Tuesday, 29 May 2012

What's In A Name?

I wanted to write a follow-up to my previous post about names. The reason for this additional post is that names are so important when researching your family tree that they merit discussing in more detail. 

Your ancestors' names will be found on any vital records, and this is what allows us to further our research using other resources. There are several difficulties that can arise when researching using names, any one of which can bring your research to a stop, or send you in the wrong direction. Some dangers to be aware of include:-

  • It is much harder to research a common name than an uncommon one. If your ancestor had a name such as John Smith then you will need other pieces of information in order to narrow down your search. A year and place of birth is a good place to start.
  • Spellings can vary between vital records. Many search engines on genealogy websites have a wild card function to allow you to check different spellings of a name.
  • Names will often be shortened on census returns. An ancestor you know as William could be listed as Will, Bill or Billy, and a name such as Elizabeth has many different variations.
  • Prior to the nineteenth century a woman would not necessarily take the name of her husband when married.
  • When a child died the parents would often give a subsequent child the same name.
  • If your ancestors were from the Scottish Highlands be wary of the fact that as usage of the Gaelic language declined some Gaelic families Anglicized their names.
As mentioned in my previous post, the Gaelic prefix 'Mac' means 'son of.' It is also sometimes written as 'Mc.' Therefore if your surname is 'MacDonald,' for example, then at some point in your family history an ancestor named Donald had a son, starting the name. This would have occurred many centuries in the past, most likely outside the scope of your genealogical research.

Perhaps a more useful naming pattern to be aware of is the Scottish tradition of naming an eldest son after the paternal grandfather. The second son was then named after the maternal grandfather. A third son would then be named after the father. The eldest daughter would be named after the maternal grandmother, the second daughter after the paternal grandmother, and the third daughter after the mother.

These rules were often followed quite strictly, and I have personally found this to be the case. Since families historically were often large, it is possible to discover the names of grandparents if you have the names of the grandchildren. There is no guarantee that these rules will have been followed, so names always have to be verified, but this naming pattern can provide important clues to past generations.

The names of our ancestors gives us a fascinating insight into our history. I love finding ancestors whose names are unusual in modern times. Jamesina and Brownlow stand out. On the other hand, I also like the fact that I have five generations of ancestors called George Cruickshank. It shows a very definite link stretching back for almost two hundred years.

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