Common Surnames in Scotland

Are your ancestors from Scotland?  Is MacBeth your favorite play by Shakespeare?  Have you ever wondered whether everyone wearing a kilt really has a last name starting with “Mac”?  A recent census showed that surnames in Scotland haven’t changed too much in the last century and a half.  Which names are the most common?

Patterns in Scottish Surnames

Most of the family names in Scotland aren’t that different than last names in the rest of the U.K. or, for that matter, most of America.  However, there are strong geographical trends — for instance, close to the border with Ireland, more and more families unsurprisingly have Irish names like McLaughlin, Kelly, or O’Donnel.  Another strong trend is that names like Macleod are common in the Western Isles, while Macdonald is the most popular family name in the Highlands.  The stereotype does hold across most of the land, as about 12% of the people in Scotland have a last name that starts with some form of Mc or Mac.  In Orkney, meanwhile, the more popular names are Sinclair and Rendall.

Overall numbers for MacDonald

Taking all of Scotland into account and not just the Highlands, MacDonald is actually only the 9th most popular name.  This name is derived from Gaelic and once meant “son of Domhnall”, but was changed when turned into English.  Today, the Donald Clan is one of the largest in Scotland, and has many branches.  In Ireland (and America), the name is more commonly written as McDonald, but the origins are the same.  The motto of Clan Donald is “By sea and by land”, and their historic seat is Finlaggan Castle.

Of the Clan MacLeod

For all you Highlander fans, it sadly turns out that MacLeod is not particularly common when taken in Scotland as a whole (as mentioned earlier, though, it’s the #1 name in the Western Isles).  Literally meaning “Son of Leod”, this name goes all the way back to the 1200s.  The motto of Clan MacLeod is “Hold fast” and their historic seat is Castle Dunvegan.  Curiously, there are also a lot of Canadians with indigenous Cree blood who go by this surname; it turns out that it was used as an Anglicization of Mahkiyoc, which just means “big one” in Cree.

The History of Stewart

Fifth most common name in all of Scotland and first most common name in the regions of Kinross, Perth, and Sterling, this is one of the oldest names on the list — possibly predating the 7th century.  The surname Stewart is believed to derive from Walter fitz Alan, who relocated to Scotland during a time of troubles known as “The Anarchy”, and ended up becoming the “High Steward”, or guardian, of all Scotland.  The motto of Clan Stewart is “Courage grows strong at a wound”.  Clan Stewart has no clan chief, but their principal branch is the Earls of Galloway, whose seat is Cumloden House.

The Clan of Campbell

The fourth most common name across all of Scotland and one of the most powerful clans, the chief of the Campbell clan eventually became the Earl and later the Duke of Argyll.  Their clan motto is “Forget not” and their historic seat is Castle Campbell.  The Campbell clan dates back to the 13th century and is connected to the legendary Celtic hero, Diarmuid “the Boar”.  Their early lands were in East and Central Scotland, but spread wider over the years.  At one point they were dominated by the MacDougal clan, who killed their chief in battle; all Cambell chiefs since that time have memorialized their fallen chief, Colin, in their patronymic.  

Smith, Brown, and Wilson

The actual most common names in all of Scotland are these somewhat common-sounding English names.  Smith, the actual most popular name in the whole place, once denoted someone as being a blacksmith by trade.  Brown, the most common name in southern Scotland, was originally just used to refer to brunettes.  Wilson, meaning “son of Will”, is another very common name in Scotland and everywhere else in the English world.  Will, often short for William, in turn comes from the German word for “desire”.  Wilson is also quite common as a last name in some regions of Ireland where Scottish immigration has historically been higher.

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