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Pronunciation of Strachan and Etymology
By Jim Strachan, MBA, FSA Scot
Published 22 Dec 2013

Contributions from: Dr. Philip Smith, PhD Linguistics, and learned Gaelic speaker.

Clicking on the map images will open a new window showing a higher resolution image.  

The "accurate" pronunciation of the surname of STRACHAN is highly controversial, both within and outwith the family. 

Many Scots (albeit not all) contend that /stra-khan/ is the proper pronunciation (using a gutteral for the 'ch'); while many of the Diaspora (albeit not all) pronounce the surname /strawn/ and insist this is the correct or original pronunciation.

The simple answer is that both versions are correct and proper pronunciations for the spelling of STRACHAN and are based on different languages.  Further, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest one was original.

/strawn/ is the correct pronunciation for the spelling of STRACHAN in Gaelic, where the 'ch' is silent.  It is more popularly used by families who generally emigrated from Scotland prior to about 1850.

/Strak-han/ is the correct pronunciation for the spelling of STRACHAN in the Anglicized Scots language, where the 'ch' is pronounced similar to the word 'loch' or 'Bach'.  It is more popularly found in Scotland.

More Detailed Explanation

Unfortunately, a more detailed explanation requires a dialog in history, culture, linguistics, and of course genetics and migratory patterns of the family.

From a linguistic perspective, language is always in a state of flux.  For example, the simple pronunciation of a female fox over the centuries has turned from 'foxen' to 'vixen'.  This, and other various contractions and changes in language have lead to the field of linguistics as we understand it today.

Name Origination

The two different pronunciations of the surname of STRACHAN is a example of the old cultural divide between the Highlands and the Lowlands of Scotland.  

The auld District of Strachan is located in the Lower Deeside, just north of the Highland Boundary fault, and as such Clan Strachan lies just within the Scottish Highlands.

In medieval times there was a significant cultural difference between the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland. Highlanders spoke their own language, Scots Gaelic, and generally opposed the crown of Alba supporting instead MacDonald Lord of the Isles.  Lowlanders saw Highlanders as outlaws and traitors to the crown Scotland.  As such, many families residing in the Highlands pronounced their surname in Gaelic, and in the Lowlands Anglo-Scots was used. 

To this end, everyone agrees the STRACHAN surname is derived from the Gaelic language.  That is, originally from the Gaelic word "strath" meaning broad valley, and "Awen" (pronounced /on/) which is a phonetic pronunciation for the Gaelic word for 'river', and is also the name of a river that runs through the Strachan District.  Thus translated, "Valley of the Awen." 

Dr. Philip Smith, a leaned Gaelic speaker and Professor of Linguistics states:

“Strath”, straid  in Gaelic,  is pronounced as /straj/ or /strad/. That said, final –th is usually silent as in math. I cannot speak for Perthshire or Strathspey Gaelic as the last speakers died a few years ago.

The word for “river” in Gaelic is abhainn /AH-ven/ so the “River Aven” is a reduplication  -- “River River.”  In the north and east of Scotland and on Skye (my dialect) the middle sound –bh- is sometimes a / v / [Often seen phonetically spelt Avon],  sometimes it softens to / w / [often seen phonetically spelt Awen]; and may even disappear as in Sabhal Mor / SOW-uhl mor /.

Lady Claire Russell, owner of Ballindalloch Castle at the juncture of the Rivers Spey and Avon, once told me (1981), “The locals insist on pronouncing ‘Avon’ as /on/”.

The author can also confirm that the locals residents of the Strachan District also pronounce the River Avon in the Lower Deeside as / on / .

Thus, it appears based on this early theory of the surname origination, the surname was originally pronounced in two syllables /straw-han/ (or similar)... which is different from both the two syllable Anglo-Scots pronunciation of /strak-han/, and also different from the single syllable Gaelic pronunciation of /strawn/.  The latter of which appears to be a linguistic contraction that probably occurred over the centuries.

This thesis is confirmed in the first map of the Lower Deeside (~ c. 1580 - click map to enlarge), which is more of a land survey than what we think of a traditional modern map. 

The individual who drew this map obviously visited the area, as the site of the Kirk, the location of the Inn, bridges and other landmarks in (or near) Strachan are depicted accurately on the map. 

Thus, we can state with a very high degree of confidence that the spelling was a phonetic-based interpretation on how inhabitants of the village pronounced it.  

According to the above Lower Deeside Map (c. 1583-96) the Kirk of Strachan was spelt phonetically as STRAWHAN.  This proves that a derivative of the pronunciation of /strawn/ has existed in Scotland well into the middle ages and likely long before, and shatters the myth that /strawn/ is an English pronunciation, which seems prevalent in Scotland.

If further confirmation were needed, New Statistical Account of the 1840s - vol. 11, p. 231 confirms the pronunciation was /straan/ in the mid-1800's.

So why the two different pronunciations?

From a historical perspective, Scotland was not a united Kingdom in the 15th century.  McDonald Lord of the Isles was a King and ruled the Gaelic Kingdom in the west and north into Ross, and feuded bitterly with the Stewart King of Scotland who held most of what today we consider Scotland - -  and who spoke Scots.  The Strachan District being well within the Scottish borders, located in the remote north east Highlands.

In the Scottish Lowlands during the 15th and 16th century, inferring one spoke Gaelic was considered a high insult. Confirmation can be found in letters of the time.  Specifically, in The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy, written in Lowland Scots dated 1507-1508, it is believed to have been made before King James IV.   In this poets duel, Dunbar casts numerous insults at Kennedy, including an accusation that his adversary uses the Gaelic tongue, and a rather rude comparison of its tone.

Thy treacher tongue has ta’en a Highland strynd,
A Lowland arse would make a better noise.

According to the BBC's "A History of Scotland", James IV political, cultural and social agenda was to push Scots as the language of the people in Scotland. This Flyting confirms the negative stereotype between Highland and Lowland peoples at the time.  The Gaelic language was clearly under pressure in the 14-16th century.  Scots was the language of literature and law, and therefore of power.  Although Gaelic was spoken by half of all Scots, it was considered by Lowlanders as the language of traitors, and outlaws.

The District of Strachan is located in the north east Highlands, in the Royal Deeside, and this likely put its inhabitants in a rather precarious position.  In the 1891 census, 59.2% of the population of Braemar spoke the Gaelic language "habitually", even though it's use at this time was illegal. 

Given this demographic statistic, we can be fairly safe in presuming that during the 1400's and 1500's that a vast majority of the population in the north east would have also spoken Gaelic, but to what degree is still uncertain.   In all likelihood, Gaelic was probably a second language for Aberdonians, and the farther away from the city you went, and more Gaelic was likely spoken.  Given the culture of the Deeside even to this day, there certainly would not have been the negative stigmatism in Aberdeen associated with the Gaelic language as was witnessed in the Scottish Lowlands.

The Gaelic language was obviously taught from parent to child, and part of the Highland culture which no doubt differed substantially from the Lowlanders of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and alike.

Given the negative stigma of the Gaelic language in Court and in the Lowlands, it is with a great amount of certainty that STRACHANs would adopt a more Anglo-Scots pronunciation if they resided in the Lowlands, or had dealings with Court.  This seems to have been the case, for many of the feudal and medieval grants and charters seem to reflect the Strachan Houses of Thornton, Glenkindie, and other prominent STRACHANs pronounced their surname in the more Anglicized Scots language as / straw-ken / between 1400-1600.

It is unknown if these landed STRACHAN families permanently changed the pronunciation of their surname, or if they simply altered the pronunciation based on their geographic location.

It may even be plausible that these STRACHANs used both a Scots pronunciation of their surname in their dealings with Court and whist in the Lowlands, and a Gaelic pronunciation whilst in the Highlands.  As will be explained further in the article, this practice is often employed even to this day by many STRACHANs, albeit for different reasons.

Also, the divergence of the two modern pronunciations of STRACHAN may perhaps be contributed to the 'de Strachan' nobles supporting the Balliol and Comyn causes, and who were eventually dispossessed of their ancestral lands of Strachan in 1308 by King Robert the Bruce.  Simply, without a Laird to insist on its pronunciation, it was likely the Pastor at the Kirk of Strachan had more influence on the pronunciation of the village.

As can be confirmed from various accounts, from a very early date it appears that there were two different pronunciations. One based on Gaelic, and another based on the Anglicized Scots language.

Which pronunciation was more popularly used in the past?

As the map shows here (on the right), Gaelic was spoken throughout most of what today is considered Scotland in the early 1100's. 

  Gaelic speaking
  Norse-Gaelic zone, characterized by the use of both languages
  English-speaking zone
  Cumbric speaking zone

Therefore, we can presume that when the feudal system came to rise in about 1190, the Gaelic language was the dominant language. Early feudal grants and charters were written in Latin.

 

File:Gaelic1400Loch.png





The map shown here on the left is the geographic distribution of Gaelic to Scots speakers in 1400. The dark blue area is Gaelic speaking, and the yellow area is Scots speaking.  The Strachan District, is quite literally on the border between Gaelic and Scots speakers, and is perhaps an early indication that various pronunciations may have found their way into existence.

We can state with a very high degree of confidence that prior to the 1800's most STRACHANs in Scotland (albeit not all) were residing in the Mearns, and Aberdeenshire; and most (Albeit not all) pronounced their surname in the Gaelic fashion /strawn/ or /straw-han/.

This thesis is easily confirmed in early immigration records, and re-confirmed once more in the STRACHAN CLAN Y-DNA PROJECT, which among other things tracks the migratory patters of the family.  

Simply, the earliest known STRACHAN settlers to the Americas (Canada and the USA) invariably changed the spelling of their surname within a few generations to phonetic spellings:  Strawn, Strawhun, etc.  Moreover, Strachan families who have been residing in Australia for multiple generations (prior to 1900) also exclusively pronounce their surname / stawn /. 

Quite simply, those who emigrated outwidth Great Britain were largely commoners.  These were likely labourers and tenant farmers forced from their homeland who out of necessity sought to find a new and better life elsewhere.  Certainly, those who immigrated to the Americas and Australia were under absolutely no pressure to change the pronunciation of their surname in order to find employment opportunities.

However, not to make an over generalization, it is important to note that we also know for certain that some STRACHANs who were residing in Scotland during this period also used the / strak-han /  pronunciation. 

Why do so most families in Scotland today pronounce their surname /strak-han/?

In 1746, the Battle of Culloden resulted in a Jacobite defeat by government forces. With this defeat came repression of both the Gaelic language and all things Gaelic. The British Government passed a series of legislative acts with the intent to eradicate and destroy the Gaelic culture, and the clan system itself.  This included outlawing tartan, kilts, bagpipes, and even use of the Gaelic language became illegal. 

Perhaps most importantly, Britain had been engaged in a series of wars starting with the American Revolution (1765-1783), and with France between 1793-1815.  These wars substantially increased the demand for wheat needed to feed the British Armies, and thus increased the price of wheat.  This caused rents in Aberdeenshire, and in particular the Howe of Mearns to increase substantially.  Simply, farming became quite profitable!

The deep rich red soil of the Mearns are particularly fertile, and as one travels up to the Highlands the soils becomes lighter-and-lighter shades of brown.  This made lands in the Mearns and Lower Deeside particularly valuable. 

As a result some historians suggest that substantially higher rents caused a decline in tenant farmers, and the need for families to relocate to other areas such as the Lowlands of Scotland, England, the Ulster Plantations in Northern Ireland, the Americas, Australia, or elsewhere. 

As mentioned previously, those who emigrated abroad (outwidth Great Britain) generally kept their Gaelic pronunciation: /strawn/

In order to avoid the negative stigma associated with the Highlands in places like England, or the Scottish Lowlands it is believed many Strachans forced to relocate from the Mearns or Aberdeenshire changed the pronunciation of their surname to the Anglo-Scots variant: / strak-han /.  This was by no means an uncommon practice in Scotland.  According to ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk

"Many emigrants from Scotland changed their names on arrival in their new country, as did many people from the Highlands & Islands who migrated to the Scottish lowlands in search of work. [Including...] anglicising a gaelic surname, or indeed changing the surname altogether for a similar sounding English one, which would be easier to pronounce and would conceal one’s origins, were quite common occurrences."

The Strachan families who migrated to the Lowlands or England changed the pronunciation of their surname to /strak-han/, which interesting enough closely mirrors the pronunciation seen in early feudal grants and charters.  Thus, it appears that a linguistic hypercorrection of the STRACHAN surname pronunciation likely took place in the 1800's.

This quite nicely explains why most STRACHANs living abroad pronounce the surname /strawn/; and why
most STRACHANs living in Scotland pronounce the surname /strak-han/. 


Anglicized Scots form:  /strak-han/
Used by most of the surname in Scotland today.



Scottish Gaelic form:  /strawn/
Used by most of the surname residing outwidth Scotland.
Used by residents of the Village of Strachan

The village of Strachan is still pronounced /strawn/ by its inhabitants, as all villages in the Royal Deeside use their Gaelic pronunciation. 

Rob Strachan, our proposed Clan Commander, pronounces his surname /strawn/.  However, the pronunciation of /strak-han/ is more prominent in Scotland, and as such he answers to both. 

Sir Hew Strachan, Laird of Glenhighton also pronounces his surname /strawn/, as did the last Chief of Clan Strachan, Admiral Sir Richard John Strachan, Bt.  (d. 1828).

The author of this article has the opposite problem as described Rob above.  He resides in America, and his family is a recent immigrant to the USA.  He pronounces his surname /strak-han/.  However, most STRACHANs in North America use the Gaelic /strawn/ pronunciation, including the famous and now deceased Aberdeen-born Bishop Strachan of Toronto (Canada).  Again, the /strawn/ pronunciation is far more prominent outside Scotland, and subsequently he finds himself often answering to both pronunciations.

In all honesty, the two pronunciations are mere synonyms of the same word.  Neither one is right, or wrong.  And, there is absolutely no reason to correct a pronunciation.

According to Rob Strachan, our proposed Clan Commander, he suggests that you pronounce the spelling of STRACHAN  (village or surname) in accordance with your own family tradition, and there is absolutely no need to correct one another.  Rob jokingly infers that if you don't try to correct him, he won't try to correct you.  ;-)

 

 

 


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