Thursday 3 March 2011

Fearless Females: she's called ... what?

One of the joys, and sometimes one of the pitfalls, of family history research in Scotland is the traditional naming pattern. This can work to your advantage; if you know the names of a couple's children, you can make an educated guess as to their parents' names, especially if they helpfully include family surnames as middle names. The downside is that use of this pattern can result in several people with the same name, tricky for the genealogist. In real life, the bearers of these identical names, and their nearest and dearest, made extensive use of nicknames and diminutives, to avoid confusion. (Note to ancestors: it might have helped avoid confusion for you, but it does quite the opposite for us. If you are thinking of being an ancestor again, could you give some thought to this, please?).

I know what the current and recent versions are - my cousin Helen is always called Ellen, and my aunt of the same name was always Ella. For the generations beyond living memory you just have to keep an open mind. One of the most popular female names in Scottish families, including mine, is Isabel, and this occurs in all kinds of variations - Isa, Izzy, Belle, Bella and so on. Sometimes you will find them in the census, where pet names and nicknames are sometimes used, and where rest of the details are enough to confirm you have the right person. My favourite of these is the example above, the Black family at 32 Orr Street, Glasgow in 1861,  where the mother, Janet was the sister of my great-great grandmother. Their daughter's given name was Isabella, but she appears here as 'Ezybbean'. It could just be the result of poor handwriting, but I like to think that it was an affectionate nickname.

Another female, in a completely different branch of my family, is a good example of another Scottish naming habit, of which we Glaswegians are particularly fond. That is the practice of creating a female name by adding 'ina' to the end of a male name, so I have a second cousin called Williamina, known as Wilma, and a great-aunt Alexandrina, known as Ina. That's the problem; everyone in Glasgow has an aunt Ina, and unless you know whether this is preceded by Robert, Thomas, David, Hugh or whatever, she can be hard to find! Great aunt Alexandrina was the third and last child in her family, all daughters, and they may have known that this was going to be the last baby, we'll never know, and the last chance for great-grandpa Alexander to have a child named after him. His wife's uncle, Matthew Warnock, was also the father of daughters, but no sons, in his case 7 of them. And yes, you guessed it, his youngest daughter was named Matthewina after him.

It was a sad story, and this time his poor wife Susan certainly knew in advance that this would be their last child, because Matthew, a merchant seaman, was drowned at sea, just before Christmas 1894, when she was about 6 months pregnant. His ship, the SS Abydos, foundered off the Isle of Man, with the loss of all hands. I can't imagine how the poor woman must have felt, left on her own with six daughters, 3 of them under 10, and a baby on the way. She kept the family together, somehow, and in 1901 she, her widowed mother and the five younger daughters are all living together in Dorset Street, Glasgow. the little one, now aged 7, appears as Martha, and she seems to have used this name for the rest of her life. Can't say I blame her.



  1. I also have several "ina's" on my Scottish side..lots of Williamina's, Robina's etc..the most unusual was one of my GG Aunts who was called Malcolmina..made her easy to find in census's though :)

  2. I also have a great aunt Bella, who turned out to be an Isabella, and plenty of Helen/Ellens in my family. Then there's the family of 13 brothers (& one sister) who mostly went on to have a lot of daughters, giving rise to plenty of Inas, of which the most unusual is probably Joshena, daughter of Joshua.