McGregor Surname Meaning, History & Origin

McGregor Surname Meaning

MacGregor is a Scottish clan name, from Mac or “son of” and the personal name Gregory (from the Greek Gregorios), a name which became popular in Europe through Pope Gregory.  The Gaelic version of the name was MacGriogair.

MacGregor as a name was banned by King James VI of Scotland in the early 17th century because of the unruliness of the clan.  But the name has survived.  The main spellings today are MacGregor and McGregor, with McGregor being the more common.

McGregor Surname Resources on The Internet

McGregor and MacGregor Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Argyll)
  • to England, America, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand

Scotland.  MacGregor clan origins are lost in the mists of time.  Their first recognizable chief may have been the 14th century Gregor of the Golden Bridles, followed by Ian Cam (meaning “one eyed”) MacGregor who died in 1390 at Glenorchy in Argyllshire, their traditional home.  

“Ian Cam was buried on the north side of the high altar in Dysart near Dalmally, the old church at Glenorchy.  This continued to be the burial place of the MacGregor chiefs until 1528. A number of stone coffins together with foliated tomb slabs each showing in a panel the figure of an armed warrior with spear and two-handed sword, short tunic and high, conical, pointed helmet were found.”  

Early History  From their base at Glenorchy, MacGregor lands extended eastward in the Central Highlands into Glen Strae and Glen Lyon in Perthshire and towards Loch Lomond in the Trossachs. They held doggedly to the old Celtic clan rule of defending possession by the sword.

However, they had powerful aggressive neighbors in the Campbells who began harrying them in the 16th century, forcing them to retire deeper into their lands around Glen Strae.  As a result there was a renegade band of McGregors left known in Gaelic as the Children of the Mist.

In 1588 these MacGregors were involved in the killing of John Drummond, the king’s forester, after he had hung some MacGregors for poaching.  Then in 1603, after the Colquhoun clan had been granted a royal commission to suppress the MacGregors, Alasdair MacGregor of Glen Strae led four hundred of his men to Glen Fruin near Loch Lomond where they slew many Colquhouns.

“Some say the MacGregors were rustlers and thieves.  Whether there was any truth in this or whether circumstances forced this upon them or whether it was all a smear campaign to undermine their reputation is open to question.  But they certainly paid the price.”  

Banning of the Name  In retaliation King James VI of Scotland abolished the name of MacGregor.  All who bore the name must renounce it or die.  The next year Alasdair MacGregor and eleven of his men were captured and hung outside St. Giles kirk in Edinburgh by the tollbooth.  Anyone answering to the name was executed on the spot, with women and children sold into slavery in the American states.

Amelia MacGregor’s 1898 book The History of the Clan Gregor covered this clan history until 1625.

The ban on the MacGregor name remained in effect until 1774.  During this time the surviving MacGregors continued in two groups. The first were those who legally changed their name to satisfy the law, although they may not have changed their heart or blood. The other group were those who took to the Highlands and continued to use their Gregor names in defiance.

Rob Roy, who was forced to use his mother’s maiden name of Campbell due to the proscription of the MacGregor name, was a younger son of the MacGregor of Glengyle (which lay by Loch Katrine in Stirling). Rob Roy took part in the first Jacobite Uprising in 1715. Afterwards his raids on Lowland farms and his prowess with the sword earned him a reputation which was considerably enhanced by Sir Walter Scott’s romantic tales.  He was buried in Balquhidder churchyard.

Restoration of the Name.  To restore some pride in the clan, it was felt that a clan chief needed to be re-established. A petition signed by 826 MacGregors declared that General John Murray of Lanrick in Stirling should be the true chief.  Murray was in fact a MacGregor descended from Duncan MacGregor of Ardchoille who had died in 1552.  His son Sir Evan MacGregor played a ceremonial role in the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822.

England.  Some MacGregors made it to England, such as Alexander MacGregor from Thorn Hill in Perthshire:  

“It was said that four brothers, the sons of John McGregor of Thorn Hill, came to New York in 1781 or thereabouts.  Three of these brothers – James, William, and John – remained; while Alexander returned across the ocean and settled in Liverpool.

Alexander prospered as a merchant and banker in Liverpool.   In 1826 he was appointed as an agent for the Bank of England to open its Manchester branch, its first outside London.  One son James became an English MP, another son Walter Fergus owned a thriving iron foundry in Liverpool. His son the Rev. William MacGregor was a generous benefactor of the town of Tamworth in Staffordshire and a famous amateur Egyptologist.

America.  McGregors are not numerous in America.  The numbers today are in fact less than those in Canada or Australia.  The proscription of the McGregor name in Scotland during the 17th and 18th centuries may have had something to do with it.  For instance, William MacGregor, caught up in the failed 1715 Jacobite Uprising, came to America and Perth Amboy, New Jersey as William Skinner soon after.

Family tradition has Alexander MacGregor arriving from Scotland with the British army in 1775, but then changing sides and fighting on the American side in the Revolutionary War.  He later owned a farm in Oyster Bay, New York.  Subsequent MacGregors of the family were blacksmiths in New Haven, Connecticut.

John and Anne MacGregor came to New York from England in the late 1700’s.  Their grandson Alexander headed west in 1832, first to Chicago (when its population was less than 100) and then to Wisconsin where he operated a ferry service across the Mississippi. In 1848, newly-married and with a family in tow, he founded a new community that became known as McGregor, Iowa.

Canada.  McGregor immigration began in the late 1700’s, initially into the Maritime provinces and later into Quebec and Ontario.

Nova Scotia.   James MacGregor from Perthshire answered the call for an English and Gaelic preacher for the Scottish community at Pictou and departed there in 1786.  He was a fervent advocate of the Presbyterian church until his death in 1830.  His son Peter was a Presbyterian minister in Halifax, his grandson James a gifted academic who in 1901 became Professor of Natural Philosophy back in Edinburgh.

The MacGregors of South River Lake in Antigonish county were known as the Red Rock MacGregors, apparently because of their Scottish ancestor Donald “ruadh” MacGregor.  His son Donald, a Baptist deacon, came to this area in 1832 and died there sixty years later.  His descendants spread into Ontario and the western provinces.

Another Donald MacGregor came to Cape Breton Island from the Scottish Highlands around this time.  His son Donald, who changed the spelling of his name to McGregor, moved to New Zealand in 1852 and settled in Whangerei.  Alexander and Roderick McGregor also made the voyage from Cape Breton Island to New Zealand, in this case in 1859.  Alexander founded the Northern Steamship Company in Auckland.

Elsewhere.   Alexander McGregor and his wife Ellen came to Canada from Fortingall in Perthshire in 1817 and made their home in Huntingdon, Quebec.  Son James was Principal of Huntingdon Academy and later Inspector of Schools. Curiously, a descendant Norman changed the spelling of his name from McGregor to MacGregor when he emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1900.

Joan and Margaret McGregor came out to Sarnia, Ontario from Paisley in Scotland in 1830.  Their son William was a prominent businessman and politician in Windsor and their grandson Gordon founded the Ford Motor Company of Canada.  A McGregor family has been farming at McNab Braeside in the Ottawa Valley since 1856.  Five generations of McGregor’s have farmed here and the current crew now includes three generations.

South Africa.  From Golspie in the far north of Scotland came the Rev. Andrew McGregor, a minister of the Church of Scotland, who was recruited to the Cape colony by Scots already there. He arrived in 1862 and he and his wife Lily raised six children in the colony.

The eldest Alexander became a judge, as did his son Michael who was later Chief Justice of South Africa.  A younger son Murray was the headmaster of the Blythswood Scottish mission in the Transkei.  His son Chris became a well-known jazz pianist and bandleader. Meanwhile the youngest child, a daughter named Henrietta who was the family historian, lived to be a hundred, dying in 1979.

Another Alexander McGregor was one of the diamond pioneers in South Africa. He was elected Mayor of Kimberley in 1886.  After his death his wife funded the Alexander McGregor Memorial Museum in Kimberley which was opened in 1907 and still stands.

Australia.  William McGregor was a shepherd who departed rural Inverness for Australia in 1838.  He made his home in East Maitland, NSW.

New Zealand.  Jock McGregor, a whaler from Perthshire, was an early arrival in New Zealand, coming to Wanganui from Australia in 1836. Although he married in New Zealand, he left no descendants.

Gregor McGregor, from Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, was another inhabitant of Wanganui, having reached New Zealand on the Blenheim in 1840. Her and his wife Catherine raised eight sons and six daughters.  Their family story was recounted in Bruce McGregor’s 1991 book Gregor and Catherine McGregor.

McGregor Surname Miscellany

MacGregor Origins.  The MacGregor clan motto has been s rioghal mo dhream, which means “my race is royal.”  This refers to the claim that they were descended from Alpin, the 9th century Celtic king of Dal Riata.  From Alpin came:

  • Cinead mac Ailpin, or Kenneth MacAlpin, who is considered under Scottish tradition to be the first King of the Scots
  • and his younger brother Prince Griogar, the forebears of the MacGregors.  His name was probably a derivative of the Gaelic word cir meaning “comb” or “crest,” but from an early date was associated with Gregory.

However, these claims for the Gregor origins cannot be verified.

According to Buchanan of Auchmar, the clan Gregor may have been at Glenorchy in Argyllshire from the late 11th century.

Reader Feedback – MacGregor History.  I have been studying Clan Gregor history for around forty years and have been the vice-chairman of the Clan Gregor Society for more than twenty-five years.

I don’t want to quibble too much, but you are wrong in your description of the dispute with the Campbells. The MacGregor chief’s feudal dependence on the Campbell chiefs began at the time of the Wars of Independence, reinforced by the 14th century charters of David II. The relationship was close as MacGregors and Campbells expanded together into the Central Highlands.

The bitter dispute began with the advent of Grey Colin Campbell of Glenorchy in 1550 and his attempts to render individual MacGregors into explicit dependence on him in place of their chief. This would culminate in the proscription by the Crown in 1603.

Best wishes, Peter Lawrie (

The Killing of John Drummond.  The troubles of the MacGregors came to a climax towards the close of the 16th century.  Driven to desperation and fired with injustice, they were induced to perpetrate many wild deeds.

In 1588 there took place a dreadful ceremony in the little kirk of Balquhidder.  A few days earlier a mysterious body, “the Children of the Mist,” had surprised the King’s forester, John Drummond in Glenartney. They had killed him, cut off his head, and on their way home along Loch Earnside had displayed his head in barbarous fashion on the dinner table at Ardvorlich to the sister of the slain man.  She fled from the house demented.

On the following Sunday the MacGregor clansmen gathered in Balquhidder kirk where one after another they approached the altar, laid their hand on the severed head, and swore themselves a partner in the dark deed that had placed it there.

The Proscription and Abolition of the MacGregor Name.  Following King James VI’s actions in 1603 an Act of the Scottish Parliament in 1617 stated the following:

“It was ordained -that the name of MacGregor should be abolished and that the whole persons of that name should renounce their name and take some other name and that they nor none of their name and that they nor none of their posterity should call themselves Gregor or MacGregor under pain of death.

that any person or persons of the said clan who has already renounced their names or hereafter shall renounce their names or if any of their children or posterity shall at any time hereafter assume or take to themselves the name of Gregor or MacGregor.

that every such person or persons assuming or taking to themselves the said name shall incur the pain of death which pain shall be executed upon them without favor.”

MacGregor by Any Other Name.  After proscription in 1603, many MacGregors adopted other Scottish names such as Murray, Graham, Stewart, Grant, Drummond, Stirling and even Campbell.   The MacGregors of Glen Strae took the Graham name while Rob Roy, the famous outlaw, assumed the Campbell name from his mother.   The MacGregors of Bohaldie took the name of Drummond.   Robert MacGregor was born Robert Stirling in 1668 at Glassingall in Dunblane parish.

Clan identity was generally maintained throughout this time and MacGregors supported the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite Uprisings.  Many but not all re-adopted the MacGregor name after proscription was ended in 1774.

Reader Feedback – MacGregor and Grierson.  This comment is totally untrue:

“The sept name of Grierson originated from a second son of Malcom MacGregor who was named Gilbert. Grierson was later shortened to Greer and similar-sounding names by the 1400’s.”

This myth was invented by a man named Gracie who made a family tree for the Griersons of Lag in the mid-1800’s.  The Griersons of Lag carry the Y dna SNP R-FGC4125.  This is not carried by any MacGregors – showing there could not have been any descent.

Mike Grierson (

MacGregor and McGregor.  At the time of the 1881 census the McGregor spelling was much more common than MacGregor – with MacGregor persisting mainly in the Scottish Highlands.

Since that time the MacGregor spelling has enjoyed something of a revival in Scotland.  The table below shows the MacGregor and McGregor numbers in the UK and elsewhere today.

Numbers (000’s) MacGregor McGregor Total
UK     7    15    22
America     2     5     7
Canada     3     8    11
Australia/NZ     3    11    14
Total    15    39    54

Gregor MacGregor, Confidence Trickster.  Gregor MacGregor presented his credentials to the Court of St James in 1820.  He called himself His Serene Highness Gregor I, Prince of Poyais.  He claimed he had served in the British army, but left for Venezuela in 1811 when it was the first Latin American country to gain independence.

He then received a commission from Simon Bolivar himself. He had married Bolivar’s niece, but took to sea to capture one of the great Spanish Main fortresses off the Mosquito Coast, in what is now Nicaragua, where he founded his imaginary kingdom of Poyais. These accomplishments were nothing compared to the achievement of passing himself off as sovereign of a dynasty which had recently been outlawed in his own country.

The Lord Mayor of London sponsored a loan of £200,000 and many Scotsmen volunteered to emigrate to Poyais.  They exchanged their notes and coins of the realm for the Poyais banknotes Gregor had printed in Edinburgh. His first Scottish colonists had to be rescued from the Mosquito Coast, by which time Gregor was working his magic in France.  He returned to Venezuela where he spent the remainder of his days living on a hero’s pension.

William McGregor’s Departure for Australia.  William McGregor was born at Kingussie and Insch in Inverness in 1812.  In 1838, newly married, he departed for Australia.

The Rev. Thomas Sinton witnessed the departure and remarked:

“In the year 1838 a large number of people emigrated to Australia from the neighborhood of Kingussie. The St. George, by which they had taken passage to Sydney, lay at Oban, so it was necessary for them to make the long journey to Fort William in carts and thence proceed to the place of embarkation by steamboat.

Their departure from Kingussie took place at mid-summer and on the day of St Columba’s Fair. This fair was the occasion of a general gathering of the inhabitants of Badenoch. Several near relatives of the writer, who were among those present on the memorable day referred to, used to describe with deep emotion the scenes of heartrending grief which they witnessed at their departure.”

The Rev. William MacGregor at Tamworth.  William MacGregor first arrived in the town of Tamworth in Staffordshire in 1878 when he was appointed a vicar there at the age of thirty.

This wealthy and volatile Scot didn’t waste time in getting to grips with the town’s many problems. He played hell with landlords for the squalid state of tenants’ homes.  He also campaigned vigorously for clean water and proper sewage systems in every home; fetched children out of workhouses and put them into family homes; took orphans from the slums to holiday in his own home and founded and personally financed Tamworth’s first hospital.  If that was not enough, he created a free library, set up a working men’s club, and built churches in Glascote and Hopwas.

But when he turned his attentions to setting up the Tamworth Co-operative Society, he became a target for terrible abuse, most notably from the rich shopkeepers who told him to keep his nose in religion and out of business.  His crime was to support an organization whose purpose was to provide quality goods at fair prices for the benefit of the poor and working classes. This flew in the face of many shopkeepers, who at that time had no lid on their profiteering.

Within a year he had resigned as the Vicar of Tamworth. An editorial which he wrote in the parish magazine in December 1886 summed up his distress at the bad feeling surrounding him.  In the article he described the first eight years of his stay in Tamworth as giving him some anxiety but also ‘much happiness.’  He then explained why the ninth year has opened under a cloud:

’“My connection with the Co-operative movement, which is about to get a footing in Tamworth, is an offence to many who have hitherto worked cordially with me, and whom I have valued highly as friends and helpers.”

He then made it clear that as much as he regretted the ill feeling that had arisen, he could not hold himself back from helping a movement “calculated to benefit morally, socially and politically a large number of people.”

McGregor Names

  • Robert Roy MacGregor, usually known simply as Rob Roy, was a famous Scottish folk hero and outlaw of the early 18th century. 
  • Gregor MacGregor was a Scottish soldier, adventurer and colonizer who fought in the South American struggle for independence in the early 1800’s. 
  • Sir Evan MacGregor was the clan chief who played a prominent part in the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822 after the MacGregors had been restored to respectability. 
  • Ian MacGregor was the Scottish-American mining industrialist who was in charge of the UK National Coal Board at the time of the 1984 miners’ strike.

McGregor Numbers Today

  • 22,000 in the UK (most numerous in Glasgow)
  • 7,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 25,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

McGregor and Like Surnames

The Scottish Highlands were Gaelic-speaking and their clan names appeared first in Gaelic and only later in an English version.  Each clan controlled its own local territory and frequently fought with neighbors.  Many, however, took the clan name in order to receive clan protection.

The clan downfall came following the 1715 and 1745 uprisings with the Battle of Culloden when the clan culture was broken up and clan tartans banned (although they came back into fashion with Queen Victoria a hundred years later).  The Highland clearances, supplanting people for sheep, was a further blow and many Highlanders were forced into emigration, still speaking their native Gaelic, to Canada and then to Australia and New Zealand.

Here are some of the clan surnames that you can check out.


Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *