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Early 16th Century Scottish Lowland Names
Draft Edition

by Sharon L. Krossa
Last updated 3 Jun 2005  

In the 16th century, the language of the Scottish Lowlands, including the towns and royal court, was Scots; it was closely related to contemporary English.[1]  Since Scottish Lowlanders spoke a very similar language to the English and historically had had similar cultural influences, as well as varying degrees of contact with England, 16th century Scottish Lowland names were very similar in general to 16th century English names, though there were differences in detail. However, Lowland names were quite different from the names of Scottish Highlanders (who spoke Gaelic rather than Scots).[2] 

Nearly all 16th century Lowlanders were known by a single given name and a single fixed, inherited surname:

<given name> <surname>

Middle names or second given names do not appear to have been used in Scotland until sometime after the 16th century.[3] 

The given names used by women were quite different from the given names used by men; only a few specific given names were used by both men and women. Note that while modernly it is relatively common to use Scottish surnames as given names (e.g., <Bruce Springsteen>, <Lesley Stahl>, <Douglas Fairbanks>, etc.), there are no known examples of surnames being used as given names in Scotland until sometime after the 16th century.[4]

Surnames were fixed and inherited rather than personally descriptive; both men and women used their father's surname as their own surname. (This was true even for illegitimate children.) Note that a Scottish woman did not normally change her surname when she married. So, for example, the children of <Robert Rede> and his wife <Agnes Buchan> would be <Johne Rede> and <Jonet Rede>.[5]

Although most given names used by Lowlanders were used throughout the Lowlands, many surnames were particular to certain regions and rarely appeared in others. Likewise, although many surnames were used by all classes of Lowlanders, some were more common among certain classes and rare among others. For example, a noble descended from a long line of nobles was less likely to have a surname that had originated as a craft occupational byname (such as <Smitht> or <Couper>) than a townsperson descended from a long line of townspeople.

The given names and surnames listed in this article are taken from entries in the Aberdeen Council Register dating from 1500 to 1550. Aberdeen was one of the four largest burghs in Scotland, located on the northeast coast, so some of these surnames are typical for townspeople but rarely found outside of towns and some of them are typical of Aberdeen and the northeast of Scotland but are rarely found elsewhere. (For a list of some surnames found specifically in the Borders, see Report 2421 at The Academy of Saint Gabriel. For a list of some surnames found specifically in Perth, see Names of Women Mentioned in the Perth Guildry Book 1464-1598 by Sara L. Friedemann at her web site A Small Collection of Medieval Onomastic Articles.)

To form a typical 16th century Scottish Lowland name for a man, choose one given name from Men's Given Names and one surname from Surnames. For example:

Johne Duncansone (1502)
Androu Ancroft (1503)
Richerd Wrycht (1511)
Dauid Kintor (1512)
William Still (1533)

To form a typical 16th century Scottish Lowland name for a woman, choose one given name from Women's Given Names and one surname from Surnames. For example:

Margeret Kintour (1503)
Marioun Duncansone (1511)
Jonat Abirdour (1533)
Agnes Meldrum (1548)
Jonet Gray (1550)

In 16th century Scotland, people did not have the notion that there was one and only one correct way to spell someone's name. Instead, the spelling of someone's name would vary among a number of correct spellings.[6]  Two different spellings might be used for the same person in a single paragraph or sentence! For example, all of these examples refer to the same woman:

Anny Buchan (1500)
Anny Buchane (1505, 1509, 1510)
Canny Buchan (1505, 1506, 1508, 1513)
Canny Buchane (1510, 1511)
Agnes Buchane (1513, 1515)
Agnes Buchan (1513, 1517)
Kanne Bouquhen (1519)
Agnes Bouchqhen (1520)
Canne Buchane (1522)
Agnes Bowquhan (1524)

And all of these examles refer to the same man:

Richerd Redhed (1500, 1505, 1506, 1508, 1509, 1511, 1512, 1513, 1514, 1516)
Richerde Redhede (1503, 1505, 1510)
Richerde Redhed (1506, 1511)
Riche Redhed (1508)
Richerd Reidheid (1508)
Recherd Reidheid (1515)
Richart Raidheid (1520, 1534)
Rechert Reidheid (1523)

So when choosing a given name and a surname, don't think of it as choosing one specific spelling of a given name and one specific spelling of a surname, but rather a given name with a range of spellings and a surname with a range of spellings.


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, there is no "one true answer". I choose to refer to Scots as a language for several reasons, including that I find it makes it easier to talk about and explain the linguistic situation in both modern and medieval Scotland.

Note that "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".


1 In contrast, in the Highlands and Western Isles, a very different language, Gaelic, was spoken; it was the same language as that spoken in Ireland. A third language, Norn, was spoken in the Northern Isles; it was closely related to Norse. From around the 15th century, Scots was also spoken by some in Shetland and especially Orkney.
2 For information on Gaelic naming, see Quick and Easy Gaelic Names.
3 There are two known exceptions to this. At the very end of the 16th century, the King of Scotland (James VI) and his son (born in the 1590s) had double given names and fixed, inherited surnames: Charles James Stewart and Henry Frederick Stewart. However, kings and their relatives are not normal people and their names are not evidence that anyone but royals (and only two royals at that) used double given names in Scotland before 1600.
4 There is a 1605 example of a woman with the originally Scottish surname <Douglas> as a given name, but she was English, not Scottish.[Camden]
5 Note therefore that the 'meaning' or significance of a 16th century Lowland person's surname was that their father had had that surname, and nothing more. Alexander Rede could have red hair or blond hair or brown hair; Gilbert Tailiour could be a tailor or a baker or a weaver; and David Williamson could be the son of William or Donald or Andrew.
6 That a number of different spellings were all considered correct does not mean that any and all spellings were considered correct. There were definite rules about correct spelling! However, these rules were complex and cannot be easily summarized. The only way to be sure that a specific spelling is a historically plausible spelling of a 16th century Scottish Lowland name is to find that spelling used in the Scottish Lowlands in the 16th century.


ACR The manuscript Aberdeen Council Registers, Volumes 7 - 20 (1487-1551), in the Aberdeen City Archives, Scotland.
Black Black, George F. The Surnames of Scotland: Their Origin, Meaning, and History. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1993. Original edition, The New York Public Library, 1946. NYPublic Library 1999 hardback at Amazon.com - Birlinn 1996 hardback at Amazon.co.uk
Reaney Reaney, P.H., and R.M. Wilson. A Dictionary of British Surnames. 2nd ed. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976.
Withycombe Withycombe, E. G. The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names. 2nd ed. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1950.


I am grateful for the assistance of The Aberdeen City Archives, and in particular of the Archivist, Miss Judith Cripps. I would also like to thank the members of The Academy of Saint Gabriel for their assistance with the preparation of this article. Any errors are my own and despite their best efforts!

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