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Understanding customs used in surnames and given names can help you identify your ancestors in records. Learn to recognize name variations and see clues in names.

Online Tools[edit | edit source]

Surnames[edit | edit source]

The nobility and wealthy land owners first began using surnames. Merchants and townspeople adopted the custom, as eventually did the rural population. This process took several centuries, and occurred more quickly in certain regions.

Patronymic Surnames[edit | edit source]

A patronymic surname is a surname originated from the given name of the father

Patronymic names changed with each generation. Based on a person’s father’s name they often contain Mac- or -son:

  • Dickson/Ritchie (Richard), Thomson, Williamson/Wilson, Duncan, Rollo, Watt/Watson (Walter's son)
  • MacConnochie (MacDhonnchaidh, son of Duncan), MacWilliam (MacUilleim), Quayle/MacPhail (MacPhòill, son of Paul)
  • Unlike Ireland, names based on Ò (grandson) are rare. However there are one or two exceptions such as Ogilvy (Ò Ghillebhuidhe grandson of the blonde man, MacGhillebhuidhe in modern Gaelic). O' in Scotland tends to mean "of" and comes from Lowland Scots.

In the Orkney Islands, Shetland Islands, and many parts of northern Scotland, many people used patronymic names. The use of patronymics in Scotland was in part a result of early Scandinavian settlement into Scotland, which influenced naming patterns for centuries. While the common use of patronymics eventually died out, their influence is still apparent.

Surnames Historical Development[edit | edit source]

  • Before record keeping began, most people had only one name, such as John.
  • As the population increased, it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information. John became John the smith, John the son of Matthew, John the short, or John from Strathmiglo.
  • At first surnames applied only to one person, not to the whole family. After a few generations, these names became hereditary and were passed on from generation to generation.
  • Surnames developed from several sources. For example:
    • Occupational
      • Soutar (a shoemaker), Carter (also derived from MacArthur), Stewart (a steward), Dorward (door keeper) or Smith.
      • MacGowan/Gow (Mac a' Ghobhainn, son of the Smith), Neillie (Mac an Fhilidh, son of the poet), MacIntyre (Mac-an-t-Saoir, son of the carpenter)
    • Geographical, based on a person's residence
      • Aberdein (i.e. Aberdeen), Buchan, Dalziel, Dunbar, Peebles, Sutherland, Tweedie (River Tweed) or Glasgow.
      • Murray (Moireach, someone from Moray), Boyd (Boideach, someone from the Isle of Bute),
      • Craig (Creag, meaning a rock) Forrest, Milne (a mill), Muir (moorland or summer grazing area, Ross (someone living on a headland), Wood
    • Patronymic (based on a person’s father’s name, see above)
    • Descriptive or nickname often referring to hair colour, complexion, or personality traits -
      • Braidfute (Broad footed), Fairbairn (Beautiful child), Reid (red), Black
      • Dow (Dubh, dark haired), Keir (ciar, swarthy, or ceàrr, left handed), Breck (Breac, freckled), Douglas (Dùghlas from Dubh-ghlas, dark-grey haired), Gilroy/Kilroy (MacGhilleruaidh, son of the red headed person), Bowie (Buidhe - blonde person), Glass (glas - grey haired)
      • Armstrong, Godard (good natured), Hardie (bold, daring, also a derivative of McHardy), Kenard (kind-hearted), Sharp (sharp or keen, also a derivative of McKerran), Smart (smeart, meaning active), Truman (true or trusty man) 
    • Ethnic origins
      • Wallace (Wealys, a Brython or Welshman), Bremner (Brabant), Inglis (English), Scott, Fleming
      • Galbraith (Mac a' Bhreatannaich, son of the Brython or Welsh speaker), MacDougall (MacDhùghaill
      • MacDhubhghaill, son of a Dubhghall, a certain type of Norseman), Gall
    • Surnames based on animals
      • Matheson (MacMhathain, son of the bear), MacKechnie (MacEacharna, son of the horse lord), MacCalmain (son of the dove)
      • Hogg, Dove, Brock (broc - a badger), Todd (a fox)
    • Ecclesiastical, many beginning with (Mac)gil (MacGhille-)
      • Kirk (church), Bell
      • MacLean (MacGhill-Eain, son of the servant of St John), Gilchrist (MacGhilleChriosd, son of the servant of Christ), MacPherson (Mac a' Phearsain, son of the ecclesiastic), MacMillan (MacMhaolain, son of the tonsured one, i.e. a monk), Dewar (Mac-an-Deòir or Deòrach), Gilmour (MacGhilleMhuire - servant of St Mary), Mellis (MacGhilleIosa or Maol-Iosa - servant of Jesus)
  • It should be noted that in the Celtic Church until surprisingly late, that churchmen and monks could marry, hence the proliferation of names such as MacNab (Mac-an-Aba, son of the abbot).

Clan Names[edit | edit source]

Many Scottish surnames are the names of Scottish clans that were once powerful families dominating large swaths of territory. However, it is a common misconception that every person who bears a clan's name is a lineal descendant of the chiefs of that particular clan. There are several reasons for this. In many cases, the families that originally lived on the lands acquired by powerful clans (such as the Campbells, Gordons, Macdonalds, and Mackenzies) adopted the names of their new lords. In some cases, the name of a clan may be identical to the surname of another family, yet there is no historical connection between the different families. A surname derived from a patronym, such as MacDonald may be used by numerous unconnected families descended from different men named Donald.[1]

After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, many people changed their surnames from clan names to less Gaelic names to avoid being punished by the British government.

Some surnames were also directly translated into English, e.g. Mac a' Bhrataich and MacGhilledhuinn could be rendered into Bannerman and Brown/Broun, and sometimes unrelated names were used to translate each other, e.g. Mac na Ceardaich (son of the tinsmith) is rendered Sinclair in some places, MacDhonnchaidh (son of Duncan) as Robertson.

Bynames[edit | edit source]

Bynames, to-names, or other names, were once very common in Scotland. These names were used in areas where there were few names in circulation, and the bynames were added onto the name of person, in order to distinguish them from others who bore the same name. Bynames were particularly prevalent in fishing communities in the northeastern part of Scotland, but were also used in the Borders and the West Highlands. In some cases within fishing communities, the names of fishing boats were tacked onto the names of people in order to differentiate them from others.[2]

Traditional pronunciation[edit | edit source]

Many Scottish surnames have pronunciations which are traditional in Scotland. Sometimes these are reflected in phonetic spellings. Some of these have died out, or are currently being supplanted within Scotland itself. They may differ from American or English pronunciations:

  • Brown - "Broon"
  • Christie - "Krist-ee" (first "i" short)
  • Cochrane - "Cock-run"
  • Cockburn - "Coh-burn"
  • Colquhoun - "Cahoon" or "Col-hoon"
  • Crichton - "Cry-tun"
  • Dalziel - "Die-yell" or "Day-ell"
  • Farquhar - "Farker"
  • Forbes - "Forbees" or "For bays"
  • Graham - "Gray-um" or "Grayhum"
  • Kerr - "Carr"
  • Lithgow - "Lith-goe"
  • MacKay - "Mac-Kye"
  • MacKean - "Mac-Kain" (now rare)
  • MacKenzie - "MacKinnie" or "Mackinyie" (now almost obsolete)
  • MacLean - "Ma-clane"
  • MacLeod - "Ma-cloud"
  • Marjoribanks - "Marchbanks"
  • Menzies - "Mingis"
  • Methven - "Meven" or "Meffin"
  • Moray - "Murray"
  • Muir - "Myoor"
  • Niven - "Neevin"
  • Reid - "Reed"
  • Ruthven - "Riven"
  • Urquhart - "Urkut" or "Urkurt"
  • Wemyss - "Weemz"

Another aspect of Scottish surnames is pronunciation. "A List of Surnames Pronounced Differently from What the Spelling Suggests" (1883)[3], available online, identifies some more unusual examples.

Given Names[edit | edit source]

  • A significant percentage of traditional Scottish names have Gaelic origins.
  • There are similarities between many Scottish and Irish given names. In the early part of the Middle Ages, the name pools in Gaelic Scotland and Ireland were more or less the same, since the Gaels came to Scotland from Ireland. Over time, the name pools diverged and some early Gaelic names that went out of fashion in one culture remained in fashion in the other. [4]
  • In some parts of north west Scotland, women are often given the feminized forms of male names, e.g. Donaldina or Donalda, Angusina, Williamina. This used to be widespread in Scotland in the 19th century, but is now out of fashion. Sometimes these names may provide a clue to the names of close male relatives.
  • In Orkney and Shetland, many forenames have derivations from pet forms of Scandinavian names, e.g. Rasmie derives from Erasmus. This is because Norn was spoken in these parts into the 18th and 19th centuries.
  • Roman Catholics will have confirmation names. These are often used as middle names, and may be used later in life, but will not necessarily appear in birth or Christening records.

Sometimes first names will also be translated into English or rendered by a different name. In former times, it was common for this to be done by the authorities, with or without the permission of the bearer. For example, someone called Gilleasbaig may find his name rendered either Archibald or Gillespie, and the woman's name Oighrig has been rendered variously as Africa and Euphemia ("Effie"). In more distant times, one of the Lords of Galloway was known as Roland or Lochlan, and Flora MacDonald, would have been known as Fionnghal in her native tongue.

Naming Patterns[edit | edit source]

The Scots, for the most part, had a naming pattern which can be seen in many families. The pattern generally went as follows:

  • The first son was named after the father’s father.
  • The second son after the mother’s father.
  • The third son after the father.
  • The first daughter after the mother’s mother.
  • The second daughter after the father’s mother.
  • The third daughter after the mother.

According to "The Scottish Onomastic Child-naming Pattern," by John Barrett Robb, another naming system called the "ancestral pattern," generally went as follows:

  • The first son was named for his father's father.
  • The second son was named for his mother's father.
  • The third son was named for his father's father's father.
  • The fourth son was named for his mother's mother's father.
  • The fifth son was named for his father's mother's father.
  • The sixth son was named for his mother's father's father.
  • The seventh through tenth sons were named for their father's four great-grandfathers.
  • The eleventh through fourteenth sons were named for their mother's four great-grandfathers.

According to Donald J. Steel in Sources for Scottish Genealogy and Family History, (Chichester, Sussex: Phillimore & CO. Ltd., 1970, in National Index of Parish Registers Vol. 12, p 47) there are variations to the naming pattern described above.  Sometimes the second son and daughter were named after the parents.  Another variation is that the eldest son was named after the mother's father, the 2nd son after the father's father.  The eldest daughter was named after the father's mother, and the 2nd daughter after the mother's mother and so on.

  • The first daughter was named for her mother's mother.
  • The second daughter was named for her father's mother.
  • The third daughter was named for her mother's father's mother.
  • The fourth daughter was named for her father's father's mother.
  • The fifth daughter was named for her mother's mother's mother.
  • The sixth daughter was named for her father's mother's mother.
  • The seventh through tenth daughters were named for their mother's four great-grandmothers.
  • The eleventh through fourteenth daughters were named for their father's four great-grandmothers.

Sometimes when a child died, the next child of that gender born into the family was given the same name as the deceased child. Occasionally two or more living children in the family were given the same given name. When they were christened, children were usually given one or two given names.

Scotland Nicknames[edit | edit source]

Many given names have at least one associated nickname. When names are recorded in civil registration of birth, marriage, and death or in church records, a nickname may have been used instead of the more formal given name (Kate/Katie for Catherine, Jinty for Janet, Gussie for Angus or Jock for John (or more rarely James), for example). Many nicknames are easy to spot, but others are not.

Nicknames can lead the researcher astray if used incorrectly. Sandy or Sandie is one example, being used for both Alexander and Alexandra (it is sometimes seen as "Sandi" in its feminine form nowadays); Charlie or Charley being used for both Charles and Charlotte.

There are also Scottish variants to common English given names. Following are just a few examples of common Scottish variants and spelling:
Alexander - Alec, Eck, Sandy, Sander, Xander.
Ann/Anne/Anna - Anice, Annag, Annella, Annis, Annys.
Andrew - Andro.
Elizabeth - Elspeth.
George - Dod.
James - Hamish.
Jane - Jean, Janet Jessie.
John - Ian.
Katherine - Catrina, Caitriona, Ceitidh.
Mary - Mae, Morag.

For Further Reading[edit | edit source]

See also[edit | edit source]

External Links[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "Scottish surnames", in Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_surnames, accessed 19 February 2021.
  2. "Scottish surnames", in Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_surnames, accessed 19 February 2021.
  3. Robert Charles Hope, A Glossary of Dialectal Place-nomenclature, To Which is Appended A List of Family Surnames Pronounced Differently from What the Spelling Suggests (London: Simpkin, Marshall, 1883). Digitised by Internet Archive - free.
  4. "Quick and Easy Gaelic Names", by Sharon L. Krossa, https://medievalscotland.org/scotnames/quickgaelicbynames/, accessed 19 February 2021.
  5. Robert Charles Hope, A Glossary of Dialectal Place-nomenclature, To Which is Appended A List of Family Surnames Pronounced Differently from What the Spelling Suggests (London: Simpkin, Marshall, 1883).