Cunningham Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Cunningham 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

Cunningham Resources on

Cunningham Ancestry

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
as the family seat.

The early history was full of clan warfare, in particular against the
Montgomeries. The Montgomeries destroyed clan Cunningham’s
Kerelaw castle 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 testify to their presence there.

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
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 until 1930 when it
burned down.

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
  • 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
West Coast in 1862 as a missionary for the Anglican Church Missionary
Society. He became an entrepreneur there and founded the town of
Essington in British Columbia. Another Robert Cunningham,
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 Miscellany

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

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

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

  • as
    for Glencairn and Corsehill
  • as Cuninghame
    for Caddel and Monkredding
  • as
    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
Friskin and he lived at the time of Macbeth.

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.

King gave Friskin the thanedom of Cunninghame and the family took that
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
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.

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
known as Wicked William.  Finlaystone
fell victim to a card game which Wicked William lost to a Colonel
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
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
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
Cuthbert Cunningham and another James Cunningham who each received
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.

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
edition of
February 22, 1908, the man who built the East Tennessee and Virginia

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
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.

gave up a
large practice and took the presidency of the East Tennessee &
railroad at a very small salary, devoting his whole time to the
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
valley of East Tennessee.

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

The much told story is that
Dr. Cunningham sacrificed his practice as a noted physician to promote
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
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
(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 and Daniel Cunningham, an
born there 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

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


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

Select Cunningham Numbers Today

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



Select 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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