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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Tracking Thomas Johnson

I can’t resist a puzzle, and when someone posted a question about an Unst ancestor in the Shetland Genealogy Facebook Group, I couldn’t resist taking a closer look. Their 4th Great-Grandparents were John Thomason and Barbara Jane Winwick who I had in the Unst Family Tree already, and they were trying to determine John’s parents. John died on 8 April 1847 which is before 1855 and thus part of the Old Parish Records which means that no parents of the deceased are recorded.

Obituary. Burials at Baliasta 1847
Died Buried
John Thomason, Watquoy 8 April 10 Apr at Baliasta

She had found a John Thomason born to parents Thomas Johnson and Ann Williamson, and wondered whether that John could be the same one.

Thomas Johnson from Unst, and Ann Williamson from Yell (the neighbouring island) were married in Unst on 29 November 1801. From the Old Parish Record of their marriage contract we also know that Thomas was from Clipragrath.

1801 Contracts of Marriage
Nov 29 Thomas Johnson, Clipragarth and Ann Williamson

Ann Williamson/Johnson can be found in the 1841 and 1851 census returns living with her daughter Mary. She is recorded as a widow in the 1851 census, and was likely a widow in 1841 as well, but that early census does not record such data. To double check this is the same Ann Williamson, I found her daughter Mary’s death record in Unst on 10 July 1877 which shows her parents to be Thomas Johnson and Ann Williamson. So we have the correct person here. Finding all the siblings seemed to be the right thing to follow.

Looking through the Unst Old Parish Baptism Records from 1800 until 1823 (starting just before they were married in case there was a first child out of wedlock) for all children born to a father of Thomas Johnson, yields the following list.

  • 1802 Oct 24 Thomas Johnson Cliprogarth a Son John
  • 1804 May 2 Thomas Johnson Cliprogarth a daughter Mary (this one is written on the end of the list of 1804, after all the December entries, it could be an infant who died young, or a recording error.)
  • 1805 May 10 Thomas Johnson Cliprogarth a daughter Mary
  • 1808 July 15 Thomas Johnson Cliprogarth a daughter Jean Barbara
  • 1808 July 15 Thomas Johnson Cliprogarth a daughter Elizabeth
  • 1814 Feb 17 Thomas Johnson Cliprogarth a daughter Margaret
  • 1818 Aug 23 Thomas Johnston Gardie a Son WIlliam born 20 Aug
  • 1819 Nov 1 Thomas Johnson Midyell a daughter Ann
  • 1820 May 14 Thomas Johnson Haroldswick a Son Thomas born 7 May
  • 1822 Sep 1 Thomas Johnston Skaw a Son John born 11 Aug

Clearly these are not all the same father, however, the first five children (with Mary recorded twice) all born to a Thomas Johnson of Cliprogarth look very likely to be siblings.

To double-check sibling-ship, we need to find the death records for those who died after 1855.

  • Mary Thomason we found already, died in Unst on 10 July 1877. Her death record confirms both parents.
  • Elizabeth Thomason died in Unst on 17 May 1899. Her death record confirms both parents.
  • Jean Thomason is living with her twin sister in the 1861 census, and the relationship recorded confirms her as Elizabeth’s sister.
  • Margaret Thomson died in Unst on 18 December 1884. Her death record confirms both parents.

Confirmation of the parentage of all the sisters, who died after 1855, and the high likelihood that all the children born to Thomas Johnson of Cliprogarth are siblings, leaves me in no doubt that John Thomason was the son of Thomas Johnson and Ann Williamson as well.

Finally we must ask, could there be any other John Thomason born around the same time who is the man married to Barbara Jane Winwick? All we really know of John is from the 1841 census return where his age (which will have been rounded up) is given as 40.

Looking through the Unst Old Parish Baptism Records from 1795 until 1805 for all children called John, yielded a list of 46 Johns. It is unknown when looking at such entries, what surname the child will use in future records, as patronymic surnames were still very much in use at this time and the OPR entry only records the child’s given name (regardless of how some genealogy websites choose to transcribe it!). Considering both surname forms, we end up with the following list of John’s to follow-up on.

OPR Baptism Entry Patronymic Name Name
1798 June 17 George Thomson Gunister, a twin Son John John Georgeson John Thomson
1798 Sep 9 Thomas Miller, Skreveld, a Son John John Thomason John Miller
1802 Oct 24 Thomas Johnson Cliprogarth a Son John John Thomason John Johnson
1804 Mar 10 Laurence Thomson Setter a Son John John Laurenson John Thomson
1804 July 8 Thomas Harrison & Ursula Williamson a Son John John Thomason John Harrison
1804 Dec 14 Thomas Anderson Cliff a Son John John Thomason John Anderson

Here’s what we know about the above John’s.

  • John Thom[p]son, son of George Thom[p]son, lived and died in Bighton and married Ann Spence Trail. He is not the John we are looking for.
  • John Miller, son of Thomas Miller, lived and died in Petister and married Catherine Thomson. He is not the John we are looking for.
  • John Thomson, son of Laurence Thomson, married Margaret Mathewson. He is not the John we are looking for.
  • John Harrison, son of Thomas Harrison & Ursula Williamson, was a mariner, lived outside of Shetland, and married Margaret and Sarah. He is not the John we are looking for.
  • I don’t know anything about John son of Thomas Anderson, but the other children born to Thomas Anderson of Cliff used the surname Anderson, so I don’t believe he is the John we are looking for.

Through a process of elimination, we can therefore confidently say that John Thomason, son of Thomas Johnson of Cliprogarth, is the same man that married Barbara Jane Winwick. There is no other man it could be.

John Thomason and Siblings

John Thomason and Siblings with their spouses

Family History Month at my local Library

Family History MonthAugust is Family History month at my local library. After giving a presentation to my local genealogy group, a couple of the ladies there volunteered me to repeat the presentation during the Family History month event at the library. Today was the day that I gave the presentation.

I extended it a little from the first run, making it into three distinct sections.

Tauranga Library Speakers SeriesIt was a pleasantly informal event, with the projector and screen set up in the middle of the library in an area that is usually a small conversation area with some comfortable chairs (see photo below). There were a few questions at the end, and everyone seemed genuinely interested. One lady brought me a present of a Shetland dialect story book, “Da Peesterleeties an da Curse o da Njuggle” by Valerie Watt which was a lovely gesture.

Tauranga Library Presentation Area

A photo from another event showing where I was presenting in among the books
Photo courtesy of ARTbop

Time Machine?

Here’s an odd entry that I found recently in the Unst Old Parish Records for Births and Baptisms. It seems that Thursday September 13th 1832 was a busy day for Baptisms. Including one baptism that took place the day before the child’s birth!

1832
Births
1832
Baptisms
Baptisms 1832
Aug 29 Sept 13 Ross Sutherland, Mail’d a Daur Joanna
" " " " John Nisbet, Garden a Daur Joann Mary
Sept 4 " " Andrew Smith, Garrig’t a Son John
" " " " James Ramsay, Gardie a Son Henry
Sept 14 " " George Jameson, Squarefield a Daur Jane

Check the dates!

Once the statutory records started in 1855, it became much easier to correctly identify people because you have both parents names recorded on a birth record. In the Old Parish Records you have no such luxury as all you have is the father’s name.

Well, that’s not entirely true, you have the father’s name, and where he lives. This does actually help hugely when trying to separate out people born to the same father and those who are a different man.

I’ve recently been following William Gilbert Jameson (to try to figure a natty problem with a death record) and to find all his children required looking through the Old Parish Records for Baptisms. Here’s what I found:-

  • 1791 Sep 19 Willm Gilbt Jameson, Hagdale a daughter bapd Catherine
  • 1794 May 14 Willm Gilbt Jameson, Hagdale a daughter Margery
  • 1796 Apr 9 Willm Gilbt Jameson, Hagdale a Son James bapd
  • 1798 Jun 30 Willm Gilbt Jameson, Hagdale a daughter Janet bapd
  • 1798 Sep 23 William Gilbt Jameson, Gew, a Son Andrew bapd
  • 1800 May 26 Willm Gilbt Jameson, Hagdale a Son William bapd
  • 1802 Sep 16 Willm Gilbt Jameson, Hagdale a daughter Isabella
  • 1804 Jul 26 Willm Gilbert Jameson, Hagdale a Son Gilbert
  • 1807 Jun 25 William Gilbert Jameson, Hagdale a Son Thomas

There’s one thing that immediately stands out from this list for me. All except one has William Gilbert Jameson living in Hagdale. The other lives in Gew. For me this is enough proof that there is a second William Gilbert Jameson and these are not all children of the same man. In case you’re not completely convinced though, you should also take into account the birth dates of daughter Janet and son Andrew. Both were born in 1798 and with not enough of a gap between them to be from the same woman.

The problem that will catch many people out, is that the on-line records at places like Ancestry or Family Search only show the place as “Unst, Shetland”, and don’t include the detail of the house name which is what helps hugely in spotting this kind of problem. It’s always worth looking at the actual records to see ALL the information.

Of course, I suppose it could be the same man and two different women!