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CLAN NAMES AND ALIASES ---by Sheila McGregor
This is not a finished article on the topic, which might need a
book-sized space, but a note along the way. A family history
researcher in the West of Scotland came across an unexpected
link to Clan Gregor through one of the 'Grahams' of Glengyle. He
wrote: 'In OPR 500/1 M there is a Mary McGregor who was using
the alias "Graham" which I note is not listed as an alias by the
Society.' The attempt to reply to this query led to a new look at
the clan concept, both as it was and as it is now perceived b y
Clan Societies.
Aliases chosen by MacGregors from outwith Clan Gregor, ie,
represented by another chief or substantial family: BALFOUR,
Names used within Clan Gregor and also used by other clans or
families: McALASTAIR, McDONALD, McDOUGAL (Dougalson),
McEWAN, McIAN (Johnson, Johnston), McNEIL (Neilson, Nelson),

The use of enforced aliases is thought to be peculiar to Clan
Gregor (and perhaps also to the MacFarlanes, whose name was
also proscribed). An alias may be defined as one of a distinct
group of 'respectable' names, otherwise foreign to Clan Gregor,
whic h was used under legal pressure after 1603 by a MacGregor
who was banned by Act of Parliament from transacting legal
business (which was sometimes extended to marrying and being
buried) under his own name. Some of these aliases were of very
temporary us age; others remained with the families down to the
present day. The factors involved seem to be mainly
geographical. Movement into Lowland Scotland seems to have
confirmed the use of the alias whereas emigration to North
America seems to have allowed t he resumption of MacGregor as
a surname, at least in some cases. It is very difficult to know how
many Grahams and Campbells by name are in fact descended
from Clan Gregor.
The list of 'Names and Septs of Clan Gregor as Recognised by the
Clan Gregor Society' which appears on the back cover of the CGS
Newsletter is mainly that compiled by Sheila McGregor in 1984, as
a guideline to those recruiting for the Society, both in Sc otland
and overseas. The Society's rules on eligibility for membership,
before that date, had focussed on the use of the surname
'MacGregor' to the exclusion of other recognised names, though
Grierson and Gregory were admitted. The much expanded list o f
acceptable names was intended to redress the balance in favour
of other 'names and septs' since many individuals with a clear
family tradition of belonging to Clan Gregor were otherwise
unable to become members of the Clan Society. Given that this is
a purely social body with a passing interest in a historical entity
now to all intents and purposes a dead-letter, it was felt wise to
include them if only to widen our knowledge of these 'lost'
members of the Clan.
However, eligibility for membership of the Clan Society is by no
means the same as descent from a member of Clan Gregor. Apart
from the fact that the list compiled for the Clan Society was
incomplete as soon as first printed, since new names are
continually being put forward, the aliases as such have been
deliberately omitted. These include many surnames of prominent
families, most of whom are clans with chiefs in their own right:
such names such as Buchanan, Campbell, Drummond, Gordon,
Graham, Livingston, Murray, Ramsay, Robertson, Sinclair,
Stewart, and Stirling, were all popular MacGregor aliases.
The reason for their omission from a list of Clan Gregor names is
fairly fundamental to the modern idea of a clan as a body of
people who followed the same chief. To assume the name of a
chief is to choose to follow him, and to reject the former chief a s
a leader. In the case of a Graham, he or she ought to be referred
to the Clan Graham Society, since that is where the allegiance of
their ancestor turned, and remained, unless the name was again
discarded in favour of McGregor at a later date. This p oint
underlies the serious objections to Sir John Murray (and to his son
Sir Evan) as chiefs of Clan Gregor; Sir John could not be chief of
the Clan since he used the name Murray to his dying day, as a
deliberate choice, out of loyalty and affection for the Duke of
Atholl. A Murray, whatever his pedigree and standing, cannot be
chief of Clan Gregor. Sir John was often asked to change his
name to MacGregor (eg by Lieut Alexander of Rannoch) but
refused. It follows that he put his allegiance to the Duke of Atholl
above his responsibility to those who voted for him as chief of
Clan Gregor in 1787, when he was a much younger man, and that
his son Evan's claim to succeed to the chiefship in 1822 is on very
uncertain ground. Sir Evan continued to use the name Murray as
his sole surname and was still 'Baronet Murray' as late as 1825
(Kilmadock Parish Register).
It was something more than simple courtesy to adopt the name of
your landlord or feudal superior or the colonel of your Army
regiment. Your colonel was generally also your chief (not, as it
happens, in the case of James Mor and the Duke of Perth!) and t o
use his name indicates that you related to him as a clan member
related to his chief, with all the mutual obligations that that
entailed. The adoption of the name of the superior seems to have
been more observed in more feudal areas such as Aberdeens
hire, and less observed in others such as Perthshire, though a few
'tribal Campbells' may be detected around Lochtayside in the late
eighteenth century. It is obvious however that an adopted
surname is of no significance in terms of family history, part
icularly in the case of Clan Gregor, where many people were
forced to choose an alias for legal purposes and not out of any
feeling of loyalty to another chief or family.
Moreover any opportunity which affords of actually studying a list
of such people (such as the Muster Rolls of the Clan Regiments in
1745) will quickly dispel any notion that the body of people
following the clan chiefs on that occasion all used the same
surname. The Muster Lists in question show that by 1745 the close
link between the clan, its chief and his regiment was weakening.
Although the officers and a sprinkling of other ranks generally
share the name of the Colonel, even the Frasers and the
MacKenzies have a wide variety of names among their followers.
By then, one can say, the concept of a clan linked by blood and
by name, fighting as required under their chief as war-leader, was
almost a dead letter, if, indeed, this had ever been the ca se.
There is a second source of confusion. In addition to these major
aliases, adopted quite deliberately after c.1600, other names were
used, quite legitimately, in Clan Gregor which can be identified
as Gregorian and distinguished from other clans only by
painstaking genealogical research can resolve. For example,
McDougal was the family name of the McGregors of Balloch.
Many descendants are probably members of the Clan McDougal
Society, and may wonder, if they have done any work on it, why
their lines persistently fail to leave Highland Perthshire. The
Tossachs or McIntoshes of Glentilt and other parts of Perthshire
are descendants of McGregor tossachs, quite unrelated to the
McIntoshes of Clan Chattan. Other names which are shared by
other clans a re McInnes, McAlastair, McNeil, and McEwan. It is
something of a coincidence that what one might call the 'internal'
names of Clan Gregor, derived from sub-families within Clan
Gregor, such as McDougall and McEwen, have come to be used
as their personal surnames by chiefs of other clans, but their use
by McGregors is original and not as an alias. It is proper to list
them as among the 'Names of Clan Gregor'. Nevertheless, to list
them as 'names and septs' of Clan Gregor leads to confusion,
since by n o means all McEwens or McDougalls belonged to Clan
Gregor. It may also happen that several names claimed with
some confidence as McGregor names (perhaps Black, White and
Roy) were also used by members of other large clans as personal
or family names, an d it is often difficult or impossible to
distinguish MacGregor usage from other usage. This is a potent
source of confusion and conflict between clan societies, which
can only be resolved by investigation of the individual case. Lists
are simplistic an d cause almost more problems than they resolve.
The unusual also occurs. One Glasgow gentleman in good faith
joined the Clan MacNeil, since that had been his family surname
for many generations. Again, he was puzzled to find a consistent
line leading to Highland Perthshire and, after many years, dis
covered that his name had become McNeil (McNiel) only when
some clerk had added a great terminal flourish to the name
McNie. This had affected only one branch of his family, in a
particular parish, while collaterals in other parishes continued as
McNie or McNee.
There are many grey areas in this subject. Some of the names
listed, though not those of major clans, are nevertheless the
names of landed families, such as Callander, Comrie, Livingston
and Stirling, and the link with Clan Gregor may be rather more
sub tle than the simple adoption of Stewart or Campbell as an
alias. Generally with the less obvious names, there was a family
REASONS FOR THE CHANGE Most people attribute the different
names adopted by MacGregors to Proscription, which began
shortly after 1600. The ban on the use of Gregor or McGregor for
legal purposes continued with one short break up to 1775. It was
operated with more enthusiasm in some districts than in others,
but throughout this lengthy period, when surnames were coming
into regular use, it was strictly against the law to use the name
'MacGregor' in any legal context, which covers registration of
marriages and births, and te staments.
At this period, the names of other major Perthshire clans and
landowning families were pressed into service. However it was
not at all the case that before 1600 every McGregor in the
Highlands used the surname McGregor. Most did not use
surnames at all (and McGregor would have been of little value as
a distinguishing name, since everyone had it). The earliest use of
the surname appears to be in June 1651, when 'Calum McGregor
and Ewin McGregor' are listed, but lists of outlawed McGregors at
this date still depend on old-style names. One may say, however,
that McGregor came into limited use from c.1650 onwards as a
surname. By c.1665 almost all lists of outlaws are named as
'McGregors' and identified by their location, ie they were 'in a
place' as a tenant, or with some other qualification but
patromymics have become rare in public records (II, 166-167). As
well as showing change of usage, this also shows a resistance on
the part of McGregors to use of aliases, or perhaps it shows the
problems of identifying anyone under a whole-sale assumption of
different surnames. The practical confusion can hardly be
However, before then in records and for much longer in local
usage, the normal way of identifying individuals within the Clan
was by a string of patronymics and 'small names' which went on
until there was no possibility of confusion, and then often added a
few more generations for the sake of absolute clarity. For
example, there might be a old farmer Alastair, with two sons Neil
and John, who would be known as Neil McAlastair and Ian
McAlastair. Each has a son Alastair, so living at the same address
a re two cousins called Alastair, one the son of Neil and the other
the son of his brother John. These two Alastairs would need to be
distinguished in common speech, and might be known as Alastair
beg and Alastair dow, little Alastair and dark Alastair, a nd their
complete titles would be Alastair beg McNeil VcAlastair and
Alastair dow McIan VcAlastair. Each of the cousins now has a son
called John, so we have John McAlastair beg VcNeil VcAlastair
and John McAlaster dow VcIan VcAlastair. In the next gen eration
each John has a son Dougal, who would be distinguished as
Dougal McIan VcAlastair beg VcNeil, and Dougal McIan VcAlastair
dow McIan. (Vc is the genitive form of Mc, meaning 'of Mc'). To
add McGregor to these identities would not help. What was often
added was their place of residence, so their name provided a
complete address, with a pedigree back three or more
generations. Out of all these names any generation could choose
a standard surname. This family might single itself out (or be sing
led out by its neighbours) as the McAlastairs, after the original
father of the family. Just as probably two separate sub-clans could
be established known as the Alastair Begs and the Alastair Dows.
In addition to internal names adopted as surnames, it was
common practice for tenants throughout the Highlands to adopt
the name of their feudal landlord regardless of any blood ties. In
some areas such as Aberdeenshire this seems to have been a
very co mmon practice. Without this convention, such feudal
names as Gordon, Menzies and Campbell would be restricted to a
very few landed individuals and today as rare as such names as
Rollo or Anstruthers, of distinguished and ancient lineage but
without clan followers. It is noted in the Book of Islay that all the
McLivers of Islay, who were by ancient lineage members of Clan
Gregor, decided to adopt the surname name Campbell. At that
point, since they never seem to have reverted to their own name,
they a re lost to history as a separate family. This adoption of the
landlord's name meant, in effect, that the tenants recognised him
henceforth as their chief, and that they abandoned their own
heritage, but there is no indication that this change on the par t of
the McLivers had anything to do with Proscription. Such
wholesale adoption of the landlord's name does not seem to have
happened very often in Clan Gregor. The names of the large
feudal families were certainly adopted, but on a very limited
scale, by individuals rather than entire families, and on a
temporary basis. The effect is often limited further by the addition,
in records, of a note pointing out that the individual is in fact a
McGregor; hence the entries in parish registers on the lines of
'McGregor alias Robertson', or 'Stirling or McGregor'.
Many names of other clans, notably Balfour, Buchanan, Campbell,
Douglas, Drummond, Erskine, Gordon, Graham, Murray, Ramsay,
Stewart, and Robertson were used from the late 1500s by
members of Clan Gregor, a practice that predates by some years
the Act of the Privy Council of 3 April 1603 abolishing the name of
MacGregor 'under payne of deade', and may have been felt to be
a fashionable thing to do (the fashion in the early 1600s was
against Highland ways of doing things, and long lists of
patronymics wer e cumbersome to use). There is no doubt,
however, that Proscription was the main impetus.
The first alias recorded by Amelia Murray MacGregor, in History of
the Clan Gregor, is Campbell (1596), followed by Drummond
(1603), Buchanan (1604), Graham (1611), Stewart (1612), Menzies
(1612), Balfour (1612), Murray (1613), Ramsay (1614), Douglas (16
18), Sinclair (1621), Hay (1626) and Gordon (1629). During the same
period, a huge number of other surnames such as McPhatrick,
Glas, McCotter, and several hundred others, derived from internal
Clan names or nicknames, were also being used by members of
Clan Gregor but, as discussed above, these are not aliases in the
sense of being chosen as a forced alternative to MacGregor; they
were the natural and normal names of the families concerned. It
is almost impossible now, looking at lists of tenants in
Breadalbane before 1600, to know if they were McGregors or not.
About all one can say is that they are natives of the place, and
likely to be of the same population.
So, true aliases, which do not appear on the list of names
recognised by the Clan Gregor Society, were the formal names of
other clans or leading families adopted by leading members of
Clan Gregor under pressure from the Privy Council to adopt
'another f amous and honest surname' (Amelia, vol 1, p305). The
purpose was to destroy their identity as MacGregors, but this
cannot have been helped by the common official practice of
recording both the alias and the tribal name, eg, in 1614 'Johne
Graham alias M cGregour McKean' and 'John Murray formerly
called Gregour McGregour VcCoule chere' (Amelia, vol 1, p430).
Obviously even the security forces found the clan patronymics
useful aids to identification.
The use of 'famous and honest' aliases continued through the
seventeenth century with dwindling effect, but revived towards
the end of the century as Proscription hotted up again, and
Drummond reappeared in 1670 and Erskine in 1672. In the 1700s it
was common if not universal for MacGregors to use an alias for
official occasions, though their underlying identity was not lost,
and 'MacGregor' is often added (see article on Balquhidder parish
records in this issue). Robert McGregor probably had few illu sions
that he was well hidden as Robert Campbell but it is a little
amusing to find his son Coll 'Campbell' listed in the Clan
Campbell volumes, without any recognition of his adopted status.
One suspects that Proscription in many cases had the opposite
effect to that intended by the government and, instead of losing
their identity, the ban ensured that a knowledge of their Clan
Gregor origin was maintained in many families who might
otherwis e have paid it little attention. Nevertheless, although
most families in the Highland areas probably reverted to
MacGregor as soon as the Act of Proscription was lifted in 1775,
and many families in those areas had never stopped using
MacGregor informal ly, some families and individuals, perhaps
those more involved with the commercial life of Scotland, such as
the Grahams of Clan Dougal Ciar, continued to use their alias as a
surname, and their descendants eventually lost the knowledge of
their MacGrego r ancestry. The impression is that this was most
likely to happen with people who had moved into
English-speaking parts of Scotland during the eighteenth century,
and whose identity had become fixed as 'Mr Graham' or 'Mr
These names are omitted from the Society's list since it was
drawn up to act as a guideline to membership in the Clan Gregor
Society, not as an aid to genealogical research by people who
may have MacGregor ancestors who went by an alias in the
1700s. Th is is a very different matter to dealing with enquiries at
Highland Games, or in a tartan gift shop, where simplistic answers
are needed and a MacGregor using another name such as
Graham or Campbell would be directed, rightly or wrongly, to the
Graham So ciety or to the Clan Campbell tent for information, or
sold a Graham or Campbell tartan tie. These organisations may
well be aware of individual members who are MacGregors; the
question has not, as far as I know, ever been asked of them.
The choice of name seems to have depended very much on
circumstance. Rob Roy used his mother's name of Campbell, but
was also beholden to the Duke of Argyll, another Campbell. His
son James used Drummond perhaps as a compliment to the Duke
of Perth, hi s comander in the 1745. Ronald also used Drummond.
IMPORTANCE OF THE NAME Nevertheless, the importance of the
'Name' was recognised. The use of one surname or another at a
certain period indicated allegiance and so aroused great
passions. Some members of Clan Gregor were killed simply
because they used the name MacGregor; ot hers were killed (by
other MacGregors) because they had adopted the name
Campbell; some, doubtless to their indignation, were murdered in
cold blood in Dumbarton despite the fact that they were correctly
calling themselves Stewart. The purpose of the of ficial national
ban on the name 'Gregor' and 'MacGregor' for almost two
centuries was to eliminate the name MacGregor altogether, since
it represented a historical reality which united and inspired the
people who used it. This is still behind the rules of the various
Clan Societies. If you use a name represented by a Chief, you
may be considered to be a member of his clan, even if not related
by blood. This argument was still put with force early in the 19th
century by Lieutenant Alexander MacGregor of Rannoch, when
writing to Sir John Murray of Lanrick, about his claim to be Chief
of Clan Gregor.
It could be argued that, today, clans no longer exist except as
objects of historical study, and the significance attached to the
use of a surname, which may have been adopted or imposed, has
become somewhat academic. Nevertheless the amount of interest
generated by surnames and their supposed clan affiliation
suggests this is by no means a dead letter. It is in that case much
too important a subject to be left to Clan Societies!
Rightly or wrongly, the Clan Gregor Society has always placed
much emphasis on the use of the name MacGregor or a related
name rather than on evidence of a family link supported by
researcvh. It still maintains the archaic rule that to become a 'full'
m ember, all anyone has to do is adopt the name Gregor or
MacGregor. These rules were drawn up in the very different
circumstances of 1822, when most of the Clan was still hidden
under aliases, when its identity was in danger of disappearing
completely, a nd when many men took the great step of
discarding their old family surnames, which had possibly been in
use for several centuries, and adopting the name McGregor. In so
doing, they made a positive step towards reclaiming their identity
and its heritage .
The original intention of this Rule in 1822 may thus be seen as to
safeguard the name MacGregor, though it is ironic that neither Sir
John nor Sir Evan had used it. The use of the surname MacGregor
is indeed something of a special case.
In the first place, Gregor does not seem to have been used by any
other clan, as a personal name or in any other way. Wherever it
occurs, it points to Clan Gregor, either as an alias, or as
intermarriage. Gregor Grant, or Gregor Campbell reveal their a
ncestry very directly, whatever their circumstances.
In the second place, in contrast to the many feudal names
mentioned above, no followers of a McGregor chief had ever
adopted his surname as a courtesy. The Clan is too old, and was
dispossessed too early, long before surnames became seen as a
badge of c lan identity, for this ever to have happened. When
surnames did come in, McGregor was banned. In fact, it is difficult
to be sure that we can identify the early families in the Clan, since
they seldom use the name Gregor or McGregor.
So, far from being inundated, as the Gordons, Drummonds and
Campbells are, by adoptees who have no blood link with the
leading families of that name, many real McGregors use other
names, and there was a real danger that, after generations of
Proscription , many families might lose their identity as
MacGregors if they continued to use aliases associated with other
clans. It was obviously felt important in 1822 that they should be
encouraged to adopt MacGregor again in place of their aliases,
and many did .
However the survival of this rule to the present day now means
that people with no MacGregor ancestry of any kind can become,
quite legally, full members of the Clan Society if they should want
to, simply by calling themselves 'MacGregor'. They not only do so;
they can manage its affairs. This is unlikely to have been the
intention of the original drafters, who, in 1822, can never have
come across a Scot who did not know his own pedigree, or
anyone who would have any reason for adopting the name MacGr
egor if they were not originally of the race. The concept is
nevertheless in line with the popular, but perhaps unrealistic,
notion of a clan as the following of a chief, all using the same
Clan Gregor was always in a different case, since MacGregors by
name were under a legal obligation after 1603 to choose an alias,
and might have had no feeling of loyalty to the chief of the name
they happened to have chosen. Indeed, some are known to h ave
used more than one such alias during their lives, and one
suspects that some found it very convenient to have alternative
identities. One might however say that those MacGregors who
continued to use their alias after Proscription of the name
MacGreg or was lifted in 1775/76 could be regarded as having
chosen to identify themselves from then on as members of
another clan, bound by loyalty to its chief, and having rejected
their blood ties to their original clan.
SMcG, ed Jan 1997
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