Scottish Surnames Meanings & Origins

What Does Your Scottish Last Name Mean?

Scottish Pipe.
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Scottish surnames as we know them today — family names passed down intact from father to son to grandson — were first introduced into Scotland by the Normans about the year 1100. Such hereditary names were not universally prevalent and settled, however. The use of fixed Scottish surnames (last names that didn't change with each generation) wasn't really in prevalent use until the 16th century, and it was well into the late 18th century before surnames were common in the Highlands and northern isles.

Origins of Scottish Surnames

Surnames in Scotland generally developed from four major sources:

  • Geographical or Local Surnames —These are names derived from the location of the homestead from which the first bearer and his family lived, and are generally the most common origin of Scottish surnames. Most of the earliest people in Scotland to adopt fixed surnames were the nobles and great landowners, who were often called by the land they possessed (e.g. William de Buchan from Buchan, Scotland). Eventually, even those who did not own significant land started to use place names to identify themselves from others of the same name, adopting the name of the village or even the street where the family originated. Tenants often took their name from the estate where they lived. Thus, most of the earliest surnames in Scotland were derived from place names. Topographic surnames derived from vague geographical locations rather than specific places, also fall into this category. These names may refer to physical features such as streams (Burns), moors (Muir) or forests (Wood) or to man-made structures, such as a castle or a mill (Milne).
  • Occupational Surnames  Many Scottish surnames developed from a person's job or trade. Three common Scottish surnames — Smith (blacksmith), Stewart (steward) and Taylor (tailor) — are excellent examples of this. Offices associated with the king's lands and/or hunting are another common source of Scottish occupational names — names such as Woodward, Hunter, and Forest.
  • Descriptive Surnames — Based on a unique quality or physical feature of the individual, these surnames often developed from nicknames or pet names. Most refer to an individual's appearance - color, complexion, or physical shape — such as Campbell (from caimbeul, meaning "crooked mouth"), Duff (Gaelic for "dark") and Fairbain ("beautiful child"). A descriptive surname may also refer to an individual's personality or moral characteristics, such as Godard ("good natured") and Hardie ("bold or daring").
  • Patronymic and Matronymic Surnames — These are surnames derived from baptismal or Christian names to indicate family relationship or descent. Some baptismal or given names have become surnames without any change in form. Others added a prefix or an ending. The use of Mac and Mc was prevalent throughout Scotland, but especially in the Highlands, to indicate "son of" (e.g. Mackenzie, son of Coinneach/Kenneth). In lowland Scotland, the suffix ​— son was more commonly added to the father's given name to form a patronymic surname. These true patronymic surnames changed with each successive generation. Thus, Robert's son, John, might become known as John Robertson. John's son, Mangus, would then be called Mangus Johnson, and so on. This true patronymic naming practice continued in most families until at least the fifteenth or sixteenth century before a family name was eventually adopted that passed down unchanged from father to son.

    Scottish Clan Names

    Scottish clans, from the Gaelic clann, meaning "family," provided a formal structure for extended families of shared descent. Clans each identified with a geographical area, usually an ancestral castle, and were originally controlled by a Clan Chief, officially registered with the court of the Lord Lyon, King of Arms which controls heraldry and Coat of Arms registration in Scotland. Historically, a clan was made up of everyone who lived on the chief's territory, people for which he was responsible and who, in turn, owed allegiance to the chief. Thus, not everyone in a clan was genetically related to one another, nor did all members of a clan bear a single surname.

    Scottish Surnames - Meanings & Origins

    Anderson, Campbell, MacDonald, Scott, Smith, Stewart... Are you one of the millions of people sporting one of these top 100 common Scottish last names? If so, then you'll want to check out our list of the most commonly occurring surnames in Scotland, including details on each name's origin, meaning, and alternate spellings. 

    TOP 100 COMMON SCOTTISH SURNAMES & THEIR MEANINGS

    1. SMITH 51. RUSSELL
    2. BROWN 52. MURPHY
    3. WILSON 53. HUGHES
    4. CAMPBELL 54. WRIGHT
    5. STEWART 55. SUTHERLAND
    6. ROBERTSON 56. GIBSON
    7. THOMPSON 57. GORDON
    8. ANDERSON 58. WOOD
    9. REID 59. BURNS
    10. MACDONALD 60. CRAIG
    11. SCOTT 61. CUNNINGHAM
    12. MURRAY 62. WILLIAMS
    13. TAYLOR 63. MILNE
    14. CLARK 64. JOHNSTONE
    15. WALKER 65. STEVENSON
    16. MITCHELL 66. MUIR
    17. YOUNG 67. WILLIAMSON
    18. ROSS 68. MUNRO
    19. WATSON 69. MCKAY
    20. GRAHAM 70. BRUCE
    21. MCDONALD 71. MCKENZIE
    22. HENDERSON 72. WHITE
    23. PATERSON 73. MILLAR
    24. MORRISON 74. DOUGLAS
    25. MILLER 75. SINCLAIR
    26. DAVIDSON 76. RITCHIE
    27. GRAY 77. DOCHERTY
    28. FRASER 78. FLEMING
    29. MARTIN 79. MCMILLAN
    30. KERR 80. WATT
    31. HAMILTON 81. BOYLE
    32. CAMERON 82. CRAWFORD
    33. KELLY 83. MCGREGOR
    34. JOHNSTON 84. JACKSON
    35. DUNCAN 85. HILL
    36. FERGUSON 86. SHAW
    37. HUNTER 87. CHRISTIE
    38. SIMPSON 88. KING
    39. ALLAN 89. MOORE
    40. BELL 90. MACLEAN
    41. GRANT 91. AITKEN
    42. MACKENZIE 92. LINDSAY
    43. MCLEAN 93. CURRIE
    44. MACLEOD 94. DICKSON
    45. MACKAY 95. GREEN
    46. JONES 96. MCLAUGHLIN
    47. WALLACE 97. JAMIESON
    48. BLACK 98. WHYTE
    49. MARSHALL 99. MCINTOSH
    50. KENNEDY 100. WARD
    Source: National Records of Scotland - Most Common Surnames, 2014