On names as an echo of a long-distant past

That our names are central to our sense of identity is clear – just ask anyone whose name is regularly mis-spelt or mis-pronounced. For many of us, our names were chosen to honour ancestors or other family members, and so a link to the past and to our kin becomes a element of our selves whether we like it or not.

One of the things I’ve learned doing family history is that in Scotland, at least until the twentieth century, there existed a formalised pattern of naming children after relatives.

Judy Strachan at Judy’s Family History  has explained this clearly here, but essentially it meant that first sons were named after their paternal grandfather, first daughters after their maternal grandmother, second sons – maternal grandfather, second daughters, paternal grandmother. Third children were named after their parents, and after that it seemed to be a bit more of a free for all with the other names that floated around in the family.

Children were only given middle names when the person they were named after had a different surname to theirs, in which case they usually got the person they were named after’s surname. This avoided people being given the same middle name as their surname or parents having to make something up.

Of course, not everyone followed the pattern, and high infant mortality rates meant that sometimes names one might expect to find a family are missing – or alternatively, there are two children in a family who have been given the same name after the first died.

I have “discovered” dead children by examining the birth order of great, great aunts and uncles and noticing that one was “missing” (On Chasing Ghosts). My feelings about these discoveries are always mixed; it’s difficult to enjoy the success of clever detective work when the result is a small child whose life ended only weeks or a few years after it began.

As a cultural practice, the naming pattern seems to have largely died out – although even in my generation there are vestiges of it.

And like many cultural practices, this one is both a gift and a curse for genealogists and family historians. On one hand it helps verify the likelihood that a person one is researching belongs to a particular family – on the other it can do the exact opposite as multiple cousins can often share the same name – because they share the same grandparent.

My great uncle, Stewart Cruden. Studio portrait c. 1915

My great uncle, Stewart Cameron Cruden. Studio portrait c. 1915. Son of Alexander Cruden, grandson of Stewart Cameron Cruden, great grandson of another Alexander Cruden.

In my family, I have found some branches adhered quite rigidly to the naming pattern over many generations. My Cruden family for example, contains a veritable muddle of Stewarts and Alexanders.

Susan Forbes Nicholson Elder. Kirkcaldy High Street. circa 1940s.

Susan Forbes Nicholson Elder. Kirkcaldy High Street. circa 1940s.

Similarly, my first name – Susan – appears four times (that I’ve been able to trace so far) in alternative generations of grandmothers – back to my 4x great grandmother, Susanna Fowls who was born in 1786.

My mother, as the fourth daughter in her family was named after a great, great grandfather’s third wife, while my father – whose older brother was named after his father and paternal grandfather – seems to have had his first name chosen from outside the family (after a popular film star of the time perhaps?) He does however, have two middle names – one from each side of his family.

In my generation, I’m named for my paternal grandmother, while each of my brothers was given a first name my parents liked and a family-related middle name.

My only child was born before my obsession with family history, but even back then, I knew I wanted his name to locate him within both sides of the family. We agreed he’d have his father’s surname and that we wouldn’t lumber him with a name we didn’t like just for “family” reasons, but the boy-child has ended up with both first and middle names that have a very long pedigree in virtually every branch of my family.

My recent research into my Elder family has thrown up a very long and virtually unbroken line of Thomas Elders – stretching back to the early years of the eighteenth century (and almost certainly beyond that).

This is the farthest back I’ve traced any part of my family, and while I’ve come to a dead-end with the Elders, I have managed to trace the earliest Thomas’s wife back another generation – ironically to another Thomas.

Marriage record, Thomas Thomson and Cecil Sibbald, 17 May 1694 in the parish of Kennoway, Fife. Source: Scotland's People.

Marriage record, Thomas Thomson and Cecil Sibbald, 17 May 1694 in the parish of Kennoway, Fife. Source: Scotland’s People.

Thomas Thomson and Cecil Sibbald – my 7x great grandparents – were married on 13 May 1694, in Kennoway, Fife. To put that in perspective; in 1694 Scotland was still a sovereign nation – albeit one that shared a monarch with England. It wasn’t until 1707 that the Acts of Union were passed, combining Scotland and England (and Wales) into an entity called Great Britain. This was later changed to ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’ – or the UK as we now call it.

This year of course Scotland is having a referendum on whether to leave the UK. If this is successful, my son’s Scottish cousins may be the first generation of the family to marry within an independent Scotland since their 8x great grandparents 320 years ago.

Our names are central to our identity. The Scottish practice of naming children for family members means that for many of us, part of our identity is our place in a long history of men and women who lived, worked, raised children, laughed, sang, told stories, and dreamed of a brighter future for their kids.

But it’s not just our personal names that identify us. The name of our homeland can also be an important statement about who we are. I grew up calling myself “Scottish” even though – or perhaps because – I lived half a world away. I am a New Zealand citizen these days, but I think of myself as “British” or “Scottish” – pretty much interchangeably – rather than “Kiwi.” I’m too far away from the debate to know what the feeling is amongst Scots in Scotland. Will the majority choose to re-name themselves in a political sense – or continue to call themselves “Brits.”

Come the 18th September, I guess we’ll know.

This post was written for the Daily Post Weekly Writing Challenge.

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