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Morrison Surname History
The Fiction of the Morrison Fable
Clan societies, particularly those founded overseas, have become something akin to cult groups. Reading modern literature one is forgiven for believing the Morrison “clan” is derived from a real event in the early 13th century of the history of Scotland. Folklore surrounding the origins of the Morrisons on the Isle of Lewis include this gushing account from the Clan Morrison website:
Eight centuries ago a Norse ship struggled in heavy seas off the Scottish island of Lewis. A proud Kintyre noblewoman named Lauon stood on deck cradling her newborn infant son, Gillemorrie, in her arms while her husband, Olaf the Black, shouted orders to the crew. Despite his Herculean efforts the ship foundered. Olaf, Lauon and their son plunged into the frigid waters and clung to a piece of driftwood near their sinking vessel. Fortune smiled upon the stoic trio, and they were deposited safe but wet upon the stony Lewis shore.
This fable is about an event that is supposed to have occurred about 1217 after Olaf’s [Olaf the Black, 1177-1237] half-brother Reginald granted him title to Lewis during the reign of Alexander 11 of Scotland. This account of the Morrisons of Lewis has fatal flaws that should be aired. The above fable has been copied relentlessly without any acknowledgement by Morrison societies and followers as though it was fact.
Whilst it is acknowledged that there is no definitive account of the reign of Olaf the Black a number of historians have examined the available accounts, particularly some who have investigated the origins of the MacLeods. One of the disputed theories about the origins of the MacLeods was that their lineage could be traced to Leod, son of Olaf the Black. Interestingly, not one of these scholars associated Olaf as having a son named “Gillmorrie”.
As a short digression some of the history of Olaf might be useful. When Olaf’s father Godred 11 (Godred The Black) died in 1187 the Kingship was passed to his illegitimate son Reginald because Olaf was only 10 years old. According to the Chronicon Regum Manniae (1158-1223), Reginald assigned Lewis to Olaf, but Olaf found it to be unsatisfactory and complained. Reginald had him imprisoned by the Scottish King William and it wasn’t until William died in 1214 that Olaf was released. He then went on a three year pilgrimage to St James of Compostella in the North of Spain.
This takes us to about 1217 and Olaf made peace with Reginald. According to Alick Morrison (1986) Olaf seems to have been married “before he was imprisoned in Scotland, to a ‘lady of Kintyre’, a cousin of the Queen of Man and the Isles [The Chronicon Regum Manniae suggests it was “Lanon”, the Queen’s sister]. According to Canon Roderick MacLeod, Leod, progenitor of the MacLeods, was a son of this marriage, in this particular, the Canon departs from MacLeod traditions (eg, Manuscript Memorial of 1767, the Talisker Manuscript and the Bannatyne Manuscript), which claimed that Leod was a son of Olaf’s third marriage with Christina, daughter of Farquar, Earl of Ross. Some time after his return to Lodhus [Lewis], Olaf decided to marry again in 1218 to ‘Jauon’ (ie, Joan) a sister of the Queen of Man. Reginald [the son of Olaf’s sister], the Bishop of the Isles, now took action and convening the Synod, demanded that Olaf must divorce his wife on the ground that she was cousin germain to his first wife. Olaf complained that his first marriage was not confirmed: Bishop Reginald was adamant: Joan had to go. In 1222, Olaf married his third wife, Christina daughter of Farquar, Earl of Ross, with issue four sons, Harold, Reginald, Magnus and Godfrey” (Godfrey died as a child).
MacKenzie’s (1903) detailed “History of the Outer Hebrides” makes no mention of Olaf having a troubled landing with his “illicit” bride Lauon (who Reginald had arranged). MacKenzie states that Olaf died in 1237 and left three sons, Harald (the eldest), Reginald and Magnus. (W C MacKenzie, History of the Outer Hebrides, 1903, pp 29-39). Again no mention of a “Gillemorrie”!
There is considerable debate amongst historians about Olaf, including one suggestion he had three wives (Alick Morrison, 1986) and many children, but all agree there was no “Gillemorrie”. Note also that the MacLeods originally claimed their decent through Olaf the Black from a child by Lauon named “Leod”. The McLeod history claims that Olaf was forced to “divorce” Lauon and marry Christina. Depending on which account you subscribe to, Lauon was a relative of Reginald’s Queen (either a sister or cousin), and the Queen attempted to have Olaf murdered by her son for the treachery against Lauon.
MacLeod (The Ancestry of Leod, 2000) cites the Manx Chronicle which names the four sons of Olaf noting there was no “Leod” (or for that matter, “Gillemorrie”) and writes that “By the end of the thirteenth century, legal claims to the Isle of Mann were being pursued on behalf of daughters of the family, implying that the (legitimate) male line from Olaf the Black was then extinct”. If this is the case then it further substantiates the proposition there was no Morrison male line that could be traced to Olaf the Black because if there was then the Morrisons would have had legal claim over the Isle of Man.
As for the Morrison plant emblem being driftwood (a direct reference to the fable), given the nature of the coastline, wrecks were common, and driftwood plentiful. The antiquaries manuscript of 1876-78 (Traditions of the Morrisons [Clan Mac Ghillemhurie] by Capt FWL Thomas) states ”I am told the that the badge of the Morrisons is ‘drift-wood’ of which a great quantity is driven upon the west coast of Lewis (p14)”, but there is no mention in his account of the Morrison traditions of the above fable. Rather than supporting the shipwreck story Thomas quite rightly makes the observation that because driftwood is so plentiful on Lewis it was natural to associate driftwood with the early Morrisons on Lewis.
One has to remember that a fable is not a fact, and stories about shipwrecks could be told about any number of similar incidents along Scotland’s rugged coastline. I have been unable to find any reference to who wrote the above fable about the shipwreck, but serious Morrison researchers would be well advised to keep to credible historical records and family documentation.
Captain Thomas (1876-78) quotes John Morrison of Bragar (also known as the “Indweller”) writing around 1678: “The first and most ancient inhabitants of this countrie [Lewis] were three men of three several reaces, viz, Mores, the sone of Kennanus, whom the Irish historians call Makurich, whom they make to be naturall son to one of the kings of Norovay, some of whose posteritie remains in the land to this day. All the Morrisons in Scotland may challenge their decent from this man.. (p5)”. The other two “reaces” Morrison refers to were Iskair Mac Aulay from Ireland and Macnaicle [MacNicol] who decended from the king of Norway. This is a fascinating account written by a Morrison who was so to speak, on the spot, but remember this was written in 1678, some 550 years after the fable was supposed to have occurred.
Thomas points out what he considers to be a curious omission in John Morrison’s account: “Of the Morrisons, it is strange that the ‘Indweller’, himself a Morrison should have ignored what he would have called the “Irish” name of his his clan, which is from Gille-Mhuire, ie, servant of Mary; from Gille, ie, a servant, & and More, ie, Mary. A Morrison in Gaelic is Mac Ghillemhuire, sometimes shortened to Gillmore, Gilmour; or translated Morrison, Maryson; or reduced to Milmorer, Miles or Myles. The Morrisons are numerous in Lewis, where, in 1861, they numbered 1402, or one-fifteenth of the whole population; in Harris there were 530, equal to one-seventh of the inhabitants (p7)”.
So we are left the intriguing incongruity: there was no child of Olaf named “Gillemorrie” and the “Indweller” claims Norse decent from “Mores”. The name “Gillemorrie” is of Gaelic origin. Therefore the conclusion has to be that there is no definitive origin to the Morrisons of Lewis, but somewhere in the mix there is every likelihood of some Norse genetic infusion into the Gael stock. The conclusion after examining the extensive academic debate is that neither the Morrisons or the MacLeods descend from Olaf the Black, yet there is a general uncritical acceptance by many writers that claim this Morrison origin.
There is one further Norse connection that is sometimes mentioned in the origins of the Lewis Morrisons and that is the reference to the 12th Century Norse-Gaelic warrior Somerled, self styled King of the Hebrides, who is said to have a connection to the MacDonald clan. There would appear to be little detailed research on this theory to warrant examination in this discussion paper.
Bain (The Clans and Tartans of Scotland, 1938, p240) wrote the Morrisons were of Norse origin and many were forced to flee Lewis in 1597 with up to 60 families relocating to the highland area of Sutherland in MacKay territory. Note that those Morrisons left on Lewis after the intervention of the “Fife Adventures” and Neill MacLeod’s treachery between 1598-1607 lost their entitlement to hereditary brieveship in 1613. Are we to believe that from this 1597 exodus that the Morrisons spread all over Scotland? Hardly.
After the founding of a Clan Morrison Society in 1909 it took until 1965 to elect a “Chief”. This went to a Morrison who was associated with the Harris Morrisons of Pabbay, and recognised by the court of the Lord Lyon as the rightful “clan” under John Morrison (Lord Ruchdi). What we therefore have is the acknowledgement of a family group whose geographic isolation on Lewis and Harris has made them distinctive, and quite probably sharing a common descent over a number of generations.
The Morrisons of Lewis and Harris fit the modern definition of a clan, defined as a unit “often consisting of several lineages in which common descent is assumed but cannot necessarily be demonstrated (Fox, 1967)”. However, David Moody (Scottish Family History, 1988) warns that “there is the problem that the clan system of today is primarily an invention of nineteenth-century romantics and astute businessmen bent on the exploitation of a myth (p99)”.
Moody’s cautionary warning is appropriate to the prevailing idea of a general clan Morrison. If you accept the idea of there being a clan Morrison then there is the requirement of a common descent. There is no common descent for the holders of the name Morrison. This fact is set out below as both a function of the many possible derivations of the name Morrison multiplied by the various geographical family clusters mentioned above.
This Morrison “clan” history has taken on a whole new persona since the Lord Lyon approval, embellished and decorated with all the trimmings of a Scottish tourist shop. It is backlit by the romantic vision of Scotland portrayed in the Waverley novels of Sir Walter Scott where larger than life clan chieftains stood proudly bedecked in tartan, claymore in hand, among the castle ruins and scenic lochs. More recently the filmic depiction by Mel Gibson of the heroic Sir William Wallace have given rise to a clan industry that plays on the more than 30 million people of Scottish origin living abroad. This is not to say that todays Scots themselves don’t enjoy the trappings of this romantic vision as witnessed by Highland gatherings, clan parades and Scottish national tartan fervour over international football fixtures.
The serious side is trying to determine what if anything apart from the name can unify all Morrisons, either by origin, tartan or badge. Everything that I have read and studied about Scottish kinship has cautioned me to approach the subject with a great deal of scepticism.
The Scottish History of the Morrison Origins
“There was, not surprisingly, a certain coolness from some who felt their illusions had been shattered and some who had vested interests in ‘clanship’”.
Gordon Donaldson (1995) p 89.
I am a Scot, but what does it mean? Scottish people have evolved from an amalgamation of Picts (northern Scotland down to the borders), Gaels (Ireland and Western Isles and coast), Britons (from the south moving north across the border country) as well as Norse Vikings and Germanic peoples such as the Anglo-Saxons. Later on in history the Romans and Normans had a significant influence. Then there were the European traders who brought further ethnic mixes into the equation. Modern Scots are therefore like the crystals in a kaleidoscope, the more you turn the viewer the more the pattern changes.
There were periods in Scottish history when Norway held suzerainty over the Orkneys and the Western Isles, including the Hebridean Isle of Lewis. Perhaps the most fluid ethnic ebb and flow came across the lowland borders where successive waves of Angles, Romans, Normans and English swept into what is now Scotland attempting to either tame the “savages” or claim sovereignty.
So who were the Morrisons? Trying to find the definitive origin out of the blend of Scottish history and folklore is akin to playing the children’s game of apple dunking blindfolded (Apple dunking involves trying to pluck a floating apple from a tub of water with your teeth).
Many Morrison clusters have been identified throughout Scotland including Lewis/Harris, Sutherland, Aberdeenshire, Perthshire, Fifeshire, Midlothians and Clackmannanshire. There are strong associations in Ireland and England. Today the name Morrison is recorded as about the twentieth most common name in Scotland, and is prominently seen throughout the UK via the Morrison chain of supermarkets and fuel distributers which were established in Yorkshire by an English Morrison family.
This essay attempts to dispel the myth that all Morrisons come from a single source which is often cited in a clan society fable and commercial “the origin of the name” publications. It further demonstrates that the name Morrison itself is derived from many sources, that the idea of a “clan” is a commercial artifact, the history behind the Morrrison tartans has been embellished, and the present badge is a marketing concoction.
The family history of the Morrison last name is maintained by the AncientFaces community. Join the community by adding to to this genealogy of the Morrison:
- Morrison country of origin, nationality, & ethnicity
- Morrison spelling & pronunciation
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Morrison Country of Origin, Nationality, & Ethnicity
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The nationality of Morrison can be complicated to determine in cases which country boundaries change over time, making the original nationality a mystery. The original ethnicity of Morrison may be in dispute as result of whether the name originated organically and independently in multiple locales; for example, in the case of family names that come from professions, which can appear in multiple countries independently (such as the family name "Miller" which referred to the profession of working in a mill).
Morrison Meaning & Etymology
Morrison Pronunciation & Spelling Variations
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In times when literacy was uncommon, names such as Morrison were transcribed based on how they were heard by a scribe when people's names were recorded in court, church, and government records. This could have given rise misspellings of Morrison. Knowing spelling variations and alternate spellings of the Morrison surname are important to understanding the possible origins of the name. Family names like Morrison vary in how they're said and written as they travel across tribes, family unions, and languages over generations.
Last names similar to MorrisonMorrisonalonzo, Morrisonandrae, Morrisonanthony, Morrisonarchibald, Morrisonbenjamin, Morrisonberrell, Morrisonbobby, Morrisonbradley, Morrisonbrian, Morrisoncameron, Morrison-chigbu, Morrisonclarence, Morrisonclarke, Morrison-cleator, Morrisoncleveland, Morrisonclovis, Morrisoncoop, Morrisoncurtis, Morrisondave, Morrisondavid
Morrison Family Tree
Here are a few of the Morrison genealogies shared by AncientFaces users. Click here to see more Morrisons
- Georgette Morrison
- Mary Morrison 1878 - 1964
- Cynthia Ann (Belew) Morrison 1854 - 1896
- James M. Morrison Sr. born 1851
- Alwyn Ernest Morrison 1925 - 1984
- Ernest John Morrison 1896 - 1964
- Richard Morrison 1959 - 2007
- Dionbria M Morrison 1994 - 1998
- Marcus Morrison 1918 - 1984
- William Morrison 1890 - 1976