Surnames were used in Scotland beginning around the 12th century, and at first, were mainly reserved for the upper classes of Scottish society. In time, it became necessary to distinguish ordinary people from one another by more than just their given names, and the use of Scottish surnames began to expand. In some Highland areas, surnames did not become common until the 18th century, and in parts of the Northern Isles they were not used until the 19th century.
Lanark Society Settlers
In the sailing seasons of 1820 and 1821, a number of ships left Grenock, Scotland, headed for the main Canadian port in Quebec City, bringing many who were skilled weavers, along with their families. Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General of Canada, arranged for their settlement in a newly surveyed area, called Lanark County. He later noted in his diary, “I gave them a new township, ten miles square, and called it ‘Lanark’, close to the settlement in Perth.”
“For liberty to emigrate with their families to Upper Canada,
and that the Government be graciously pleased
to grant one hundred acres of land,
free of any charge, along with aid in money,
implements of husbandry, and building materials”
from: “The Lanark Society Settlers 1820-1821” – Carol Bennett.1991.
The newly arrived Scots brought a number of skills in weaving, carpentry, blacksmithing and shoe-making. They built grist mills, flour mills, and established tanning enterprises. Some of the earliest Scottish settlers established maple syrup operations, lumbering, saw mills, and furniture-building businesses.
Some of the descendants of these original settlers can still be found in the region today, and you might guess their Scottish heritage by their surnames.
100 Most Common
Surnames in Scotland
Some Scottish Surnames
and their Meanings
Anderson – son of Andrew, means ‘manly’
Brown – originates from old English and refers to the colour of the hair or complexion. Old Norse name.
Cameron – means crooked river, originated near Fife
Campbell – means ‘wry-mouthed’, traces back to the Britons of Strathclyde
Clark – comes from ‘cleric’, means scribe or writer, recorder of history
Davidson – son of David, all over Scotland
Duncan – means brown-haired or chieftain, originated in Perthshire
Ferguson – means ‘with force’, originated in Ayrshire
Fraser – means strawberry flowers, originates in East Lothian
Graham – from the 12th century, means gravelly homestead
Gray – a person with gray hair, from the border regions near England
Hamilton – a leading family in the 16th century, owned vast properties in Paisley
Henderson – son of Henry, means powerful, from the Pictish
Johnston – meaning John’s town, from Dumfriesshire area
Kerr – means left-handed, originated along the Scottish borders near England
Originated in Ayrshire and means ‘son of Adam’
A clan established in Kintyre and Bute. The name MacAllister means ‘son of Alexander’ or ‘son of Alistair’ (Alexander meaning ‘defender of men’ and Alistair and Alasdair being its Scottish and Gaelic variants) The first chief of the Clan MacAlister was Alexander, a descendant of the famous Somerled, King of the Isles.
The name is thought to be of Pictish or Brythonic origin, coming from the word alp meaning ‘rock’.
Means ‘son of Andrew’. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland.
From the Lorne district of Argyll. The name MacArthur means ‘son of Arthur’, Arthur is associated with the legendary Celtic king of the Britons who presided over the Knight of the Round Table.
Originated in Lewis and Skye. The name comes from the Gaelic MacAsgaill, derived from the Norse name Arskell meaning ‘cauldron of sacrifice to the gods’.
Originated in Lewis and Dunbartonshire. The name comes from the Gaelic MacAmhaoibh, which is the Gaelic version of the Norse name Olaf meaning ‘ancestor’s descendant’.
Name comes from Macbeth, who ruled as king from 1040 to 1057, and associated with play Macbeth by William Shakespeare.
The play was written in the 1600s was known as ‘the Scottish play’. The Macbeths were an established family in the north of Scotland, with the name meaning ‘son of life’ or ‘son of a man of the church’.
The name is a variation of Malcolm, meaning ‘son of the servant of Columbia, an Irish missionary who founded a monastery on Iona.
Originates in Galloway. The name means ‘son of Art’ with Art the Gaelic word for bear. Beatle Paul McCartney, lived for a time not far from Galloway in Kintyre.
McClintock, McLintock, MacLinktock
Means ‘son of the servant of Saint Findon’. Saint Findon was disciple of Saint Columba.
Originated in Argyll, and means ‘son of Colla’, with Colla meaning ‘high one’.
A variation of the surname MacDonald meaning ‘son of Donald’.
Means ‘son of Dermott’. Diarmaid a Gaelic and Irish first name meaning ‘freeman’ or ‘free from envy’. The MacDiarmids originated in Perthshire.
MacDonald, McDonald, Macdonald
The name is the most common surname in Scotland beginning with ‘Mac’. In Gaelic, mac means ‘son of’ and so MacDonald means ‘son of Donald’. Donald is a name of Gaelic origin that means ‘world ruler’.
Established on the Scottish mainland in Glengarry in the Highlands and Keppoch in Lochaber. The name derived from the clan name MacDonald meaning ‘son of Donald’.
Established in the Lorne region of Argyll, and means ‘son of Dougal meaning ‘dark stranger’.
Means ‘Son of Duff’. Duff comes from the Gaelic word duibh meaning ‘black’.
MacEwan, McEwan, MacEwan
Means ‘son of Ewan’ Ewan is a version of the Gaelic name Eoghan, (Ewan) means ‘of the yew tree’ or ‘of youth’.
Means ‘son of little Patrick’. The Macfadyens were Irish in origin before settling in Mull in the 14th century.
They hail from the Loch Lomond clan from the 13th century. The name means ‘son of Paran’ with Parlan being the Gaelic for Bartholomew, the name of one of Jesus’ disciples.
Established on the small Hebridean island of Colonsay and means ‘son of Dubshithe’, and ‘dark peace’.
Originated in Dumfries and Galloway, and means ‘son of the stranger’
The name means ‘son of the smith, such as a blacksmith or silversmith.
MacGregor, McGregor, MacGregorhttps:
Means ‘son of Gregor’ and ‘watchful’ and was a popular name for popes. There was also a 9th century Scottish prince called Gregor.
The MacGregors lived between Aberfoyle and Balquhidder, and were involved in decades of conflict with the Campbells and the Scottish crown.
Means ‘son of Iain’ or ‘son of John’ The clain MacIan was established in Ardnamurchan. Variations of MacIan included McKean and Caine.
Means ‘son of Angus’. The name derives from Aonghus, the Gaelic form of the name Angus, which is pronounced ‘Innes’. The MacInneses were from the west coast and established in Perthshire.
MacIntosh, Mackintosh, Macintosh
From Perthshire and the Highlands. The name means ‘son of the chieftain’.
MacIntyre, McIntyre, Macintyre
Established in Glencoe. means ‘son of the carpenter’. MacIntyre is often anglicized to the surname Wright.
Family was established in Argyll, and means ‘son of Ivor’, with Ivor being a popular male first name that derives from the Scandinavian Ivarr meaning ‘bow’ and ‘army.
MacKay, Mackay, McCoy, MacKie, Mackie
Meaning ‘son of Aodh’ or ‘son of Aed’. The Gaelic name means ‘fire’, and is anglicized as Hugh. The MacKays were established in Sutherland. The Highland Clearances of the 19th century saw many MacKays scattered throughout the world.
The surnames MacKie and Mackie are also variations of Mackay.
MacKenzie, McKenzie, Mackenzie
Means ‘son of Kenneth’. Kenneth means ‘handsome’ or ‘fair’ and was the name of three of Scotland’s earliest kings.
Originated in Perthshire. The name means ‘son of Cionadh’ ‘beloved of Aodh’ (Aodh is the Celtic god of fire).
Originated chiefly in Mull and Iona, and means ‘son of Finegon’ and ‘fair born’.
Means ‘son of Lachlan’. The name Lachlan means ‘land of the lochs’ and historically referred to a person who came from Norway.
Originated in Perthshire. The name means ‘son of Laurence’.
MacLean, McLean, Maclaine
Means ‘son of a follower of St John’. The name is concentrated in Mull and Tiree.
Derived from the Gaelic Mac Gille Iosa meaning ‘son of the servant of Jesus’. It is a variation of the surname Gillies.
Means ‘son of a servant of Saint Finnan’. Saint Finnan was a 7th century Irish saint whose name is derived from the Gaelic name Fionn meaning ‘white’.
MacLeod, McLeod, McCloud
Means ‘son of Leod’. The clan MacLeod was most concentrated in Skye and Lewis.
MacMillan, McMillan, Macmillan
Means ‘son of the tonsured one’. The name is believed to originate from monks. The MacMillans became established in Argyll and then Kintyre and Galloway.
Means ‘son of the abbot’ or ‘father’s son’. The MacNab family originated near Killin.
Means ‘son of Neil’, Niall, meaning ‘champion’. The name is long associated with the island of Barra, and it is said that the name orginated from an Irishman called Niall who settled there in the 11th century.
Derived from the Gaelic name Mac Phail, and means ‘son of Paul’.
Means ‘son of a parson’.
From the island of Mull, means ‘son of a proud man’.
An anglicized version of the Argyll surname MacSween, meaning‘son of Suibne’ (with Suibne the Gaelic for ‘pleasant’) or ‘son of Sweyn’ (Sweyn a Norse name meaning ‘servant’).
Established in Wester Ross. , means ‘son of grace’.
Means ‘son of the priest’ The name comes from the days when priests were allowed to acknowledge their children. MacTaggarts were established in Ross and in Dumfries.
Derived from the Gaelic name Mac Tamhais. The name means ‘son of Thomas’. The biblical name Thomas means ‘twin’.
Miller – a person who owned or worked in a grain mill, origins near Glasgow
Mitchell – one who is like God, Old English origin
Morrison – son of Maurice, from the Isle of Lewis
Murray – means from a sea settlement, originated on the northeast coat
Patterson – son of Patrick, from the Scottish Lowlands
Reid – a person with ruddy hair or complexion, originated in Perthshire
Robertson – son of Robert, found in the borders of Scotland near England
Ross – means the steed or the horse, also headland, comes from Clan Ross
Scott – means ‘a native’ of Scotland
Smith – meaning ‘to strike’, an Anglo-Saxon name.
Stewart – meaning steward, Queen Elizabeth II descends from the Royal House of Stewart, on both sides
Taylor, or Tailor – occupation surname meaning ‘cutter of cloth’
Thomson, or Thompson – son of Tom, member of the Clan McTavish
Walker – to walk or to tread
Watson – son of Walter
Wilson – son of Wil or William, meaning desire or protection, from Lanarkshire.
Young – a younger brother or a son
Norse and Norman Names
There were Norse and Norman influences on Scottish surnames that we know today. Bissett, Boyle, Colville, Corbett, Gifford, Hay, Kinnear and Fraser are all originally Norman names, which first appeared in Scotland in the 12th century. Menzies and Graham are Anglo-Norman surnames.
Named for the Land
Many surnames are territorial in origin, as people became known by the name of the lands that they held, for example Murray from the lands of Moray, and Ogilvie, from the barony of Ogilvie, in the parish of Glamis, Angus. Tenants sometimes assumed the name of their landlord, despite having no familial relationship with him.
Many surnames are derived from the occupations of their owners, like Smith, Tailor, Mason, and some are less obvious like Baxter (baker), Stewart (steward), Wardrope (keeper of the garments) and Webster (weaver). Cordiner, Soutar and Grassick are all derived from the occupation of shoemaker.
Mac and Mc
Mac and Mc usually mean ‘son of’.
Grant, Stewart, Ramsay, and Campbell are examples of Scottish surnames that are derived from the family Clans.
No matter the origins of your own Scottish surname, you can be proud of a long and fascinating heritage. You may descend from an old established Clan, or from the aristocracy who lived in one of the historic stone castles.
Glamis Castle, Angus, Scotland, U.K.
….And if your ancestors lived in Lanark County, you may even be a descendant of one of the Lanark Society Settlers!
Lanark Highlands, Lanark County, photo: Lanark County Tourism
Good Luck with your research!
List of 100 surnames -National Records of Scotland (NRS), statistics from 2014
Surnames of Scotland, by George F. Black. (OCLC 1303608)
“The Scotsman”, McKim, 2015.
Dorward, David, ‘Scottish Surnames’, Glasgow, 1995