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Johnston is among the twenty commonest surnames in Scotland. About 80% of the Johnston families in Ireland are in Ulster where this surname came with numerous Scottish immigrants at the time of the Plantation of Ulster in the 17th century. It is the fourth most common name in Ulster, and the second most numerous in Counties Antrim and Fermanagh.

Plantation of Ulster

A picture of the map of the plantation of Ulster, Ireland and its history

Where Does the Last Name Johnstons Come From?

The Johnstons were a powerful border clan who occupied the lands of Johnstone, stretching from the border with England northwest to Annandale, in the West March of England and Scotland. Shortly after 1174 John the founder of the family of Johnstone, gave his name to his lands in Annandale, Dumfriesshire. John’s son Gilbert then adopted Johnstone as his surname. The Johnstons became one of the great riding or reiving clans of the Borders, and one of the most troublesome to the Crowns of both England and Scotland.

Strictly speaking, Johnson and Johnston are two distinct names; the former meaning son of John and the latter John’s town, pronounced in Scotland John’s Toon. The two names, however, are now indistinguishable. Even in the Scottish Borders, where the surname Johnston was most common, it was often made Johnson.

From the 14th to the late-17th century, the border between England and Scotland – the Debatable Lands – was a turbulent place. The Border country was ravaged by the lawless Reiver families who stole each other’s cattle and possessions. They raided in large numbers, on horseback, and they killed and kidnapped without remorse. This type of life resulted in the growth of large closely-knit family groups with intense clan loyalties and fierce feuds against others.

The Debatable Lands

  A picture showing the Debatable Lands and the map of Scotland and England border

Border Reiver Clans Statue

 A picture of the border reiver clans statue of Galashiels

Prior to the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland in 1603 the Scottish Border was divided into three districts; the east, west and middle Marches. The Johnstons were intermittently appointed Wardens of the West March, alternating in that role with the Maxwells, with whom they had a deadly feud, which they resolved in 1623.

Pacification of the riding families began in earnest from 1603 with the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland. The Johnstons suffered as King James I set about pacifying the borders in a ruthless campaign which included executions and banishment. In 1603 thirty-two Johnstons, Armstrongs, Beattys, Elliotts and others were hanged, fifteen were banished and one hundred and forty outlawed.

The Act of Union of the Crowns 

The act of Union of the Crowns of Scotland and England 1603, ceiling of the Banqueting House, Whitehal

King James I

A painting of King James I of Scotland and England, son of Mary Queen of Scots

When the power of the riding clans was broken by James I in the decade after 1603 many came to Ulster to escape persecution. This flight to Ulster also suited the needs of the king.  James I, from 1610, was determined to implement a deliberate plantation of Scottish and English colonists on the forfeited estates of the Gaelic chiefs in Counties Armagh, Cavan, Donegal, Fermanagh, Londonderry (then known as Coleraine) and Tyrone. The Johnstons settled principally in County Fermanagh.

Confusion is caused by the fact that a large number of Irish and Scottish septs anglicised their names to Johnston and Johnson. Septs of Clan Gunn in Caithness and of Clan Donald of Glencoe have been anglicised as both Johnson and Johnston. In Ireland a number of septs including McKeown and McShane anglicised their names to Johnson and Johnston.

Johnston Spelling Variations

The different spelling variations for this surname are: Johnstone, Jonston, Johnson, Johnstome, Jonstoom, Jonsomb, Jonsombe, Jonsoomb, Jonsoombe, Jonsome, Jonsum, Jonstume, Johnstolm, Jonstolm, Jonsolm, Johnstume, Jonstum, Jonstoomb and Jonstoombe. 

Johnstons Who Have Marked their Surname in History


Albert Sidney Johnston; American General

A picture of American General Albert Sidney Johnston, who fought in the Civil War and his death took place at the battle of Shiloh

Andrew "Beef" Johnston; British golfer

A picture of Andrew "Beef" Johnston, British golfer

Archibald Johnston; Scottish judge and statesman

A painting of Archibald Johnston, Scottish judge and statesman

Arthur Johnston; Scottish physician and poet

A painting of Arthur Johnston, Scottish physician and poet

Ayiesha Naazmi Johnston; Australian Olympic athlete

A picture of Ayiesha Naazmi Johnston, Australian Olympic athlete

Christina Johnston; English Opera singer

A picture of Christina Johnston, English Opera singer

David Cay Johnston; American journalist and winner of Pulitzer prize for beat reporting

A black and white photo of David Cay Johnston, American journalist and winner of Pulitzer prize for beat reporting

(William) Denis Johnston; Irish playwright

A black and white picture of (William) Denis Johnston, Irish playwright

Dick (Richard Fredrick) Johnston; American baseball player

A picture of Dick ( Richard Fredrick) Johnston American baseball player of the Boston Nationals

Edward Johnston; British teacher of Calligraphy 

A black and white side photo of Edward Johnston, British teacher of Calligraphy, writing

Elmer E. Johnston; American politician

A black and white picture of Elmer E. Johnston, American politician

Joe Johnston; American film director 

A picture of Joseph Eggleston Johnston II known as Joe Johnston, American film director including the movie Captain America

John Warfield Johnston; American lawyer and politician

A black and white picture of John Warfield Johnston, American lawyer and politician

Kristen Johnston; American movie and tv show actress

A photo of Kristen Johnston, American movie and tv show actress, including 3rd Rock from the sun


Add your Johnston Ancestors

This surname history has been researched and written by Brian Mitchell. Brian has been involved in local, family and emigration research in Derry and North West Ireland since 1982. The database whose construction he supervised, containing one million records (dating from 1628 to 1930) extracted from the major civil and church registers of County Derry, can now be accessed at Brian can be contacted by email at

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