Family Surnames International Genealogy

The Origin and Meaning of Scottish Surnames

The Origin and Meaning of Scottish Surnames

If you have a Scottish surname, you are in good company. Millions of people around the world are descended from the Scots and bear their surnames to this day. If there is a bit of Scot in you, you will naturally be interested in the origin and meaning of Scottish surnames, as this can tell you a lot about your Scottish ancestors even beyond what written records can reveal.

Like most of Europe, people in Scotland did not begin using surnames until the Middle Ages. While people were undoubtedly using them for a while before they were first recorded in written form, surnames in Scotland first appear during the reign of King David I, who reigned from 1124 to 1153. The earliest recorded Scottish surnames were Anglo-Norman names that had already become hereditary surnames in England at the time of the Norman Conquest nearly a century prior. Gradually, these surnames worked their way into Scotland, which shared a border with England.

Also during this time, some English and Flemish people had immigrated to Scotland, bringing their cultural first names and hereditary surnames with them, as well as their nicknames. These all became adapted into Scottish culture and language.

An early source of Scottish surnames that is available to most researchers is the Ragman Roll, which was taken in 1296 and records deeds of homage that Scots nobles were forced to pay to the English king Edward I. The surnames found on the role are similar to English surnames of the same period, being mostly patronymic, occupational, and geographical surnames. Some of the surnames describe places in Scotland. While there are a few Gaelic surnames on the Ragman Roll, they are the exception rather than the rule.

In fact, Scotland is similar to other parts of Europe in another way when it comes to surnames. This way is in the use of patronymic surnames among the earliest surnames used in the country. Patronymics are surnames that come from the first name of a person’s father. So, James, the son of William, would become James Williamson. James’s son Robert would become Robert Jameson, and so on. The surname changed with each generation until a patronymic surname was eventually adopted as the permanent surname of the family from then on.

Patronymic surnames in Scotland from the earliest period of surname use are written in several different languages. Latin was a common way of recording names on early Scottish records. English, Welsh, and Gaelic are other languages that were used. The same surname can appear in a variety of different spellings, all meaning the same thing, depending on what language was used to record it. With patronymic surnames, “filius” was used for Latin, “ap” was used for Welsh, “son” was used for English, and “Mac” was used for Gaelic. All mean “son of.” Some of these “son of” words were used as suffixes on surnames, while others were used as prefixes.

Patronymic naming ended in the Scottish lowlands in the 1400’s but continued in the Highlands until the 1700’s. In the Shetland Islands of Scotland, they continued to be used until the early 1800’s.

After patronymic surnames, the second most common type of surnames in Scotland is geographical ones. These are surnames that describe where a family, or sometimes an individual person, originated. Nobility and wealthy people who owned a lot of lands were the first ones to take on this type of surname in Scotland. They took their surnames from the name of their lands. For example, the surname Crawford comes from the town of Crawford, South Lanarkshire in the southern part of Scotland. The surname Barton comes from the Scottish town of Dumbarton, and so on. Later, tenants who lived on the lands owned by the nobility and wealthy adopted the geographical surnames of their high and mighty landlords. So, just because two people from Scotland have the surname Barton does not mean they are related. One may be descended from a landowner, and one may be descended from a tenant of that same landowner.

Other people adopted surnames based on the geographical features of where they originated, rather than the names of the lands they owned. Features may have been natural (like forests, streams, hills, valleys, marshes, and mountains), or man-made (like castles and churches, even mills and bridges). Wood, Shaw, and Milne are all geographical Scottish surnames.

The next most popular type of Scottish surname is occupational surnames. These are surnames that correspond to what a person (or their family, if it was a generational trade handed down from father to son for generations) did for a living. Like other surnames, there was one original person who started using the name, and it became hereditary with subsequent generations. Therefore, people with surnames like Shepherd, Mason, Stewart, and Fletcher all had an ancestor who originally had this occupation in Scotland.

A less common type of Scottish surname is referred to as a byname. It was once a very popular type of surname in Scotland but has become less so over the centuries. Bynames were originally used in areas where there were only a few commonly used first names, and a “byname” was added onto their first name to distinguish them from others with the same first name in that area or town. As an example, the name of someone’s fishing boat might be added to their first name to distinguish them from other fishermen in the area.

Other bynames were physical features of a person that distinguished them from others of their same first name. Surnames like White, Little, Meikle (meaning “big” in Gaelic”), and Campbell (which is Gaelic for “crooked mouth” in Gaelic, and is, coincidentally, one of the most common surnames in modern Scotland) are all bynames. “Armstrong,” meaning “son of a strong man” is also a common Scottish byname surname.

Finally, ethnic surnames that referred to the place of origin of someone who came a long distance from their original home, were sometimes used in Scotland in the early days of surname use. Fleming (meaning “from Flanders”) and Galbraith (meaning “stranger”) are examples of ethnic surnames in Scotland.


Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)