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16 October 2014
Scottish Roots - Searching for your family history in Scotland

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A catalogue of new developments and ideas. Each month we'll feature a different area of research.
This month:

Scottish Surnames

One of the most problematic aspects of searching your family tree can be the lack of consistency of names in official documents. Names have many varied origins - some were patronymics, named after the father, others relate to the name of the place where they lived, or the occupation they were employed in. People themselves sometimes used different names from those by which they were known by officials. It took a long time for surnames to stabilise throughout the country, and many Scots still did not have a stable surname in the Eighteenth Century.

Names have changed over time and for many different reasons, for instance, when emigrants reached a new country they often changed the spelling of their surname and you may need more help to trace them back to their original Scottish surnames.
Also, in the past many people were illiterate and so had no conception of how their name should be spelt, so those entering the data would just have to guess what they thought the spelling should be. This often led to some confusion - even brothers from the same family could have their name spelled in different ways, There are even cases of people themselves using different names from those by which they were officially known, so it’s best to try different variants if you’re getting stuck,

This problem is not just confined to surnames either, sometimes forenames were abbreviated, or diminutives were used. So for instance you may have to try Kate instead of Catherine, or Jim instead of James.

One thing that can be of help is that Scots often named children by following a simple set of rules. Don't use these as a firm guide but you may find this pattern in your family tree:

1st son named after father's father
2nd son named after mother's father
3rd son named after father

1st daughter named after mother's mother
2nd daughter named after father's mother
3rd daughter named after mother

Always be aware though, that this is not a hard and fast rule, but it was a common practice.

Try these books for more help on Scottish surnames:
Black, George F. The Surnames of Scotland. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1999
Dorward, David. Scottish Surnames. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 1995.

Dictionaries of surnames should be used with great care however, as names have changed so much over time that the older ones are often of little value.

View previous features here:
Focus on Clans and Gaelic Sources

Searching the 1901 Census
Military Records
Death Records
Wills and Testaments
Digital Imaging of records
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Getting Started
Further Steps
Initial Sources
Digging Deeper

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