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Thompson is among the fifty most common names in Ireland and among the first ten in Ulster. Three-quarters of all Thompsons in Ireland are to be found in Ulster. It is the single most numerous name in County Down, among the first five in County Antrim and among the first twenty in Counties Armagh and Fermanagh. This name was brought to Ulster in large numbers by settlers from England and Scotland in the 17th century.

Thompson is the fourth commonest surname in Scotland, where the more usual spelling is without the ‘p’, and ranks among the fifteen most common in England. Thompson, derived from the personal name Thomas, simply means ‘son of Thom’. The surname Thompson became widespread throughout England, particularly around Northampton, and the Lowlands of Scotland.  The first record of the surname in Scotland was of a John Thomson leader of the men of Carrick, Ayrshire in Edward Bruce’s invasion of Ireland in 1318.

In the Highlands of Scotland, and particularly in Perthshire and Argyllshire,  Scots Gaelic Mac Thomais, meaning ‘son of Thomas’ and Mac Thomaidh, meaning ‘son of Tommy’ were anglicised to McTavish, McThomas and Thomson. Clan MacThomas of Glenshee, a branch of Clan Mackintosh, were recognized as a clan in their own right by the end of the 16th century.

The Thomsons were also recorded as one of the lawless riding or reiving families of the Scottish Borders who raided, on horseback, and stole each other’s cattle and possessions. These Thomsons lived in the Middle March on the English side of the Border. When the power of the riding clans was broken by James I in the decade after 1603 many came to Ulster, particularly County Fermanagh, to escape persecution.

Movement of Scottish settlers to Ulster began in earnest from 1605 in a private enterprise colonisation of counties Antrim and Down when Sir Hugh Montgomery and Sir James Hamilton acquired title to large estates in north Down and Sir Randall MacDonnell, 1st Earl of Antrim, to large tracts of land in north Antrim. Further impetus came in 1609 when James I adopted the policy to encourage English and Scottish settlers to settle on the forfeited estates of the Gaelic chiefs in counties Armagh, Cavan, Donegal, Fermanagh, Londonderry (then known as Coleraine) and Tyrone.

These settlers came to Ulster, by and large, in three waves: with the granting of the initial leases in the period 1605 to 1625; after 1652 and Cromwell’s crushing of the Irish rebellion; and finally in the fifteen years after 1690 and the Glorious Revolution. Scottish families entering Ireland through the port of Londonderry settled in the Foyle Valley which includes much of the fertile lands of Counties Donegal, Londonderry and Tyrone. English settlers, mostly drawn from the northern counties of Cheshire, Cumberland, Lancashire, Northumberland, Yorkshire and Westmorland tended to favour settlement along the Lagan Valley in the east of the Province on lands straddling the borders of Counties Armagh, Antrim and Down.

Five Thompsons, including descendants of Hugh Thompson who was Sheriff of Derry as early as 1623, were recorded as ‘defenders’ of Derry during the famous Siege of 1689.

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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) Down Armagh Fermanagh
Category (ies) Surname