Patronymic Surnames

In modern times in Scotland (and many other countries) the way surnames are assigned is well known to us. As a child you get the same surname as one or both of your parents. This has been the case since around the same time as the Statutory Records began in 1855. In Scotland, a Statutory Birth record provides both the parents names and the child’s full name so there is no doubt the name the child has been given.

The prior records, kept before 1855, are nowhere near as verbose. These Old Parish Baptism Records record the father’s full name and address and the child’s first name. Here’s an example.

Baptisms 1802
Oct 24 Thomas Johnson, Cliprogarth a Son John

You might be thinking, well, that’s not a problem, the child’s full name is easy to extrapolate from the father’s surname. Clearly the child is called John Johnson. You would not be alone in thinking that since that is how the various online indexes would interpret this record too. However, this is where the practice of using patronymic surnames comes in and confuses the issue.

Patronymic Surname

A patronymic is where the child does not inherit the surname of their parent but instead gains a surname based on the father’s first name. In the example above, if the child had a patronymic they would be known as John Thomason, that is John son of Thomas.

This is a pattern that I believe was inherited from the Norse people who settled Shetland. Going back far enough in the records I am studying you do also come across the female form of this pattern, for example Joanna Williamdottir, that is Joanna daughter of William. There are not many examples of these and it seems that by 1800 the girls were following the male pattern, so Joanna would be Williamson just like her brothers.

So how do you know which surname pattern is in use in this time period prior to the start of Statutory Records? The answer is you can’t tell from just one record. You simply have to remember to bear it in mind when searching for records about a person. Some people used them and some did not.

For further reading, the Icelandic scheme still in use today is similar to how it was in Shetland in the early 19th century.

I’ve written a few blog posts where patronymic surnames have played a part in the research:-

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3 thoughts on “Patronymic Surnames

  1. I agree. When we reach an area of the country or world that we haven’t done research in before, we should make ourselves familiar with the various customs that could affect the lives of our ancestors and the record keeping that would come with it. Not much of my ancestry would deal with patronymics but in some cases would change from generation to generation based on where they lived or what their occupation was.

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