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About the study

Ninian was the surname of one of my great-grandmothers, and when I started seriously researching my family history, I realised it was quite a rare surname. It seems familiar, but perhaps that's because there are so many churches and schools called St Ninian's; Ninian also used to be a popular male forename, and is still used nowadays though not so frequently.I've been gathering information about Ninians since 2010, concentrating in the early stages on the name in Scotland in the 19th century. I've now widened the study, going as far back as the earliest Old Parish Registers in Scotland (16th century) up to the present day. I've also gathered data from England. In future, I hope to extend my study to include Ireland and the rest of the World.

Variant names

I have registered NINION and NINEAN as variants of Ninian. A number of other versions are found, but mostly these seem to be either deviants (ie a spelling which occurs because someone has written the name as they have heard it said, or when a name has been wrongly transcribed) or they date from several centuries ago and the spelling is no longer used. These include: NINNIAN, NINIANE, NINZIAN, NINIEN, NINNON, NENIAN, NUNIAN and NUNION.When handwritten, Ninian is often mistaken for Niman (and vice versa) so they are frequently wrongly indexed. They are completely different names.

Name origin

In his book 'The Surnames of Scotland', George Black attributes the name's origins to St Ninian, with early versions of his name given as Nynia or Nyniga, Latinised as Ninianus. St Ninian is acknowledged as Scotland'€™s first saint, associated with the early Christian settlement of Whithorn in Wigtownshire. However, as I mentioned above, Ninian was also a popular Scottish male forename, so it's possible that it has patronymic origins.

Historical occurrences of the name

I have been unable to find anyone famous called Ninian (maybe you know of someone!), but there are some interesting figures from history.* The Burgh records of Dunfermline in Fife in the late 15th and the 16th centuries record a man called Schir David Ringane, a chaplain. According to George Black's book (as above) and the Dunfermline Burgh records, Ringane is the same name as Ninian. George Black describes Ringan as the vernacular Scots version.

* The earliest Ninian baptism I've been able to find in the Scottish OPRs was Elspot, daughter of Andro Ninian, in Dysart, Fife in 1589 (we'd now probably call her Elspeth). The earliest marriage was between Katherene Ninian and Henrie Archibald in St Cuthbert's parish, Edinburgh in 1632. There are also burials recorded in Edinburgh in the 17th century.

* Hendrie Niniane and John Niniane were recorded as paying the Hearth Tax in Ayrshire in 1691 - Hendrie in Kelsoland and John in 'Larges toun'.

* Grizel Ninian was transported from Glasgow to Hampton, Virginia on board the ship Brilliant in October 1772.

Name frequency

The number of people bearing a surname in the 1881 Census is seen as an indication of how frequently the name occurs. According to various sources, Ninian appears in 1881 on 35, 38 or 42 occasions. However errors in transcription mean that there could have been more people with the name or one of its variants or deviants. Ninian is, however, an uncommon surname.

Distribution of the name

There seem to have been three main 'communities' of Ninians in Scotland in the past.The first was in Fife, in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries (and probably earlier). Some of them migrated to nearby cities like Edinburgh and Dundee, but the name seems to have more or less died out in Fife in the early 19th century.

The second group was concentrated in North Ayrshire, in the Largs and Dalry areas, and in Renfrewshire, around Lochwinnoch, Kilmacolm, Inverkip, Greenock and Paisley. Ninians from these areas appear to have migrated into Glasgow and Dunbartonshire.

A third group of Ninians was in the Shetland Islands, though the name seems to have appeared there only in the early 19th century. Previous to that there were people called Ninianson, and I believe that this was a patronym which became shortened to Ninian after 'settled' surnames were introduced. (The use of patronyms was widespread in Shetland into the early 19th century.)

The name was very rare in England until the 19th century. In 1860 my great-grandmother's brother, James Ninian, left the army and settled in the Manchester area. Though he only had one surviving son, that son had four sons who all married and had children. From my initial research, it seems that a great many of the Ninians in England are descended from this family - certainly those living around the Manchester, Lancaster and Cheshire areas. Some more recently resident in England may have migrated south from Scotland, and there are also a few Irish-born Ninians to be found both north and south of the border.


I have INDEXES to: Statutory Scottish births, marriages and deaths 1855-2012; Scottish Old Parish Registers (OPRs) for births & baptisms, banns & marriages and deaths & burials 16thC-1854; Testaments (Scottish wills) 1593-early 20thC; Scottish Census returns 1841-1911; Statutory births, marriages and deaths from England and Wales 1837-2006; Census returns England and Wales 1841- 1911; as well as military deaths from the two World Wars and some Scottish memorial inscriptions from the Shetland Islands, Renfrewshire and Ayrshire.