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:-

31 Days of Family History Fitness – Week 3

I only came across the blog post 31 Days of Family History Fitness at the very end of January so I decided to do it in February instead. I’ll update you with my progress on a weekly basis.

Day 17: Make a timeline for one of your ancestors. Be sure to include major life events (birth, baptism, marriage, birth of children, death, burial, etc.) as well as information that’s come from year-specific directories and federal or state censuses. Visually mapping your ancestor’s life will help you identify gaps in your research as well as aid you in evaluating new information you might discover.

Since I’ve just started to use TNG (privately for now) to look at my Unst tree, it produces a timeline for each person. Here’s one for the person I’d like to interview (see Day 18).

John Hughson b.1837 Timeline

Timeline for my Great great grandfather, John Hughson

I also have him located on all the census returns from 1841 through 1901, and his occupation recorded from various marriage records of his children which is not shown on this timeline that TNG produces (perhaps I can update it a bit once I learn more about how to modify TNG).

Day 18: Identify a relative (living or dead) who you’d like to interview about your family’s history, and prepare a handful of questions you’d like to ask. You can use our list of interview questions as a starting point.
Auld Erne John Hughson

My Great great grandfather, the sea eagle ‘Auld Erne’, John Hughson

The relative I’d like to interview is my great great grandfather ‘Auld Erne’ (the sea eagle) John Hughson, who lived in Colvadale and was skipper of a sixereen.

  1. What was it like living in Colvadale?
  2. How does everyone fit into such small croft houses?
  3. Did you go to school?
  4. How did you meet your wife, Jemima?
  5. Tell me about your wedding day.
  6. Do you get tired of eating potatoes and kale?
  7. Is it scary fishing the far haaf in a storm?
Day 19: Set up a time to interview a relative, and use your questions from yesterday’s prompt. You never know what kind of family history information even a distant family member might have!

Since I chose a relative that is no longer alive, I’m skipping this one.

Day 20: Download the Surname Variants Chart worksheet from and record all the variations you can think of for three surnames you’re currently working on. Do any previously unconsidered spellings pop up? Revisit online databases and search for any variants you haven’t tried before.

There are quite a number of varied spellings for surnames that I have come across in my tree. Some are fairly repetitive and predictable, like, Johnston vs Johnson, and Jamieson vs Jameson, but some are a bit more interesting.

Surname Cluness Matthewson Thomson
Variations Clunass, Clunes Matheson, Mathewson, Mathieson Thomason, Thompson
Day 21: Find an ancestor in a federal census record and examine the other names on that ancestor’s census return page and on the page before and after it. Do you see any familiar names? Relatives often lived close together, and your ancestor may have been friends with (or even eventually married) a neighbor from down the street.

Since I’m doing a family tree for the whole area of Unst, I do this as a matter of course. You do find people recorded on census with their neighbours, or siblings, and so on.

Day 22: Preserve your own information for future genealogists. Write down the major events from your lifetime (your birth, graduation(s), marriage(s), major moves, military service, etc.) and store them in a safe place. Your descendants will be glad that you did!

My birth and marriage were already in the tree, but I’ve now added schooling, university graduation, the two main “Starting Work” events, and my emigration to New Zealand.

Day 23: Learn the basics of your immigrant ancestor’s language. You can consult word lists like the ones curated by FamilySearch. Focus on the names of family members (father, mother, child, brother, sister, son, daughter, etc.) and words likely to be used in records (birth/born, bride/groom, marriage/married, death/died, buried, etc.).

Shetland DictionaryMy own ancestry, and that of the island I am studying, all comes from Unst in Shetland. I was brought up speaking the Shetland dialect, which does vary from place to place in Shetland.

There is also a Shetland Dictionary, both in book form (I have one in the bookcase) and more recently online.

Day 24: Organize your desk. Clean, structured workplaces will help you be at your best and prevent you from distractions. Also be sure to organize your computer desktop or the apps on your tablet or smartphone.

My desk isn’t too bad at the moment. There are definitely times when it has been a lot worse (Ahem!)

Facebook post when I re-found a book from my sister

My sister tried to help me de-clutter

Here’s a before and after picture.

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]

First names no longer in common use

When working with genealogical records for people who lived 100+ years ago, you get to see first names that are not now in common use. Many of the names rarely seen now are female versions of other male names. The table shows a selection, all of which are formed by adding “ina” to the male name.

Male form Female form Derivative
Andrew Anderina
Jacob Jacobina Jessie, Jemima
Hugh Hughina
Laurence Laurina
Robert Robina
Thomas Thomasina Tamar
William Williamina Willa or Mina

One of those names, Thomasina, has an oft used derivative, Tamar, which definitely confused some of the census transcribers. It’s a girls name, and yet frequently I have seen people with this name, listed in census returns as the daughter or wife of the head of the house, transcribed as James. Looking at the way the letters are written in examples of the old hand-writing it is almost forgivable, the “T” does look like a “J” in old script writing, then you have “am”, easy to assume it is “James”.

Example text - Tamar

Example old hand-writing showing how Tamar could look like James

Mind you, the gender of the person ought to have made the transcriber double check, and also, in this case, six lines above there is a real “James” in the same handwriting. Perhaps we can forgive them however, as names are not always used the way we expect them to be, for example, would you expect ‘Bruce’ to be a female name?

Example text - James

To compare to the text saying Tamar, from the same page, here is text that says James

I’ve seen it so often now, that whenever I see “James” I will double check the gender, and if it’s female, smile to myself and think, “that’ll be another Tamar then”.