Understanding Scottish surnames

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A clan parade in Edinburgh.
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  • The headstone of Clan Donald lies on the battlefield of Culloden, near Inverness
    Clan Donald headstone, Culloden Battlefield
  • The headstone of Clan Mackintosh on Culloden Battlefield near Inverness
    The headstone of Clan Mackintosh on Culloden Battlefield near Inverness
  • A woman standing at a table checking documents with packed shevles of old ledgers behind her
    New Register House, Edinburgh
  • The brass plaque of the Scots Ancestry Research Society, who help people of Scottish descent trace ancestors, Edinburgh
    The brass plaque of the Scots Ancestry Research Society, who help people of Scottish descent trace ancestors, Edinburgh

Although Scottish names are thought to have arisen in the 12th century, the use of surnames didn’t spread in many parts of the country until the 18th and 19th centuries.

If you’ve got a Scottish surname, there are a wide number of possible factors which may have led to the creation of your name. It could have come from the job of an ancestor, foreign connections, or even the location of their home.


Many Scottish surnames have their roots in Gaelic, the ancient Celtic language once spoken throughout the country. The surname Craig, for example, comes from the Gaelic creag meaning 'crag' or 'rocks', while Glenn evolved from gleann, meaning ‘valley’.

Several other surnames come from the words for colours. Bain is derived from the Gaelic bàn (white), Roy from ruadh (red), Dow or Duff from dubh (black), Dunn from donn (brown) and Bowie from buidhe (yellow).

Such names may have been originally attributed to individuals because of their hair colour. There are several others which may also refer to the physical characteristics of distant ancestors: Campbell comes from cam and béal meaning 'crooked mouth', while Cameron (cam and sròn) means 'crooked nose'.


Clan identification played an important role in the development of many Scottish names, such as Sinclair, Duncan, Stewart and many more.

It is widely thought that those who boast a clan surname are direct descendants of the clan chief. This is often not actually the case, as it was common practice to acquire or adopt surnames when land was taken over or in order to show solidarity and ensure protection.

Nevertheless, Clan Gatherings still take place throughout Scotland, giving members from around the world the chance to meet their fellow clansmen and discover their family history.


Some surnames were created from the father’s forename, known as patronymic. For example, John Peterson’s son may have been called William Johnson, while his father was most likely called Peter.

Many Scottish surnames begin with ‘Mac’ or ‘Mc’, the Gaelic for ‘son’. Originally daughters would have been given a different surname to their male relatives, using the prefix ‘nic’, meaning ‘daughter’. As such, the Gaelic forms of the name MacDonald would be Mac Dhomhnuill for men and Nic Dhomhnuill for women.

Nowadays, both men and women are given the same (male) form of such surnames, usually using the Anglicised form of the Gaelic name.

Locations and occupations

Many Scottish names were location based, with many people becoming known by the name of the land that they owned. For example, Ogilvie comes from the Barony of Ogilvie in Angus; Abercrombie derives from the town of same name; and Murray from Moray in the Highlands.

Some surnames derive from occupations, for example, Brewster (brewer), Webster (weaver), Baxter (baker). There are countless examples of more obvious ones like Tailor (or Taylor), Mason and Smith, which is the most common surname in both Scotland and England.

Foreign influences

Foreign influences have also played a major part in the shaping of Scottish names. Thorburn is an old Norse name, as is Gunn - these names would have been introduced to Scotland during the colonisation of the northern and western isles by the Norsemen.

Norman influence after the invasion of England and Irish immigration during the 19th century also lead to common Scottish names today like Bissett, Hay, Kinnear (Norman) and Daly or Dailly (Irish). In fact, Robert the Bruce was a descendant of Robert de Brus, a 12th century Norman baron and knight.


You may also find that your own Scottish name, or those of your ancestors, may have a different spelling to other Scots. McNeil, for example, is also spelt McNeal, McNeill, MacNeil and MacNeill.

There were no standardised rules of spelling in past centuries, so differences in how people rendered their surnames naturally arose. The variations might also be explained by something as simple as an immigration officer mishearing a name when the emigrant first landed on their shores.

There were a huge number of factors involved in the creation and development of modern Scottish surnames. Tracing back the history of your name and ancestors will no doubt uncover some fascinating stories!