Other Pages : The Name Grant

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Fraser/Norman Critique I
Fraser/Norman Critique II

The Origin and Meaning of the Name GRANT: "True Grit"

[Last Update: July 2003]


We should note that the pronunciation was not as it is mostly today (ie like either way the word "dance" is pronounced). Rather it was closest to today`s "ground" but with a "t" instead of a "d". Norman French words like "dance" (pronounced in the French of today`s "RP" way) were twisted by Gaels and pronounced more like "downse". But everyone agrees that even the earliest Grants in England (in the early 13th Century - well within the living memory of those who had witnessed the institution of the name) pronounced their names in the Gaelic fashion (even spelling it Graunt and Grawnt). It is worth noting also that in the Chronicle of Melrose Richard Grant, Archbishop of Canterbury, is referred to as Richard "le Graunt" - powerfully adding to the support of the old texts which claim him as "one of ours". The monks at Melrose would have been Anglian (the local population) or Norman (imported eg. by David I) so would have no reason to spell the name in this way by mistake.

The Nature of Surnames:

The educated/gentry enjoyed a pun no less in those days than we do today. Hence many surnames were in themselves nonsense sounds, but they were a play on real words. A few examples will serve to illustrate this: (i) the Comyn family had the Cumin plant on their shield and they came from a place in Normandy called Comines; (ii) the Fraser family sported strawberry plants ("fraise" in French) and came from Fresel or Freseau in Anjou, France (whence also associated names such as Frizell, Frissell). (iii) It is quite possible that other names derived from nicknames. Hence "Campbell" would seem to mean crooked mouth. Although the likelihood is that they were indeed Norman, the elaborate Norman explanation of the name ("de Campo Bello") may have been invented in part to disguise the unflattering basis of the name. [On the other hand although "Cameron" is taken to mean "crooked nose" this seems highly unlikely as the name was originally Cambron or Chambron - and this and their arms imply a Flemish origin,]


As will be seen elsewhere, we argue that the name Grant must have been adopted as a surname around 1170-5 in a context where Norman French was already a significant influence. This was far from being the first surname in Scotland, but rather earlier than most due to the specific circumstances in which they found themselves. By comparison, the MacDuffs seem to have adopted their surname by 1130, the Stewarts in 1204, but others may have survived with Patronymics for several more decades - in some cases centuries.

A. Elements in the name:

Our interpretation is that name "Grant" has several layers of meaning.

A.1 Direct Meaning Elements:

1. Tradition: Grant tradition suggests that the name comes from Sliabh Grianais - the moor above Aviemore - which was held, also by tradition, to be the first land in Scotland occupied by the Grant progenitors. Both elements of this tradition have been questioned - dismissed - by more recent `academics`. In the case of the name, they claim that it is not possible for the name Grianais to mutate into Grant. In the case of the landholding, the Anglo-Norman brigade assert that Stratherrick was the first Scottish land held by the family (but see the conclusive arguments against this elsewhere on this site). As will be seen below, however, the "traditional" explanation of the name will be seen to stand up very well to even the closest scrutiny. As will be seen elsewhere on this site, we may be confident that the "homeland" tradition, articulated even by General Sir Patrick Grant of Tullochgorm in 1872 (see Fraser Vol I) is also the case.

So before looking for elements of meaning for the word "Grant", we need to examine Grianias (now Granish). In his "Placenames: Highlands and Islands of Scotland" (p182), Alexander MacBain has this to say:

"Granish (Duthil) G Grèanais (Grèn-), for older Gràniais, apparently from gràin, abhorrence; but likely Pictish, denoting `rough place`, from the same root and stem, The place figures in Druid lore and writings on account of its stone circles, and is consequently called Grianais, `Sun-place`, which does not agree with the modern pronunciation."

The context/detail for MacBain`s "rough"-ness can be found in Dwelly`s Gaelic Dictionary which has "Grean" meaning "Gravel". This perspective is supported implicitly by WJ Waltson ("The Celtic Placenames of Scotland", p 141) referring, inter alia, to "Balgrenadh" - `Gravelly stead` and to "Greanaich" for Grennich, `Gravelly Place` in Strath Tummel.

Thus tradition tells us that the name Grant should mean "Gravelly" or "Gritty", but how can this be? For it is surely impossible for Grèanais to mutate into Grant.......

2. Old Celtic/Brythonic: From pre-Roman times at least until the Norman Conquest, the name of the river Cam (or Rhee) running by Shepreth (now in Cambridgeshire), one of Heming Hakonsson`s holdings during the reign of Edward the Confessor - and possibly Olav Hemingsson`s base in the period 1052-7 was the Grant(a). As in the placename Grantham (Lincolnshire), the word means "Gravelly". The pre-Norman (and current Welsh) name for Cambridge is Caer Grawnt.

This is the main thread and is particularly supported by spelling. In early documents the name Grant is very often spelled Graunt or Grawnt. This ties in perfectly with the Old Celtic (ie Pictish) of the Grianais above. Thus the connection with Grianais is not a matter of pronunciation, but one of meaning.

A.2 Punning Elements:

3. Old Norse: The Old Norse word Gran means for Fir Tree. This must have been in the inventors` minds given that the pine is the clan plant badge - indeed this may well be a main reason why the name found its representation as Grant rather than as Grean or some such..

[Norse Cognates: We should add an interesting aside here. In the Old Norse small variations on a word would be used to form new words to define some aspect of the original. Thus variations on the word "Gran" (= "Fir tree") are used inter alia as the words for beard (the allusion to the whiskeriness of the beard to the needles of the pine tree is obvious), comb (again the shape of the needle and the tooth of the comb), precise or accurate, even pedantic (the sharpness of the pine needle), tight fisted, mean (the narrowness of the pine needle) and green etc. It will be for readers to decide how far these qualities are to be found amongst bearers of the name! As is noted below ("Grant = Green") there are many close parallels in Gaelic, especially, it would seem, with more obsolete elements of Gaelic more associated with Pictish (eg Greannach = Hairy etc.). We might even hazard that there could be a connection between these and the choice of two naked but hairy savages as supporters for the Grant Arms - but I am not going to press this point at all!]

4. Norman French: As we can see from discussion of meanings above, there can be no direct connection between "Grant" as a surname and the Norman French word "grand" meaning "big" or "tall" or even "great". However it has to be acknowledged that the word "grand" was represented as "grant" in the Scotland of those days. Part of what is now Dalton in Dumfriesshire, for example - previously "Meikle Dalton" - was represented on the Ragman Roll (just before 1300) as "Grant Dalton".

Moreover it is clear that the Grant adopters were aware of - and even relished - the potential pun implied, especially given that it seems that they were indeed tall - Archbishop Richard le Graunt`s height was the subject of comment and - if we are to believe the MacGregors - his brother Gregory was knicknamed "Mor" (or "Big Yin" as we have it today). The reason we should include this allusion is that we are told (MT, CT) that Allan`s brother Malcolm chose the surname "Mitchell", which, the author failed to notice, is a variation on "mickle" or "Meikle" (in Scots often "muckle") meaning "great, big".

However...... it is far from clear that the pronunciation was the same - and the Normans themselves were clearly confused by it. Look, for example, at what the Normans did with the word Grant:

(a) the river Grant became the "Cam" and Cambridge came from Grantabrigga through Cantebrigge;

(b) Grantham was also mangled by the Normans. Immigrants to Scotland who came from Grantham gave themselves the name "de Graham" or "de Graeme".

So the Normans could not handle the word "Grant" as a placename or a personal name - and changed it whereever they could. Early documents refer to the Grants as "dictus Grant" or "dicti Grantes" which can be translated as "crazy name, crazy guy" or, "we haven`t got a clue what this is all about, but this is how it sounds". If the Norman scribes had thought they understood the name, there would have been no need for any of this "dictus" stuff! Moreover, if it had been a descriptive nickname, there would have been no need for the gratuitous tautology of remarking (as Norman people did) upon Richard le Graunt`s tallness!

B. Elements upon which the name is NOT based:

5. Not Irish Gaelic: The first occurrence of a word spelled "Grant" is to be found in the Annals of Tigernach (for 717), which records the death of "Conal Grant". It would be all too easy to call this a "surname" and to try to invent a derivative line, but in this context the name is a surname only in the sense of soubriquet and means "grey-haired" - as such it was not heritable (unless the condition was!!). There is no clear indication of how the word was pronounced, but in the Annals of Clonmacnoise for the same year the word is rendered as "Graint" - and this would imply quite a different pronunciation from that we have discussed above. [I am especially grateful to Dr Alex Woolf of St Andrews University and Dr Katharine Simms of Trinity College Dublin for their advice in this matter.]

6. Not Scots Gaelic: Dwelly lists an old Gaelic word "Grant" which means grey or green, and this is clearly analogous to the Irish Gaelic above.

7. Not Scots Gaelic: At a much later stage, the Macgregors, at substantial pains to try to claim a superiority to the Grants suggested that "Grant" was not the perfectly acceptable Gaelic word, but, instead, a variation on another word "Graund" which they claimed to be Gaelic and to mean "ugly". Purists will readily see that it just does not work anyway: Dwelly, for example, does give Grannda, Grànda or Gràinde meaning, inter alia, "ugly" - but not "Graund".

The purpose of the Macgregor claim was an effort to assert their precedence over the Grants by suggesting that the Grants descended from one of their own: "Gregor Mor Graund" by which they wanted us to understand "Big ugly Gregor". The context of this was a meeting held in the 1600s to consider the merging of the clans. The reference is clearly one to Gregory Grant, second Chief (c 1180 - 1249).For their purposes it was necessary to suggest "graund" as a nickname instead of "Grant", the already adopted surname. [It should be pointed out that the current Clan Gregor Society would give no houseroom to this old claim.] One good thing that comes out of this calim, however is that the meaning "Grant" as the Norman French "Big" or "Great" was clearly not generally understood - as "Gregor Mor Grant" would have been tautology ("Big Big Gregor")!

Other problems with their proposition are: (i) that it seems generally agreed that the name "Gregory" had not yet been Gaelicised to "Gregor" or "Griogar" etc. at the time in question; (ii) the name MacGregor had not been adopted as a surname by that time.

8. Frequently Mistaken Connections:The name Granton in Edinburgh has no direct family connection with the Grants. Two apparently mutually exclusive explanations of this placename seem to be offered: (i) "Gren don" - green hill and (ii) "Grant Tun" - gravelly farmstead; nor is Grantham in Lincolnshire (etc.) connected (except through the meaning).

The Clan Grant Centre Trust