Centuries ago, in the small fishing villages of north-east Scotland, there weren’t many surnames to go around. There also weren’t many acceptable first names to choose from. So a large number of people ended up with identical sets of first and last names.
To differentiate between all these like-named people, locals began using tee-names: descriptive words that were added to (or used in place of) legal names. A tee-name could refer to a person’s appearance, demeanor, occupation, or anything else that served as a useful identifier.
Here’s how an article from 1842 described the practice:
In an unsophisticated village, the proper names only connect the inhabitants with the external civilisation [sic], while the tee-name is, of necessity, the thing for use. It is amusing enough to be permitted to turn over the leaves of a grocer’s ledger, and see the tee-names as they come up. Buckie, Beauty, Bam, Biggelugs, Collop, Helldom, the King, the Provost, Rochie, Stoattie, Sillerton, the Smack, Snipe, Snuffers, Toothie, Todlowrie. Ladies are occasionally found who are gallantly and exquisitely called the Cutter, the Bear, &c. Among the twenty-five George Cowies in Buckie, there are George Cowie, doodle, George Cowie, carrot, and George Cowie, neep.
(In Scottish, a buckie is a whelk, a collop is a slice of meat, rochie means “rough,” a snipe is either a type of bird or a contemptible person, a snuffers is a scissor-like tool used to snuff candles, a todlowrie is a fox, and a neep is a turnip.)
Here’s an interesting example that also demonstrates how tee-names were sometimes passed down to the next generation:
John May was born in Rathen, Aberdeenshire in 1846. He was known as Jockey Borra. Jockey is a common Scottish nick-name for John but Borra was taken from the “Northern Lights”, Aurora Borealis with which he was fascinated. His sons took the same Tee-name: one was also Jockey Borra and the other, Robert, was known as Bobby Borra, although it isn’t known if they also had a fascination with the Aurora.
Do you have Scottish ancestry? If so, did any of the folks in your family tree have a tee-name?
- Dictionary of the Scots Language
- “Notes on the Fishers of the Scotch East Coast.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine Mar. 1842: 296-305.
- Valuation Rolls for 1895 Launched – National Records of Scotland
- What are Scottish Tee-Names? – What’s in a Name?