Surnames in Scotland

Clans | Tartans | Surnames


If you think you can trace your family back several centuries just by finding men of the same last name, think again. The use of a standard last name to denote members of a single family is a relatively recent development in Scotland.

In 11th-century Lowland Scotland, some territorial names were being introduced as surnames. In an example close to our hearts, a man could be called Cadzow simply because he lived on the Barony of Cadzow lands, near modern-day Hamilton.

Then came centuries of surname proliferation as men became known by:

  • their trades (Tailor, Porter),
  • proximity to geographical features (Wood, Burnbank),
  • personal characteristics or coloring (Little, Reid),
  • connection to their father’s name (Johnson, Donaldson).

This last style, called patronymics, was popular when surnames first came into wide use in the highlands in the 16th century. In this practice, members of a generation took their surnames from their father’s Christian names. For example, a father named David would have a son called Thomas Davidson, whose son would be called William Thomson, whose son would be John Williamson. The process becomes confusing when you find that your MacDonald forbear was the son of Donald Campbell.

Gradually (and not until the 20th century in the Northern Isles), the patronymic system was replaced by the adoption of a fixed family name taken from an ancestral figure, or namefather. For example, the McGregors decided to take their name from an ancestor who lived in the 9th century: Gregor, brother of King Kenneth MacAlpine.

However, even today there is a legacy of the patronymic system in Scottish surnames. The well-known surname prefix Mac simply means son. It is popularly believed that names beginning with Mc are of Irish origin and those with Mac are Scottish. This is not the case. Mac is the standardized prefix used today, but a hundred years ago it was commonly abbreviated in written records to Mc or even M’.

The association of certain common names, such as Reid or Smith, with a clan is generally because there were prominent families of that name connected with that clan and not that it had the monopoly of ruddy-faced or red-haired people or of clansmen with metal-working skills.