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Johnstone – fierce family with Scottish origins

Johnstone is a popular name in Ireland but it actually has many separate origins, mostly in Scotland. Johnston is a common variation.

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They were an important family in Scotland and had a ferocious reputation.

History of the Irish name Johnston. Image copyright Ireland CallingThe surname isn’t to be confused with the similar name Johnson, which means ‘son of John’, Johnstone has different origins and a different meaning.

The motto on the Johnstone coat of arms reads ‘Nunquam non paratus’ which translates to ‘Never unprepared’.

Origins in Dumfriesshire

Johnstone is a name to people who came from a town called Johnston or Johnstone. In the Middle Ages there were several places called Johnston/Johnstone in Scotland. One of the main ones was Annandale, Dumfriesshire. This town is said to have got its name from a Yorkshire man named Jonis who followed his clan up to Scotland in the 12th century and was rewarded with the land.

Perth also used to be known as St. John’s Toun and there were many other Johnstones in Scotland during this period. Toun or Tun were old words for ‘settlement’, which later went on to become towns. Most of the places named Johnstone are likely to have been named after a person called John.

During the Middle Ages, people would migrate to different towns and villages to find work. They would be given a nickname or a surname that related to the place they had come from. This helped to differentiate them from other people in the new town that had the same personal name.

Fighting the English

The Johnstones became a significant family in Scotland. Sir John Johnstone was a leader in the Scottish War of Independence. He fought the English the Battle of Solway in 1378. The famous William Wallace gave Lochmaben Castle to Johnstone of Eskdale.

In 1448 the Johnstones helped to defeat the English at the Battle of Sark during the Anglo-Scottish Border Wars.

Fighting other Scottish clans

When they weren’t fighting the English, the Johnstones had long running feuds with other Scottish clans such as the Maxwells and the Moffats.

The Johnstones and the Moffats both lived on the Scottish border and felt the other clan encroached on their territory. In 1557, the Johnstones murdered the leader of the Moffat clan and later burnt down a church containing several high ranking Moffat clan members. This destroyed the Moffat’s power and eventually the majority of their land was taken by the Johnstones.

Davey Johnstone. Photo copyright flickr user CC3
Davey Johnstone

The Johnstones defeated the Maxwells at the Battle of Dryfe Sands in 1593. Hundreds of Maxwell men were killed including their chief, Lord Maxwell. This didn’t end the feud however, and the heads of both clans were killed by the other clan in the following decades.

Johnstones settle in Ireland

While the name originated in Scotland it is also poplar in Ireland. This is because there was a lot of emigration across the Irish Sea throughout the centuries from Scotland to Ireland and vice versa.

Many Johnstones would have also emigrated to England where the name is also popular. As the English invaded the Irish on numerous occasions throughout the centuries, many English Johnstones would have settled in Ireland and had families.

English soldiers often stayed in Ireland and integrated with the natives, many were thought to become ‘more Irish than the Irish’. So the name arrived in Ireland from both Scotland and England and it spread to become common amongst Irish people.

The name develops

Various ancient spellings were formalised in the 17th century when Britain had taken control of Ireland. English clerks wrote down people’s names for tax purposes. They wrote them in a way that they understood as English speakers so the names became anglicised.

Following the potato famine in the mid-19th century, millions of Irish people left their country and travelled across the world to start a new life. They headed to places like America, Australia, Britain and Canada. Names like Johnstone are popular in all of these countries thanks in no small part to this wave of Irish emigration.

Jude Johnstone copyright Chris Darling cc2
Jude Johnstone

Famous Johnstones

Several Johnstones have become well known after excelling in their chosen fields.

Davey Johnstone is a Scottish musician. He is a guitarist best known for his work with Elton John. He has also worked with the likes of Alice Cooper and Meat Loaf.

Another musical Johnstone is the American Jude Johnstone. She is an award winning singer-songwriter who has released several successful albums.

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Phil Johnstone is a musician and producer who is known for his work with Robert Plant and the Levellers.

Many more Johnstones and Johnstons have had successful careers in politics, sports and other areas.


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