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SCA Conflict Clearing for Highland Names

by Sharon L. Krossa
Last updated 27 Jun 2006  


Currently the Rules for Submissions of the College of Arms of the SCA require that to be registered an SCA name must not be too similar to any currectly registered or otherwise protected name. In general, two names are considered too similar if they are not sufficiently different in sound and appearance. In normal circumstances, if a new name would conflict with a currently registered/protected name, to make the new name registrable either one of its existing elements must be changed significantly in both sound and appearance or else an additional element must be added. (RfS, V.1)

Unfortunately for Highland names, when name conflict arises the first instinct of many heralds and submitters in the SCA is to try to resolve it by adding a locative. While this is a fine and historically appropriate thing to do for names from many medieval naming cultures, when done to a Highland name it almost always makes it less like a medieval name and, to add insult to injury, often results in a name that still isn't registrable due to the rules against presumption.

This article explains how to avoid this dire fate. That is, it describes how to clear conflict while keeping a name both medieval and Highland by adding historically plausible elements to Highland names.

So what sorts of elements can you add to a Highland name and still be historically plausible? The short answer is additional patronymic generations and/or descriptive bynames. The long answer is, well, longer...

(Note that all examples in Gaelic in this article are in Common Gaelic using late period Gaelic names, and all examples in Scots are specifically sixteenth century.)

One Person, Many Name Forms

Every medieval Gael had a number of different name forms by which they were known. Which one was used at any specific time depended on the context -- who was speaking or writing, who else was involved, how formal or informal the situation was, what language was being used, and so on. Some of these name forms were very similar to others, some could be quite different. But a medieval Gael would recognize them all as belonging to and referring to themself — that is, as "their name" — and for the most part they probably wouldn't much care which one got used. (They also wouldn't be picky about the spelling, either, as long as it was in the range of spellings considered correct for the language — but that is another article!)

So let's take as our example guinea pigs two sixteenth century Highlanders:

First we have Ealusaid, who is the daughter of Cainneach, who is the son of Aodh, who all belong to Clan MacDonald (known in Gaelic as <Clann Domhnaill>). Sometimes in Scots (but not in Gaelic), they use an inherited family surname, McYnnes (derived from Ealusaid's paternal great-grandfather's byname). Ealusaid has the nickname <Óg>, "young", Cainneach has the nickname <Mór>, "big", and Aodh has the nickname <Bán>, "fair" (as in appearance, not justice ;-).

Next we have Uilleam, who is the son of Fionnlagh, who is the son of Eoin, who all belong to Clan Campbell (known in Gaelic as Clann Mhic Dhuibhne). Sometimes in Scots (but not in Gaelic), they use an inherited family surname, McAllister (derived from Uilleam's paternal grandfather's byname). Uilleam has the nickname <Buidhe>, "yellow" (again as in appearance, not cowardice ;-), Fionnlagh has the nickname <Dubh>, "black", and Eoin has the nickname <Ruadh>, "red".

(I should point out that while it wasn't uncommon for Gaels to have nicknames/descriptive bynames, most didn't have one. So giving one to all six people above is really not typical, but necessary to illustrate the various theoretically possible name forms.)

Anyway, here is a list of name forms that Ealusaid would have at her disposal:

And here is the equivalent list of name forms that Uillieam would have at his disposal:

Now note that not all of these forty different forms would necessarily have actually been used for either Ealusaid or Uilleam, and some forms would have been used much more frequently than others. In general, as a rule of thumb, the more elements in a name the less likely it was to be used. However, even at a conservative estimate, for your most average Gael that still leaves around half a dozen or more different name forms being used in different contexts for the same person.

What's What

So, what is going on in these names? What bynames or byname elements can be added to a Gael's given name?

In Gaelic, the basic permutations are:

given name + nickname/descriptive byname


given name + patronymic byname

or both

given name + nickname/descriptive byname + patronymic byname

This results in thirteen possible Gaelic name forms rather than just three because the patronymic byname can include the grandfather as well as the father and the patronymic byname can include the father's and/or the grandfather's nickname/descriptive byname in addition to their given names. So all thirteen Gaelic examples above include only one or two bynames, but there are six different variations of one of the two kinds of bynames (specifically, of the patronymic byname) possible.

In Scots, the basic permutations are:

straight Scots language equivalent of a Gaelic name form

or (in late period only)

Scots given name only + Scots language inherited family surname (with women using <Nyc-> forms rather than <Mc-> forms)

or (in late period only)

straight Scots language equivalent of a Gaelic name form + Scots language inherited family surname (men and women using <Mc-> forms, with one exception)

This results in twenty-seven possible Scots language name forms because there are thirteen possible Gaelic name forms, for a combined total of forty different possible name forms all for the same person, and all regarded by that individual (as well as others) as "their name". (Note that these forty name forms each involve only one, two, or three bynames.)

So, here are the explanations for each of the various name forms in the examples of Ealusaid and Uilliam, above:

But where's the Clan Name?

You may have noticed that although I very carefully told you what clans Ealusaid and Uilleam belonged to, none of the names I listed for them indicate their clan affiliation. This is because Scottish Gaels don't seem to have normally indicated their clan affiliations in their Gaelic names, and, so far, other than certain specific kinds of people, I haven't found any clear indication that they normally did so in the Scots language form of their names, either.

The exception is the Scots language names of known direct descendants (in the male line) of a clan chief, such as a son, daughter, son of a son, or daughter of a son of a clan chief. Clan chiefs, and so their direct (male line) descendents, sometimes used an inherited family surname related to their (Scots language) clan name. So, if Ealusaid's paternal great-grandfather had been the chief of Clan MacDonald, then her Scots langauge inherited family surname would have been <McDonald> instead of <McYnnes>, and used in the examples above just like <McYnnes> (complete with using <NycDonald> instead of <McDonald> in forms no. 27 and no. 28). Likewise, if Uilleam's paternal grandfather had been the chief of Clan Campbell, then his Scots language inherited family surname would have been <Campbell> instead of <McAllister>, and used in the examples above just like <McAllister>.

It may be that further research will reveal that Gaels other than direct descendents of clan chiefs used Scots language inherited family surnames indicating clan affiliation. However, for now, so far whenever I have been able to identify whether or not someone using what is clearly clan surname was a direct descendent of a clan chief, they have indeed been a direct descent of a clan chief. Further, given both how bynames worked in Lowland culture generally, and how they worked in Highland culture generally, this is not surprising. (That is, that this is so isn't something unexpected or strange or puzzling, but rather exactly what makes sense given what we know of the time and culture. The modern expectation that surnames always indicate Scottish clan affiliation is just that — modern, based on developments that occurred centuries after the sixteenth century.)

Finally, note in particular that, without context, most Scots language clan surnames are indistinguishable from the Scots language forms of Gaelic bynames and other Scots language inherited family names that do not indicate clan affiliation. So, while in one person's name the byname <McDonald> may indicate he is descended in the male line from a chief of Clan MacDonald (and so a member of that clan), in another's name it may indicate simply that his father's/grandfather's/etc. given/first name was <Donald> while he belongs to an entirely unrelated clan. And, given the most common ways of forming bynames, for any given person bynamed <McDonald>, the latter is far more likely than the former. (That is, again, most people's bynames did not indicate clan affiliation.)


With at least forty different, historically plausible name forms to choose from in late period (and at least twenty-six forms in earlier periods), all of which your persona would have considered "their name", it really is easy to find one to use for SCA registration that won't conflict with any currently registered SCA names. There is just no need to add a locative byname or any inauthentic name element to clear SCA conflict.

Some Final Important Points and Useful Resources

Gaelic bynames need to follow correct Gaelic grammar, which includes certain required changes to the names and nicknames used in patronymics and also the adjectives used in women's nicknames/descriptive bynames. Specific information and detailed instructions for forming most kinds of Gaelic names can be found in Quick and Easy Gaelic Names(i). Additional articles with specific Gaelic given names and nicknames/descriptive bynames can be found listed in the appropriate sections of Scottish Naming Resources(i).

There isn't yet a comprehensive handy how to guide for putting together the Scots language names of Gaels, especially not for periods earlier than the 16th century, but a few useful articles can be found listed in the Names of Gaels in Languages Other Than Gaelic(i) section of Scottish Naming Resources(i). Another useful resource is Black's Surnames of Scotland, which has dated forms of many Scots language equivalents of Gaelic bynames, but keep in mind that most surnames listed in Black are not those of Gaels but rather of Scottish Lowlanders.



Scots is a language closely related to English. There are many terms, some more respected than others, used for the modern Scots language and/or specific dialects of Modern Scots, including <Broad Scots>, <Lallans>, <Lowland Scots>, <Aberdonian>, <Doric>, <Glaswegian>, and many others. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Scots speakers themselves called their language <Inglis>, while in the 16th century they took to calling it <Scottis>.

Some linguists consider Scots to be a separate language from English, others consider it a dialect of English. Since the categorization of independent language vs. dialect is a subjective one (and often based on non-linguistic considerations), there is no "one true answer". I choose to refer to Scots as a language for several reasons, including that I simply find it makes it easier to talk about and explain the linguistic situation in both modern and medieval Scotland.

Note that the word <Scots> has several other, more common, meanings in addition to referring to the Scots language, including, as an adjective, the meaning "Scottish" and, as a noun, the meaning "more than one Scottish person".


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  Ó Corráin, Donnchadh, and Fidelma Maguire. Irish Names, 2nd ed. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1990. [Another edition has the title Gaelic Names.] Order from Amazon.com Order from Amazon.co.uk
RfS "Rules for Submissions of the College of Arms of the Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc. March 28, 2004". WWW: Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc., 16 Feb 2005 [cited 1 May 2005]. URL: <http://www.sca.org/heraldry/laurel/rfs.html>.

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