British Surnames (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Homes of British Surnames[edit | edit source]

English Surnames[edit | edit source]

The first truly hereditary surnames in England were not in the native English language but in the Norman French brought over by William the Conqueror and his followers. Most were habitational names from their French or newly acquired English estates. In the northwest and along the eastern half of England under the Danelaw there are many habitational names having Scandinavian origins. Topographical surnames seem mainly to be based on Anglo-Saxon words.Location names constitute over half of the surnames in England. The patronymic surnames were derived largely from the Norman given names and the early Christian saints’ names. Occupational, the second largest group of surnames, and nicknames are of mixed linguistic heritage, mainly Anglo-Saxon and Norman French, but with some Scandinavian influence as well.

Scots Surnames[edit | edit source]

The best work on the surnames of Scotland is Black, which is particularly good on giving early instances with detailed authorities as well as later variants, but is short on the origins of these names. The early mixture of Scots, Angles, French and Flemings all left their mark on surnames in Scotland with location, patronymic, nicknames and occupational names being present by the 14th century.

Scottish Location (Territorial) Surnames[edit | edit source]

The first surnames in Scotland came as a result of a directive from King Malcolm Ceannmor in 1061 who instructed Scots to take surnames from their territorial possessions. The custom slowly filtered downwards in society, and from town to country from then on. These territorial or location surnames acquired by the nobles and great landowners were thus the first in Scotland. It should be emphasized that not all who bear these names today are descended from these men. Their tenants and those coming from their towns and villages also acquired the same surname later on.

Some names were derived from tiny places which have disappeared, likewise some surnames formerly extant have disappeared, for example Dipple. The prefix de can mean that a person owned the estate, or came from there, or lived there. In the bigger towns some of the more eminent citizens called themselves after the streets on which they lived, for example Henry de Fishergate, and the de would later be dropped. Black differentiates between surnames born by the owner (territorial names) and those arising from residence (local names).

Scottish Patronymics[edit | edit source]

In the north and west they were typically Gaelic with the prefix Mac before the father’s name, such as McWilliam, or McTavish (‘son of Tavish or Thomas’), or sometimes an occupational name such as McNidder ‘son of the weaver,’ title as in McMaster ‘son of the master,’ or nickname like McMillan ‘son of the tonsured one.’ Patronymics formed the great majority of Gaelic surnames. In the south and east the English style prevailed, with some Norse influence, with the addition of -son (Davidson, Donaldson), or with the genitive -s, (Adams, Andrews), but could also drop the suffix and simply use the given name of the ancestor (Thom, Watt). Patronymics changed with each generation, not becoming permanent until well into the 18th century in the Highlands. In Shetland patronymics were common even in the first half of the 19th century, and Black quotes Gideon Manson, who died in 1930, as the last man given the right to choose his surname. He was son of James Manson (Magnus’s son) whose father was Magnus Robertson.

Scottish Occupational Surnames[edit | edit source]

There are very many surnames in Scotland that are derived from the trade or office of their first bearers. It should also be borne in mind that in feudal and later times numerous offices were hereditary in nature, for example the Stewarts who were household stewards, especially of the royal household. Trade names were rare amongst Gaels, indicating clearly that they remained agricultural people, the few surnames arising amongst them being the important rural crafts of smith, fuller and tailor.

Scottish Nicknames[edit | edit source]

Black and Ewen (1931) found that there were few Scottish surnames derived from nicknames, even though several names appear at first sight to be so. They were common as by-names, but did not form very many surnames.

In Scotland many of our ancestors found it advisable to belong to the large and powerful clan in the district in which they resided, and as they did so they assumed the clan surname to ‘please the lairds.’ In Argyll this was Campbell, in the Western Isles and Kintyre Macdonald, in the northwest Mackenzie, and in the southwest Kennedy and so forth. If a new and powerful family moved into an area whose residents did not yet have surnames, this family’s surname would be their best survival option. They weren’t thinking about their descendants who would have to cope with the resulting ubiquity of the surname in the area, and confusion of biological relationships! The clan MacGregor was temporarily outlawed in the 17th century and its members adopted surnames like Doyle, Johnstone and Menzies.

Later some Gaelic names were translated into English, not always in an easily recognizable form, for example Macleans became Johnsons, and Mcleays and McLevys became Livingstones. Some were ‘adopted’ into another clan with a brief ceremony, such as that given to those accepting the protection of Gilbert Cumin, lord of Glenhearnach who were given a kind of rough baptism in the hens’ trough by the castle door. They were henceforth known as Cumins of the hen trough (Cuminich clach nan cearc) to distinguish them from the true Cumins. Deeper reading of local historical materials may show such indicatory phrases.

Clan maps showing surname distribution can be helpful but certainly do not tell the whole story. One of the better ones is Bartholomew’s Clan Map (Moncrieffe and Pottinger). This shows that Mc and Mac names, for example, do predominate in the Highlands, but are not exclusive to that area. Be very wary of the books and commercial ventures that assign your surname to a sept or a particular clan. This is a rather profitable venture for the makers of tartans and souvenirs. Your porridge may need an extra large sprinkling of salt to believe all that they tell you!

Two of the three commonest surnames in Scotland are actually Smith and Brown, with Smith being more prevalent there than in England, not perhaps what one would expect! The 20 commonest surnames (including variants) in the 1861 census of Scotland are listed in Chart 8.

The 20 Commonest Surnames in Scotland in 1861

1. Smith
6. Stewart
11. Mackenzie
16. Ross
2. Macdonald
7. Campbell
12. Scott
17. Paterson
3. Brown
8. Wilson
13. Johnston
18. Fraser
4. Robertson
9. Anderson
14. Miller
19. Murray
5. Thomson
10. Mackay
15. Reid
20. Maclean

Further back in time you will come across the Gaelic versions of surnames, which usually look very different to an English-speaker, but may have a similar pronunciation. Thus the McPhee surname not only includes spelling variations such as McFee, McFie and Macfie, but also the names Machaffie, Macduffie, Duffy, Haughey, Eochaidh and Dhubhhaigh. As you will be searching written sources it is wise to know the Gaelic versions of your surname so that you do not miss relevant entries, and they are listed in George Black’s The Surnames of Scotland: Their Origin, Meaning and History. New York Public Library and other references.

Following Scandinavian tradition Scottish women retain their maiden surnames after marriage, particularly for official purposes. Thus, although she may be known familiarly as Mrs. John MacDonald, or Margaret MacDonald, she would appear as Margaret Greig on civil registration, census, parish registers and probate records. Some records index her under both names, but it is always wise to check both as soon as you know them.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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