Origins of the Surnames Wylie, Wyllie, Wily, and Wiley, etc. (Soundex W400)

River Nith (Nithsdale)
Looking east from Auchengibbert Hill with Tynron Doon in the right foreground and the valley of the River Nith (Nithsdale) beyond.

wil·y /ˈwīlē/ adjective
full of clever tricks : very clever

There are many ways to spell the surnames pronounced as the words wi-le and wi-ly above but, no matter how it’s spelled, there can be little doubt as to the origin of the name. The word comes to us from Old Norse spoken in Britton and Scotland in the 9th and 10th centuries A.D. and was used to describe the little red dog-like animal known today as the fox. In the 10th and 11th centuries the word is found in Middle English and again used to describe the fox. In the 13th century the word “wile” or “wyle” means “crafty or sly, like a fox”. There is no doubt that the word meant a fox or to be like a fox.
The first time it appears as a surname is in 1355 Scotland when Donald Wyle of Dalswinton registered his lands in Nithsdale, on the River Nith. Dalswinton was a town in the area and lies between the present day towns of Thornhill and Dumfries in Dumfriesshire in the Galloway District of the Southern Uplands of Scotland.

Nithsdale, from a height near Dalswinton
Nithsdale, from a height near Dalswinton

On August 4, 1376 the same Donald was granted Ensigns Amorial at Dumfries Abbey as “DONALD OF DALSWINTON – WYLIE OF THAT ILK”. The principle charge of Donald’s Arms was a fox and all Arms granted since to Wylies in Scotland have born either a walking or running fox.

Over the next few years Wylies of various spellings, presumeably descendants of Donald, appear all over Scotland and Northern England. Thomas Wyly is listed in the 1379 Yorkshire Poll Tax, John Wili is in Montrose in 1434, William Wyly appears in Ayrshire a few years later and Richard Wyly was Vicar of St. Mary’s Dundee in the 1450’s. The Wylies spread throughout England and Ireland for the next 200 years and then began their incredible journey to the new worlds.

Many of the Wylies in England used the spelling Wyllie and Wyley, while the Irish Wylies prefered Wiley. It is important to note that names were spelled differently every time a marriage, will or deed was recorded. Sometimes the famiies changed their names just to “fit in”. Some Wylies changed their spellings to Wiley and some Wileys changed to Wylie after immigrating to America. I’ve found branches of my own family using Wily, Wiley, Willey and Wylie between 1788 and 1920.

Alan Wiley