Nearly every time you find an ancestor's parents, you get a new surname. Before long, the list becomes quite impressive. Common names may not be that interesting, but sometimes a name can be revealing. It might point to a geographical origin, in the UK or further afield. It might have a Norman (French) or Viking connotation. Some surnames reflect the occupation of a distant ancestor. Others are derived from nicknames and so hint at character or physical appearance.

Note that the changes in spelling may not mean much. Standard spelling is a relatively recent idea. And if you were illiterate, as were many of our ancestors, you had to rely on someone else to write your name on official documents. How many times do other people get your name wrong today? At least we can look over their shoulder and correct them. Getting your name written correctly must have been especially hard for a migrant with a strong accent.

Drawing conclusions is dangerous, but speculation is fun. Read and dream…

Surnames of Davis/O’Neill ancestors:

Surname Variations found Origins and Comments
Anderton   From Anderton in Cheshire or Lancashire.
Bailey*   There are several possibilities here: from the chief magistrate of a barony or part of a county, a sheriff (especially in Scotland); from the Middle English bail(e), the wall of the outer court of a feudal castle, and later the court itself; or from Bailey in Lancashire.
Blair   Of territorial origin from one or more of the places of the name. These inlude Perth and Kinross, Argyll and Bute, and Stirlingshire. Blair derives from the Gaelic blar, meaning “plain, field, or battlefield”.
Boyd   May be derived from the name of the Isle of Bute which is Morair Bhoid in Gaelic. Apparently very common in Edinburgh in the seventeenth century.
Brandis   A rare name. Have not found it any surname dictionary yet. On the earliest census returns it is more or less confined to Warwickshire (see Spotlight on Brandis). If you ever come across a Brandis, talk to them — if you are related to me then you are likely to be related to them!
Burkett* From Old English Burgheard, meaning fortress-hard.
Casey* The name of six unrelated Irish septs. From cathasach, meaning watchful.
Clarke* Occupational. The original sense of clerk was a man in a religious order or a clergyman. It later came to mean a scholar, secretary, recorder or penman.
Coombs* From one of the many places named Comb, Combe or Coombe, or from residence in a small valley.
Davis   “Son of Davy” ie David. Possibly Welsh but no confirmed Welsh ancestry so far. Nor a ‘Davies’. Not surprisingly, the Davis line has proved the most difficult to take back so far.
Dempsey   From the Gaelic diomasach, proud. A powerful sept (Irish clan) in Clanmalier that was eventually ruined as a result of their loyalty to James II.
Devan Devon
Irish. Could be one of the many anglicisations of the Gaelic name Ó Dubháin which is variously rendered Dwayne, Duane, Divane, Downes or Devane. Or it could be from Divine or Diveen (Ó Duibhin). Dubh or Duibh means black.
Dolan   Originates in the heart of the ancient population group of Uí Maine, in mid-Galway and south Roscommon.
Douglas* A Scottish surname, the origins of which seem to be surrounded by tales of daring and treachery!
Downs* A dweller by the down(s).
Earp* From the Old English for swarthy.
Fisher Occupational. A fisherman.
Fleming   In Norman French, le Fleming is a native of Flanders. The name is found in SW Scotland from the second half of the twelfth century.
Fox   May come from Scotland or the English Midlands. Usually considered a nickname. May even be a variant of Fawkes or Fowkes.
Gass   Name for someone who lived on a street in a city, from the German gasse.
Gourlay   Probably originally from some place in England. The surname is found in The Lothians and Fife from the middle ages.
Hamill Hammil Of Norman territorial origin.
Harris   From Henry (via Harry).
Harrow From Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex, or Harrow Head in Nether Wasdale, Cumbria.
Hart   May derive from the name of a Durham manor, Hert.
Hemsley   From Helmsley in the North Riding of Yorkshire, between Thirsk and Pickering.
Hinwood* Perhaps a corruption of Inwood, a dweller by the in-wood or home (local) wood.
Horn* From Horne (Rutland, Somerset or Surrey) or from residence near a spur or tongue of land or a bend. Could be a substitute for Hornblower (someone who called people to work by ringing a bell or blowing a horn) or Horner (one who works with horn or blows a horn).
Hurst* From one of many places or from residence near a wood or wooded hill.
Ingram   From Old German, meaning “Angle-Raven”.
Jardine   “Of the garden” from residence by one (from French).
Jeffs   From Geff, a pet form of Geoffrey.
Joy   Could be from the common noun joy, or the fairly frequent Scandinavian woman’s name, Joia.
Kerr   An old Border surname of local or territorial origin. This is the spelling used by the Lothian branch.
Lawrence   A common forename from the 12th century.
Martin   From the Mediaeval Latin Martinus, a diminutive of Martius, from Mars, the god of war.
McGee* From the Irish Mag-Aoidh, son of Aodh (Aodh equates with Hugh). The same as McKay. Associated with Ulster, sometimes with families of Scottish stock.
McGovern McGoveran
A sept (an Irish clan) of note in Breffney (the ancient territory of Cavan and west Leitrim). The centre of their territory was the village of Ballymagauran in Co Cavan.
McIndoe   The Macindoes are classed as a sept (a subdivision of a Scottish clan) of the Buchanans. They are said to be descendants of a Buchanan who migrated to Argyllshire, presumably from Stirlingshire.
McKinzie* Perhaps a corruption of McKenzie, in Gaelic MacCoinnich, son of Coinneach, from the word for fair or bright.
Meaby   ?
O’Neill O’Neil Son of Niall, that is, the powerful or mighty. A common surname in Counties Antrim and Tyrone.
Ramsay Ramsey From Ramsey in Essex or Huntingdonshire.
Ray   Most commonly from Old French rei, king and perhaps applied as a sarcastic nickname.
Roffey Roffee “Dweller by some rough enclosure” as in Rolphy Green or Roffy, Essex. Early use also in Suffolk and Kent.
Rumsey*   From Romsey in Hampshire.
Sibley   From Sibyl, the name of the priestess who uttered the oracles. It was a common woman’s name after the Norman Conquest
Simmonds Simmons Lots of possibilities here. Could be from Old French (via the Normans) or from a Scandinavian personal name. Then there is the  Simon of the Bible…take your pick!
Small   A nickname for someone small, slender or thin.
Smith   From the Old English for a blacksmith or farrier.
Stickland   “Dweller by the steep land”. From Old English. Common in Dorset.
Thorne* A dweller by the thorn bush(es), or from Thorne (Somerset or the West Riding of Yorkshire).
Tracey   From a village in the department of Oise, France.
Walker Occupational. From the Old English for fuller (someone who scoured and thickened raw cloth by beating it, or or walking on it, in water). In general, Walker belongs to the west and north, Fuller to the south and east, and Tucker to the south-west.
Wheaton ?
Wolstenholme*   From Wolstenholme in Rochdale, Lancashire.
Woollard   Probably from Wolford in Warwickshire.

Names marked * are those of cousins rather than direct ancestors.


  • Last Name Meanings at
  • Behind the Name at
  • The Surnames of Scotland by George F. Black (Berlinn, 1999)
  • Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames by Reaney and Wilson (OUP, 1997)
  • The Surnames of Ireland by Edward MacLysaght (Irish Academic Press, 1999)