Etymology & Pronunciation

STRACHAN: Name Meaning and Pronunciation

by Jim Strachan (/stra-khan/), MBA, Clan Strachan Seannachie, FSAScot
Contributions from Dr. Philip Smith, PhD Linguistics and learned Gaelic speaker
Revised: 25 March 2019


Strachan is a local (or habitation) name taken from lands near Banchory Scotland, about 20 miles south west of Aberdeen.

The Name is Gaelic in origin, and the English translation is 'Valley of the Deer River.'  The Name is based on three Gaelic words. The first is strath meaning 'broad valley.' Next, the Water of the Feugh runs west to east through the village of Strachan, and falls into the River Dee at Banchory. The word 'Feugh' is pronounced /few-ikh/, and in Gaelic, the 'f' disappears in the genitive. The word for 'river' in Gaelic is abhainn.  In the Lower Deeside and parts of Speyside, the word is pronounced /awn/, like lawn. 

As evidenced by 13th and 14th century phonetic spellings in medieval charters and grants, Strachan (spelling broadly defined) was pronounced with a three-syllable word, /stath-ikh-an/ or /strath-eukh-an/. Today, it has two contemporary pronunciations, /strawn/ and /stra-khan/. From about 1850, the former more popular outside of Scotland, and the later more dominant in Scotland. 


Expanded Explanation

STRACHAN is a 'local' (also called 'territorial' or 'habitation') name, taken from the lands of STRACHAN located approximately 20 miles south west of Aberdeen.

Click to Enlarge

Proper pronunciation

The 'accurate' pronunciation of the STRACHAN surname is highly controversial and hotly debated by many in Scotland and abroad.

In the immortal words of Charles Burnett, Ross Herald Extraordinary - Retired, "Clan politics can be a virtual minefield."  It is the Society's belief that one will never gain friends or influence others with the topic of the proper pronunciation of STRACHAN.

Equally, it is ridiculous, bordering on the rude and absurd to suggest to a person that they are not pronouncing their own surname correctly.

If you wish to believe that your pronunciation of the STRACHAN surname is the original and most accurate, and that your family has always used this pronunciation, by all means stop reading now. However, if you would like to learn a more enlightened opinion on the etymology, orthology, and pronunciation of Strachan... by all means, continue.

The name is first seen as a territorial designation in about 1212 (Arbroath Liber, i, no. 65), and based on early medieval charters and grants was originally pronounced as a 3-syllable word /strath-euch-an/, Gaelic meaning Valley of the Deer River:

The Gaelic word straid, in Gealic, "strath" is pronounced /straj/ or strad/ meaning 'broad valley'.  

The main burn (or river) running through the village of Strachan is the Waters of the Feugh (today pronounced /few-ikh/). The word Feugh, some suggest, is similar to the word Fiddich, derived from the Gaelic word Fiadh/Féidh - which is a generic word for deer. The cartographer Timothy Pont, in about 1583x1614, renders the name Feugh as Feuich.(1) 

Important to note, in the Gaelic, the 'f' disappears in the genitive. As the modern Scottish Gaelic is based on the Q-Celtic dialect, and the P-Celtic dialect was used among the Picts in Strachan. It is possible the variant spelling and pronunciation is due to the P-Celtic dialect. This may be an area for future research.

Finally, the word for 'river' in Gaelic is abhainn.  In the Lower Deeside and parts of Speyside, the word is pronounced /awn/, like lawn. 


Interesting, virtually all Strachan Arms and Seals (dating back 1309) incorporate a stag, which seemingly confirms the aforementioned thesis (i.e., canting arms).

HOWEVER, after the Strachan's are disinherited by King Robert de Bruce in 1315, the first Coat of Arms are those of Strachan of Carmyllie (est. 1325). Although these Arms retain the traditional cinquefoils, they are absent a stag.  Whether a linguistic contraction of STRATHEUCHAN came about because of the disinheritance of the family, or through more normal means is uncertain.  Regardless, we know that before the 1600's the name of STRATHEUCHAN had already contracted and split into two pronunciations:


/strawn/ (Gaelic:  Valley of the River), popular in the Highlands  (Gaelic word for deer was dropped)

•  /stra-khan/ (or similar derivatives), gutteral for the 'ch' popular in the Lowlands (the 'th' in strath and the 'ich' was contracted to just 'ch' or a gutteral)



The two pronunciations of STRACHAN provided above are a beautiful example of the Highland/Lowland cultural divide (i.e., hatred) that once existed.

/strawn/ is not the Gaelic pronunciation of STRACHAN

Some will say, "/strawn/ is not the Gaelic pronunciation of STRACHAN."  You are correct. The /strawn/ pronunciation is based on the Gaelic words, 'Valley of the River' or 'Valley of the Rivers' (depending on your source),  which are the Gaelic words in which the pronunciation was most commonly used in the 17th and 18th century. Indeed, the last Chief of Clan Strachan is Admiral Sir Richard John Strachan, Bart. We know from an ancient doggerel verse that he pronounced his surname /strawn/ (Brenton, ii, 295, footnote).

The Earl of Chatham, with his sword drawn,
Stood waiting for Sir Richard Strachan;
Sir Richard, longing to be at 'em,
Stood waiting for the Earl of Chatham.

Additionally, we must remember the spelling of STRACHAN was first seen in the late-16th century, and did not become common until relatively recently, that being the early to mid-19th century.  To this end, many families have a tradition that dates back centuries of using the /strawn/ pronunciation, and today use the relatively modern STRACHAN spelling for their surname.

Moreover, we know for certain, indisputably in fact, that most STRACHAN families prior to 1850 lived in Aberdeenshire, or elsewhere in the Highlands, and commonly used the /strawn/ pronunciation.  That is, unless your family were residing in the Lowlands or perhaps the city of Aberdeen.  

Some have argued the village of STRACHAN (before c. 1583 and even today) was pronounced in Gaelic /strawn/ based upon a map by cartographer, Timothy Pont, who phonetically spelt the village STRAWHAN.

Timothy Pont, Lower Deeside, 1583-1614
Click to enlarge above image


However, the first recorded use of the spelling 'Strachan' was by cartographer Robert Gordon about this same time (c 1580). So, the debate over the 'proper' pronunciation of Strachan is likely over 500+ years old. 

Gordon, Robert 1580-1661
Published 1636-52

We do know that by the early 19th century, most Strachans were living in Aberdeenshire or Kincardineshire, and used the /strawn/ pronunciation. Indeed, the chiefly line of Strachan of Thornton (extinct 1828) by this time used the /strawn/ pronunciation, as evidenced in a doggerel verse regarding Admiral Sir Richard John Strachan, Bart. and the Walcheren Expedition (1809):

The Earl of Chatham with his sword drawn,
Stood waiting for Sir Richard Strachan (/strawn/),
Sir Richard, longing to get at 'em,
Stood waiting for the Earl of Chatham.

Moreover, according to the Old Statistical Account, Vol. 5  (1791-1799) and the New Statistical Account, Vol. 11 (1845), and various other antiquarian sources, the surname and spelling of STRACHAN was popularly pronounced /strawn/ (spelt Straan) prior to c. 1850.

What happened AFTER 1850?

By the mid-1800's, in the reign of Queen Victory, Scotland lost approximately 35% of its popular to migration to the Americas, Australia, Northern Ireland, England, and elsewhere.  This was due to (1) the Highland Clearances, (2) the Scottish Agricultural revolution causing a rapid increase in rents in Aberdeenshire and in the Howe O'Mearns, (3) the Scottish Industrial revolution, (4) Anti-Catholic prosecution, and (5) a number of other socio-economic reasons. confirms that many families from the Highlands and others with Gaelic sounding surnames who relocated to the Lowlands or England changed either the spelling of their surname or its pronunciation in order to sound less Gaelic and to better assimilate into the Lowland culture. For example, a person relocating to Glasgow or Edinburgh looking for work frequently changed the Gaelic pronunciation of their name in order to avoid the negative stigma.  In linguistics, this is called a hypercorrection, and for the Strachan family this appears to have taken place sometime in the mid-1800's.

After c. 1850, many Strachan families who remained in Scotland, and particularly those residing in the Lowlands, changed the pronunciation of their surname to /stra-khan/ in order to better assimilate and obtain work.

Those conducting family genealogies can confirm this by a review of historical records and derivative spellings.  Spellings such as Stra(u)gh(a)n were all pronounced /strawn/ (due to poor literacy, "augh" and "agh" are pronounced /aw/ as in the word lawn).

As a side note, the Strahan spelling is generally seen among those families residing (or from ) Ulster, Northern Ireland, and is pronounced /strawn/.  The /stray-han/ pronunciation of the spelling Strahan is commonly heard in the Americas, and is a phonetic pronunciation commonly accepted by families as they too wish to avoid the inevitable debate about the proper pronunciation of their surname.

Most pronounce the name /stra-khan/ - - Right?

Although today the /stra-khan/ pronunciation is common place in Scotland, many might be surprised that a number of STRACHAN families residing in Scotland  have a tradition of using the /strawn/ pronunciation, but outside the home answer to /stra-khan/ in order to avoid the inevitable argument with strangers. 

Outside Scotland, and on a global perspective, the reverse is true. For those families migrating abroad there was no negative stigma of using a Highland or Gaelic-based /strawn/ pronunciation, and as such many kept their surname pronunciations.  In America you will see some early STRACHAN settlers in around 1600 who eventually changed the spelling of their surname to Strawn, Strawhun, etc. in order to allow others to more accurately pronounce the surname.  This was done as literacy rates improved.

In  2021, the population of Scotland was 5.46 million, and it is estimated that 17% of the population are immigrants from England, other parts of Britain, and 7% from elsewhere [source]. In the Americas (i.e., US, Canada) , the number of people claiming to be of Scots descent today is estimated to be 12-13 million. Indeed, there are more than a few sources that suggest in the United States alone, there are 20 to 25 million of Scots decent (up to 8.3% of the total US population), and Scots-Irish (aka Ulster Scots), 27 to 30 million (up to 10% of the total US population), the subgroups overlapping and not always distinguishable because of their shared ancestral surnames.[source] For better or worse, Scots descent (or heritage) is an international demographic.

Bearing in mind there are vastly more Strachan families living abroad than actually residing in Scotland today, the Society unofficially estimates that 70% to 80% of the global family of STRACHANs use the /strawn/ pronunciation.

The /strak-khan/ pronunciation is widely used in Scotland, and virtually exclusively abroad by families who migrated around or AFTER 1850. Virtually everyone else pronounces the surname /strawn/. 

In conclusion

Both  /strawn/ and /stra-khan/ pronunciations are accurate and correct. It is equally proper to use the pronunciation associated with your family tradition.

The modern two STRACHAN surname pronunciations are a beautiful example of Scotland's turbulent past, and a valuable part of our family heritage.  One is based on the Gaelic words 'Vale of the Waters' (/strawn/), which is founded on the ancient Gaelic orthology of the name, and have likely been used by families for half a millennium or more. While the other is based on the Gaelic pronunciation of the 16th century spelling of Strachan.

If you hear someone using a different pronunciation, there is no need to correct them - we all know what you mean.  Again, the different pronunciations are part of the STRACHAN family heritage, and a beautiful example of the auld Highland/Lowland cultural divide that once existed.