Understanding Scottish surnames

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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
  • People tracing their ancestry at the Highland Archive and Registration Centre
    The Highland Archive and Registration Centre, Inverness
  • 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 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 location of their home.

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) and there are countless examples of more obvious ones like Tailor, Mason and Smith.

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.

Some surnames were created from the father’s forename, known as patronymic. In this instance, surnames are created from the father’s forename, for example John Peterson’s son may have been called William Johnson while his father was mostly likely called Peter.

Clan identification also played a role in the development of many Scottish names. It is widely thought that those who boast a clan surname are direct descendents of the clan chief. This is often not actually the case as it was common practice to acquire or adopt surnames in order to show solidarity, ensure protection or when land was taken over. 

You may also find that your own Scottish name, or those of your ancestors, may have a different spelling to other Scots. There were no standardised rules of spelling in past centuries. Or it may, perhaps, be attributed to 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!