THE SOUNDS OF OUR ROOTS
By - 'The English Rose'.
I have wanted to learn the Gaelic language for a long time. I am completely fascinated by the sounds of the words and the way the language flows from the lips of the native speakers. It is, however a very difficult language for non-natives to master, so although I have Gaelic dictionaries, and teach yourself books and tapes, I have never got very far with the learning of this musical and ancient language.
I have Scottish ancestry, from my maternal Great Grandfather, and feel such a strong affinity to that part of the world that I firmly believe I am Scottish, not English. (As a 4 year old, my family moved us to Scotland, we were there for 2 years. I have been back for holidays many times.)
The Highlands sing to me, they move something deep in my soul, and the whole history of the place fascinates me. Parts of it still have the power to move me to tears.
This time, I am going to talk a little about the naming of the Scottish people.
A lot of Scottish names, and indeed, many early English names were originally territorial, descriptive, occupational, or patrynomic, (a name derived from the use of the father’s first name) a custom that existed in the Highlands until the late 1800s, and is still sometimes continued out on the islands.
Over the years, as people began to spread further afield (even across the border into England!) some names were changed to ‘fit in’ in England, particularly names with obviously Scottish roots so that for instance - MacDuff would become simply Duff.
In those early days there were not a lot of fornames either, so many people in the same village would have the same name. In order to distinguish which family they belonged to, people would often add another name, or their occupation etc., to their name. In a village with lots of Johns, you might get Johnson (son of John), John Smith, John Baker, John Carpenter, John Fletcher and so on. The well-known Mc or Mac simply means ‘son of’. Apparently, among the coastal villages, the fishermen would add the names of their boats also! (How about John Mary Rose!)
Then you have the sons of those Johns, by adding a suffix, they could end up as John Fletcherson, John Smithson, well, you get the picture. Andrew’s son, (another John) could end up as John Anderson, and Robert’s son, as John Robertson. Suffixes were used most often by lowland and Border Scots.
Often, the names had prefixes added to them, for instance, the prefix –Mac, if the father's name is Donald and the son's name is Craig. Then using the patronymic formula, add the prefix 'Mac' (from the Gaelic 'meic' - 'son of') to the father's name, and the son becomes Craig MacDonald. Prefixes were the ones most used by the ‘real’ Scots, the Highlanders.
Of course, many names were of much older Gaelic origin, and when the Highland culture was banned by the English Government, (during the infamous 18 th and 19th century 'Highland Clearances', a sad and very sorry time in our history) many of the Gaelic names fell along the wayside. For instance, the word ‘Cam’ in Gaelic means ‘crooked’ so when you have names like Cameron and Campbell they would have been translated as ‘Crooked Nose’ and ‘Crooked Mouth’
Some of the names may have come from the colonisation of the Highlands and islands by Norse and French and Italian visitors, for example, Robert the Bruce was descended from Robert de Brus, a 12th Century Norman knight. The name Frazer comes originally from the French word ‘frasier’, meaning – ‘strawberry plant’, (was that because they grew those berries, or looked like one, I wonder?)
When English officials finally ventured up into Scotland to try taking census details and so on, the spelling of last names, even though they may sound similar were not standardised, and often the Gaelic language and rough Highland burr led to much more confusion and misspelling. For one example look at the name DUBHGLAS, which in the Highlands (any true Gaelic speakers among you please forgive me!) was pronounced something like ‘DOOVLESH’ That was very quickly changed to DOUGLAS in the English papers. Maybe it was too hard for the English officials to hear the nuances in the speech patterns?
The use of fixed surnames didn’t come into regular use in Scotland until around the 16th century. It took until the 18th century for it to catch on in the Highlands.
Some examples of territorial last names are – Blackhall, from the area of that name in Aberdeenshire.
Irvine/Irving from an area of Ayrshire. Ross, coming from the area around Ross. Cockburn is a place in Berwickshire. Dunbar, from East Lothian.
The Gaelic language has some wonderfully descriptive names often taken from names of things and places they saw around them every day. Logan comes from ‘little hollow’, Underwood, is someone who lived beside or in a wood. Stroud, means thicket, or marshy thicket’, Rowe – ‘dweller by a row of hedges’. Murray - ‘seaboard settlement’, and Glenn, ‘small valley’, Lennox, meant ‘place of elms’. I particularly like ‘Leslie’, which may derive from the Gaelic –‘leas celyn’ meaning ‘garden of holly’.
Many people believe that if they bear the name of a Scottish clan they are related by blood from the original bearers of the clan name. That is not always so. The word ‘clan’ means family. The clan chieftains ruled over parcels of land which were homes to many lower ranks and even more peasants, whilst there were no set surnames. Should the Laird call upon the men under his rule to go and fight for him, they owed him their allegiance, as would true family, and they would all fight under his banner and his name.
Someone with the surname of Campbell therefore may not actually be descended from the great chieftains, rather from one of his serfs who fought, and probably died for his master in return for his meagre piece of land, shelter and protection from raiders and insurgents.
It would be interesting to know how many of you reading this actually do have Scottish roots and if you know the origins of your family names? Of course, many Scots emigrated to America because of the lure of free land and seams of gold for the taking, or simply because there was nothing at all left for them here, after the Clearances and the Potato Famines of the 1700s and 1800s. Personally, the ‘Clearances’ have an enormous power to move me and I see in them, a definite parallel to the enforced movement of the Native American tribes from their tribal lands, just because of the greed of those ‘in power’.
I have a story of one village named Glencalvie in the Highlands where in 1845 the whole village of around 90 people was driven out into the snow, and the houses burned to the ground, in one case there was an old woman on her sick bed who could not be moved. Of course, she didn’t survive. The villagers took refuge in the local churchyard, (the church was ‘Croick Kirk’) when asked by the priest to go into the church, they refused, saying they must have been very wicked that God should wish to punish them in such a way, therefore they were not worthy of a place in His house.
I, and my husband and daughter, made a ‘pilgrimage’ to that place one year. Some of the people had scratched messages into the glass of the windows, which can still be seen in situ, but now preserved behind very strong glass. The feeling of despair and desolation in the area was immense, and some of the personal stories told there were tear-jerking.
Enough of the sadness, so many people have ancestors from Scotland that they hold Clan Gatherings in both America and in Scotland every few years, where anyone from the same clan can come together and forge lasting bonds with family, no matter how distantly related. I have actually seen pictures of Japanese families attending one gathering, claiming distant ancestry!
Maybe one day, I might get to meet some of you at a gathering?