Blair Surname Meaning, History & Origin

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The Blair surname derived from the Gaelic blar, which signified a field clear of woods or a battlefield. It began to appear as a surname at various places around Scotland in the 13th century. The early spelling was Blare. This became Blair sometime around 1400.

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Scotland. There are two very well-documented old Blair families in Scotland, the Blairs of that Ilk (also called the Blairs of Blair) in Ayrshire and the Blairs of Balthayock in Perthshire.

Ayrshire The first of the Ayrshire Blairs was William de Blair, recorded in a contract dated 1205. He took his name from the barony of Blair, land which had been given to his Norman forebears. The Blairs supported Robert the Bruce in the Scottish cause and rose to become one of the most prominent families in Ayrshire.

The direct line ended in 1732 after a reported twenty four generations. Their home, Blair House, was described in 1890 as “the oldest inhabited baronial mansion in Scotland which has not been rebuilt.”

Perthshire Meanwhile the first of the Perthshire Blairs was Stephen de Blair, son of Vallenus, who in the 12th century held lands in the parish of Blair in Gowrie, now called Blairgowrie. The Blairs of Balthayock remained continuous in Perthshire until the mid 18th century (their story was told in Jack Blair’s 2001 book The Blairs of Balthayock and Their Cadets). The family seat was Balthayock castle.

The Blairs of Blair and the Blairs of Balthayock long disputed the honor of the Blair chiefship. In the late 1500’s James VI decided that “the oldest man, for the time being of either family, should have the precedence.”

Other Blairs Some Blairs have been related to these families, such as the Hunter Blairs, and Robert Blair, author of The Grave epic poem, and Dr. Hugh Blair, the celebrated sermon writer. However, due to the diversity of Blair names in Scotland, it is likely that there are multiple origins for the various Blair family lines that are around today. Michael Blair was first traced to Glasgow in 1620. Another Blair family line went back to Renfrewshire in the early 1600’s:

“The earliest known members of the family lived on Ladymuir farm in the parish of Kilbarchan west of Paisley. From there the family spread out through surrounding parishes and then throughout southern Scotland and overseas.”


England.
Blairs came across the border into England, almost 30 percent of them by the time of the 1891 census.

Among the 18th century arrivals were the Rev. Robert Blair, a rector in Norwich; James Blair, a travelling dentist in Leicester; and Charles Blair of Winterbourne in Dorset, a man who had made money and married well (his descendant was the more down-at-heel Eric Blair, better known by his pen-name George Orwell).

More Blairs, however, were to be found closer to the Scottish border, in particular in Northumberland and Durham. One Blair family farmed at Allendale and Catton during the 19th century. Their son Matthew was a famous northern wrestler in his youth. Others were Durham miners. More recent arrivals were Leo Blair and his wife and a son who went on to become the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.


Ireland. Blairs in Ireland are primarily descended from Scots who settled in Ulster from the 17th century onwards. Brice Blair from Ayr was an early arrival in 1625. The Blair name appears most common in Derry and county Down. Many of these Scots Irish (including a number of Brice Blair’s descendants) were emigrants to America.


America.
The first Blair in America is thought to have been James Blair from Edinburgh who went out to Williamsburgh, Virginia in 1685 as an Episcopalian missionary. There, after raising money back in England, he founded a seat of academic learning at Williamsburgh which he named the College of William and Mary after the new English King and Queen. He went on to serve as its president for the next forty years. This Blair family remained prominent in early American life and John Blair, an eminent jurist, was appointed to the new US Supreme Court by President Washington.

The Rev. Samuel Blair, a Presbyterian minister, arrived from Ulster as a young man and came to Chester county, Pennsylvania in the 1730’s. He too established a church and school, Fagg’s Manor; while his brother John was one of the founders of Princeton College in New Jersey.

Another Pennsylvania line started with John Blair and his son Alexander, who made his home in Cumberland county in the 1730’s. Descendants moved onto Kentucky, Indiana, and Iowa.

Other Blairs who came in the 18th century were:

  • James Blair from Ireland sometime in the 1750’s. He settled  in Abingdon, Virginia and his family later crossed into Kentucky. His grandson Francis P. Blair was a prominent political journalist and newspaper man of the 1830’s and 40’s. His house in Washington, Blair House, still stands. Sons Montgomery and Francis were politicians. A great great grandson was the actor Montgomery Clift.
  • John Blair from Perth in Scotland sometime in the 1760’s. He settled in New Jersey. His grandson John, born there in 1802, became a railroad magnate, owning more rail mileage than anyone else in his time. His hometown in New Jersey was renamed Blairstown in his honor and he ran his huge business empire from there.

The Blair Witch Project was the most successful independent film at the time of its release in 1999. The horror revolved around the Blair Witch who was, according to legend, the ghost of a woman executed for witchcraft in 1785 in the Blair township in Maryland.

Caribbean. Blairs were among the early colonists of Jamaica – including Alexander Blair, a surgeon apothecary in the early 1700’s – and the Blair name has continued on the island. Blairs from Glasgow were planters and slave owners in Westmoreland and St. Elizabeth in the early 1800’s. And today Bishop Herro Blair is Jamaica’s political ombudsman.

Australia and New Zealand. Australia attracted Blair immigrants from Ireland as well as from Scotland. John and Ann Blair arrived with their family from county Tyrone in 1850. Ann and her son James ran a hotel The Carter’s Arms in north Melbourne during the 1870’s. David Blair, Scots Irish from county Monaghan, also came to Melbourne in 1850. He forged a career as a writer and politician there, but with mixed reviews:

“Too dogmatic as a scholar, too unimaginative as a literary man and too principled as a politician, Blair’s contribution came from his role as a man of letters and his talent for journalism. Lack of humility and sympathy led to an unpopularity entirely unrelated to the high standards by which he lived and wrote.”

Meanwhile, William Blair came out from Derry in the 1850’s in search of gold in Bendigo. William and his wife Mary Ann later moved to Naseby in South Island, New Zealand.

 


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The Blairs and the Barony of Blair.  The barony of Blair in Ayrshire is believed to have been granted in the late 12th century by the Scottish king William I to a Norman knight named Jean Francois (John Francis in English) as a reward for some unspecified service.  The first evidence of ownership was in the 1190’s when work commenced on the construction of a Norman keep.

John Francis’s offspring took on the Blair name.  The first recorded was William de Blair in 1205.  He is believed to have married a daughter of the King of England, John.  His son Bryce took up arms with William Wallace against the English, but was caught and executed by them during the Barns of Ayr massacre in 1296.

Blairs in Scotland and England.  Blairs have crossed the border from Scotland into northern England.   Some 28 percent of Blairs were in England by the time of the 1891 census.

1891 Census Numbers (000’s) Percent
Scotland
Lanarkshire   2.4 28
Renfrewshire   1.1   13
Ayrshire   0.7    8
Elsewhere   2.0   23
England
Northumberland   0.3    3
Durham   0.4    5
Lancashire   0.5    6
Elsewhere   1.3   14
Total   8.7  100

James Blair the Travelling Dentist.  James Blair had tried his hand as barber, wigmaker and perfumer before choosing dentistry. The following is the advertisement that he placed in the Leicester Journal in 1787 to announce his new trade:

“Blair, dentist Leicester begs leave to inform the public that he removes the tartar from the teeth, fastens them if loose, and brings the gums to a proper colour and hardness; he likewise makes artificial teeth, fixes them without pain, and in such a manner as not to be distinguished from natural ones.  He has likewise prepared a tincture and dentifrice which are much approved and may be had at his shop at Gallowtree gate where the following articles are also sold: Ruspini’s tincture and dentifrice; Ruspini’s styptic; Hemet’s essence of pearl and pearl dentifrice.”

So thinly dispersed were Blair’s potential patients that, like other
dentists, he was obliged to travel to find them.  For much of the 1790’s he appears to have spent a considerable amount of time away from his shop in Leicester.  He made forays to Manchester, Chester, and even to London.

He found his largest customer base to be in the northwest and so he moved, first to Chester and then to Liverpool.  Working close to the end, he died in Liverpool in 1817 at the age of seventy.  The Chester Chronicle commented: “He has not left behind him one who possesses more integrity or kindness of heart towards his fellow creatures.”

A Scots Irish Blair Family.  Brice Blair was born in Ayr, Scotland in 1600.  In 1625 he fled to
the north of Ireland with his wife, Esther Peden, and their small
daughter Nancy.

In the next 250 years many of their descendants emigrated from Ireland to America.  Samuel Blair, a rebel leader of an organization known as “Hearts of Steel,” arrived in the 1770’s, having narrowly escaped the hangman’s noose in his homeland.   Patrick Blair, Samuel’s nephew, came with his family in 1835.   Samuel and Patrick settled near each other in NW Pennsylvania.  In 1846, David and Nancy (Blair) Knox, Samuel’s great niece, came to America and settled in Abbeville, South Carolina.

The descendants of these three families have since spread throughout the nation. They fought and died in its wars, dug for gold, broke sod on the western prairies, built businesses, doctored the sick, were entertainers and sometimes just fought to survive in this often harsh new land.

The Rev. Samuel Blair at Fagg’s Manor.  Fagg’s Manor Presbyterian Church in Chester county, Pennsylvania was first organized in 1730.  The church got its name because it was located on the northwest corner of what was Sir John Fagg’s Manor and before that a Lenape Indian camp site.

The earliest sermons were held under an oak grove near the present-day location of the church.  The first pastor, Rev. Samuel Blair, had come from Ireland in early youth and been educated in nearby Bucks county. He went on to achieve great fame as a scholar and pulpit orator.   Many residents would walk six miles to hear his sermons.  His career there lasted from 1740 until his death, at the young age of 39, in 1751.

Port Blair in India.  Port Blair in India, with a population of 240,000, consists of two
island groups in the Bay of Bengal and is situated on the east coast of South Andaman Island.  In 1789 Captain Archibald Blair of the Bombay Marine (the East India Company’s Navy), acting under orders from the government of Bengal, established a penal colony on this site.  He named it Port Cornwallis in honor of his commander Admiral Sir William Cornwallis.

By 1858 the first European settlers on the islands, who were established near the site of the old penal colony, renamed the place Port Blair in honor of this captain.

Tony Blair’s Ancestry.  Tony Blair’s ancestry is English but, in terms of the Blair name, only one generation deep.  His father Leo, born in Yorkshire, was the illegitimate son of two travelling English actors, Charles Parsons and Celia Ridgway.  They gave up baby Leo and he was first fostered and then adopted by a working class couple, Glasgow shipyard worker James Blair and his wife Mary.  Leo would take their Blair name.

Leo Blair married Hazel Corscadden and they had two sons – their second, born in Edinburgh, being Tony. The family lived for a while in Australia before settling in Durham.

 


Select Blair Names

  • William de Blair was the first of the Ayrshire Blairs; and Stephen de Blair the first of the Perthshire Blairs.
  • Dr. Hugh Blair was a celebrated 18th century sermon writer.
  • The Rev. James Blair founded the College of William and Mary at Williamsburgh. It is the second oldest seat of learning in America.
  • John Insley Blair was one of the biggest American railroad magnates of the 19th century.
  • Eric Blair, the English author and journalist, was better known by his pen-name George Orwell.
  • Emma Blair is the pen-name of the Glasgow-born romantic novelist Ian Blair.
  • Tony Blair was British Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007.


Select Blair Numbers Today

  • 21,000 in the UK (most numerous in West Dumbarton)
  • 30,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 12,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

 

Select Blair and Like Surnames 

These are surnames from the Scottish Lowlands.  Some are clan names; some – like Gordon, Graham and Hamilton – have Anglo-Norman antecedents that crossed the border into Scotland; and some – like Douglas and Stewart – were very powerful in early Scottish history.  Stewart in fact became the royal Stuart line.

AbercrombieCrawfordGordonMenzies
AlexanderCunninghamGrahamMurdoch
BaxterDouglasHamiltonPollock
BoydDowHepburnSloan
BurnsEwingLennoxStewart
CochraneFergusonLivingstonWitherspoon

 

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