Understanding the Scottish Naming Pattern 53

A helpful piece of information to have when researching in the Scottish records is an understanding of the Scottish Naming Pattern. Here’s how it works:

  • First Born Son – named for the paternal grandfather
  • Second Born Son – named for the maternal grandfather
  • Third Son named for the father – unless he shares a name with one of the grandfathers
  • Fourth and subsequent sons were often named after father or mother’s brothers
  • First Born Daughter – named for the maternal grandmother
  • Second Born Daughter – named for the paternal grandmother
  • Third Daughter – named for the mother – unless she shares a name with one of the grandmothers
  • Subsequent daughters were generally named for mother or father’s sisters

In addition, if one of the first three children died, the next baby born of the same sex was given that name so that the name would live on for future generations.


Add to this the diminutives of names. For instance: Ellen, Helen, and Eleanor are often used interchangeably. For the most part, Ellen is the diminutive of Eleanor. Ellen is the common pronunciation of Helen. Nellie can also be the diminutive for Helen or Eleanor.

Jean and Jane are often used interchangeably. This gets complicated when you have a daughter of each name. Janet is often also referred to as Jane but can also be Jennie or Jessie.

Mary and Marion both often get referred to as May, Mamie or Maisie while Margaret usually goes by Peg or Peggy, but can also be referred to as Maggie or Meg.

Catherine, Kathleen and Kate are generally one and the same.

Isabel and Isabella are one and the same but may be also be known as Bella, Belle, Sibby or Tibbie.

Elizabeth rarely is Elizabeth, usually being Betty or Bess, but perhaps also Beth, Lizzie, Elsie or Libby.
For men, the diminutives are also readily used:
John may be Ian, Iain, or Jock.

George may be Jordy, Geordy or Dod.

James may be Jamie, Jimmy or Hamish.

It gets even better when every eldest son marries an eldest daughter: Henry marries a Margaret – they have a Henry and a Margaret – that Henry marries a Margaret or Margaret marries a Henry. That’s when the “Auld Henry”, “Wee Henry”, “ Young Harry”, “Big Henry”, “Oor Harry” and “Maggie’s Harry” all come into play. Easy Peasy keeping them all straight!

About Christine Woodcock

Scottish born, Canadian raised, Christine Woodcock is a genealogy educator with an expertise in the Scottish records. She enjoys sharing new resources to assist others in their quest to find and document their heritage. Christine is also a lecturer, author and blogger. She is the Director of Genealogy Tours of Scotland (www.genealogytoursofscotland.ca) and enjoys taking fellow Scots “home” to do onsite genealogy research and to discover their own Scottish heritage.

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53 thoughts on “Understanding the Scottish Naming Pattern

  • Grace Darney

    I had a great-aunt named Margaret who was called “Meta”, her sister Helen was called “Nellie”, another sister Mary was “May”, and their youngest sister, Elizabeth, was “Queenie”. (They also had a sister Lilian whose name remained the same, and a brother John, occasionally called “Jack”.)

  • Glen McCook

    My McCooks, John McCook born about 1780 married about 1800 to Elizabeth Fraser and my g g grandfather was Robert McCook born 1814 (other siblings I do not know about) arr. Australia Jan 1842 with wife Mary Stuart from Armoy and newborn baby named Robert Kerr McCook(after her deceased father?) Robert was from Ballymoney, Antrim and I cannot find them anywhere there. I know Ireland is a difficult place to search.
    Did the/my McCook clan? come to Ireland in a certain time of the century? I am told they come from the Hebrides?.
    Hope you can help me with my Scottish ancestors.

  • Kathy Jo Bryant

    I would love to have help with my Scottish Great Grandmother, Hannah “Hannie’s” family of McDonalds./McDaniels. We have not yet been able to find James’ parents/family, or his wife, Mary Ann Thomas’ family. This family is also found on the 1850 Talbot Co.., GA census, with the McDaniel surname.
    If any of these persons are recognized, please let me know. In a family letter, James is termed, “Pure, Highland Scotch.” On the census records, his parents were said to have been born in South Carolina.

    USGENWEB NOTICE: In keeping with the USGenWeb policy
    of providing free information on the Internet, this data
    may be used by non-commercial entities, as long as this
    message remains on all copied material. These electronic
    pages cannot be reproduced in any format for profit or
    other gain. Copying of the files within by non-commercial
    individuals and libraries is encouraged.

    ALGenWeb File Manager – Lygia Dawkins Cutts

    Contributed By Mary Ann Nichols
    JAN 1999

    MCDONALD Bible Record – Dale & Henry Co.’s, AL

    James McDonald August 14, 1804 GA
    Mariann McDonald December 15, 1811
    Nancy Ann McDonald August 30, 1830
    Cynthia Susan McDonald May 4, 1832
    William Hugh McDonald December 10, 1833
    Martha Ann Dorothy McDonald September 23, 1835
    Alcey Ann Louisa McDonald May 8, 1837
    Pleasant McDonald November 14, 1839–twin
    Frances McDonald November 14, 1839–”
    Sarah Jane McDonald October 22, 1841
    Commiles? McDonald May 15, 1843 (Camilla?)
    Jamimah McDonald July 1, 1845-September 22, 1847
    Josephus Allen McDonald July 8, 1847
    Mary Callista McDonald January 6, 1849
    Hanny McDonald January 28, 1851
    Fredonia Virginia McDonald June 7, 1853

    Robert McDonald died March 4, 1844
    Nancy Ann McDonald died May 19, 1844 or 6

    Note: Hanny McDonald married Joseph Parker and they lived in
    Dale Co., Alabama. She states on CSA pension application
    that she was born in Lowndes Co., Georgia. James McDonald
    was found in the 1860 and 1870 Henry Co., Alabama census and 1880
    Dale Co., Alabama census. We do not know when James and Mariann
    died or where they are buried. According to the 1880 census both of
    their parents were born in South Carolina.

  • Melissa Moore

    I hope this helps me. I have been trying to find the father of my Scottish ancestor for two years. His name was Daniel Buie and was born in 1808 in North Carolins. He had several children born in Tennessee and the last ones in Texas. The Buie’s seemed to name all of their sons either Archibald, Malcom or Daniel and sometimes there are two or three first cousins with the same name. Any ideas on how to find the right one would be appreciated.

    • Christine Woodcock Post author

      Often the mother’s maiden name or the grandmother’s maiden names (both maternal and paternal) are used as middle names. This helps keep the families lined up since the Malcoms and Archibalds wouldn’t normally have married sisters.

  • Helena Walker

    Indeed in my family we had a Big Maureen, Wee Maureen, oor Maureen and cousin Maureen all named after maternal grandmother, Mary Ellen, who hailed form Ireland.

  • Johann MacLean Jones

    I know my great grandmother and grandfather came to the USA from Scotland in 1917 and brought with them all their living children. His name was Thomas Walker and hers Marion MacLean Walker. My grandfathers name was Thomas Walker also. They came from the Isle of Mull but other than this info I can’t find anything. How can I get more info, such as where they were born and who their family originated?

    • Christine Woodcock

      You can access your grandparents birth registrations at http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/ On their birth registration, it will name the parents of the baby (your great grandparents) and the date and place of their marriage. You can then go and access the marriage records which will get you one generation back by listing the parents of the bride and groom.

  • Vicki McKinnon

    We have a second bird in our McKinnon’s and they are male twins. How were twins named to still be in the naming pattern? We have no idea which one was born first so first and second don’t help us.


  • Marilyn (Foote) Bentley

    Christine, my Scots surname Foote or Foote/Foot goes back to the 1600s in Midlothian but nowhere can I find it as a Scots name. Any ideas? Thanks

  • Peggi

    Sounds like my family! I was literally lost trying to find ancestors til I found a great-grandmother with a strange & unique name- . That game me enough info to go back almost 100 years!
    Thank you for this!

  • Karen Kaus

    I would appreciate some help on this… I have been trying to “find” my great great grandfather “Surry” McMartin. There are absolutely records on him. I have been told Surry is a nick name or possibly the type of “wagon” he drove. Any ideas of where this name would have come from. (Live in Martintown, Ontario)

  • Angie Skene

    I thought there was some reasoning to Scottish names. Often use an ‘educated guess’ , especially if an unusual name was being passed down, so to have it clearly explained is wonderful. Thankyou.

  • Melissa Lester, aka Cassandra McAvoy

    Hi there, I found this trying to figure out my own genealogy…. I was adopted as a baby, my biological mother being a McAvoy, and her grandfather being a Stuart, and first generation here in the states in the early 1900s. It’s been very difficult to fill in the gaps, as I don’t know much about my line, and being in touch with my biological mother she also doesn’t know much other than we are long descendants of queen Mary of scotland. I don’t know where to turn to find out more about my lineage, any help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time.

  • Betty Jones Nesmith

    The name thing is so interesting, but, my goodness, complicated. Enjoyed the article of names, Christine Woodcock. I have many Woodcocks in my family names, too. We could be related! Thank you for this article.

  • Betty Flood

    If the 1st son is named James, 2nd son named Thomas, 3rd Son named William and 4th son named Isaac, what is the Paternal Grandfather’s name?

  • Diana Campbell

    This naming tradition was followed to the letter in my ancestors. With so many Andrew Campbells in the family tree, it was the only way, many times, I could distinguish which family belonged to us. The other fact I learned about Jean and Jane, was that it is the same name in Gaelic which is why the census and record keepers interchanged it so much!

    • Alastair Preston

      Ahh. I should have picked up on that possibility for the Jean/Jane confusion, as the Gaelic form for both is Sinè. Everyone in my family, called my father’s stepmother “Jean”. Even she pronounced her name that way, but after she passed, I found that on paper it was spelled “Jane”. I had been assuming the difference in the pronunciation was due to her Gaelic-influenced Ross-shire accent. As for record keepers, I’m aware that some at least have been known to deliberately change a name’s spelling even when given the correct spelling. My own name was supposed to be spelled the old way, with a “d” in the middle, but the registrar refused, and recorded it with the “t” instead.

  • Viv

    We have 3 Roberts at any one time. Not so bad for us kids – dad, Robert & young Robert but my mum had it harder trying to get the right one 😂.

  • Carla K White

    This is a great help! Thank you. And I love that you were able to do it with humor, at all the repetition of names and diminutives.

  • Carla K White

    McPHERSON family Bible, publ. Dublin, 1762. Ownership inscription in front for Frederick McPherson (my 4grgrandfather), “of the paresh of Balleykelly [N. Ireland] dated 1767”. Birthdates & names written inside: “Marey Stelle [Steele?] herself Boren Agust 25 1743”. (We’re pretty sure this was Frederick’s wife.) Other names & dates: “David’s birth the 11 of March 1780”; “John was born November th 21 + 1775”. My 3grgrandmother, Susannah,was born in 1783, the last of their children. It is believed that Mary died during or shortly after Susannah’s birth, and that is why her birth is not recorded. There is also record elsewhere of another daughter, Mary, who was born 1773. Doesn’t exactly follow the naming pattern shown in this post, but they may have lost several children in between the 4 that survived.

  • Ilene Aitken

    Question for you….could Nans be also an Agnes? Some of these names can be quite tricky. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  • Alastair Preston

    My parents did not follow that pattern, but chose first names at random. For our middle names, they did use family/clan names, but still not according to the pattern described.
    1st son: pre-proscription ancestral surname –
    (given to firstborn boy in each generation)
    2nd son: maternal great-grandmother’s surname
    3rd son: paternal grandmother’s surname
    4th son: paternal grandfathers given name
    5th son: maternal cousins’ clan name
    6th son: maternal grandfather’s first and second names

  • Lorine D Taylor

    Thank you so much for this information. I haven’t done much of my Scottish genealogy, but my father did a lot because he understood this patterns. He tells of have 2 couples, husband & wife with the same names who got married within a month of each other. He could look as the census records & figure out which children belonged with which parents. I also understand the nicknames. My grandmother was Jane & her mother was Elizabeth. She was known as Betty’s Jennie.