This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 20th April 1998, reproduced by kind permission of the author, the late Desmond Holden.

The “What's in a Name” series was a regular feature in the Advertiser over the period 1993‑2004, taking a refreshing look at the derivation of some typically Derbyshire surnames.

Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames, and do not indicate any particular interest on Desmond's part in the genealogy, descent, or family history of individuals bearing the surnames featured.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

“In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves.”

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called FERGUSON?

This name is sometimes spelled as "Fergusson" but the difference is not significant. It is based upon an extremely ancient Celtic personal name which, in modern script, is rendered as "Ver-gusti". The unit "-gus" is identical with that in "Angus" and in each case it signifies "choice" or "picked-out". Although it is rather difficult to see the word "choose" behind it, remembering that it was once spelled "chuse" the similarity is then apparent. It is related to the Spanish "gusta" and the French "gout". In the case of "Angus" the preliminary "An-" means "one", which it still does today as "ane" in Scots dialect. So the full name signifies "One choice" or, better, "Who else for leader?" A similar interpretation attaches itself to "Ver-gusti" because "ver-" is known to have meant "first" (and so might be linked with terms such as "over" and "above"). This allows for an interpretation something like "First choice" or "Chosen as our leader".

The antiquity of Fergus can be gauged from the fact that it was the name of the Grandfather of St. Columba, who was born in 521. Indeed, if the ancient chronicles of Scotland are really to be believed, the first identifiable bearer of the name came over from Ireland some 300 years before the commencement of the Christian era, thus making him a contemporary of Alexander the Great! He is supposed to have been drowned on his return to Ireland as a result of his ship foundering on some rocks in Belfast Lough. The site has ever since been called "Carrickfergus" - "carrick" meaning "rock". The name is also associated with the "Stone of Destiny" or the "Stone of Scone". It was, until recently, incorporated within the Coronation chair at Westminster Abbey. According to tradition two brothers, Feargus and Angus brought it to Scotland from Ireland some time in the late 400's. Another namesake is St. Fergus, surnamed "the Pict" and commemorated on 27th November. He also came from Ireland and evangelised the region around Perth and Aberdeen. He died in 730 AD and was buried in Glamis. The first King of Scotland is popularly deemed to be Fergus II who flourished round about the year 500. He is designated "the Second" - doubtless in deference to the tradition that the above- named Fergus would have been "the First".

According to the only lists available to the "Peak Advertiser", after Fergus II had established himself in Argyllshire, although his successors gradually extended their rule across all Scotland, none of them adopted his name. Today, Fergus, as a personal name is by no means unfamiliar either in Scotland or Ireland, and yet, in a curious way, it seems to share something with its English counterpart, Arthur. This leader also enjoys a pseudo-historical credibility and lived at much the same time as Fergus. He was supposed to have been killed in a battle near Hadrian's Wall circa 537 A.D. In spite of the veneration accorded to their respective memories, neither the name "Fergus" nor "Arthur" has ever been a particular favoured choice in boys' names. In fact the only well-known character seems to have been Feargus O' Connor, the M.P. for Nottingham during the 1840's. It is to his efforts we owe, albeit indirectly, Voting by Ballot, Votes for Everybody and Payment for Members of Parliament.

As a surname nowadays "Fergus" in isolation is rarely encountered because the internal "-g-" tended to be omitted in pronunciation and brought about forms such as "Ferres", "Ferries" and in Ireland particularly (Kerry) "Ferris". Instead it followed the Gaelic tradition of indicating father/son relationship by prefixing "Mac", and today we meet with "MacFergus", "MacFerries" and Mackerras". In Ireland the form "O'Fergus" belongs especially to Leitrim (Connacht).

The tagging-on of the unit "-son" is the English equivalent and this has prevailed to such an extent in Scotland that "Ferguson" is now one of the most common surnames there. Even so, it entered the records rather late in the development of surnames and the earlier examples refer simply to the fact that somebody is "the son of Fergus". That name quickly made its way across the Border and established itself in Cumberland, Westmoreland and Northumberland. In Cumberland, for example (1180) we encounter "Gillebertus filius Fergusi" (i.e. Gilbert son of Fergus) and in Scotland land was leased (1376) to "Donald filius Ferguccii" (i.e. Donald, son of the folks called Fergus). The first mention of the surname as under discussion appears to date from 1466 when a John Fergusson rented lands to his son, Fergus Fergusson.

The name is now widely distributed across the entire English-speaking world and its Scots origins are clearly demonstrated in that the directories for Edinburgh and Glasgow require a spread of several columns to accommodate all the entries. The name takes up eight columns in the Belfast directory and much the same for London. A survey through representative directories across the country reveal an even spread, averaging about 40 in each one. The local directories together add up to one hundred. There are nearly 50 personalities listed in the reference works - all highly respected in their own specialities but none is exactly a "headline hitter". Here in Bakewell the name is known to many of us on account of Jill Ferguson and her dancing classes.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 20th April 1998.

This is a Genealogy Website
URL of this page: https://names.gukutils.org.uk/Ferguson.shtml
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library