Scottish Names the Scottish Love
By Eleanor Nickerson
Scottish names have many influences. The Scots themselves were descended from the Picts and the Gaels from Ireland, and the Scottish language became Scots Gaelic: the sister language of Irish Gaelic
Later, the Anglo-Saxons and Norse were incorporated into the Scottish nation. In places like the Shetlands, Scandinavian names like Thorfinn aren’t uncommon even today.
Trying to isolate specifically “Scottish” names is a little muddied by their Gaelic-speaking counterparts in Irish. Some Gaelic names have been used in both Ireland and Scotland since the early Middle Ages (like Angus and Fionnuala); others have their own Scots Gaelic form such as Scottish Callum vs Irish Colm or Seonaid vs Sinead. Some Irish names (such as Ryan and Orla), on the other hand, have had only relatively recent usage in Scotland.
Then to further complicate things, there are names which are native to other countries that were once run-away hits in Scotland. Janet, Flora, Esme, Hector, Archibald and Magnus are all names that feel typically Scottish, even though they aren’t indigenous.
For the sake of argument, I am defining “Scottish” names here as names which originated in Scotland, derive from Scottish topography or are Gaelic names which have been used in Scotland since at least the 12th century.
Below is a list of all the indigenous Scottish names given to 6 or more children in Scotland in 2017, according to the National Records of Scotland:
Lexi / Elsie / Maisie – While they may seem like quintessentially English diminutive names, these three lovelies all started life in Scotland. Lexi(e) was a traditional diminutive for feminine forms of royal Scottish favourite Alexander such as Alexandra, Alexandrina and Alexina (the latter were both top 100 favourites in Scotland in 1900); Elsie derives from Scottish Elspeth and Maisie is the Scottish diminutive of Margaret.
Breagha (BREE-a) – A name derived from the Scots Gaelic dictionary meaning “beautiful”. Breagha’s use is relatively modern, first being used as a name at the end of 20th century and only gaining ground in the last decade.
Eilidh / Ailie (AY-lee) – Eilidh is a Scottish darling that has little use outside of its native homeland. It reached the Scottish Top 50 in 1990 and has been in the Top 30 in every year (bar two) since 1995. Eilidh started life as a nickname for Eilionoir – the Scottish form of Eleanor – making Eilidh directly cognate with Ellie.
Marsaili (MAHR-sa-lee) – A Scots Gaelic form of Marcella which has been in use since at least the 16th century in Scotland. It has also sometimes been used as a Gaelic form of Majorie. 2017 saw Marsaili’s highest rank in Scotland to date with 7 girls receiving the name.
Mirren / Murron – A name which is found in many forms in the Scottish stats including Mirryn, Murrin, Mirrin, Murren, Miryn, Miron, Mhirren, Miren and Muirenn.
Murron was coined in 1995 for the film Braveheart as the name of William Wallace‘s wife (her real name in history reportedly was Marion). Presumably, it was modelled on the Gaelic name Muirenn — possibly from muir “sea” and fionn “white,” or the Proto-Celtic *moreina “maiden” — which was rendered as Marion in English.
Mirren could derive from the same source (the different forms have certainly been confused together over the years) or it could derive from the unisex Gaelic name Muirgen (Muirin) meaning “born of the sea” (muir “sea” + genas “born”). This would explain the (male) Saint Mirin, an Irish monk and missionary who travelled to Scotland in the 6th century and is now regarded as the patron saint of Paisley in Scotland.
Vaila (VAY-la) – Hot on the tail of other Scottish island-names such as Isla, Skye and Iona in the Top 100, Vaila is a rising name, derived from a lovely little island in Shetland. Taken from a Old Norse name Valey, possibly meaning “Celt island, battlefield island” or “mighty island,” Vaila was once used almost exclusively as a given name in Shetland itself, but its appeal has been growing wider since 2012. If you love Isla but it’s feeling too popular, Vaila makes for a wonderful alternative.
Finlay / Rory – Both Rory and Finlay are as much Scottish as they are Irish. Both have recorded use from at least the 10th century in Scotland though undoubtedly are even older. Their prevalence is attested by the many variant spellings: Finley, Findlay, Finnley, Findley, Fionnlagh; Ruaridh, Ruairidh, Ruairi, Ruaraidh, Rhuri and Roary to name a few.
Keir / Kerr (KEER) – Scottish surnames taken from several places which derive from the Old Norse kjarr “wet gound.” Keir came to wider attention in the UK thanks to Scottish politician (James) Keir Hardy (1856-1915), the founder and first leader of the Labour Party in Britain.
Lewis / Harris – Both Lewis and Harris may be “English” names, but their Top 10 status in Scotland is thanks to their being the names of two neighbouring Scottish islands in the Outer Hebrides (sometimes they are considered as one island). Lewis (Leòdhas in Scots Gaelic) probably derives from the Gaelic leogach “marshy,” while Harris (Na Hearadh in Scots Gaelic) derives from the Old Norse herad “district.”
Sorley – An anglicised form of the Gaelic name Somhairle which itself is from the Old Norse name Sumarliði meaning “summer way-farer” i.e. a Viking. Sorley Maclean (1911-96) was a notable Scottish poet.
Struan (STROO-an) – A placename found across Scotland which derives from the Gaelic sruthan “stream.” Struan has been steadily rising in Scotland since the early 1990s and finally broke into the Top 100 in 2017.
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on April 9th, 2018 at 11:01 pm
Keir, Struan, and Lewis — all gems!
on April 10th, 2018 at 2:39 am
I actually met a little Marsaili a couple of weeks ago, though it was spelled Marsailidh. I love the sound but it’s one of these names that even in Scotland is going to get a lot of mispronounciations.
I’m really surprised at the number of Mirren variations being used! I’d only seen Mirren and Murron before.
on April 10th, 2018 at 7:00 am
I love Murron – she sounds very earthy, womanly and strong, and I like the fact that the sound isn’t conventially feminine. I’m really surprised the lovely Morag isn’t here – I think of her as being a typical Scottish name, I suppose because of Katie Morag.
on April 10th, 2018 at 9:25 am
I love Vaila and Marsaili!
on April 10th, 2018 at 10:21 am
Mirren is just gorgeous.
on April 10th, 2018 at 11:15 am
Scottish names are fascinating. Thank you for this very interesting history relating to name origins. Some of my favorites include… Isla, Eilidh (I would consider this as a middle name because of the pronunciation difficulties.), Elsie, Marsaili (so pretty!), Breagha, Maisie, Mairi, Alistair, Malcolm, Lachlan.
Eleanor Nickerson Said
on April 10th, 2018 at 1:01 pm
@Kew Morag just missed the cut! It ranked #570 with 5 births in Scotland in 2017. You can see from this infographic link (https://scotland.shinyapps.io/babynames/) how much Morag has declined in Scotland since it was #75 in 1974.
on April 11th, 2018 at 8:12 am
Oooh I love Vaila. Why doesn’t it have a name entry?
Marsali is an Outlander character, so I bet that one will become more popular, even though she isn’t a well-liked character. It’s a beautiful name.
on June 6th, 2018 at 7:12 pm
I am bias to Murron we chose this name for our little girl. She’s almost 4! We get Mur RON. We say Muh rhen. She’s a red head and blue eyed. She’s a Murron! People love her name and they say it dreamily.i wanted Mirren also.
on June 6th, 2018 at 7:15 pm
@Kew we love our daughter’s name! If We had another girl she would be Enid.
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