Surnames: Caledonia and Hibernia - 'Mac' or 'Mc'

Mac, Gaelic for "son", is the most common element of Scottish and Irish surnames. In both countries, Mc is always an abbreviation of Mac. There is absolutely no truth to the American myth at Mac is Scottish and Mc is Irish. Mac used to be abbreviated M' although this spelling is not common now. At times, all three versions can be seen in an early book on Highland music, the author spelled his own family name three different ways on the first two pages -- "MacDonald", "McDonald", and "M'Donald."

Black's "The Surnames of Scotland" and MacLysaght's "The Surnames of Ireland" both treat Mac in the same way -- as the only and original spelling. Persons seeking a name spelled "Mc" are expected to know that it is a conventional abbreviation forMac. This same approach is used in "Tartan For Me!" To find "McDeal" look for "MacDeal."

Mac is always considered an addition to a name. Before there was a "Donald's Son" there was a "Donald". In both Scotland and Nova Scotia, names beginning with Mac were traditionally alphabetized under the first letter of the second name --MacArthur under "A", MacZeal under "Z". Many Scots dropped "Mac" as they became Anglicized or emigrated, "Mac Wyeth" becoming simply "Wyeth". "Kinzie" is from "MacKenzie". The one notable exception is the Innes and MacInnes families, each quite distinct. The Innes family have Pictish roots and are from the east coast of Scotland with a red tartan. The MacInnes are of Gaelic origin from the west coast and wear a green tartan.

 Mac takes a variety of pronunciations. In Islay Gaelic, Mac is pronounced like /mek/. In the United States one hears it as "mick". Preceding a /k/ or /g/ sound, the final /k/ of Mac disappears. It became the practice in both the south of Scotland and in Ireland to write two words as one (MacGill to Magill; MacHale to Makale). In other names the /k/ sound of Mac is duplicated and attached to the front of a following word if it begins in a vowel (MacArter to MacCarter). The reverse also occurs. If the second name begins with a /k/ or /g/, producing two /k/ sounds together, one may disappear (MacGill to Magill; MacKenzie to MacEnzee). Mac is at times pronounced "muck" and written that way (Mac 'il Roy to Muckleroy). 

Spelling Differences

Spelling differences among names are usually trivial no matter how much pride a person has in a particular version. Many of our ancestors were illiterate until recently, especially if they were Gaelic speakers. Most Gaels were not taught to read or write their own language. In contrast with English, Gaelic speakers place more emphasis on the spoken language than on the written form. This means that Gaelic spelling is constantly being modified to match the spoken form, the latest major revision in 1982. In addition, Gaelic speakers did not need or use family names until they began to interact with the English speaking culture. The Gaelic naming system is quite different and either shows a person's lineage or some personal attribute. "Donald of the race of Donald". "Donald, Son of John", and "Donny Little" all might be the same person.

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Tags: Ancestry, Gaeilge, Genealogy, History of Ireland, Irish Language, Scotland

Comment by Gerry Regan on January 10, 2015 at 11:01am

I'd love to read more about the MacDonald's / McDonald's -- the name is so prevalent. Consider McDonald's Restaurants -- where did the name come from, or the provenance of the song "Old MacDonald Had a Farm"?

Comment by Richard R. Mc Gibbon Jr. on January 13, 2015 at 3:04pm

My grandfather said that our family name of Mc Gibbon lost the "a" in Mac so that they would not have to pay a fine of some sort to the English court. Maybe it wasn't the lost "a' but something else that they were afraid of ???


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Comment by That's Just How It Was on January 14, 2015 at 11:19am

When I was researching all material sin Ireland for my book s; I spoke with a historian [geologist] who advised me that all names in Irish history were- like Mc ; Mac ; O'Rourke etc were abbreviated over the year by the misspelling or wrongly written down by - people who took the registrar / misspell the name / perhaps not knowing how to spell the name; .

so O'Rourke as I know it  - can be ; Rourk ' Ruke ;O'Ruke  ' all variations of the same name ; spelt differently by different generations of registrars . !  


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