Origins and History of the Wishart Surname

A Brief Introduction

Over the years there have been several theories pertaining to the origins and history of the Wishart surname.  To date none are conclusive, and it might transpire that the exact story as to how and when ‘Wishart’ first came to Britain may never be established, however concrete evidence that Wisharts lived in Scotland during the early 13th Century does exist, and possibly all individuals bearing the surname today are descended in one way or another from them.

The earliest theory was published in 1722 by the antiquarian writer Alexander Nisbet, whose book on on heraldry  ‘A System of Heraldry’ provided details on the origins of the Wishart surname that were generally accepted for over a hundred years. Nisbet wrote that:

spriteJacob Vanbassan, a Dane, in his Manuscript, says, that one Robert, a natural son of David Earl of Huntingdon, being in the wars in the Holy Land, was to-named Guishart, from the slaughter he made on the Saracens; and from him was descended the families of the name of Wishart.

It is true that David, Earl of Huntingdon was father to a son named Robert, however it was subsequently proven that Robert died young, and one wonders whether Nisbet made a ‘leap of faith’, having also documented the arms of David’s other son John (right), which are very similar to those of the Wisharts?   In a book written in 1875 about George Wishart, the Scottish martyr, the Reverend Charles Rogers questioned Nisbet’s explanation, describing it as “an evident fiction” and published a more plausible, and generally accepted theory that is still in use today.  He wrote:

spriteThe name Guiscard, or Wiscard, a Norman epithet used to designate an adroit or cunning person, was conferred on Robert Guiscard, son of Tancrede de Hauteville of Normandy, afterwards Duke of Calabria, who founded the kingdom of Sicily. This noted warrior died on the 27th July 1085. His surname was adopted by a branch of his House, and the name became common in Normandy and throughout France. Guiscard was the surname of the Norman kings of Apulia in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

More about Tancrede de Hautville, and his origins.

A closely related theory connected to the de Hautville family, which excludes the above, is the possibility that Tancrede de Hautville was a Danish warrior named Tancred Visk Hard and that the name was conferred upon him after distinguished military service. Other sources cite the Hauteville (meaning high village or town) family as being descended from Norsemen who settled in an area around Coutances in Normandy (where there remains to this day a town called Hauteville-la-Guichard) during the 10th Century. Tancrede was married twice and had six children with his first wife Muriella and at least a further eight with his second, Fressenda. Much has been written about the activities of the Guiscards in Southern Europe, a good starting point being a book written by J J Norwich entitled “The Normans in the South“.

When did the Guiscards come to Britain?

Currently there is no evidence that a Norman bearing the Guiscard name came to Britain with William the Conqueror’s invading army (1066), however a Turstin Guiscard was subsequently recorded in the Domesday Book (1086) as holding a small amount of land in Great Saling – a village in Essex, England. How he got here, and whether he was the progenitor of the Wisharts is unknown.

How did a Guiscard end up in Scotland?

This is still unclear, however in a recent presentation (2013) about his one name study of the Wishart surname, genealogist Jack Wishart offered up a tantalising possibility as to how this may have come about. This theory had been put to him by a member of the Wyzard family, living in Newbury, Berks in 1975.

During 1174 the Scottish King, William the Lion, was captured by the English at Alnwick, having unsuccessfully attempted to besiege the castle. In chains, he was sent to Henry II at Northampton before being taken across the English Channel to Henry’s castle at Falaise in Normandy, a town very close to the Guiscard estates around Coutances. It could be that a Guiscard befriended William whilst he was in captivity, and after William having being ransomed in 1175, the Guiscard accompanied him back to Scotland. Normans had been encouraged to settle land in Scotland for some years prior to William’s reign. In his book “The British Isles: A History of Four Nations”, Hugh Kearney reinforces parts of this theory, writing that:

spriteDavid I encouraged Normans to settle in lands north and south of the Forth and under William the Lion (1165 – 1214) the process was taken further. In effect, a Norman settlement took place under the auspices of the Scottish Crown. Lothian and Strathclyde were particularly affected, but there was also Norman penetration further north in Fife and Moray. Such ‘Scottish’ families as Fraser, Haig, Bruce, Wishart (Guiscard) and Stewart (Many of them today complete with tartan and kilt) first made their appearance in Scotland as a result of this episode.

So who was the first Guiscard (Wishart) in Scotland?

The answer is we don’t know, however it is quite easy to imagine how ‘Guiscard’ changed into ‘Wischard’ being that the Norman “G” was pronounced somewhat like a “W.” George F. Black in his magnum opus ‘Surnames of Scotland’ (1946) gives a possible clue as to who the first Wischard (Wishart) was, with a William ‘Wischard’ reputedly witnessing a “grant of the mill teind to the Abbey of Cambuskenneth, circa 1200.” Perhaps William was the Guiscard who travelled from Normandy with the King, and became the father of a John Wischard, who is the generally regarded as the first recorded Wishart in Scotland?

Tell me more about John Wischard?

John Wischard is recorded as being a Sheriff of Kincardineshire during the reign of Alexander II, 1214-49.  We do not know the name of his wife, or exactly how many children he fathered, however it is presumed that from him, all Wisharts in Scotland are descended.  From surviving records, we do know that John was father to three sons, John, William and Adam. 

The eldest, John, obtained the lands of Conveth (Laurencekirk), Halkertoun, and Scottistoun, in the Mearns, from Adam, Abbot of Arbroath and was knighted by Alexander II.  Descendants of John eventually established the House of Pittarrow and include the Scottish martyr, George Wishart.

William became Bishop of Glasgow in 1270 and Bishop of St. Andrews in 1272. His Seal of office is displayed at the Cathedral in St. Andrews. In 1274 he was consecrated in Scone in the presence of King Alexander III. He died in 1279.

Adam founded the House of Logie Wishart, otherwise the Wisharts of that ilk, having obtained lands in Forfar in 1272 and 1279. Adam’s son Robert became Bishop of Glasgow, and was heavily involved in the wars of independence with England.  In 2004 Jack Blair published an account of the House of Logie, which can be read online at this link: Wishart of that Ilk.

Further details on subsequent generations of the various Wishart families can be found in Charles Rodger’s book and then latterly a book written by David Wishart (Tree 0077) in 1914 entitled: ‘Genealogical History of the Wisharts of Pittarrow and Logie Wishart‘. Eric Wishart has kindly supplied us with a PDF (12MB) of the David Wishart Tree, which can be viewed by clicking the image below.

List of Wishart Surname Variants

Recorded variations of the surname Wishart include Visart, Vischart, Vishert, Vychart, Vyschart, Wischarte, Wischeart, Wiseheart, Wissheart, Wschartt, Wschert, Wyischart, Wyishart, Wyschart, Wysharde, Wyssart, and Wythcharde, Wishard, Weshart, Wissit, Weshat, Weshet, Wishat, Wisheart, Giscard, Guiscard, Whichard, Wiscard, Wischeard, Wisehart, Wiseheart, Wysart, Wyscard, Wyschard.

In his research, Scott Wishart has also found the following variations on various online genealogical databases that have either been mis-transcribed, or mis-interpreted by OCR software: Wishirt, Wishat, Vishart, Ushart, Ushard, Wishurt, Wishet, Wissett, Wisset, Wissit, Wishit, Wissedd, Whishat, Whissett, Wysshet, Wisehat, Nishart, Nishat, Nishard, Mishart, Mishert, Misherd, Weshat, Weshert