The Scottish Surname Emerges

During his reign from 1057 to 1093, King Malcolm III began to require his subjects to adopt surnames and register in parishes, in an attempt to weaken the clans. This effort intensified with the emerging need for tax rolls of individuals, especially in the Burghs, or first cities, which were established by Royal Charter to create protected trade locales. The first of these was the city of Ayr, in 1200 A.D. Many Gilchrists have lived in and around Ayr, where once the proud Viking navy suffered a devastating defeat as a result of a freak storm which struck while the navy was caught in the shoals.

In general, when clansmen were forced to affiliate themselves with parishes and adopt surnames, highlanders - and Irishmen - would use the Irish-Gaelic prefix "Mac-" while lowlanders would add the Norse suffix "-son" to their fathers' names. Thus Robert Gilchristsoun was burgess of Glasgow in 1471, and Johannes Gilchristson is recorded in Glasgow in 1499. Sir Thomas Christesoun was a stewart in Lesmahagow. Many variants of that name sprang up a century later: in Lanark in 1624 there were 36 Gilkersons, Gilkesons and Gilkerstons on the parish register - the letter k in place of ch seems to have been a Norse variant spelling which was customary to the Gilchrist families of that parish during the 17th century, who may therefore have been descendants of the wave of migrant Gall-gaidhil of many centuries earlier.

Or perhaps, it was just a widespread change of custom in spelling which vanished as quickly as it appeared: mysteriously, there are almost no Gilkersons in Lanark these days, although there are large numbers of Gilks, Gilkes, Gilkers, and Gilkinsons. A more unique variant was Gilkerscleugh, a family associated through intermarriage with the Hamiltons, who held various lands around Lanark at that time. Whether there are instances of it reverting to the spelling Gilchrist, I have not discovered; but no less than three Gilchrists of our modern spelling quite suddenly appear in three different towns at the turn of the 18th century. However, Gilchrists have spelled their name in the modern way in Ayrshire, the region of Dumphries and the island of Islay from at least a century earlier than that.

One quite rare variant is supplied by Paul Thomas Gilchreaste, who says, "My name is very uncommon but has been around for a number of generations. The only references to the spelling of my name on the internet which I've been able to find have related to myself or my family."

As for the "Mac-" form, Gillascop Mac Gilcrist received a charter of the five pennylands of Fyncharne and others from King Alexander II in 1243, but the first recorded appearance of the jointed form is Duncan MacGilchrist of Leuenaghes (Lennox) in l296. From then on this "highlands" form of the name appears quite frequently in the records, but is generally found farther north, especially in Argyllshire and MacLachlan territory.

Robert Walton Gilchrist, who lived in Titusville, Florida wrote a fine history of his own MacGilchrist family name, for those who have that version of our name in their family trees and want to know more about it.  You can find it at  It is titled "A History of Gilchrists", but the title may be a bit misleading - he has not successfully traced all Gilchrist lines.  I find his work fascinating and detailed, the result of much dedication and research, and a great parallel or companion piece to my own short brochure.  I caution the reader, however, that his somewhat tighter geographic focus is on one area of Scotland, the "hotbed" from which many of us originated; but not necessarily all of us, at least not within known history. 

My own family, for example, does not share the patterns of Christian names used by the families that he traces, and lived further east, in the Clyde valley southeast of Glasgow, from at least the 17th century. Others lived further south, in Dumphries, and other locales within what I described as a "cummerbund" across the lowlands. They may well have migrated in that direction from a smaller area comprising the western isles, but there is no incidence of the "Mac" prefix in any documentation of my direct ancestors; on the contrary, they sported the more Norse suffix "son" or "soun", which was the alternate custom of the lowland Scots.  You'll find many examples of this in Glasgow, and south from there to the border, up until the 1800's when clerks began to drop the suffix in records of our surname. You can see evidence of this tranformation in my own family history at

Thus, you should not imagine that we have all devolved from "MacGilchrist" to Gilchrist.  Some of us may have always been Gilchrists, while others became MacGilchrists early in the fourteenth century, for the reason that Robert explains.  Most of this latter group revcrted to the original form of the name in the eighteenth century.  As you've seen if you've read this far, Gilchrist is a very ancient name with many permutations.

Here are some more earliest Gilchrists:

Gillecrist mac Finguni, and Gillecrist mac Cormaic witnessed Gaelic grants in the Book of the Deer before 1132 A.D.

Gillecrist mac Gillewinin witnessed the charter of the church of Colmanele to the Abbey of Holyrood, c. 1165.

Gilcriste Kidd had lands near the river Nethan (near Lesmahagow, in the area of my ancestors) c. 1180 to 1230.

Gillecrist Bretnach ("Gilchrist Breton-man", or "Welshman", mentioned earlier) witnessed a charter of lands in Carric, c. 1200 A.D.

Adam fiz (i.e. filius, or "son of") Gillecrist was a juror on an inquisition in Strathaven (Lanarkshire) in 1302-1303.

One can see from these examples the most common spelling form of our name in the 12th century. It varies by one letter from the (supposedly) much earlier inscription on St. Martin's cross, which Professor MacAlister in 1927 declared to be an "Irish" inscription:  Gillacrist.
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