Irving Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Irving Surname Meaning

The surname Irving is Scottish. Its root is uncertain. One explanation is that the name came from a Celtic word irfon, meaning “green water;” another is that it originated with the word erinviene, meaning “from the west,” and described men from Ireland who had settled on the west coast of Scotland around Dumfries.

Its first recorded use was in the 12th century when Gilchrist, son of Eruini, witnessed a charter in Galloway.  There followed the place-names of Irving in Dumfriesshire and Irvine in north Ayrshire; the Irving clan of Bonshaw in Dumfriesshire;  and the Irvine clan of Drum in Aberdeenshire.  These Irvings and Irvines may have been related through a connection at the time of Robert the Bruce. But the relationship is not proven.

Irving exists as a surname today, as does Irvine, Ervine, Erwin and Irwin.

Irving Surname Resources on The Internet

Irving Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Borders and Orkneys) and from Northern England
  • to America, Canada, and Australia

Scotland. The Irvings were one of the Border reivers, a family clan who, through raiding and clan feuding, rose to prominence during the lawless times on the English/Scottish border in the 16th century. Their fortress and base was Bonshaw Tower in Annandale.

The principal allies of the Irvings were the Johnstons, their principal foes the Maxwells and the English Wardens who sought to police the border. Clan chief Christopher Irving of Bonshaw was killed fighting the English at Flodden in 1513. His son Edward pursued clan feuds, as did his son Christopher known as “Black Christie.” The Irvings and the Johnstons combined to inflict a heavy defeat on the Maxwell forces at Dryfe Sands in 1593, which was in fact the last clan battle to be fought in Scotland.

By this time there were the Whitehill Irvings (first known as the dukes of Hoddom) and the Gribton and Kirkconnel Irvings as well. From the Whitehill Irvings came Jock O’Milk, a well-known raider of his day who is commemorated in the old Border ballad Duke of Milk. The overall clan history is documented in Colonel J.B. Irving’s 1907 book The Book of the Irvings.

After the Border pacification of the early 1600’s, the Irving chiefs led less dangerous lives. Some became involved in Dumfries municipal affairs, others – such as Paulus Aemillius Irving – joined the army.

Although many Irvings left the area, most within Scotland were and are still to be found in the family stamping grounds of Dumfriesshire. Their numbers included the controversial early 19th century preacher the Rev. Edward Irving. He was born in Annan and there is a statue of him in the old parish church there.

Orkneys  The Irving name has also appeared in the Orkney isles off Scotland. William Irving was the first recorded there in 1425. He was said to have been the son of William de Irvin, the secretary and armour-bearer of Robert the Bruce. His descendants, starting with Criste Irving, were the Irvings of Sabay, one of the chief landed families of the islands at the time.

Irving first appeared in parish records in 1639. William Irving, born on the isle of Shapinsay in 1740, served in the British Navy and moved to New York in 1763.

England. Irvings crossed the border into England. By the late 19th century there were more Irvings in England than there were in Scotland.

Cumbria.  The largest numbers were and are in Cumbria. Irving is in fact today the fourth most common surname in Cumbria. The first stopping place was probably Kirklinton, just ten miles from the Scottish border. Robert Irving, born there in 1723, was the forebear of a family of surgeons. Another family traced itself back to Joseph Irving, born there in 1771.

“The Kirklinton church records from the early 1600’s show a complex network of families, originally Urwin then becoming Irving and Irwin, sometimes switching names from one generation to the next. Consequently it is difficult to be 100 percent sure of the actual connections.”

The descendants of Matthew Irvin, born in Cleator in 1778, was shown by DNA testing to have Bonshaw Irving genes.

Irvings were later to be found in Wigton and Carlisle and along the coast at Workington and Maryport (where there were Irving shipowners and mariners in the early 19th century). The huntsman Willie Irving, the founder of the Lakeland terrier breed, was born in Ennerdale in 1898.

Ireland. The main Scottish names in Ireland were Irvine and Irwin, rather than Irving.  The Irvings of Donoughmore in Donegal dating from 1796 were of English border origin.

America. There were Irvings in America from the Orkney isles. William Irving, who had arrived in New York in 1763, was the father of the famous writer Washington Irving. Another Orkney line led in the 20th century to Edward Burroughs Irving, a Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on Beowulf.

West Coast.  William Irving was a sea captain who left his native Annan in Dumfriesshire for Boston in 1841 at the age of twenty five. Eight years later he was on the Oregon Trail to the West Coast where he started a coastal steamship business.

He was one of the first pioneers of steamer travel in the Pacific Northwest and is remembered as one of the most successful and popular captains of his era. His son Captain John Irving carried on his father’s work up the coast in British Columbia.

Another Irving from Dumfriesshire to make his mark on the West Coast was Andrew K. Irving. A shipwright by profession, he had moved to San Francisco in 1868 and started the first shipbuilding yard on the West Coast. The Irvings evacuated San Francisco at the time of the 1906 earthquake and his son Samuel became mayor of neighboring Berkeley.

The Jules Irving who founded the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop with his wife in the 1950’s was in fact born Jules Israel in New York. He was the father of director David Irving and actress Amy Irving.

Canada. There are twice as many Irvings in Canada as there are in the United States, and many of them in the maritime provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. New Brunswick had four Irving arrivals in the 1820’s:

  • George Irving and his wife Jane from Dumfriesshire
  • another George Irving from Dumfriesshire, married to Agnes
  • and another George Irving from Dumfriesshire, this time married to Elizabeth
  • plus two brothers, John and Henry Irving, from Ulster.

The first George above had a son Kenneth Colin and, two generations later, a Kenneth Colin Irving who was born in 1899 in Bouctouche, New Brunswick. Known as KC Irving, he went on to found the Irving industrial empire, one of Canada’s largest, which remains New Brunswick based, privately-owned, and run by the family through his three sons – James, Arthur, and Jack – and their children.

Irvings in Canada generally came from Scotland and Ulster in Ireland. The Irish Irvings might have come as Irvings or subsequently changed their name from Irvine to Irving.

Australia and New Zealand.  John Irving, born in Parramatta in 1796, was the son of John Irving and his common law convict wife Ann Marsh. His father, sadly, died four months before he was born. John was the forebear of a growing Irving family, first in Australia and then in New Zealand.

Irving Surname Miscellany

Irvings and Irvines.  The Irvings of Bonshaw are said to have been descended from Duncan of Eskdale, a younger brother of Crinan the father of the King Duncan of Scotland who was murdered by Macbeth in 1040.  Duncan of Eskdale’s lands were extensive during the 11th century, stretching from Annandale to Liddesdale.

Robert the Bruce was a guest in Annandale in 1298 when he fled the English court of Edward I.  There is a cave in the Kirtle cliffs at Cove within which he is thought to have hid himself on more than one occasion.

A William de Irwyn, said to have been the second son of the chief at Bonshaw, was taken into the service of Robert the Bruce.  He held various offices in the Royal Household and was rewarded with part of the Forest of Drum near Banchory in Aberdeenshire in 1323.  James Irvine-Fortescue in his Memorandum on the Origins of the Family of Irvine of Drum in 2000 concluded that the first Irvine of Drum did probably originate from the southwest of Scotland.

The first recording of an Irving name at Bonshaw was not in fact until 1367.

Bonshaw Tower.  Bonshaw Tower and the house attached to it stand on level ground bounded on the east by a cliff with the Kirtle river flowing below, to the south by a steep ravine, and to the west by a farmyard and the rough ground of Bonshaw Mains that stands over where ditches and ramparts once stood.

Just below the northern battlement of the tower was a strange shaft, built into the wall of the tower and leading far below the huge foundation stones.  Anyone who dropped a lighted torch in this narrow stone shaft could watch it die out at an immeasurable distance below.

The present tower is known to have been built in the 1560’s, but there had been a previous construction on the site between 1542 and 1548.  The English failed to burn down or indeed to blow up the tower with their cannon.  It successfully withstood four sieges by the Maxwells in the 16th century and was described by Lord Scope, the English Warden of the West Marches, as “one of the strongest houses of that border.”

Fair Helen of Kirkconnel.  There is an old Scottish ballad known as Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea. The ballad was based on fact, but has probably been romanticized with artistic license over the years.

The story went like this.  Helen Irving was the daughter of William Irving, the son of the Laird of Bonshaw. Helen lived in the 16th century and was recognized by tradition as Fair Helen of Kirkconnell. She had two suiters – Robert Bell of Blacket House (preferred by her family as a proper match) and Adam Fleming whom she truly loved.

Helen and Adam would steel away to be alone on the banks of the Kirtle Water. On one occasion the shunned Robert Bell intended to kill his rival.  However, his shot missed and resulted in killing Helen instead. Helen had perceived the desperate lover on the opposite bank, and to save her favorite, interposed; and, receiving the wound intended for her beloved; she fell and expired in his arms. Adam enraged, instantly revenged her death by killing Robert with his sword and mutilating Robert’s body.

Fearing being hanged for the murder of Robert, Adam fled to Spain. Years later, on his return, he visited the grave of his unfortunate mistress, stretched himself on it, and died on the spot. When his body was found Helen’s family had Adam interred by her side.

In the burial ground on the western edge of the village of Eaglesfield are the graves of Helen Irving and her lover Adam Fleming. Lyrics of the ballad were published by Walter Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. 

Reader Feedback – Bonshaw Irvings in Cumberland.  My name is Richard Irwin. My father Henry believed our family to be of Irish descent, but my researches appear to prove otherwise. 

I can trace my line back to my great great great grandfather Matthew who claimed to have been born at Cleator in Cumberland in 1778. Despite a long time researching, I have not been able to confirm the names of Matthew’s parents and ancestors. 

However, according to James Irvine of the Clan Irwin DNA study, I am a direct descendant of the House of Bonshaw. I appear to be very close match to those Irvings. 

In the 1841 census Matthew was shown as being Irvin.  But we must remember that all those names Irving, Irvin, Irvine and Irwin would have probably have been pronounced Irvin until the ‘plantation’ of Ireland. 

One of my theories concerning the gap between Bonshaw and west Cumberland has been that my forebears left Britain for Ireland or possibly the West Indies before returning to live in Cumberland in the early 18th century. Perhaps someone contributing to this site might have some information which would help me bridge the gap. 

Richard Irwin ( 

Early Irving Baptisms in the Orkneys.  The first Irving record for the island of Shapinsay parish was in 1634.  The following were some early reported baptisms.

Parent(s) Son/Daughter
1634 William Margaret
1637 William Marjorie
1639 William and Jean William
Thomas Isobel
John Jonat
1641 Thomas and Cathrein John
1644 James Cathrein

Irving records first appeared in Kirkwall parish in 1659.  The Irvine name also appears in Orkney records, as it does in the Shetlands.

Irvings in Britain in 1891.  By the time of the 1891 census, the Irvings were being outnumbered by the Irvines in Scotland by almost three to one.  Irving in Scotland remained very much a Border name.  But there were by that time more Irvings living south of the border, in particular in Cumberland.

1891 Census – Irvings Numbers (000’s) Percent
Dumfriesshire   1.6   22
Elsewhere   0.7   10
Cumberland   1.9   26
Lancashire   1.0   14
Elsewhere   2.1   28
Total   7.3  100

Ann Marsh and John Irving.  Ann Marsh had come to Australia in 1790 as a convict on the infamous brothel ship Lady Juliana.   Ann’s partner on the ship was the kind and thoughtful ship’s surgeon, Richard Alley.  She bore him a child.  But he soon departed back to England.

Ann, as with all single women in the colony, needed a protector and she found another surgeon in John Irving.  John, a First Fleet convict, had been the first convict in Australia to obtain an absolute pardon in 1790. Tried in Lincoln in 1784 for stealing and sentenced to seven years’ transportation, he had come to the colony on the Lady Penrhyn as the ship’s surgeon.

When Irving arrived in Sydney in 1792, he was appointed the assistant surgeon at Parramatta and had 30 acres of land granted to him, roughly in the area known as Irving Street, Parramatta.   John and Ann had a son, John Irving.  He was, however, born in January 1796, some four months after John’s death in September 1795.   The title to John’s land went to Ann, his common law wife, and she held it until 1798 when she sold “Irving’s Farm.”

George Washington and Washington Irving.  Washington Irving was born in New York on April 3 1783, the same week city residents learned of the British ceasefire that ended the American Revolutionary War.  His mother named him after the hero of the revolution, George Washington.

At the age of six, with the help of a nanny, Washington Irving met his namesake who was then living in New York after his inauguration as President in 1789.  The President blessed young Irving, an encounter Irving commemorated in a small watercolor painting which still hangs in his preserved home today.

Reader Feedback – Edward Burroughs Irving.  My name is Robert Rea Irving, the son of Edward Burroughs Irving.  Our group comes from Orkney.

I would like to suggest that my late brother, Edward Burroughs Irving Jr., be added to the list of notable Irvings. Ted, as he was called, was Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania.  He was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate from Haverford College. He earned his doctorate in Old English at Yale.  He was a prominent authority of Beowulf.

Robert Irving, aged 89 (

Reader Feedback – George Irving in New Brunswick. There was another George Irving there.  He was born in Annan, Dumfriesshire in 1805 and was the son of Captain Mathew Irving and Margaret Pool.  He married Elizabeth Lockerbie and was a river pilot at Richibucto in Kent, New Brunswick.

His gravestone read:  “In memory of George Irving who died May 6, 1891 aged 85 years; also of his wife Elizabeth Lockerby who died Oct. 18, 1886 aged 82 years. Natives of Annan, Scotland they settled in Richibucto in 1834.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Robert H Wilson (

The Sad Story of an Irish Irving in Canada.  John Irving came from Ireland and he married his wife Margaret, who was English, around 1843.  Her family disowned her for marrying an Irishman and they consequently emigrated to Canada.

They settled in St. John, New Brunswick and had four children (one boy and three girls) there.  However, both John and Margaret died in a plague in the late 1850’s and the three girls were sold as indentured servants.

Captain John Irving’s Last Years.  Historian Norman R. Hacking came to know John Irving well in the captain’s later years, and wrote of him:

“The latter days of Captain Irving were sad.  He gambled or gave his money away with gay abandon. In a few years his fine mansion in Victoria, his horses and stables, the accumulated wealth of a most successful business career; all were gone.  The death of his only son Willie in the first Great War was a great blow and the old man gallantly offered to enlist and take his son’s place.”

When Irving had sold his Canadian Pacific Navigation Company to the CPR, he had been presented with a lifetime pass to travel on the CPR’s coastal steamships as a guest of the company.  Irving, who apparently lacked a regular home ashore, came to use the pass constantly.  So long as Irving’s old friend James Troup was superintendent of CPR coastal operations, Irving was always welcome aboard the company’s ships.

When Captain Troup retired, his successor, believing that Irving was abusing the pass, warned his captains that while travel might be at the company’s expense, Irving was to be required to pay for accommodations and meals on board.  This directive was ignored by the CPR’s captains, who continued to seat Irving at the captain’s table and make sure a cabin was available for him.

Hacking described Irving’s last years.

“In his later years Captain Irving lived in a small converted store on West Pender Street in Vancouver. With his tall spruce figure and his white goatee beard he was a very handsome gentleman.  His favorite remark when meeting an old friend on the street was “How about a smile?”  He died in 1936, poor in everything but friends.”

Irving Names

  • Edward Irving of Bonshaw was the Irving clan chief for fifty years during the lawless times on the Scottish borders in the 16th century.
  • Washington Irving was an early 19th century American writer, the author of stories such as Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
  • Sir Henry Irving was the leading stage actor in England during Victorian times. He was born John Henry Brodribb.
  • KC Irving, from his base in New Brunswick, became one of Canada’s foremost industrialists of the 20th century.
  • John Irving is an American writer, the author of such novels as The World According to Garp. His surname came from his stepfather.

Irving Numbers Today 

  • 13,000 in the UK (most numerous in Cumbria)
  • 4,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 13,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada).

Irving and Like Surnames

The border between Scotland and England was a lawless area for well over three hundred years and the subject of many stories and hearsays.  Families on both sides of the border took part in the raids, attacking villages and stealing cattle on the way.  Eventually, following the unification of the Scottish and English crowns in 1603, the area was pacified.  There were mass executions and banishments, many to the new Protestant colony in Ulster.  These were some of the prominent Border family surnames at that time that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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