In Clan Fraser: A history celebrating over 800 years of the Family in Scotland [1997], Lady Saltoun explains that, in addition to Fraser, many other surnames are associated with our clan, known as Septs. A surname can be associated with more than one clan, depending upon the area in which they lived. The same person’s name may appear in early records spelled several different ways. Spellings of the name could vary significantly in the same family, from one generation to another, either because of the penmanship of the individual or the official recording the event.

In The Surnames of Scotland, George F. Black describes Sept as a Scots word meaning sub division of a clan, and explains the origin, meaning and history of some of these Sept names and variations in spelling thereof, as follows:

Bisset – A diminutive of bis, for ‘rock dove ». From the English Biseys, brought by William the Lion in 1174, to seek their fortune in the Scottish Court. Henricus Byset witnessed a charter by William the Lion granted before 1198, and his son, John Byset, obtained from the king the grant of lands in the north. In 1242 Walter Byset, lord of Aboyne, after being worsted by the young earl of Atholl in a tournament at Haddington, burned the house in which the earl slept, and the earl with it. For this crime, Walter Byset and his nephew, John Byset (founder of the Priory of Beauly in 1231) were exiled, their property devolving to others of the family.

In The Charters of the Priory of Beauly with notices of the Priories of Pluscardine and Ardchattan and of the Founder John Byset [1877], Edmund Chisholm Batten explains how the Lovat portion of these estates passed to the Frasers through marriage with a Byset co-heiress, and refers to the Beauly charters, transcribed between 1734-38. « The charter of 1231 is a grant by William Byset, his brother John and the officials of the church of Moray being witnesses… The seal has the arms of Byset, on a shield plain, a bend. The transcriber adds, no crown, the opinion then prevailing that the crowns quartered in the Fraser of Lovat coat were the arms of Byset; whereas they are the arms of Grant. »

Brewster – From ‘brewer’ or ‘brewster’ – originally a woman’s occupation. Thomas le Breuester in the county of Lanark rendered homage in 1296. Johannes dictus Brouster held land in Aberdeen in 1382, Robert Brewester, a Scot, received letters of denisation in England in 1480, another Robert Broustar was burgess of Glasgow in 1487, William Broster held land in Arbroath in 1513, Thomas Brouster was curate to Sir John Swinton of that Ilk in 1515, and Duncanus Broustir appears in Murthlac in 1550. In the north, this name is a translation of Macgruar (brewer’s son).

Cowie – Pronounced Cooie or Ku-ie. From the ancient barony of Cowie in Kincardineshire. Sir Alexander Fraser, 1st of Cowie, was Chamberlain of Scotland (1319-26). Herbert de Cowy witnessed a charter by Nicholas de Dumfres in 1394. John Cowy was admitted burgess of Aberdeen, 1505. Janet Cowie or Cui was a witch in Elgin in 1646. A family of the name was long associated with Newburgh, Fife, and John Colwye, bailie of Newburcht, is recorded in 1617.

Frew – Derived from lands in the district of Menteith, known as the Fords of Frew. Alexander Frew witnessed a bond of friendship, 1581, David Frew was reader at the Kirk of Dunrossness, 1624, Robert Frew was portioner in Gattonsyde in 1693, a pension was paid to Elizabeth Frew in Edinburgh, 1735, and James Frew was tenant in Shankhead of Kilsyth in 1795.

Frissell, Frizell – Old forms of Fraser. Walter Freselle had a safe conduct into England, 1424. David Frysaille witnessed resignation of lands of Walle in 1474. John Fresall was parson of Douglas in 1482, dean of Lestalrig and canon of Glasgow, 1491-93. Alexander Frizell is recorded in Milhill of Wandale, Lanarkshire, 1734.

Grewar, Grewer – Shortened from MacGruar, who appear to have settled in Kindrocht (now known as Braemar) in the 15th century. John Grewyr was tenant in Fortour c.1520, and Thomas Growar, burgess freeman of Glasgow, 1628.

Mackim – Gaelic MacShim, ‘son of Sim’, diminutive of Simon. Ranald McKym was tenant in part of Cullychmoir, Delny, in 1539.

Mackimmie – Gaelic MacShimidh, ‘son of Simon’. Probably derived from the Simon Fraser killed at Halidon Hill, 1333.

Macsimon – ‘son of Simon’. The Lovat chiefs are Mackimmies.

Mactavish – From Gaelic MacTámhais, a form of MacThamhais, ‘son of Tammas’ the Lowland Scots of Thomas. Mactavishes are numerous in Argyllshire. The Craignish MS says the Mactavishes or Clan Tavish of Dunardarie descend from Tavis Corr, second illegitimate son of Gillespick, son of Callen moir math, ‘good bald Coline’ (SHSM, iv, p.207). The Mactavishes of Stratherrick are considered a sept of the Frasers.

Oliver – From old French Olivier, ‘fabricant ou marchant d’olive’. Olyver, son of Kyluert, was one of the followers of the earl of March at the end of the 12th century. Oliver Fraser built Oliver Castle, a stronghold of the Frasers in Tweeddale. William Olover was burgess in Dumfries in 1542, Robert Olifeir was burgess of Northberwyk in 1546, and Robert Oliphir was bailie of the burgh of North Berwick and of Haddington in 1557. John Olifer was burgess of Jedburgh in 1680.

Sim, Sime, Sym, Syme – Diminutives of Simon, Simeon. Sim is not always representative of Clan MacShimidh and is a common English name as well. John Syme was a friend of Robert Burns, and surgeon James Syme (1799-1870) was born in Fife.

Simon – The personal name of the Frasers of Lovat. In Gaelic with ‘Mac’ prefixed, MacShimidh, it is pronounced Mackimmie.

Simson, Simpson, Symson – ‘son of Sim’. William Symsoun was burgess in Edinburgh, 1405. David Sympsone was elected common councillor in Aberdeen, 1477. Weillie Symsone was a tenant of the abbot of Kelso, 1567. Andrew Symson, ‘Printer to the King’s most excellent Majesty’ was an Episcopal minister prior to the Revolution in 1688, when the bigotry of Presbyterianism deprived him of his living and he turned printer.

Twaddel, Twaddle – From Tweeddale, where the Frasers moved from East Lothian in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Tweedie – From the lands of Tweedie in the parish of Stonehouse, Lanarkshire, but it is also a very old name in Peebleshire. The Tweedies had the reputation of being a savage race and were always ready to misuse their strength to dominate their neighbours.

There is a wonderful legend about the origin of the Tweedies. A knight of Tweeddale in the 12th century, after fighting for many years in the Holy Land crusades, finally returned to Scotland to find his lady love with a boy playing at her feet. When the knight asked, « Where did he come from? » his wife was quick to respond, « From the Tweed. His father is the spirit of the Tweed himself. »

At the beginning of the 14th century the lands of Drumelzier passed to the Tweedies through marriage with a daughter of Sir William Fraser of Drumelzier. By the 1500s they were at the height of their power and were constantly at odds with rival clans. In 1559 James Tweedie of Drumelzier, John Tweedie of Fruid and his brothers William, Patrick and John, along with Thomas Tweedie, were accused of the ‘cruel slaughter of William Geddes, son and apperand air [sic] to Charles Geddes of Cuthilhall’ but got off with fines and warnings from the Privy Council. William Tweedie of Drumelzier and Adam Tweedie of Dreva were among those charged in the brutal murder in 1565 of David Rizzio, personal secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, but both escaped punishment. Adam Tweedie of Dreva attacked Robert Rammage, slicing off his ears but, when taken before the Court of Judiciary in January 1566, was absolved. In 1592 James Tweedie and his friends murdered James Geddes in the Cowgate in Edinburgh. Pennecuik in 1715 described the Tweedies of Drumelzier as ‘a powerful and domineering family now quite extinct’.

The Legacy of George Fraser Black [1866-1948]

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When Dr Black retired after 35 years with The New York Public Library, he prepared for publication the material on Scottish surnames collected over 40 years. Publishers in the 1930s were hesitant to take on a work which they did not consider a « best seller », without a financial guarantee, which the author was unable to provide. In 1939 the prospect of publication in Britain was dashed by the outbreak of war. So, starting in August 1943, the entire work was published by installment in the Bulletin of the N.Y. Public Library. In 1993 The Surnames of Scotland, containing over 8000 entries, was in its 10th hardcover printing, and came out with its first paperback and first U.K. edition.

In the Introduction Dr Black noted: A great many things were done two, three, or more hundred years ago to ‘please the lairds’ and ‘changing one’s surname was one of these things.’ It was by this means that Clan Mackenzie was so rapidly enlarged in the 16th and 17th centuries. Its rapid increase was due to the inclusion of the old native tenants living on the territories acquired by the chiefs from time to time, conciliated, or when needed, coerced, so as to make them good Mackenzie subjects and soldiers.

Another method used by chiefs of clans to increase the number of followers bearing their name was to bribe poor parents with a ‘bow o’ meal’ to substitute in respect of their children the clan surname for their own. An old Gaelic saying around Beauly illustrative of this is Frisealach am boll a mine, ‘Frasers of the boll of meal,’ indicating that some Bissets had changed their name from Bisset to Fraser for that reason. We have records of this among Farquharsons, Forbeses, and Gordons.

Surnames in the Highlands are of comparatively late date. In charters and other documents even as late as the first quarter of the 18th century we have examples wherein a man is designated by his father’s, and sometimes by his father’s and grandfather’s names. In 1718 we find John Mc Unlay keaneir for John Mac Fhionnlaidh mhic Iomhair, i.e., John son of Finlay son of Iver.

Black also commented on the corrupt spelling of names: During the Middle Ages the knowledge of the art of writing was confined largely to churchmen. They wrote down the names in forms suggested by their sound. By the end of the 15th century the spelling of names in the public records of Scotland appears to have become completely demoralized, and the same name may be found spelled half-a-dozen ways in the same document. Writing before 1666 the Rev. James Fraser [author of the Wardlaw MS] remarks that ‘it is an epidemicall disease to which many ancient surnames are subject, to be ill spelled and variously disguised in writing,’ and true it is there was no greater sinner in spreading this disease than Fraser himself! This ‘epidemicall disease’ was also noted by a writer of the 16th century who remarks of a contemporary that he ‘vreeitis not veill and spellis far var.’

Source: Canadian Explorer – Fraser Sept Names [Dec./97]; The Byset Connection [March/99]
Clan Fraser, A history celebrating over 800 years of the Family in Scotland [published 1997, reprinted 2005] by Flora Marjory Fraser, 20th [now 21st] Lady Saltoun, is available from Clan Fraser Society of Canada. For information, click on the Membership Page of this web site.