Scottish Gaelic personal naming system

Scottish Gaelic personal naming system

Traditional Scottish Gaelic surnames, in the English sense, are not generally in use in colloquial Gaelic except when speaking of strangers.

It was once traditional for everyone living in a Gaelic speaking district to have a local nickname describing his trade or a physical characteristic, e.g. “Donnchadh reamhar, an saor” (Fat Duncan, the Joiner) etc. Sometimes they are named after the place they lived in last, or were born in, e.g. “An Americanach” (The American) etc. If the person named is of a family long settled in the district he will probably be named after his father, as “Seumas a’ Phiobair” (the piper’s James). Where a person’s mother is a native married to an outsider, he may be named after her, e.g. “Domhnall Chiorstan” (Kirsten’s Donald). Thus a Gaelic student whose friend is plain John MacDonald in the city must not be surprised when he meets him at home to hear his companion spoken of as “Iain Mhurchaidh Dhomhnaill Alasdair”! This means “John [son of] Murdo [son of] Donald [son of] Alistair”, a patronymic. The sole object of Gaelic surnames is to make the identity of the person spoken of as clear as possible through the speaker reminding his hearers by means of the name every time it is mentioned, to whom or where he “belongs”.

Considerable care must be exercised when translating English surnames into Gaelic, for example Donald Black is “Domhnall Mac a’ Ghille dhuibh”. The literal translation, “Domhnall Dubh” (Black Donald) may, if used, prove misleading, for that is more likely to be the local appellation of Donald Cameron (Domhnall Camshron) or Donald Smith (Domhnall Mac a’ Ghobhainn), both of whom have dark hair, than of Donald Black, who may even be fair, and locally known as “Domhnall Bàn”, but more probably as “Domhnall Alasdair” or “Domhnall Iain” etc. “Domhnall dubh” is also a familiar Gaelic nickname for the Devil. (This may be partially because the Gaelic words for devil and demon – “Diabhal” and “Deamhan” bear some resemblance to the name “Domhnall” (Donald).)

The most common class of Gaelic surnames are, of course, those beginning with mac (Gaelic for son), such as MacGillEathain (MacLean). The female form is nic (Gaelic for daughter), so Catherine MacPhee is properly called in Gaelic, Caitrìona Nic a' Phì. [Strictly, "nic" is a contraction of the Gaelic phrase "nighean mhic", meaning "daughter of the son", thus Nic Dhomhnuill, really means "daughter of MacDonald" rather than "daughter of Donald".] Although there is a common misconception that "mac" means "son of", the "of" part actually comes from the genitive form of the patronymic that follows the prefix "Mac", e.g., in the case of MacNéill, Néill (of Neil) is the genitive form of Niall (Neil).

The present situation

The translation of names into Gaelic seems to be becoming less and less common. Conversely the translation of names from Gaelic into English is also less common, and names such as “Mairi” (or “Mhairi”), “Iain”, “Alasdair” etc are not rendered as “Mary”, “John” or “Alexander”. The current rules, if indeed there are any, for name translations are vague and unstandardised. Names of Gaelic origin are sometimes not rendered in the original language by speakers or the media, sometimes because the Gaelic spellings are not widely known, e.g. “McLetchie”, “Caskie”, “Dewar” etc, and where a name of non-Gaelic origin has an equivalent, e.g. “Johnson”, “Bruce” or “Walker” it is decreasingly used.

Occasionally learners will render more unusual names into Gaelic spelling, and they seem to be more zealous in this aspect than native speakers. There is also a tendency for English names to enter Gaelic spelling, when there is already an equivalent, e.g. “Seon” for “John” instead of “Iain” (or Biblical “Eoin”). There is in fact an increasing occurrence of “-son” names being rendered in this fashion, e.g.

English Traditional Gaelic formGaelic loan from English

* Also "MacDhonnchaidh"

This appears to be more common in the Outer Hebrides than elsewhere, and given the strong Norse presence in this area historically, it may be that this does not show a shift in language usage, but simply a rising prominence in the island dialects due to the recent drop in usage of mainland dialects.

It is currently unclear where Scottish Gaelic naming is heading, other than an apparent abandonment of dual forms, for a single form in one language or the other.


Scottish Gaelic has a number of personal names, such as Aiden, Ailean, Aonghas, Dòmhnall, Donnchadh, Coinneach, Murchadh, for which there are traditional forms in English (Alan, Angus, Donald, Duncan, Kenneth, Murdo). There are also distinctly Scottish Gaelic forms of names that belong to the common European stock of given names, such as: Iain (John), Alasdair (Alexander), Uilleam (William), Catrìona (Catherine), Raibert (Robert), Cairistìona (Christina), Anna (Ann), Màiri (Mary), Seumas (James), Pádraig (Patrick) and Tómas(Thomas). Some names have come into Gaelic from Old Norse, for example: Somhairle ( < Somarliðr), Tormod (< Þórmóðr), Torcuil (< Þórkell, Þórketill), Ìomhair (Ívarr). These are conventionally rendered in English as Sorley (or, historically, Somerled), Norman, Torquil, and Iver (or Evander). There are other, traditional, Gaelic names which have no direct equivalents in English: Oighrig, which is normally rendered as Euphemia (Effie) or Henrietta (Etta) (formerly also as Henny or even as Harriet), or, Diorbhal, which is "matched" with Dorothy, simply on the basis of a certain similarity in spelling; Gormul, for which there is nothing similar in English, and it is rendered as 'Gormelia' or even 'Dorothy'; Beathag, which is "matched" with Becky (> Rebecca) and even Betsy, or Sophie.

Many of these are now regarded as old-fashioned, and are no longer used (which is, of course, a feature common to many cultures: names go out of fashion). As there is only a relatively small pool of traditional Gaelic names from which to choose, some families within the Gaelic-speaking communities have in recent years made a conscious decision when naming their children to seek out names that are used within the wider English-speaking world. These names do not, of course, have an equivalent in Gaelic. What effect that practice (if it becomes popular) might have on the language remains to be seen. At this stage (2005), it is clear that some native Gaelic-speakers are willing to break with tradition. Opinion on this practice is divided; whilst some would argue that they are thereby weakening their link with their linguistic and cultural heritage, others take the opposing view that Gaelic, as with any other language, must retain a degree of flexibility and adaptability if it is to survive in the modern world at all.

The well-known name Hamish, and the recently established Mhairi (pronounced [va:ri] ) come from the Gaelic for, respectively, James, and Mary, but derive from the form of the names as they appear in the vocative case: Seumas (James) (nom.) → Sheumais (voc.), and, Màiri (Mary) (nom.) → Mhàiri (voc.).

Several colours give rise to common Scottish surnames: bàn (Bain - white), ruadh (Roy - red), dubh (Dow - black), donn (Dunn - brown), buidhe (Bowie - yellow).

ee also

* Irish name
* Russian patronymics
* Icelandic names, which still use patronymics


* ((Proper names - appendix), with additions, corrections and updates)

External links

* [ What's in a Name] A survey of forenames and their origins and relationships to other names. Specialises in Scottish, Gaelic and European names.

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