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The clan name MacTavish is an Anglicised form of the Gaelic Mac Tamhais, which translates to Thomson or Thom(p)son in English. This name is a patronymic form of the Gaelic personal name Tamhus' (pronounced Tavus or Tavis), which is translated to Thomas in English

he Pict word for twin was TAUUS (pronounced tavis). It became Tamhais in Gaelic and Tavish in English."

The Gaelic name Mac Tamhais is pronounced similarly to 'MacTavis' or 'MacTavish' (the "mh" in Gaelic pronounced as the "v" in the English word "very"). In old charters, the name had many variant spellings. Some spellings found within old Scottish charters, post-Culloden parish registers, and in "The Commons Argyll" appear as MacAvis, MacCamis, McCawis,McKavis, McKnavis, M'Ash, MacAnish, mcTais, MacTavifh and mcThavish, to give a few. It seems that from near the end of the 17th century, the spellings, MacTavish and/or Thom(p)son or Thomas were the most common. Variations in surname spelling within one document are often seen for the same person.