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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.

Online Databases[edit | edit source]

Surnames[edit | edit source]

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), Dorward (door keeper) 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), Buchan, Dalziel, Dunbar, Peebles, Sutherland, Tweedie (River Tweed) or Glasgow.
    • Murray (Moireach, someone from Moray), Boyd (Boideach, someone from the Isle of Bute),
    • Craig (Creag, meaning a rock) Forrest, Milne (a mill), Muir (moorland or summer grazing area, Ross (someone living on a headland), Wood
  • Patronymic, based on a person’s father’s name often containing Mac- or -son -
    • Dickson/Ritchie (Richard), Thomson, Williamson/Wilson, Duncan, Rollo, Watt/Watson (Walter's son)
    • MacConnochie (MacDhonnchaidh, son of Duncan), MacWilliam (MacUilleim), Quayle/MacPhail (MacPhòill, son of Paul)
    • Unlike Ireland, names based on Ò (grandson) are rare. However there are one or two exceptions such as Ogilvy (Ò Ghillebhuidhe grandson of the blonde man, MacGhillebhuidhe in modern Gaelic). O' in Scotland tends to mean "of" and comes from Lowland Scots.
  • Descriptive or nickname, often referring to hair colour, complexion, or personality traits -
    • Braidfute (Broad footed), Fairbairn (Beautiful child), Reid (red), Black
    • Dow (Dubh, dark haired), Keir (ciar, swarthy, or ceàrr, left handed), Breck (Breac, freckled), Douglas (Dùghlas from Dubh-ghlas, dark-grey haired), Gilroy/Kilroy (MacGhilleruaidh, son of the red headed person), Bowie (Buidhe - blonde person), Glass (glas - grey haired)
    • Armstrong, Godard (good natured), Hardie (bold, daring, also a derivative of McHardy), Kenard (kind-hearted), Sharp (sharp or keen, also a derivative of McKerran), Smart (smeart, meaning active), Truman (true or trusty man) 
  • 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), Gall
  • Surnames based on animals
    • Matheson (MacMhathain, son of the bear), MacKechnie (MacEacharna, son of the horse lord), MacCalmain (son of the dove)
    • Hogg, Dove, Brock (broc - a badger), Todd (a fox)
  • 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-Deòir or Deòrach), Gilmour (MacGhilleMhuire - servant of St Mary), Mellis (MacGhilleIosa or Maol-Iosa - servant of Jesus)

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).

Books on Scottish surnames[edit | edit source]

Many books discuss Scottish surnames:

  • Black, George Fraser. Surnames of Scotland: Their Origin, Meaning, and History. New York: New York Public Library, 1946. (Family History Library book 941 D4b.)
  • Dorward, David. Scottish Surnames
  • Guppy, Henry Brougham. Homes of Family Names in Great Britain. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing, 1968. (Family History Library book 942 D4g 1968.) This book discusses the geographic origins and meanings of certain surnames.
  • Hanks, Patrick, and Flavia Hodges. A Dictionary of Surnames. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Digital version at Ancestry - free; (Family History Library book 929.42 H194d. BYU FHL book CS 2385 .H27 1988.) The book contains entries for most major surnames of European origin and some rare surnames.
  • Lasker, G. W. and C. G. N. Mascie-Taylor. Atlas of British Surnames: With 154 Maps of Selected Surnames. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1990. (Family History Library book 942 D4Lg.) This book charts with maps the density of surnames in Scotland.
  • Titford, John . Searching for Surnames: A Practical Guide to their Meanings and Origins. Newbury, England: Countryside Books, 2002. (Family History Library book 942 D4tj.) This book discusses the meaning and origins of early surnames.

Several websites help you map the geography of Scottish surnames. To learn more, see Surname Distribution Maps. GenMap UK (£) helps you create your own United Kingdom surname distribution maps.

Projects that study specific surnames are called one-name studies. The Guild of One-Name Studies is an example of an organization that has identified several thousands such projects.

The British Surnames website can help you learn a wide variety of information about Scottish surnames. maintains a 'Surname List' by county which could prove to be helpful.

Another aspect of Scottish surnames is pronunciation. "A List of Surnames Pronounced Differently from What the Spelling Suggests" (1883)[1], available online, identifies some more unusual examples.

More Information[edit | edit source]

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[edit | edit source]

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.

Given Names[edit | edit source]

A significant percentage of traditional Scottish names have Gaelic origins. Scottish Gaelic, like other early Britannic languages, has it origins in the Celtic language. Therefore, Scottish Gaelic names reflect this Celtic influence.

There are similarities between many Scottish and Irish given names because, according to Sharon L. Krossa, in "Quick and Easy Gaelic Names," in the early part of the Middle Ages, the name pools in Gaelic Scotland and Ireland were more or less the same, since the Gaels came to Scotland from Ireland and brought their names with them as even they brought the Gaelic language. Over time, the name pools diverged and some early Gaelic names that went out of fashion in one culture remained in fashion in the other.

The Scots, 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.

According to "The Scottish Onomastic Child-naming Pattern," by John Barrett Robb, another naming system called the "ancestral pattern," generally went as follows:

  • The first son was named for his father's father.
  • The second son was named for his mother's father.
  • The third son was named for his father's father's father.
  • The fourth son was named for his mother's mother's father.
  • The fifth son was named for his father's mother's father.
  • The sixth son was named for his mother's father's father.
  • The seventh through tenth sons were named for their father's four great-grandfathers.
  • The eleventh through fourteenth sons were named for their mother's four great-grandfathers.
  • The first daughter was named for her mother's mother.
  • The second daughter was named for her father's mother.
  • The third daughter was named for her mother's father's mother.
  • The fourth daughter was named for her father's father's mother.
  • The fifth daughter was named for her mother's mother's mother.
  • The sixth daughter was named for her father's mother's mother.
  • The seventh through tenth daughters were named for their mother's four great-grandmothers.
  • The eleventh through fourteenth daughters were named for their father's four great-grandmothers.

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 read this handout: Scottish Clans and Naming Patterns

Scotland Nicknames[edit | edit source]

Many given names have at least one associated nickname. When names are recorded in civil registration of birth, marriage, and death or in church records, a nickname may have been used instead of the more formal given name (Kate/Katie for Catherine, Jinty for Janet, Gussie for Angus or Jock for John (or more rarely James), for example). Many nicknames are easy to spot, but others are not.

Nicknames can lead the researcher astray if used incorrectly. Sandy or Sandie is one example, being used for both Alexander and Alexandra (it is sometimes seen as "Sandi" in its feminine form nowadays); Charlie or Charley being used for both Charles and Charlotte.

There are also Scottish variants to common English given names. Following are just a few examples of common Scottish variants and spelling:
Alexander - Alec, Eck, Sandy, Sander, Xander.
Ann/Anne/Anna - Anice, Annag, Annella, Annis, Annys.
Andrew - Andro.
Elizabeth - Elspeth.
George - Dod.
James - Hamish.
Jane - Jean, Janet Jessie.
John - Ian.
Katherine - Catrina, Caitriona, Ceitidh.
Mary - Mae, Morag.

For More Information[edit | edit source]

Dorian, Nancy C., "A substitute Name System in the Scottish Highlands," American Anthropologist 72:2 (Apr. 1970): 303-319.

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 .)

Krossa, Sharon L. "Quick and Easy Gaelic Names,"

See also[edit | edit source]

External Links[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Robert Charles Hope, A Glossary of Dialectal Place-nomenclature, To Which is Appended A List of Family Surnames Pronounced Differently from What the Spelling Suggests (London: Simpkin, Marshall, 1883). Digitised by Internet Archive - free.