In the 12th century surnames began to be used in Scotland. Initially they were used only by the elites in Scottish society, but gradually the practice was adopted by more and more Scots in the following centuries. In many areas in the Highlands surnames did not become fixed until the 16th into the 17th century and in parts of the Hebrides permanent surnames were not commonly adopted until the 19th century. For many reason, it can be very complex researching family history just by what Scottish surname one has. However, a family’s surname remains the best place to start research on a family’s history. Fortunately with DNA testing often it is possible to uncover a family real history despite the many variations and fluid nature of Scottish surnames.
Scotland is made up of primarily Celtic people, the Gaels, the Britons, also called the Cymry, and the Picts. The Cymry and Picts spoke Cumbric, a Celtic language. Cumbric is related to modern Cymreag which is called Welsh in English. To this core group of Celtic Scots small groups of Norse, Normans (also Norse in ancestry), Border English, Flemish, and a few others settled and became Scots. Most Scottish surnames have a Celtic origin, but there was also a borrowing of names from all the groups that became Scots and the etymological origin of a surname does not always indicate a family’s origin. Gaels for instance borrowed many names from the Norse and Normans that in time became surnames. Many Gaels and Gaelicised Picts and Cymry simply translated their surnames into English, so the modern form of family’s surname often does not tell a family’s true origins. The Mac prefix was adopted by the Norsemen and by Lowland Scots of Cumbric origins which lead to surname that are part Gaelic and part Cumbric or Norse in origin.
Many Scottish surnames originated in patronymics. These are often indicated by a Mac prefix. Mac is often abbreviated as Mc, this was common both in the past and in modern times. Most people, even those without Gaelic, know that the Mac prefix means ‘son.’ Mhic is a prefix meaning ‘grandson’ of or ‘descendant of’ in some cases. Mhic is often rendered Vic and Vc in old records. In patronymic surnames a son’s surname derived from the father’s forename. An example; Seamus Mac Dónaill’s son Padraig would take the surname Padraig Mac Sheamuis, and his son named Giolla Easpuig, would take the surname Giolla Easpuig Mac Phadraig Mhic Sheamuis, and so on. This pattern of traditional patronymics presents a challenge for the family historian in that the surname changed with each successive generation. The same family might be using four or more surnames over the course of a century. This practice died out in Lowland Scotland after the 15th century as patronymic surnames became permanent family names. It persisted in the Highlands & Islands well into the 18th century and in the northern Isles until the 19th century. It is possible even with a family using multiple surnames to research which names a kinship group used, this along with DNA testing, often reveals a paternal kinship group despite the multiple surnames they used.
This patronymic system was also applied to daughters’ names in both Gaelic and Lallans. A girl adopted her father’s forename with ‘daughter’ applied to the end of the name. The ‘daughter’ suffix was usually abbreviated in records, e.g. Catherin Adamsdaughter becomes Catherin Adamsdaur, or Adamsdr or Adamsd. In Gaelic the word Nic was used, it is the feminine form of Mac. It often appears in old record abbreviated as Nc. There are many examples of this in the old parish registers, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries, such as; NcEan, Ncdonald, Nclachlan, etc. Knowing this can be a great asset in working with pre 1800s records. Careful research into the history of a district along with DNA testing can often uncover kinship groups in which these feminine forms provide insight into a family’s history. By the 19th century the clerks were abandoning the practice and giving the ladies masculine surnames, which struck Gaelic speakers as very odd indeed.
Many people with Gaelic origin surnames are interested in researching their clan connections. This is cannot be done by assuming one’s last name is also a clan surname. Not all members of a clan used the same surname and many Gaelic surnames are not clan surnames and do not relate to historical clans. They are surnames created from Gaelic patronymic naming customs. Not all Scottish surnames have clan connections, but many do. A MacDonald for instance may have a simple Gaelic patronymic surname not all connected to Clann Dhónaill. He may be simply the ‘son of Dónall’ and when that family’s surname was recorded by some anonymous clerk in early modern times anglicised Mac Dónaill as MacDonald. In such a case it was not a ‘clan’ surname.
Even then the use of clan surnames was not universal and was often a form only found on legal documents written by government officials, rather than the surname a family actually used in their community. Clan surnames were used more by older sons of landed families within a clan. In other cases, families related to a clan via marriage, via legal contracts such a manrents (military obligations to a lord), tacsmen (land managers) or just allies, would take the surname of the clan to which they were associated. The best way to research one’s clan connections is through Y chromosome DNA testing (Y-DNA) and a thorough study of the history of a district that the family originated.
Y Chromosome DNA (Y-DNA) testing often provides a kinship group of surnames with the same paternal kinship. Often the non-surname matches are as important as the surname matches when trying to ascertain clan connections. Many Gaelic clans had groups of surnames associated with them and these can turn up in DNA results. If you have tested your Y-DNA at the 67 or 111 marker level and a definite kinship group has appeared the surnames in the group usually give data relevant to past clan connections.
A good first step is to have research done on the etymology and history of the surnames in a DNA result kinship group. Sometimes this alone reveals a family’s past clan connections. For example, the common Ulster and west Highland surname of Campbell, most times this is the anglicised form of Caimbeul from the well-known Argyll family. But some Campbell families have a kinship group that includes the surname Caulfield which is an anglicised form of the name Mac Cathmhaoil, a county Tyrone Irish Gaelic family that used both Caulfield and Campbell as anglicised forms of their surname. This gave this particular Campbell family their real history and geographic location to conduct further research. Another example is the common surname Ferguson from the Gaelic Mac Fearghusa. Some Fergusons that have DNA testing show matches to MacLains, or Mac Giolla Eáin, families from Mull. The Mac Giolla Eáin clan had a ‘sept’ that used the surname Ferguson and those particular Fergusons in that DNA match group are connected to clan Mac Giolla Eáin.
If one of your research goals is to explore your clan connections and you have reached a brick wall with your paternal kinship group matches it will help to have an expert look at the group and do an analysis of them. This involves etymology, history, and geographic analysis of the kinship group and an examination of any primary sources. It is complex work often working with Gaelic language sources, but can provide insight into a family’s clan connections.
Many of the first permanent surnames are territorial in origin, as landowners became known by the name of the lands that they held and the families living on those lands could also take the name of their district. The Peeblesshire surname of Tweedy comes from the Cumbric word Tuede, meaning ‘to flood,’ and is a case where the lords and the tenants have taken the same surname. All Tweedys do not all go back to one progenitor, but rather to a group of families that lived in a particular district around the River Tweed when surnames began to be taken.
Some Scottish surnames are derived from the occupations of their owners. Many occupational surnames have both Gaelic forms and anglicised forms. Some of these are obvious, e.g. Smith, Tailor, Mason, and others might be less obvious e.g. Baxter (baker), Stewart (steward), Wardrope (keeper of the garments of a household) and Webster (weaver). The Gaelic surname Mac Gabhann (son of the Smith) was often anglicised as ‘Smith.’ Another example is the surname Mac an Fhúcdair (son of the wauker or fuller of cloth), later anglicised Walker, a common Scottish surname.
Others surnames were derived from distinguishing features and nicknames, Colour suffixes were common among Gaelic families. A Mac Seamuis Ruadh (son of red haired James) might have his surname recorded a ‘Reid’ a Scots form of the English word ‘red.’ Mac Giolla Dhuibh (son of the black haired lad) was anglicised a ‘Black.’ There are a host of anglicised Scottish origin surnames that are colours, Black, Brown, Gray, Red, White, etc.
Effects of Emigration and Anglicisation
Many emigrants from Scotland changed their names on arrival in their new country, as did many people from the Highlands & Islands who migrated to the Scottish lowlands in search of work. Shortening or dropping the prefix "Mc" or "Mac", or anglicising a Gaelic surname by translation it, or putting it into phonetic English, or even changing the surname entirely to a similar sounding English name, was common. Some examples, Mac Donnchaidh became Duncan or Duncanson, Mac Eáin became McKean or Johnson. Many Gaelic surnames have many variations; Mac Dónaill has been anglicised as McChonail, MacConnel, MacDonald, McDonnell, and McDaniel. The lovely old Gaelic surname Mac Giolla Easpuig was anglicised as Archibald.
Modern spellings also have limited use in research as most Scottish surnames have multiple spellings. Early spellings of anglicised and Lallans forms of surnames can present a challenge to decipher. The Wh sound was often written as Quh. White might be recorded as Quhit, Quhytt, Quhyitt, Quhetit, Quheyt, Quhyte, or might even appear in phonetic Gaelic as Bain. When researching a name in early records, the expertise of a researcher familiar with the peculiar nuances of Scots spelling and the Gaelic language can led to success. It is also important to not place emphasis on the modern spelling of a surname as it was spelled in a variety of ways in times past.