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Understanding given names and surnames can help you trace your ancestors. This is particularly true once the origin of the name has been established.
The nobility and wealthy land owners first began using surnames. Merchants and townspeople adopted the custom, as eventually did the rural population. This process took several centuries. Surnames developed from several sources and include the following types:
- Occupational: based on a person’s trade, such as -
- Soutar (a shoemaker), Carter (also derived from MacArthur), Stewart (a steward) or Smith.
- MacGowan/Gow (Mac a' Ghobhainn, son of the Smith), Neillie (Mac an Fhilidh, son of the poet), MacIntyre (Mac-an-t-Saoir, son of the carpenter)
- Geographic: based on a person’s residence
- Aberdein (i.e. Aberdeen), Dalziel, Dunbar, Sutherland or Glasgow.
- Murray (Moireach, someone from Moray), Boyd (Boideach, someone from the Isle of Bute), Ross (someone living on a headland)
- Patronymic, based on a person’s father’s name -
- Dickson/Ritchie (Richard), Thomson, Williamson/Wilson, Duncan
- MacConnochie (MacDhonnchaidh, son of Duncan), MacWilliam (MacUilleim), Quayle (MacPhail, son of Paul)
- Descriptive or nickname, often referring to hair colour or complexion -
- Braidfute (Broad footed), Fairbairn (Beautiful child), Reid (red), Black
- Dow (Dubh, dark haired), Keir (ciar, swarthy, or cearr, left handed), Breck (Breac, freckled), Douglas (Dughlas from Dubh-ghlas, dark-grey haired), Gilroy (MacGhilleruaidh, son of the red headed person)
- Ethnic origins
- Wallace (Wealys, a Brython or Welshman), Bremner (Brabant), Inglis (English), Scott, Fleming
- Galbraith (Mac a' Bhreatannaich, son of the Brython or Welsh speaker), MacDougall (MacDhùghaill -> MacDhubhghaill, son of a Dubhghall, a certain type of Norseman)
- Ecclesiastical, many beginning with (Mac)gil (MacGhille-)
- Kirk (church), Bell
- MacLean (MacGhill-Eain, son of the servant of St John), Gilchrist (MacGhilleChriosd, son of the servant of Christ), MacPherson (Mac a' Phearsain, son of the ecclesiastic), MacMillan (MacMhaolain, son of the tonsured one, i.e. a monk), Dewar (Mac-an-Deoir)
It should be noted that in the Celtic Church until surprisingly late, that churchmen and monks could marry, hence the proliferation of names such as MacNab (Mac-an-Aba, son of the abbot).
For More Information
Many books discuss the origin of Scottish surnames. One of the better books is:
Black, George Fraser. Surnames of Scotland: Their Origin, Meaning, and History. New York: New York Public Library, 1946. (Family History Library book 941 D4b.)
After the Battle of Culloden in 1746 and the subsequent restrictive acts against the Highland clans, many people changed their surnames from clan names to less Gaelic names to avoid being punished by the British government for being associated with clans in disfavor with the crown. Sometimes several generations used a different surname before changing it back to the original clan name.
Some surnames were also directly translated into English, e.g. Mac a' Bhrataich and MacGhilledhuinn could be rendered into Bannerman and Brown/Broun, and sometimes unrelated names were used to translate each other, e.g. Mac na Ceardaich (son of the tinsmith) is rendered Sinclair in some places, MacDhonnchaidh (son of Duncan) as Robertson.
Sometimes first names will also be translated into English or rendered by a different name. In former times, it was common for this to be done by the authorities, with or without the permission of the bearer. For example, someone called Gilleasbaig may find his name rendered either Archibald or Gillespie, and the woman's name Oighrig has been rendered variously as Africa and Euphemia ("Effie"). In more distant times, one of the Lords of Galloway was known as Roland or Lochlan, and Flora MacDonald, would have been known as Fionnghal in her native tongue.
In Orkney and Shetland, where Norn was formerly spoken, many forenames have derivations from pet forms of Scandinavian names, e.g. Rasmie derives from Erasmus.
Patronymics is the custom of deriving a surname from the given name of a father or male ancestor. In the Orkney Islands, Shetland Islands, and many parts of northern Scotland, many people use patronymic names.
The use of patronymics in Scotland was in part a result of early Scandinavian settlement into Scotland, which influenced naming patterns for centuries. While the common use of patronymics eventually died out, their influence is still apparent.
The Scottish, for the most part, had a naming pattern which can be seen in many families. The pattern generally went as follows:
- The first son was named after the father’s father.
- The second son after the mother’s father.
- The third son after the father.
- The first daughter after the mother’s mother.
- The second daughter after the father’s mother.
- The third daughter after the mother.
Sometimes when a child died, the next child of that gender born into the family was given the same name as the deceased child. Occasionally two or more living children in the family were given the same given name. When they were christened, children were usually given one or two given names.
According to Donald J. Steel in his book starting on page 47, Sources for Scottish Genealogy and Family History, (Chichester, Sussex: Phillimore & CO. Ltd., 1970, in National Index of Parish Registers Vol. 12) there are variations to the naming pattern described above. Sometimes the second son and daughter were named after the parents. Another variation is that the eldest son was named after the mother's father, the 2nd son after the father's father. The eldest daughter was named after the father's mother, and the 2nd daughter after the mother's mother.
In some parts of north west Scotland, women are often given the feminized forms of male names, e.g. Donaldina or Donalda, Angusina, Williamina. This used to be widespread in Scotland in the 19th century, but is now out of fashion.
For More Information
A book describing Scottish Christian or given names is:
Dunkling, Leslie Ann. Scottish Christian Names: An A-Z of First Names. London, England: Johnston and Bacon, 1978. (Family History Library book 941 D4du.)
Many names in pre-1700 records are in Latin. Volume three of the following work contains a select list of Latin given names with the English equivalent:
Gardner, David E., and Frank Smith. Genealogical Research in England and Wales. Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft Publishers, 1956-1964. (Family History Library book 929.142 G172g .)
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