For many "exiled
Scots" the only link with their home country is their name, so its
understandable that they attract great importance to it. Electric
Scotland enthusiasts might therefore be interested to discover the
origins and meanings of such names.
Compared with forenames
(in our current multi-ethnic society the term "christian"
names is no longer PC), surnames are of comparatively recent origin. If
you go back about 500 years, most people lived in small rural
communities without any need of formal identification. Slowly
thereafter, forenames were not enough so they began to use surnames to
differentiate them from their neighbours.
There are four main
In a sense, it could be
regarded as sexist to be preoccupied with our names. After all, we have
two parents, four grandparents and, if one goes back, say, six
generations, 64 direct ancestors possibly all with different names. What’s
so special about the male line? The Spanish don’t think that way!
These simply describe a
name derived from the name of a father or ancestor. Such names occur
throughout the Western World, as exemplified by Johnson, O’Reilly
In Scotland, in contrast
to England, it is not uncommon for patronymics to omit the son,
in examples such as Thom, Watt, Dick, Donald, Ewing (from Ewan),
Gibb (from Gilbert) and Hendry.
The Gaelic prefix Mac
can be a great source of confusion. On the one hand it means "son
of" which would suggest that anyone named, say, MacKenzie or
MacDonald is directly descended from some forebear named Kenzie
or Donald. This is clearly ridiculous bearing in mind that
virtually all Macs are descended from people who just happened to
live in an area controlled by a particular clan chief. As regional
domination changed with time so often did the names of the inhabitants.
The commercial importance
of tartans, arising from the Highland romanticism led by Sir Walter
Scott, has much to answer for in terms of the mis-information about the
locational importance of Scottish surnames. To take just one example, Reid,
which is a variation of the colour red, is really based on nicknames
given to those with red hair or a ruddy complexion. On the basis that
one of the early chiefs of Clan Donnachaich was a certain "Red"
Roberston, all "Reids" are now erroneously linked
with the above Clan and, therefore, with the Clan lands in and around
Bruar in Perthshire.
Some place names refer to
a specific town or village. It is likely that families didn’t acquire
these names until they migrated from them. After all there would be
little benefit in all the residents of a village having the same name!
All of the following are
likely to be linked to the towns, villages or river of the same place:
there names have their
origins in the location of the family within a parish. These include:
(French "bois" and "ville")
(Gaelic "dweller in the meadow")
("cliff" or "crag")
(Gaelic "South hill")
(Gaelic "island dweller")
(Gaelic "bagan", "hollow")
(French "l’isle", "island")
Some occupational names
notably Smith and Wright are the same in Scotland and
The following are
The use of nicknames was
probably the earliest means of distinguishing men with the same
forename. These include:
(Gaelic "hooked nose")
(Gaelic "crooked mouth")
is basically Gaelic for "son of". This does not mean that
someone named MacAllister is descended from someone named
Allistair, it is much more likely that the ancestor happened to live in
the Clan MacAllister territory.
There is no major
significance in the alternative forms of Mac or Mc (see
note on spelling variations below).
Most Macs are
patronymics although there are several examples of occupations and
|McIntyre son of carpenter
||McBain son of fair one
|McPherson son of parson
||McDuff son of dark one
|McGowan son of smith
||McGill son of stronger
|McSporran son of purse-keeper
||MacRae son of grace
Nowadays it is possible
to judge many people’s approximate age from their forename based on
the period of popularity of a film star, pop idol or sporting
In earlier times, in
Scotland, the following traditional naming pattern was adopted by the
majority of families.
- the first son was named after his
- the second son after his maternal
- the third son after his father
- the first daughter after her maternal
- the second daughter after her paternal
- the third daughter after her mother
If adopted rigidly this
sometimes resulted in two children within the same family being given
the same name although, more commonly, such situations were the result
of the older child dying in infancy.
The Registrars were
expected to advise parents not to use abbreviated names, nor to give a
recognised male name to a female child (or vice versa), but parents
could ignore such advice.
Many forenames have
common variants, e.g.:
Hugh, Hew, Ewan
Jane, Janet, Jean, Jessie
Many names ending in
"ina", such as Robertina or Williamina, were
often shortened to Ina.
A note on spelling
There is a long
established belief that, in the 18th Century, Scottish
education was far superior to that in England. This was, to a degree,
the result of John Knox’s teachings and of the Presbyterian movement
generally, which led to their being "a school in every
parish". By the mid 19th Century, this advantage had
disappeared, partly due to migration to the larger towns where there
were inadequate educational facilities, and partly due to there being no
compulsion for parents to send their children to school.
Because of this, many
Scots at this time were illiterate as evidenced by the use of X marks,
instead of signatures, on the statutory birth, marriage and death
certificates. This led, inevitably, to both forenames and surnames being
spelt in different ways by either the Kirk Session Clerk (usually the
parish schoolmaster) pre 1855, or the local Registrar subsequently.
Understandably, the incidence of spelling variants was particularly high
in Gaelic-speaking areas. The problem of spelling variants was of course
compounded when families emigrated, particularly to America where the
officials at Ellis Island, for example, would simply write the name
For anyone researching
their ancestry, additional forenames are a real boon, especially for
those with fairly common surnames. However, sometimes middle names were
acquired in later life and may not appear on birth certificates.
If the middle names are
essentially surnames it is likely that they are derived from someone
close such as the maternal grandfather, the parish minister or even the
"Double-barrelled" names are
associated with the rich – with good reason. They were usually the
result of marriages where the groom married into a moneyed family. As a
token of recompense, there was an acceptance that the bride’s surname
would be linked with that of her husband.
ABOUT TONY REID
Tony Reid is a partner, with his son
Stuart, of the ancestral research firm, Scottish Roots.
He has had a long and varied career,
mostly in library and information work, culminating in a 10 year spell
in Luxembourg as Librarian of the European Parliament.
It was while he was out there that he was
bitten by the genealogical bug and has never been quite the same since.
His most exciting find was the discovery that his great great
grandfather was a neighbour of the David Livingstone family in Blantyre.
His "retirement" to Edinburgh
in 1984 saw the launch of Scottish Roots.