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Surnames and Ancestry in Scotland



Many people who are interested in their ancestry think that surnames provide infallible guides to family relationships and to pedigree. This, however, is true only within certain limits, and the whole subject of surnames and their connection with kinship is surrounded by misconceptions. Most of the more serious and prevalent errors arise from a failure to appreciate the ways in which surnames arose and the stages by which they became stabilised.

There are four main sources of surnames:

  • Surnames from Place Names
  • Surnames from a Craft or Occupation
  • Patrynomic Names i.e. Names from Father
  • Names based on the Landlord's Name

Surnames from Place Names

Many surnames are place-names and originated with a man who lived in or came from a place, sometimes a big district like Moray (Murray) or Lothian, often a small rural community. A proprietor was particularly likely to take his name from his estate, but tenants and others also took their names from their places of residence. Clearly a number of individuals and ultimately of families could originate in the same place and take their names from it without being related to each other. Besides, the same or similar names were given to different places, and this means that individuals or families who came from different parts of the country and shared neither blood nor territorial affinity could nevertheless have the same surname. Thus anyone called Calder (or its variant Caddell) may derive from an ancestor resident in Calder in West Lothian, Calder (or Cadder) in Lanark- shire, Calder (or Cawdor)in Nairnshire or Calder in Caithness. Similarly, there is no necessary relationship among the many families called Blair, a place-name which occurs in at least a dozen different areas.

Surnames from a Craft or Occupation

There are surnames which derive from a craft or occupation. Smith, which is the most common name in Scotland, is an outstanding example, and Wright, Baxter or Baker, Tailor, Carpenter, Mason, Shepherd, Slater, are among the many others. It would clearly be the height of absurdity to think that one single smith was the ancestor of all the people now bearing the name Smith. The same is true when a name of this type arose in the Highlands, where a designation Coinneach Gobha (Kenneth the smith) gave rise to the surname Gow. Any argument for relationship, based upon surnames of this type, must be treated with extreme reserve.

Surnames from a Personal Quality or Nickname

The third group is the epithet or nickname, originally descriptive of some individual, such as Little, Meikle (that is, Big), Brown, White, Gray, Black. The Gaelic donn (brown-haired) was one possible source of the surname Dunn; Campbell is caimbeul (crooked-mouthed) and Cameron is camshron (crooked-nosed). Grant is presumably the French grand, equivalent to the Scots Meikle. Once again it would be far beyond the bounds of possibility that a single 'little Richard' or Richard Little was the progenitor of all the Littles now to be found in a Directory. The fact must be stressed that almost any surname could arise quite independently at different times and in different places.


Patrynomic Names i.e. Names from Father

The fourth group and the one which perhaps causes most misunderstanding is the surname of patronymic origin. These are the names usually represented in Lowland Scotland by the suffix - son, but with them must be taken the Christian names which have become surnames and are really truncated patronymics - Henry, Mitchell (for Michael) and Arthur, for instance.

The development of names of this type was rather more subtle than it was in the first three categories. In a society which had genuine patronymic practice the designation changed generation by generation. Robert's son might be John Robertson, his son Andrew Johnson, his son Peter Anderson, and so on. This system was general in all the northern lands, and it extended to women, with forms which would translate as, for example, Elspeth Johnsdaughter. In Denmark, Sweden and Norway the practice came to an end at varying dates between the sixteenth century and the nineteenth, but in Iceland it still continues. In Shetland it persisted in many families until the nineteenth century, so that one finds, among numerous examples, Arthur Anderson (d. 1855), son of Andrew Robertson, James Manson (d. 1875), son of Magnus Olason, and (though this was becoming rarer) Marion Alexandersdaughter (d. 1857); illogically, women were now using the suffix - son, as in Isabella Johnson, daughter of John Williamson.

Throughout most of Lowland Scotland genuine patronymic practice went out in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. What happened was that an individual decided (or some authority decided for him) that he would adopt his father's patronymic as his own surname, so that the son of John Robertson called himself not Andrew Johnson but Andrew Robertson, and from that point Robertson became the surname of his descendants. It was clearly a matter of chance in which generation the patronymic was, as it were, 'frozen' to make it a surname. In the instance just given, if the decision had been taken a generation later the surname of the family would have been Johnson and not Robertson. This simple fact, which is far too seldom remembered, makes nonsense of any attempt to use such surnames of patronymic form as guides to more remote ancestry and of any belief that there is an affinity among the holders of such a name. Half-a-dozen Robertsons, shall we say, are probably descended from half-a-dozen different Roberts who lived in different parts of the country at different times and have no ground at all for claiming kinship with each other; not only so, but it is only chance that they are called Robertson and not, shall we say, Johnson or Anderson.


Mac or Mc : Son of the Father

In the Highlands, where 'son of' was denoted by the prefix 'Mac - ' rather than by the suffix ' - son', patronymic names were commoner than they were in the Lowlands and seem indeed to have been the general form of designation. The 'Mac - ' could be prefixed to craft names as well as Christian names, giving, for example, 'Mac an t-saoir', son of the joiner, which became Macintyre, and also the group of names denoting descent from an ecclesiastic: Macnab, Mactaggart, Macpherson and Macvicar, meaning son of the abbot, the priest, the parson and the vicar.

Designations were carried into two or three stages, by the use of 'Vic - ' (mhic, the genitive of mac), and could represent in effect potted pedigrees. Sixteenth-century examples are Angus MacDonald Vic Angus, son of Donald MacAngus, and Alastair MacAllane Vic Ane Vic Coull, and there is a splendid example in 1617: Hector MacGorrie Vic Achan Vic Allester Vic Ean duff, son of Gorrie MacAchan Vic Allester Vic Ean duff. In women's names, 'Nean' (nighean), meaning 'daughter of', could take the place of 'Mac', giving patronymics like Margaret nean Ean glas Vic Ilespig. Designations of this type, recorded in official registers, were not surnames, and, while individuals so recorded may have had surnames (as will be shown below), their surnames are not used in the record, and identification may consequently be difficult for the researcher. For instance, but for their territorial designation 'of Lochiel' would anyone know that the men recorded in the mid-sixteenth century as Ewan Allanson, John Dow, his son, and Ewan, his grandson, were in fact all Camerons? The use of genuine patronymics in records continued well into the eighteenth century: for example, in South Uist in 1721 we find names like John MacEwan Vic Ean Vic Charles and Murdo MacNeil Vic Ean Vic Duill.

On the other hand, not only were certain Highland families recorded by surnames from a fairly early date, but the prefix 'Mac - ' could mean not only 'son of' but also 'descendant of', and to that extent such a patronymic, persisting generation by generation, could be 'frozen' as a surname. An obvious example is MacDonald. Angus of the Isles, in the later thirteenth century, was the son of Donald, and his successors retained the 'style' MacDonald, perhaps not so much as a surname in the modern sense but as a mark of their descent; but (as will appear later) the vast majority of the numerous MacDonalds of later times had no kinship with the descendants of Angus or necessarily even derive from anyone called Donald at all.

The persistence of the patronymic, sometimes at unofficial level, into modern times is explained by the need to confer ready means of identification in small communities where a particular surname is common. Names indicating either parentage or place of residence are commonly given for this reason, forming the 'to-names' of the fishing communities of the north-east (a term identical with the tilnavn of Scandinavia) and similar names elsewhere. Perhaps the most picturesque and cryptic examples occurred in the Borders: 'John Bell called Quhitheid', 'Edward Bell called the Dansair', 'John Bell called Ranyis Johnne', and - incredibly - 'Andrew Irvin called Tailyeour curst Geordie'.

The process by which the genuine surname took the place of personal designations which changed from generation to generation took a long time to complete, and there are instances throughout the sixteenth century, in almost any part of the country, which show that some people still had more than one designation and it may be hard to say which if any of t e designations was even yet a real surname, When we find a man with a
t an the name of his actual occupation; but with 'William Davidson or Litstar' and 'Matthew Paterson or Litstar', both of whom were priests, the tstar' (i.e. dyer) is clearly a surname. And in the case of 'Andrew Wilson or Tailor, the son of Andrew Wilson', the name 'Wilson' is a genuine surname, whatever 'Tailor' may be. Even in the late sixteenth century we find an occupational name being adopted as a surname, for Andrew Strachan, who happened to be a gardener at Falkland, had a son who was styled 'John Strachan or Gardener' and a grandson who was 'George Strachan or Gardener'. We also find a surname originating in a place-name combined with a patronymic, in 'Alexander Murray or Angus- son'. In Orkney and Shetland in the late sixteenth century men were still often known simply by their places of residence, e.g. John of Aywick, and, while some of them were later known by patronymics, others, especially in Orkney, adopted the place-name as their surname. 

Names based on the Landlord's Name

One very important qualification to any attempt to use surnames as guides to pedigree arises from the fact that right on to the eighteenth century at least, there was a tendency, perhaps more especially in the Highlands though not only there, for men to adopt the surname of their landlord as their own surname, and one consequence was that when a man moved from one estate to another he might change his name. In the 1750s it was related that 'John MackDonell... was really and truly a Campbell, having changed his name to that of MacDonell upon his coming to live in the bounds and under the protection of the family of Glengary, it being the usual custom for those of a different name to take the name of the chieftain under whom they live'. The use of the landlord's name as a man's own explains why in the 1580s a servant of the Earl of Huntly was called 'Gordon or Page' - Gordon because his master, Huntly, was a Gordon and Page because he (or his ancestor) was in truth a page.

Surnames Could Change over Time

Occasionally we find a switch from one kind of designation to another: thus in the 1470s the three sons of Thomas Soutar were David, John and Thomas Thomson, and whether their descendants were Soutars or Thomsons we cannot say. There was, besides, a tendency for people to give up the more outlandish names and adopt names which were familiar or distinguished. It seems, to take a curious example, that the Scandinavian Sigurdsson, which became Shuardson in Shetland, was Scotticised as Stewartson and finished as Stewart. How true it is that not all Stewarts are 'sib' (related) to the king. And, besides, some Stewarts presumably descend from the stewards of this or that estate and not from royal Stewards, just as Baillies descend from bailies of various estates. Neither can we be certain that all the holders of that other royal name, Bruce, descend from the same ancestor. True, the name originated in a place-name in Normandy, and it is unlikely that more than one family came to Scotland from there, but, apart from the tenants of Bruces who may have adopted their laird's name, it may be suspected that some originally had the less glamorous name of Brewhouse.
Some other pitfalls may be mentioned. It was far from rare for a man to change his name on inheriting or otherwise acquiring landed property, and indeed charters sometimes laid it down that the proprietor must bear a certain name; and for similar reasons husbands sometimes took their wives' names. In each of those cases the surname ceased to be a guide to more remote ancestry.


Mac and Mc: No Difference

One very elementary error is to believe that there is some significance in variant spellings o f the same name, for example Clerk and Clark, Burnet and Burnett, Gray and Grey, or, in certain Highland names, the variation between Mac - and Mc - and between the use of a capital or a small letter in the second part of the name, e.g. MacLean and Maclean. The truth is that until a matter of two and a half centuries ago the spelling of proper names, as of other words, was quite arbitrary. Different scribes used different spellings, the same scribe used different spellings within the same document, an individual would spell his own name in different ways on different occasions. So no significance whatever must be attached to different spellings as indicative of ancestry or relationship. It was simply a matter of chance, as spelling did become standardised, that certain families adopted particular spellings and other families, possibly closely related to them, adopted different spellings.


Other Spelling Differences

On the other hand, similar spellings may confuse what are in truth totally different names. Livingston is a Lowland name, of West Lothian origin, but Livingstone is a Highland name, and there is no relation between the two. Similarly, 'Johnson' is a patronymic name, 'Johnston' derives from John's 'toun' or settlement, while 'Johnstone' might originate in the name of some landmark; there are three different names. Some Camerons - perhaps most - are Highland Camerons from Lochiel, but others must take their names from the places called Cameron in Lothian and Fife. Dewar and Shaw are other examples of names with distinct Highland and Lowland origins, and Dunn, while it may derive from Gaelic donn, may equally well derive from the place Dun in Angus. The distinction between a Highland and Lowland origin has often been effaced when a Gaelic name has been translated into English, so that MacNeacail becomes Nicolson and MacGille-mhoire becomes Morison - which means that they are added to the host of unrelated patronymics spanning the whole country and with no affinity among them.

Names in Official Records

We might expect that the compilers of official records would always have a consistent preference for a recognised surname over other designations, but this was not entirely so, and their practice may well have been based on no more than the purely utilitarian one of using the designation which would most clearly identify the individual. Thus some of the examples of Highland patronymics given above are from the Register of Sasines and the Register of the Privy Seal. On the other hand, there is some reason to believe that the official recording of names had a certain influence towards stabilising surnames, and in some areas the establishment of the Register of Sasines in 1617 clearly had some effect. Variation of names further declined because ministers, in their registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, preferred names which they did not think outlandish, and in the Highlands many names indicative of remote ancestry were lost because ministers had difficulty in recording Gaelic names unfamiliar to them and substituted names which had well established Anglicised forms. In so far as variation survived into the nineteenth century it was further curbed by the compulsory registration of births, marriages and deaths from 1855, because Registrars began to insist that an individual must use the same surname as his father had used.

The numerous complexities, and the many uncertainties, mean that casual assumptions or guesses about kinship and descent, based solely on surnames, are no substitute for serious research into ancestry.





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