Previously, although people recognised that they did belong to certain large family groups, they used patronymics, rather than surnames. Unfortunately, these patronymics had a habit of being translated as surnames by people unused to the system – for example mac Choinnich (son of Kenneth) turns up on occasions as MacKenzie, and there also appear to be cases where mac lomhair as a patronymic has become Maclver as a surname.
Patronymics are the system of naming a person by reference to his father and grandfather, such as Domhnall mac lain mhic Fhionnlaidh – Donald son of John son of Finlay – but this was not always strictly adhered to. Sometimes a person is referred to by the name of the person who brought him up, perhaps an uncle, aunt or grandparent, and this can cause confusion. Also, where there was a famous ancestor, his name might be preserved in the patronymic generations later, and the intervening generations omitted.
Another style of naming is by personal by-names, either physical attributes, e.g., Bàn (fair-haired), Dubh (black-haired), Ruadh (red-haired), Buidhe (yellow-haired), etc., or from their trades, e.g., Clachair (mason), Tàillear (tailor), Muillear (miller), Saighdear (soldier, usually denoting an Army Pensioner), etc.
Here again, these by-names could become hereditary, and need not apply specifically to the person bearing them. Domhnall Gobha – Donald the blacksmith – need not be a blacksmith himself, but he would have belonged to one of the families whose members had been blacksmiths in the past. Similarly lain Ruadh need not always be red-haired himself, but he may have come from a family with a tendency to red hair, or descended from a famous red-haired ancestor.
Conversely, we have to remember that not all Tàillearan in an area are necessarily descended from the same tailor, nor Buidhich from the same fair-haired person!
In the process of Anglicisation of names, it was sometimes the family by-name which became the English surname – Smith is the obvious example – but others are much less easily recognised. Who, unless they knew the history of the family, would equate MacNockiter with Walker? Yet MacNockiter is only a phonetic attempt at the Gaelic Mac an Fhucadair – son of the cloth-finisher or waulker – which has now been superseded in the islands (especially South Uist) by the simpler, but misleading, version Walker.
Some surnames appear in the rural areas of the Islands which have a very Lowland ring to them, but this need not always indicate a Lowland origin for the family. In many cases, when English surnames were first being given, clerks would use a Lowland name known to them as an easier approximation to a difficult Gaelic name. Kerr is basically an Ayrshire name, yet it was common in Harris, and in many other areas of the north-west. Most likely, the name was originally ‘Carrach’ – left-handed – and will indicate descent from a famous left-handed person. Montgomery, often found in Lewis, also sounds a Lowland name, but it appears in early records as MacGumraid or even MacGumbry, leaving us to decide whether these are an attempt to render Montgomery into Gaelic, or Montgomery an attempt to render MacGumraid into English.
First names, even more than surnames, suffered at the hands of translators from Gaelic into English.
In the early days of Civil Registration, Gaelic names were not acceptable to the Registrars, who insisted on using what they reckoned were the ‘proper’ versions of names in English. Unfortunately, different Registrars had different ideas of what the proper translations were!
It is not particularly uncommon to find a person’s birth registered under one version of a name, with another variant of the name in a marriage register, and perhaps yet another version on the death certificate. Girls’ names particularly suffered from this, and a less usual name like Gormshuil, frequently used in Ness, but much less elsewhere, taxed the ingenuity of some registrars. Gormelia was the most common anglicised version, but Amelia, Emily and Camelia are also found. Less understandably, we also find Dorothy and Dorcas, and even on a few occasions Naomi!
Oighric also appears in many guises – Effie, Euphemia, Erica, Efrica, Africa, Harriet, and, in Lewis particularly, Henrietta and Etta. In parts of the Old Parochial Register, we even find the name Eric, which has confused many researchers about the gender of the child! Boys’ names seem to have been standardised earlier, with most translations taken from the pages of Homer, and the Trojan War – Alexander, Philip, Hector, Aeneas, Evander, etc.
It was not that the person affected changed the name – they would invariably have used the Gaelic name anyway. What happened is that most people would probably never have seen what the registrar had written, and possibly could not have read it if they had seen it. It was only on the very rare occasion when an official name had to be used that the English version mattered, and it caused fewer complications then to continue to use whatever version the official had thought best. When old age pensions, etc., started, there were many complications when people found out for the first time exactly what name they had been registered under!