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    Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry: Scottish Surnames Explained

    10 min read

    By Gill McMillan
    More by Gill

    What's in a Name?

    Have you ever wondered about the story behind your Scottish surname? It may start with the distinctive prefix ‘Mac’ or ‘Mc,’ like MacGregor or McLeod. Or maybe it bears the weight of illustrious clans like Grant, Armstrong, or Gordon. These surnames echo the rich tapestry of Scottish heritage, hinting at centuries-old traditions, migrations, and familial legacies. But what exactly lies behind these names?

    Join us on a journey through time and lineage as we unravel the captivating history and cultural significance of Scottish surnames, exploring the influences of Gaelic heritage, Norse invasions, clan dynamics, and the enduring legacy of the Scottish diaspora. Let’s delve into the fascinating world of Scottish ancestry and uncover the stories hidden within our names.

    Straight To:

    The Origins of Scottish Surnames

    As with so much connected to the history of this odd, amazing, multi-layered land called Scotland, we have to go back in time. A long way back, to around 1500 years ago, give or take a century or two. This was a time of great kingdoms, each vying for power and each being jostled and squeezed by their neighbours over the centuries. By kingdoms, I’m talking about the Picts, Romans, and, later, the Vikings, to name a few. One of the reasons that I so enjoy sharing tales and stories of this land with visitors is how these influences have left their mark on the land, in the names of places and people.

    A Map of the Past

    Back to Scottish surnames, and a glance at a clan map reveals a lot. The version I use is the Collins Scotland of Old Clan Map (pictured). The map gives us a snapshot of the distribution of clans around the reign of King James VI and I (1566 – 1625).

    The map tells us that during James’ reign, nearly all the names on the map in the west and northwest of Scotland began with Mac. Those in the east, southeast, and the Borders area didn’t. In fact, of the 195 clans shown, only around 28 were Mac or Mc, with the remaining 165+ not having the prefix.

    The Gaels Arrive

    The explanation is fairly simple. In around the year 500 AD, settlers came from Ireland and settled on the west coast at a place called Dal Riata (Dalriada). These people were Gaels and the language they spoke was Gaelic, a different Celtic language to the tribes already living in Pictland, which was apparently more akin to Welsh. These Gaels had the custom of using the prefix Mac (son of) or Nic (daughter of) as a means of showing family lineage. The kingdom to which their culture spread became known as Scotia and, eventually, gave its name to Scotland.

    The Viking Invasion

    Other peoples, like those with a Norse influence, use son as a suffix, such as Magnusson, Thompson, etc., for the same reason. The Vikings made their presence known between the 8th – 11th centuries. They dominated the Northern Isles of Scotland and held Orkney and Shetland for centuries, so much so that the Gaelic language never got a grip there. The Gaels eventually dominated the western seaboard, up and down the west coast and the islands of the Inner and Outer Hebrides.

    Clan map of Scotland, Colins Map, Scotland of Old

    Gaelic was very widespread at one time, with the last native speaker of Aberdeenshire Gaelic (far from the west coast) dying only in 1984. Her name was Jean Bain, from Braemar in the Cairngorms National Park. Today, just over 1% of Scotland’s population can speak Gaelic.

    Invaders from the South

    We can see that the Gaels from Ireland secured and held their lands for many centuries. While the Gaels came from the west, the Britons, Angles, and others came up north from mainland Europe. For example, the area to the south of the Firth of Forth was held for a long time by the Northumbrian kings. This was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, so the influences here were very different to those elsewhere in Scotland.

    Clan Dynamics and Scottish Surname Evolution

    Sometimes, people wonder whether Mac is Scottish and Mc is Irish – there are around 2/3 Macs in Scotland with 1/3 Mcs, with this being the other way around in Ireland (2/3 Mcs, 1/3 Macs). Perhaps one Protestant and the other Catholic? Neither is strictly true. Scottish clans can be Macs or Mcs and, in my research, I’ve never come across proof of a religious influence.

    Clans and Conflict

    Two things are certain, though. One is that as the clans fought each other, pushing and shoving for dominance, the families divided and formed other branches. Sometimes, there might have been a branch of a family that had many powerful but conflicting sons. They might go off and claim territories for themselves or be given lands by a powerful king for supporting the ‘right’ side. In all the reshuffling, a name might be changed, for example Mac being shortened to Mc. These groupings had affiliations with their clan relatives but made their own decisions, such as the Macleods of the Isle of Raasay choosing to support the Jacobite cause, while the more numerous Isle of Skye Macleods decided to abstain.

    The Proscription

    In 1603, following a bloody battle with the Colquhouns, an edict from James VI made it illegal to use the MacGregor name, in a process known as making them a proscribed clan. Many of this clan’s members adopted a different name, such as Rob Roy MacGregor, who went by his mother’s maiden name of Campbell. The Clan Gregor Society, established in 1822, states that ‘Membership is open to all who call themselves Gregor or MacGregor (various spellings), ….while space precludes listing the Clan’s aliases….spelling variants are accepted, and M’, Mc and Mac are considered interchangeable”.

    Many Scottish surnames were adopted as a result of the proscription, and some families retained the new names when the proscription was lifted in 1774 while many other families re-adopted their rightful name of Macgregor. Some of the aliases include Petrie, Peters, Neish/MacNeish, MacAdam, King, Fletcher, Greer, and MacAlpin. These are found listed on an interesting display in Castle Menzies in Highland Perthshire, not far from some of the traditional lands of the MacGregors. Indeed, the grave of Rob Roy MacGregor at Balquidder states simply, ‘MacGregor, despite them’.

    Medieval Literacy

    The second certainty is that a large percentage of the population in the late medieval period could not write, although the Church has ensured many could read. If they were asked their names for the sake of official records, the Mac or Mc would possibly be written down without too much clarification requested by the person doing the writing. On some old documents, it is simply written as M’.

    Beyond Borders: Scottish Diaspora and Legacy

    Hereditary Roles

    Among the Gaelic-speaking Highland clans, some had specific hereditary roles.

    For example, the MacCrimmons were bagpipers to the nearby, powerful Macleods in Skye for several generations, while the Beatons (clan MacBeth) served as physicians to the Scottish monarchy and nobles from 1300 to 1750.

    The Dewars were traditional keepers of the holy relics of Saint Fillan, so you went to them to borrow the bones, as Robert the Bruce did before the battle of Bannockburn (although some say that the cautious Dewar gave the reliquary to the King with a cow bone inside, leaving the human bone at home for safekeeping). No matter, the Bruce won the day.


    What about the Scottish diaspora, those people who either emigrated from Scotland and their descendants? The numbers for this are wide-ranging, varying from between 28 million to over 40 million people (figures from the Scottish Government).

    The current population of Scotland itself stands at 5,479,900 (mid-2021 figures). Many went to the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, with a few heading to Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. In Argentina, there are thought to be around 100,000 souls who are of Scottish descent.

    Bagpipers at Highland Games

    Bagpipers at Highland Games

    To the United States

    The United States has, by far, the largest number, but the statistics vary wildly from around 5.5 million to 25 million, often cited as accounting for 8% of the population. In the United States, 34 of its 45 Presidents have Scottish ancestors.

    To Canada

    Canada is a very close second at 4.7 million, which is 15% of their whole population, so Canada had the largest diaspora as a percentage of the population. Nova Scotia, or New Scotland in Latin, has links with Scotland reaching back to 1600, and it is from there that present-day Scotland has turned to seek Gaelic-speaking teachers for our children in Scottish schools. They have, along with enclaves of Gaelic speakers in the US, kept the Gaelic language strong.

    Researching Your Scottish Roots

    Read on for some suggestions on how to trace your Scottish surname.

    Firstly, keep all records. It sounds obvious, but it is easy to disappear down rabbit holes of similar-sounding ancestors, many of whom would repeatedly use the same names. Just try googling Donald MacDonald or Mary Campbell. And, while asking elderly relatives for information, this is especially useful as memories are notoriously unreliable. In my own family, many of the heroic deeds we were brought up to believe were not carried out by my grandfather as we were taught but by my grandmother’s brother.

    How to Research Your Ancestry

    The first place to start is on the website Scotland’s People. This is the website for the records of Births, Marriages & Deaths (BMD) in Scotland and is the official website of the National Records of Scotland. The statutory (civil) records date back to 1855 when the government took responsibility for the records rather than individual parishes. Compulsory registration was introduced that year on January 1st.

    The National Records of Scotland

    The National Records of Scotland is still the best place to look as they are also the repository for the earlier Church Registers, which go back to 1553. Added to that, this resource also has records of Census Returns from 1841, information on land ownership, wills and much more. There is a vast wealth of information here and pre-arranged visits are possible if you are travelling to Edinburgh.

    The Scottish Genealogy Society

    Another online resource is The Scottish Genealogy Society. They are also based in Edinburgh.

    Seallam! Visitor Centre

    A wonderful place that I can highly recommend after visiting many times is the Seallam! Visitor Centre, in the Isle of Harris. This is dedicated to those whose ancestors came from the Outer Hebrides and St Kilda. They stock a good selection of specialist books dedicated to different aspects of Island culture, natural history, and Scottish themes.

    Find a Grave in Scotland

    After carrying out as much research as possible, you may have been able to narrow down where the final resting place of your ancestor is. If that is the case, you may want to look at Find a Grave in Scotland.

    Or even better, why not make a personal visit, if possible? There are hundreds of ancient burial sites in Scotland, many with fascinating headstones, some with stones so old that they are indecipherable. In more recent times, if your relative was a soldier, information is available from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Cemeteries and graveyards with these internments have a sign, marking the fact that there is someone there whose grave is known to them. Touchingly, these are often found in very old cemeteries. The dead are all held in equal esteem, no matter their length of stay.

    Burial Islands

    Loch Leven Eilean Munde Scottish Surnames Scottish Graves

    While speaking of old burial places, there are a few very special cemeteries which are located on small islands. One of these (and still in use) is the last resting place of the Chiefs of Clan Macnab. It is a small island in the River Dochart, in the village of Killin. A key is available for the small gate which allows access.

    Eilean Munde

    Another of these is an island in a sea loch, Loch Leven by Ballachulish, called Eilean Munde: Eilean meaning Island, and Munde for St. Mundus, a disciple of Saint Columba, who died in the year 962. Ballachulish is on the way from Glencoe to the north and west. There is a choice to be made here to either carry on up to Fort William and the northwest, allowing access to the Jacobite steam train to Mallaig or to follow the coast west and south to the lovely port town of Oban, giving access to the stunningly beautiful Inner Hebridean islands.

    Eilean Munde is the ancestral burial place of many local Highland Clans, including MacInneses, MacDonalds, Camerons of Callart and The Appin Stewarts. This tidal island is only accessible by boat. It is believed the MacIain of Glencoe, Chief of the Glencoe MacDonalds, was buried here after the infamous Glencoe massacre of 1692, when government forces attempted to annihilate the clan as an example to other Highland clans to comply with the new king’s authority. This new king was William III, and he signed the order of execution.

    To Conclude

    There is so much to explore that narrowing your search criteria is essential, whether your interest is in exploring traditional clan lands, researching your Scottish surname or just soaking up the atmosphere. Whatever your reason for visiting, we wish you a warm welcome.

    Discover Scotland With Us

    Meet the Author: Gill McMillan

    “As a child I skied in Glenshee and loved being outside. At 19 I started hill-walking and have happily worn out many pairs of boots since. I especially enjoy hill-walking, long-distance trails (the Camino de Santiago across Spain and the West Highland Way several times) and wild camping. For me, both personally and professionally, knowing something of the history, folklore and colourful characters of an area really brings the landscape alive. I really enjoy sharing these tales with other people and hearing their tales too.”

    View profileMore by Gill

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