Scottish names and naming traditions

Scottish names can be easy to identify, but there are many Scottish names and naming traditions that may surprise you!

Scottish names
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Published: September 13, 2022 at 10:19 am
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Whether you want to give a newborn baby a Scottish name to reflect their heritage or you want to research a Scottish family name, it helps to understand Scottish naming traditions. If you meet someone called Angus McDonald, the chances are that he's got Scottish ancestry in his blood but there are many less obvious names that could also point to ancestral links to Scotland.

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Many Scottish surnames, such as Campbell, MacDonald, Mackenzie and Sinclair have clan origins but there are also surnames such as Armstrong, Walker and Brown that are common in Scotland but can also be found in England. It is worth noting that the surname Smith, for example, is about as common in Aberdeenshire (6,081 bearers in the 1881 census) as in Sussex (6,340 in 1881).

Scottish clan names

Clans played a hugely influential part in Scotland's history and most recognisably Scottish surnames have clan origins. They were originally groups of families with loyalty to a chieftain. As the use of surnames grew from the 13th century onwards, many people took the name of their clan as their family name. Clans remained the main political system in Scotland until the battle of Culloden in 1746.

You can find out more about which names are associated with Scottish clans via this useful list on Wikipedia. There are also countless websites that will help you find out which tartan represents your clan, although it's important to be aware that some of these tartans are modern interpretations or additions that have been created for marketing purposes.

Some of the most common Scottish clan names (followed by the number of people bearing that surname in the 1881 census) are: Armstrong (22,705), Bruce (13,929), Campbell (50,516), Douglas (14,415), Elliott or Elliot (32,851), Hamilton (22,335), Henderson (32,419), Johnstone (13,416), McDonald (48,170), McIntosh (11,635), McIntyre (11,299), McKenzie (26,158), McLean (20,479), Robertson (48,946), Stewart (45,836) and Wallace (20,058).

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Gaelic influence on Scottish surnames

Scottish Gaelic was brought over by settlers from Ireland in the fourth and fifth centuries AD, followed by Christian missionaries. Over time the language lost ground to Scots and English but its influence remains in many Scottish names. In western Scotland, there is overlap between Scottish clan names and Irish clan names, for example the Kennedy clan can be found on both sides of the Irish sea. Many surnames in Scotland are derived from Gaelic such as Angus and Fraser. There is a useful website hosted by Sabhal Mòr Ostaig listing Scottish surnames and their Gaelic equivalents. Gaelic names have often been anglicised differently in Scotland to Ireland. For example, the Gaelic name Mac Domhnaill became McDonald in Scotland but McDonnell in Ireland.

Most common surnames in Scotland

In 2003, the National Records of Scotland published a paper looking at surname distribution in Scotland over the past 140 years. It showed that at the time of publication, Smith, Brown and Wilson were the most common surnames in Scotland. In fact Smith has been the most common surname in Scotland at least as far back as the start of civil registration in 1855. In the years 1999-2001 the top ten Scottish surnames were:

1 Smith
2 Brown
3 Wilson
4 Campbell
5 Stewart
6 Thomson
7 Robertson
8 Anderson
9 McDonald
10 Scott

Scottish naming traditions

If you are researching your Scottish ancestors, it is worth knowing that the Scots often named their children following a traditional pattern. This can help you confirm relationships although it is important to keep in mind that not all families stuck to these rules and the tradition gradually declined during the 19th century.

  • 1st son named after father's father
  • 2nd son named after mother's father
  • 3rd son named after father
  • 1st daughter named after mother's mother
  • 2nd daughter named after father's mother
  • 3rd daughter named after mother

Scottish first names

Scotland shares many first names with England. You are as likely to come across a John or Charles, or Margaret or Ann in Scotland as you would in England. However, some names, especially those with Gaelic origins, are more distinctively Scottish. Examples of Scottish names for boys are: Alasdair, Angus, Craig, Donald, Duncan, Fergus, Fraser, Hamish, Malcolm, Rory, Scott and Stuart. Examples of Scottish names for girls are: Catriona, Jean, Fiona, Flora, Morag and Shona.

If you are looking for Scottish family in the records, it is important to keep in mind that many Scottish first names were shortened or had diminutive versions. For example, William might be recorded as Wullie or Wull, Alexander as Sandy and Thomas as Tam. There was a trend in Scotland to give girls a boys name but ending in 'ina' such as Adamina, Donaldina or Thomasina. This was usually shortened to 'Ina' so Women recorded as Ina could have been given any name ending in 'ina' at birth.

Some names were also completely interchangeable. For example, the same woman could be recorded as Agnes in one record and Nancy in another. Donald and Daniel were also interchangeable and someone baptised as Jane could be known by her family as Jean, Jessie or Janet.

The use of nicknames in Scotland

In the north-east of Scotland tee-names or to-names became popular to help differentiate between people with the same names. These nicknames or by-names often referred to a personal characteristic or where someone came from. According to "A closer look at Tee-Names and Trade Advertisements" by David L Fowler, between 1833 and 1900 four forenames, John, James, William and Alexander, represented 80% of the male population in the fishing villages along the Moray Banff coast. The isolation of these areas meant that surnames were similarly limited. If you are tracing family in the area, then trying to establish what their tee-name was can be vital. Luckily tee-names are often included in records, such as the 1895 Valuation Rolls and parish records, sometimes in brackets.

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Examples of tee-names are: Muckle (big), Carrot (red hair), Big Lugs (big ears) and Toothie (big teeth).

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