Origins of Scottish Surnames

Scottish surnames are derived from four main sources, Places, Occupations, Patronymics and Nicknames.

  • Patronymics

    Patronymics is most common in the Highlands with names such as Williamson / Williamsdaughter. The first name of the father would become the second name of the child so Peter Johnson's son could be William Peterson. This presents a major headache for genealogists as the surname changes from generation to generation. Patronymics was still used in the Highlands and Islands up until the eighteenth century but had died out in lowland Scotland by the fifteenth.
  • Places

    When surnames became permanent, territorial surnames were common and were usually named after landowners. Tenants also assumed the names of their landowner's even although they had no kinship to them at all.
  • Occupations

    Occupational surnames such as Cooper, Tanner were common and fairly obvious but there are some less obvious such as Baxter which came from Baker. These surnames could be further extended to use 'Mac' which means 'son of'. So names such as MacNab which means son of the abbott.
  • Nicknames

    Nicknames were used particularily in North East Scotland's fishing communities where few surnames existed within one community. To distinguish between them they used distinctive features such as the name of their fishing boats or the colour of their hair.

External influences effected Scottish surnames. Norsemen left aspects of their culture behind with surnames such as Thorburn. Norman names arrived in Scotland from the Norman conquest in England. Many of the Scottish nobles actively encouraged this and fought on their side. Robert the Bruce was a descendant of Robert De Brus who fought with William the Conqueror.

Migration also has had an effect on Scottish surnames. Highlanders would change their names when coming to the lowlands for work to a surname that could be understood easily so MacDonald would be anglicised to Donaldson, or dropped just to Donald. Gaelic surnames would often be dropped in favour of something that just sounded the same.

View the top 50 Scottish Surnames and their origins.