McPherson Surname Meaning, History & Origin

McPherson Surname Meaning

Macpherson has been a Scottish Highland clan, its name having derived from the Gaelic Mac a’ Phearsain meaning “son of the parson.”  The parson in question was Muriach, a 12th century parson or lay preacher of Kingussie at Badenoch in Inverness-shire.

The history of clan Macpherson has been called “the posterity of the three brethren” as the three grandsons of Muriach were the antecedents of the three main Macpherson clan lines – Cluny, Pitmain and Invereshie.  McPherson and MacPherson are the main surname spellings today.

McPherson Surname Resources on The Internet

McPherson and MacPherson Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Inverness)
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America, Canada and Australia

Scotland.   The Macpherson clan base was at Badenoch in Inverness-shire in the northeast of Scotland.

Inverness-shire.  According to clan tradition, the Macphersons were granted the lands of Badenoch by Robert the Bruce in return for their support against the rival Comyn clan.

Sometimes known as clan Muredach after an early chief and later as Makferson, they were part of a Chattan clan confederation which also included the Mackintosh and Davidson clans.   Their strongholds in the Strathspey area were Cluny Castle near Newtonmore and Invershie and Pitmain Houses near Kingussie.

Sir Aeneas Macpherson of Invershie was in the late 17th century the first seanchaidh or genealogist of the clan.   

Notable Macpherson events during the four hundred years of clan rule and clan feuds were:

  • the Macpherson defeat of the Camerons in a skirmish in the late 14th century at Invernahoven.
  • the rise of the outlaw Jamie Macpherson, an illegitimate son of the Macpherson Laird of Invereshie.  He was hanged in Banff in 1700.  But he is remembered by Macpherson’s Lament, a song which was later embellished by the poet Robert Burns.
  • and the ending of the clan as an effective unit after the failure of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745.

Ewan Macpherson of Cluny had played an active role at the start of the rebellion, although he and his men took no part in the defeat at Culloden.  However, Ewan was a marked man and he went into hiding before later fleeing to France.  

“During his time in hiding, his wife Janet gave birth to their son.  The child was born in a corn kiln, thus earning him the nickname of ‘Duncan of the Kiln.’”  

James Macpherson who grew up in Badenoch after Culloden was a poet, the first Scottish poet to gain an international reputation. He was best known as the “translator” of the ancient Ossian cycle of epic poems.

The McPhersons of the fishing village of Hopeman on the Moray Firth date back to William and Janet McPherson, first recorded there in 1755.

Elsewhere. Macphersons also appeared on the west coast of Scotland.  A small sept of Campbells in the neighborhood of Glassery in Argyllshire bore the name of Macphersonin the 14thand 15th centuries.

Some Macphersons came to the Hebrides and to Skye.  John Macpherson arrived on the island of Eigg in the Hebrides from Badenoch in the 1750’s; while his son Alexander emigrated from there to Nova Scotia in 1810. Dr. Hugh Macpherson from Aberdeen acquired Eigg in 1828 and he and his descendants were its absentee landlords for the next seventy years.

The Skye Macphersons have included:

  • clergymen at Duirinish and Sleat in the early/mid 1700’s
  • Sir John Macpherson, a Scottish administrator in India who served as the Governor General of Bengal in 1785.
  • and Donald and Mary McPherson who emigrated from Sleat to Australia in 1854.

These Skye MacPhersons were probably descended from the Macdonald clan rather than coming from Badenoch.  

America.  Born near Inverness, Daniel McPherson was kidnapped and brought to Philadelphia against his will around the year 1697.  After the period of his servitude he married and settled down in Chester county, Pennsylvania.  “It was said that in later years Daniel was discovered by a friend of his family and was at the time of discovery ‘well to do and of easy circumstances.’”  

Two of his sons John and William migrated to North Carolina and later McPhersons headed west to Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa.

Also forcibly removed to America was another Daniel McPherson, one of fourteen McPherson clansmen from Inverness-shire who were captured after the 1715 Jacobite rebellion and transported to Maryland. His descendant Reuben McPherson was one of the early pioneers of Tennessee and took part in the War of 1812 under General Jackson.  After the war he moved with his family to Jackson county, Alabama.  When he died in 1842 the family settled in Arkansas.

Yet another McPherson from Inverness-shire, William McPherson, came to Pennsylvania sometime in the 1720’s and settled in Drumore township, Lancaster county.  He was the father of twenty children.  His line was covered in Lowell Thomas’s 2002 book McPherson of Pennsylvania.

One blacksmith line through his son James led to upstate New York and to Ohio where James Birdseye McPherson was born.  He was a Union general during the Civil War who died in battle in 1864.

Scots Irish.  Robert McPherson from Derry came to Pennsylvania with other Scots Irish families in 1729. He eventually settled near Gettysburg in Adams county.  Edward McPherson, born there in 1830, was a Pennsylvania newspaper editor and US Congressman.  As director of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, he was responsible for protecting the Gettysburg battlefield site.

There were three McPherson brothers from Coleraine in America – James, Thomas and Adam. James had arrived in Virginia around 1812, his brothers somewhat later.  By the 1840’s they were settled along the banks of the Mississippi river in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi.

Canada.  Many Scottish Highlanders came to Nova Scotia in the early 1800’s, including a number of McPhersons such as:

  • Angus MacPherson from Arisaig in Inverness-shire who arrived in the early 1800’s.  He was one of the first postmasters of Antigonish.
  • Alexander and Catherine MacPherson from Eigg in the Hebrides who came on the Hector in 1810.  His grandson Alexander, born in Nova Scotia, went to sea as a young man and ended up in California in 1874.  He started a business there as a supply provisioner for the American shipping calling at San Francisco.
  • John MacPherson from South Uist who was probably in Nova Scotia by the early 1820’s.  In 1835 he had received a land grant at Black River on Cape Breton where he settled and built his homestead.  
  • and Norman McPherson from Skye who came to Pleasant Bay on Cape Breton also probably in the early 1820’s.  He later moved to Cape North where many of his descendants are to be found today.

Alexander MacPherson departed Caithness in NE Scotland with his family in 1876 for British Columbia.  His son Hector moved south in 1911 to Oregon where he was elected to the House of Representatives.  Hector’s son Hector Jr. who was an Oregon State Senator wrote in 2010 MacPherson Family History, an account of his family over four generations. 

Australia.  Peter MacPherson from Skye had brought his family on the Triton to Sydney in 1825 and settled near Bathurst.  His son John was a squatter and later landowner in the Limestone Plains of NSW.  John’s sons John and James both became lawyers, with John rising to become Premier of Victoria in 1869.

The McPherson emigration from Skye accelerated in the 1850’s, with many heading for Victoria: 

  • Angus and Margaret McPherson on the Clifton in January 1852
  • John and Catherine McPherson on the Araminta in October 1852
  • John and Janet McPherson on the Georgiana in October 1852
  • Thomas and Mary McPherson on the Wanata in October 1852 
  • Alexander and Mary McPherson on The Banker’s Daughter in September 1853.
  • Alexander and Janet McPherson on The Arabian in September 1854.

Similar numbers of McPhersons came to Victoria from Inverness-shire at this time.

Duncan and Mary MacPherson from Badenoch in Inverness-shire were early settlers in Western Australia, arriving at the Swan River Colony in 1846.

However, twenty years later, they lost their land and trekked inland to the Yarra Yarra Lakes where they started a remote grazing station at a place that came to be known as Carnamah.  Duncan and his daughter Maggie ran the telegraph office there for almost forty years.  After the railway went through in 1894 Maggie also ran Carnamah’s first post office.

McPherson Surname Miscellany

Macphersons in a 14th Century Clan Skirmish.  Sometime in the late 1300’s, some 400 men of the Cameron clan were returning home with the treasures they had acquired after a raid at Badenoch.  They were overtaken at Invernahavon by a body of the Chattan confederation led by Lachlan, the laird of clan MacKintosh. The Chattan confederation usually consisted of forces from the Mackintoshes, Davidsons and Macphersons.

However, as a result of a disagreement as to whether the Davidsons or Macphersons would occupy the right wing which was the post of honor, the MacPhersons withdrew in disgust from the army.

The combined Chattan numbers would have outnumbered the Camerons.  But with the loss of the Macphersons the Camerons now had a greater number and the battle resulted in a defeat for the Chattans.  It was said that an ally of the Camerons known as Charles MacGilony had led their clan into battle and was believed to have changed the outcome of the day with his uncanny ability as an archer.

The Macphersons then changed their minds and decided to rejoin the Chatton forces.  They attacked the Camerons with such vigor that they changed the defeat into a victory and put the Camerons to flight.  The Mackintoshes later claimed that the MacPhersons had been coaxed into the battle by a man from clan Mackintosh who turned up at the Macpherson camp pretending to be from clan Cameron and calling the Macphersons cowards.

The Macphersons attacked the Camerons’ camp, making a dreadful slaughter of them. They even killed the Camerons’ uncanny archer Charles MacGilony, at a place now called Charles’s Valley. 

Jamie Macpherson’s Lament.  Jamie MacPherson was the illegitimate son of a Highland laird, the Macpherson of Invershie, and a gypsy girl he had met at a wedding.

After his father was killed by cattle thieves, the boy was reclaimed by his mother’s people.   As he grew up he became the leader of a gypsy band.  His career of robbery culminated in a reign of terror in the markets of Banff, Elgin and Forres.  Apparently under protection of the Laird of Grant, he and his band of followers would come marching into the markets with a piper at their head.

In 1700, at the Saint Rufus fair in Keith, Jamie was captured after a fierce fight in which one of his crew was killed. According to the traditional account penned by Jamie himself, a woman dropped a blanket over him from a window and he was disarmed before he could get free of it.

While under sentence of death in the jail, during the week between his trial and his execution, Macpherson was said to have composed the tune and the song now known as Macpherson’s Lament or Macpherson’s Rant.

Sir Walter Scott said that he played it under the gallows and, after playing the tune, he then offered his fiddle to anyone in his clan who would play it at his wake.  When no one came forward to take the fiddle, he broke it – either across his knee or over the executioner’s head – and then threw it into the crowd with the remark:  “No one else shall play Jamie Macpherson’s fiddle.”

It was universally believed in that part of Scotland that a reprieve was on its way to Banff at the time of his execution. The legend has it that Duff of Braco saw a lone rider coming from Turiff and correctly assumed that he carried a pardon for Jamie from the Lord of Grant. As the story goes, he then set about turning the village clock fifteen minutes ahead and so hanging MacPherson before the pardon arrived. The magistrates allegedly were punished for this and the town clock was kept fifteen minutes before the correct time for many years.

Skye MacPhersons.  Between 1469 and 1493 the island of Skye was invaded by dissident and land-hungry MacDonald cadets, among them probably Hugh Macdonald who was accompanied by the Red Parson (Pearsainn Ruadh) and his thirty warriors.  They established themselves at Dunile.

Sir John Macpherson, a civil servant in India, was a native of Sleat in Skye and a descendant of Iain Ban.  He wrote as follows of his ancestry in 1798:

“The history of my predecessors is shortly this.  They followed the Macdonalds of Sleat and their fortunes when that line of the Princes of the Isles came to Skye.  Our caste were the hereditary standard bearers of the family and we had free lands in Sleat for that service. The last who exercised this office was Ian Bane MacVorstin who commanded the Macdonalds at Blari Chullin, the last fight fought between the Macleods and the Macdonalds.

The predecessor of Ian Bane MacVortsin who made most noise in the story of our family was Pearson Ruadh (the Red Parson). Tradition stated that the predecessor who followed Hugh of Sleat to Skye had 30 warriors. Our little clan could muster in Sleat, when I was a boy, the same number.”

The Kidnapping of Daniel MacPherson.  Daniel MacPherson was born at or near Inverness about 1680 and was brought to the America either in 1696 or in 1698. There have been two traditions about Daniel’s upbringing.

By one, he would appear to have been reared in good circumstances for it was said that he lived at home with his parents and entered college in 1696. While at home during a vacation and while leisurely strolling on the wharf, he was kidnapped together with many others, gagged and put into the hold of a vessel bound for Philadelphia.  On arriving at Philadelphia, he was sold until he should become of age for the payment of his passage.

Another tradition was to the effect that he was captured while tending sheep.  He was in fact down in a well when taken by men to the ship. The ship sailed immediately for the Delaware river. Daniel was sold until he became of age which was for seven years.

Living with his parents in the capital of the Highlands and attending college would lead to the supposition that he was connected with a more pretentious class than simple herders of sheep.

Yet the second tradition is believed at least in part by some of the descendants acquainted with both traditions. In an obituary notice of a member of the family, the following language was used:

“His ancestors were from the Highlands of Scotland; were shepherds by trade; and mostly large men, of which the deceased was a fair specimen, being six feet high and having a strong constitution.”

Reader Feedback – Macphersons from Aberdeen?  I am trying to find more information about John Macpherson who married Jannetje Kleijn (Kleyn) in 1797 in Rotterdam,  Their daughter Margaretha Macpherson married an ancestor of mine in Rotterdam, Hendrik George Baumgarte.

John Macpherson was a son of George Macpherson and Helen Rings. This George Macpherson should probably come from Aberdeen. Is there any more information about their ancestors in Scotland?

Rosemarie Baumgarte (

The Death of James Birdseye McPherson.  In July 1864 at the Battle of Atlanta Major General McPherson while riding was shot by the enemy.  A musket ball passed through his right lung and shattered his spine.  He clung to his saddle until his horse had carried him further into the woods and then fell to the ground.  He was 36 at the time of his death.

McPherson was greatly beloved by the army and when the news reached them that he had fallen, a wild cry rose from the whole army: “McPherson or revenge.”  When General Grant heard of his death, he was said to have gone into his tent and wept like a child.

McPherson’s eighty-seven year old grandmother Lydia Slocum wrote to General Grant and received the following letter in reply.

“My dear Madam,

Your very welcome letter of the 3rd instant has reached me.  I am glad to know that the relatives of the lamented Major-General McPherson are aware of the more than friendship that existed between him and myself.

A nation grieves at the loss of one so dear to our nation’s cause.  It is a selfish grief because the nation had more to expect from him than from almost anyone living.  I join in this selfish grief and add the grief of personal love for the departed.

He formed for some time one of my military family.  I knew him well. To know him was to love him.  It may be some consolation to you, his aged grandmother, to know that every officer and every soldier who served under your grandson felt the highest reverence for his patriotism, his zeal, his great, almost unequalled ability, his amiability and all the manly virtues that can adorn a commander.

Your bereavement is great, but cannot exceed mine.

Yours Truly, U.S. Grant.”

Norman McPherson at Pleasant Bay on Cape Breton.  What is believed to have been the first visit by a white man to Pleasant Bay on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia occurred in 1819.

The story was told by an old woman in her ninety-third year, but having remarkably clear mind and bright eyes that had never worn glasses.  Before she was two years old, with a little company of Scotch emigrants in a small schooner, this old woman’s father and family made a weary voyage of months across the Atlantic.  In a storm they were stranded here late in the season.  A few Indians gave them friendly shelter and helped them during the winter.

Shortly after this, Neil McQuilcan and a companion landed on the southern side of the Pond river, cut down some trees, built a log hut, and planted some potatoes.  The destruction of their potato plot by bears so discouraged them that they left the locality and made a home for themselves in Margaree.

The hut deserted by McQuilcan and his companion was soon after occupied by Norman McPherson.  He with his family remained for about a year and then removed to the Jersey Farm at Cheticamp.  In the succeeding summers McPherson would make visits to Grand Anse, as the French called the place, for lumber.

After five years’ absence, McPherson then returned accompanied by his brother-in-law Robert McLeod and his family. Bears were still in evidence.  Norman and Robert remained there but a short time before removing to Cape North where many of their descendants are living today.

McPhersons and MacPhersons Today

Numbers (000’s) McPherson MacPherson Total
UK    9   10   19
America   12    2   14
Canada    7    9   16
Australia    7    5   14
Total  35   26   61

MacPhersons in Fiji.  Captain Ewen MacPherson from Fort George in Scotland was serving with the 78th Regiment in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where he married his wife Catherine Gunn in 1827.  Two boys – Ewen Fergus and William – were born to them there, a third son – James – on their return to Scotland in 1839 and a fourth – Daniel – in 1842 on the voyage to Sydney, Australia where they eventually settled.

Of the four sons, Ewen Fergus was the first to move to Fiji, being recorded as a landowner at SavuSavu in 1870.  There was money to be made in growing cotton at that time.  His brothers William and James soon joined him, Wiliiam from managing rather unsuccessfully a sheep farm on South Island, New Zealand.

But misfortune followed them.  The price of cotton plunged.  William who had then started a hotel died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1874.  His elder brother Ewen Fergus took over the running of the hotel and then began arrowroot production at Bucalevu.  But he drowned in 1879 during a hurricane when his boat, the Byron, capsized; and the third brother James also drowned two years later in 1881.

William’s line did live on in Fiji with his son William, managing tea estates on the island.

McPherson Names

  • Jamie Macpherson was a Scottish outlaw hanged in 1700.  His Macpherson’s Lament was later embellished and commemorated by Robert Burns. 
  • James Macpherson was a Scottish poet, best known as the “translator” of the ancient Ossian cycle of epic poems in the 1760’s. 
  • James Birdseye McPherson was a Union General during the Civil War killed at the Battle of Atlanta in 1864.   
  • Aimee McPherson was an American Pentecostal evangelist and media celebrity in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

McPherson Numbers Today

  • 19,000 in the UK (most numerous in NE Scotland)
  • 14,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 29,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

McPherson and Like Surnames 

These surnames originated from the northern part of Scotland, either the northeast of the country, the Scottish Highlands, or in one case (the surname Linklater) the Orkney isles north of Scotland.




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Written by Colin Shelley

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