If you read up on the history of Scottish names, the people of Scotland didn’t really use last names (surnames) until they were introduced by the Normans in 1066. In fact, many Scottish last names were taken from Scottish Gaelic personal names. Read more to find out the complex and fascinating history of Scottish ancestors and their last names.
History of the Name
The use of Scottish surnames can be traced as early as the 10th or 12th century, but weren’t actually used with any real consistency until the 16th century. Before last names were used, people were known by their first name or forename (most of the time they were also influenced by their father’s forename). This, as well as a lot of forename sharing, made things really confusing so to make things easier, a personal ‘byname’ was often added to the forename. It’s from these bynames that Scottish surnames eventually developed and then, of course, were passed down from parents to offspring.
Furthermore, the influence of foreign cultures and languages can also be seen running through the entire history of Scottish naming practices. While there are different spelling variations, you can sometimes tell that the names were once related. For example, the surname Daly has its Ireland origins with the Irish family last name (or Irish surname) O’Dalaigh (notice how the Irish name spelling is different) or the Scottish first name Andrew is Greek in origin and is the root of today’s popular Scottish surname of Anderson.
So then what?
Bynames catalyzed the beginnings from which Scottish last names ‘grew.’ The bynames can be separately categorized to be either territorial or locational, occupational, or relational.
Territorial or Locational Names: These place names were based on a persons location or their territory. The use of place names was ground-breaking at the time and in the beginning, these names were only used by the upper-levels of society. With time, these family place names referred more to where someone was born or where they were from, rather than to the location of land that they owned.
Some examples include:
- ‘Kirk’ (as in Kirkland, or Selkirk) which means ‘church’ in Gaelic
- ‘Muir’ (means ‘moor’ in Gaelic)
- ‘Barr’ (this means ‘hilltop’ in Gaelic)
Occupational Bynames: these names were based on the occupation of their owner.
- Baird (a ‘bard’ or poet)
- Webster (a weaver)
- Caird (craftsman)
- Laird (a lord)
Relational Bynames- Derived from the father’s name: these names are considered the earliest versions of Scottish last names and can also be referred to as patronymic surnames. They are derived from a man’s given name with a suffix or prefix added on.
As a whole, suffixes were used more often by Lowland Scots, and prefixes were more popular with Highland Scots.
For reference, the name Lowland Scots is a common name for the Scottish dialects of Northern English. They were located east and south of the Highland Line. Highland Scots are west and north of the Highland Line and the dialects are based in Gaelic and Highland English. The Highland and Lowland areas had very different cultural practices, traditions, and of course, languages.
What about Scottish Clan names?
The term ‘clan’ means family or children in Gaelic.
Clan ancestry is far more complicated than you’d think. Many people who have a last name like MacDonald assume that they have clan ancestry that traces directly back to the original MacDonald clan chief, but this is certainly not always the case.
When a woman became married, she took her husband’s last name and left her birth clan behind. From there, she might have given her original clan name or given her married name to her son. Furthermore, some clan members would drop their ‘original’ bynames and then adopt the name of the clan chief as a sign of allegiance.
Today, many clans can still be traced back to a specific part of Scotland. Some examples include the MacLeods of Skye, the MacNeils of Barra, and the MacNabs of St. Fillan on Loch Earn.
How about Nicknames?
Nicknames referred to a physical feature, characteristic, or a personality trait. Funny enough, many of these nicknames became surnames.
‘Ruadh’ (Gaelic for ‘red’) could be for someone with red hair. This then became the last name Reid. Furthermore, Dunn (Old English for ‘dark’) or Donn (Gaelic for ‘brown’) could be used for someone who was dark-haired or dark-skinned.
What is Popular Now?
By the late 19th century, the practice of using family surnames had become accepted in Scotland. Furthermore, many Gaelic names were changed into the anglicized form. Meaning that these names were altered to be in the English form. Essentially at this point, family members would share the same surname and pass the same name directly from one generation to the next.
Popular Scottish family names (along with their Gaelic surname origins and meaning):
Smith – This is the most popular Scottish last name!
From the color brown
Meaning ‘son of William’
From the Gaelic ‘cam beul’ meaning ‘crooked mouth’
From the Gaelic ‘stig-weard’ meaning ‘animal steward’
Meaning ‘son of Thomas’
Meaning ‘son of Robert’
Meaning ‘son of Andrew’
Meaning ‘son of Donald’
Meaning ‘a Scotsman’
From the Gaelic word ‘reid’ meaning ‘red’
From the region of Moray
Meaning ‘a tailor’
Meaning ‘a clerk’
From the region of Ross
Meaning ‘son of Walter’
Meaning ‘son of Morris’
Meaning ‘son of Patrick’
Meaning ‘being young or youthful’
Meaning ‘son of Michael’
Scottish language FAQ:
What is the oldest surname in Scotland?
Smith this the number one surname in Scotland. It is also the most popular English surname.
Why do Scottish surnames start with MC (aka Mac Surname)?
In Gaelic, Mac means ‘son of.’ This hereditary surname, therefore, became one of the most common surnames in Scotland.
What is the largest clan in Scotland?
Clan Donald is one of the largest Scottish clans to date.
What is the traditional language of Scotland?
The main language spoken in Scotland is English, while Scot and Scottish Gaelic are minority languages.
What is Anthroponymy?
The academic study of personal names.
Is Scots Gaelic the same as Irish?
While both came from the same place, Scots Gaelic and Irish Gaelic are very distinct from each other. It’s really only in Northern Ireland (such as in the providence Ulster) that Irish people can understand Scottish Gaelic and vice versa.
More Cool Last Names and Their Origins
Below are more last name articles that lead a reader to discover more about their surname and family history.