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What's in a Name
By Tony Reid

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 sources:

  • Patronymics
  • Places
  • Occupations
  • Nicknames

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 and Ivanovich.

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:

Abercrombie Kelvin
Abernethy Kirkpatrick
Anstruther Lauder
Ballantyne Liddell
Buchan Livingstone
Dunlop Pinkerton
Galloway Powrie
Gordon Presley
Hamilton Raeburn
Heriot Rutherford
Houston Selkirk

there names have their origins in the location of the family within a parish. These include:

Barr (Gaelic "hilltop")
Boswell (French "bois" and "ville")
Brownlie ("brown meadow")
Burns ("stream")
Cluny (Gaelic "dweller in the meadow")
Craig ("cliff" or "crag")
Dallas (Gaelic "waterfall")
Dundas (Gaelic "South hill")
Haig ("hedge")
Innes (Gaelic "island dweller")
Kirk ("church")
Laidlaw (Gaelic "waterway")
Law ("hill")
Logan (Gaelic "bagan", "hollow")
Lyle (French "l’isle", "island")
Muir ("moor")


Some occupational names notably Smith and Wright are the same in Scotland and England.

The following are specifically Scottish:

Baird ("bard")
Baxter ("baker")
Brewster ("brewer")
Coupar ("cooper")
Gow (Gaelic "smith")
Harper ("harp player")
Herd ("shepherd")
Honeyman ("beekeeper")
Laird ("landowner")
Marshall ("blacksmith")
Nasmyth ("knife-smith")
Sangster ("singer")
Souter ("shoemaker")
Spiers ("lookout")
Webster ("weaver")


The use of nicknames was probably the earliest means of distinguishing men with the same forename. These include:

Auld ("old")
Begg (Gaelic "small")
Cameron (Gaelic "hooked nose")
Campbell (Gaelic "crooked mouth")
Dow (Gaelic "dark")
Laing ("tall")
Meikle ("big")
Reid ("red")
Russell ("red")
Tait (Scan "cheerful")

The "Macs"

Mac/Mc 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 nicknames.

Occupations Nicknames
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 personality.

In earlier times, in Scotland, the following traditional naming pattern was adopted by the majority of families.

  • the first son was named after his paternal grandfather
  • the second son after his maternal grandfather
  • the third son after his father
  • the first daughter after her maternal grandmother
  • the second daughter after her paternal grandmother
  • 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.:

Anges, Nancy
Hellen, Ellen
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 variations

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 phonetically.


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 landlord.


"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.


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.



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