The Book of Ulster Surnames by Robert Bell: Book Review

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book for the purposes of review and I have received other books from Genealogical Publishing Company, also for review. However, my opinions are my own and not influenced by outside sources.

The Book of Ulster Surnames by Robert Bell was originally published in 1988 and reprinted in both 2021 and 2022 by the Ulster Historical Foundation in Newtownards, Northern Ireland.

It is currently being sold in the USA by Genealogical Publishing Company.

It is by coincidence that I’ve recently been working on a collateral branch of my own family tree and also that of my husband involving Scots-Irish immigrants to North America. In the UK, these settlers are referred to as Ulster Scots – Scot families who settled in today’s Northern Ireland from the 1600s onward.

Therefore, this small, but hefty book – 300 pages – was of great interest to me.


Map of the approximate locations of ancient kingdoms and territories in Ireland


Alphabetical list of names


‘Sheep stealers from the north of England’: The Riding Clans in Ulster

Select bibliography

Index of surnames

This isn’t the type of book that one normally reads from cover to cover. Instead, it is an excellent reference book to learn about the origins of Ulster Scot surnames and where they are typically concentrated in both the Republic of Ireland and, of course, in Northern Ireland.

I immediately set about looking up several of the surnames found in my family tree. While my uncle’s family, in Canadian censuses, reported that the Caldwells were Irish – and the most recent immigrants to North America may well have been born in Ireland – at some past point in history, the Caldwells were part of the Scots who made the short trip across the water from southern Scotland to Northern Ireland and began new lives there.

The surname entry on page 22 is about half a page long, gives a summary of the somewhat complicated history of the surname (it can actually be English, Scottish or Irish) and concludes with the statement that it occurs most frequently in Counties Armagh, Down and Tyrone.

The info paragraph length is typical compared to other surnames with most being about a half page long. A few are quite a bit lengthier and a handful might only be six lines long.

The book is very easy to use as variations of the surnames are mentioned and origins of the surnames in Scotland are also given in the summaries.

I learned quite a bit about the Caldwell history, along with that of Porter, Carlisle, Parker, Robertson, Thompson and others.

The introduction by the author provided an overview of the history of Ulster surnames.

The Select Bibliography provided two additional pages of resources, both books and periodicals, on the topic of Ulster surnames.

Finally, the index of surnames at the back of the book was very handy to quickly find names of interest, particularly for the ‘Mac” surnames spelled in Gaelic and anglicized.

A reference book has to be special for me to consider purchasing it. The Book of Ulster Surnames is one I would buy if I had extensive Scots-Irish ancestry because, having been published in Ireland, it’s not a book I’ve come across before and probably won’t be found n the shelves of many U.S. libraries. It’s extremely helpful to gain an understanding of surname origins and to know the areas where those names are most commonly found.

The Book of Ulster Surnames by Robert Bell can be purchased through the Genealogical Publishing Company either on Amazon or through their own website for $34.95, which is well worth the cost.


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