Gaelic and Celtic Customs
from the Hebrides and Beyond

Fada's Farsaing (Far and Wide) is a series of articles by Liam O Caiside in English but with Gaelic words and phrases interwoven in the text. The articles describe a wide range of Gaelic and Celtic customs. These pages were originally published in the "Scottish Radiance" e-magazine and have been reproduced here with the kind permission of the Scottish Radiance editor, Sharma Krauskopf.

Naming Customs

The Scots often followed a naming pattern in the 1700s & 1800s and this has often proved helpful when trying to piece together family trees.

Eldest son - named after his paternal grandfather
Second son - after his maternal grandfather
Third son - after his father
Fourth son - after his father's eldest brother


Eldest daughter - after her maternal grandmother
Second daughter - after her paternal grandmother
Third daughter - after her mother
Fourth daughter - after her mother's eldest sister

The order is sometimes reversed i.e. the eldest son is named after his maternal grandfather, and eldest daughter is named after the maternal grandmother. Younger children would be named after earlier forebears, but the pattern in their case was less settled.


The concept of a 'surname' is a relatively recent historical development, evolving from a medieval naming practice called a 'byname' and would be used in situations where more than one person had the same name.

In Scotland - as in the rest of Western Europe - there were four main ways of acquiring a surname:-

Patronymic - taking the father's Christian name e.g. Robertson
Occupation - e.g. Smith (the most common surname of all)
Locality - e.g. Wood
Nickname - e.g. White, Little.

Patronymics - Lowland names such as Wilson, Robertson, Thomson and Johnson are among the most common surnames in Scotland.

'Mac' names are also patronymic. MacManus - son of Magnus. 'Mc' is just a printer's contraction and has no significance as to etymology.

Occupation - Names which are derived from trades and occupations - mostly found in towns. The most common of these is Smith (the most common surname in Scotland, England and the USA) but other examples would be Taylor (tailor) Baxter (baker) and Cooper (barrel maker).

Locality - In Scotland the tendency is for people to be named after places (in England the tendency is the opposite). Examples of such names are Morton, Lauder, Menzies and Galloway.

Nickname - Names which could refer to colour or size or physical characteristics, e.g. White, Black, Small, Little. Kerrs (from the Scots word for left) became the surname of some left-handed people. Other names in this category include Campbell (meaning 'crooked mouth'). Another example of nickname - this time referring to the bearers origins - is Scott.

Return to Fada's Farsaig Index

Where else would you like to go in Scotland?

Separator line