Scotland has a long and rich history dating back thousands of years.
Yet, the history of Scottish surnames, are by comparison, a much more recent affair.
Until the 12th century, most Scots did not have surnames. It was not until King David I’s decision to give large amounts of Scottish land to Norman nobles in return for their support of the Crown that the Norman tradition of surnames came into fashion.
Choosing a surname was a haphazard affair. You could be the son of somebody (Robertson, Davidson, Johnston) or adopt the Gaelic variation of ‘Mac’ rather than ‘son’ (MacDonald, MacLeod, MacKenzie).
You could take the surname from the nobles who owned the land you worked on, or from the dominant chieftain in your area.
Some chose to be named after their occupation (Shearer, Smith, Taylor) or perhaps after a colour (Brown, Black, Gray). For example Reid, the Scots word for ‘red’, is a common Scottish surname which is indicative of Scotland having a higher-than-normal percentage of redheads.
In the Highlands and Borders of Scotland, the clan system established dominant families with tartans, mottoes, gatherings and weddings, giving centuries of business to grateful kilt makers.
Finally, Scotland has a long tradition of place names becoming first names or surnames (Murray, Angus Hamilton).
By investigating the origins of Scotland’s common names using historical literature, we are able to map where many of Scottish surnames originate.
The map includes a Highland boundary line which shows us how the Gaelic names of the north differentiated from the rest of the country.
However, the list of names compiled here is by no means an exhaustive list of all names of Scottish origin but rather some of the more common ones.
It is also worth noting that the traditional Scottish clan system was disintegrating - even in its Highland heartland - by the mid to late 1700s. If you have ancestors who had a recognisable clan name by the 1800s this does not necessarily men that they themselves lived in ‘clan territories’.