What’s In a Name?
by Graeme Hunter
My parents had the foresight to pick out a name for me before I was born. Unfortunately the name they chose was Lorna, which became a bit of a problem when I showed up with outdoor plumbing. Maybe Mum and Dad were a bit hazy about the law of averages and thought that, already having two sons (David and John) and one daughter (Alison), they were guaranteed another girl.
But what’s the chances of me ending up married to someone who had also been prenatally misgendered? Sue’s parents were anticipating a boy, and it wasn’t a boy named Sue – it was a boy named Roy. In that case, it’s a bit more understandable, as Mr. and Mrs. Colquhoun already had three male children.
So I was supposed to be Lorna, and Sue was supposed to be Roy. I’d love to sign our Christmas cards that way, but I’m pretty sure that nobody would get the joke. “Honey! Do we know a Lorna and Roy?”
In giving me the name “Graeme” rather than its more common homonym “Graham”, my parents ensured that I would have to spell it out for the rest of my life. Here’s how that works.
Person behind a counter: “Name?”
Me: “Graeme Hunter.”
Person: “How do you spell that?”
Me: “Graeme? It’s G-R-A-E-M-E.”
Person: “And what’s your last name again?”
Whenever I complained to my mum about this unnecessary complication, she told me that Graeme was the standard spelling in the south-west of Scotland, where she grew up. And that seems to be true. I remember being in a gift shop in Newton Stewart and seeing personalized mugs with the name Graeme, but none with its variant. Take that, “Grey Ham”!
In the end, it didn’t really matter which way my name was spelled, because most people called me Gordon. In the Scotland of my childhood, that was a much more common name than Graeme (or Graham), so you can see why people defaulted to it. When I moved to Canada, nobody called me Gordon anymore. They called me Greg.
Then Starbucks became a thing.
Me: “A grande latte, please.”
Barista: “Can I have your name for the cup?”
Barista: “How do you spell that?”
Me: “I don’t care how you spell it! It’s a disposable cup!”
No, I didn’t say that. I went through the usual spelling-Graeme routine. When I got fed up with that, I tried using the name Greg. But then the barista would write C-R-A-I-G. It seemed that I couldn’t win. Until the day a guy in front of me at Starbucks gave his name as Dave. I had an epiphany. Dave is the perfect disposable-cup name! You can’t mishear Dave. You can’t misspell Dave. And as far as the Starbucks Corporation is concerned, I’ve been Dave ever since.
People who hear my first name can’t spell it; people who see it can’t pronounce it. It’s not uncommon for people to phone me and ask to talk to “Grah-EEM” or “Grimy”. Other people elect to give me a pet name. One day my girlfriend called me at work. The female co-worker who answered the phone yelled “Graemey!” When I got on the line, the first thing Francine said was: “Who was that woman? And why did she call you ‘Graemey’?”
My mother was almost ninety when she died, and to the end remained mentally sharp. At some point, however, she lost the ability to distinguish between her three sons. Sometimes she called me Graeme, but she was equally likely to call me David or John. Or else she would scroll through a list of possible names, and call me Joh-Da-Graeme or Da-Joh-Graeme. I didn’t take this personally. I answered to David, I answered to John, I answered to Joh-Da-Graeme or Da-Joh-Graeme. The only thing I asked was that Mum didn’t call me Lorna.
It’s a funny thing that my siblings and I all got “English” first names (Graeme is not as English as Graham, but it’s certainly not a traditional Scottish boys’ name). Perhaps in compensation, we all got Scottish middle names (Ian, Margaret, Andrew, Kenneth). Ian is the Gaelic version of John. Scotland has had many famous Margarets, including Queen Margaret, who was canonized, and Mons Meg, which is a cannon. Andrew is, of course, the patron saint of Scotland. The name Kenneth also has an honored place in Scottish history. According to legend, Kenneth MacAlpin was the first king of Alba, the land subsequently known as Scotland.
King Kenneth (Coinneach, in the Gaelic) was born in 810 C.E. on the Hebridean island of Iona, where Christianity had arrived in Scotland two and a half centuries earlier. After uniting the western kingdom of Dal Riata with the eastern kingdom of Pictland, he established his capital at Scone (pronounced “skoon”), in central Scotland. He brought with him a red-sandstone block of mysterious origins that became known as the Stone of Destiny. Scottish kings were crowned sitting on it until 1296, when it was seized by King Edward I of England. The “Hammer of the Scots” put the Stone of Destiny in Westminster Abbey, where it became part of the coronation chair. Seven hundred years later, it was finally returned to Scotland and placed in Edinburgh Castle, where Mons Meg should deter any marauding English monarchs.
When I started to publish scientific papers, I used the name ‘Graeme K. Hunter’. I included a middle initial to distinguish myself, for indexing purposes, from other Graeme Hunters. One day a female colleague asked me: “What’s your middle name?”
I said: “If I told you that Kenneth means ‘handsome’, what would you guess my middle name is?”
“Hmm … Kevin?”
But Kenneth does mean ‘handsome’. Is that nominative determinism, or what?
Unlike my siblings, I got a second middle name. My mum explained that Wyness was her maiden name. But her full name was “May Baxter Hunter”, so wasn’t Baxter her maiden name? Or what about Welsh, which was the surname of my maternal grandparents? On the other hand, why did everyone call Mum “Winnie”? Was that short for Wyness?
I still hate being asked the security question “What is your mother’s maiden name?” Whatever. Pick a number.
It took a long time for me to learn the whole story. My mother was born to a single mother, Ella Wyness, and named May. When she was fostered by a family named Baxter, she was given their surname. During the Second World War, May Baxter worked in a munitions factory. There she made friends with Doreen Welsh, whose mum and dad became surrogate parents to my future mother. May never had the surname Welsh, but I was brought up to believe that Doreen’s parents were my grandparents, so you can see how the confusion arose.
I don’t know why Mum decided to give me Wyness as an extra middle name. Although it must have been obvious to her that, at age 36, this was probably her last kick of the can. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the name Wyness. I could claim that I already had enough problems, having to spell out Graeme all the time, and apparently not being handsome enough for a Kenneth. But the fact is I just didn’t like the sound of Wyness (wino? whiniest?), and was uncomfortable being the only person I knew who had two middle names. So at some point I just stopped using it. As noted above, my moniker in the world of professional science was Graeme K. Hunter.
The last vestige of Wyness in my life was my U.K. passport. Three years ago I had to renew that document, and decided to ditch the dubya, which required convincing the Passport Office that I hadn’t actually used the name Wyness for a number of years. That was fairly easy to do, since I’d gone W-less on my Canadian passport for a long time. Now the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, like the Government of Canada, the Province of Ontario and the City of London, all know me as Graeme Kenneth Hunter.
And my mother didn’t live long enough to see the day when I finally dropped her (real) maiden name.
Hunter isn’t as quintessentially Scottish a name as Macdonald or Stewart or Campbell (I included Stewart because, if you put a Macdonald and a Campbell together, they’ll get into a fight). But there is a tartan. Quite a nice one, too; I have a Hunter tartan tie that I wear on formal occasions.
If there’s a tartan, there must be a clan. The Hunters didn’t play a big part in Scottish history; they weren’t bold seafarers like the Macleods, fierce Highlanders like the Gordons or border reivers like the Douglases. The name Hunter doesn’t even appear on many clan maps of Scotland. But there is a place in Ayrshire called Hunterston, and that is indeed the ancestral seat of Clan Hunter. There’s even a castle.
In August of 2009, David and I were driving to the seaside town of Largs to scatter the ashes of our late mother, May “Winnie” Wyness Baxter Hunter. David remarked that he’d been hiking in this area and had come across signs for Hunterston Castle. Since Mum wasn’t in a hurry, we decided to take a detour. After a few false turns, we came across two stone pillars bearing the words ‘Hunterston Castle’. We drove down the roadway marked by the pillars until we encountered a sign that said: “Strictly no admittance. Clan Hunter business only.”
OK, bit of a mixed message there. On the one hand, “strictly no admittance” seemed clear. On the other, were we there on “Clan Hunter business”? Do you automatically become a member of the clan by virtue of having the last name Hunter, or do you have to join and pay a fee? We decided to go on. What’s the worst that could happen?
The road ended at a large manor house. No-one was around, so the obvious next move was to knock on the imposing oak door. David pulled birth order and made me do that. As he sat in the car, I took a deep breath, grasped the ancient cast-iron ring and knocked it three times against the ancient strike-plate.
I expected the door to be opened by an ancient, wizened retainer dressed in a black Victorian frock-coat. In fact it was a youngish man in casual clothing.
“Hi!” I said brightly. “My brother and I were hoping to see the castle.”
“I’m afraid it’s not a good time, old chap” he replied in an English accent. He’s the head of Clan Hunter and he’s English? “Bit of a flap on at the moment.”
“We’re Hunters,” I added helpfully.
This seemed to do the trick. “Look, I’ll give you the key,” the laird said. “Just let yourselves in.”
He disappeared inside, came back with a giant cast-iron key, and directed us to the castle. We’d actually passed it on the way in, but it was hidden by trees – a square Norman tower, in good shape considering that it dates from the fourteenth century. David and I unlocked the door and start wandering around our ancestral home. Unable to figure out how to turn on the lights, we were dependent upon what little sunlight filtered through the narrow windows, but that only added to the atmosphere. There were suits of armor, racks of medieval weapons, hunting trophies, a dining table and chairs with the Clan Hunter crest. For half an hour, David and I were the lairds of Hunterston Castle. (Well, he was, being older than me).
I’ve always liked the name Hunter; it has a rugged, outdoorsy connotation. In her 2020 novel ‘The Mirror and the Light’, Hilary Mantel wrote: “Hunters, it is said, live longer than other men; they sweat hard and stay lean; when they fall into bed at night they are tired beyond all temptation; and when they die, they go to Heaven.”
Picture the scene: I show up at the Pearly Gates and there’s St. Peter. He’s holding the naughty-and-nice list.
St. Peter: “Name?”
Me: “Graeme Hunter.”
St. Peter: “How do you spell that?”
Graeme Hunter is the author of ‘Vital Forces’ (Academic Press) and ‘Light Is a Messenger’ (Oxford University Press). His personal and hybrid essays have appeared in Riddle Fence, Queen’s Quarterly and Talking Soup. He publishes the blog Opera Through the Looking Glass. For further information, see www.graemehunter.ca.