The following is closely based on Dr Phillip D Smith Jnr's
explanation of the evolution of surnames, links between surnames
and tartans and the sources used for the compilation of surname
You'll be pleased to hear that a person may wear any tartan of
his or her choice - the exceptions being tartans reserved for
members of the Royal Family or categorised as Personal, Corporate
or Fashion - these last three all belong to someone else through
copyright or trademark.
All tartans in our online surname database are suggested tartans
which means exactly what it says - a tartan suggested for a person
with a given surname. It doesn't mean that a person shouldn't
choose another tartan if they wish.
Clan or Family membership comes about by one of three means:
1. Birth, as generally understood as having one
of the surnames traditionally associated with a Clan or Family.
2. Marriage, although a woman may choose to
wear her own tartan.
3. Adoption. Some clans and families encourage
friends and admirers to adopt and wear their tartan - it's an old
Highland custom to accept the offer to honour your host. Bonnie
Prince Charlie certainly did that in his visits around Scotland
before and after the Battle of Culloden.
"Scotland of Old" was divided into two distinct social systems,
the clan, with a blood or marriage relationship, and the feudal
land-rent society. Despite the modern romantic ideas of clans,
feudalism predominated and eventually prevailed. By way of example,
in 1704 the Chief of Clan Grant directed that his tenants named
"MacDonald" had to wear tartan in the Grant colours.
By the 1700's the majority of Scots lived in areas with
territorial or land-rent obligations more important than a mythical
common ancestry. They were expected to follow their lord, whatever
his name might be. On the Borders, men were required by the March
Law to identify with one of the major families and be a "clannit
man" no matter what their own surname or be "put to the horn" as an
"outlaw." A person has the "right" to wear the tartan associated
with his or her surname - but so does anyone else. Individuals with
a clan or family tartan may also wish to wear an appropriate
"district" tartan or one of the "national" tartans as an
alternative or second tartan.
People with surnames associated with several clans or districts,
should try to identify with one, and only one, and then select that
tartan, rather than acquiring and wearing items of tartan from
different clans. It's quite permissable to wear two tartans from
the same clan however - usually that would comprise a kilt in the
clan tartan and perhaps a plaid in the hunting tartan.
One of our favourite books on the subject is Tartan For
Me! By Dr. Phil Smith Jnr and many of the names in our surname
database will duplicate those in his excellent publication. It's
worth taking a little time to explain the sources of his
information: most came from the collections of the International
Association of Tartan Studies or our International Tartan Index
(now more referred to as the Tartan Ferret). Some are from fellow
members of The Guild of Tartan Scholars supplemented by Phil
Smith's extensive personal knowledge.
Then there are many from the collection of the old Scottish
Tartans Society and from contacts with the industry. Sources of
many names in the lists come from a wide variety of published and
unpublished sources. Chief among the published sources are
Black's Surnames of Scotland, MacLysaght's Surnames of
Ireland, Bell's The Book of Ulster Surnames and
More recently, names have been selected from the John and Shiela
Rowlands' Surnames of Wales (1996) and Charnock's
Patronymica Cornu-Britannica originally published in
London in 1870 and reprinted by Scot's Press. Research is always
ongoing in Scotland, northern England, Nova Scotia, the United
States and indeed any country where Scots have settled over the
The major weakness of earlier Name-Tartan lists, apart from
their brevity, was that they were compiled from records available
in the late nineteenth century. Intervening research and
scholarship has resulted in the publication of hundreds of
additional documents from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
- ship lists, parish records, military records, and tombstones
among them. In addition, there are a plethora of new tartans being
developed by both professional designers and amateurs.
Earlier surname lists ignored variations in spelling resulting
from population shifts and urbanization at a time when most persons
were just becoming literate. Perhaps a million Scots, many of them
monolingual Gaelic speakers, arrived in North America directly or
via Ulster in the period 1720-1820. Irish and Irish speakers made a
similar diaspora a century or more later. Early functionaries and
census takers wrote Scottish and Irish surnames with unique
phonetics, especially in North America. The result was hundreds of
surnames not known in Scotland. The spelling of surnames within
Scotland became "standardized" in the nineteenth century, reducing
the problem. In Ireland, with a larger proportion of native Irish
speakers, the case was similar to that of North America. Wide
variations in surnames are found both within Ireland and overseas
Australian, South African, and New Zealand since migrations largely
came after the development of standardized spelling of Scottish but
not Irish surnam'es.
Modern variations of traditional names come from a variety of
sources, wherever names appear in print. A number of works have
recently appeared in Canada and the United States which contain
long lists of immigrants and early settlers. North American
telephone directories, census, and military records never fail to
reveal new variations of traditional Scottish names. The
availability of directories and genealogies on CD/ROM and the
Internet have proven very useful. A knowledge of the Gaelic and
Irish languages with the insights into predictable sound changes
provided by Phil Smiths's training as a linguist have proved useful
in identifying the original names underlying many modern
By its very nature, any list of surnames is incomplete. More
names will be encountered. Additional tartans are recorded every
year. The resources available, continuing travels to Celtic areas,
and the good will of many Scots, Irish and their descendants will
continue to furnish new information.
Read more fascinating facts about surnames at Scotch-Irish?