The Theory of Eight Surnames

One, two, or many?

On a recent trip abroad, I was told that everyone should know and be able to recite their eight surnames. These are the surnames of a person’s eight great grandparents. A good game is to ask: can you name yours?

In Scotland, people can be expected to know just two ancestral surnames (their father’s and mother’s). With genealogy as a hobby, I know dozens of names, but to come up with The Eight… I had to think, then check. I am a bit ashamed how hard the challenge was/is. How lovely, to be able to just know your eight names like they were your own, and to produce them Trumpton-style! Because of course, they are your own. They are you, and you are them – none of us is just one link in a patrilineal chain.

Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grubb!

Eight Surnames

Here we are then, for me and my siblings.

  • Black
  • Black
  • Laughland
  • Livingston
  • Mackinnon
  • McMillan
  • Scobbie
  • Stevenson

So I am not just a “Scobbie”. Not just one name, one line. Now I have eight barrels to my surname, on this approach.

“Why not sixteen?” I wondered. Well, my theory is that eight is manageable,* which is why it can become a convention, even though it has been an impossible challenge for everyone I’ve asked here at home, so far. We can all be pleasantly shamefaced to fail to know our eight! It’s not an impossible challenge. Then, once internalised, The Eight provide an overlaid identity and richer concept of self. And this doesn’t turn into boring or intimidating one-up-man-ship, which is what happens when scores of distant relatives are mentioned or the most ancient or famous ancestors get boasted about. I have a diverting answer to a question I am sometimes asked and don’t really want to answer, which is: “how far back have you got?”

The idea that because we have two parents, it makes us the combination of just two surnames… well, it is just as misleading as thinking we are merely at the end of a line of fathers. And given the popularity of DNA testing, it is now important to add that we are also not just a combination of two ancestral lines, a Y-DNA patrilineal one and a mitochondrial matrilineal one.

Being defined by the combination of just two lines of DNA? That’s as unreal as having just one surname. Indeed the very value of those specific lines is that they don’t change much and are shared by others. As whole people, we are the product of all our ancestors; and also of our families, our experiences, and our environment; in the expression and function of our DNA as well as in our psychology and looks.

Often in some specific respect we feel we are the doppelganger of someone specific, but it could be a 2nd cousin once removed, or great-great-aunt. You don’t need to share a surname.

Some numbers

As every genealogist realises pretty damn quick, the growth in direct ancestors, and their names, is exponential. Starting with our parents, the number of ancestors doubles with each generation. Five generations back, the list of your great-great-great grandparents can be expected to provide two to the power of five (32) different surnames. At that historical distance, your normal surname is mathematically and genetically a random choice in a sizeable lottery. Yet we get fixed with (and sometimes fixated on) just one.

To put a number on it, you are no more identified by your father’s surname than by any of the 31 others scattered through the 5th generation of your ancestors, except by our cultural norms. You are only 3% your surname. His surname. For most of us, a set of 32 surnames is not just a theoretical possibility, but true in practice, because it is relatively uncommon for cousins to marry or for coincidence to result in doublers. Some of us will have a slightly smaller set.

I have two unconnected Blacks… and I will return to them another time.

Well, it’s around 3% when you’re looking just five generations back. If you could go back 10 generations (around 250 years, which is not so far), your surname identifies on average 0.1%, or one thousandth, of your self, because two to the power of 10 is 1024. If Jeanie McGregor knows only that her 8x-great grandparent was Jimmy McGregor, that leaves 99.9% of Jimmy’s generation out of the picture. But the other 1,023 are equally her ancestor, even though she might proudly claim only “I’m a McGregor!”

So much more so for an ancestor 30 generations back (say, someone like King Robert the Bruce, 1272-1329). If he is an ancestor with only one path leading back to him through 30 generations, you would only get in theory only a billionth of your DNA from him. Of course, we are all inter-married like crazy in the real world… so the exponential maths needs to be replaced by something more realistic. But the point is, a famous ancestor is only one of many, most of them unknown, going back beyond the origin of our species. They are not very close relatives, those famous ones. Go far enough back and you’ll start thinking of pigs as being relatives as well as (or rather than) food.

And as it happens, my illustrative choice of “McGregor” was once an illegal surname, on pain of death! All surnames are not equal, and you might become very attached to a new one of your equal Eight. But it’s more distinctive to be attached to all of them.

Eight new surnames with every marriage

For most family historians, more ancestors keep appearing… recent ones. As soon as we take an interest in the ancestors of our spouse, or our child’s or sibling’s partner, we get 32 more 3xgreat grandparents to get interested in. Thirty two for each new family member! And then there are all the ancestors’ siblings, husbands, wives, children, cousins, 3rd cousins… plus the neighbours, employers, friends, work-mates, accidental namesakes and randoms who catch our interest. It’s a big job. It puts you in your place, which is not at the centre of the universe.

Eight names make a list just the right length for memory and recitation. If you are thinking of DNA, then it’s the generation where you get one eighth from each person, which is a manageable amount. 12.5%, or approximately 10%. We can get our head around that kind of proportion. It’s fair to each name, to each ancestor. It gives you eight historical paths to walk down.

I would love it if everyone had this knowledge of themself. I am actively trying to rote-learn mine by heart, right now. But in what order?Alphabetically? By birth date? Male-female? By couples? I’ve gone for alphabetical order because it’s random, and I can already easily remember who is married to who. Also, I have angry memories, as an “S” person, of always being at the end of every alphabetical list. Now I am a “B”. Hurray!

But anything goes.

In Scotland, naming all our ancestors for five generations is a reasonable aim, and not too hard for those of us lucky enough to have unusual names to deal with.

My wife’s eight-ish surnames are:

  • Coupar
  • Erskine
  • Hay
  • Inglis
  • Kinnis
  • McLaughlan
  • Spence
  • unknown

On the Family Tree page (link at the top) I will keep up-to-date ancestor tree diagrams for my eight names, and my wife’s eight names. I have a lot more information than this, in my database and online. But for now, it makes sense to group trees around our combined set of grand-parents. Each grandparent is one of the children of our eight, and I’ve included their siblings too, to make the trees more relevant for cousins and others.

These eight grandparents provide the names for our own children.

  • Black
  • Erskine
  • Hay
  • Kinnis
  • McKinnon
  • Scobbie
  • Spence
  • Stevenson

Eight surnames are so much better than just one.


Thanks to Leticia for telling me of this practice!

Since first writing, I’ve discovered there is a film called “Ocho Apellidos Bascos” (in Spanish) which means “eight Basque surnames” and is called Spanish Affair in its English-language release. It’s a culture-clash romcom and was Spain’s biggest domestic film in 2014 (and one of the biggest box office successes ever). It’s about a Spanish man who falls for a Basque woman. They pretend he is a “full-blood” Basque and the evidence for that is that he recites his eight surnames. The Basque lands are beautiful, the language (genetically unrelated to any other) is fascinating, and the politics are incendiary and sometimes deadly. Just to be clear, I think “variety” is no worse and no better than “purity”. We are who we are and none of us chose to be here. “We are all Jock Tamson’s bairns,” or, as the Burns song had it in 1795, “a man’s a man for aa that.” We are all equal.

Thanks to Eileen Lyon’s blog Myricopia of Aug 13 2019 titled The Shrinking Tree, I’ve learned the phrase “pedigree collapse”. See the Wikipedia entry, which estimates that everyone on the planet is a 50th cousin to everyone else, if not more closely-related.

If you find it useful to hear experts clearly and pleasantly debunk or unpack mathematical / statistical / numerical claims (usually ones in the news), listen to Tim Harford and colleagues on the BBC’s wonderful More or Less radio show. (It is available on the Word Service too.) There is a useful opinion piece on the topic here by another BBC regular, Adam Rutherford, here:

Paul Chiddicks @chiddickstree on Twitter posted this cracking exemplification of Pedigree Collapse: “Going back eight generations, most people will have a whopping 256, however, Charles II of Spain (1661–1700), was so inbred he had only 29 ancestors.” Nice!

And, as I learned on The Unbelievable Truth (Series 25, Episode 3, BBC Radio, 25 Jan 2021), “today, more than one in ten marriages are between first or second cousins… worldwide that is”. There are lots of cusbands out there! There are lots of references to this factoid on wikipedia, so maybe it’s true – but the maths is beyond me as to how this, repeated every generation, collapses the number of ancestors.

* See the popular idea called “Miller’s Law”, which is that in various psychological tasks including accurate immediate recall of an arbitrary list, the length limit is around seven items, plus or minus two; e.g. on Wikipedia

94 thoughts on “The Theory of Eight Surnames

Add yours

    1. It never fails to amaze me that there are new but familiar-sounding surnames out there… Barraball sounds utterly unique but completely unexotic 🙂 A great name.
      And none of us are giving up, are we ?! 🙂


      1. Go for it Sheila! I’ve managed to make a few people happy, and myself too. Not many people in my various families are interested in who’s who, but it’s a unique story for those that are.


  1. A very interesting blog. I can go back a long way. I left my lists for up to 4th ggparents on the Border Clans FB page, so I won’t repeat it all here. I am 6/64 Compton and 6/64 Vaughan (Rhode Island family originally from Wales.), going back 6 times to the same couple Mary Vaughan of RI and William Compton of NJ. They were both children of UE Loyalists who fled to New Brunswick after the Revolution. I go back 2/64 to John Craggan Ferguson and 2/64 to Janet MacLaughlin of Perth/Atholl. 2/64 to John Bean and 2/64 to Hannah McGill 2/64 to Samuel Somerby. 2/64 Emery Rest are 1/64 Martin, MacLeod, Hume, Upton, Bears, Smith, Hall, Hussey, Rowe, Hambley, Bumpus, Burgess, Olsen, Andersen, Anders, another Dane, Taylor, Cawthorn, Riley, Waite, Bridges, MacKie. If anyone has matches, please let me know. Always interested in pursuing connections.


      1. In Spain is common to know our surnames since we are children. I came to this theory years ago when a person from Chile went to my village searching for his grandfather’s surname. His grandmother’s surname was like my 4th surname but he was more interested in the other one because it was his first surname. I thought that he was related to my family as much as he was to people with his first surname. My 8 first surnames are all from my region, Navarra.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. This is so unfamiliar to the rest of us, which is why I think it’s good to share it. We can all learn from this connectedness. It’s manageable.


  2. Samuel Levin, Susan B. Garst, Peter Keil, Mary Knoblock, Judson Albert Taylor, Charlotte Palmer, Dr. Andrew Burga, Nettie Millican


  3. Dempsey, Ingram, Roop, Clonch, Wildinger, Pöppelreiter, Fournelle, Frantz are my eight surnames. My children’s are Meder, Schwartz, Kremer, Peffer, Dempsey, Roop, Wildinger, Fournelle. I name them as they appear on a pedigree chart, from top to bottom, as the parents of the PGF, PGM, MGF, and MGM.


    1. That’s brilliant, thanks Liz. I also just got that spark of something different and yet with some kind of obvious truth in it. I love reading the lists of 8 – some such a mixture, and others much more consistent.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I had to think hard about this, but here they are: Wilkinson, Bill, Roberts, Warren, Allen, Batchelder, Hitchings and Hoogerzeil. Representing five born in the USA, one born in Nova Scotia, two born in Yorkshire and one child of a stowaway from the Netherlands!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Okay, here’s mine, and I keep track of them in Ahnentafel order. (Call me wacky, but in my mind I “see” my chart through my great-greats, so can just rattle off the names. Photographic memory, perhaps?) Anyway: Dempsey, Lamburth, Colbert, Houlihan, Diamantini, Bolognesi, Holst, Englehart.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. An interesting, thought provoking post. My great grandparents surnames are: Danson, Rawcliffe, English, Weston, Matthews , Simpson and Jones. My missing link is the mother of my grandmother – my major brick wall, as in over 20 years of researching I have failed to trace her birth certificate and identify her name .

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Love this post and this website. I was so excited because just yesterday, I followed one of my lines back to my 16th great grandfather who was a brother to Henry VIII’s grandfather. Then I reasoned that Queen Elizabeth and I were 18th cousins (or something like that) and I was expecting an invitation to a garden party at the palace. Today I learn that our shared dna is only 1/262,144. I guess my invitation is not in the mail! But I do know the name of my 8 – Laughlan, Kerr, Baer, Krauss, Mills, Chalmers, Looms, Gammons. So much fun


  8. The other advantage of great grandparents is that some of them may have been in living memory for us (three of mine were alive when I was born). In Ahnentafel order: Wright, Wheaton*, Faucett, Pidgeon, Auld, Nelson*, Small, Ashdown*.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good point. At the very least they are people connected to us in memory… our parents for most of us will have had some kind of relationship up and down the generations, linking us. There ought to be some oral history.
      You are lucky to have met yours… I only met 2 grandparents (and only just). My advantage is that only a few generations separate me from the 18th C. Because so many of the people on my ancestor tree were born to older parents. I have four grandparents born before 1890 and I am not 60 even. Some of their grandparents were born before 1800.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Tried to see if I could do my 16 without cheating (aka looking them up)…. Wright, Gurr, Wheaton, Pengelley, Pidgeon, Collins, Forsett, Hart, Auld, Clart [I got this one wrong], Nelson, Park, Small, Rabblah [I got this one wrong], Ashdown, Hilder.

    32 was a struggle (even with lookups): Wright, Crookes, Gurr, Allchin, Wheaton, Jeffery, Pengelley, Le Page, Pidgeon, Quinn, Collins, Cousins, Forsett, UNKNOWN1, Hart, Peters, Auld, Cairns, UNKNOWN2, UNKNOWN3, Nelson, Price, Park, McQueen, Small, Ritchie, Rabblah, Wilford, Ashdown, Morey, Hilder, Sheather.

    UNKNOWN1 – Peter Forsett married UNKNOWN1 in Sweden?, had son Peter who migrated to Australia allegedly as a watchmaker but worked as a farmer and married Sarah Ann Hart.

    UNKNOWN2/3 – Married? couple from Bublitz, Pomerania. Their daughter Ellen Clart (b. 1865?) arrived in Australia (as refugee? around 1880), married 1883 to William James Auld. Have not found entry record to Australia. Have found no record of parents. One child’s record gives her name as Ellen Clart Neineitz.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I could do my eight without looking them up! O’Brien, Dwyer, Coll, McBrien, Malone, McParlan, Ryan, Willson.


    1. that’s impressive. I have to look mine up again, because I don’t have a good memory for simple facts, names and dates!


  11. Eight surnames matter is complex, much more complex than exponential. Before DNA testing 3 years ago, I knew a lot. Now I know a lot less – I am BRAXTON and maternal THOMPSON – however, DNA tells me neither of these is “truth.” – first two are JOHNSON / JONSSON (Sweden/Norway) maternal; then HADLEY paternal – this makes a train wreck of the other six surnames: McPHERSON, STAFFORD, WRIGHT, LINDLEY, BUCKNER. OLSon. I knew everything before DNA testing; now I know almost nothing – three years and counting.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Elizabeth Ferguson and William McLellan
    William McWilliam and Margaret Catherine Campbell
    Emma Ann Hallowell and William Tilley
    Isabella Elizabeth McBean and Thomas Hamilton


  13. Although I am a genealogy obsessive I had to think before I could produce these 8 surnames. I must memorise them so I can do it more easily. I am often amazed when friends cannot even name their grandparents and do not know their birthdays……

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Interesting blog. My lines are Tomlin

    Cant remember the rest. They lived in Jamaica early 1800s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers thanks for that. I just heard about this idea/tradition and thought it was ideal for many of us… the carry-on family tree baggage.


  15. When sorting my DNA matches that don’t have a public tree, I have tried to sort into 4 grandparent groups, but maybe I should expand to 8 barrels.
    I could name my 8: Lawson, Bobo, Humphries, Humphries, Powell, Floyd, Clanton & Brown. I struggled with my husband’s though, even though I’m the primary researcher for both families. I cheated & looked at the tree: Hammonds, Gilliam, Hopkins, Lawson, Mitchem, Russell, Sarver & Walker.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Scobbie?? Me too! Through my maternal line. My gx3 grandmother was born a Scobbie in Old Monkland.
    Yes, I’m a genealogy nerd too. I can probably recite a “Theory of Thirty-Two” surnames (birth and adoptive families). But remember where I put one of thirty-two charging cords? No. Not a single one.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Bachman
    Thanks to geneology I can name even more!


  18. Smith, Richards, Kennedy, Bailey, Alan, Farley, Massey, Harvey. All I did was think of my grandparents and recite their parents name. I love Genealogy and coming across the crazy stories about your forefathers and mothers. With all the wars, famine, and diseases, if you’re here, you come from good stock

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Great post, I wrote mine down and then discovered I had written 16, never mind I never was very good at stopping at the right point.

    My eight are Mullins Pitcher Bowditch Batten Crabb, Scadden Record Gooding

    My Husbands 7 (because he has two cousins of the same name marrying)
    Taubman Kelly Mitchell Purcell Coughlan Sheedy Byrne Byrne

    His 7 were much harder than my 8 as the last 4 are from Ireland and only recently with DNA have we knocked down that wall.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. I liked trying to see if I could do this – I always do a better job with the family I am working on at the moment which right now is my bio line. Also, I wanted to do it more visually so I created a Powerpoint slide with the names and made a template others can use to create their own. It’s available for download in the blog I wrote about your idea (I also linked back to your post),

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Interesting read ~ thanks for thinking this all through for us. Gives me backing for NOT jumping into the DNA pool.
    Rattled off my eight: McNamara, Mangan, Barendt, Gedonitz, Jordan, Berthold, Heffernan, Wall, with no problem.
    My 16: McNamara, Shannon, Mangan, Cahill, Barendt, oops missed one*, Gedanitz, Bernatski, Jordan, Hooper, Berthold, D’Vermel, Heffernan, Devine, Wall, Dunn.
    *Guess I know who I’ll be searching for the rest of the weekend!
    Many in Chicago prior to the 1871 Fire.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. In order:

    Funny how I have always seen myself as Irish because I want to be Irish. I am in fact more German (3/8) than Irish (2/8), Italian (2/8), or English (1/8).Terrific post.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. My “8” GGs were all born in the Carolinas, so you’ll see strong Scottish, French, German, and English genes:
    I love this memory piece! Thank you for sharing. Now to teach my child hers!

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Pardon my ignorance here but is the Eight, four maternal generations and four paternal generations? I have my tree many generations back but I don’t know how to identify the “Eight”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes and no… there are four paternal names and four maternal ones. All are in the same generstion as each other… your great great grandparents. I wonder how often they are related or knew each other (other than the ones who were married to each other, of course). I have a Black on the paternal side and a Black on the maternal, and we believe they were related, or at least from the same Island (Lismore).


  25. What a great blog post! A great way to get the brain working this morning!
    Gilchrest, White, Vero, Carrigan, Schindler, Gestach, Richardson, Douras

    Liked by 1 person

  26. The concept that surnames/ancestors double with each generation is basic – yet routinely forgotten. Certain groups such as the Mayflower Society would have us recognize an ancestor from 300 years ago as somehow being more significant than all of the others within the same generation – yet the ‘Mayflower DNA’ is statistically insignificant.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It can almost become myth-like, the way one particular ancient ancestor is seen as the One True Source. Or that there is a blood-line. One line of 256 or 512 is not that important. Nice, and interesting of course. And useful because all the others might lack documentary evidence. But objectively no more a part of the self than any other. If being descended from some individual seems subjectively very important, we ought to ask ourselves *why*.


  27. I wish I knew all 8, but for now I only know 7. Menzie, McMurray, Tudor, Redwood, Ko, Lo, Wang and ?? As you may easily guess, I’m half-Asian (Taiwanese). It has been challenging to trace the women on this side of the family, although I haven’t given up yet. Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking article!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much – if one name is missing, like for you and my wife, at least seven are left. My family are half-something and half-something else too… not as geographically or culturally distinct as Asian and European heritage, but even tiny differences provide some interesting variety.

      Liked by 1 person

  28. My 8: Baker, Cleland, Gammage, Gillespie, Goldie, Lewis, Wilkinson, Wilson

    My 16: Baker, Butchart, Cleland, Easton, Gammage, Gillespie, Goldie, Hindell, Lewis, Meek, Scollie, Scott, Snell, Weselby, Wilkinson, Wilson

    I know 31 of 32, but things get a little more difficult after that.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. Thank you for your post. Genealogy can seem overwhelming at times. Letting myself concentrate on eight surnames, for now, will narrow my research.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. Great post! For some, this exercise will help them focus their genealogical research, while for others it will help them see the “bigger picture” of their origins.
    For the 32 third great-grandparents, I know the surnames for 31 of them. The only “missing” one is a grandmother originally from Canada.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much and YES, I think this post is popular because different people with different levels of interest can get something out of it.
      I’m thinking about my 16 & 32 … I think I’ve got pretty good coverage, but not a full set. I can’t remember!

      Liked by 1 person

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