Graham Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Graham Surname Meaning

Graham is a Scots clan name which traces back to the early 12th century and the Norman baron who came to Scotland, William de Graham (or de Graeme).  He was lord of Grantham in Lincolnshire which is where his name is believed to have been derived.  “In all the early records of England, Graham means Grantham in Lincoln and William de Graham settled  in Scotland at the time of King David I.”

However others, including many Montrose Grahams themselves, have advanced an alternative Pictish Scottish connection for William de Gaeme – from their warrior leader Graym.  This Graym had attacked and demolished the Roman wall of Antonious across Scotland sometime around 1057.

Early spellings of the name were Graym and Grame.  It was first written as Graham in the Cambuskenneth charters in 1361.  Spellings like Graeme did persist.  The “h” in Graham often stayed silent.

Graham Surname Resources on The Internet

Graham Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Lowland and Borfer) and Northern England
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America, Caribs (Jamaica), Canada, South Africa, India and Australia

Scotland.  The first Graham known in Scotland was a William de Graham (or de Graeme) who accompanied King David I on his journey north to assume the Scottish crown in 1128.  From this de Graeme were descended the Montrose line of Grahams.

These Grahams soon took the Scottish side against the English and Sir John de Graham fought with William Wallace in his campaigns in the 1290’s.  The clan established their stronghold at Magdock, north of Glasgow, in 1370.

The Grahams were Royalist supporters in Scotland during the Civil War and James Graham, who fought for their cause, was ennobled as Montrose.  Later, John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, gained the titles of “Bloody Clavers” and “Bonny Dundee” – depending on whether you were a Covenanter or not – because he sought to crush them.  He died on the battlefield in 1689 supporting the Stuart cause (although Bonnie Dundee lives on as a regimental song).

By this time, the Graham clan were among the richest in Scotland, holding lands from Loch Lomond east to Perth in Stirlingshire.  Their overall story is covered in John Stewart’s 1993 book The Grahams.

There have been various Graham sub-branches, among them being the Grahams of Inchbrakie, Orchill, Morphie, Balgowan, Cairnie, Deuchrie, Drums, Duntroon, Fintry, Killearn, Monzie, and Potento.

A Border Clan.  The Grahams were also a Border clan.  The line began with Sir John Graham of Kilbride who had led his followers south in the late 14th century into Border country (where they settled in Eskdale).  They became unruly “reivers,” known for their border raids into England, their arch enemies being the Robsons in north Tyneside.  In 1552 they held thirteen fortified towers and could raise, it was said, over 500 mounted troopers for any raid.

However, the English and Scottish crowns stamped down on them in the early 1600’s. Grahams were hanged, transported, banished, and imprisoned.  Even so, there are still a sizeable number of Grahams to be found today in Dumfriesshire and across the border in Cumbria.

England.  Grahams migrated south from the Scottish borders into Cumberland.  The first of these Grahams was said to be “Lang Will” Graham.  His son Richard was an expert horse-trader whose friendship with Charles I enabled him to acquire the Netherby estates near Longtown on the Esk river.  Netherby Hall featured in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, notably in Marmion in which the Graham family heiress eloped with the young Lochinvar.

Edmond castle, another Graham home, was built in Hayton near Carlisle.  The Graham Arms Hotel, a former coaching inn, is nearby in Kirklinton.  The celebrated clockmaker George Graham was born there of a Quaker family in 1674.  Another George Graham was a gunsmith in Cockermouth in the late 19th century.  William Graham, tried for murder in Penrith in 1857, subsequently became famous in song in Cumberland.

Ireland.  Many of the present day Grahams in Ireland stem from an extended family of that name from the Scottish borders who had come to Glenwherry, county Antrim in the early 1600’s.

Grahams at Troy near Enniskillen in Fermanagh date from about 1630.  William Graham was recorded as “the muster master” of the undertakers.  There were Grahams as well in Lisburn and Belfast by the 18th century.  The Graham family of Lisnastrain near Lisburn saw extended medical and military service in India with the British Army during the 19th century.

A Graham family moved to county Derry where they became active in the United Irishmen cause of 1798. With a price on their heads, one brother James managed to escape to America; but the other, Watty Graham, was betrayed and hanged at Coleraine.  He is remembered by the Gaelic football club which bears his name.  A descendant is the present-day Belfast writer Joe Graham.

Many Grahams emigrated in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Scots Irish Grahams are to be found in numbers in America, Canada, and Australia.

America.  James Graham, thought to have been a kin of the Montrose Grahams, arrived in New York on the Blossom in 1678.  His daughter Isabella married Lewis Morris, an early Governor of New York.  The Grahams were early settlers in Dutchess county and the Graham-Brush log house, built there in 1776, still stands.

Many early Grahams in America were Scots Irish, including:

  • Michael Graham who came to Lancaster county, Pennsylvania sometime in the 1720’s.
  • John Graham, possibly related, who came also to Pennsylvania around this time.  He and his family settled in the 1740’s in the Calfpasture valley in Augusta county, Virginia.  The family history was traced by a descendant, David Graham, in his 1899 book History of the Graham Family.
  • James Graham who was in Chester county, Pennsylvania in the 1740’s.  Grandson William rose to become Senator and then Governor of North Carolina in the 1840’s.
  • and David Graham who arrived with other Scots Irish immigrants to Charleston, South Carolina in 1772. Son Andrew fought in the Revolutionary War and moved to Kentucky.  This family history is covered in Philip Graham’s 2008 book David Graham of Chester County, South Carolina.

The evangelist Billy Graham is believed to have come from Scottish roots.  His Graham ancestry has been traced to an Archibald Graham, born in South Carolina in 1806.

Another Archibald Graham, born in North Carolina in 1879, was descended from a Graham family from Scotland that had disembarked in Charleston in 1780.  His nickname was “Moonlight” and he appeared briefly as a professional baseball player.  He was later immortalized in the 1999 film Field of Dreams.  His brother Frank was president of North Carolina University and for a short time senator for the state.   John Graham from South Carolina migrated to Mexico during the 19th century.

William Graham migrated from Virginia to Georgia in the early 1800’s.  A descendant is Lindsey Graham, the US Senator for South Carolina.

Caribbean.  Grahams were also to be found in the Caribbean.  Jacob Graham from Cumberland moved out to Jamaica in 1746 and owned plantations in St. James.  James Graham from Airth in Stirlingshire arrived there in 1783, working for the Stirlings of Keir.

Canada.   An Irish Graham family had originally settled in upstate New York in the early 1800’s.  Many of them belonged to a small Quaker sect, the Children of Peace.  They moved to Ontario and formed a musical band which toured the country from the 1850’s to the 1880’s.

Another Irish immigrant to Canada was Francis Graham.  He arrived with his parents in 1845 and was a member of Ottawa’s first professional fire department.  Sadly he died in the line of duty in 1877.  But his son John carried on the family’s fire-fighting traditions.

South Africa.  John Graham, from the Fintry Grahams in Forfarshire, came to Cape colony with the British army in 1806.  He pushed the British line eastward and established the Grahamstown fortified settlement.  He it was who tried to encourage Highland emigration to South Africa.

India.  There have been a number of Graham connections in India.  John Graham, a botanist, went out to Bombay in 1826 and was the superintendent of the botanical gardens in Bombay until his early death in 1839.  Birchall Graham had been with the British Army in India.  In 1872 he used his savings to start tea cultivation.  The Graham family is now in its fifth generation of tea planters in Darjeeling.

Australia.  John Graham was a convict and “wild white man” from Ireland who had escaped into the bush in 1827 and stayed at large for six years by living with aborigines.  His kinship with them would later prove useful to the authorities.  In 1836 he was able to negotiate the release of the captain’s wife and crew after they had been taken by aborigines from a ship wrecked off the Queensland coast.  The captain’s wife, Eliza Anne Fraser, became famous.  He was given a ticket of leave and disappeared from history.

Another convict wild man was William Graham.  He managed to escape from Freemantle jail in 1867 with two accomplices.  Graham stayed at large for several weeks, even managing to elude a police ambush, before – wounded and bleeding – he was finally recaptured.

New Zealand.  Early Grahams in New Zealand proved to be friends of the Maoris.  George Graham had come from England as a colonial administrator in 1840.  His support for the Maori cause in the ensuing conflicts earned him the honorary title of Hori Kereama.

“The leading chiefs entertained a great deal of esteem for Mr. Graham and it was his influence that eventually succeeded in bringing the warrior chief Wirenu Tamehana to Waiharoa to sign a peace bond.”

In 1842 Robert Graham arrived in Auckland from Glasgow with his brother David.  He was more of a wandering type (he tried gold mining for a while in Australia and California), but eventually returned to Auckland and, using his influence with the Maoris, helped to pioneer the tourist development of New Zealand’s mineral waters and thermal spas.

In 1862 Isabella Aylmer published Distant Homes: The Graham Family in New Zealand.  This was, however, a work of fiction rather than of fact.

John Graham arrived to farm at Hokitika along the west coast of South Island in 1867.  He became a large landowner in the area and his descendants are still to be found there. Peter and Alex Graham grew up nearby at Okarito.  They became in the early 1900’s New Zealand’s first mountaineers and guides.  Peter Graham was awarded an MBE for his services to mountaineering in 1956.

Lindsey Graham’s Family Ancestry

The US politician Lindsey Graham has a family history in Georgia and South Carolina dating back to the early 1800’s.  Just click below if you want to read more about this history:

Graham Surname Miscellany

William de Graham.  William de Graham is generally accepted as the forebear of the Graham clan in Scotland.  But where he came from has been a matter for conjecture.  Some claim Norman descent, others Flemish or Danish origins, while it has also been argued that the Grahams are the Pictish descendants of the Graeme who commanded the armies of Fergus II.

The main thinking is that Graham itself is a contraction of Grantham and that William de Graham came north to Scotland from Grantham in Lincolnshire.

“In all the early records of England, Graham means Grantham in Lincoln and William de Graham settled  in Scotland at the time of King David I.”

This de Graham, as a number have argued on the basis of the Falaise rolls, was the son of a William de Tancarville of Danish origin. He was a baron of Normandy who was said to have come over with William the Conqueror in 1066.  A case has also been made that he was the son of Arnulf de Hesdin, a Flemish noble who had also accompanied William the Conqueror to England.

However, many are convinced of the Pictish origins of Graham:

“The Picts were in Scotland long before the year one.  Though we may have intermarried with the incoming Scots and occasionally took a wife from Denmark, one name and main blood line came down from the original natives of old Caledonia, and not from Normandy.”

Specifically, descent is claimed from the renowned Pictish leader Graym who had attacked and demolished the Roman wall of Antonious across Scotland sometime around 1057.  Interestingly, this Graym was said to have been born in Denmark of a Scottish father and a Danish mother.

Sir John de Graham.  Sir John de Graham – or “Schir Jhone the Grayme” as the poet Blind Harry called him – rescued William Wallace at Queensbury and became one of his few close friends and perhaps his most trusted advisor.  Wallace was at his side when Graham was killed at the battle of Falkirk in 1298.

Graham’s name is commemorated there by the district of Grahamston.  His grave in Old Falkirk parish churchyard is still to be seen, with tablet stones of three successive periods above it.

The inscription reads:

  • “Here lyes Sir John the Grame, baith wight and wise,
  • Ane of the chiefs who saved Scotland thrise,
  • Ane better knight not to the world was lent
  • Nor was gude Graeme of truth and hardiment.”

There follows, from the Latin:

  • “Of mind and courage stout,
  • Wallaces’ true Achates,
  • Here lies Sir John de Graham
  • Felled by the English baties (dogs).”

One great two-handed sword of his is preserved at Buchanan castle by the Duke of Montrose, another was long in the possession of the Grahams of Orchil and is now treasured by the Free Mason Lodge at Auchterarder. 

The Great Montrose.  James Graham was the first to be given the Gaelic patronymical An Greumach Mor or “the Great Graham,” or, as he is better known in history, the Great Montrose.

In 1643 Graham had offered his services to Charles I and became Captain-General of the King’s army in Scotland.  His force initially consisted of just 400 men, mainly Grahams, but he was then joined by a thousand Highlanders led by Alisdair MacColla MacDonald, a giant of a man and a fearsome fighter from the western isles.

Commanding this motley band, Graham won a series of brilliant victories against Cromwell’s armies of superior size.  A poet, he was said to have written to a friend:

  • “If thou wilt be constant then,
  • And faithful to thy word,
  • I’ll make you glorious by my pen,
  • And famous by my sword.”

Another verse of his read:

  • “He either fears his fate too much,
  • Or his deserts are small,
  • Who dare not put it to the touch,
  • To win or lose it all.”

He lost his Highland support and his small force was cut to pieces at Philiphaugh in the Borders.  He was eventually captured, taken to Edinburgh and executed, in the barbaric manner of being hung, drawn, and quartered.

In 1660, when Charles II was restored to the Crown, David Graham of Gorthie took his kinsman’s head off its spike and had the other remains gathered together for an honorable burial in the Montrose aisle of St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh.

James Graham Survived a Murderous Attack in New York.  James Graham, who had arrived in New York in 1678, held various political offices in this new British colony, including being the first recorder of New York in 1681.  In July 21 1682, this incident was reported:

“At a meeting of the deputy mayor and aldermen at the City Hall there was an examination of Captain Jarvis Baxter, who on July 20 stabbed with a rapier Mr. James Graham, one of the aldermen of this city, in the body by which he was dangerously wounded.”

The eyewitness account of John West read as follows:

“He had often heard Mr. Graham desirous to drink a glass of wine and to pay his respects to Captain Baxter who, he understood, came over to America under his Royal Highness.  An opportunity presented itself yesterday in the afternoon.  It was embraced and they – with Mr. Kingsland, Ensign Sharpe, West, and Serjeant Garret – went to the house of Mr. Van Cliff where they spent the afternoon drinking cider and wine in friendship without any quarrel or dispute or angry expression.

In the evening about nine of the clock as near as can be guessed, the reckoning having been paid, the said Captain Baxter desired Mr. Graham to walk aside, which he did, a little from the company, but in their sight.  Only Kingsland was gone before, and Baxter, seeming to kiss Graham, drew his sword and stabbed him in the body and made another pass at him which was put aside by a cane which Graham had in his hand.  West, seeing the same, stepped in and with a push to Baxter on the breast, threw him on his back.  Baxter’s sword flew out of his hand, which West carried into the house.”

James Graham survived this attack and lived onto 1690.

Watty Graham’s Betrayal and Capture.  After the failed Irish Rebellion of 1798, an award of £500 had been put on the head of Watty Graham in county Derry for information relating to his capture. When he became aware of this he set off to try and get to America.  He made out for Magilligan, intending to cross to Moville where a passage had been arranged for him.  On his way he stopped off at the rectory there in order to collect on a debt.

A servant girl there suspected Watty might have been betrayed and tried to warn him. She was serving a meal of potatoes, herrings and sweetmilk and made the comment: “A herring never was caught for its belly.” Watty missed the hint.  But when putting down the jug of milk she again said a herring was never taken on a bait, he said: “Girl, you mean something by that.”  In her distress the girl ran to the window and shouted: “Colonel, the soldiers are coming.”  They could be seen through the woods at the back of the rectory.

Watty shouted: “Men, I’ve been betrayed,”  and ran into the fields.  The officer commanding the soldiers and the Rev. Church of the rectory stopped and looked at the men in the field.  Church recognized Graham and told the soldiers to take the man in the linen shirt.

Less than a year after the betrayal of Watty Graham, the Rev. Church got a call to attend a lady parishioner on her death bed.  He saddled his horse and set off.  But within minutes his riderless horse came back home. The rector had been bludgeoned to death at the entrance to his own house.

The Ballad of William Graham.  William Graham was born in the Langdales in Cumberland and spent his early working life as a farm laborer.  In 1856 he and his two brothers were involved in a fracas with a game keeper outside Penrith, during the course of which the keeper was bludgeoned and died.  In the end only William was tried for the murder.  The case of murder was unproven and the offence of manslaughter replaced it.  That meant that he escaped the death penalty and was instead sentenced to transportation for life.

Press reports of the time showed that the trial had attracted a lot of public attention.  There had been a rush for admission, clothing was torn, women fainted, and there was scratching and bruising among spectators.  When the verdict of “guilty of manslaughter only” was reached, a hearty and even enthusiastic cheer burst out from every part of the crowd.

The public focus then soon translated into popular ballads.  The Graham ballad began in typical style:

  • “Now you gallant lads of England, just listen to me,
  • It’s the last song I shall pen in my old country,
  • For I have received my sentence as you shall understand
  • I am transported for life, my boys, into some foreign land.”

Another version went:

  • “Come all you thinking Christians, wherever you may be
  • One moment give attention and listen unto me;
  • It is of Graham, the poacher, for all do know his doom,
  • For life he is transported, all in his youthful bloom.”

The ballad then narrated his capture (Graham’s two brothers were “taken up” but “it was me that killed the game”), the course of his trial, and his escape from the death sentence.

  • “I was tried for wilful murder but thanks to a feeling judge
  • The jury to manslaughter the charge they did reduce;
  • Now for to receive my sentence I was called upon to stand,
  • Which was, that I for ever should leave my native land.”

There was an attempt in the song to turn Graham into some sort of popular hero.  He probably did not become that.  But the song did endure in popular folklore in Cumberland.  It was still being sung in the 1950’s by Len Irving and his cronies.

Reader Feedback – Grahams in the Caribbean.  Don’t let the name Barbados throw you off.  Many Scottish clans including the Grahams were sent there. You can still find them in Barbados. My grandmother side is a Graham that ended up on the Virgin Islands.  Three good books to read on this subject are The Red Legs of Barbados, To Hell or to Barbados, and The Border Reivers. They tell the history of the various clans that were escorted out.  They still have them living in Barbados.

Jado Graham (

Reader Feedback: James Graham from Ireland to Canada.  My 2nd great grandfather, James Graham, born approximately in 1795, emigrated to Canada from Glenavy in Antrim sometime in the mid 1820’s.  He worked on the building of the Rideau Canal from 1826 to 1832.  His name appeared on the McCabe list of February 1829.   I believe he also had a brother with him.  He had no relatives left in Ireland.  Interestingly he was a Catholic (not sure when or how).

Gary King (

Reader Feedback – Grahams in Mexico.  You have very valuable information about the Graham family in many countries of the world.  However, you have failed to research about the Grahams in Mexico.

The first Graham I know to have arrived to Mexico was in the 19th century.  His name was John Graham. He was born in South Carolina and died in Campeche, Mexico.

John was not alone.  There was an American colony in Campeche composed of several families such as the Buchanans, Grahams, Holdens, MacGregors, McKineys, Mortons and others.  They were plantation owners in South Carolina who had a regular trade basis between US and Mexico.

They traded logwood or bloodwoodtree (Haematoxylum campechianum), a tree that was of great economic importance from the 17th to the 19th century when it was commonly logged and exported from Mexico to the US and Europe for use in dyeing fabrics.

In his youth John married Maria Isabel MacGregor Nuñez de Castro of a prominent Mexican-US family.  Her father was John Louis MacGregor (1785-1841), who was born in south Carolina and died in Campeche.  John and Maria had four children, the eldest Eduardo being my mother’s great grandfather.  My late grandma Isabel Graham Escalante was one of six children and was the first Mexican model to pose for Kodak in the 1930’s in Mexico.

Lic. Roberto Germán Bauzá Preciat (

Reader Feedback – Grahams in Australia.  I have both Scottish and Irish in my family tree – James Graham from Ayr in Scotland (I think) and Hugh Graham whose father was William Graham from Laois in Ireland. I can’t find out any more than that and I would love to hear from descendants of them both.

My James Graham was married to Mary Jones and one of their daughters Elizabeth married John Clark and moved to Australia in the 1860’s.  They were my great grandparents.

Concerning Hugh Graham of Ireland, his daughter Rachel came to Australia in the 1800’s on the Lady Kennaway.  He was married to a Langford who was killed in a mining accident and then married Thomas Dawson. Their first daughter is my great grandmother.

Jan Evelyn

Peter Graham the Mountaineer.  Widely referred to as one of the greatest names in New Zealand mountaineering and mountain guiding, Peter Graham and his almost equally famous brother Alex’s climbing careers began in 1896 and coincided with “the first flowering of New Zealand alpine climbing.”

Peter was chief guide at the Hermitage, Mount Cook from 1906 to 1922.  During that time he climbed or traversed almost every peak of the central Southern Alps, claiming a great many first ascents. Through his exemplary technique Graham was recognized for founding a doctrine of safe technique and sound judgment that would permeate professional guiding in the years to come.

He was not only one of New Zealand’s finest ever climbers.  He also built and maintained huts and tracks; advised hotel guests on outside activities, and informed them about mountain plants. Added to this he was a big and a lovable but a deeply respected figure, “Mr. Peter” he was, to his proteges.  He began this autobiography late in life and had brought it only as far as the year 1910 when he died, literally with pen in hand.  His story was completed in an epilogue by John Pascoe, a mountain writer and photographer.

Graham Names

  • Sir John de Graham was a 13th century Scottish knight who fought and died alongside William Wallace in the struggle for Scottish independence.
  • John Graham of Cleverhouse was a persecutor of the Scots Covenanters in the 17th century who later took up the cause of the Highland clans.
  • George Graham from Cumbria was a celebrated London clockmaker of the early 18th century.
  • Rev. Sylvester Graham was the 19th century American dietary reformer who devised the Graham cracker.
  • Kenneth Grahame was the Scottish writer of The Wind in the Willows, one of the classics of children’s literature.
  • Billy Graham is the well-known Christian evangelical preacher.
  • Katharine Graham was the proprietor of The Washington Post newspaper during the Watergate years.
  • Lindsey Graham is the US Republican Senator for South Carolina.

Graham Numbers Today

  • 80,000 in the UK (most numerous in Glasgow)
  • 76,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 48,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia).

Graham 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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