Most of the following is paraphrased from the introduction to Personal Names in Scotland (Edinburgh: GROS, 1991)

There have been five surveys to date, conducted by the Registrar General Scotland, into Personal Names in Scotland. The introduction to the current 1991 survey, outlines the historical background.

  • The first was published in the Registrar Generals Annual Report for the year 1860, under the title Nomenclature in Scotland, and surveyed the surnames appearing in the general indexes of births,deaths and marriages for 1855,1856 and 1858.
  • The second, published in the Annual Report for 1937, covered the 1935 indexes.
  • The third, in the 1962 Annual Report, used the 1958 indexes.
  • The fourth, in the 1978 Annual Report, utilised the 1976 indexes.
  • The fifth was published in 1990, separately, under the title 'Personal Names in Scotland'. It surveyed the 1990 indices.
  • A cumulation was published in 2003 Surnames in Scotland over the last 140 years. It reports that just over 1 in 8 surnames begin in Mc/Mac.
  • Similar surveys for popular forenames are now published regularly.

Notes:

  • The 1858, 1935 and 1958 surveys combined alternative forms of "Mc" and "Mac", and other forms e.g. "Johnston" and "Johnstone".
  • None of the surveys can differentiate between a name with a capital letter in the middle of a name, and one without e.g. "MacDonald" vs "Macdonald."

Main findings of surveys:

The 1858 report commented on the low proportion of different surnames in Scotland compared with England. Scotland had 15.2 persons for every surname; England 8.4 persons to every surname. Part of this was assumed to be due to the clan system of surnames. The report commented on "a striking peculiarity of the inhabitants of Scotland that, both among the Celtic race in the Highlands and the Lowland races on the border, it was the custom for all to assume as their surname the name held by the head of a family, either because they were actually his descendants, or because they were his vassals and property." But the 15.2 figure will be too high, as the 1858 survey combined different spellings of similar surnames into one generic name. "Mac", "Mc" and "M" were all treated as being "Mac".

The 1935 survey similarly combined forms, and found 11,976 surnames. (In actuality there would have been 14,666 without combining.)

The 1990 report discovered 19,108 surnames, resulting in a rate of 10.3 persons per surname. This 'increase' is not just due to the changing methodology, but also to the decline of clan naming, and also in-migration. The immigration began in 1820 and reached its peak in the 1840s due to the demand for railway labourers. The 1858 survey commented "in addition to to bringing over about 1,000 surnames which are common to Scotland and Ireland, they have added to the Scottish surnames nearly a thousand which till that period were peculiar to Ireland". Nonetheless, the 1858 survey concluded that 32 out of the top 50 names were deemed to both have originated in, and to be peculiar to Scotland. The remainder being equally common to England. None of the top 50, in 1858, was typically Irish. By 1935, the leading Irish name in the list was Kelly (at 47), with Docherty, Murphy and Gallacher in the next 50. By 1958, McLauglin and Boyle had been added to this list.

[Irish names in Scotland in 1881 - a possible area of research?]

A current list of the current leading 100 surnames in Scotland can be found at the General Register Office for Scotland (GROS) web site

The following table lists the top 50 surnames in Scotland, as ranked in the 5 previous surveys

Rank Name Occurrences Rank in 1976 Rank in 1958 Rank in 1935 Rank in 1858
1 Smith 2,562 1 1 1 1
2 Brown 1,876 2 2 3 3
3 Wilson 1,654 3 5 4 8
4 Stewart 1,535 7 6 8 6
5 Thomson 1,518 5 4 5 5
6 Campbell 1,456 4 7 7 7
7 Robertson 1,443 6 8 6 4
8 Anderson 1,414 8 9 9 9
9 Scott 1,097 9 13 11 12
10 MacDonald 1,051 10 3 2 2
11 Murray 1,019 12 12 14 19
12 Reid 995 11 14 13 15
13 Taylor 963 14 18 22 26
14 Clark 903 13 15 16 22
15 Young 834 19 21 25 23
16 Ross 829 15 22 18 16
17 Watson 815 17 25 23 28
18 Morrison 812 18 26 27 31
19 Mitchell 808 16 24 20 27
20 Walker 799 26 23 28 30
21 Paterson 777 22 17 17 17
22 Fraser 726 21 28 24 18
23 Kerr 722 35 35 37 41
24 Miller 703 20 11 12 14
25 Duncan 694 34 33 33 34
26 Hamilton 693 28 34 34 35
27 Cameron 692 30 31 30 21
28 Gray 685 27 30 29 33
29 Johnston 685 31 10 10 13
30 Graham 679 33 32 35 39
31 Davidson 674 25 37 36 32
32 McDonald 670 23 - - -
33 Henderson 666 24 29 32 24
34 Martin 664 36 40 44 45
35 Grant 648 39 44 42 36
36 Bell 623 37 45 41 43
37 Hunter 618 32 36 43 37
38 Ferguson 610 29 38 31 29
39 Kelly 607 40 42 47 -
40 Simpson 595 38 39 40 44
41 Allan 561 41 43 38 40
42 Black 561 43 46 45 46
43 Mclean 556 46 - - -
44 Macleod 544 44 27 26 25
45 Mackenzie 543 42 16 15 11
46 Wallace 507 49 47 52 -
47 Mackay 506 45 19 19 10
48 Marshall 502 48 49 56 -
49 Gibson 496 50 65 50 50
50 Russell 473 47 48 49 -