>More on Family Names in the Western Isles

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I came upon an excellent & eloquent explanation of the usage of family names written by Blair MacAulay, Toronto, who is an authority on the genealogy of North Uist.
Here are the key points, to which I have added a few brief comments:  

In … the Outer Hebrides before about the year 1800 surnames did not exist!



A fact that simply cannot be over-emphasised…


People were known by their “sloinneadh” (i.e. their “handle” or name by which they were commonly known) that was a combination of one or more of the following: nickname, patronymic, occupational name and/or place of residence.
For example, the tailor Angus MacPherson might be known as “Angus Tailor”. More frequently the “sloinneadh” was the person’s patronymic (e.g. “Aonaghus Iain Domhnullach” (Angus John son of Donald) which was the patronymic of Angus John MacDonald of Knockline, the well-known North Uist genealogist born in 1900).
Another example would be “”Domhnull mac Alasdair ‘ic Raonuill” (Donald son of Alexander the son of Ronald) (in Gaelic “mac” means “son” and mhic, or abbreviated “’ic”, means “son of the son”.
Note in the foregoing examples that the surname is not used (or needed!) as everyone would know from the naming pattern the family to which such person belonged.



When in the early 19th C surnames became necessary for civil purposes most Highlanders simply adopted the surname of their Clan Chief, which in the case of North Uist was Lord MacDonald of Sleat (Skye).
This partly explains why some 70% of the population of North Uist today has the surname “MacDonald”.
He was their clan chief as they were his followers and resided on his lands and under the pre-1745 feudal system in Scotland were obligated to fight for him.
Thus notwithstanding their common surname, few MacDonalds from North Uist have any blood relationship to the MacDonald’s of Sleat, or indeed to others in Scotland with the surname “MacDonald”.
The predominate view, at least in North America, that every one in the Highlands belonged to a clan to which they were related by blood is accordingly a romantic myth.


A myth that, in part, came about with the Victorian reinvention of Highland Scotland. 


The following extract from “How The Scots Invented the Modern World”, by Arthur Herman, Crown Publishers, New York, 2001 at page 104 makes this point very clearly:

“The term clan, comes of course from the Gaelic clann, meaning “children”. It implied a kinship group of four or five generations, all claiming descent from a common ancestor. And clan chieftains encouraged their followers to believe that they were indeed bound together like family.
Men such as the Duke of Argyll of the Campbells or Lord Lovat of the Frasers routinely demanded a loyalty from their tenants not unlike that of children for a father. But it was entirely a fiction.
The average clan … was no more a family than is a Mafia “family”.
The only important blood ties were between the chieftain and his various caporegimes, the so-called tacksmen who collected his rents and bore the same name.
Below them were a large nondescript, and constantly changing population of tenants and peasants, who worked the land and owed the chieftain service in war and peacetime.
Whether they considered themselves Campbells or MacPhersons or MacKinnons was a matter of indifference, and no clan genealogist or bard, the seanachaidh, ever wasted breath keeping track of them. What mattered was that they were on clan land, and called it home.”
That may sound somewhat harsh to our modern ears, but it encapsulates the circumstances pertaining at the time.

It is another common misconception is that there is a distinction between a “Mc” and a “Mac” – say one family with the surname “McDonald” and another with the surname “MacDonald”. There is no distinction whatsoever. Both are attempts to translate the Gaelic “mhic” (meaning “son of”) into English. Thus “Iain mhic Iomhair” (John son of Iver) became “John MacIver”.

This non-distinction is still erroneously held to be true by many an Anglo-Saxon!


North Uist forenames are also unreliable. Until the end of the 19th C few in North Uist could speak, read and write English and certainly used only Gaelic in everyday life (they still do – but today are also completely fluent in English).
However, one of the results of the defeat of the Scots in 1745 at Culloden was that priests, ministers, and government officials in Scotland were forbidden to maintain any public record in Gaelic. Thus you frequently had a Census taker who only spoke English having to record information given to him by persons who spoke only Gaelic.


The attack upon Gaelic culture included every aspect of it, especially the language.


As there were no commonly accepted English equivalents of many Gaelic names, particularly in early periods, the result was that the Census taker “tried his best”, usually phonetically, to record a Gaelic name in English. Thus you can find the same person referred to by completely different English names in different records.


This is extremely important to understand for those attempting to research their own family history, and it didn’t stop with the peoples names. Placenames suffered this same mangling in their Anglicisation too.


Over time certain Gaelic names came to have an “accepted” English equivalent, often with no obvious connection to the Gaelic name. For example a person locally known in Gaelic as “Gilleasbuig Mac Dhomnull” would probably appear in the Census or in a register of marriages etc. as “Archibald MacDonald”. Thus an official record may contain reference to a person under a name that was completely different to the name that he was known by to his contemporaries.


Were I to travel back in time & present my (painstakingly recreated) family tree to my ancestors, they would probably wonder who on Earth I was referring to!


With many thanks to Blair MacAulay for permission to quote these extracts.

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7 thoughts on “>More on Family Names in the Western Isles

  1. >A fascinating post with wide-ranging implications. I have been tracing MacDonald ancestors from the Kingussie area (who emigrated to Australia). The Clan Donald Centre on Skye is a brilliant resource.

    • Caroline,
      The Clan Donald Centre is, as you say, a briliant resource….but don’t forget the new Highland Archive Centre and Registration Office (HACRO) in Bucht Park, Inverness and its two staffers in the Genealogy Department…Alistair MacLeod and Ann Fraser.
      And, if you need a list of all the MacDonald / MacDonell genealogists around the world (Canada, USA, New Zealand, Australia), just let me know….
      Graham Evan MacDonell
      P.G. Certificate In Genealogical Studies (Strathclyde, 2008)
      Abbotsford, B.C. Canada
      scotcangen@gmail.com

  2. That’s so interesting, and a good reminder of how modern our names actually are. I’ve heard a sloinneadh by someone whose ancestor was illegitimate, so the sloinneadh included “Son of [Woman’s Name], daughter of [her father]” and so forth. That’s what members of this person’s family were known as in their community – it’s interesting to me that the sloinneadh system brought such things into the open.

    I was also struck by what you said about the English “equivalents” of first names. There are some odd ones for sure – Euphemia / Effie / Oighrig comes to my mind! Is there really a linguistic connection there?

    • But, Christine, the pity of it is the role that women were marginalized to in many societies, particularly the Scottish culture, where they were chattel until the 20th century. Just think how rich we could all be if our mothers’ ‘sloinneadh’ was treated with the same respect as our fathers’!
      Graham Evan MacDonell
      P.G. Certificate In Genealogical Studies (Strathclyde, 2008)
      Abbotsford, B.C. Canada
      scotcangen@gmail.com

  3. Hi Christine,
    Your story resonates as my own grandfather was born ‘out of wedlock’ (There’s a piece about him – ‘My Grandfather’ that tells some of the tale.)
    Regarding Oighrig, I’ve read at least three different stories but a reliable guide to English equivalents of Gaelic names is to be found at the bottom of this page on the fabulous ‘Hebridean Connections’ site (which is full of fascinating records):
    http://www.hebrideanconnections.com/Support.aspx
    All the best,
    Peter/Peadar/Pàdruig/Pàdraig…

  4. >I think you would really enjoy it (esp. at a 'quieter' time of year – not sure, though, if it is open all year round). The museum is beautifully laid out, and under the same roof as the Study Centre. I love the way in which there are large (relevant) poems on display to lead you round. Armadale grounds are a treat, too, and we have had good snack meals in the cafe on each visit.

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