Etymology & Pronunciation

Name Meaning and Pronunciation

by Jim Strachan (/stra-khan/), FSA Scot
Contributions from Dr. Philip Smith, PhD Linguistics and learned Gaelic speaker
24 February 2018

STRACHAN is a 'local' (also called 'habitation') name, taken from the lands of STRACHAN located approximately 20 miles south west of Aberdeen.

The 'accurate' pronunciation of the STRACHAN surname is highly controversial, hotly debated by many in Scotland and abroad.

Many native Scots (but not all) contend that /stra-khan/ is the proper pronunciation (using a guttural for the 'ch'), while many of the Diaspora (albeit not all) pronounce the surname /strawn/ and insist this is the correct or original pronunciation.

The simple answer is that both versions are correct and proper, and evidence suggests that neither is the original pronunciation.

Original Pronunciation

The Name of Strachan is first mentioned in 1189x95, when King William the Lion granted the barony of Strachan to William Gifford (Ref. RRS, ii, no. 340, page 343). It is a territorial name, coming from the lands of Strachan, which historically was in Kincardineshire (or the Howe O' Mearns).

The first to use the Territory Designation was Ranulf de Strachan in about 1212, when he witnessed a charter of Thomas de Lundie for a Quitclaim of wood of Trustach and common pasture (Arb Lib, i, 65 and POMS No. 51291). Several early sources claim that Waltheof de Strachan was first to use the Name in 1165, but this is clearly in error (St. A. Lib., 276-7 and POMS No. 5933).  Various charters and grants suggest that Ranulf, of Anglo-Norman descent, likely married a daughter of William Gifford (of Norman descent) and gained the barony of Strachan by marriage (Strachan, "Strachan of that Ilk").

With regards to its pronunciation, early medieval sources based on phonetic spellings suggest the name was originally a conflation of three Gaelic words.

It is derived from the Gaelic word "strath" meaning "broad valley" in Gaelic.

The main burn (or river) running through the village of Strachan is the Waters of the Feugh (today pronounced /few-ich/ with a guttural for the ‘ch’). The word Feugh, some suggest, is similar to the word Fiddich, derived from the Gaelic word Fiadh/Féidh - which is a generic word for deer. The cartographer Timothy Pont, in about 1583x1614, renders the name Feugh as Feuich(Important to note, in the Gaelic, the 'f' disappears in the genitive).

Finally, the word for “river” in Gaelic is abhainn.  In the Lower Deeside, the word is pronounced /awn/, like lawn.

Hence, /strath-euch-an/ or /strath-e-kan/ meaning Valley of the Deer River

A study of early medieval spellings of STRACHAN, confirm this thesis, and if further confirmation were necessary Strachan seals of this period (c. 1309 to 1325) all incorporate a stag, which once more supports the conclusion that the meaning originally meant... Valley of the Deer River (Heraldry of the Strachans).



Contemporary Pronunciations



By the early 1600's, Gaelic had already lost much ground to the Anglo-Scots language, and it appears the name underwent a linguistic contraction from a three-syllable word (/strath-e-kan/) to two separate and distinctly different pronunciations. 

We have confirmation that the village of STRACHAN was pronounced in Gaelic /strawn/ based upon a map by cartographer, Timothy Pont:

Timothy Pont, Lower Deeside, 1583-1614 (Strawhan)
Click to enlarge above image

The other pronunciation, /stra-khan/ (Gordon c. 1636-52), has the guttural 'ch', which is likely a hangover from the word Feuich (contemporarily spelt 'Feugh').

Map by Robert Á James Gordon, 1636-52 (Strachan)
First recorded spelling of STRACHAN
Click to enlarge

The former (/strawn/) being more popular in the Highlands where Gaelic was predominantly spoken, and the latter (/stra-khan/) being more popular in the Lowlands and perhaps the city of Aberdeen where Anglo-Scots was spoken.

In the 1200's, the entire North East of Scotland including most of Scotland herself spoke Gaelic. However, by 1400, the Anglo-Scots language was spoken predominantly in the Lowlands and coastal North East, including Aberdeen.

Image result for Scotland Gaelic language 1400

As shown below,  by the late 1800's, Gaelic had already started losing ground to Scots and later the English language.  Gaelic was spoken only in areas traditionally occupied by Highland clans.  However, by the turn of the 21st century the Gaelic language had been virtually eradicated from Scotland.


Related image

A large contributing factor to the Gaelic language being virtually wiped-out in Scotland by the year 2000, is its negative stigma. There was a strong socio-economic and cultural divide between the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland.  More contemporarily put, there was a hatred between these two cultures. As evidenced by the Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy, the Gaelic language had a strong negative stigma in the Lowlands and other areas where Anglo-Scots was spoken (including the city of Aberdeen).

According to the Old Statistical Account  (1791-1799) and the New Statistical Account (1845), and various other antiquarian sources, the surname and spelling of STRACHAN was popularly but not exclusively pronounced /strawn/.

By the mid-1800's, in the reign of Queen Victory, Scotland lost approximately 35% of its popular to migration to the Americas, Australia, Northern Ireland, England, and elsewhere.  This was due to the Highland Clearances, rapidly rising rents in Aberdeenshire and the Howe O'Mearns, the Scottish Industrial revolution, and 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 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 at least, this appears to have taken place sometime in the mid-1800's.

Several antiquarian and chartulary sources confirm the pronunciation of STRACHAN in Scotland prior to about 1850, was predominantly (but not exclusively) /strawn/.  The pronunciation of /stra-khan/ seems to be limited to the Lowlands, and among at least some families residing in the city of Aberdeen. 

The Strachan Clan Y-DNA Project has confirmed a very interesting phenomena. All Strachan families (with no exceptions) migrating overseas to the Americas or Australia before about 1850 use the /strawn/ pronunciation.  Many of these families have actually changed the spelling of their surname to Strawn, or some other derivative / phonetic spelling. However, barring those Aberdonians who likely already used the /stra-khan/ pronunciation, those migrating to the Scottish Lowlands or England generally changed the pronunciation to /stra-khan/ since it was more widely accepted in the Lowlands and easier to find work.

To confirm this thesis, vastly more Strachan families residing abroad pronounce the Name /strawn/, while the /stra-khan/ pronunciation is more popularly but not exclusively used in Scotland.  To this day, the /strawn/ pronunciation still has a negative stigma in Scotland among many who lack the understanding of the Name's etymology. 

What we know

The chiefly line of Strachan of Thornton (extinct 1828) used the /strawn/ pronunciation, as evidenced in a doggerel verse regarding the Walcheren Expedition (1809):

The Earl of Chatham with his sword drawn,
Stood waiting for Sir Richard Strachan (/strawn/),
Sir Richard, longing to get at 'em,
Stood waiting for the Earl of Chatham.

The village of Strachan is today pronounced /strawn/, as all villages in the Royal Deeside today use the Gaelic pronunciation. 

Again, in the Americas, Australia, and elsewhere... the /strawn/ pronunciation is far more dominant, but not exclusively used.  Conversely, in Scotland, the /stra-khan/ pronunciation is far more dominant, but not exclusively used.

Many Strachan families in Scotland today have a family tradition of using the /strawn/ pronunciation, yet because of the negative stigma that still remains in Scotland... they will answer to both. Professor Sir Hew Strachan from Glenhighton in the Borders and our Clan Commander, Rob Strachan from the Mill of Strachan in Aberdeenshire, both have a family tradition of using the /strawn/ pronunciation, yet both also answer to /stra-khan/ in order to avoid in inevitable argument (typically by some overbearing and rude person) who insists they do not know how to pronounce their own surname.

According to our Commander, Rob Strachan (/strawn/), who resides in the village of Strachan (/strawn/), both pronunciation are proper and correct. There is no need to correct one another, and each family should use the pronunciation dictated by their individual family tradition. Regardless, we will all know what you are talking about. 

In summary, neither /strawn/ nor /stra-khan/ are the original early medieval pronunciations of the surname. In fact, both pronunciations came about at the same time caused by a linguistic contraction sometime on or before 1600, and both are popularly used around the world albeit to varying degrees depending on locality.