 19th centuries to be made. Taking all the entries in the Scots registers of surnames that reflect a McIsaac root in some form, and setting them against the Manx figures for the same period, there are in all 345 entries for all Scotland, 41 of which lack the Mac. For the Island there are 2,550 entries, which if anything might imply that the Manx had perhaps originated the Scots branches. But no one would want to claim that, although most of the plain (non-Mac) Kissock entries are found in South-west Scotland. Later we shall see evidence of one Kirkcudbright family which did cultivate relations with a Manx family.

What of an Irish connection? An Irish priest serving St. Mary`s Catholic Church in Douglas in 1861 in recording a marriage of the family, not only latinised, as duty demanded, James into Jacobus, but hibernised Kissack into Cusack. Edward MacLysaght in his The Surnames of Ireland distinguishes between a MacKissack line and a Cusack one, recognising an older Celtic root for the first, but assigning an Anglo-Norman origin to the latter. Even so de Keussac is an interesting name, perhaps enshrining a Breton name which itself relates to the same root. But I cannot but wonder whether Edward MacLysaght`s own name may not itself be a derivation of the same root. In Irish the vestigial 'I' can indicate the elision of Gilli-, (servant of). The basic root then is revealed as Ysaght, a form very close to the oldest form of the word in relation to the Isle of Man.

This is found in a document of 1377, a bull of Pope Gregory XI from Avignon, in which he confirms the rector of Moliwe (Malew) in his benefice. His name is Malcolm Ysage. At least that is how scholars now transliterate the 14th century script. Volume xxiii of the Manx Society Publications (produced last century) then printed the word as Ysaye - Isaiah rather than Isaac. Later decyphering, however, has preferred 'g' to 'y', no doubt because thus it corresponded to a known Manx name.

In Ireland between 1792 and 1854 microfiche records show in Ulster 7 entries of different forms of the plain name Kissack. These will be considered in connection with the presence in N. Ireland during the Napoleonic Wars of a regiment of Manx Fencibles. Unfortunately the reduced state of Irish records pre-empt any detailed study of the name in Ireland.

It is to the script of the earliest Manx records that appeal must be made in any judgment of Paris between Patriarch Isaac and St. Kessog. MacKissock is a form where the initial Mac could mask whether the root name began with a vowel or with a gutteral which would be lost in the 'c' of the prefix. But the early Manx documents so write the prefix as to show that the stem name begins with a vowel, Ysag (or more usually, Isag or Issak). Kessog then must be ruled out, and if the uniqueness of an Old Testament name forming a Manx patronymic causes concern, we must make what we can of the fruitless speculation that perhaps a medieval Jewish family once settled in the Island, and produced Catholic priests.

There are many spellings of the name in those early manuscripts : MacIsaak and MacIssake (1418); MacKissage (1429); MacIssaak (1511); Kissag (1610); Kissaige, Kissag, Kissauge, (1610); Kissage (1807); Kissaack (1812). When spelt with a 'g', (even 'ge'), it was always pronounced hard. The variety of spellings suggests that the accent was then always on the last syllable. With illiterates, records were always made by word of mouth and so spelling depended on the ear and whim of the clerk.

When Lezayre needed a new parish clerk in the 1770s, three John Kissacks set their marks to the petition; all spelt their names in different ways, yet this did not prove a clue to differentiate themselves and their families, for when in 1774, Ewan the old miller of Lezayre and his wife Mary Corkish made their will, Ewan on one line set his mark by the spelling Kissage, and Mary sets hers on the line below to the spelling Kissagg.

Nor can one find significance in the fact that while the Mac forms used a k-ending, the non-Mac forms developed a g-ending. Nor that other forms like Kisig or Kisag, (found usually in parts of the Island where the family was rarer than in Lezayre and the North), can be set in a gradual transition until about 1800 when the modern form again with a `k` ending finally prevailed. For in a document of 1705, of some importance to this history, and to be found elsewhere in exteso, the name is spelt Kissack. In Ramsey seemingly the k-ending continued through the 17th century. Normally this study will use the modern form and ignore all variations.

It was not until 1598 that it became a rule for parish priests to keep records of baptisms, marriages and deaths. Not unnaturally it was the two parishes adjacent to the bishop`s palace, Ballaugh and Michael, that seem to have taken the order most to heart. Others, (unfortunately including Lezayre and Marown) with Kissack connections, have long lacunas. These registers show a great contrast in respect of the fewness of forenames as against the profusion of these in the l5th and l6th century records. During 200 years Kissacks were to use only some 36 male and rather more female names. Feltham, that tireless visitor to the Island in about 1800, who copied the monumental inscriptions in every churchyard except Braddan, states that he had not found 20 instances of anyone bearing a second Christian name. About 1830 an explosion of more exotic second names appear, and the 20th century saw the forename really come into its own, trebles and even quartets of names.

But in the 17th, 18th and most of the 19th century Kissacks made the name John serve for 148 of their scions, William 127, Robert 67, Thomas 43, James 35, and Edward 38. Among the girls the top seven were Catherine, Elleanor, Margaret, Ann, Jane, Elizabeth and Isabel. At the other end of the scale one wonders why Molly Kissack called the illegitimate child she bore at Ramsey in 1785, Selathiel (and indeed whatever became of him?).

But then he would not have been a Kissack. It was a custom in the Isle of Man that an illegitimate child bore his father`s surname, if he acknowledged him. The custom lasted till in the 1870`s the compulsory registration of births was made law, and it was directed that from then on illegitimate children should be registered in the mother`s name. It was a custom that had irritated the 7th Earl of Derby in the middle of the 17th century. He expressed himself to his son about it when he was warning him to take good care in regard to the Christian family, who took advantage of it to "form a faction", as he called it :

'One once said (in a pleasant humour) he thought the Deemster (Christian) did not get so many bastards for lust`s sake, as in policy - to make the name of Christians flourish . It is not so much that so many be called Christian, but they have made themselves chief here, they are crept into the principle places of power; they be seated round about the country and in the heart of it; they are matched with the best families; have the best livings; and must not be neglected . . .

'It be very true there be many bastards here in this Isle and he is to be wondered at who wonders at it. But sure it would be very well if that law were here as in other places, that all known bastards be called after their mother`s names. And there is more reason f or it here, in respect they are subject to make factions. Men of one name side with one another against anybody. Nor do they love or esteem less because their friend, brothers or sisters be base born.'

But few mothers had so broad a taste for names as Selathiel`s. Consequently the genealogist faces endless frustration. For if his task is impossible without surnames, it is still extremely difficult if the adoption of surnames is to mean a diminution in the variety of Christian names. (It is also ponderable whether the imposition of the surname system was not a step in the process of depersonalisation; when a man had no surname his personal name was indeed a noun; but with surnames, the forename tends to become merely adjectival - a convenient enumeration to distinguish siblings.)

Gerald Hamilton-Edwards in his In Search of Scottish Ancestry comments on the Scots as developing a well-accepted pattern of naming children, the eldest and second sons after paternal and maternal grandfathers respectively, the eldest and second daughters after maternal and then paternal grandmothers, the third son and daughter after their parents. There seems no trace of any such habit in the Kissack family, nor I believe generally in any Manx family. Families tended to use the same group of names, thus intensifying the limitation of names and the escalation of namesakes. Ewan was a name used often in the family in Lezayre and Maughold in the 17th and 18th centuries, but hardly elsewhere. John and William however were popular in all branches. Sometimes the same name was used more than once in the same family. In 1715 the will of William Kissag, junior, of Onchan leaves his sheep 'to his three brothers, John Paul and William'. And of course if one child bearer of a name died, it was not considered taboo to use it for a later birth. There was a tendency for eldest sons to be named after their father.

Please note that the copyright of the 'Seed of Isaac' and 'The MacIsaacs' remains with the family of Rex Kissack and no part may be reproduced from this site without their permission.


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