Patronymic and Occupational Names

Patronymic: defined as ‘a name derived from father or ancestor’ e.g.. father Donald has sons Iain MacDonald (or John Donaldson), and Alexander MacDonald or Donaldson, and grandsons Donald MacIain, Vic Donald and Iain MacAlastair Vie Donald (Mac or Mc means ‘son of and Vie is the genitive form Mhic for Mac).

Such a system provided no settled surname and the naming pattern changed for each generation. This was the custom in the Highlands until the 18th Century, but the Chiefs and their families used surnames on formal occasions much earlier. The Munros of Foulis appear in that form in documents in the 14th Century but in speech they would have been called by their patronymic or more probably by the name of the lands they held and called simply ‘Foulis’ or ‘the Laird of Foulis’.

Bye names (nicknames) were extensively used to distinguish individuals in communities where surnames and even patronymics might be common to many of the inhabitants. These include descriptive names such as ‘more (big), ‘beg’ (small), ‘roy’ (red), ‘dubh’ or ‘dow’ (black), ‘ban’ (fair) etc. Sometimes a man’s occupation was turned into a surname so that gradually for example ‘Donald the miller’ became Donald Miller.

Differently named family groups either because they shared a common progenitor or already occupied lands granted to the Chief became adherents and associated with the Clan. These were known as septs. In the case of Clan Munro the names Dingwall, Foulis, MacCulloch, MacLullich, Vass and Wass are recognised as septs. Bearers of several of these names also regarded themselves as septs of the Rosses. People moving in from different areas under the protection of a new Chief might well find it advantageous to adopt his surname also. As a result with scant written records, and when other evidence is not available it is often difficult to know from which Clan a person is descended.