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Occasional Paper


Published on 18 February 2003

Surnames in Scotland over the last 140 years

Neil Bowie, BA, MSc
G W L Jackson, BSc, MA

This paper presents data covering the years 1999-2001 and makes comparisons with previous surveys. It also incorporates newly available information derived from the 1901 Census returns.

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1. Summary
2. Background
3. The Current Survey: 1999 - 2001
4. Previous Surname Surveys
5. Results from the 1901 Census
6. Surnames in Scotland, by Area, 1999-2001
7. Surnames in Scotland, by Area, 1901
8. Further Information

NOTE: The following tables associated with this paper are available for downloading in Adobe Acrobat Portable Document Format (PDF):- Tables A1, A2, A3a, A3b, A4, A5, A6 and A7.

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1. Summary

On several occasions over the last 140 years the General Register Office for Scotland has published surveys of surnames in Scotland based on names appearing in the official registers of births, marriages and deaths. This paper presents data covering the years 1999-2001 and makes comparisons with the previous surveys. It also incorporates newly available information derived from the 1901 Census returns. The main findings are as follows:

  • Smith, Brown and Wilson are currently the top three surnames in Scotland;
  • Smith has been the most common surname in all surveys since that covering the early years of civil registration;
  • On a national basis, there has been little change in surnames over the last 140 years;
  • Just over 1 in 8 surnames begin with Mac/Mc;
  • Patterns of surnames differ widely in different geographical areas.

2. Background

In view of the widespread interest in ancestry and genealogy, Scottish surnames have been extensively researched and many books and articles have been written on the subject. Clans and their history have received particular attention.

However, the use of surnames to indicate family relationships as in modern times has not always been the case. Surnames in the past have been based on many factors such as occupation, location, the patronymic (the adding of 'son' or 'Mac' to the father's first name), physical characteristics, localised spelling conventions and employer's names. In many cases similar, or in some cases identical, surnames have been derived from entirely different sources and different areas of Scotland. Thus the modern 'consistency' in naming conventions has been based on a possibly 'inconsistent' starting point. In other words, to rely on surnames as a guide to family history becomes less reliable the further back in time the researcher goes.

The examples which follow illustrate the variety of derivations which can underlie surnames in Scotland.

Place names
The first people in Scotland to acquire fixed surnames were the nobles and landowners who called themselves, or were called by others, after the land they owned. This was then taken up by others who used the region or district from which their family originated. Examples of this are Johnstone, Leith and Calder. Throughout Scotland, there were many places with the same, or similar names, and hence 'families' with the same (or similar) names emerged. This was further taken up in towns, where families sometimes even used street names as surnames. Thus in many cases, both proprietors and tenants used the same names.

Trade names
Smith, the most common name in all our surveys, is a good example of a surname derived from a craft or occupation. Other examples are Shepherd, Mason, Fletcher etc.

To-names or nicknames
Sometimes, the prevalence of certain surnames, particularly in small communities led to people being given 'alternative' names. These names often described a characteristic of the person. Examples of this are Little, White and Meikle (big). One of the most common surnames in Scotland, Campbell, is derived from the Gaelic word for crooked-mouthed (caimbeul). This sometimes led to the person taking on this name as their surname. In the north-east fishing communities, some people even added the name of their fishing boat as additional identification.

Patronymic names
Sometimes a son would take his father's forename and add a suffix (son) or prefix (Mac), to form his surname. Thus for example, John Duncan's son may be Andrew Johnson, whose son might be Robert Anderson. This process resulted in surnames changing every generation. The use of the 'Mac' prefix had even more complexity, in that it was not only first names that were added to, but also in many cases occupations. Even daughters were sometimes given the 'son' suffix.

Miscellaneous names and name changes
Some people, if they moved from one estate to another, changed their name accordingly. Others possibly did not like their name and hence changed it. In the past, the spoken word was the predominant communication, few people could read or write and spelling was often inconsistent. In the Middle Ages, knowledge of writing was confined largely to churchmen. They would often interpret names phonetically, and much of their writing was in Latin or Norman-French.

The compulsory registration of births deaths and marriages started in Scotland in 1855 and registrars started to insist that individuals should use the same surname as their father. The first surname survey, covering registrations during the years 1855, 1856 and 1858, was published by the Registrar General in 1860.

3. The Current Survey: 1999 - 2001

Data for the current survey have been collated from birth and death registrations in the years 1999 to 2001. This resulted in a total sample of over 335,000 events spread over the three-year period. A change from previous practice was the omission from the sample of marriage registrations. This decision was taken in the light of the increasing proportion of marriages taking place in Scotland between persons not resident in Scotland. This proportion reached more than one in six in 2000. Many such marriages take place at Gretna. An Occasional Paper entitled 'Marriages at Gretna, 1975-2000' on the subject of this relatively recent phenomenon was published in 2000 and is available on the GROS website.

In this new survey of surnames, as in all previous surveys, we have not distinguished between the varying use of capital letters within surnames e.g. MacDonald/Macdonald. However, as in the previous two surveys, each spelling is noted separately in the tables e.g. McDonald/MacDonald. Over 25,000 different surnames were included in the sample, though almost half occurred only once.

The top 20 surnames in Scotland in recent years (1999-2001) are shown in Table 1 below. Smith is the most common surname followed by Brown, Wilson, Campbell and Stewart. Smith accounts for 1.3 percent of the sample; the top 10 names account for 7.9 percent and the top 20 account for 12.4 per cent.

Table 1: Top 20 Surnames in Scotland: 1999/2000/2001

Place Surname Frequency
1 SMITH 4,291
2 BROWN 3,030
3 WILSON 2,876
4 CAMPBELL 2,657
5 STEWART 2,626
6 THOMSON 2,616
8 ANDERSON 2,297
10 SCOTT 1,839
11 REID 1,771
12 MURRAY 1,690
13 TAYLOR 1,595
14 CLARK 1,574
15 ROSS 1,481
16 WATSON 1,390
17 MORRISON 1,388
18 PATERSON 1,382
19 YOUNG 1,373
20 MITCHELL 1,367

Table A1 lists the top 100 surnames in rank order and Table A2 gives the rank of the 100 most common surnames in Scotland in alphabetical order.

Table 2 shows the distribution of surnames by their initial letter, with separate totals for 'Mc' and 'Mac'. Surnames prefixed with Mc or Mac accounted for just over 1 in 8 of the sample. About 1 in 4 occurrences of surnames with 'Mac/Mc' begin with 'Mac', although 4 out of the 6 most common 'Mac/Mc' surnames begin with "Mac". MacDonald is the most common surname of this type, being the 9th most common on the list. If, for example the names MacDonald and McDonald were counted as one, as in the surveys of 1855 - 58, 1935 and 1958, MacDonald/McDonald would be in 2nd place. The next most common name of this type would be MacKenzie/McKenzie, which would rise to 12th place. However, as noted in the introduction, similar and same spelling in surnames can often be the result of the complex and possibly random processes of developing surnames.

Table 2: Distribution of surnames by initial letter, Scotland 1999/2000/2001

Initial Letter Number of Surnames Frequency Distribution (%) Cumulative Frequency Distribution (%)
A 10,896 3.24 3.24
B 26,896 8 11.24
C 28,022 8.33 19.58
D 17,483 5.2 24.78
E 3,419 1.02 25.79
F 12,652 3.76 29.56
G 17,509 5.21 34.76
H 20,167 6 40.76
I 2,096 0.62 41.38
J 6,002 1.79 43.17
K 9,404 2.8 45.97
L 12,371 3.68 49.65
Mac 10,494 3.12 52.77
Mc 32,146 9.56 62.33
M 26,223 7.8 70.13
N 4,848 1.44 71.57
O 3,990 1.19 72.76
P 10,528 3.13 75.89
Q 806 0.24 76.13
R 17,536 5.22 81.34
S 28,821 8.57 89.92
T 11,237 3.34 93.26
U 505 0.15 93.41
V 864 0.26 93.67
W 19,013 5.66 99.32
X 9 0 99.32
Y 2,058 0.61 99.94
Z 217 0.06 100

There is little difference between the surnames from birth registrations and death registrations. Deaths are likely to correspond to births from 70 to 80 years previously, based on the average age of death in the sample. We can therefore infer that our current sample potentially monitors the development of surnames over a period of about 70 to 80 years.

4. Previous Surname Surveys

There have been several previous surveys of surnames in Scotland conducted by the Registrar General for Scotland. The first survey, published in 1860, was based on registration data for 1855, 1856 and 1858. There have since been surveys based on registrations in 1935, 1958, 1976 and 1990. Details of these surveys and their results are summarised in Table A3a and Table A3b.

Note that in the first three surveys (shown in Table A3a), surnames beginning with Mac/Mc were counted as the same name. In the more recent surveys (Table A3b) each spelling was counted separately. Thus where the surname MacDonald, for example, appears in the top three surnames in the early surveys, it has dropped down to 9th or 10th place in the more recent surveys. Some other spelling differences, for example Johnston/Johnstone, were also ignored in the first three surveys

Apart from differences caused by the treatment of different spellings, the top surnames in all six surveys, taken over an interval of some 140 years, have remained remarkably consistent. It is therefore clear that there is little change in the distribution of the more common surnames in the Scottish population. However, it can be seen that there have been successive small reductions in most of the relative frequencies of the top 50 surnames over the last century and a half. Since these are all samples, the number of different surnames in each sample is not entirely reliable, but the evidence seems to point to a widening base of surnames, probably as a result of in-migration.

5. Results from the 1901 Census

GROS is currently engaged in a major project to transform the way it makes its records available to the public. This programme has come to be known as DIGROS (the Digital Imaging of the Genealogical Records of Scotland's people). Some further details of this work may be found on the GROS website. As part of the DIGROS project, a computerised index of the 4.5 million or so names appearing in the 1901 Census has been created. This comprehensive source has been used to compile information on surnames in 1901.

The top twenty surnames and their relative frequency are shown in Table 3 below. The top 100 surnames from the 1901 Census are shown in rank order in Table A4, and Table A5 lists the top 300 surnames alphabetically.

Table 3: Top 20 Surnames in Scotland, 1901

Rank Surname Total Relative frequency per 10,000
1 SMITH 62,945 141
2 BROWN 48,656 109
3 ROBERTSON 46,994 105
4 WILSON 45,127 101
5 CAMPBELL 42,669 96
6 THOMSON 42,312 95
7 STEWART 39,752 89
8 ANDERSON 38,771 87
9 MCDONALD 37,025 83
10 SCOTT 32,198 72
11 REID 28,352 64
12 MURRAY 26,075 58
13 ROSS 25,544 57
14 FRASER 24,756 56
15 YOUNG 23,706 53
16 CLARK 22,804 51
17 TAYLOR 22,437 50
18 MITCHELL 22,215 50
19 HENDERSON 22,013 49
20 CAMERON 21,928 49

Once again Smith and Brown are in the top two places. Note that McDonald is shown as more common than MacDonald in 1901, although given the uncertainties surrounding the spelling of these names it would seem wrong to regard this as significant. Combining McDonald and MacDonald would put MacDonald into second place, similar to the other surveys. In fact, 89 of the surnames in the current top 100 (1999-2001) were in the top 100 in 1901. This confirms the lack of change shown by the sample surveys described above.

6. Surnames in Scotland, by Area, 1999-2001

The top 10 surnames in 1999 - 2001 are shown for each of Scotland's 32 council areas in Table A6. Smith is most common in 20 out of the 32 areas, and most of these areas are in the major conurbations of the central belt with the addition of the Aberdeen area. Smith comes 2nd in four other areas and is not in the top ten in only one area (Orkney). Other relatively common surnames, such as Brown, Thomson and Wilson are also ranked highly in most of these areas. Due to the dominance of these areas in terms of Scotland's overall population, these surnames are unsurprisingly the most common in Scotland. However, each local area has its own distinctive features, a few of which are illustrated below:

Eilean Siar
The top 10 most common surnames account for over 52% of the sample. This is a much higher percentage than any other area in Scotland. It is also noticeable in this area, along with the Highland Council Area, that almost all spellings of the patronymic suffix in the most common 50 surnames use "Mac" as opposed to "Mc".

Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands
Both these areas differ substantially from other areas in terms of their surnames, reflecting their history and particularly the importance of the Norse influence. There are many distinctive surnames in each of the island groups, which are rarely found elsewhere in Scotland e.g. Rendall and Drever, which are first and second in Orkney. These island areas have been highlighted as being of interest, but caution should be exercised in view of their relatively small populations and hence relatively small sample sizes involved.

West of Scotland
The influx of Irish immigrants to Scotland in the 19th century can be seen in the high placing of surnames with Irish roots such as Kelly and Docherty in the lists for areas in the West of Scotland. O'Donnell and McLaughlin are also relatively common names in the West of Scotland

7. Surnames in Scotland, by Area, 1901

As it covers the entire population of Scotland, the 1901 Census information described above has great potential for examining geographical variations in the frequency of surnames.

Table A7 lists the 10 most common surnames in each of the 33 counties that existed at the time of 1901 Census. It also gives the total number of names given in each county in 1901. Considerable geographical differences can be seen, as is the case with council area figures given in Table A6. Some examples of names that have particular strongholds follow: Sinclair is top in Orkney; Sutherland in Caithness, but only second in Sutherland itself where MacKay holds sway; Fraser in Nairn; Scott in the Border counties of Berwick, Roxburgh, and Selkirk; Campbell in Argyll and Dunbarton; and Bell in Dumfries.

The variety of surnames in the different 1901 county areas is noticeable. The overall "top ten" has the same list as most of the other surveys, but the individual counties can have very different lists Note that at this date there were a number of differences from present day council areas. For example, the Eilean Siar Council area was divided between the counties of Ross & Cromarty and Inverness.

8. Further Information


Black, George F, The Surnames of Scotland: Their Origins, Meanings and History, New York, Publishing Center for Cultural Resources, 1946

Webster, David, 'Scottish Surnames and Christian Names', article in 'Family and Local History Handbook' 7th edition, ed. Blatchford, York, 2003

Registrar General for Scotland, Personal Names in Scotland, Edinburgh, 1991 (obtainable from GROS Customer Services - see below)

Various Annual Reports of the Registrar General for Scotland.

Web references

Articles on the Derivation of Scottish Surnames:

Clan names:

Scottish Birth Names:

The General Register Office for Scotland issues an annual update on birth names in Scotland.


Further information on surname data held by GROS may be obtained from Statistics Customer Services using our Contact Form.

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