Campbell Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Campbell Surname Meaning

Campbell is a Scottish name and comes from the Gaelic cam and bent, meaning crooked mouth. 

Cailean Mor of Lochawe was said to have been given this nickname because he talked out of one side of his mouth. He was killed in a skirmish with the MacDonalds in 1296. A cairn still marks the spot where he fell.

Campbell Surname Resources on The Internet

Campbell Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Argyll)
  • to Ireland (Ulster), England, Caribs (Jamaica), America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

Scotland.  This Campbell clan base was Argyll in the Highlands, where their castle, Inveraray castle, built in 1654, still stands. Cailean Mor (the Great Campbell) had established the Campbell family of Lochawe in the late 13th century and they prospered through their close alliance with Robert the Bruce. The family spelling was initially Cambel and became Campbell around 1450.

As the Dukes of Argyll, this family was influential in political life in Scotland and England from that time onwards. The Campbells are still remembered for the MacDonald massacre at Glencoe in 1692.

Clan Campbell took the British Government side during the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite uprisings and thus did not suffer the confiscations that other Highland chiefs incurred.  It is thought that the well-known Scottish tune Baile Ionaraora or The Campbells Are Coming originated at this time.  Later Campbell Dukes have been British Field Marshals, Cabinet Ministers, and a Governor General of Canada.

In addition to Argyll, the main Campbell branches in Argyllshire have been those of:

  • Strachur, the oldest of the branches
  • Auchinbreck, which suffered financial reverses in the early 18th century culminating in their bankruptcy in 1762.

Outside Argyll, there have been the Campbells of Aberuchill (in Perthshire), Glenorchy/Breadalbane (in Caithness), Loudoun (in Ayrshire), and Cawdor (in Inverness and subsequently in Wales).

Alastair Campbell’s three volume work A History of Clan Campbell was completed in 2004.

Campbell Merchants.  Not all Campbells who held land were clan-related. Daniel Campbell prospered as a merchant in Glasgow in the early 1700’s and was able to acquire, at a knockdown price, the islands of Islay and part of Jura from the profligate Campbell of Cawdor.

Later in the 1700’s came the Glasgow West India merchants, based on the trade and refining of sugar.  John Campbell of Morriston in Lanarkshire was among the first of these merchants.  He was followed in his family firm by Mungo Campbell of Kailzie and by other younger Campbells.

“There were enough of these Campbells, all living off the big house and all living at a bountiful old rate, to have horsed and mounted a troop of cavalry from their own stables.  They are not one of our old families.  They were here just three generations, coming with the West India trade, and, when it went, vanishing.”

Campbells did in fact buy fashionable country retreats for themselves.  Alexander Campbell, nephew of John,  acquired Hay Lodge in Peeblesshire in 1822.  However, Alexander’s heirs had to sell the property in the 1840’s as the West India trade dwindled.

Ireland.  Many Campbells moved to Ireland in the 17th century as part of the Protestant settlement. Campbell was the fifth most common name recorded in Ulster in 1890. It ranked third in Down, fourth in Armagh, and was also high in Tyrone, Antrim, Derry, and Donegal.  Today it is reckoned to be the most common surname in Northern Ireland.

Campbells were earliest in Donegal where many may have been descended from Scottish mercenary Gallowglasses there. Duncan Campbell and his son Patrick were recorded at Kilmaccrenan barony in the 1650’s.  There has been a Campbell family of fiddle players from Glenties for over a hundred years, starting with James Campbell in the early 1900’s.

Robert Campbell had come to county Down with three brothers at the time of the Ulster plantations of the early 1600’s. His great grandson the Rev. William Campbell from Newry became the Presbyterian minister of Armagh in 1764. Another Robert Campbell from Scotland had fought at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and been granted land in county Down as a reward. His grandson Robert embarked for Pennsylvania in 1746.

Some Tyrone Campbells may have Irish roots, from the local Tir Eoghain sept of Mac Cathmhaoil.

England.  Campbells at London’s Hatton Garden’s diamond center seem to have started in the early 1800’s with the younger son of a Scottish laird in Perthshire.  Although William Campbell of Hatton Garden was declared bankrupt in 1825, Campbells continued to work there.  A later William Campbell was the father of:

  • Sir Malcolm Campbell who broke land and water speed records with his Blue Bird vehicles in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
  • and his son Donald Campbell who also held those records, but died on a further attempt on Coniston Water in 1967.

Caribbean.  Campbell is the most common surname in Jamaica and it is said that there are more Campbells per square acre in Jamaica than there are in Scotland!

In 1700 Colonel John Campbell of Auchinbreck was the first Campbell to arrive.  After a while he started a sugar plantation and then encouraged many of his kin back in Argyll to come out.  A good many did come, giving a decided sprawl to the early Campbell history in Jamaica.  The most influential of these Campbells, after John’s death in 1740, was his son Colin and his nephew Duncan who ran ships to England and elsewhere.

The Campbell name spread in Jamaica because of their many sugar plantations and slaves.  Notable Afro-Jamaican Campbells have been:

  • Robert Campbell who departed Jamaica with his family for New York in 1853 and then, encouraged by the African Aid Society, moved to Lagos, Nigeria six years later.
  • George Campbell who was born of Jamaican parents in Panama (many Jamaicans found work in the early 1900’s helping to dig the Panama Canal).  He returned to Jamaica to become a writer and political campaigner.
  • and British born super-model Naomi Campbell.  She is of Afro-Jamaican heritage, although the Campbell name came from her mother’s second marriage.

America. Campbells in America are either Scots or Scots Irish in origin.

Scottish.  John Campbell was from a family of booksellers who had established themselves in Boston by the 1690’s. John started the Boston Newsletter in 1704, perhaps the first newspaper published in America.

Scottish emigration to the Cape Fear valley of North Carolina began in 1739 after the local Assembly had approved the arrival of 350 Highlanders from Argyll.  Duncan Campbell of Kilduskland led the group.  He received a land grant in Bladen county, but returned to Scotland in 1741.  Archibald and James Campbell may have remained.

Scots Irish. John Campbell had come to Augusta county, Virginia in 1733. His son William was born there in 1745. A militia leader during the Revolutionary War, he was known as the “bloody tyrant of Washington county,” but distinguished himself at the Battle of Kings Mountain. Campbell county in Virginia was named after him.  It is thought that the country singer Glen Campbell was a descendant.

Two Scots Irish immigrants into SW Virginia in the 1740’s were the so-called “White David” and his cousin “Black David” Campbell. From this stock came:

  • David Campbell, the Governor of Virginia in the 1830’s
  • William Campbell, the Governor of Tennessee in the 1850’s 
  • and Confederate General Alexander Campbell, after whom Fort Campbell in Kentucky was named.

Later Campbells.  Robert Campbell from county Tyrone came to America in the early 1820’s and headed west to St. Louis, Missouri. A frontiersman and fur trader, he was an early explorer of the Rocky Mountains.  His home in St. Louis which he acquired in 1854 and his family inhabited until 1938 is now a museum.

Another pioneer, this time in Texas, was Thomas Lopton Campbell, a Texas Ranger and contemporary and friend of Sam Houston. In 1889, at the age of 79, he was one of the Sooners to stake a land claim in Oklahoma.  His grandfather had arrived in America from Scotland and fought in the Revolutionary War.

Campbell’s Soup was started in Camden, New Jersey by Joseph Campbell in 1869. His forefathers had come to New Jersey in the early 1700’s and his father James had been a blacksmith in Fairfield township.

Canada. Campbells were in Nova Scotia from the 1750’s onwards.

Nova Scotia.  Robert Campbell had arrived with Edward Cornwallis, its first British Governor. He became a prominent early merchant in Halifax. James Campbell meanwhile came to Londonderry township from Ulster in 1762. And then there were Loyalists like Colin Campbell who had departed New York for Shelburne in 1783.

Much much later, in 1915, Samuel Kimmel escaped the violence against Jews in Russia by boarding a ship for Halifax. When he presented himself to the immigration officer there, he was registered as Samuel Campbell and he never bothered to correct the name.  He worked as a pedlar and lived through the Depression.  But he was the father of David Campbell who later built up an electronics and communication empire in Canada.  David died in 2018 at the grand age of ninety-eight.

Ontario.  John Campbell and his family from Perthshire arrived in Lanark county in 1816.  Their descendants have been farming the same land at Burnbrae through eight generations.

Campbells were refugees from the island of Mull in Argyllshire after the Highland clearances in the 1840’s.  Archie Campbell had come to Grey county near Owen Sound by 1850 and his brothers Neil and Donald were to get there as well within the next ten years,  They were farmers, although later sons did go prospecting for gold in the Klondike.

Other sightings for Argyll Campbells were in Bruce county, not that far away.  Duncan Campbell had first gone to Nova Scotia before moving with his family to Bruce county in the 1850’s.

Australia.  Robert Campbell, a merchant from Greenock in Scotland, was an early settler in Sydney in the year 1800.  By 1806 he had become in effect the banker to the new colony.  He was later a member of the NSW Legislative Assembly.  Two of his sons – John and Robert – also served on that body.

Archibald Campbell and his family were hardy Scots from Argyll who arrived in Australia in 1852 and moved to Victoria, just north of Melbourne.  They farmed, worked hard, and bought land.  Starting out from their Cairn Hill property, they became the largest landowner in the area between Riddell and Gisborne.

New Zealand.  John Logan Campbell from Edinburgh (his family were earlier from Perthshire) came to New Zealand in 1840 and moved to what became Auckland.  He was one of the first European settlers in the area and has been called the father of Auckland.

Campbell Surname Miscellany

The Campbell Name.  It was Sir Cailein Mor Campbell’s grandfather Dugald of Lochawe who is said to have been the first given the nickname “Cam Beul” since he apparently had the engaging trait of talking out of one side of his mouth. Cam beul means curved mouth in the Gaelic. This Duncan was so much loved by his family that they took his nickname as their family name and held to it even beyond Argyll.

The spelling of the name was originally Cambel. Then when Robert the Bruce’s son King David came to the throne as King of Scots he brought with him a number of Norman knights to whom he gave lands in an attempt to introduce Norman efficiency in administration.  David had been at the English court and admired the Norman system of feudalism.  The use of the spelling “Campbell” may perhaps have been as a result of Norman rather than Gaelic scribes attempting to write the Gaelic name.

The name Cambel was first used by the family in the 13th century.  The first chief of the clan to appear on record as “Campbell” may well have been Sir Duncan of Lochawe when he was created Lord Campbell in 1445.

Inveraray Castle.  An Inveraray Castle has been standing on the shores of Loch Fyne in Argyllshire since the 1400’s.  But the castle seen today is much later in origin.  It was in fact inspired by a sketch by Vanbrugh, the architect of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, in the 1700’s.

The foundation stone to the  castle was laid in 1746 and what followed was the construction, to a design by the architects Roger Morris and William Adam, of a baroque Palladian and Gothic-style castle.  Both architects died before the castle was completed forty three years later in 1789.

Some remodeling occurred after a fire in 1877.  There was a second devastating fire almost a hundred years later in 1975. After that time central heating was installed for the first time.  The castle remains the home of the Duke of Argyll, the chief of clan Campbell.

The Campbells and Their Reputation Post-Glencoe.  The Irish writer Robert Bell wrote in 1988:

“The Campbells of Argyll –

  • despite their leading the Covenanters against Charles I
  • despite their support for Cromwell (costing the 8th Earl his head)
  • and  despite coming out for the Monmouth rebellion (costing the 9th Earl his head)

grew in power through the 17th century at the expense of the McDonalds, the Lords of the Isles.   They were avid supporters of the English Crown and led government forces against the Jacobites in the 1715 and 1745 rebellions.  Under government orders, Robert Campbell of Glenlyon in Perthshire, a cadet of the house of Argyll, carried out the massacre of the clan Iain Abrach MacDonalds of Glencoe in Argyllshire, which gave rise to the famous clan feud.”

The Campbell’s consistent support of the English Crown against the forces of Scottish nationalism during the late 17th and early 18th centuries did make the Campbells unpopular in many quarters in Scotland.  The Glencoe massacre in 1692 has continued to be seen as a particularly notorious example of their support.

The Campbells Are Coming.  The Gaelic name of this well-known tune is Baile Ionaraora or The Town of Inveraray, the place where the Campbell clan castle stands.  Some say it was composed around 1715 by a piper-composer inspired by a local wedding.  However, the words handed down have a more martial air.

The song may therefore have materialized at the time of the Jacobite uprisings.  The Campbells were Loyalist to the Government at this time.  One historian ascribed the song to one of the bagpipe tunes that accompanied the entrance of the Argyle Highlanders into Perth and Dundee.  Robert Burns wrote a version of the song.

The words are fairly simple and go as follows:

  • “Upon the Lomonds I lay, I lay,
  • Upon the Lomonds I lay, I lay,
  • I looked down to bonnie Lochleven
  • And saw three perches play-hay-hay!
  • The Great Argyll he goes before,
  • He makes the cannons and guns to roar,
  • With sound o’trumpet, pipe and drum,
  • The Campbells are coming, Ho-Ro, Ho-Ro!
  • The Campbells they are a’ in arms,
  • Their loyal faith and truth to show,
  • With banners rattling in the wind,
  • The Campbells are coming Ho-Ro, Ho-Ro!


  • The Campbells are coming Ho-Ro, Ho-Ro!
  • The Campbells are coming Ho-Ro, Ho-Ro!
  • The Campbells are coming to bonnie Lochleven
  • The Campbells are coming Ho-Ro, Ho-Ro!”

Reader Feedback – Robert Campbell at the Battle of the Boyne.  We are trying to find out where in Scotland my ancestor Robert Campbell of the Battle of the Boyne was from. Any help would be greatly appreciated.  Thomas Campbell (

Campbells in County Tyrone.  The Tyrone Campbells tended not to be the Scottish Campbells, but a native Tir Eoghain sept, Mac Cathmhaoil (from Cathmhaol meaning “battle-champion”).

This sept got its name from Cathmhaol:

  • descended from Feradhach
  • son of Muireadhach
  • son of Eoghan
  • who was the son of Niall Naoighiallach.

The MacCathmhaoils were the leading sept of Cenél Fearadhaigh and thus were often called Cenél Fearadhaigh.  They were to be found in the Clogher area of county Tyrone.  They became an important church family. 

Colonel John Campbell in Jamaica.  Colonel John Campbell who was born at Inverary in Argyllshire in 1673, took part in the failed experiment to start a Scottish colony at Darien, Panama in 1698.

Rather than return back to Scotland, he decided in 1700 to settle in Jamaica.  Eventually he set up a sugar plantation at Black River in St. Elizabeth parish.  He later encouraged his nephews to come out as planters to benefit from his initiatives.

When he died in 1740, he was buried in St Elizabeth and the inscription on his tomb read as follows:

“Here lies the Hon. John Campbell, born at Inverary, Argyllshire, North Britain, and descended of the ancient family of Auchenbrock.

When a youth he served several campaigns in Flanders.  He went to this island in 1700.  He married the daughter of Colonel Claiborne by whom he had several children. In 1718 he married Elizabeth (now alive) relict of Colonel Gomes. He was for many years a member of the Assembly, colonel and custos of St Elizabeth.  In 1722 he was made one of the Privy Council.

He was the first Campbell who settled in this Island, and through his extreme generosity and assistance, many are now possessed of opulent fortunes.  His temperance and great humanity have always been very remarkable. He died on January 29, 1740, aged 66 years. Universally lamented.”

Duncan Campbell and the Highland Colonists in North Carolina.  Upon the arrival at the Cape Fear area, the Scots found the terrain much like their homelands.  Family after family trekked up the river to find their own “Scotland.”  The did just this, first naming it Campbeltoun, after their leader Duncan Campbell.

Duncan Campbell returned to Argyllshire in 1741.  But he showed concern for the religious welfare of the colonists:

“There was a representation at this time laid before the Presbytery by Duncan Campbell of Kilduskland for himself and the Argyle colony settled at Cape Fear in North Carolina showing their earnest desire of having a minister soon settled among them who is a person of merit and of an unblemished character because the Gospel is yet in effect to be planted in those parts.”

Because the prospects of receiving an adequate salary in North Carolina were inconsiderable, Campbell found it impossible to secure a Gaelic-speaking minister.   The colonists were without a permanent pastor until 1758.

Governor David Campbell and the White David Campbells.  David Campbell, Governor of Virginia in the 1830’s, had the following to say, in a letter he wrote in 1840, about the White David branch of his family:

“The Campbell family from which I am descended was originally from Inveraray in the Highlands of Scotland. They came to Ireland in the latter part of the reign of Queen Elizabeth and thence to America.  John Campbell, my great grandfather and the great grandfather of General William Campbell of the Revolution, came from Ireland with a family of ten or twelve children and settled near Lancaster in Pennsylvania in the year 1726.

His eldest son Patrick was the grandfather of General William Campbell.  His youngest son David, White David, was the father of Colonel Arthur Campbell and my grandfather.  The family remained in Pennsylvania but a few years and then removed itself to the frontiers of Virginia and Augusta county.  Here they lived many years. John Campbell, my father and the eldest son of Colonel Arthur Campbell, was born, raised and educated in this county.”

The Campbells were probably in Augusta county, Virginia by 1738 when Patrick Campbell acquired 1,546 acres of land at Beverley Manor.

Reader Feedback – Campbell in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  My grandfather was Calvin Campbell from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  My mom always said that there “was a seven foot redhead that came from Scotland.“  Do you know who that would be!?

Eleanor Kelly (

Reader Feedback – Campbell from Pennsylvania.  My great grandfather Duncan Campbell was born in Williamsport, Lycoming county in 1841.  His father and grandfather were both named Duncan.  He later participated in the Oklahoma Land Run in 1889.

Craig Campbell (

Reader Feedback – Campbells in Hunter Valley, New South Wales.  I was disappointed to find that the Campbells of Upper Hunter in NSW Australia were not included.

Andrew, James and Alexander Campbell started to arrive in Australia in 1838 and 1839.  All were extremely influential entities in the development and growth of the rural areas around Scone, NSW.  Known as the horse capital of Australia, this location is home to some of the most influential horse studs in the world today, not to mention “the Emirates” stud.

Barry Searle (

Campbell Names

  • Cailean Mor was the forebear of the Campbell clan in Scotland.
  • Duncan Campbell was the first Campbell to be ennobled, as Lord Campbell of Argyll, in 1445.
  • Archibald Campbell, the 5th Earl of Argyll, was a leading figure in Scottish politics in the 1560’s and 1570’s.
  • John Campbell was a Glasgow merchant who grew rich from the West India trade in the late 1700’s.
  • Robert Campbell was a mid-19th century frontiersman, fur trader, and businessman of the American West.
  • Sir Malcolm Campbell was the British holder of the world land and water speed records in the 1920’s.
  • Glen Campbell was a well-known American country music artist.
  • Naomi Campbell, born in Britain, is a super-model of Afro-Jamaican heritage.

Campbell Numbers Today

  • 116,000 in the UK (most numerous in Glasgow)
  • 140,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 108,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Campbell and Like Surnames

The Scottish Highlands were Gaelic-speaking and their clan names appeared first in Gaelic and only later in an English version.  Each clan controlled its own local territory and frequently fought with neighbors.  Many, however, took the clan name in order to receive clan protection.

The clan downfall came following the 1715 and 1745 uprisings with the Battle of Culloden when the clan culture was broken up and clan tartans banned (although they came back into fashion with Queen Victoria a hundred years later).  The Highland clearances, supplanting people for sheep, was a further blow and many Highlanders were forced into emigration, still speaking their native Gaelic, to Canada and then to Australia and New Zealand.

Here are some of the clan surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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