175 years ago today, a small army of enumerators set out all across Scotland - and the rest of the UK - tasked with carrying out a population census. It wasn't the first national UK census - that was organised in 1801, with others in 1811, 1821 and 1831 - but it was the first to attempt to record every man, woman and child in the country. As such, it is an enormously important record set for family historians.
The purpose of the census was to provide accurate and detailed statistical information about the country to enhance government decisions. This was arguably an approach that had been pioneered by Sir John Sinclair with the Statistical Account of Scotland - a monumental work that introduced the word statistics into the English language.
It seems a fitting day, then, for us to have completed phase one of our Scottish surnames project. The idea is really quite simple - to investigate the frequency and geographical distribution of surnames in Scotland using, among others, census records. In our client and transcription work, we have built up a large database of surnames - over 8,500 so far - found in Scottish historical records. We want to know how common each of these surnames is in Scotland, and whether they are more common in any particular part of Scotland.
Phase 1 of our project - which is now complete - entailed counting the number of times each surname is found in each of Scotland's 33 historic counties, and in the four largest cities (Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow). Even the data-gathering part of this phase was a major task - we conducted over 300,000 database queries before we could even begin crunching the numbers.
Having got the raw data, we then compared the number of instances of each surname  in each county with the total population of that county, giving the number of instances of each surname per 100,000 people in each county (the surname density). We then compared each county-frequency value with the equivalent figure for the whole of Scotland, to get an indication of relative surname density. 
The higher the relative surname density, the more common the surname is in that county compared to Scotland as a whole. Our working hypothesis is that the higher the maximum relative surname density for a particular surname, the more likely that surname is to have a geographic origin in that area. We will be looking to test that hypothesis using a selection of surnames with known geographic origins. 
A corollary to this initial hypothesis is that the lower the maximum relative surname density, the less likely the surname is to have a specific geographic origin. This appears to be borne out to some extent by the surnames with the lowest maximum relative surname density, shown in the table below
None of the top 9 surnames have a single origin, and the tenth - Frazer - may simply be a statistical artefact caused by the unusual spelling.
Several other interesting facts emerge from the initial results of this study.
 For the purposes of this study, we treated Mc- and Mac- surnames as identical.
 For example, there were 1580 Browns in Aberdeenshire in 1841. The total population of Aberdeenshire was 193,062. This means that the surname density for Brown in Aberdeenshire is
Surname density (Brown in Aberdeen) = (1580 / 193,062) * 100,000 = 818.39
There were 28,617 Browns in the whole of Scotland in 1841, out of a total population of 2,589,636. So the surname density for Brown in Scotland is
Surname density (Brown in Scotland) = (28,617/2,589,636) * 100,000 = 1105.06
So the relative surname density for Brown in Aberdeen is
Relative surname density (Brown in Aberdeenshire) = Surname density (Brown in Aberdeenshire) / Surname density (Brown in Scotland) = 818.39 / 1105.06 = 0.7406
A relative surname density less than 1 indicates that the surname is less common in that county than in Scotland as a whole. Likewise a relative surname density greater than 1 indicates that the surname is more common in that county than in Scotland as a whole.
 A complication that arises here is that surnames based on specific place names may have first arisen elsewhere. Take for instance the surname Carstairs. This derives from the barony of Carstairs in Lanarkshire, but the surname is most commonly found in Fife. This can be explained by two 13th-century clergymen, Peter de Castiltarris (i.e. "of Carstairs") and John de Castiltarris, who were granted stipends in Dunkeld in 1231 and north-east Fife a little later in the 13th century. The progenitor of the surname presumably came from Lanarkshire, but the surname itself arose in and spread from Fife. Although perhaps at first glance counter-intuitive, this is in fact logical: it wouldn't make sense to refer to John of Carstairs in Carstairs itself, but away from Carstairs, "of Carstairs" would serve as a useful identifier.
These days we often take surnames for granted, and it’s not always obvious that they were in fact invented. The earliest surnames in Scotland date back only to the 12th century, and in some parts of Scotland, they did not become fixed until much later.
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.
Genealogy and Family History - A mix of our news, curious and intriguing discoveries. Research hints and resources to grow your family tree in Scotland from our team.