Etymology & Pronunciation

STRACHAN: Name Meaning and Pronunciation

by Jim Strachan (/stra-khan/), MBA, FSAScot, Clan Strachan Seannachie
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 thought by Gaelic speakers to be a derivative of the word deer ('fiddich'). 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. 

Early Medieval Pronunciation

[click to enlarge]

As evidenced by numerous early medieval grants and charters employing phonetic spellings, Strachan (spelling broadly defined) was pronounced with a three-syllable word:

• /stath-ikh-an/; or
• /strath-eukh-an/.

Origins of The Modern Pronunciations

A Linguistic Hypercorrection is defined as the erroneous use of a word form or pronunciation in order to avoid a negative stigma. The two modern pronunciations are almost certainly a result of two linguistic hypercorrections.

• /strawn/, and
• /stra-khan/

To confirm, the pronunciation of /strawn/ is not the Gaelic pronunciation for the spelling STRACHAN, and there is no phonetic record of the strawn pronunciation until well after the 'de Strachan' family were disinherited of the barony of Strachan by Robert the Bruce in c 1316. Subsequently, it is thought by a linguistic professor the /strawn/ pronunciation is with a high probability a linguistic hypercorrection of the Name to avoid it's association with the village of Strachan. Specifically, reference to the River Feugh was dropped, and Strath-awn (i.e., strawn) was popularly used by the family by at least 1800. Later in the mid-1800s, a second hypercorrection resulted in the proper Gaelic pronunciation for the spelling of Strachan (stra-khan). This being in doubt influenced by improved literacy rates and driven by the Lowland and Highland cultural divide.

First Hypercorrection:

By the 1800; the strawn pronunciation appears to have been in widespread use among the family. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Chief of Clan Strachan was Admiral Sir Richard John Strachan, Bart. and Representor of Thornton. 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.

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.

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).

Second Hypercorrection

BBy the mid-1800's, in the reign of Queen Victory, Scotland lost approximately 35% of its population 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 trahan 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. Prior to 1850, 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 whose descendants 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 or other parts of Britain, and 7% from elsewhere. 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 people 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. 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 /stra-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 centuries. While the other is based on the Gaelic pronunciation of the 16th century spelling of Strachan (sta-khan).

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.