What’s in a name ?

Emily Atack was the latest celebrity to feature on the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are programme this week.  It was very interesting to hear the revelation that her relative Sir Paul McCartney could easily have been known as Sir Paul McCarthy if his Irish ancestor’s name had not been misheard by an official when they came to Liverpool.

And it set me thinking about the undue importance that many of us attribute to spelling or pronounciation of our surnames. There are some great examples with some traditional Border surnames. For example, is it Home or Hume ?  Ker or Kerr ?  The difference in spelling comes down to the way that different landed branches of the family chose to identify themselves in the 17th century.

Over the years there’s been a lot of speculation about the different forms of the surname Elliot and the number of L’s and T’s in the name. And that once again was influenced by how a landed branch of the family styled themselves. But of more interest for me was where did the ‘i’ in the name come from.  Back in the 16th and the first half of the 17th century the name was almost always written as ‘Ellot’ or sometimes ‘Ellott’. 

For example, here’s the name of Thomas Ellott represented in a Liddesdale rental document from 1646

Once again in another rental document several years later in 1654 almost all the tenant names are spelled ‘Ellott’ as above although one of the signatures on the document ‘Eliott’ is a sign of things to come.

But by 1675 the ‘i’ has become the norm e.g here we see Gavin Elliott of Midlemylne mentioned.

So we can fairly accurately pinpoint when the change came about, and guess that it was perhaps down to local pronounciation that the ‘i’ emerged.

And my own surname is not immune either.  References to the name in the 17th century and earlier were appropriate for a name which describes a physical attribute i.e. the name was spelled as it was pronounced in the Scots dialect i.e. Armstrang.  Most early OPR entries are indeed for Armstrang but by the late 18th century the name had become anglicised to Armstrong.

Many Irvings fled from Dumfriesshire to Ireland at the time of the Ulster plantation. The surname seems to have got corrupted and changed there so that Irwin, Erwin and Ervine were all variants that emerged and can now be found in many English-speaking countries.

Johnston(e) is another very popular Dumfriesshire name and has quite a different origin to the English surname Johnson.  However it transpires that US President Lyndon Baines Johnson actually had a Scottish Johnston ancestor who became known as Johnson after he emigrated to America.

So whatever your name is today, there’s a good chance that your paternal ancestors surname may have been slightly different.

[You can find more old rental documents at https://relativelyscottish.com/rentals-of-the-buccleuch-estates-1630-1833/]

3 thoughts to “What’s in a name ?”

  1. Interesting about the variations.. A family “legend” was that we Mortons from Berwick were originally call Moran from Ireland settled in the Birders and Scotticised their name. I was able to disprove that, showing a female Moran married a Morton and changed her name by marriage.
    Regarding Elliott. my 2x gt grandmother came from Bristol to Berwick, her mothers maiden was Honor Elliott. Research showed she and her ancestors were actually named Hallett, this was corrupted at her baptism

  2. Great post. I need to search for Brydon, Bryden, Briden, Bridon and Braydon, to my mind all based on the whim of whichever clerk wrote it down. In the midst of this plethora of spellings, at some point in the early 19th century, my family adopted their preferred spelling evidenced by their signatures.

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