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Origin of Scottish Surnames

derivation of scottish surnames

the whole subject of scottish surnames, and their connection with kinship, is surrounded by complications. professional etymologists have attempted to classify how scottish names came about. and, whereas the work is largely successful, the many exceptions and the metamorphosis of names make the study of scottish names an unfinished one. place-names the use of origin surnames seems to have commenced in france about the year 1000, and surnames were introduced into scotland through the normans a little over one hundred years later, although the custom of using them was hardly common. the first official reference to the practice is from a general council held at forfar in 1061, during the reign of malcolm ceannmor (1057- 1093). malcolm directed his chief subjects to create surnames from the names of their territorial possessions. thus, the first people in scotland to acquire fixed surnames were the nobles and great landowners, who called themselves, or were called by others, after the lands they possessed. the form of the names was norman "de"; for instance, robert de brus (brus in normandy), john de balliol (balleul-en-vimeu in picard), william de buchan (buchan in scotland), christopher de seton (sayton in scotland), william de kirkhaugh (kirkhaugh in northumberland, my family), etc. one interesting example comes from the surname of maxwell. sometimes confused with the norman, maccusville, the name actually came from maccus, the son of unwin, a saxon lord, who obtained a salmon pool on the river tweed near kelso bridge. the pool was then called, maccus's wiel (pool). the adjacent lands got the name, and the descendants of maccus became known as, "de" maccuswel, and, subsequently, became the powerful maxwell family of dumfriesshire and galloway. but, since not too many persons held significant lands, place-names quickly began to refer to the region or district from where a family originated. for example, andrew de moravia (of moray), william de douglas (of douglas - dubh glas), adam de haddyngton (of haddington), etc. as the need for a surname became more pressing, residents of the burghs often adopted street names, such as, henry de fishergate, henry de cunigstrete, etc. so, the first surnames were place-names and originated with a man who lived in or came from a place, sometimes a big district like moray (murray) or lothian, often a small rural community. a proprietor was particularly likely to take his name from his estate, but tenants also often took their names from the estate where they lived. clearly many individuals, and ultimately of families, could originate in the same place, and take their names from it, without being related to each other. besides, the same or similar names were given to different places, and so individuals or families who came from different parts of the country, and shared neither blood nor territorial affinity, could nevertheless have the same surname. thus, anyone called calder (or its variant, caddell) may derive from an ancestor resident in calder in west lothian, calder (or cadder) in lanarkshire, calder (or cawdor) in nairnshire, or calder in caithness. similarly, there is no necessary relationship among the many families called blair, a place-name which occurs in at least a dozen different areas. official and trade names there are surnames that derive from a craft, occupation, or official station. smith, which is the most common name in scotland, is an outstanding example. wright, baxter or baker, tailor, carpenter, mason, shepherd, slater, are among many others. it would clearly be an unparalleled absurdity to think that one smith was the ancestor of all the people now bearing the name smith. the same is true when a name of this type arose in the highlands, where a designation coinneach gobha (kenneth the smith) produced the surname gow. the norman form of these names was "le"; so for example, from the ragman roll: symon le glover, robert le taillor, walter le goldsmith, aleyn le barbur, william le barker, etc. as with the "de" in the place-names, the "le" was eventually dropped, giving us the modern form of the names. many offices were hereditary in feudal as well as in later times. the stewarts, for example, were the first to be named after their office alone. although, the first stewart, alan, had a son who called himself walter fitz alan, and his son called himself alan fitz-walter. offices associated with hunting and the king's lands yielded many names, for example: forest, warren, hunt, park, woodward, etc. to-names the great prevalence of certain surnames, in some small towns and villages, led to the use of to-names, "other names," from the old english, t -nama. to illustrate this, black cites the following story. a stranger had occasion to call on a fisherman, named alexander white, living in a buchan fishing village. but the stranger was ignorant both of the fisherman's to-name and his house. unfortunately there were many persons of that name in the village. meeting a young woman, he asked: "cou'd you tell me fa'r sanny fite lives?" "filk sanny fite?" "muckle sanny fite." "filk muckle sanny fite?" "muckle lang sanny fite." "filk muckle lang sanny fite?" "muckle lang gleyed sanny fite," shouted the stranger. "oh! it's 'goup-the-lift' ye're seeking," cried the young woman, "and fat the deevil for dinna ye speer for the man by his richt name at ance?" translation: "could you tell me where alexander white lives?" "which alexander white?" "big alexander white." "which big alexander white?" "big tall alexander white."


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last updated on: February 17th, 2017

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