Broadly speaking, surnames can be grouped into five categories
Patronyms (and occasionally matronyms)
A patronym is literally a name derived from the name of the father (or more generally male ancestor). Similarly, a matronym is a name derived from the name of the mother. Originally, a patronym would have been used to distinguish between two different people with the same forename. The most stereotypically Scottish names – the Macs – are of course patronymic. Mac is Gaelic meaning “son of”. There are a few matronymic Mac names – an example would be MacJanet, of whom there were 20 in the 1841 census. Originally patronyms would have changed with each generation – as they still do in for example Iceland – but over time they slowly became fixed, first in Lowland Scotland, then later in the Highlands. Single-generation patronymics were still being used in Shetland as late as the early nineteenth century.
Many surnames are occupational in origin. The meanings of some are very obvious to modern readers – Farmer, Smith, Shepherd to name but three. Others are perhaps less obvious, as the occupations have largely disappeared (Fletcher means maker or seller of arrows), or because the modern occupation terms are spelled differently (Baxter means baker).
My great-great-grand grandmother was Margaret Carstairs, from Largo in Fife. Ultimately her name derives from Carstairs in Lanarkshire. The surname first appears in Fife, with the earliest record being of a John de Castiltarris (i.e. “of Carstairs”) appearing in 14th century Vatican records after being granted a benefice in north-east Fife. This is not as paradoxical as it may seem – the earliest progenitor of the name came from what is now Carstairs in Lanarkshire and moved to Fife. It’s worth bearing in mind that the earliest appearance of a topographical surname was probably not in the place in question. If you think about it, this is logical, as it makes no sense to refer to John of Carstairs in Carstairs itself – the surname only becomes meaningful outwith the place of origin.
Nicknames or bynames
Some of the most common surnames are nicknames or descriptive names. Some of them are obvious to English-speakers – Little, White for instance. Others are derived from Scots (such as Meikle meaning large) or Gaelic (Campbell, from Gaelic caimbeul meaning crooked mouthed).
There are a number of ethnic names to be found in Scotland. Some are obvious – French, for instance. One of the most common names in Scotland is Fleming, a term originally applied to people from Flanders. Many settlers from Flanders came to Scotland in the 12th century, and today Flemings are to be found all over Scotland. Another common Scottish surname is Inglis, which means English. Even Scotland’s most famous novelist, Sir Walter Scott, bore an ethnic surname.
There are many surnames and spelling variants to be found in Scotland. In our research over the last few years, we have recorded more than 8000 of them (a figure which grows on a daily basis). We have been carrying out a project in an attempt to understand the distribution of these surnames. Many surnames are fairly evenly spread around Scotland, while others are very heavily concentrated in particular areas. This can provide a useful hint if you’re not sure where your ancestor came from, although obviously it can only ever be a guide.
At present, our algorithm involves looking at the number of times a given surname occurs in each county in Scotland (as well as in the cities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Dundee and Glasgow), and compares the frequency of the surname in each county with the frequency of the surname in the Scottish population as a whole. At present we are looking only at the 1841 census. In future, we hope to extend this technique to later census years, and also perhaps to individual parishes rather than counties as a whole. As you might imagine, this involves a lot of number crunching, and as such takes some time. We are gradually working our way through the alphabet, and you can see the results here.