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The Scotch-Irish Naming Tradition

The tradition whereby Scotch-Irish parents named their children for their own parents and siblings is quite well known, but it seems to me that very little use is made of it and few people are prepared to draw any conclusions from it. I, too, was reluctant to apply it to my own ancestors but once I did so, it started to show likely links and possibilities. There are also a few patterns of naming that arise quite naturally from the tradition. These are so interesting in their own right that I decided to write up a page to explain what happens and how the tradition can be applied.

The tradition.

This is quite simple and, if the pattern is adhered to over several generations, gives rise to some interesting patterns.

Consider John, son of Hugh.
John's sons will be called

  1. Hugh
  2. after MGF
  3. John

John's son Hugh will name his first son John and so the first sons of the family will alternate Hugh-John-Hugh-John as long as the pattern is not broken. Being a first son pattern this is probably the strongest pattern of all.

But the third son, John, will name his first son John after his own father John and so the third son always starts a line where the first sons are named the same. This is really a special case of the above father-son-father pattern so, once started, is equally strong. I wonder if there is a tradition for naming the third son of the third son, who should by the tradition have the same name as the first son!

It also follows that new names (i.e. names that have not before occurred in the males of the line) can only be introduced with the second son.

The problems are, as Linde Lunney points out

that the pattern is strict but not carved in stone - there is some latitude for calling children after respected relatives - perhaps a child could be named for a favourite uncle. Or a first son might be named after the wife's father who had money to leave. Or perhaps - and this is quite an important perhaps - the husband and wife were cousins, and the person for whom the first son was to be named was the wife's father and also husband's uncle and therefore doubly related; that I think would be accepted as a suitable case for substituting another relative's name for that of the paternal grandfather.

The normal naming pattern was also be likely to be disrupted if there was any chance that there would be an inheritance from another relative; and sometimes if the parents very greatly respected another relative or even a neighbour; or wanted to signal that they were related to a particularly respectable local family.

Also infant mortality was very high and young children often died. In which case the names were quite often re-used. This, from a historical view-point, will dis-order the traditional order. Of course the very occasions when one is driven to seek help from names (i.e. when accurate records are scarce) is also likely to be the time the pattern is most obscured by deaths and lack of records!

Another disturbing factor is that these societies generally had a small name-pool anyway and there was a significant chance of a wife's father having the same name as either the husband's father or the husband himself. Clearly this disturbs the pattern for the second and third sons.

For these reasons very few genealogists seem prepared to stick their necks out and use the tradition!

I will give some examples from the families I have been studying, but before that a few words about names in general.

Name frequency

I have lists of the Muster Rolls of 1630 for the Ironmongers, the Mercers and for Donnagall. I analysed the names. I was astonished to find that fully 30% of those enrolled were called John.

The next most common names were William and Robert. Fully 50% of the enrolled were either John, William or Robert. Next came Thomas and Andrew: 60% had one of these five names. Then came Alexander, George and Patrick. a massive 80% of those listed shared these eight names!

So, next time you wonder why they used the same names so often, to make it difficult for us genealogists, take a second to consider the real extent of the problem.

And, when you discover a John, who you think is your John, think again! Chances are, he's another John entirely. The place was crawling with them1

John and Jean Torrens of Culnamen

JST's book includes transcriptions of three early letters (1803 and 1804). These give us the early family of Hugh of Mayoughill. His daughter, Jean, married another Torrens. The letters state that Jean had 14 children, of whom 5 sons and 5 daughters were living in 1803. The letters name Alexander, John and Robert who was the youngest child, born 1778. From various of the documents in the Kernohan papers we have been able to locate six sons and three of these are evident in the 1821 census, from where we can get their birth year. We know Alex must be the oldest - in 1804 letters he was unmarried, and in 1821 census he was listed as a 'spinster' - clearly a bachelor! Such behaviour was typical for an oldest son. He may have been the oldest surviving son - but it would be right to ask whether he was also the firstborn son.

But we also find Hugh who is younger that Alex and should be the second son as Hugh is his maternal grandfather. We have John - who by naming tradition should be third and Thomas, born 3 years after Hugh. So it seems evident that John must have been born in this 3 year gap!

Jean also had brothers Robert, Thomas and Hugh. John also had brothers Samuel and Thomas. We do not know the name of John's father - but it surely has to be Alexander Torrence!

Also since the three traditionally named sons are in the correct birth order it is very clear that all three survived and the names were not re-used.

So we have an Alexander Torrence who had three sons, Samuel, Thomas and John. Their birth order is not known but RMT quotes Samuel as the oldest, Thomas born c. 1718 and our John was born c. 1717. Alexander's father could then have been a Samuel. The earliest Samuel T. known is mentioned in 1707 in Kernohan's book 'Kilrea and Tamlaght O'Crilly' as being a ruling elder of the parish.

Note that we cannot really draw any conclusion from this: our new Alexander had three known sons and, by tradition, the third should have been named Alexander. But we know of no such son so either he was not listed or he died young.

The six located sons of John and Jean are then:

Hugh of Mayoughill

Also from the same letters, Hugh of Mayoughill had three sons. We know their birth years from other sources.

Hugh was the third son. Early death of a son and consequent re-use of the name would almost certainly interfere with the order of names so that it is then unlikely that the third son would be named for the father.

This order is probably therefore the birth order and so does adhere to the tradition. So Hugh's father must have been a Robert Torrens. Hugh was born 1695: we should be looking for a Robert born around 1635! The 1770 will of Alexander of Mullahinch (see documents area) quotes 'To my brother's son Robert Torrans. £2.'. This is the only Robert on record in early Ulster, but the ages are wrong! Nevertheless it makes us start looking to fit another link in our chain. Although Robert was not a common name in the early Torrens records in Ulster it was common in the Scottish families around that time so this raises the question as to whether this Hugh immigrated from Scotland!.

Hugh of Gaston County

RMT gives the descendants of this Hugh who was born 15th October 1732 in Northern Ireland.

Here the dates of birth are known. Hugh married one Mary Brown. Notice the second son is called Matthew brown - presumably after Mary's father, though RMT states this to be her brother's name. It could of course have been both! And note the third son, Hugh, after Hugh himself. The second daughter should have been named after Hugh's mother and the third daughter was called Ruth - which casts a shadow! The dates of birth do not seem to leave much room for death and re-use of names, so it would be reasonable to expect Hugh's father to be a John Torrens. Assuming he was about 30 years older than Hugh, we would be looking for a John Torrens in Ireland, born around 1700. There are just too many possibilities!


So naming patterns can be useful and can give good indications - but they can also mislead if you are not careful. It is certainly worth looking are the naming patterns - a lot of the early names in RMT do not bear up under this scrutiny: it could be that these families simply didn't adhere to the traditions, but I doubt this - true, there were exceptions, but most families seem to have followed the rules and you do not expect strange names to appear without reason! It seems very probable that early American settlers with the same names were assumed to be one person. We know that John, Hugh, Samuel, Thomas and many other names were very common around 1700 in Ireland. Irish immigrants tended to stick together and if, for instance, two Hugh Torrenses met, they could well have been drawn together by their common heritage and names. Such an association might well appear to us to be a single person!

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