This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 29th July 2002, 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 WILDGOOSE?
Variations: Wildgust, Wildgose, Willgoss

Surnames derived from wildlife (eg. Eagle, Fox) are usually easy to recognise but sometimes less easy to interpret This is very much the case with Wildgoose. The reason is that our medieval ancestors just as often drew upon animal folklore when naming members of the community as from a direct observation of the characteristics of the chosen creature. For example the surname Sparrow was not always directed towards a man with a bright and chirpy disposition. In fact the bird had acquired a libellous reputation for being something of a flirt (to put it elegantly) and so an individual with a corresponding fondness for the company of ladies could have been similarly designated by his neighbours.

Unfortunately much of this tradition has been forgotten and it requires considerable research to unearth it and then to relate it to surnames, especially with regard to geese, both wild and domestic, about which misleading notions have been allowed to develop. As a competent authority states: "How it came to be believed that geese are foolish birds we do not know. The truth is that geese are bold, intelligent and admirable birds". Bearing this in mind, it is desirable to note that the idea that the goose is a stupid creature emerged too late in the development of surnames to have exerted any influence. The earliest allusions to this supposed stupidity cannot be found before the sixteenth century - some 400 years after "Wildgoose" is first recorded. In fact geese were admired for their life-long and faithful devotion to their mates and also for their alertness against danger - illustrated in the story of Manlius and the Geese which gave warning of the approach of the enemy on the Capitoline Hill (390 B.C.).

It is interesting to note that this surname was widespread over Britain. In Shrewsbury we first encounter a Henry Wildegos (1201) and over in Suffolk an Osbert Wildgose (1206). Further North, in York there was Robertus Wyldgose (1379) described as a "souter" (ie. a shoe-maker and cobbler) while far away in Aberdeen dwelt a priest called John Wildguse (1366).

It is well recognised that geese play an important part in Celtic traditions where they feature as messengers from the "other world".

Support for the notion that "wildgoose might then have been conferred upon a man involved in some way with travel can be deduced by reference to the expression "Wild Goose Chase". Today it is understood as descriptive of a fruitless pursuit after an illusory object but when it was originally devised, it had a very different meaning. It was an organised event, requiring first a leader (horse-back, or on foot as the occasion indicated) who set off on an undisclosed course, which was as difficult and as confusing as he chose to devise. He was then pursued by successive participants at given intervals who had to follow his track accurately. The flying formation of geese obviously inspired the pastime.

The concept of being a "rover" is evident in the use of the expression in describing the supporters of James II who followed him into exile on the Continent. It continued in use with regard to young men who volunteered for military service with foreign forces. Since this application cannot be traced earlier than 1689, it has no part in the meaning of the surname.

From the foregoing observations it is submitted that the current interpretation of "Wildgoose" as being a nick-name for a stupid or scatter-brained individual ought to be reconsidered.

The fact that instances of the name are so widespread - from the south coast to the north of Scotland suggest that circumstances which prompted the use of the nick-name were not localised; but equally so, the rarity of the name also suggests that not many people met those special circumstances.

Nick-names are notoriously difficult to explain and after all this time it is submitted that it is impossible to say, for certain, what it was that some people did to attract the designation. A common factor would seem to have been travel but expanding upon that is simply inspired guesswork. In the Middle Ages travel for its own sake was rarely undertaken except by the wealthy. Perhaps some of our original "wild geese" had accompanied such travellers and on returning home became well-known on account of the stories they could tell. Who knows?

Perhaps such a "wild goose" described a man who was called upon, from time to time, to be a messenger over varying distances. Whether he was permanently attached to some great household or institution or followed another occupation and undertook commissions as a "free-lance" might be considered.

The name "Wildgoose" is heavily represented in Derbyshire (around 50 in the local directory) but this is not exceptional in the distribution of surnames and merely points to a large family connection. Otherwise it is thinly distributed across the island: Sheffield, Bristol, Tyneside, Merseyside, Edinburgh, Leicester each average six entries only. Even the London area includes only two and Northern Ireland, one!

There are no personalities listed in the standard biographies and no place-names. It might be of interest to bearers of the name to be told that whereas some varieties of fruit take their names from an individual horticulturalist such as Cox (the Orange Pippin apple) or Logan (the Loganberry fruit), the Wild Goose Plum owes its name simply to the chance finding of a seed stone inside a goose and from which the entire crop of the well-known American plum subsequently springs.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 29th July 2002.

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