At first glance, she seems invented – maybe even misspelled. But she’s actually an obscure Scottish option.
Thanks to EK for suggesting the intriguing Merrilees as our Baby Name of the Day.
For every name that comes out of nowhere and climbs steadily into the Top 100, there are others that come out of nowhere and go … nowhere. Or not enough of a somewhere to make it into our collective treasure trove of given names. Samantha is a good example of an invented name that feels like it has always been with us; Merrilees is a great example of the opposite case.
My first impulse was to check if Merrilees was a smoosh of Mary and Lee or Lisa, possibly influenced by Anneliese. In some cases, that guess is probably right – I’ve found women named Marilee, and her similarity to the word merrily would probably appeal to some parents.
But what explained the spelling? I was stumped, until I realized that Merrilees is sometimes spelled Mirrlees.
Mirrlees, with several variant versions, was a Scottish place name. It is part of the West Lothian council district today, and Mirrlees has all but disappeared from the map. She lingers on in small places – a street in Glasgow, another in Stockport. It’s a mystery exactly where Mirrlees comes from – I thought she might be Pictish, but if she is, her origins are lost to time.
She’s also a surname, and is worn by a few notable figures, with various spellings, in both the first and middle spots:
- Scottish economist and Nobel Prize recipient Thomas Mirrlees;
- Chef/television personality Merrilees Parker;
- J.B. Mirrlees, a co-founder of the engine manufacturing company that would become known as Mirrlees Blackstone – and, given its production facility in Stockport, probably also inspired the street name.
The name’s most notable bearer might be Hope Mirrlees, the visionary writer known for 1926’s Lud-in-the-Mist. Her fantasy novel isn’t set in Scotland, exactly, but a fictional place called Dorimare, just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Faerie land. Do faeries make good neighbors? At least in the novel, things are tense. The residents of Dorimare initially tried to deny the existence of faeries, even though everyone knows it isn’t just a tale. Instead, eating fairy fruit is a crime and it’s just plain bad taste to speak about the neighbors. Then the mayor’s son takes a bite of the forbidden fruit, and their quiet little world is forever changed.
There are two additional literary uses that might appeal:
- Sir Walter Scott used the name Meg Merrilies for a gypsy in Guy Mannering, his 1815 bestseller. Meg was based on a real figure;
- The poet John Keats heard about Scott’s figure, and based his own poem, “Meg Merrilies” on Scott’s character.
All together, Merrilees is a rarity, even an oddity – there’s just not much like her, even though she sounds an awful lot like some very popular monikers. If you’re after an obscure Scottish appellation with literary overtones, then Merrilees might just be the name you’re seeking.