A surname can mean many things to different people. In my search to find out the meaning of my surname I discovered its meaning varied from England to Scotland. Here is what I have found.
To the English Firth means living on or near scrubland, wood, woodland, or forest. The middle English meaning of Firth is an estuary or wide valley. P.H. Reaney in his book A Dictionary of English Surnames indicates that the Firth comes from a family of surnames that originated from an old English surname called Firhpe. Like most surnames, Firhpe has several spelling variations that includes Ferhpe and Fyrhpe. The “rhp” was dropped from the word Firphe because it was difficult to pronounce. Other surnames that came from the root word Firphe includes Frith, Frid, Fridd, Fryd, Freeth, Freed, Vreede, Frift, Thrift, Fright, Freak, Freake, Freke, Firk, and Firks. In the past, Scribes and Church Officials commonly spelled surnames the way they sounded which could change several times in a person lifetime. The Firth surname had several versions of it which included Fyrth, Firthe and Firths.
To the Scottish Firth is the Scots word for a fjord (a long, narrow, often deep inlet from the sea between steep cliffs and slopes), a bay, or mouth of a river. I have also seen one website author claim that Firth evolved from an old Norse word called fjorthr which means inlet or estuary (related to their word ford - to ford a stream). The Merriam-Webster Online dictionary seems to support this claim. Examples of this include the Firth of Forth, Moray Firth, Firth of Clyde, and the Firth of Tay.
The earliest known records of the Firth surname can be found in the old Scottish border county of Roxburghshire. Roxburghshire no longer exists as a separate county due to the 1973 Local Government Act. The area became part of the Scottish Borders in 1975. The border region was the home of Scottish and English clans called the Reivers. These clans were involved in raiding, robbery, blackmail, arson, kidnapping, murder and extortion. A surname scroll I purchased from Swyrich Corporation indicated that the Firth family in the Borders region was involved in the troubles but it stopped short of going into any great detail. I am still searching for evidence that supports this claim. Besides the Scottish Borders, the Firth surname can be found in the Orkney Islands (primarily in the parish of Firth located on the western section of the island of Mainland), England (Yorkshire & Lancashire for example), Ireland, Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. The Orkney Islands are situated off the northern tip of Scotland.
Listed below is information I gathered from some surname books I purchased in the last couple of years:
Firth, Frith, Frid, Fridd, Fryd, Freeth, Freed, Vreede, Frift, Thrift, Fright, Freak, Freake, Freke, Firk, Firks: All these surnames derive from various developments of OE firhpe, (ge)fyrhpe, ferhpe 'frith, wood, woodland'. (i) The combination -rhp- was difficult to pronounce. The medial h was dropped, firhpe became ME firthe, ferthe: Robert atte Verthe 1295 MELS (Sx); Nicholas atte Ferthe 1296 SRSx. Firth is common in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Vert Wood(Sussex) preserves the southern initial V. (ii) By metathesis, ME firthe became frithe, frethe, frid, frede, and later, dialectal freeth and vreath (Devon, Glos, Som): Ralph delfrid 1176 P(Sr) ; Wlmar de Frith 1195 P(K); John del Frith 1201 P(Nf); William in le Frith 1276 For (Ess); Nicholas atte Frithe 1275 SRWo; Edith Ythefrithe 1300 MELS (so); Denis Frede 1327 SR (Ess); Thomas atte Vrythe 1333 MELS (So); Richard atte Frethe 1377 FFSx. Frith is frequent in Essex, Herts, Sussex, Kent, Wilts; cf. Frid Fm and Wood (Kent), Freath Fm (Wilts), Frieth (Bucks). Thrift is a common late development, not so far noted before the 18th century. (iii) If the h was preserved, -hp- became -ht-: firhpe became friht, later fright, especially in Kent where the surname is common: Serlo, John del Friht 1197, 1203 P (K, Nf); Henry de fricht c1248 Bec (Bk); John atte Frizte 1327 SRSx cf. Fright Fm (Sussex). (iv) Or, -hp- became -kp-: fyrhpe became fyrkpe, ME ferkthe, and, by metathesis, frekthe, freek: Alexander de la Frike 1275 SRWo; Robert atte Ferghe 1327 SRSx; John atte Ferkche 1332 ib. cf. Freek's Fm and Frag Barrow (PN Sx 260, 301) and v. MELS 72-3. (Reaney, P. 169)
FIRTH. Local. There is a place named Firth near Lilliesleaf, Roxburghshire. Thomas Firth in 1606 (Home, 32). Janet Firth in Newbarns of Weitschaw-mure, 1630, and four more of the name (Lanark CR.). It is also current surname in Orkney, from the parish of Firth in Mainland. Nycholl Fyrtht on inquest at Sabay, 1522, and John Firth, witness in Kirkwall, 1565 (REO., p.95, 280). (Black, P. 266)
Firth. Not necessary a native Scottish name, although it has been familiar in Lanarkshire and the Borders since the early 17th century. It usually comes from an Old English word meaning woodland or scrub, and indeed there is a place of that name in Roxburghshire. It is also recorded in Orkney, where it comes from the parish of Firth (cf. Modern Norwegian fjord). (Dorward, P. 96)
Firth: Nichol Firth, 1572; from the tunship, now parish, of Firth; a folklore interpretation of this family name is that two brothers, one very fair, one very dark came across the 'Firth' i.e. Pentland Firth, settled and married; Firths are supposedly very fair or very dark to this day; a very common Orkney family name; the family name Firth also originated in the north of England from one of a number of Firth or Frith place-names there which are derived from Old English 'frith', a wood. (Lamb, P.36)
Here is some definitions of Firth which I found in some online dictionaries:
The Wordsmyth English Dictionary-Thesaurus :
SYL: firth PRO: fuhrth POS: noun DEF: in Scotland, a very long, narrow inlet of the ocean; fjord.
Merriam-Webster OnLine :
Main Entry: firth Pronunciation: 'f&irth Function: noun Etymology: Middle English, from Old Norse fjorthr -- more at FORD Date: 14th century : ESTUARY
Last but not least is an important paragraph from the surname scroll I purchased from Swyrich Corporation:
From these fighting clans of the border the surname Firth was found in Roxburgh. The Firth family name is derived from the place of the same name near Lilliesleaf in Roxburghshire in Scotland. The name of this town in turn comes from the ancient word "firth" meaning "bay". In their early history the Firth family became involved in the south Scotland border problems. The place name Firth is also found in the large island of Mainland, part of the Orkney Islands. As a result of the border agreements, some members of the family migrated to England. By 1379 John Firth had established the family at Oak Brook, in Yorkshire. Another branch, headed by Bernard Firth acquired estates and lands at Norton Hall in Yorkshire. By the middle ages the Firth family had moved as far south as Cheshire. Later the same branch moved to Devon. Meanwhile in Scotland the name flourished during the middle ages and by 1522 the Firths of the Orkney Islands, as represented by Nicholas Firth, had purchased land at Sabay. Records also show John Firth witnessed the sale of some property at Kirkwall in 1565. Thomas Firth moved to Home in Berwickshire in 1606 and Janet Firth is recorded in a census of landholders in Lanarkshire in 1630. Four more of the name were also recorded in West Muir, just outside of Glasgow, in 1630. Notable amongst the family name during the early history was Firth of Roxburghshire.
Black, George F. The Surnames of Scotland: Their Origin, Meaning and History. 1946. New York: The New York Public Library. 1999.
Dorward, David. Scottish Surnames. Edinburgh: Mercat Press Ltd., 2003.
Family Name History: Firth. Shrewsbury, Shropshire: The Name Shop. The Historical Research Center Inc., 1999.
Firth Armorial History Scroll. Kingston, Ontario: Hall of Names Marketing Inc. – Swyrich Corporation, 1998.
Lamb, Gregor. Orkney Family Names. Kirkwall: Bellavista Publications, Orkney, Scotland, 2003.
Webster's II: New Riverside University Dictionary. Boston: Hougton Mifflin Company, 1988.
Wilson, R.M. Preface. A Dictionary of English Surnames. By P.H. Reaney. 3rd ed Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997.