Surname

The notable surname Neilson is of very ancient origins. It derives from the pre-6th century Gaelic proper name meaning 'champion' (Gaelic: Niall), and was likely first found in pagan Ireland. It was adopted by Norsemen in the form 'Njal', and was brought to England both directly from Ireland by Scandinavian settlers, and indirectly by the Normans after the Conquest of 1066. Among the latter it had taken the form 'Ni(h)el', which was usually Latinized as 'Nigellus'. The patronymic form 'Neil-son', meaning 'descendant, or son of Niall' became popular after the 13th century, and is found in many forms, including the Gaelic 'Mac Neil' or the Celtic 'O'Neil'.

Families of recent times with this surname were principally from Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia, or England. Because of the widespread use of the name, and it's patronymic nature, they are very unlikely to all be related to one another.

In Scotland, there were at least two lines of this surname of independent origin; the Neilsons of Craigcaffie, and the Neilsons of Caithness. The Neilsons of Caithness were from the northern Highlands. The Neilsons of Craigcaffie are said to have traced their descent from Neil, an earl of Carrick in the south. A possible branch of the Craigcaffie Neilsons arose in Corsock in the 15th century. An excellent account of this broad history can be found in Contributions Towards a Nelson Genealogy, 1904, by William Nelson.

A similar entry for the Nelson/Neilson surname is also found in 'The Book of Ulster Surnames', 1997, by Robert Bell.

"Nelson - In Ireland this name is common in Dublin, and Ulster where it is most numerous in County Antrim and County Armagh. Nelsons can be Scottish, English or Manx. Nelson was originally NEILSON, 'Neil's son,' on the Isle of Man, Nelson was originally MacNeill, anglicized as Neillson then Nealson, Neleson then Nelson. In Scotland, the Neilsons of Craigcaffie in Ayrshire descend from Neil, Earl of Carrick. There were Neilsons, hereditary coroners of Bute, a sept of Clan Stuart of Bute. Another family of Neilsons, a sept of Clan MacKay, descend from the 15th century Neil MacNeill MacKay. There were also Neilsons, a sept of Clan Gunn. Around 1900 Nelson and Neilson were still being used interchangeably about Crumlin and Doagh in South Antrim."

The Craigcaffie Neilson family is first found in Ayrshire in the early 14th century, when the three sons of Neil of Carrick brought their warrior septs from the North of Ireland to the assistance of Robert the Bruce during the Scottish War of Independence, and so aided materially in seating him on the Scottish throne. In token of the royal gratitude the King granted great estates to the brothers in the lands of Ayrshire and Galloway. Their descendants would dwell in the region for many centuries afterward.

The Neilsons of Corsock appear to date to 1439 when John Neilson and Isabel Gordon were granted the lands of Corsock by James Lindsay of Forgith. It is this family line to which our ancestry lies. What John Neilson's personal ancestry is not entirely clear, but there is an account of him acquiring the lands of Corsock found in History of the Lands and their Owners in Galloway, P.H. M'Kerlie, 1879;

This property can be traced to the fourteenth century. There is a charter from King David II. in confirmation of a grant to Walter Stewart of Dalswinton, from John Randolph, Earl of Moray, who fell at Durham in 1346, of the lands of Corsock. This, however, could only have been one of those "sheepskin" transactions which those in favour at court were indulged in so much. The lands at this time appear to have been owned by the Lindsays. Subsequently there was a precept granted by James Lindsay of Forgirth (parish of Colvend), infefting John Neilson and his wife Isabel Gordon in the lands of Corsock, which is dated in 1439; also a charter of confirmation, dated 20th July 1444, to Fergus Neilson, son and heir to John Neilson of Corsock, by Sir John Forrester of Corstorphine (Edinburgh), and his wife Marion Stewart, which no doubt referred to the superiority obtained in the manner above described. The lands or farms comprising the estate are not mentioned.

This Neilson line would continue to inhabit the lands of Corsock until the mid-late 18th century.

The surname is commonly associated as a sept of the clan MacKay. However evidence suggests it is the northern Caithness Neilson family line which formed this allegiance. The Craigcaffie Neilsons were more likely a sept of the clan Stewart, a prominent southern clan and supporters of Robert the Bruce. Neilsons in the reign of James V are also said to have been at that time hereditary crowners (administrators) of Bute for nearly two hundred years, a region home to the Stuarts of Bute (a branch of the clan Stewart), and nearby to the district of Carrick. Our family line, the Neilsons of Corsock, are a possible sept of the clan Gordon, whose ancestral lands surround the Corsock region, and whom John Neilson married into in the 15th century, thereby esablishing the Corsock line.

There are over an estimated eighty spelling variations of the surname, including: MacNeill, O'Neill, Neal, Neale, Neil, Niall, Neill, or the patronymics Neals, Neilsen, Neilson, Nielson, Neelson, Nealon, and Nelson. The oldest surviving ancient charters show that the O'Neil's were the chief clan of County Tyrone in Northern Ireland from the 10th century. The first recorded spelling of this branch of the family name is shown to be that of John fit Nigelli et Carrick. This was dated 1314 in the Royal Charter of Craigcaffie.

Some notable members of the surname across the centuries include; Joseph Nelson, an early emigrant to America who embarked from London bound for Virginia in May 1635. Henry Nelsone, a merchant in Edinburgh is recorded in 1438. John Neilsone, who witnessed promulgation of a papal bull at Linlithgow in 1461, while another John Neylsone was tenant under the bishop of Glasgow in 1510. Andrew Neleson was 'dekin of baxteris' in Sterling in 1546, and John Neilsoun was a baker in Glasgow in 1554. Probably the most famous bearer of a variant of the name is Viscount Horatio Nelson (1758 - 1805), British naval commander during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

 

Extant

The Neilson form of the surname itself is relatively uncommon, but when including it's other variants, the numbers rise dramatically. For example there are significantly (nearly 7x!) more people with the Nelson spelling of the surname. The O'Neil name in Ireland is the 10th most common name in the country. And for people from Scandinavia, the spelling Nielsen is seen more often.

The total number of individuals holding the Neilson surname is probably around 12,000, while those holding a variant probably number over 600,000 in the world today.

The countries with the most prominent Neilson (and surname variant) populations include the United States, the U.K., Canada, Ireland, Scandinavia and Australia (approximate/estimated numbers).

Country Neilson Population Population of Variant
Surnames
     
United Kingdom 3,100 40,000
United States 7,300 523,000
Canada 800 19,000
Ireland   ?
Sweden   ?
Australia 100 ?

 

Coat of Arms

Under the traditions of English and Scottish heraldry, coat of arms are solely granted to individuals. They are not hereditary per se, and are strictly regulated by the UK College of Arms. They can be passed to direct descendants upon death (but only with minor changes), and are genuinely considered legal property of a single identity. This means it is very unlikely that a living Neilson could rightfully claim an association any particular Neilson coat of arms from the UK.

There are numerous coat of arms for Neilsons recorded in the UK. While many of these arms are from distant or unrelated Neilsons, our branch's ancestors can be traced to the Corsock Neilsons. It is quite likely that a direct ancestor of ours possessed an arms similar to those described here, possibly even as far back as the Craigcaffie Neilsons.

Many Neilson (and Nelson) coat of arms use a red hand motif as part of their field, making for a very distinct and bold arms. The hands and dagger are described on at least a dozen arms of Neilson, O'Neil, and Nelson individuals over the years, and probably more.

The use of a severed red hand as a symbol dates back to ancient Ireland, and was probably grounded on a theme in Gaelic or even Celtic mythology. It is a powerful symbol which has been passed down in tales and oral traditions, and been adopted by many groups and institutions over the years. There are subsequently many stories as to it's origin. One Nelson family account from Contributions Towards a Nelson Genealogy, 1904, by William Nelson.

These arms are obviously derived from those of the founder of the Neil family, known as Red O'Neil, or O'Neil of the Red Hand, whose arms were: Argent, a sinister hand, couped at the wrist, gules, proper. This was said to commemorate a fierce contest between some of those wild chieftains of the olden time to reach first the shore of an enemy, and so to lead in the attack. Neil was outstripped by some of his companions in arms, but not to be outdone drew his sword, cut off his left hand, and with the shout, "O Neil!" hurled the ghastly, bloody member to land, before any of the other chieftains had gained the shore. Hence, according to the fanciful Irish legend, the name, "O'Neill," and the arms of the family. The three bloody hands on the shield of the Scottish Neilsons signify the three sons of him whose shield bore the Red Hand.

This account is similar to that of one for the Red Hand of Ulster, used by the province of Ulster in Northern Ireland since the Middle Ages.

The story of the Red Hand of Ulster reputedly dates to the arrival of Heremon, Heber and Ir - sons of King Milesius of Spain (Galicia), who were dispatched to conquer Ireland in 504 BC. One of them supposedly cut off his hand and tossed it ashore, that he might be the one to have first claim to the land.

Or a third story that recounts a distant member of the O'Neil family.

Uí Néill and a man named Dermott both wished to be king of Ulster. The High King suggested a horse race across the land. As the two came in sight of the ending point, it seemed that Dermott would win, so Uí Néill cut his hand off and threw it. It reached the goal ahead of Dermott's horse, winning for Uí Néill the crown of Ulster.

The O'Neil clan of Ireland has possibly been associated with the red hand since the time of Niall of the Nine Hostages in the 6th century, a semi-mythic figure in his own right who is considered to be the patriarch of the clan.

But yet other possible origins for the hand include, a representation of the ancient Celtic sun god Nuadu, or of the open right hand or Dextera Dei of Christian mythology. One important note is that most Neilson arms display a left hand, as opposed to the right hand commonly used for the Red Hand of Ulster. The meaning of this distinction is unknown, but typically a left hand of the era is associated with wickedness.

The sons of Neil of Carrick, who reportedly settled Ayeshire from northern Ireland, had an ancient arms described in Contributions Towards a Nelson Genealogy, 1904, and in Scottish Arms: a collection of armorial bearings, A.D. 1370-1678, 1881. This arms is implied to have dated to the 14th century from the time of Robert the Bruce and perhaps served as a model to subsequent differenced versions in Scotland.

According to Contributions Towards a Nelson Genealogy, 1904, there was a 15th century arms of a John Neilson of Corsock which differed only slightly from those of the Craigcaffies. This is possibly the arms of the same John Neilson who was granted the lands of Corsock by James Lindsay in 1439, and is described as being;

Neilsons of Corsock - argent, three hands, bend sinister, two in chief, and one in base, holding a dagger azure, with a crescent in the centre for the difference. Crest, a dexter hand, holding a lance erect, proper. Motto: Hic Regi servitium.

Red (Gules) was used for fortitude and creative power. Silver (Argent) typically meant nobility or serenity. The sword or dagger would be used to indicate justice, often military justice. A crescent is the cadence mark of a second son.

The crests of several Neilson arms are also found in Fairbairn's Book of Crests, 1905, including the one described above featuring a lance. This crest is also the same as described for the Craigcaffie Neilsons, perhaps showing a connection.

 

Corsock Neilsons

There is a separate Neilson arms also documented from Corsock which dates to at least the 16th century. It is this coat of arms that is of most relevance to our line of Neilsons. The General Armoury of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, 1884, describes it as being quite different from its predecessors; primarily blue in colour and featuring two hammers rather than the red hands. The same Neilson arms is also described much earlier in Nisbets System of Heraldry, 1722 by Alexander Nisbet. The image shown to the left is from the 1816 edition of Nisbet's.

We have not yet, however, been able to tie this arms to a root individual to know its relationship to the other Neilson arms, or why it would be so different from them. However its origin in Corsock however means there is a certainly a strong relationship to our branch, and several members of our line have used the arms by tradition.

The arms as described in the General Armoury of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, 1884 as follows;

Neilson (Corsock, co. Wigtoun). Az. two hammers in saltire or, in the dexter flank a crescent and in base a star ar. Crest - A demi man issuing out of the wreath holding over his shoulder a hammer all ppr. Motto - Praesto pro Patria

Blue (Azure) typically symbolized truth and loyalty. Silver (Argent) typically meant nobility or serenity.  In UK heraldry a crescent is the cadence mark of a second son, and a mullet (star) is the mark of a third son.  This could means that the example shown above left was differenced across two generations. A hammer typically represented honour and was an emblem of trade. The motto 'Praesto Pro Patria' translates as, 'Ready for our country'.

The earliest known occurrence of this arms is on the stone shield of Corsock House, which bears the initials of John Neilson (1549-1630) and Margaret Gordon from 1588. The lower arms is the that of Margaret Gordon’s family. The stone was embedded in the walls of the old Corsock House when it was built by John Neilson himself. The stone still exists and is now embedded in the tower of the newer Corsock House. This would push back the origin of this style of Neilson arms to at least the late-16th century. The mullet (star) visible in this arms indicates the cadence of a third son. If accurate, it would indicate the dual hammer style arms might have belonged to his father, John Neilson (1514- ), and that the younger John had two unknown elder brothers. We believe this design originated between 1439 and 1588, and because of the cadence, probably closer to the mid 1500s.

The crest of the Corsock Neilson crest is also found in Fairbairn's Book of Crests, 1905, shown to the left. We do not know when the crest came to be used before the 19th century.

'Neilson - Corsock, Wigtownshire, Scotland.'

 

In our family line Harry Neilson gave his daughter Diana a white gold signet ring for her 16th birthday (1934) with a Neilson crest. The one used was that of the Corsock Neilsons with their motto 'Praesto Pro Patria'. The ring is cared for by Diana's grandson Christopher Bretz. It is not currently known if Harry himself, or other members of his family had a similar ring.

Also from our family line, Fergus Neilson has shared this image of his mother's signet ring dating from the 1940s. His father, Neil Neilson, half brother to Harry Neilson, had matching rings made after their marriage and feature the Corsock Neilson demi-man and motto. The rings are still cared for by Fergus.

 

For interest, displayed below are a selection of coat of arms held by past Neilsons of various lands.

     

 

Tartan

The tartan is one of a modern Scottish family's most identifiable and endearing associations. The patterns are commonly worn by family and clan members as clothing in the form of kilts, scarfs, socks, and more to display their heritage and kinship.

Although these patterns have been created by Celtic peoples for at least 2000 years, the modern understanding of their usage probably did not come about until the 16th century. Prior to this many tartan patterns where more often associated with a particular region of Scotland where the cloth was produced than to a specific clan or sept. The colours of the tartan were traditionally more important than the pattern as there were derived from the local dyes. It wasn't until the 18th and 19th century when the 'tartans for every name' movement fueled the creation of many unique and complex patterns for clans.

The Neilson family of Carrick and Galloway has no tartan of its own that we are aware of, but the branch is likely a sept of the clan Stewart, specifically the Stuarts of Bute, and whose tartan is displayed below. Our interpretation the historical record shows although the Neilsons of Craigcaffie predated the Stuarts of Bute, their influence and power waned before the 16th century, by which time the clan Stewart had risen to prominence. The Stewarts became a royal house and ultimately ruled Scotland and England for many years while the Neilsons faded into obscurity. Interestingly, the colours of the Bute tartan are also similar to the traditional district of Carrick regional tartans. The left pattern depicts the pre-19th century colours and dyes. The right pattern use the modern colours from 1842 onward.

The Neilson family of Corsock also has no tartan of its own, but the branch seems to have been associated with the clan Gordon. While not recognized as an official clan sept, the Gordon's ancestral lands surrounded the Corsock region, and the family dominated its politics for centuries, meaning there were many opportunities for the families to cross paths. The marriage of John Neilson and Isabel Gordon in the 15th century, as well as many subsequent intermarriages between the families provides for a possible connection to the clan. Harry Neilson certainly believed the Corsock Neilsons could wear the tartan of clan Gordon, and several pictures are known of Harry wearing one. Interestingly, the colours of the Gordon tartan are also included in the later arms of the Corsock Neilsons - blue and gold. Below are shown two patterns, ancient and modern. The left pattern depicts the pre-19th century colours and dyes. The right pattern use the modern colours from 1939 onward.

 

Notable Neilsons

Horatio Nelson (1758 - 1805) - Naval Commander, English
James Beaumont Neilson (1792-1865) - Inventor, Scottish
Walter Montgomerie Neilson (1819-1889) - Locomotive Maker, Scottish

 

Other Notes

Much of the excellent research on our branch of the Neilsons (and beyond!) has been done by Fergus Neilson, whose work can be found in The Corsock Neilsons : a Galloway family, by Fergus Neilson, 2008. It is available to view through the Society of Australian Genealogists Library, and a printed copy of the work can be purchased through blurb.com, updated with more information in 2012. The book contains many photographs and personal histories, and documents the Neilson family of Galloway back to the Earls of Carrick of the 13th century. The book also follows several other surnames, including; Agnew, Brereton, Dobree, De Saumarez, LeStrange, Nicolls, Skeen, St John, Swynford, Trench, Watson, and more.

 

Last updated March 1, 2012