About the Clark Surname

Pen and paper to signify a clerk’s tools where the Clark surname originates.

The Clark surname is the latest name to be featured in my series on Scottish surnames.  This blog post looks at the origin, history, and meaning of the Clark last name, highlighting its occupational roots and Scottish connections.  The Clark families have contributed to 17th century trade and commerce and 19th century cotton manufacturing which later expanded to the United States.

Is the last name Clark in your family tree?

Meaning of ‘Clark’

The surname ‘Clark’ means a cleric or scribe.

A clerk writing on paper


Origin of the Clark last name

Although the surname “Clark” has Scottish and English  roots, it originally came from the Old French word “clerc.”  A ‘clerk’ was someone  who was a cleric or clergyman.  Over time, the word evolved to include individuals involved in writing and secretarial tasks during the Middle Ages.  Holding a job as a clerk was important in medieval society since literacy was not widespread and those who could read and write were considered to be important individuals.

Consequently, the surname “Clark” is an occupational name for people who worked in clerical or administrative roles.

History of Clark surname

One source noted that the Clarks belonged to a sept of the MacPherson clan.  The MacPhersons got their name  from “Mac-a Phearsain,” meaning “son of the parson” (or cleric) in Gaelic.

Frequently anglicized to Clark, it was first prevalent in Caithness, Scotland, and then later spread across the country.  Notably, distinguished Clark families emerged in Penicuik (near Edinburgh) and Paisley (near Glasgow):

  • John Clark (1611-1674), a prosperous Montrose merchant in the 17th century, acquired the Penicuik lands near Edinburgh.  The Scottish History Society has published The General Account Book of John Clerk of Penicuik, 1663-1674 which gives an interesting insight into life in Penicuik.
  • The Clark family of Paisley, originally farmers at Dykebar, played a pioneering role in the cotton industry.  The family built the first cotton thread factory in 1817 and then expanded the family’s industrial footprint by forming the Atlantic and Pacific mills during the 1870s.  These mills, boasting a combined capacity of 230,000 spindles, employed over 3,000 individuals.

Clan Clark

The surname Clark does not have its own distinct clan in Scotland like other Scottish surnames. However, it may be a sept of the Clan MacPherson.  Nevertheless, individuals with the surname Clark may have ancestral ties to various clans through marriage, or geographical locations.

Clark Tartan

The most commonly recognised tartan for the Clark surname is the “Clark Ancient” tartan.  The tartan typically features a pattern of blue, black, and white.  However, remember that tartans can vary in design and colours, and there may be multiple variations of the Clark tartan, including modern, ancient, and hunting variations.

The Clark tartan


Variations of the surname Clark

Like many surnames, the surname Clark has variations and alternative spellings.  Some of these variations include Clarke, Clerk, Clerke, Clerc and Clarkin.

Gravestone of John Cuthbert Clarke MD in Edinburgh
Gravestone of John Cuthbert Clarke MD at St Cuthbert Cemetery in Edinburgh

These variations may have come from differences in pronunciation, or clerical errors in historical records.  Remember to consider these variations when researching your Clark family history.

Famous people with the surname Clark

Notable individuals with the surname Clark include:

  • James Clark (1894 – 1947) was an English WW1 soldier who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his skillfull determination and bravery at Happegarbes, France, on 2nd November 1918.
  • William Clark (1770 – 1838) was an American explorer and soldier best known for his role as the leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806).  The expedition explored the Louisiana Purchase territory and the Pacific Northwest of North America.
  • Petula Clark (born 1932) Although born in England, Petula has Scottish ancestry through her father.  She is a renowned British singer, actress, and songwriter who gained international fame with hits such as “Downtown” and “Don’t Sleep in the Subway.
  • Arthur Clarke (1917 – 2008) was an English science fiction writer, best known for his novel “2001: A Space Odyssey” and his contributions to the genre of science fiction.  He was also a futurist and inventor, credited with proposing the concept of geostationary satellites for telecommunications.
  • James Clark (1936 – 1968), known as Jim, was a Scottish racing driver who achieved great success in Formula One racing during the 1960s.  He won the Formula One World Championship in 1963 and 1965 and is considered one of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport.

Overall, the surname Clark reflects the importance of literacy and clerical roles in medieval society.  Over the centuries, the surname spread and became established in various regions, both within the British Isles and through migration to other parts of the world.  Today, Clark is a common surname in English-speaking countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Let me know in the comments below if you want me to write about a particular Scottish last name.

Good luck with your research.

Until my next post, haste ye back.


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