Millions of North Americans can trace their ancestry back to Scotland, making Scottish genealogy a topic of great interest. To embark on a successful search for Scottish roots, researchers need a solid foundation of knowledge, including an understanding of the derivation and distribution of Scottish surnames.

Scottish surnames stem from various sources, such as patronymics (e.g., Robertson), occupations (Burgess), local features or places (Guthrie), and nicknames (Inglis, signifying English). Patronymic names, commonly found in Scottish surnames, persisted in parts of the Highlands until the 1800s. Occupational names, on the other hand, have fewer Gaelic origins. Notably, not all “Mac” names indicate clan affiliation, and fewer of these names remain in use today compared to the past.

A key point to remember about Scottish surnames is that the border with England did not restrict name exchange, and people frequently moved between Ireland and Scotland. As a result, the roots of Scottish surnames can be linked to William the Conqueror’s followers, Norse and Flemish origins (present-day Belgium), and other European countries.

When researching surnames, many are tempted to consult various surname books. However, it’s essential to consider the compilers’ perspectives and the relevance of the information to one’s research. To illustrate, let’s examine three names from two reference works:

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

  • Irvine: Territorial origin with Irving in Dumfriesshire and Irvine in Ayrshire as primary sources; the Dumfriesshire parish holds significant importance; some branches appear in Shetland and Northern Ireland.
  • Blackhall: Originating from Blackhall in Garioch, Aberdeenshire; hereditary coroners and foresters for the earldom of the Garioch; the family’s influence declined in the 1600s, and their lands and offices were acquired by the Burnetts.
  • McPhee: One of the oldest personal names; the clan was likely from the island of Colonsay; in Gaelic, it means “black one of peace”; a family in South Uist was known as “black fairy” for their knowledge of fairies.

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

  • Irvine: Identical to Irving; the name originates from Ayrshire, meaning green water (from the Brittonic ir afon); widespread in Scotland since the late Medieval period.
  • Blackhall: No listing available.
  • 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, but the clan dispersed after their chief’s murder in 1623, and many with this name became tinkers on the fringes of the Highlands.

These variations show that relying on a single reference book’s explanation is unwise, and interpreting surname origins can be hazardous. Both Black and Dorward caution against simplistic definitions and provide information on early written references. Black’s research includes the earliest written forms of surnames and their records, while Dorward offers historical references.

Research Tips

Given the discrepancies in reference works, conducting personal surname research is valuable, especially when encountering roadblocks. The distribution of names can vary significantly from one region to another or across different time periods. Exploring indexes to Scottish parish registers is an ideal tool for this task.

Understanding variations and changes in names is also helpful. For instance, some parishes had only a few surnames, Gaelic names were translated and anglicized, “Mac” was dropped from many names, and some Gaelic names disappeared when families moved to the Lowlands and adopted new names. Carefully studying local documents, such as church registers, can shed light on these changes.

For example, the village of Findochty in Banffshire had just four surnames (Flett, Sutherland, Smith, and Campbell) among its 182 families, leading to confusion and the invention of nicknames (“to-names”) or using a wife or parent’s name in written records to distinguish individuals. In some fishing villages, the fisherman’s boat name would be added to his name.

Clans and tartans often pique the interest of those new to genealogical research. However, not every Scottish family has a clan association or a corresponding tartan. Understanding the concept of clans and associated septs can provide valuable insights. For further information, the Collins Scottish Clan and Family Encyclopedia (George Way and P. Squire, HarperCollins, 1994) is a good starting point.

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