For people who want to trace their family roots, one of the best places to look for clues is your surname. Every culture has a different naming convention. If you are of Scottish origin, your name may indicate what clan you belong to, your family’s trade, or your place of origin.
However, your last name is just scratching the surface of your lineage in Scotland. Some of the most common surnames in Scotland’s registers actually come from the same family lineage but have different spellings. Other names indicate descent from non-residents who eventually took on names in Scotland indicating their foreign origins.
What are the roots and different spellings of Scotland’s most common surnames? Keep reading to learn more about Scotland’s naming conventions, and what are the most common surnames in Scotland.
The earliest use of surnames in Scotland dates back to the time of David I, who reigned as King of Scots from 1124 to 1153. Many of these surnames were Anglo-Norman in origin before being used in Scotland. Later, English and Flemish settlers brought continental and English surnames, trade names, and nicknames to Scotland.
One of the earliest records of full surname data in Scotland is the Ragman Roll, which holds a record of the Scots nobles who paid deeds of homage to King Edward I of England. These surnames date all the way back to 1296 and are very similar to the surnames that were also used in England. The most common last names on this roll can be categorized into local, occupational, and patronymic Scottish names.
Many a Scottish surname is derived from Scottish clan names. These Scottish clans were very influential, controlling vast swathes of territory in Scotland.
A common misconception is that having the same surname made their bearers lineal descendants of the clan heads. Many families that lived on the lands that were acquired by these clans eventually adopted the surnames of the clan chiefs. This increased the number of followers of these lords, strengthening their leadership in Scotland.
A significant event that changed Scottish surnames was the ban on the clan name of the MacGregors in the 17th and 18th centuries. Because of this ban, clan members had to take other surnames. Eventually, the bans in Scotland were lifted and some members began to use the name MacGregor, but others simply held on to their new last names.
In other instances, a clan’s name may be similar to the last name of another family, but there is no historical connection between them. One example is the Brodies of Brodie, who originate from Moray. They are not connected to the surname Brodie from the Hebrides.
Most common surnames in the National Records of Scotland can be divided into these basic categories. These categories explain the origin of each common surname and how it may have changed over generations.
Patronymic names are names derived from the first name of the bearer’s father. Patronyms change with each generation. For example, a name like “Donald Williamson” indicates that its bearer’s father’s name is William. His son would then have the last name “Donaldson” to indicate that he is the son of Donald.
The earliest patronymic common surnames were written in many different languages. Early national records in Latin would add the word “filius” in these names as it was the Latin word for “son”. Other national records in Scotland show patronymic names which bear “ap” and “mac”, the Welsh and Gaelic words, respectively, for “son”.
Changing patronyms eventually died out after the 15th century in the Lowlands of Scotland, gradually solidifying into present-day common surnames. They were given up much later in the Highlands where, as late as the 18th century, men’s names also bore the names of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers.
One of the most common last names in Scotland is Simpson, meaning “son of Simon”. Gaelic surnames with different spellings but the same meaning are “McSymon” and “MacSymon”.
Many Scottish names are taken from the trades or occupations of their original bearers. These occupational surnames eventually became hereditary ones passed on to later generations. Examples of occupational names are Fletcher, Cooper, Mason, and Smith – the most common name in Scotland.
These names rarely have Gaelic roots. Two examples of these rare Gaelic occupational names are MacIntyre from “Mac an t-Saoir”, meaning “son of the carpenter”, and Gow, from “Gobha”, which means “smith”.
Some of the earliest Scottish surnames were used by landlords or non-residents of noble birth. These are known in records as territorial names, with many brought to Scotland by Anglo-Normans. Their names would be derived from their land holdings in England or Normandy. Examples are the surnames Barton and Graham, which are derived from Dumbarton and Grantham respectively in England.
Not all territorial surnames indicate noble lineage. In some cases, territorial surnames were held by tenants of very low birth who followed the owners of the land they lived on. These tenants rarely had any kinship with the noble landowners.
Other Scottish names are “topographic names”, where names refer to the physical features of a site such as glades or lakes. Others are connected to man-made structures in the area, such as “Wood” or “Shaw”.
There are some surnames in Scotland that are classified as regional or ethnic surnames. These surnames were originally used to refer to the origin of its bearer. These are most likely to indicate descent from foreigners who migrated to Scotland and eventually settled there. Examples of these kinds of surnames are Fleming and Scott.
Bynames are names that occur in areas of the country where there were few surnames being used. These bynames were added to a person’s name to distinguish them from other people with the same name.
Bynames were most common in the northeast of Scotland, where fishing communities would tack the names of their fishing boats to their names. These bynames eventually became their surnames.
Examples of Scottish family bynames taken from nicknames are Campbell (taken from the Gaelic word for “crooked mouth”), Little, and Armstrong.
We’ve listed the 20 most common surnames according to new data published from a 2020 report, courtesy National Records of Scotland. Surnames that occurred fewer than ten times total annually will not appear in the report for that year. Different spellings are also counted separately.
The names Smith, Brown, and Wilson top the list as the three most common surnames in Scotland’s General Register Office. Full surname data reveals that one in every eight Scottish surnames begins with Mac or Mc.
The data published from Scotland’s registers of Births, Marriages, and Deaths count surnames of each child for births, of the bride and groom for marriages, and the deceased for deaths. However, this report may not represent the surnames of Scotland’s population as a whole. This is because these registers include the surnames of non-residents who were born, married, or died in Scotland.
Scotland’s registers also exclude the surnames of residents who were born, married, or died outside of Scotland. Some age groups in Scotland also have very low birth, death, and marriage rates.
Scottish surnames were influenced by the languages of people who migrated to its different territories. Here are three of the most common foreign and regional influences to Scottish surnames.
Nearly every name brought to England and Scotland by the Normans were territorial names, taken from the continental lands of nobles. In families that used patronyms, a man would assume a last name from the lands that he would acquire in Britain.
There were three types of Norman patronyms: Germanic names with roots in Frankish names; other Germanic names with Norse roots; and Latin or Greek names that were religious in origin. The Normans were also responsible for introducing many diminutive suffixes in Scotland’s common surnames, such as “-el”, “-et”, “-ett”, “-ot”, “-at”, “-en”, “-in”, and “-uc”.
An interesting example of a common surname in Scotland with Angle-Norman roots is “Fraser”. It originates from the French word “fraise” which means strawberry.
In Scotland’s northern Hebrides, many surnames have Gaelicised Norse origins, such as MacAmhlaigh, which became Macaulay; and MacLeoid, which became Macleod. Some surnames that the English or Anglo-Normans brought to Scotland in the Middle Ages are derived from Norse personal names.
The prefix “Mac” in a name doesn’t always indicate that the name is patronymic. There are some forms of the Scottish surnames MacBeth and MacRae that have their roots in the personal Gaelic names of “Mac-bethad” and “Mac-raith”. In these cases, the prefix of “Mac” means “pupil” or “disciple”.
Not all surnames that start with “Mac” have Irish roots. Along Scotland’s Lowland border, “Mac” was added to diminutives of personal names that were not Gaelic, such as “McRitchie” or “MacWillie”.
Scotland’s full surname data shows that many people have names derived from their trade or clan descent. However, there are many similar surnames that have no kinship with each other. To get a clearer picture, you’ll have to trace the National Records of Scotland and its registers for births, marriages, and deaths.
If your family’s name is among the most common surnames we’ve listed, you’ll have to dig deeper to trace your lineage. A great way to start is by looking at your family photos. Have your old photos restored and colorized by a professional studio like Image Restoration Center. These restored pictures are a good starting point for swapping stories with relatives and learning more about your history!