What’s in a name? Well, quite a bit if you’re a Macgregor kid – or a Macgregor cat, or a fictional character in a Macgregor novel or play.
We know that names are hugely personal and that some love the classical and the simple and others the offbeat and unusual. When it came to naming our children, Hugh and I have found ourselves in an interesting position: we both have tastes that lean away from the everyday; we have both taught so many thousands of students between us that associations, even very positive ones, can sometimes resonate a little too strongly; and we are both artists, book people, writers: we are constantly working with and thinking about characters and their names and what these names mean.
When it comes to naming children, Hugh and I believe in two things. First, that the names have to have a good story behind them and somehow echo something meaningful for us as parents. And second, that our children, the carrier of those names, should have the freedom to take them in the direction they like as they grow: to shorten or adapt or expand or conflate or choose middle over first. So, the names we give are gifts and in the spirit of these gifts they become our children’s once given.
Hugh and I are both drawn to beautiful places, geographically, and beautiful writers and their books, so in all our children’s names, we’ve combined these.
Tennessee is the most extraordinarily vibrant, atmospheric place in the US, full of music and culture, of rhythm and life. My second novel for young adults, As Far As The Stars (out in April), ends in Nashville Tennessee. Tennessee Williams is a playwright we both love and admire. We also love the long s and e sounds which gives the name a feminine quality, even though it is traditionally more of a boy’s name.
Skye echoes Hugh’s ancestors in Scotland: one of the most beautiful Scottish islands; we both also love the symbolism of the sky, its suggestion of infinite possibilities, the way it changes through the day and through the seasons – and looks different in different parts of the world – and how, when it does, it affects the way we feel about ourselves and our place in the world. We’re always telling the girls: ‘Look at the sky, isn’t it beautiful?’ The other day, Tennessee asked: ‘Does the sky go on forever?’ A wonderful question. ‘I suppose it does, in its way,’ I said.
At the moment, Somerset is calling her sister ‘Tessie’ and ‘Skye’ according to her mood and to the vowels and consonants that her little mouth can form. We love that she is making her sister’s name her own – naming people is part of how we love them and relate to them. Tennessee, on the other hand, has fully embraced her long name and often says: ‘I’m Tennessee Skye Macgregor’ – getting very cross when anyone leaves out a component. We love her pride in her name. Somerset’s current name for Willoughby is ‘Wibbly’, which is just the cutest thing!
Somerset Wilder came to us in the USA and so we felt it apt that after living in the UK and naming a child after a US state, having moved to America we should think of a beautiful English county we love: Somerset. There is, of course, the wonderful writer, Somerset Maugham who was both a playwright and a novelist. Which also connects to Somerset’s middle name: Wilder. Thornton Wilder was the first person to win a Pulitzer for both fiction and for drama and we felt that, somehow, this bound our two loves and passions together. Wilder is also a pretty awesome name, all of its own, and reminds us, too, of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her stories of family life and travelling to find a new home. As a family, a fond abbreviation we use for Somerset is Somer – like the summer – which has beautiful connotations of its own. As does the sense of the summer setting and coming to an end, which was the time when we found out that we were pregnant with our much longed for second child.
And now to dear Willoughby Walden. Well, we’re suckers for alliterative names and did try to sneak some alliteration in with both Tennessee and Somerset but in the end the meaning of the name won over our love of echoing sounds. Our little boy gave us a new opportunity though. The initials WWM are pretty cool too!
Willoughby Lake is one of the most beautiful spots in Vermont, which is part of our New England home – google it if you have a moment; visit it if you have longer. We love the meaning: ‘From the willow farm,’ willows being romantic and nostalgic and literary in their symbolism. The name is rare but you will find it used in Shakespeare and by Jane Austen (though I think that Austen’s Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility could have done with a pair of feisty older sisters to teach him some manners and, indeed, some sensibility).
There’s another thing we love about names: how they look on the page – and there’s something about the sweeping W and the gh and by, that’s aesthetically pleasing. In the last few days I found out that a relative of mine, William Charles Willoughby, was a pretty amazing guy: a missionary to Africa who founded a wonderful school there, still going strong, called Tiger Kloof. He advised Queen Victoria and her then Prime Minster. Received a CBE and also an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, my alma mater.
As for Walden, well, it needs little explaining. Henry David Thoreau’s experience of living a simple life in of contemplation in the New England woods and his resulting book: ‘Walden’ could not be more timely or resonant. When pregnant with Tennessee, Hugh and I went to visit Walden Pond and the place and the spirit of Thoreau, his writing and his thoughts, has continued to hold its spell over us.
So there we go, a little tour around the thinking behind the names of the Macgregor children. I hope you enjoyed it! And the funny thing is that, once these names are out in the world, people keep telling us interesting and related stories: fictional characters we didn’t know about who carry the name; songs (so many songs!) written about Tennessee; ancestors of ours who held the names we chose…Do let us know if you have a meaning or story of your own.
P.S. When the put on his tag, we hadn’t yet announced his name: we like to spend a bit of time looking into his eyes to make sure. But look at those cute toes – all that scrunched up newborn newness.