‘Personal names and bynames in Late Medieval Scotland’

Published on: Author: Megan 1 Comment

On 9 May, 2017, the Centre welcomed Professor Stephen Boardman (University of Edinburgh) to discuss ‘Personal names and bynames in Late Medieval Scotland.’ In this lecture, Steve sought to discuss two areas of research: how Scottish aristocrats named their children at baptism between 1300 and 1500 AD, why descriptive and behavioral nicknames became attached to certain individuals, and what this might tell us about the society that produced them. Below is this listener’s summary of the lecture.

Steve began by discussing the Scottish context for baptismal names.  It is more difficult for historians to explore naming patterns in Scotland during this period in comparison to England and Wales, where there are more sources and more consistently applied criteria during this period. Steve stated that more disparate sources have to be used to study these changes in Scotland, like entries in the Register of the Great Seal. Usually discussions on the changing patterns of naming during this period focus on role of baptism, when more Christian, saintly, and biblical names began to gain popularity at the expense of names from other traditions, like Continental names or those resulting from the settlement of Frankish, Fleming, or Breton families. Across Western Europe, especially after the Fourth Latern Council of 1215, the clerical control over baptism and the establishment of the notion that godparents have role in naming led to an increased prevalence of these Christian forenames. Unfortunately, Boardman admitted that one is usually unable to identify godparents in Scottish records.

Steve explained that baptismal names seem to have been related to several different factors, the most significant of which appear to be whether a particular aristocratic family might use a lineage naming pattern, the child’s godparent’s name, or the use of the name of a popular saint or literary figure. He stated that there is also a regional difference in Scotland – among the Lowland Scottish aristocrats, names like John, William, Thomas and Robert were the most common. In some areas there were distinctive Gaelic naming patterns, where names like Duncan and Malcolm were most common.

Professor Boardman offered the example of the Lindsays of Glen Esk, the Earls of Crawford as an example of an alternating lineage naming pattern. From the 14th century onward, the forenames of the Earls of Crawford alternated between David and Alexander. It is unclear if the family consciously maintained this policy of alternating family forenames, or if this represents a sequence of the commemoration of grandfathers. Alexander and David had widespread use in Scottish aristocracy due to their royal associations.

As another example of a lineage pattern, Steve pointed out that Earls of Dunbar were consistently named Patrick from the 13th through the 14th centuries. This was interrupted in the 15th century with George X. Saint George’s cult was growing in popularity at this time, and the name George became increasingly popular. Other saints’ names also emerged at this point, especially Ninian in Scotland. Boardman commented that the way George X named his sons was particularly interesting: The eldest was George, and his second eldest was named Gawain, a literary knight who is described as the son of King Lot of Lothian an area associated with the Dunbars. His third eldest was named Columba, after another prominent saint. It is unclear why, but the names of saints and literary figures became increasingly prevalent in the 15th century.


Professor Boardman then shifted his discussion to nicknames; narrative histories of late medieval Scotland were enlivened by the use of nicknames. However, it is still unclear whether or not they were used while the bearers were alive. Some of these names were physically descriptive, while some relate to moral characteristics of the person. Steve focused on two examples: Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, Lord of Badenoch, who was known as the “Wolf of Badenoch”, and Alexander Lindsay, 4th Earl of Crawford, the “Tiger Earl.” It appears that these nicknames represent social judgement; both of these individuals had faced and were condemned by Parliamentary assemblies. It is unclear if these names were invented before these assemblies and were used to convince others to condemn them, or if these names were given after the individuals had been condemned by communal judgment.

The use of the tiger as an indicator of tyrranous noble behavior has a long and evocative history. When Professor Boardman was looking for examples of tigers in medieval texts, they were not depicted as fierce; usually they were in bestiaries, or were being duped with a glass sphere and allow knights to carry away their cubs. However, a contemporary account found in the Auchinleck Chronicle described Alexander Lindsey, earl of Crawford, as a rigorous man and felon who was inobedient to the king. We know that he was tried for treason against James II in 1452. Steve also found that in Robert Henrysoun’s fables, written in the second half of the 15th century, tigers were depicted as inherently tyrannous beasts.

Alexander Stewart, the “Wolf of Badenoch” was excommunicated and charged with misdemeanors for his role in the destruction of Elgin in 1390. The use of this byname was first recorded in 1444 in Walter Bower’s ‘Scotichronicon”. It is unclear if the byname was used against Alexander during his lifetime, but Steve thought it would have been a part of the move against him. During this time period, the wolf has long list of associations, usually involving ravenous and uncontrolled savagery. While wolves posed a practical threat to livestock, there were also ecclesiastical associations: in some depictions, the wolf symbolizes the devil. While his behavior caused contemporary outrage, according to chronicles and judicial sources, just before his death he was rehabilitated political and socially in 1405. This was likely because he was a part of the extended royal family. Alexander is now buried in Dunkeld cathedral.

Despite the “Wolf’s” rehabilitation before his death, the events of 1390 clearly defined his reputation. By the 19th century, the “Wolf of Badenoch” had become a mythological figure, a creature who haunted the castles and glens of Badenoch with malevolent glee. Sir Thomas Dick Lauder’s book, The Wolfe of Badenoch: A Historical Romance of the 14th Century” emphasized the Earl of Buchan’s supposed dark leanings and portrayed the wolf as a supernatural anti-hero. Horror stories of the Wolf became associated with places in the Highlands as it was becoming a popular tourist destination.

Boardman concluded by saying that these two instances exemplify the power of nicknames in the late medieval period. It is probably not coincidental that these negative nicknames were attached to people who had been tried or condemned before national assemblies. These bynames were likely deployed against individuals based on communal judgments with a persuasive intent to exclude these individuals from the political community.

Summary by Megan Kasten (PhD Researcher)

This was the final lecture of the 2016 – 2017 Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies seminar series. Our next series will begin late September/early October 2017, updates will be posted to the schedule as it develops. Stay tuned!

One Response to ‘Personal names and bynames in Late Medieval Scotland’ Comments (RSS) Comments (RSS)

  1. In recent nickname usage on Lewis – where it is still very common, and where nicknames can be inherited like surnames – there is a distinction between commonly used nicknames which are only ever used out of the hearing of an individual, and ones that are used to them. (Some nicknames are so embedded in use that even locally-born people don’t remember the ‘proper names’.) In the 1990s, one person I knew was routinely referred to as ****** ‘Baby’ – which had come from his own family but was never used in his presence as he disliked it. In one village a nickname – most obviously not used in his presence – was used to distinguish two neighbours with identical proper names, one of whom was a sex offender, one of whom wasn’t. So a nickname could have been in common use – The Wolf – for decades but only out-of-hearing and never recorded in writing until long after.

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