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Exploring the Scottish Surnames in our Family Trees

The Kilted Ancestors Prompt for February 2024 was Scottish Surname Exploration.

Scottish surnames weave their way through centuries of Scottish History & with it each name carries tales of conquest & kinship!

Surnames in Scotland were adopted in the 12th Century, mainly by the upper classes in society.  Through time it gradually became necessary for people to have more than one given name, therefore the adoption of Surnames provided a way to identify individuals.   Note however that in some areas of the Northern Isles & Highlands this was not adopted until the 18th & 19th Centuries.

Scotland has adopted a wide array of surnames which are reflective of its often-turbulent history.  From the Highland Clans to the Lowland Burghs, each region has its own cultural influences.  Regardless if you are researching your Paternal or Maternal Scottish lines the surnames offer a treasure trove of genealogical exploration.  Many of Scotland’s Surnames stem from Gaelic, Anglo-Saxon, Norse roots.

Surname originate from a variety of sources: -

Regional or Geographical names tie in with places, as an example the name Dunlop a well-known Ayrshire surname derives from the land of Dunlop.

View of Dunlop - Image Public Domain - Wikicommons

Surnames that relate to Occupations such as Smith (Blacksmith), Taylor (Tailor) or Webster (Weaver).

Descriptive names that describe a persons features such as Fairbairn (Beautiful child) or Kennedy (Helmeted Head).

Patronymic & Matronymic Surnames derive from Christian or baptismal names & indicate family relationship or decent.   The adoption of Mac, Mc or M’ was prevalent throughout Scotland to indicate ‘Son of’ so MacKenzie being son of Kenneth.  

Scottish Clans each had geographical areas & often an ancestral castle & were controlled by a Chief.  Clan Chiefs would be registered with the Court of the Lord Lyon who controls Coat of Arms registration in Scotland.  A clan would be made up of everyone who lived within the Chiefs area, they would each owe allegiance to the chief & he would be responsible for them.  It is worth noting that although some of the clan would be family members many would not be linked genetically to one another, nor did all these clan members have the same surname!   Some may adopt the clan surname but others would not.

Scottish Clan Map - Image Public Domain - Wikicommons

Taking all of this into consideration it is wise to remember that not everyone with the same surname will actually be related.  Because you share a surname with a person you work alongside does not necessarily mean that you will be connected somewhere centuries in the past.   Nor does it mean that because your name is the same as someone in Scottish History that you automatically are connected to them….to prove or disprove this may take many years of painstaking research in Archives.

When the 2021 Census was taken in Scotland the top ten surnames were: -

1                     Smith

2                     Brown

3                     Wilson

4                     Thomson

5                     Robertson

6                     Campbell

7                     Stewart

8                     Anderson

9                     MacDonald

10                 Scott     


Regardless of how much you research your Ancestry the exploration of Scottish Surnames opens a door into the past & stories just waiting to be uncovered.

The internet surname database contains almost 50 thousand names & is a good place to start researching the meaning of your name

Another amazing guide is George F Blacks Surnames of Scotland now available to view or download for free on the Hathi Trust website

Good luck with your own search!


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