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Wilson of Donegal

Wilson of Dublin

Wilson of Ulster

Wilson of Wexford

Wilson is by far the most common English name in Ireland, beating out even the ubiquitous Smith. The name is a patronymic, being derived from an ancestor's personal name, in this case Will, a familiar form of William. Indeed, except for the Welsh name Williams, Wilson is the commonest surname derived from William, exceeding Williamson, Bilson, etc. by some way. The personal name William is derived from the Old German Willihelm and when introduced into Britain by the Normans after the conquest of 1066, it quickly became the single most popular personal name in England (the Conqueror himself being William, Duke of Normandy) and remained so for several centuries until superseded by John. No wonder, therefore, that when hereditary surname came into general use from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there emerged many families of Wilson, Williamson, Williams and so on. Wilson is in the top ten most common names in the U.S.A. and in Scotland (where it is third), it is in the top fifteen in England and the top thirty in Ireland. William was never as popular in ancient Ireland and no native Irish surname derived from it ever arose, or if it did, it failed to survive. The name MacLiamoir has been used in Ireland as gaelicisation of Wilson or Williamson, but this is of recent vintage and rather fanciful. So, we can state with some certainty that all of our Irish Wilsons, of which there are many, are not of native origin.

In Ireland, the name is found in most counties but is most common in Ulster, at the northern end on the island. It is among the five most common names in county Antrim and in the first ten in counties Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone. In the province as a whole it is the third most common name. It is estimated that four out of five Wilsons in Ulster are Scottish in origin. There the name was very common all over the Lowlands and from the sixteenth century, especially so in Glasgow. Further north in Caithness and Sutherland the Wilsons were a sept of Clan Gunn being descended from William, one of the sons of the fifteenth century George Gunn the Crowner (coroner of Caithness). The Gunns were believed to be descended from Gunni, the grandson of Sweyn Asleifsson, "The Ultimate Viking" who was killed in Dublin in 1171. The Clan was sworn enemy of the Keiths and in 1426, at Harpsdale, south of Thurso, a particularly bloody, but nevertheless indecisive battle took place. Though the Clan Chiefs once held splendid court at their castle of Clyth, a few miles east of Lybster, they were listed as one of the "broken clans" of the north in 1594. To the east there were also Wilsons who were a sept of Clan Innes.

The majority of today's Irish Wilsons descend from families that relocated to Ireland from Scotland as part of the Plantation of Ulster. Ulster, one of the four traditional "kingdoms" of Ireland, was only 20 miles across the channel from Scotland. Scottish migration began 1603 when Hugh Montgomery and James Hamilton gained one third of the kingdom of Con O'Neill. However, the king would only agree to the deal if in selecting tenants for their newly acquired property "that the lands should be planted with British Protestants, and that no grant of fee farm should be made to any person of mere Irish extraction". In 1609 began to induce tenants and other Scots, to come over as farmer-settlers and the Plantation began in earnest. Within 10 years, the population of the Plantation of Ulster, had reached around eight thousand and by 1640 it was estimated at 40,000 and included many Wilsons. Life was not always easy for the settlers. They were subjected to attack by the Gaelic natives and were often unfairly treated by the English rulers. As a result many of them, unable to return to Scotland, further emigrated to the New World. Between 1717 and the Revolutionary War some quarter of a million Ulstermen went to America.

The name, of course, also arose independently in various parts of England. The name of Robert Willeson is recorded in the Court Rolls of the Manor of Wakefiled, Yorkshire in 1324; Robert Wilson is mentioned in 1341 in the Coucher Book of the Cistercian Abbey of Kirkstall and John Willison is recorded in the Subsidy Rolls of Lancashire in 1366. In addition the place name of Wilson appears in Devon and Leicestershire and no doubt contributed to the frequency of this name, especially in those counties.

With the surname being popular and widespread, it is not surprising to find many people so-named in the annals of history. James Wilson was born in Carskerdy, Fife, Scotland. He emigrated to the USA in 1765, and after reading law under John Dickinson he set up a practice in 1768. In 1773 he began the first of his lifelong speculations in land purchases. In 1774 he distributed to members of the First Continental Congress his pamphlet, Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament, in which he rejected any authority of the British Parliament over the colonies. He signed the Declaration of Independence and was a central figure at the Constitutional Convention (1787), where he argued strongly for popular election of both houses of Congress and the President. In 1789 he became one of the first six justices of the Supreme Court.

Alexander Wilson from Paisley became known in the 18th century as a father of American ornithology. He was born and educated in Paisley in Scotland. He was apprenticed as a weaver and worked in Lochwinnoch. He began writing and selling popular poetry. But in 1793 one of his verses resulted in him being jailed for libel. Following his release he emigrated to America in 1794 and was employed as both an engraver and a school teacher. But it was his study and drawings of American birds, begun in 1803, for which he is now remembered. He explored much of the eastern half of the USA, observing and drawing - and managing to sell his output. He published seven volumes of his "American Ornithology" during his lifetime and a further two volumes were printed after his death (from drowning in a river while pursuing a bird). He is buried in Philadelphia.

Author John Wilson (1785-1854) is better known by his pen name Christopher North. George Washington Wilson, born in Banff in 1823, was an early photographer who published a vast collection of scenic views at the end of the 19th century. Charles T R Wilson (1869-1959) was a physicist who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1927 for his construction of a cloud chamber for photographing particles from outer space.

Woodrow Wilson, US statesman and 28th president (1913-21), was born in Staunton, Virginia, of county Down stock. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he studied at Princeton and Johns Hopkins. In 1910 he entered politics as a Democrat, and was elected governor of New Jersey (1911-13). In 1912 Wilson won the presidential election by a landslide. He won re-election in 1916 with a pledge to keep America out of the European war, but found the US inexorably drawn in; declaring war on Germany in April 1917, he proposed a peace in the form of the 'Fourteen Points' which brought Germany to the bargaining table in late 1918.

William Edward Wilson (1851-1908) was born in Belfast. A self taught astronomer, he was a pioneer in the study of the sun's temperature and sunspots. Edward Wilson (1872-1912) was physician, naturalist, and explorer. Born in Cheltenham, England, he went to the Antarctic with Scott in the Discovery. On his return to England he researched grouse diseases and made illustrations for books on birds and mammals. In 1910 he returned to the Antarctic on the Terra Nova as chief of the expedition's scientific staff. One of the party of five that reached the South Pole just after Roald Amundsen, he died with the others on the return journey.

Samuel Wilson (1766-1854), a Revolutionary War veteran, started a meat packing plant in Troy, New York. The meat that he shipped to the army during the War of 1812 was stamped 'US' (referring to US properties), but was then somewhat humorously said to stand for 'Uncle Sam' Wilson thus giving rise to the famous nickname.

Sir Henry Hughes Wilson (1864-1922) was born in Edgeworthstown, county Longford, Ireland. He served in Burma and the Boer War, was commander of the Staff College, entered World War 1 as director of military operations and rose to be Chief of the Imperial General Staff. He was knighted in 1919. He left the army in 1922 and became Member of Parliament for North Down, but was assassinated by two Irish ex-servicemen on the doorstep of his house in London in the same year.

Harold Wilson (1916-95) was born in Huddersfield, England. He studied at Oxford, where he became a lecturer in economics in 1937. A Labour MP in 1945, he became President of the Board of Trade and the principal Opposition spokesman on economic affairs. An able and hard-hitting debater, in 1963 he succeeded Gaitskell as leader of the Labour Party, becoming prime minister in 1964. Following his third general election victory, he resigned suddenly as Labour Party leader in 1976. Knighted in 1976, he became a life peer in 1983.