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]

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Tracking unusual middle names

When working on a family tree for an area, you soon become familiar with the names in use, and then it becomes very obvious when a name is used that looks out of place. It is highly unlikely that this name has just been made up, and 100 years ago they didn’t have the same level of media reporting to provide endless supplies of odd sounding names from celebrities, so it must have come from someone living locally. Finding the source of this name can tell you some more about the people in question, albeit sometimes less tangible things, but aren’t those the most interesting things to learn?

Search for Oliver D

The drop down box on the Ancestry Website when searching my tree for Oliver D

Of course, sometimes it can tell you very tangible things, as in this example. The birth record for a child born in 1905, who I’d known as Oliver D Peterson from the census returns, showed me his full name was Oliver Dryer Peterson. Oliver in itself was not a common name on the island of Unst, and Dryer even less so. However, searching for his name in my online tree in order to attach the birth record to it, I noticed there were two other Oliver Dryers; there had to be a connection.

Uyeasound Free Church

Uyeasound Free Church, Unst, where Oliver Dryer was minister in 1911
Photo Source: Shetland Museum

The other two were father and son, and the father was the minister of the local church in Uyeasound, according to the 1911 census. In 1901 however, he was in Lanarkshire at a different church. Naming your son after the local minister certainly did happen especially by a church going family, as we can perhaps now assume this family were (although since many were, this intangible information is perhaps not all that interesting). Choosing an unrelated name was especially true when you’ve already had enough children to have used up the usual naming “rules” of using the grandparents names. This was certainly the case here as Oliver Peterson was the 12th child of 13. Now, here’s where it gets tangible; what it also tells us is that the minister, Oliver Dryer, must have moved to Unst before Oliver Peterson was born in 1905, or the family could not have known that name to copy.

So, it’s always worth following up even the smallest details, as you never know where it may lead. I find these connections between otherwise unrelated people quite fascinating, so I hope to write a few more posts on these sorts of things.