Names Found in 17th C Wills from the Shetland Islands, Scotland

by Mari ingen Briain meic Donnchada (Kathleen M. O'Brien)

© 2013 by Kathleen M. O'Brien. All rights reserved.
Version 1.0, updated 28 June 2013


This article analyzes names found in wills from the Shetland Islands during the years 1612-1650, along with a single will from 1686. These 812 records reference 1040 men, 554 women, and 6 people for whom a gender could not be determined.

There are a handful of cases where a single person is listed multiple times in these records. These situations occur when a person is listed both in their own will and in their spouse's will. In addition, given the date range for these wills, it is entirely possible that a person is listed as a minor child in an early record and their own will appears later.

Because of these issues, and the inability to be certain when matching up names to identify multiple references to the same person, I have treated every name as a separate person for the purposes of frequency counts.

An Amazing Blend of Data

What is absolutely fascinating about this data set are the number of different types of naming patterns that all show up in this single set of records. Some of these trends can be explained by the location of the Shetland Islands. They lie off the northeast coast of Scotland and, so, have had heavy Norse influences.

The name elements in this record show Norse, Gaelic, and English elements, in a blend that is uniquely Scottish.

I have organized discussions of the different aspects of this data set into the following categories:

Construction Patterns

The names in this data set, with one exception, all either solely a given name or else take the form:

[Given Name] [Patronymic Byname or Surname]

The single exception to this rule is the example of Andrew of Melby found in the entry:

Entry TextVol.PageCol.EntryYearMonthDay
788. Andro Georgeson in Middale, died 20th Feb. 1648, given up by Andrew of Melby in absence of Janet Gibson relict, in name of Marbrun and Agnes Georgesdochter his sisters. 12134178816480930

Patronymic Bynames

This data set has numerous examples of bynames formed from a father's given name. These bynames take the forms:
[Father's Given Name (sometimes in a possessive form)] + -son (meaning: "son of [Father's Given Name]")
[Father's Given Name (sometimes in a possessive form)] + -dochter (meaning: "daughter of [Father's Given Name]")

Some examples include:

"Daughter" Form"Son" Form
"Daughter" Form"Son" Form
"Daughter" Form"Son" Form
The data also includes two records that explicitly show patronymic bynames formed from a father's given name. In the first entry below, Sinnevo Androsdochter is identified as the daughter of Andrew Strang. An interesting point on this entry is that her father had an inherited surname, but Sinnevo has a literal patronymic byname.

In the second entry below, Edward Nicolson is identifed as the father of six sons who bore the byname Edwardson. (The form Edwardsons shown in the entry is plural.)

Entry TextVol.PageCol.EntryYearMonthDay
612. Andrew Strang in Burreswick, died October 1633. Magdalen his relict, Sinnevo Androsdochter his daughter. 1240261216340829
781. Christine Philip, spouse of Arthur Clerk in Breck, Walls, died July 1648. Nicol, Peter, Thomas, James, Henry, and Robert Edwardsons, her bairns by Edward Nicolson her first spouse. 12134178116480923
In addition to the numerous examples of patronymic bynames in this data set, there is a single example of a matronymic byname:
Entry TextVol.PageCol.EntryYearMonthDay
665. Edward Manson in South Neep, Nesting, died May 1647. Magnus his son, Euphan Margaretsdochter his relict.12 892665 16380606
In this case, this entry says that Edward, who was the son of Mans in his will mentioned his son Magnus and his widow Euphan, who was the daughter of Margaret.

Inherited Surnames

Father and Child Examples:
In the entries below, an inherited surname is shared by a father and his child:
Entry TextVol.PageCol.EntryYearMonthDay
202. Thomas Bon in Scalloway-banks, died March 1602, Adam Boin in Scalloway-bankis his son. 10182220216130820
247. Grizel Nisbet, daughter to Peter Nisbet in Kirkcabister, Yell, died May 1606. Daniel and David her brothers. 1139124716150731
271. Marion Chalmer, daughter to deceased Henry Chalmer in Howgoland, Whiteness. 1139227116150922
525. Margaret Coghill, daughter of Andrew Coghill in Olagarth, Papa Stour. 1239152516300813
672. Malcolm Sinclair, son to Henry Sinclair in Gathesbark, died 15th April 1645. George, William, Isabel, Martha, Mary, and Margaret his brothers and sisters. 1290167216480629
783. Agnes Wright, spouse to William Forsyth in Scalloway, died 31st May 1648. Arthur Forsyth only child. 12134178316480927
Sibling Examples:
In the entries below, an inherited surname is shared by two siblings:
Entry TextVol.PageCol.EntryYearMonthDay
482. Marion Ferquair, relict of Henry Coupland of Skae, Unst, died December 1629. David Ferquhair her brother and Katherine her sister. 1238148216300717
488. Henry Coupland in Ska, Unst, died December 1629. Ann Coupland his sister. 1238148816300717
496. Daniel Forrester, died July 1629. Alexander Forrester his brother. 1238249616300722
784. Margaret Umphray, spouse to Henry Sinclair, brother to Laurence Sinclair of Burgh, died 4th March 1645. Hew, Patrick, Helen, and Jean her children. 12134178416480927
788. Andro Georgeson in Middale, died 20th Feb. 1648, given up by Andrew of Melby in absence of Janet Gibson relict, in name of Marbrun and Agnes Georgesdochter his sisters. 12134178816480930
Uncle/Aunt With Nephew/Niece Examples:
In the entries below, an inherited surname is shared between two siblings, where at least one of the siblings is a brother. Then, that surname is inherited by that brother's child.
Entry TextVol.PageCol.EntryYearMonthDay
414. Thomas Gray in Kirkhouse, Unst, died December 1622. Anne Nicollsdochter his relict, and Margaret Gray his brother's daughter. 11135141416270723
485. Christian Strang in Voesgarth, Unst, died February 1630. James Strang of Voesgarth, her father's brother. 1238148516300717
492. Agnes Hay in Wailzie, Unst, died May 1629. Andrew Hay her brother's son. 1238149216300717
787. Patrick Cheyne of Vaila, died 23rd December 1643, given up by James Cheyne of Raewick, uncle to Patrick, Agnes, Katherine, Christian, and Marjorie his children. 12134178716480927

Marital Names Not Used

The vast majority of these records show the name of both spouses. Some are the will of a man and his widow (relict) is named. In other cases, the will is for a woman and she is noted as being a wife or widow and her husband's name is given.

The pattern is overwhelmingly clear that women did not take their husband's surname upon marriage. In the case of literal patronymic bynames, such a pattern makes sense. If your surname is based on your father's given name, that would not change when you marry. If your father's given name was William, it would still be William after you married. This pattern of not assuming a "married name" seems also to hold when both spouses have what are obviously inherited surnames. So, while other regions (such as England) had shifted to a predominant use of married names by the early 17th C, Shetland had not.

Given the number of records, and the relatively small population, it is expected that a handful of spouses will have similar bynames or surnames based on sheer coincidence. That small handful of examples appears as expected in this data set. In all but the last three cases below, both spouses have patronymic bynames. So, in such cases, it is less surprising to have similar bynames when you realize that both spouses have a father named Magnus and Magnus is a fairly popular name in this region, etc.

Entry TextVol.PageCol.EntryYearMonthDay
38. Guneild Magnusdochter, spouse of John Magnusson in Westerhouse. 1017923816130705
105. Guthrow Olasdochter, spouse to deceased Andrew Olawsons in Hugonsetter. 10180210516130719
137. Agnes Olasdochter, spouse to deceased Ola Manson in Neschdoun. 10181113716130724
411. Anna Williamsdochter, spouse of Mans Williamson in Langhouse, Unst. 11135141116270719
465. Andro Androison in Cliff, Unst, died March 1629. Ingagarth Androisdochter, his relict, and Sinnevo and Agnes his children. 1237246516290811
483. Marion Johnsdochter, spouse of Nicol Johnissone in Watquhy, Unst. 1238148316300717
739. Christian Nicolsdochter, spouse of Thomas Nicolson in Deall. 12133173916480825
270. Barthol Strang of Voesgarth, died August 1612 ; given up by Thomas Cheyne of Vaila on behalf of Christian Strang, his spouse. 1139227016150920
786. Margaret Sinclair, spouse to Laurence Sinclair of Burgh, died 28th April 1646. Hew her only son. 12134178616480927
802. William Hay, minister at Walls, died 20th October 1647. Barbara Hay his relict. 12134280216490828
Whether the last three entries above indicate unrelated individuals who married or some level of cousins who married, it is impossible to tell. Regardless, the appearance of similar bynames between spouses is in keeping with the scope of this dataset and the number of these instances is, as expected, small.

Plural Forms of Surnames

In a handful of cases, surnames are listed in a plural form. These cases usually occur when two siblings are listed in the same record. Example of this type of entry include:
Entry TextVol.PageCol.EntryYearMonthDay
514. Mathew and Bothwell Erasmussons in Wairavo Northmaven. 1238251416300807
523. Katherine Sinclair, spouse to Bartelmo Hawick of Nischeam, Delting, died March 1622. Janet, Elspeth, and Agnes Hawicks her children. 1239152316300807
623. Edward and Nicoll Cloustans in Sandwick, Dunrossness. 1289162316340927
In these entries, it seems that a surname has been formed into a plural form, a practice that is not present in English today. In the cases above, Erasmussons likely represents a singular form of Erasmusson, similarly Hawicks for Hawick and Cloustans for Cloustan. In the cases of plural forms, I have listed them in the surname list in their singular form.

Z Used for the Yogh (Ȝ) Character

Yogh (capital Ȝ, lowercase ȝ) is a character that was used in Middle Scots and Middle English. It was pronounced approximately like the y at the beginning of the words you or yes in modern English.

A standard convention in 19th century when transcribing manuscripts into typeface (and into the 20th century as well) was to represent the yogh character (ȝ) using a z. Entries in this record set which exhibit this convention include:

Entry TextVol.PageCol.EntryYearMonthDay
277. Ola Zell in Easter Skeld, Sandsting. 11392277 16150927
475. Marion Graham, spouse of Andrew Tailzeor in Stromness, Whiteness, died March 1628. Magnus and William her children. 1238147516290912
535. Andrew Tailzeor in Strornness, Whalsay, died October 1629. William his son. 1239153516300830
In these cases, the surnames Zell and Tailzeor that appear in these entries respectively, would appear as Ȝell and Tailȝeor in the original manuscript.

Name Elements

Men's Given Names

Women's Given Names


In addition to the entries sorted into the lists above, there were a handful of entries that used a given name used by both men and women. These entries did not contain other information that would allow me to identify the person mentioned as either a man or a woman.


"The Commissariot Register of Shetland". The Scottish Antiquary, Or, Northern Notes & Queries, Volume 10. (Scotland: T. and A. Constable, 1896). (, accessed 28 March 2013). pp. 178-183.

"The Commissariot Register of Shetland". The Scottish Antiquary, Or, Northern Notes & Queries, Volumes 11-12. (Scotland: T. and A. Constable, 1897). (, accessed 28 March 2013). p. 39, pp. 90-91, pp. 133-135.

"The Commissariot Register of Shetland". The Scottish Antiquary, Or, Northern Notes & Queries, Volume 12. (Scotland: T. and A. Constable, 1898). (, accessed 28 March 2013). p. 37-40, pp. 89-90, pp. 132-134

Other Resources

Black, George. The Surnames of Scotland. (The New York Public Library, 1993).

Medieval Scotland | Medieval Names Archive | Names Found in 17th C Wills from the Shetland Islands, Scotland

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