Have you ever wondered where your Scottish surname came from? Tried to trace it back hundreds of years, but still don't know what it means? Well, it could be that your name descends from the ancient Gaelic language, a clan or even the job your great, great, great, great, great grandfather did!


Many surnames derive from Gaelic words such as:

  • Craig comes from the Gaelic creag (crag or rocks)
  • Glenn evolved from gleann (valley)
  • Bain is derived from the Gaelic bàn (white)
  • Roy from ruadh (red)
  • Dow or Duff from dubh (black)
  • Dunn from donn (brown)
  • Bowie from buidhe (yellow)
  • Campbell comes from cam and beul (caimbeul: crooked mouth)
  • Cameron comes from cam and sròn (camshròin: crooked nose)


It was often thought that people with a clan surname were direct descendants of the clan chief. But sometimes it was common to adopt a surname when land was taken over or to show solidarity and ensure protection with the clan.

  • Clan names such as Sinclair, Duncan and Stewart.


Sometimes surnames were created from the father's forename (known as patronymic).

  • Peter has a son called John. John's surname becomes Peterson (Peter's son). When John has a boy called William, his surname becomes Johnson (John's son).
  • Ruairidh has a son called Dòmhnall. Dòmhnall's surname becomes MacRuairidh, or MacRury (mac Ruairidh). When Dòmhnall has a boy called Iain, his surname becomes MacDhòmhnaill, or MacDonald, (mac Dhòmhnaill). 


Many Scottish names were based on where people lived, or what land they owned.

  • Ogilvie comes from the Barony of Ogilvie in Angus.
  • Abercrombie comes from the town of the same name.
  • Murray from Moray in the Highlands.


Some surnames were named after the jobs people did.

  • Brewster from brewer
  • Webster from weaver
  • Baxter from baker
  • Taylor from tailor

Other countries

Foreign influences have also played a major part in the shaping of Scottish names.

  • Thorburn and Gunn are old Norse names - they were introduced here during the colonisation of the northern and western isles by the Norsemen.
  • Bissett, Hay and Kinnear - these came from Norman influences after the invasion of England.
  • Daly or Dailly (Irish) - from Irish immigration during the 19th century.
  • MacLeod or MacLeòid - meaning 'the son of Leòd', a 13th century Norse prince from the Isle of Man, which was Gaelicised.

In fact, Robert the Bruce was a descendant of Robert de Brus, a 12th century Norman baron and knight.


Often there are different spellings of the same name. This happened because there were no standard rules on spelling for many years, so people spelt their names in different ways. It could also have happened when an immigration officer, or census recorder, misheard a name and spelt it incorrectly.

  • McNeil, for example, is also spelt McNeal, McNeill, MacNeil, MacNèill and MacNeill.