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Family History In Your Surname
Gordon Johnson

Gordon Johnson Index Page

Family History

Before Scotland achieved clearly defined national borders - settled by a treaty signed in 1237 when Scotland and England agreed on their jurisdictions, our country existed as a series of tribal areas held together by a king whose authority was needed to keep them all together. Various groupings had their own fiefdoms, and wanted to protect their interests, much like Afghanistan today.

The Scots were an Irish tribe who emigrated to the shores of Scotland nearest Ireland, what we would call Strathclyde, and easily mingled with the existing Celtic tribes which were established in several areas including the South-west.  The Picts, a pre-Celtic indigenous people which gradually vanished, was resident mainly in the northern parts, and the Britons were indigenous to the central and southern areas.  Angles were part of the population of a Northumberland which started in England and stretched as far north as Edinburgh. Flemings, nowadays almost forgotten in this context, were a trading nation with colonies in Scotland.

Aberdeen was effectively a Fleming town in earlier centuries.  The Vikings, mainly Norwegians, had been invading Scotland for so long that many had settled in Orkney and Shetland, Caithness and the Western Isles. These areas belonged to the Norwegian kingdom, though in 1266 by the treaty of Perth the Western Isles were ceded to Scotland.

Then there were the Anglo-Normans. These were the relations of the Scottish and English kings who had been invited to move to Scotland to help construct a feudal society under David I (1124-1153).  The legacy of this complicated past is still to be seen in our family names, and some of the most famous Scottish surnames are foreign in origin.

Robert the Bruce's family was Norman, and can be traced back to Brieux in Orne, France.  Other Norman families are Beaton (originally Bethune, from Pas de Calais), Boswell (Bosville), Cumming/Comyn (Comines), Grant (Le Grand) and Rennie (Rene).  Sinclair was originally St. Clair, and Fraser was previously De Frisel, still surviving as the Frizzell surname in South-West Scotland.

Even a surname like Stewart/Stuart, which comes from the office of High Steward of Scotland, is Norman, for this post was hereditary in the FitzAlan family who eventually adopted the title as their surname.  The Fleming surname, common in Scotland, is thus from the Flemish settlers.  Ogilvie comes from the Pictish placename in Angus, made over into a surname, and means a high place.  Surnames starting with Pit are of Pictish derivation, meaning a part or piece of something, and the ending is descriptive, so Pittendreich is "the place of the aspect".

Norse surnames are common in Northern Scotland and Orkney, such as Swanson (Sven's son), Gunn (supposed to be from Norse Gunni, but may be of older Pictish origin), and Manson, a shortened version of Magnusson. Flett, found in Orkney, and down the north-eastern seaboard, is from a Norse forename. Kerr or Carr is from the Norse Kjarr, and the Orkney name Lamont is not French but the Old Norse "logmadr", and is the same root for McClymont.

Old English features more in border names such as Elliot, and Kennedy is of Celtic origin, along with the many Gaelic surnames, most of them starting with Mac, meaning "son of".

There have been entire books written on this subject, but this should be enough to show that even your surname is not as obviously Scottish as you may have thought.