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Thinking About Scottish Surnames
– Sherry Irvine, CGRS, FSA (Scot)

Millions of North Americans are descended from Scottish ancestors. To search successfully for their roots, they need a good foundation of information, including an understanding of the derivation and distribution of Scottish surnames.

The Basics of Scottish Surname Derivation
Scottish names derive from patronymics (e.g., Robertson), occupations (Burgess), local features or places (Guthrie), and nicknames (Inglis, meaning English). Patronymic names make up a large proportion of Scottish surnames, and use of them lingered in parts of the Highlands well into the 1800s. As for occupational names, only a few spring from Gaelic origins. As for nicknames, not all "Mac" names indicate a clan affiliation, and many fewer of these remain in use today than have existed in the past.

With Scottish surnames, it is worth remembering that the border with England in no way prevented names from crossing over, and that people moved constantly between Ireland and Scotland. Roots of some Scottish surnames can be traced to the followers of William the Conqueror, to Norse and Flemish origins (present-day Belgium), and to several other countries of Europe.

Surname Variations in Research Materials
Looking up surnames is almost irresistible; we come across a book about surnames, and we look up a few. How many of us then try to find the name in other surname books or take time to determine the perspective or purpose of the compilers, and then stop to consider the relevance of the information to our own research?

Here are some examples in the form of brief summaries of what can be found for three names in two reference works.

From Black, George F. The Surnames of Scotland. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1999 (first published by the New York Public Library, 1946).

Irvine: of territorial origin, Irving in Dumfriesshire and Irvine in Ayrshire; the Dumfriesshire parish was the chief source of the name; the charter of the Barony of Drum dates from1324; an offshoot of the Aberdeenshire family appears in Shetland in the mid-1500s; in Northern Ireland, the name has become confused with the Irish Erwin. (p. 378)
Blackhall: from the lands of Blackhall in the regality of Garioch, Aberdeenshire; hereditary coroners and foresters for the earldom of the Garioch from before 1400; family declined in the 1600s, and their lands and offices were acquired by the Burnetts. (p. 79)

McPhee: one of the oldest personal names; the home of the clan was probably the island of Colonsay; in Gaelic, it is MacDhubhshith, meaning "black one of peace"; a family in South Uist were known as "black fairy" apparently for their knowledge of the fairies. (p. 493)

From Dorward, David. Scottish Surnames. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 1995.

Irvine: one and the same as Irving; from the place in Ayrshire, meaning green water (from the Brittonic ir afon); widespread in Scotland since the late Medieval period; The Irvines of Drum were the most important landed family of the name; at some point it migrated to Ireland. (p. 156)
Blackhall: no listing

McPhee: a form of MacDhubhshith which means "son of the Black Fairy"; established in South Uist and Colonsay; the MacPhees were record keepers to the Lords of the Isles; their chief was murdered in 1623, and the clan dispersed; many of this name were tinkers roving the fringes of the Highlands. (p. 231)

If nothing else, these variations show that acceptance of the explanation in one reference book is unwise, and that there are hazards in attempting to interpret and explain origins of surnames. In this example, both Black and Dorward caution against relying upon simple definitions and provide information on early written references. Black did extensive research into the earliest written forms of surnames and briefly notes the type of record, the date, and the place for many. He also lists variations (there are forty-five for Irvine). Dorward offers early historical references as well.

Personal Research Tips
If there is good reason to be skeptical about what books have to say, there is, also, a good deal to be gained by carrying out personal surname research. This is especially helpful when the proverbial roadblock appears, as it no doubt will. Names can be uncommon in one place and common in another, or common at one time and uncommon at another. Early on, it is advisable to investigate distribution, both in Scotland as a whole, and in the geographic area where research is concentrated. The various indexes to Scottish parish registers are readily accessible and are ideal tools for such an exercise.

It is also helpful to learn something about variations and changes in names and how they came about. For example, some parishes had very few surnames amongst the inhabitants; Gaelic names were translated and anglicized; the "Mac" was dropped from many names; and some Gaelic names disappeared when families moved to the Lowlands and chose something else. Careful study of local documents such as church registers will help in following the changes.

For example, the village of Findochty in Banffshire had, among 182 families, just four surnames: Flett, Sutherland, Smith, and Campbell (Black, Surnames of Scotland, p. xxxii). There were not a lot of forenames either, so many people bore the same name. To cope with the confusion, the inhabitants invented nicknames ("to-names") or, in a written record, inserted the name of a wife or parent to distinguish one from another. In some fishing villages, the name of the fisherman's boat would be added to his name.

In Argyllshire among the changes recorded for Gaelic names include McIlvernock changing to Graham and McNewcater to Walker (Glasgow and West of Scotland FHS, Argyll People, 1999, p.25). Looking only for alternate spellings is of no help in a case like this. Gaelic was declining in use, and a local official faced with writing difficult names in a register or minute book opted for something simpler.

With respect to Scottish names, the most common questions by those inexperienced in genealogical research are about clans and tartans. Many people assume that if their name is Scottish, they must have both, and it must be easy to look it up in a book. Septs (an Irish term meaning "division") of clans are fewer in number than many books describe, and not every family has a tartan associated with it. A good place to begin looking for more information is the Collins Scottish Clan and Family Encyclopedia (George Way and P. Squire, HarperCollins, 1994).

Editor’s Note: For more information on this topic, see the book Your Scottish Ancestry: A Guide for North Americans. It is one of today's product specials and is on sale for $15.95.

Sherry Irvine, CGRS, FSA (Scot) has been researching her British ancestry for twenty-five years. She began lecturing in 1984 and has operated Interlink Bookshop and Genealogical Services since 1988. She is the author of Your Scottish Ancestry: A Guide for North Americans and Your English Ancestry: A Guide for North Americans.


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