Hepburn Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Hepburn Surname Meaning

The surname Hepburn is thought to have come from Hebron or Hebburn, small villages in Northumberland in the north of England. But it could alternatively have a Scottish origin, meaning something like the “house beside the water” as burn is a widely used Scots word to mean river.

Hepburn Surname Resources on The Internet

Hepburn Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (East Lothian) and Northern England
  • to Ireland (Donegal), America and Australia

Scotland.  The main Hepburn branch in Scotland originated in East Lothian.

Adam Hepburn was said to have been granted land there in 1343 for having saved the Earl of March from a horse that had lost control. These Hepburns became one of the great barons of Scotland. Patrick Hepburn was Lord of Hailes in 1451 and his grandson Patrick Lord High Admiral of Scotland in 1488 and ennobled as the Earl of Bothwell.

But the family is probably best remembered for James Hepburn, the 4th Earl of Bothwell who married Mary Queen of Scots and then fled to the Continent with blood on his hands.

There were also Hepburn families in East Lothian at Waughton, Beanston and Athelstaneford, and branches at Keith and Smeaton. Smeaton Hall stayed with the Hepburn family until 1934. Today, Robin Hepburn runs his Waughton financial communications company in London.

Hepburns were as well at Fowlis Wester in Perthshire and, increasingly in the 19th century, in and around Aberdeen and Glasgow. One family in Biggar traces itself back to John Hepburn, a veteran of the battle of Waterloo and the town jailer in Lanark. Charles Hepburn co-founded the Hepburn and Ross whisky firm in Glasgow in 1920. The business made him exceedingly rich and he became a noted art collector and benefactor in the town.

England. The spelling in Durham was sometimes Hebron. Not all Hepburns were well-to-do. Thomas Hepburn was a Durham miner who tried to unionize his colliery in the 1830’s, but with little success. One Hepburn line in the East End of London dates from the 18th century. Another Hepburn line starts with a docker on the Clyde who moved there in the late 19th century.

Ireland. There were also Hepburns in Ireland who had moved there from Scotland in the 1700’s. A Donegal family started out in Raphoe as masons.

America. Some Scots Hepburns migrated to America. Samuel Hepburn, a Covenanter, decamped to Ireland and then followed his sons to America in 1773. He suffered the loss of his wife and a daughter on the voyage:  “The vessel, the Faithful Steward on which they sailed, was lost somewhere on the American coast and mother and daughter were drowned while trying to get ashore on a small boat.”

The family settled along the Susquehanna river in Northumberland, Pennsylvania. Samuel himself died there in 1797 at the grand old age of 97. Son James was a prominent merchant in Northumberland. James Curtis Hepburn, a Presbyterian missionary to Japan, was a later descendant. The family line was covered in John Meginness’s 1894 book The Hepburn Family of the Susquehanna Valley.

An earlier arrival was James Hepborn from Scotland, transported to Maryland in 1655. His descendants were small farmers in Kent county on Maryland’s eastern shore for many generations. The Rev. Sewell Hepburn changed the family name from Hepborn to Hepburn in 1879. From this line came the actress Katharine Hepburn.

Other Hepburn lines can be found in Canada and the Bahamas.

Australia. Robert Hepburn of the Royal Navy was a pioneer settler on the east coast of Tasmania, arriving with his wife and eight children in the early 1830’s. He set up a whaling station on Great Oyster Bay. His Swanwick homestead was in Swansea.

Another naval captain, John Hepburn, came to Hobart in 1835 and then moved onto Victoria. He too was a pioneer of the country, being the first European settler in the Daylesford region of Victoria. He named his homestead Smeaton House after the Smeaton back home in Scotland. Also settling in Victoria were two Hepburn brothers, Donald and Angus, who arrived from Inverness in 1851.

Hepburn Surname Miscellany

The Affairs of James Hepburn, the Fourth Earl of Boswell.  In 1559 Mary the Queen Regent of Scotland gave the Earl command of a body of French auxiliaries and six months later sent him on a mission to France.

He travelled thither via Denmark where he had an affair with an Anna Throndsson, daughter of a Norwegian nobleman.  She went with him as far as the Netherlands and eventually turned up in Scotland in 1563.  Her expectations were disappointed as the Earl was already married.  While in France it is said the Earl made further promises of marriage to a lady there with whom he had a liaison.  The Earl returned to Scotland in 1561.

The next year he was accused of treason and was held in Edinburgh castle, but escaped from custody and took a ship to France.  He returned in 1565 and was thenceforth in great and increasing favor with Queen Mary.

The murder of the King Consort, Lord Darnley, in which the Earl was the principal player, took place two years later in 1567.  Soon afterwards the Earl was created Duke of Orkney and he married the Queen. However, opposition to the pair was strong in Scotland and their forces were defeated at Carberry Hill. Bothwell fled to Norway.  He was made a prisoner there and remained in confinement until his death in 1578.

The Earl had been married firstly, in the late 1550’s, to Jonet Betoun, widow of Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch.  Her fate is unclear.  Secondly he married, in 1566, Lady Jane Gordon, daughter of the then deceased George 4th Earl of Huntly.  She divorced him on May 5, 1567 – citing his adultery with one of her maidservants. Then at Holyrood castle, ten days later on May 15, 1567, came his marriage to Mary, Queen of Scots.  This marriage produced no children as the Queen miscarried twins that year while detained at Lochleven.

Hepburns in Raphoe, Donegal.  The first recorded Hepburn in this locality was Alexander Hepburn, a ruling elder of the Presbyterian chapel in Raymoghy near Raphoe in 1680.

One family line started with William Hepburn, a mason living on McBride Street in Raphoe in the early 1800’s. Hepburns still live on McBride Street today. William’s son Andrew, also a mason, built a cottage for himself in the townsland of Sessiagh Allson in Castlefinn. The cottage was rebuilt in 1910 by his grandsons and remains occupied by the Hepburns today.

The Lineage of Robert Hepburn of Tasmania.  Robert Hepburn died in Tasmania in 1862.  His last will and testament began with this florid description of his lineage:

“This is the last Will and Testament of me Robert Hepburn of Roys Hill in the district of Fingal, Tasmania.  I am a lineal descendant:

  • by my father, Captain Hepburn, of the family of Hepburns of Keith in East Lothian Scotland;
  • by my mother Mary Ann Roy, great grandson of Rob Roy Macgregor;
  • and by my grandmother Isabella Princess of Diabenti, daughter of the King of the Koromantic nation of the Gold Coast in Africa, I am Prince of Diabenti, the lineal descendant of the King of the nation in Africa.”

Robert himself was born in Jamaica and was a descendant of the Rev. William Hepburn of Fowlis Wester in Perthshire.

James Curtis Hepburn, Christian Missionary in Japan.  James Curtis Hepburn was the great grandson of Samuel Hepburn who had departed his native Scotland because of religious persecution and left for America with his family in 1773.

In 1840 he volunteered as a medical missionary of the Presbyterian board of foreign missions and was sent to Siam.  His destination was then changed to China.  He remained in Singapore until the end of the Opium War in 1843 and then went to China where he worked in Amoy from 1843 to 1846.

He was back in America after that but returned East in 1859, becoming one of the first Western missionaries in Japan.  In addition to his medical missionary work he assisted in the translation of the Holy Scriptures, made a Japanese-English and English-Japanese lexicon which passed through three editions and became the basis of all other similar works. He translated and published several Christian tracts and hymns and the Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church.  In 1892, the year he returned to America, he published a Japanese dictionary of the Bible.

Reader Feedback – Hepburns in the East End of London.  By chance I came across your site and was very interested in a statement that a docker on the Clyde moved to the east end of London.  My father Albert Hepburn was a stevedore at Tilbury docks.  At the outbreak of war in 1939 he was transferred to Gourock. I remember my mother telling me that we lodged at number one Drumshantie Road.  However he was soon conscripted into the army.

Whilst trying to find the family tree, I have found that prior to my grandfather moving to Essex, all of the generations before him lived in the east end of London, Stepney, Poplar, etc.  I have got back to John Hepburn, born around 1740, and some of his descendants were listed as dock laborers.

Regards,  Frank Hepburn (JeanandFrank@aol.com)

The Rev. Sewell Hepburn.  The Rev. Sewell Hepburn was the grandfather of that famous actress Katharine Hepburn. It was said that, at the advanced age of 83, he married her in 1928 to Ludlow Ogden Smith at the Hepburn home in West Hartford (the marriage, however, was short-lived and soon ended in divorce).  When Katharine died in 2003, she remembered him with a $10,000 bequest to the Kent county chapel of St. Paul’s in Maryland where her grandfather had served for so long as a parish priest.

The Rev. Sewell Hepborn was born in Missouri.  But his roots were with a long-established farming family in Kent county on Maryland’s eastern shore. The family there had been split by the Civil War.  Maryland was a border state that remained under Union control during the war but where the ownership of  slaves was permitted.

Sewell’s father, Sewell Stavely Hepborn of Still Pond, was a slave-owner.  As an outspoken supporter of the Confederate cause, he was imprisoned for a time. After Hepborn’s death, the Rev. Sewell Hepborn defended his father’s right to own slaves.  But he did draw a distance from him by changing his last name from Hepborn to Hepburn.

The Rev. Sewell Hepburn was for sixty years a rural Episcopalian minister in Maryland and Virginia.  He came to be known as “Brother Hep” by his parishioners because of the deep affection in which they held him.

Hepburn Names

  • Sir John Hepburn from Athelstaneford was a distinguished soldier for Sweden and France in their wars in the early 17th century.
  • Katharine Hepburn was a celebrated American actress.
  • Audrey Hepburn, another celebrated actress, took her Hepburn name from her maternal grandmother, Kathleen Hepburn.

Hepburn Numbers Today

  • 8,000 in the UK (most numerous in Glasgow)
  • 1,000 in America (most numerous in Florida)
  • 4,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Hepburn 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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