About the Wilson Surname

The Wilson sports brand to represent the history and origins of the Wilson surname

In 2022, the Wilson surname was the 3rd most Scottish popular name and one of the most common in Britain.  Although it is among the most popular surnames, you should not presume that it is Scottish in origin.  Nevertheless, I have still included it in our list of Scottish surnames.

Wilson Last Name Origin

Since the Wilson last name can be found in many countries today, its early Scottish origins for the most part can be traced to Norse descent.  There was once a 9th century Norse prince called Wolf and his descendants settled in the Orkney Isles.  For this reason, the Wilson name is a corruption of ‘Wolf’s son’.  Accordingly any Wilson coat of arms with a wolf on it, is an indication that the family is descended from the Prince.

Evidently, the English Wilsons are of Norman ancestry.  From Yorkshire, Robert Willeson of the Manor of Wakefield may have been the first person recorded with a variation of the Wilson surname in 1324.  The first formal use of the Wilson surname came in 1341 when Robert Wilson was found in the records of the Cistercian Abbey of Kirkstall, Yorkshire.  In the neighbouring county, John Willison’s name was identified in the Lancashire Subsidy Rolls in 1366. 

Wilson Name Meaning

It is basically derived from the first name William, meaning ‘Will’s son’.  The surname was introduced to England through Norman influence in the second half of the 11th century.  It was also introduced to Scotland through Norse influence. From these origins, the Wilson surname became popular in the UK. 

History of the name Wilson

There are apparently 2 Scottish lines of Wilsons associated with clans:

  1. from Caithness who were descended from William, a son of George Gunn, Coroner of Caithness.  In addition,
  2. from Banffshire who were linked by marriage with the Innes family of Littlefield.

Both lines are considered as a Sept.  Nevertheless, the Wilson name did appear earlier in the Scottish Borders when John Wilson was a burgess in Berwickshire in 1467.  The name was well established in Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and Stirlingshire by the 18th century.

Variations of the Wilson Surname

The popularity of William as a first name gave rise to many distinct lineages in Scotland.  Depending on dialect, the name also assumed many other forms.  For example, notable variations include Willson, Willsone, Wilsonne, Wolfson, Wilfson, Wilsoun, Wolsoun, Wylsone and others.  Some variants could be older than others but the differences are only in the spelling, since someone might spell their own name in more ways than one.

Variation of the surname Wilson on a gravestone in Linlithgow
“This Burial ground is the Property of William Willson” located at St Michael’s Parish Church in Linlithgow

The Wilson Tartan and Crest

This Wilson tartan was named after Janet Paterson, wife of the Bannockburn weaver, William Wilson.  He created tartans from the late 18th century and the family business continued until the early 20th century.  Apparently, according to the family’s archives, this tartan was created for their wedding in 1780 and was later introduced as the Wilson family tartan.

The Wilson TartanThe Wilson family crest

Some Notable Wilsons

  • Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson had northern roots and, apparently, an aristocratic opponent with long ancestry once poked fun at him about his lack of family history.  However, the prime minister’s family history revealed that his ancestry was equally old. 
  • James Wilson (1742-1798) was born in Ceres, Fife, before emigrating to America in 1765.  He was a signatory of the American Declaration of Independence.
  • Charles Thomson Rees Wilson (1869-1959) invented the Cloud Chamber, a tool for particle physics.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1927. 
  • George Wilson (29 April 1886 – 22 April 1926) was a Scottish recipient of the Victoria Cross for capturing a hostile machine gun nest during WWI in France.  Born in Scotland, he died at the age of 39 and is buried at Piershill cemetery in Edinburgh.
  • American President Woodrow Wilson was awarded the 1919 Peace Prize as the main architect of the League of Nations to ensure world peace after World War One.


The 1689 story of the Martyrs of Wigton is about a group of people who refused to take the Oath of Abjuration.  They chose to follow the Covenant faith of Presbyterianism.  One of them was a young woman called Margaret Wilson who was aged about 18.  She was captured and imprisoned for refusing to take the oath and for attending illegal ‘conventicles’ to hear prayers and sermons.  Consequently, she was found guilty and killed by drowning “being tied to palisades fixed in the sand and there to stand until the tide overflowed her.”  She became known as one of the Wigton Martyrs.

If you are needing some help with your Wilson family history, then feel free to get in touch or leave a comment below.

Good luck in tracking down your Wilson family history.

Until my next post, mar sin leat as we say in Scots Gaelic for ‘goodbye’.


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