Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Scottish Naming Pattern

Have you ever wondered why so many people in your family tree have the same name? Is there a John in every generation and is searching the census really confusing because all the cousins of your family also have the same name? There is a simple explanation for this. It’s not that the parents were unimaginative when it came to choosing names but rather that they followed a ‘naming pattern’. The Scottish naming pattern is as follows: 1st son named after father's father 2nd son named after mother's father 3rd son named after father 1st daughter named after mother's mother 2nd daughter named after father's mother 3rd daughter named after mother Now the while the pattern can continue after the fourth son or daughter, it is our experience that few families consistently went that far. After six children there would almost always begin to be some duplication in names.

What does this mean?

If you have a couple called John and Elizabeth who name their eldest son William and their second daughter Janet you could hypothesise that John’s parents were called William and Janet. Why do I say ‘hypothesise’? The naming pattern should not be used as evidence but rather as a guide. If the surname is very common, or at least very common in the area, you could use the pattern to predict what the parents may be called. Once you find parents with those forenames you will still need to prove your theory using other sources.


There are a number of pitfalls. Firstly, do you have a list of all the children? If an older child died in infancy this could distort the pattern of names you have. When this happens you will often find a younger child is given the same forename. When you look at the list of children you have, is there a gap in the ages? Is one 10 in the census but the next child is aged 5? This can indicate that a child has died so look at the OPRs and gravestones. If one of the parents was illegitimate this can also change the naming pattern. In the case of a son, sometimes a family will use the name of the stepfather, other times the eldest child is named after its father of the mother’s father. A common issue is that both fathers have the same name (let's say John). As they would be very unlikely to name two children John (unless one had died) this can again add to the confusion. Another reason the naming pattern would change is when a new minister came to the parish. It was a common practice to name the first child baptised by a new minister after him. So if the name doesn’t seem to ‘fit’ in your family at all, find out the name of the minister.

Summing up

The Scottish naming pattern can be a very useful tool. Some families used it right through to the mid-20th century. Use it with caution though, it’s not evidence in itself but it may help point you in the right direction.