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Tartan Ferret

Surnames and Tartans

One of the most frequent inquires that we deal with is along the lines of: "My surname is Zabrowsky and I can't find my tartan!" Not all the surname queries are quite as unusual as that one but there does seem to be a widespread misconception that if your granny was frightened by a Scotsman, then you must have a tartan!

We joke of course, but if there's the slightest hint of Scottish blood in the family, many think that their own special tartan is sitting there waiting for them to discover, regardless of how many generations have passed and how many new surnames have been introduced to the family. In fact when some people find out that they have no tartan, they're affronted and accusatory as if we have deliberately deprived them of their birth right!

So you haven't immediately linked your name to a tartan? We obviously want to help you but a good bit of preparatory work from your end will greatly increase the chance of us being able to identify your 'tartan roots.' If you've searched in our Tartan Ferret for your surname and you get a 'nil return' then it's probably for a very good reason which will be that we have no documented links between your surname and any Scottish clan.

 Surname spellings
One of the reasons for a nil return is often that the spelling of your surname has changed over the years and whilst we do try and accommodate such variations, we can't possibly know them all. A point of surprising conflict with enquirers looking for their tartan that we've often come across when looking at the 'Macs' is their refusal to accept that McDonald is exactly the same name as MacDonald and when we've gently insisted, some have even gone off in a huff . . . ."What do these Scots know anyway?" kind of thing!

Mc is just an abbreviation for Mac and is not a different surname; neither does it indicate that you're Irish. So. . . . if your name is spelt 'Mc' and you can't find anything, then search again using 'Mac'. And do try alternative spellings for other names that are causing a problem. Sometimes we've even been presented with something like M'Kay which of course is nothing but another abbreviation of MacKay.

Why that tartan?
That's another common question when surname sources suggest a clan tartan which doesn't appear to have any connection with your surname. The reason for this is that all members/followers of a particular clan needn't necessarily have the same surname. There were many others who were allied to or dependent upon a clan who pledged their allegiance to the Chief and would, when required, support them in battles. If it was in the days when clan tartans existed, then they would no doiubt have worn the appropriate clan tartan.

Look back
If you can't unearth a connection in the surname search then the next step - if you're sure there's Scottish blood in the family - is to look as far back as you can at your family history and make a list of the surnames on the male and female side. One of those may prove to have a clan - and therefore a tartan - connection.

Still no luck?
If that produces nothing, then we move on to the next step and that is to find another kind of link that might produce a tartan for you. It's important to remember that just because you have Scottish blood doesn't automatically mean that you have a tartan: tartan and clans were a Highland phenomenon and there are probably a few million Scots living in Scotland today who have no clan tartan.

District Tartans
There are no laws governing what tartan you can wear but most people like to feel they have some historical or 'genetic' link with what they choose. If that type of link can't be found, then having a geographical connection is the next best option.

Having delved into your family history you'll no doubt have details of some of the areas in Scotland in which your forebears lived - if you know the name of the city or area, then try typing that into the 'Tartan Name' search box. If that doesn't come up with anything, then type 'District' into the Keywords Search box and read through the listings.

Other connections?
No luck with the District tartan idea? One last throw of the dice is to look at any other tartan connections that any of your forebears might have had. If one was a Minister then why not think about the Priest or Clergy tartan . . . . or a connection with a Scottish regiments . . . Or with a particular university or church or major event for which there is a tartan. Cast the net far and wide!

Still nothing?
Then fall back on what we call universal tartans - the Royal Stewart, Hunting Stewart, Black Watch, Jacobite and quite a few more . . . or, push the boat out and have your own private tartan designed for you and your descendents.

© Scottish Tartans Authority
Scottish Tartans Authority (Scottish limited company no. 162386), c/o J & H Mitchell, 51 Atholl Road, Pitlochry, PH16 5BU
Scottish Charity Number SCO24310

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