Welsh family and Scottish Highland names

Tomas O Flannghaile
For the Tongue of the Gael
Start of essay Celtic Surnames

Welsh family names are generally easy to recognise, but in many cases they have suffered assimilation to English forms and are often ignorantly mistaken for English names.

Such names as Tudor, Gwynn (Wynn) Morgan, Meredith, Owen, Griffith, Rhys (Rees, Rice) Lloyd, Howell, Evan, Vaughan, and Craddock—even in the English spelling which most of them have assumed—are of course unmistakable, but now they are found in all parts of England.

The last mentioned—Craddock—if not one of the most distinguished, is certainly one of the most ancient of them, for it is but the English spelling of Caradoc (accent on the second syllable) a later form of Caratauc which represents Caratacus (corruptly ‘Caractacus’) the name of the British warrior who fought so valiantly against the Romans.

The Irish had the same name Cárthach whence MacCarthaigh or ‘McCarthy’; hence Welsh ‘Craddock’ equals Irish ‘Carthy.’

At the beginning of the Christian era the Irish form was most probably *Carathachas.

Then we find these and other names with the sign of the English genitive added on, as Owens, Griffiths, Evans, Maddox (i.e., Maddocks from Madoc), &c.

Those also are numerous that contain a trace of the Ap found in Welsh mediæval names and genealogies, representing the older map (now mab), a son; as Preece, Pryce, Price (for Ap Rhys, i.e., Map Rhys, son of Rhys), Powell and Pole (Ap Hoel Ap Hywel), Pugh (for Ap Hugh); and such Norman-Welsh names as Prichard (Ap Richard), Probert (Ap Robert), Probyn (Ap Robin) Penry (Ap Henry) Parry, (Ap Harry).

Some show a trace of the weakened form Ab (for mab), as Bowen (Ab Owen—though of course all the Bowens are not Welsh) Bevan (Ab Evan) Bethell, (Ab Ithell), &c.

Then come the later and far more numerous sort consisting mostly of Biblical, Norman, or Saxon names generally with the English genitive s added on, as Davis (Davies) Daniels, Peters, Jones (John’s) Williams, Roberts, Edwards, Hughes, &c., &c.

But though these non-Celtic names generally denote Celtic families, they do not necessarily indicate a Welsh orign, and many of them are pure English.

More numerous still must be the Highland names in England.

Scottish surnames began to appear in South Britain to any noticeable extent at the coming of the Stuarts to the English throne, at the beginning of the XVIIth century; but in that century the Scottish families that settled in England were Lowland rather than Highland.

It was in the eighteenth century after the final defeat of the Stuart cause that the great migration of Scottish Highland familes to the south began to set in, and in the present century it has continued at an increased rate.

At first there was of course a great temptation amongst Highlanders to anglicise their Celtic names—to assimilate them in some measure to those of the people amongst whom they came to dwell; for in the last century, the Highlander—like the Irishman—was an object of bitter hostility to the English people, and even in the early part of this century had to suffer much from ignorant prejudice.

But the strong arms and keen wits of the Scottish Celts proved extremely valuable to the English, and self-interest at length overcame their prejudices.

Hence it is, that though a great number of Highland names have put on English forms the majority still are plainly Celtic, and any further tendency to anglicise them is now hardly noticeable.

Of course a great many families had already anglicised their names in Scotland before they came to England at all, so that their names proved no inconvenience to them.

Various have been the changes which Scottish surnames have undergone both in their own country and in England.

The most obvious change was to drop the distinguishing prefix Mac, and this is probably the most common; hence Donald, Murray, Innes (Ince), Millan, Murdoch, Hay, Baird (for Mac-a’ Bháird), and the numerous Gil-names as Gilchrist, Gillies, Gilmore, Gilroy, &c., all of which have lost the Mac.

Many retained the Mac, but incorporated it with the rest of the name; hence Macintosh, Macadam, Macaulay, Mackenzie, Macmillan, Mackay (Mackie), Maclachlan, Mackinnon, Mackonochie, and others, which are all written now without any sign of division.

Perhaps there are but few cases like Allmack, where the syllables of the name were transposed—the well-known “Allmack’s,” in London, having been started by a Highlander, whose original name was MacCall or MacAll.

In a great many cases, however, the prefix, instead of being dropped or incorporated, was translated, and its equivalent son was added on to the name, after a very common English analogy. This was done even with pure Gaelic names as Fergus-son (for Mac Feargusa), Donald-son (for Mac Domhnaill), Malcolm-son, Neil-son, Nel-son (Neill-son for Mac Neill); whilst with names not purely Celtic it became still more common, as Davidson (for Mac Dáibhidh), Robertson, Anderson, Nicholson, &c.

It is obvious that some of these cannot be distinguished from English names, and, no doubt, many such—in England at least—are pure English.

Many Highland families, on settling in the Lowlands or in England, dropped their older names and adopted others derived from the name of some recent ancestor; hence it is, many pure Gaelic clans are now known by such un-Celtic names as Robertson, Davidson, Allanson, &c.

The converse, however, of this, namely, the reverting to an older name, does not appear to have occurred—at least, it is very rare.

Some Highland names do not appear ever to have had the Mac—as Cameron (Camshróin), Campbell (Caimbeul), Riach (Riabhach), Cattanach, &c.

Some Scottish names are obviously place-names, as Sutherland, Ross,[1] Stirling, Drummond, Blair, Dunbar, Chisholm—some of them Celtic, others not. Of this class are the well-known names Buchan and Mar, denoting originally districts in Aberdeenshire—Buchan the ‘little’ (division), and Mar the ‘great.’ They are Celtic, but not Gaelic; they are, in fact, Pictish or early North British, and are amongst the very oldest place-names in Scotland.

The Welsh forms, even at this day, are wonderfully like them—bychan (little) and mawr (great); Old Irish, becán and már, now beagán and mór.

Several surnames of this class are compounded of Dál (a division, then a tribe), as Dalgairns, Dalgleish, Dalbeattie, Dalhousie, Dalmeny, &c.

They were originally territorial names, then tribe names, then place names, lastly, family names. They correspond to the old Irish territorial and tribe-names, Dalriada (Co. Antrim), Dal gCais (Co. Clare), and others, but these never became surnames in Ireland.

Surnames derived from occupation also occur as Gobha, Céard, Liaigh, and Maor, which were either preserved with English spelling—Gow, Caird, Lee, Wear, or Weir (for Mac a-Mhaoir)—or translated, as Gobha into ‘Smith,’ Maor into ‘Steward,’ Stewart or Stuart, the latter name itself being, no doubt, Anglo-Saxon.

Lastly, some Highland names appear to be derived from sobriquets like the English Black, White, Grey, Brown, Little, Long, Short, &c. Of this class are Duff (Dubh, black), Bane, Bain, Banes (Bán, white, fair), More, Moore, Moir, Muir, (Mór, big or tall), Begg (Beag, little), Roe, Wroe (Ruadh, red, ruddy), some of which have been translated into Black, Phayre (Fair), Little, &c.


[1] Ross, however, was also an old Gaelic fore-name in Ireland and Scotland, later Ros.