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.
"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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
zone, characterized by the use of both languages
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.
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/.
is easily confirmed in early immigration records, and re-confirmed once more in
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 /
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 /
Why do so most families in Scotland
today pronounce their surname /strak-han/?
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!
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
"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
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
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. ;-)