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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.

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.

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.

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.

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 www.derry.rootsireland.ie. Brian can be contacted by email at genealogy@derrystrabane.com

Parish(es) Antrim Fermanagh
Category (ies) Surname