Most Common Scottish Surnames

Many Scottish surnames date all the way back to the Middle Ages. Medieval naming customs have shaped most of our present-day surnames, and the mingling and blending of families from all over the British Isles have spread and preserved the prominence of these names. 

This is a follow-up post to our Common Surnames in Scotland post that received so much attention last week – we hope you enjoy this one too!

Parts of Scottish Names

During the Middle Ages, patronymic names (a name given after the father) were popular the world over, and in Europe especially. Often these names had some form of the meaning “son of” attached to them. The extremely prevalent surname Johnson, for example, means “son of John”, which dispersed like wildfire after the popularization of Christianity, and with it the given name John (or Johanan in Hebrew). 

In Scottish Gaelic and Irish, the prefixes “Mac” or “Mc” were used to denote the meaning of son, such as McCormick or MacPherson. Several Gaelic names were often anglicized, contributing to the version we hear today. 

Other types of surnames were bestowed upon the bearer depending on their profession. Baker, Potter, Mason, and Fisher all fall under the umbrella of occupational names. While not the most creative manner of name-giving, in medieval times it was certainly useful to label the various townspeople with their trades. However, this is indeed why there are so many of these sorts of surnames still floating around, as every town ended up having its own baker, potter, etc. 

Scottish Surnames

Every year Scotland keeps records of the most common surnames based on the registered births, deaths, and marriages. According to the most recent record of 2019, here are the top 10 most common Scottish surnames: 

1. Murray

The surname Murray is thought to derive from the county of Moray, where the clan lived. They are considered to be descended from MacAngus de Moravia, who was the first Earl of Murray. 

2. Taylor

An example of an occupational surname, Taylor, as you might expect, was the name for a tailor. However, it actually originated from the Norman French word taillour, and was most likely brought to Scotland after the Norman invasion of England in the 11th century. 

3. Anderson

The history of the name Anderson is an entirely fascinating one, as the Andersons were born amongst the ancient Dalriadan clans on the western coast of Scotland. The name comes from the given name Andrew, and shows that the Andersons are descended from Mac Ghille Andreis, who was the servant of St. Andrew, the Patron Saint of Scotland. 

4. Robertson

Like Anderson, Robertson is a patronymic name meaning “son of Robert”, and recurrently, the Robertsons also come from the ancient Dalriadan kingdom in the west. Yet their history might even be more compelling than that of the Andersons. Initially they were the abbots of Dunkeld; Abbot Crinan, the grandson of the first Robertson abbot, married the king’s daughter, who gave birth to King Duncan I of Scotland, (who was later killed by the infamous MacBeth). 

5. Thomson

The Thomson family originates from the border between Scotland and England. The first written record of a Thomson was in the early 1300s, in the historic county of Ayrshire. The name itself derives from the personal name Thomas. 

6. Campbell

This surname probably has the most amusing history of any on this list, as it evolved from two Gaelic words; cam, meaning “crooked” and beul, meaning “mouth”. Therefore a Campbell was a nickname for someone with a crooked mouth or smile. 

7. Stewart

This indubitably royal name began as an occupational label, signifying a steward who was in charge of a noble household, and later developing into the highly eminent Clan Stewart of the Highlands, which eventually ruled as famous Scottish and British monarchs. 

8. Wilson

Another patronymic name, the Vikings brought this surname to medieval Scotland, where it first surfaced on written record in the early 1400s. 

9. Brown 

An English, Irish, and Scottish name, Brown derives from the Old English or Old French brun, meaning someone with brown features such as hair or eyes. It has also been thought to be a translated version of the Gaelic donn.

10. Smith

Smith is not only the most common surname in Scotland, but also in the entire United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia as well, speaking to the true pervasiveness of this name. The main reason for the fact that there are so many Smiths nowadays is that during the Middle Ages, in each town there were often several kinds of smiths, as a smith was someone who worked with metal. Therefore blacksmiths, goldsmiths, arrowsmiths, tinsmiths, and more might have all been present within one village. 

Although none of the typical “Mac” or “Mc” names made it on to the Top 10 list for 2019, MacDonald was number 11, and has indeed been one of the top 10 in other recent years. 

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