Playing the Name Game with Your Scottish Ancestors

Up until the mid 1700s, Scotland, and its culture and customs, was cut off from the rest of the British Isles by a language barrier and by the wall of mountains that is the Highlands. If you are used to searching for English or English-American ancestors, you might find some interesting differences in people when you discover a Scottish link.

The differences are many, but if we focus on the names of our kinsmen for a moment, we can find a surprising wealth of genealogical clues.

What does Mac mean? Surnames beginning with the prefix Mac are what are called patronymic names or coming from the father. MacDonald, for example, is the son of Donald or more correctly the descendants of a man named Donald. The same name in England would be Donaldson and indeed some Scots anglicised their surnames. Does Mac or Mc matter? Nope! Some researchers discount a lead because they are working under the mistaken belief that MacKinnon and McKinnon are separate families. Remember, your ancestors may not have been able to spell their own names and if this was left to clerks and registrars, who knows what spellings you might get!

Why so many Archibalds???? Today, we flip through baby name books and cruise the internet looking for that perfect name for our baby. In days gone by, in fact right up until the mid 20th century, given names of babies were predetermined before the child was even thought of. The traditional naming pattern was strictly adhered to most of the time and can be a very valuable tool if you know how to use it. This is how it went …

1st son named after paternal grandfather

2nd son named after maternal grandfather

3rd son named after father

4th and subsequent sons named after uncles

1st daughter named after maternal grandmother

2nd daughter named after paternal grandmother

3rd daughter named after mother

4th and subsequent daughters named after aunts

If you have a family with children on a document, you can make an educated guess on what the names of the grandparents were based on the names of the children, and potentially make a leap one generation back. It does get complicated when a man with a name such as Archibald has 6 sons (one named Archibald) and all of them have sons named Archibald too. This is where paying careful attention to birth dates and locations helps sort out the who’s who of the Archibalds. During the time they were living, the multitude of Archibald’s were most likely given nicknames to differentiate them from one another – Big Archie, Red Archie, Archie of the Glen.

It was not unheard of for a family to give two or more of its children the exact same given name, if they were following the naming pattern completely and both grandfathers and/or father had the same first name. In other words, there could be 3 brothers all named John MacDonald to honor each ancestor individually. Another oddity you may find is the reuse of a given name in the case of the death of a child. You may wonder why you find the births for 2 Thomas McMillans for the same couple. You will find that the first one died.

So called illegitimate children were looked down upon. In fact, they rarely got a family given name and were not subject to the traditional naming pattern.  If the unwed mother subsequently married, the children of her marriage would be given the names to honour their forbearers.

Where did Annie go? Perhaps, she didn’t go anywhere. Until the mid to late 1800s and the rise of the manor houses in Scotland, women didn’t move. They began to leave home to seek work as domestic servants, but in the centuries before that they remained at home and generally married locally. Men moved around. They were shepherds, cattle drovers, sea captains and miners and they traveled wherever their work took them and sometimes met a wife along the way.

Annie could very well be right in front of your eyes. She might be masquerading as Nancy or Agnes on this census entry. Both are forms of Anne common in Scotland and used interchangeably seemingly on a whim. It is worth checking into alternate names for your missing relatives.  Consider these – Sarah (Marion, Moira, Morag), Alexander (Alex, Alec, Sandy, Alasdair), Malcolm (Calum, Caldy, Colm), Catherine/Kate, Mary/Mhairi, Margaret/Peggy, John/Iain, Grace/Grizell, Donald/Dan and plenty more.

Middle names in Scotland were very often surnames. This too can be a very handy little clue when looking to attach your family to a previous generation. If the children have names like Sarah Campbell McIvor or James McNab McIvor, you can be fairly sure that these middle names point to ancestors in the not too distant past. They are quite often maiden names of the mother or grandmothers, you will find.

As long as you don’t run into any proscribed names, you should be fine. What is a proscribed name? The most famous proscription, or outright banning of a surname, was that of the entire McGregor clan as decreed by King James VI in 1603. The McGregors had long been considered lawless disturbers of the peace and after a series of events; the king had had enough and outlawed the name completely. Many changed their names to something else – Gregorson, Drummond, Grant, Grier, Murray etc., and others did not. Finally, when proscription was lifted some 170 years later, some took back the name while others kept their alias.

Happy hunting!

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