Bruce – is a Sheila?

If you ask most people what gender a person called Bruce is, they would answer “male” without so much as a second thought. I would have been the same before I started working on my Unst family Tree project. However, now I am aware of many examples of the name Bruce as a female first name. Bruce is a surname that has had strong links with the island of Unst, what with Laurence Bruce building Muness Castle there. So as a surname it was quite prevalent. Some of the female Bruce’s I’ve come across went onto marry a Mr Bruce, ending up therefore as Bruce Bruce!

Muness Castle

Muness Castle, built by Laurence Bruce

I was curious to discover if these female forenames could be attributed to the Bruce surname.

The majority of the examples come with a daughter being named after her mother’s maiden surname. Not something seen that often as a surname doesn’t usually make an appropriate first name. I’ve seen a couple of other examples with Sinclair and Henderson being used as girl’s names.

The remaining examples have the first name Bruce being passed down the generations like any other first name, with a mother called Bruce, naming her daughter Bruce as well.

So ultimately, any Unst girl from these times (1700s and 1800s) named Bruce had some relation to the Bruce surname in her ancestors.

[Note on title, in case anyone isn’t aware, Sheila is an Australian slang term for a woman]

4 thoughts on “Bruce – is a Sheila?

  1. Henderson appears in my Unst family tree – Jemima, born 16 Feb., 1815 at Norwick. One of her sons was John Henderson Smith and another was Hercules! How often does the latter appear in Shetland families? Her grand-daughter, Euphemia Anderson Smith (my paternal grand-mother) named one of her sons, Henderson Boyd Brown – two family names as given names!

    He hated being called Henderson but settled for Boyd (no other options left). It was only after he died, aged 98, that I learned his first name.

    • I have two Hercules in my Unst tree. One is the Hercules Smith that you mention, and the other is his nephew by his sister Margaret, and is no doubt named after him. It is definitely an unusual name for the area. Perhaps in my future research I will discover its origin as I did for another unusual name for the area (see

      It seems to be a very common trait to use surnames as middle names, as a way of keeping the mother’s maiden name in use somewhere. This is not something that just happened 100 years ago either, it is still in practice, both my parents have surnames as their middle names. It is definitely unusual to see surnames as first names though, and I will try to write a future post about that.

      You and I must be distantly related 🙂 The aforementioned Hercules Johnson (the nephew) – his father is John Johnson – his mother is Janet Henderson Sinclair – her mother is Euphemia Anderson – her parents are Andrew Anthonyson and Dorothy Henderson who are my 5th great grandparents. Probably a long way out with in-laws and n time removed etc, but it’s there!

      That’s an interested story about Boyd, I ought to note that about him in my tree. Keep in touch.

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