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Saturday, November 8, 2014

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?


  1. What a great piece of information. I actually received my last name from an ex-husband. By the time we split, I had used it for so long I kept it. At the same time I have often wondered at the origins of that name. Not many with the name in this area, but there are a few.

    Like you, I have always had an affinity for the country, even though I have never been there. Maybe some day, if I ever can just transport over there. The plane and boat thing just don't quite cut it...motion sickness and well guess they won't let me fly the plane. *Grin*. Thank you for a most enlightening lesson. Do love me some history,*BIG GRIN*, no matter where it is. Doris

    1. Thank you for commenting Doris. I don't do travelling very well either, which is why I won't ever be coming to your lovely country! much as I'd really like to visit. Mind you if I win the lottery a nice long cruise might take me there! thanks again.

  2. Jill, I'm fascinated by this! I think I told you, we do have a lot of Scots-Irish in my family. We have not traced it back, but my mother's grandfather's last name was McLain--Euin Tolliver McLain.

    My dad had it on his side, too. In America, many of the Scots married into the Indian tribes, especially the Cherokee. The Education of Little Tree is about a young boy who has a Cherokee grandmother and Scottish grandfather.

    But I've never known about the naming, and it's really interesting to me. My dad's father's last name was Moss--he married a Johnson. But my granddad's (dad's dad) mom had the last name of Stewart, but was Scottish, not English. Odd, yes?

    Thanks for a wonderful post!

  3. Hi Cheryl! Thanks for the comments. I love the name Euin, its another version of Owen or Ian. I have a book named 'Glencoe and the Indians', (forgotten the author just at the moment, sorry) its about just that, the Scots marrying into the native tribes and how they went on to become Chieftains in those tribes. It's a fascinating subject, maybe those old Highland Scots had more of an affinity with the land as did the Indians of course and they must have felt a bond through that. I have heard a story (myth or truth I don't know, there doesn't seem to be any concrete proof) that somewhere in the 'wilds' of USA is an Indian tribe whose members speak a form of Welsh after Welsh settlers married into the tribe! Know anything about that?

    The surname Stewart is also of Scottish descent. It comes from the Gaelic words that mean 'Guardian of the Hall' although possibly the first known Stewart was a Breton knight who settled there after the Norman Conquest. So the name of Stewart (Stuart) is one of the oldest in Scotland.

    And there's another book for me to read 'Little Tree' will you stop it!! Thanks for stopping by lovely lady.

  4. Jill, this is fascinating stuff! I've always been intrigued by language. Each language connects a people, in the present and to the past. The ways diverse peoples communicate seem strange -- sometimes even bizarre -- to those in other cultures, but at their hearts all languages state the same sentiments.

    Really, REALLY enjoyed this sweetheart. I hope you'll share more of this kind of thing, Ms. English Rose! :-)

    1. So glad you enjoyed it Miss Kathleen! i feel the same about languages, especially as yo will have guessed Gaelic, I have cd's by a couple of Scottish folk groups and many of their songs are in Gaelic, I can't understand them but the emotion with which they sing and the feelings that the sounds give me, well the often move me to tears. And really, music trancends the language barrier doesn't it? Many thanks for popping by to visit.

  5. Wow, Jill, thanks for the look at Scottish names. So many Scots migrated here, including my father's family, the Walkers in ~1750. We don't know if they were Scot or English, but they came from Scotland. I often use Scottish or Irish surnames for my characters in the Old West (McAdams, McKinnon, and O'Keefe), because a lot of them continued their migration. When I look at the Idaho Territory censuses from 1860 to 1890, at least half the surnames came from Scotland, Ireland, or Wales (lots of miners from Wales). Fascinating material!

    1. Jacquie, thank you for coming by. The name Walker is of Anglo-Scottish decent, but the original meaning is one which comes from the man's type of work, it actually comes from a 7th Century word 'wealcere' which described the way a man walked on raw cloth which was placed in a water bath (and which contained all kinds of other liquids) in order to thicken and toughen the fabric. Walking in a smelly cold vat of water all day is not my idea of a fun job!! So its a proud old name Jacquie! Thank you for coming.

  6. Well, this was quite interesting, Jill. Some of it I knew, but most of it I didn't, You asked about those of us who are of Scottish heritage to say where we came from. My clan came from the Isle of Barra (there at the bottom of the Hebrides). It's a tiny place, but the clan was fearsome. During the whole Culloden episode, my clan, mostly pirates and thieves, decided to help the cause and sank an English ship. For that, the entire clan was kicked off the island and sent to Wilmington, North Carolina and Nova Scotia. My part of the clan ended up in Nova Scotia (sort of ironic since I have lived in NC most of my life.) New Brighten, Canada probably has more McNeals than Scotland. The MacDonalds took over Barra until somewhere in the 1950's. Even our chief lived in America, and still does--right here in Charlotte, NC. Anyway the clan got together and started scraping together enough money to buy our island back and renovate Kismal Castle. Now that we accomplished that, our chief goes to stay at Kismal from time to time. We have become "Americanized", but we still have wild Scottish hearts. Just sayin'. I know only one sentence in Gaelic. I'm certain it's spelled all wrong. "Giv me a hurley in the carte doon the brae." It means: Give me a ride in the sled down the hill. Of all the things to say, that's all I've got.
    Loved your blog, Jill.

    1. Hello Sarah, thank you for coming. I always wanted to go to Barra, and the other smaller islands, but somehow we never had the chance, maybe one day. What a great story that is! And you are right the Scots (especially Highland and island Scots) do have wild hearts. I will be sure now to go and find out more about Kismal Castle. Will you be coming to visit it sometime? I like your sentence, but there aren't many occasions you could use that are there? LOL! and really it's Anglicised lowland Scottish rather than Gaelic, sorry Here's a real Gaelic sentence for you - 'Tha an tiene teth agus tha mi cofhurtail' (pronounced 'han tchen-e tcheh agus ha mi co-hurst-al') It means 'The fire's hot and I am comfortable'. Complicated isn't it!! Thats why I still can't speak it! Actually when you look at it, it sort of looks a bit like some of the Native American languages, so maybe there is some truth in the Welsh Indian rumor after all? Thanks for such an interesting and thoughtful comment Sarah.

  7. Jill, this is a lot of great information about Scottish names. I don't think I have Scottish ancestry -- 5/8ths of me came from those despised English -- but I married into a lowland Scottish name, Drummond, first time around. As a genealogist, I find name origins interesting. As a writer, for my characters, I like to look at a locality here in the U.S.A., figure out what people settled it, and choose names that would be typical of the area. The Appalachias have a lot of people of Scottish and Scots-Irish descent (some of my current husband's people came through there) and, as has been mentioned, a lot of Scots who came over to the South early in the history of this country made a big impact on the language and culture of the developing nation. I appreciate your added detail about the origin and history of some of these Scottish surnames.

    Robyn Echols writing as Zina Abbott

    1. Hello Robyn, thank you for your comment. Nice to meet another genealogist, (okay I'm just an amateur, but its nice anyway!) I do like the way you choose the names for your characters, normally I pick mine from thin air! Although I am thinking of writing a follow up story to one of my books because one of the characters won't leave me alone and keeps telling me to tell everyone about him. He's an old man in the book I have already got out, I know his parents went to USA from the Clearances and I now have names and occupations, and a wee bit about his early years, so I just have to fill in the rest!
      Thanks for coming by today Robyn.

  8. Loved your Blog post Jill. Cameron suits his name. I'd certainly call him crooked. I mean, crooked Mouth. He he! Sorry. Seriously though, I'm fascinated by the Gaelic names. Makes me want to look into the Welsh side of my family and see what their names mean. Thanks Jill, a super post.

    1. Thank you Maddy. Nice to see you over here! you are a naughty lady! Glad you enjoyed this. I'll let you know when my next one is up. Thanks for coming.

  9. Loved this, Jill. My family are a mix of Scott-Irish, English, German, Cherokee and others, but the Scotts and Irish fascinate me most. I loved visiting Scotland and found Culloden sad. Glencoe was sad and beautiful. My brother and I have worked on our family's genealogy for years. He's traced our family back very far. He says we're related to both MacBeth and Duncan. I'll have to take his word for it. Although I love genealogy, I'd rather write. I do use family names for my characters. My daughter tried to learn Gaelic, but found it too difficult. I doubt anything could be more difficult than Welsh! Will never try to speak Welsh. LOL Thanks for a fascinating post.

    1. Hello Caroline. You have a fascinating mix of bloods in your line! Scotland is my spiritual home, as anyone who has been following my posts will know. How amazing to be related to two of Shakespeare's most famous characters! Your daughter and I share a common failure then! Its so difficult even with tapes and books to help! That's one thing I will sadly never be able to do!
      Thanks for coming by today.