Flemish Rooted Names in Scotland: The Key Issues

Morvern French
Friday 8 November 2013

This is the second of a series of blog postings that discusses Flemish rooted names occurring in Scotland and their origins. In the first blog posting in the series (dated 27 September 2013) we set out a list of names that, with various degrees of probability, have Flemish roots. In this blog we identify some of the key issues surrounding these potentially Flemish names that we will seek to address over the next 3 years of the Scotland and the Flemish People Project.
The starting point for any examination of Scottish surnames must be George Black’s 1946 seminal work on the surnames of Scotland.[[1]] Black tells us that “The use of fixed surnames or descriptive names appears to have commenced in France about the year 1000, and such names were introduced into Scotland through the Normans a little over one hundred years later, though the custom of using them was by no means common for many years afterward.”

Most landed families had surnames by about 1300 but the adoption of surnames was a gradual process and surnames were not generally adopted in the Scottish Lowlands until at least the 16th century. Surname development in the Highlands took a different course. There the clan system survived until the end of the 18th century and individuals often took on the name of a clan rather than that of a family.[[2]]

In the first blog of the series, we identified a range of potential names with Flemish roots. Regarding the name Fleming itself, and its close variants like Flemyng or Fleeming, there is the question of where these names came from. Black talks of this set of names as being: “A surname sufficiently indicative of the nationality of its original bearers”. Often in medieval times names appeared with the ending “le Fleming” (like Mainard le Fleming), meaning “Mainard the Fleming”. Sometimes the Latin ending “-ensis” was used to express nationality and locality, for instance Jordanus Flandrensis meaning “Jordan from Flanders”. What is worth noting is that the name FLeming and its derivatives are not, strictly speaking, Flemish sourced names, as it would be rare to come across someone with those names in Flanders either in medieval times or indeed today. It is essentially a name that has been used by Flemish people outside Flanders.

So what are the key issues surrounding Flemish related surnames? One issue that arises with regard to the name Fleming has been identified by F. Lawrence Fleming in the most recent a series of books that examine the genealogy of the Fleming family.[[3]] These findings are based on extensive genealogical research undertaken by the author. The issue boils down to whether the name Fleming, and all descendants carrying the name, originate from one man – in fact the Jordanus Flandrensis mentioned above – whose great grandfather was Erkenbald the Fleming. Erkenbald had come to Britain with William the Conqueror in 1066. F. Lawrence Fleming contends that Jordanus is the progenitor of the Fleming family. If this thesis is correct all people with the name Fleming should be related. This is a strong thesis in that it does not allow the possibility of other Flemish immigrants coming to Scotland at various times, sometimes with difficult to pronounce continental names, and adopting the name Fleming. The adoption of a name was a fairly common practice in medieval times but there is a question as to whether the name Fleming in those days was of such standing that immigrants would not feel at liberty to adopt.

In principle there are two ways of trying to test the thesis that all people with the name Fleming descended from Jordanus. One way, using traditional genealogical techniques, is to look at individuals with the name Fleming and trace their family tree back to determine if at some point a name change had taken place (thus pointing to an adoption of the name Fleming). This would, however, require a significant amount of genealogical detective work. Another way is to look at the DNA of people in Scotland with the name Fleming. If there are a significant number of DNA matches between individuals (after allowing for what geneticists call “non-paternal events”) then that would suggest that the people in the sample are related in some way and hence support the thesis. We will be seeking to examine this thesis during the course of the project.

There is a second issue. Whereas it is virtually certain that people with the name Fleming or its close variants came from Flanders, it is not clear whether the others on our list of probable and possible names (see blog dated 27 September 2013) are so rooted. If, for a particular name, there is a clear genealogical pathway back to Flanders then that would be proof enough, but in reality the very early genealogy of most families is either non-existent or the link with Flanders is tenuous. There are questions, for instance, as to whether some of the early knights that came with William, and later migrated north to Scotland, are Flemish or Norman. Absent a clear genealogical link, the main hope for addressing the issue is through DNA testing. It is hoped that the DNA project associated with Scotland and the Flemish People will be able to shed some light on this issue (see blog dated 4 October 2013 for details on how to join the DNA project).

Alex Fleming
November 2013
Alex Fleming is a co-sponsor of, and researcher in the Scotland and the Flemish People Project.


[1] George Black, The Surnames of Scotland: their Origin, Meaning and History (New York, 1946)
[2] Debbie Kennett, The Surnames Handbook: A guide to Family Name Research in the 21st Century (2012)
[3] F. Lawrence Fleming, The ancestry of the Earl of Wigtown and other essays relating to the family history of the Flemings (2011)

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