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Sketches of The Character, Manners, and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland


Q, Page 101. Patronymics

In the Highlands, where so many of the same name live in the same district or glen, some denomination for distinguishing individuals beyond that of the generic name is indispensable. In the late Sutherland Fencible Regiment there were 17 William Mackays in Captain Sackville Sutherland's company, and 104 in the regiment. When the 2d battalion of the 78th Highlanders was raised in 1801, an ensign from Ross-shire brought 18 men of his own name, of Macrae, as part of his complement of 20, for an ensigncy. On the estates of many noblemen and gentlemen, the number of their own surnames is often beyond all proportion greater than any others. On a part of the estate of Menzies, running four miles along one side of a valley, on the banks of the Tay, there are 502 of the Chief's name, descendants of his family. Many similar instances are still to be met with where gentlemen have retained their ancient tenantry. In Athole, an extensive district of Perthshire, there were, fifty years ago, 36 landholders of the name of Stewart: there are still 23; and in Athole, Strathearn, and Monteith, there are 5000 people of that name, of whom upwards of 1800 are descendents of Neil Stewart of Garth, who died in 1433. In such communities, the want of some distinguishing appellation would lead to confusion. These distinctions were generally made as follows: In the case of a chief by using singly, and by way of distinction, the denomination of son of the first founder, or most renowned man of the family; as, for example, the Duke of Argyll, who is styled Mac Caillain Mor, [Although Mor is great, the word does not always mean great power, or superior talent. It was more frequently given to men of large size, or portly persons.] the son of the great Colin; Mac Connel Dhu, the son of Donald the Black, the name of the chiefs of the Camerons. Under this head there was another distinctions. Chieftains, Cean Tays, or great branches of a clan or family, were distinguished as the sons of the first founder. Such as Breadalbane, a great branch of the clan Campbell; Mac Caillain Macconachie, the son of Colin the son of Duncan. [The people seldom call Lord Breadalbane by his patronymic, but not so the Duke of Argyll, Lord Seaforth, Lord Macdonald, and many others. Biding a few years ago through the Duke of Argyll's parks at Inverary, I observed some young blood horses grazing. A woman happening to pass at that time, I asked in Gaelic to whom the horses belonged. "To whom should they belong," she answered sharply, "To whom should they belong but to Mac Caillain? seemingly quite indignant that I should suppose that any man could posses any thing but Mac Caillain Mor.] Lairds or landholders were often named from their estates, as Stewart of Grandully, Stewart of Garth, and so on; all others being distinguished by some personal mark which might be either an accidental defect, any natural advantage, or any singularity of colour, figure, or features. The second Marquis of Atholl was known by the name of Ian a Bheal Mor, John with the large mouth; John the first Duke of Atholl being blind of an eye, Ian Cam; the first Earl of Breadalbane having a pale countenance, Ian Glas; the second Earl, Ian Bachach, from his being lame. If a man had no personal mark, or patrimonial distinction, he was known by adding the name of his father, as the son of John. This perhaps ran back for three or four generations. However absurd a long string of names may appear in English, it is not so in Gaelic, from the facility of compounding words in that language.

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