Etymology & Pronunciation


STRACHAN: Name Meaning and Pronunciation

by Jim Strachan (/stra-khan/), FSA Scot
Contributions from Dr. Philip Smith, PhD Linguistics and learned Gaelic speaker
Revised: 23 June 2019

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


Click to Enlarge

Proper pronunciation

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

In the immortal words of Charles Burnett, Ross Herald Extraordinary - Retired, "Clan politics can be a virtual minefield."  It is the Society's belief that one will never gain friends or influence others with the topic of the proper pronunciation of STRACHAN.

Equally, it is ridiculous, bordering on the rude and absurd to suggest to a person that they are not pronouncing their own surname correctly.

If you wish to believe that your pronunciation of the STRACHAN surname is the original and most accurate, and that your family has always used this pronunciation, by all means stop reading now. However, if you would like to learn a more enlightened opinion on the etymology, orthology, and pronunciation of Strachan... by all means, continue.

The name is first seen as a territorial designation in about 1212, and based on early medieval charters and grants was originally pronounced as a 3-syllable word /strath-euch-an/, Gaelic meaning Valley of the Deer River:


The Gaelic word straid, in Gealic, "strath" is pronounced /straj/ or strad/ 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.(1) 

Important to note, in the Gaelic, the 'f' disappears in the genitive. As the modern Scottish Gaelic is based on the Q-Celtic dialect, and the P-Celtic dialect was used among the Picts in Strachan. It is possible the variant spelling and pronunciation is due to the P-Celtic dialect. This may be an area for future research.
 

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

/stratheuchan/

Interesting, all Strachan Arms and Seals (dating back 1325 and before) incorporated a stag, which seemingly confirms the aforementioned thesis.

HOWEVER, after the Strachan's are disinherited by King Robert de Bruce in 1316, the first Coat of Arms are those of Strachan of Carmyllie (est. 1325). Although these Arms retain the traditional cinquefoils, they are absent a stag.  Whether a linguistic contraction of STRATHEUCHAN came about because of the disinheritance of the family, or through more normal means is uncertain.  Regardless, we do know that before the 1600's the name of STRATHEUCHAN had already contracted and split into two pronunciations:

• 

/strawn/ (Gaelic:  Valley of the River), popular in the Highlands  (Gaelic word for deer was dropped)


•  /stra-khan/ (or similar derivatives), gutteral for the 'ch' popular in the Lowlands (the 'th' in strath and the 'ich' was contracted to just 'ch' or a gutteral)

/strawn/

/stra-khan/

The two pronunciations of STRACHAN provided above are a beautiful example of the Highland/Lowland cultural divide (i.e., hatred) that once existed.

/strawn/ is not the Gaelic pronunciation of STRACHAN

Some will say, "/strawn/ is not the Gaelic pronunciation of STRACHAN."  You are correct. The /strawn/ pronunciation is based on the Gaelic words, 'Valley of the River' or 'Valley of the Rivers' (depending on your source),  which are the Gaelic words in which the family name is originally based (i.e., the ancient Gaelic orthology of the name).

Additionally, we must remember the spelling of STRACHAN was first seen not until the mid-17th century, and did not become common until relatively recently, that being the early to mid-19th century.  To this end, many families have a tradition that dates back centuries of using the /strawn/ pronunciation, and today use the relatively modern STRACHAN spelling for their surname.

Moreover, we know for certain, indisputably in fact, that most STRACHAN families prior to 1850 lived in Aberdeenshire, or elsewhere in the Highlands, and used the /strawn/ pronunciation.  That is, unless your family were residing in the Lowlands or perhaps the city of Aberdeen.  

It is clear the village of STRACHAN (before c. 1583 and even today) was pronounced in Gaelic /strawn/ based upon a map by cartographer, Timothy Pont, who phonetically spelt the village STRAWHAN.


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

Additionally, the chiefly line of Strachan of Thornton (extinct 1828) used the /strawn/ pronunciation, as evidenced in a doggerel verse regarding Admiral Sir Richard John Strachan, Bart. and 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.

Moreover, according to the Old Statistical Account, Vol. 5  (1791-1799) and the New Statistical Account, Vol. 11 (1845), and various other antiquarian sources, the surname and spelling of STRACHAN was popularly pronounced /strawn/ (spelt Straan) prior to c. 1850.

What happened AFTER 1850?

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 (1) the Highland Clearances, (2) rapidly rising rents in Aberdeenshire and the Howe O'Mearns, (3) the Scottish Industrial revolution, and (4) a number of other socio-economic reasons.

ScotlandsPeople.co.uk 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 Lowland 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 this appears to have taken place sometime in the mid-1800's.

After c. 1850, many Strachan families who remained in Scotland, and particularly those residing in the Lowlands, changed the pronunciation of their surname to /stra-khan/ in order to better assimilate and obtain work.

Those conducting family genealogies can confirm this by a review of historical records and derivative spellings.  Spellings such as Stra(u)gh(a)n were all pronounced /strawn/ (due to poor literacy, "augh" and "agh" are pronounced /aw/ as in the word lawn).

As a side note, the Strahan spelling is generally seen among those families residing (or from ) Ulster, Northern Ireland, and is pronounced /strawn/.  The /stray-han/ pronunciation of the spelling Strahan is commonly heard in the Americas, and is a phonetic pronunciation commonly accepted by families as they too wish to avoid the inevitable debate about the proper pronunciation of their surname.

Most pronounce the name /stra-khan/ - - Right?

Although today the /stra-khan/ pronunciation is common place in Scotland, many might be surprised that a number of STRACHAN families residing in Scotland  have a tradition of using the /strawn/ pronunciation, but outside the home answer to /stra-khan/ in order to avoid the inevitable argument with strangers. 

Outside Scotland, and on a global perspective, the reverse is true. For those families migrating abroad there was no negative stigma of using a Gaelic based /strawn/ pronunciation, and as such many kept their surname pronunciations.  In America you will see some early STRACHAN settlers in around 1600 who eventually changed the spelling of their surname to Strawn, Strawhun, etc. in order to allow others to more accurately pronounce the surname.  This was done as literacy rates improved.

Bearing mind there are vastly more Strachan families living abroad than actually living in Scotland today, the Society unofficially estimates that 70% to 80% of the global family of STRACHANs use the /strawn/ pronunciation.

The /strak-khan/ pronunciation is widely used in Scotland, and virtually exclusively abroad by families who migrated around or AFTER 1850. Virtually everyone else pronounces the surname /strawn/. 

In conclusion

Both  /strawn/ and /stra-khan/ pronunciations are accurate and correct. It is equally proper to use the pronunciation associated with your family tradition.

The modern two STRACHAN surname pronunciations are a beautiful example of Scotland’s turbulent past, and a valuable part of our family heritage.  One is based on the Gaelic words “Vale of the Waters” (/strawn/), which is founded on the ancient Gaelic orthology of the name, and have likely been used by families for half a millennium or more. While the other is based on the Gaelic pronunciation of the 17th century spelling of Strachan.

If you hear someone using a different pronunciation, there is no need to correct them - we all know what you mean.  Again, the different pronunciations are part of the STRACHAN family heritage, and a beautiful example of the auld Highland/Lowland cultural divide that once existed.