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Names in Scotland

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Surname/tag: Scottish_Names
Profile manager: Don Gibson private message [send private message]
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The goal of this project is to assist people with Scottish names. To understand how names were created and used in Scotland and to assist people on WikiTree in recording Scottish names in a standard and correct format. This project also seeks to preserve an understanding of the Gaelic language as it was used in names.

Right now this project just has one member, me. I am Don Gibson.

Here are some of the tasks that I think need to be done. I'll be working on them, and could use your help.

  • Review current page for accuracy and suggest improvements.
  • Decide on a standard LNAB for Gaelic speakers see Gaelic or English below.
  • Help get this page adopted in to Styles and Standards for WikiTree

Will you join me? Please post a comment here on this page, in G2G using the project tag, or send me a private message. Thanks!


Many people are confused about the spelling of their Scottish ancestors names when they begin searching old records. There is often no consistency as to the spelling of a persons name from one record to the next. In order to select the critical WikiTree element of LNAB (last name at birth) it may help to have an understanding of the development of Scottish names.

GAELIC ( (Gàidhlig)

Gaelic was once the dominant language in the area of modern Scotland. Although it has been in decline since around 1100 AD [1] it is still spoken by a few Scots and forms the basis of most modern Scottish surnames.

Like many cultures, Gaels used a patronymic format but they used it in two distinct ways. Firstly, Gaelic names usually consisted of a given name and a surname. In the distant past the surnames may have simply been the fathers name ie Angus son of Donald. At some later point it became desirable to have an inheritable surname which generally referred to a historical ancestor. [2] In Gaelic, mac means "son of" so the example above, in Gaelic, would be Aonghais mac Domhnall (Angus son of Donald or Angus MacDonald).

With a relative paucity of inheritable surnames a second patronymic system had widespread usage among Gaelic speaking communities, Identifying Names. In this format a person, even though they had a surname, would be identified among Gaelic speakers by two, three or four generations of "son of". Our example above would introduce himself as Angus son of John son of Neil son of Michael; he would not use his surname of MacDonald. In small communities people could readily identify your family with this short recitation of their ancestry. In formal records Given Name and Surname would be used but with Gaelic speakers the Identifying Name is frequently used.

A fuller description of Gaelic naming, including discussion of the female version ("nic "instead of "mac") (which I have ignored for brevity) can be found here. Wikipedia on Gaelic naming


Prior to as late as 1900 it was quite common for people to be illiterate, especially in small or remote communities. They relied on a few educated individuals to record their important records. For many communities the local priest may have been that key record keeper and the priests (or any other well educated person) would have likely received their education in English. Certainly English has been the official language in Scotland for many hundreds of years.

A common occurrence would have been our friend Aonghais mac Domhnall presenting himself to the priest to record his marriage. The priest would have written down the Gaelic he heard and spelled it out in English as best he could. Thus mac Dhòmhnaill "son of Donald" may appear as: MacDonald, MacDonnald, MacDonnell or one of many other iterations. Note that the spelling choice would not be up to our Gaelic speaking subject but the interpretation of the record keeper. Aonghais mac Domhnall was always Aonghais mac Domhnall but a succession of priests keeping a series of records could record the anglicized name different each time.


For the record keeper translating from Gaelic to English the use of mac (son of) would be highly repetitive. It became very common to contract this word, usually to Mc but sometimes to M'. Again this was dependent on the style of the record keeper and not the actual name of the person involved. When viewing old records remember that when you are seeing Mc or M' , they are contractions; it always means "mac".


As we approach the 20th century more and more people are becoming literate and writing their own names. Perhaps they are taught a particular spelling or adopt one themselves but when Scots began writing their own names they "solidified" their surnames. Still, there are many family anecdotes of names being changed later. A common story from World War 1 was Mac came before Mc in the alphabet and so if you wanted to spend less time in the food line you became Mac and got served first. Many Scots changed their spelling when they emigrated for a host of reasons. In my family my Grandfather became McLean although his wife, children and sisters stayed MacLean. No reason is known.


Pre-literacy. If you find your ancestral records use Mac and Mc interchangeably, I suggest using Mac as the default in LNAB. (Remember it was always mac)

In an effort to follow the WikiTree Styles and Standards on naming, efforts should be made to determine LNAB as they would prefer. See Naming here However, I wouldn't recommend relying on a single document due to factors outlined in "Why the Inconsistent Spelling" above.

Post literacy. If your ancestor was literate, look for records they may have signed or where they wrote out their name for a clue as to how they were known in their time.

A headstone may give a clue to the spelling that came to be accepted for that person in their lifetime.

Follow the WikiTree standard of selecting as LNAB the names that people themselves would have known and that would have been recognized in their own time and place.

While it can make for messy records it is not a requirement that the spelling of a surname be consisted through generations. People changed their names. Each persons surname is their own.


For the last 500 years or so the legal name of most Scots was an English Given Name and Surname but if your ancestor used Gaelic as their primary tongue I urge you to research records and consider adding their Gaelic name and their Gaelic Identifying Name to your profile records.

Hint: Gaelic Identifying Names can be a wonderful clue in researching family trees.

E.G In our example
Legal Name: Angus MacDonald
Gaelic Name: Aonghais mac Domhnall
Identifying Name: Aonghais mac Iain mac Neill mac Mhicheil Bhig. In modern usage this would be written Aonghais Iain Neill Mhicheil Bhig


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_Gaelic
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_Gaelic_name

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