by Wendy Tait Mayfield
I think there are different views on this depending on what sources have been researched. Here is a short extract from my paper on surnames for genealogy:
“One factor that must be considered by the genealogist is that the term “surname” had a very different meaning in the Border country, including parts of the north of England. In these areas it was used in a similar, but rather narrower, way to the northern Scottish “clan”. This referred to a group of people who would usually have a blood relationship, often quite distant, but more importantly had a common allegiance, for example as tenants or sub tenants of an overlord. All members of the group would use the same surname even if it was not their father’s name, thus accounting for the particularly high number of certain surnames in specific locations , for example Scott, Graham, Kerr, Armstrong and Elliot in the Borders.
This is further complicated by the subdivision of lowland Scots “surnames”, or loose family groups, into “grains” or branches of the surname. Different grains within a surname owed no allegiance to each other and could often be found at feud with one another. In some surnames the grain name was subtly altered to distinguish between them, for example the Kers of Cesford and Ferniehirst and the Kerrs, Lords of Lothian. These originated from a common Ker ancestor, but in the seventeenth century Lord Lothian adopted the Kerr spelling to distinguish his line from the other Ker grains . Grains almost always had a specific location and knowing which grain one is researching helps the genealogist to look for records in the right location. It must also be noted that this system spilled over into Northumberland and Cumberland.”
Wendy has a new book due out very soon entitled “Tales of the Taits” so please keep an eye out for more posting about it.