Cunningham Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Cunningham Surname Meaning

The Scots name Cunningham was derived from the place-name Cunninghame in northern Ayrshire.

There are many different theories as to the origin of Cunninghame.  One theory is that the name is a combination of the Gaelic cuinneag meaning “milk pail” and ham meaning “village.”

Cunningham Surname Resources on The Internet

Cunningham Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Ayrshire)
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America, Canada and Australia

Scotland. A Cunningham family can trace their ancestry back to Wernebald, a vassal of the Norman nobleman Hugh de Morville, who obtained the manor of Cunningham from his feudal superior in the early 12th century. One story has the Cunninghams appearing earlier, at the time of Macbeth.

The first recorded spelling of the name was Richard de Cunningham in 1210. Alexander Cunningham was made Lord Kilmaurs and the first Earl of Glencairn in the late 15th century and assumed Finlaystone castle overlooking the Clyde river as his family seat.

The early history was full of clan warfare, in particular against the Montgomeries. The Montgomeries destroyed clan Cunningham’s Kerelaw castle in northern Ayrshire in 1488 and their feud continued for the next two centuries.

The Cunninghams were Royalist during the English Civil War and British Government supporters during the Jacobite uprising. It was Captain Cunningham who commanded the British artillery at Culloden which fired grapeshot at the advancing Jacobites.

James Cunningham, the 14th Earl, was a great supporter and friend of the poet Robbie Burns. A Cunningham family who lived near the Burns establishment in Dumfriesshire contained two men who became poets, Thomas and Allan, and their brother Peter who became a naval surgeon.

The 1891 census showed the Cunningham name mainly in Ayrshire and neighboring Lanarkshire. The numbers at that time probably included many Irish Cunninghams in Glasgow.

Ireland.  The Cunningham name was brought to Ireland during the Scottish plantation of Ulster in the 17th century. The first Cunninghams arrived around 1610 and took up lands in Donegal confiscated from prior Irish owners. The villages of Newtown Cunningham and Manor Cunningham, founded by John Cunningham from Kilbline in Ayrshire, testify to their presence there.  Cunningham, followed by Sloan, is the leading surname today in the region of Mourne in county Down.

Some Ulster Cunninghams acquired their surnames differently. There had been a small sept of MacDonegan in county Down, one of whom, John Donegan or MacDonnegan, was Bishop of Down from 1395 to 1412. The spelling of this surname got corrupted in some cases to Cunningham in imitation of the Scottish settlers. However, their pronunciation was closer to “Cuineagan.”

The Cunningham name also cropped up in the Connacht counties of Galway and Roscommon. Their original Gaelic forms were O’Cunnigan and MacCuinneagain, which became as well Cunningham.

The Scottish influx, together with a considerable number of Irish Cunninghams, made the Cunningham surname common and widespread throughout Ireland.

America. John Cunningham had come to Virginia in 1681 from Scotland seeking religious freedom. Robert Cunningham of this family moved to South Carolina in 1769 and became a wealthy plantation owner. He was a Loyalist during the Revolutionary War, lost his lands, and departed for the Bahamas. William Cunningham, known as “Bloody Bill” for his rough fighting on behalf of the British, was deported to Cuba.

Another brother Patrick was able to stay and his descendants held the Rosemont plantation in South Carolina until 1930 when it burned down.  Ann Cunningham of this family was an early activist in the preservation of historic houses.  In 1853 she formed the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association which bought and preserved George Washington’s home and plantation.

Cunninghams in America are more likely to be Irish than Scottish in origin.  Early Cunninghams have included:

  • Thomas Cunningham who came to America from county Donegal in Ireland around 1737 and settled in Frederick county, Virginia. His descendants emigrated west to Ohio in the early 1800’s.
  • James Cunningham, also Scots Irish, who came with his brothers to Virginia in 1752. James settled in Augusta county and died there in 1763. His sons held land in Beverley manor. Later Cunninghams of this family were Presbyterian pioneers in Washington county, Tennessee. Dr. Samuel Blair Cunningham of this family led the building of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad.
  • another Scots Irish was Barnett Cunningham who came from Ulster province and settled in York county, Pennsylvania sometime in the 1750’s. His son Barnett was the first ruling elder in the Tyrone Presbyterian Church in nearby Cumberland county.

Meanwhile William Cunningham who had come to Albemarle county, Virginia in 1785 as a young boy, married there, and brought his family to Kentucky in 1818. His grave at the Cunningham cemetery in Twigg county is marked by a twelve foot monument erected by his descendants in 1936. The family genealogy has been covered in Bertie Gingles’ 1957 book History and Genealogy of William Cunningham.

Canada. Cunningham’s Inn had become a well-known establishment in Gloucester township near Ottawa by the 1830’s, being a stop on the passing stagecoach route. It was run by John Cunningham from Ireland and his wife Catherine.

Robert Cunningham from county Tyrone in Ireland set out for the Canadian West Coast in 1862 as a missionary for the Anglican Church Missionary Society. He became an entrepreneur there and founded the town of Port Essington in British Columbia.

Another Robert Cunningham, although this time from Scotland, arrived in Canada in 1868 and also headed west, to Manitoba. He ran a local newspaper in Winnipeg, the Manitoban, and became involved in the local politics.

Australia. The first Cunningham in Australia was a bit of a firebrand. Phillip Cunningham, a veteran of the Irish rebellion in 1798 and the mutiny of the convict transport ship Ann, led a convict rebellion against the British colonial authority in Australia. The mutiny was eventually put down and Cunningham was executed.

Peter Miller Cunningham from Dumfries in Scotland was a surgeon and supervisor on convict ships. He wrote a highly informative account of convict life in Australia in his 1827 book Two Years in New South Wales.

Another Scot, Andrew Cunningham, had bought land along the Murrumbidgee river in NSW in 1848 and his family raised sheep there. His grand homestead there, Lanyon House, was the center of a large sheep-raising enterprise. The colorful story of this family was told in Jennifer Horsfield’s 2004 book Mary Cunningham, an Australian Life.

Cunningham Surname Miscellany

Cunningham Origins.  There have been a number of theories as to the origin of the place-name Cunninghame in Ayrshire.

One source has suggested that the name came either from the Danish appellation ‘of “King’s House” or from the Gaelic cuineag, meaning “milkchurn.” Others have suggested the root as cyning meaning “king” or coney as “rabbit.” And then there has been the suggestion that the name derived from that of Cunedda ap Edern or Cunetacius, an early leader of the Welsh who lived in the 5th century.

It was said by Chalmers in his Caledonia that the settlement of Kilmaurs in Ayrshire was known as Conygham until it was changed sometime in the 13th century.  By that time the family had adopted the surname of Cunynghame.

Paterson, a man brought up in Kilmaurs parish, has argued that the original name of Kilmaurs was Cunigham and that the local people pronounced it that way until relatively recently.   The modern view is that the name Kilmaurs was derived from the Gaelic Cil Mor Ais, meaning “Hill of the Great Cairn.”

The various branches of the family have spelt their name differently:

  • as Cunninghame for Glencairn and Corsehill
  • as Cuninghame for Caddel and Monkredding
  • as Cunningham for Baidland and Clonbeith
  • and finally as Cuningham for Glengarnock.

Cunninghame at the Time of Macbeth.  In Robert Cunnighame’s manuscript written in 1740, the original Cunningham was called Friskin and he lived at the time of Macbeth.

Macbeth’s men were almost upon King Malcolm when Malcolm saw a peasant named Friskin turning hay in a barn nearby. Friskin hid Malcolm who then escaped to England with Friskin as his retainer. Malcolm later returned to Scotland with an army and killed Macbeth at the Battle of Lumphanan in 1057.

The grateful King gave Friskin the thanedom of Cunninghame and the family took that name, together with the motto of ‘”over fork over” which they have retained to this day.  It was also said that the Cunninghames were Masters of the King’s horses and that they took their motto from this position in the punning way which was typical of the armorial bearings and mottos of a number of aristocratic families.

The Cunninghams of Finlaystone Castle.  It was Sir Alexander Cunningham who moved the seat of the Cunningham clan to Finlaystone in 1484.  He had helped King James II defeat the Douglas’ and was to be made Lord Kilmaurs and the 1st Earl of Glencairn by royal charter.  However, Sir Alexander was killed along with his king at the Battle of Sauchieburn and his titles were stripped of him.  But his son Robert Cunningham managed to retain his title and to keep Finlaystone as the family seat.

Finlaystone received John Knox, the founder of Scottish Presbyterianism in 1556, and Robbie Burns, the poet, in 1791.  But Finlaystone later came into the hands of William Cunningham Cunningham-Graham, a gambler and a forger known as Wicked William.  Finlaystone fell victim to a card game which Wicked William lost to a Colonel Archibald Campbell, after which no Cunningham or relative of the Cunninghams owned the estate.

Early Cunninghams in Ireland.  The villages of Newtown Cunningham and Manor Cunningham in east Donegal were where some of the original Cunninghams from Scotland settled in 1610.

The story goes that these migrants were a group of notorious cattle and sheep thieves who had been ‘persuaded’ by their neighbors to leave Ayrshire and move to Ireland where their talents might be put to better use.

Instead, they were apparently personally selected by the Duke of Lennox who had received large land grants in the area.  He was from Ayrshire and chose Cunninghams that he knew.  Among them were Sir James Cunningham, who was granted 2,000 acres, and John Cunningham, Cuthbert Cunningham and another James Cunningham who each received 1,000 acres.  It was John Cunningham who established Newtown Cunningham.  His grave can still be found in the local churchyard.

A Conyngham family from Ayrshire acquired the Springhill estate in Derry around 1630. Some sort of farm dwelling was constructed on the site at that time, but this was almost certainly destroyed during the 1641 Rebellion.  The house which stands there today was built about 1680.  The family living there later became known as the Lenox-Conynghams.

Reader Feedback – Winifred Cunningham in Roscommon.  Hello, anyone out there know of a Winifred Cunningham, born around 1825 in Roscommon to Patrici and Maria?

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Samuel Blair Cunningham of Jonesborough, Tennessee.  Samuel Blair Cunningham, the oldest child of Ebenezer and Martha Cunningham, was born in Limestone, Tennessee in 1797.  He was one of the first physicians of the town of Jonesborough. He was also, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel edition of February 22, 1908, the man who built the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad.

“In 1837 the subject of railroads was agitated throughout East Tennessee.  One plan was to build a railroad along the course the South and Western is now taking; another was from Cincinnati via Cumberland Gap to Charleston, South Carolina.  The latter road secured a charter about 1838.

But it was Dr. S. B. Cunningham who finally engineered and built the road from Knoxville to Bristol.  Dr. Cunningham lifted the first shovel of dirt and drove the last spike when the road was completed.

He gave up a large practice and took the presidency of the East Tennessee & Virginia railroad at a very small salary, devoting his whole time to the construction equipment and management of the road.  He was constantly at work for seven years and forty five days before he saw his dream of a railroad through the valley of East Tennessee.

When this road was completed in 1858, it meant rails all the way from Chattanooga to Lynchburg.”

The much told story is that Dr. Cunningham sacrificed his practice as a noted physician to promote the first railroad to Jonesborough.  It was said that he wanted the tracks to run in front of his large Federal-style home so he could sit on one of his porches and watch the trains go by on their way between Bristol and Knoxville.  Much to his disappointment, the terrain forced the tracks to be built behind his house.  Dr. Cunningham died in Jonesborough in 1867.

ABC and Alan Cunningham of World War Two.  The Cunninghams distinguished themselves in World War Two, notably Sir Arthur Browne Cunningham (known as ABC), who was the Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, and his younger brother General Sir Alan Cunningham who led the British forces in East Africa.

These Cunninghams were Scottish and can be traced back to Paisley where Daniel Cunningham, an ironmonger, was born in 1777.  One line goes via his elder son Rev. John Cunningham, a Presbyterian minister and Church historian, to Dr. Daniel Cunningham, a distinguished professor of anatomy at the universities in Dublin and Edinburgh, and then to his sons Arthur (ABC) and Alan.

Another line, via the Rev. John’s younger brother Daniel, moved south of the border to the Birkenhead area.

Cunningham Names

  • William Cunningham was briefly Lord High Treasurer of Scotland in 1526.
  • John Cunningham was an 18th century Irish actor, playwright and poet.
  • Sir Arthur Browne Cunningham (ABC) served as Commander in Chief of the British Mediterranean fleet during the Second World War.
  • Merce Cunningham was an American dancer and choreographer, considered one of the greatest creative forces in American modern dance of the late 20th century.

Cunningham Numbers Today

  • 38,000 in the UK (most numerous in County Down)
  • 48,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 38,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Cunningham 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.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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