Kerr Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Kerr Surname Meaning

The surname Kerr derived from the Old Norse word kjarr meaning “copse” or “wet ground,” which became kerr, meaning “marsh” and “marsh dweller,” on the English/Scottish borders. The spelling was Kerr in Scotland and Carr across the border in England.

Asked how to say his name, Admiral Mark Kerr told the Literary Digest: In Scotland the name rhymes with care.  Since many of the family have come to England the pronunciation in this country rhymes with car, which we have entirely submitted to.”

Kerr is also an anglicized form of the German Kehr.

Kerr Surname Resources on The Internet

Kerr Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Borders)
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

Scotland.  Kerr is mainly a Scottish Borders name.

Scottish Borders.  The Kerr clan there started with two brothers, Ralph and John, who settled in Jedburgh around 1330. Ralph’s line became the Kerrs of Ferniehirst and Marquesses of Lothian; while John’s were the Kers of Cessford and Dukes of Roxburgh. The Kerrs held Ferniehirst castle and the Kers Cessford castle.

At different times these lines held the title Warden of the Middle March, given to them so that they could defend the Scottish border against the English.

Over the years these two branches were generally strong supporters of the Scottish and then of the English crown. Sir Andrew Kerr, known as Dand Kerr, stood beside King James IV of Scotland against the English at the battle of Flodden Field. In 1526 he died in defense of his infant son when the royal procession was attacked on the way to Edinburgh castle. But the Kerrs were on the English side at Culloden in 1746. Their story was narrated in Lord Lothian’s Border Story, The Name and House of Kerr.

There is a legend that the Kerrs were frequently left-handed and even constructed the spiral staircases in their castles so that they could take advantage over right-handed swordsmen. The term “corrie-fisted” or left-handed was said to have derived from the Kerrs. But there is little in history to support this legend. The word “corrie” is likely to have derived from the Gaelic word caerr meaning “left.”

Elsewhere. The Kerr name was also to be found on the isle of Bute on the west coast of Scotland. Alexander Kerr married Helen Campbell at Rothesay in 1777 and they had eight children – including John Kerr, a member of the Burns Club at Dalry in north Ayrshire.  “He was a fine fat fodgel wight o’ short stature. Lively and intelligent and sang a good song. Afterwards he became a vintner.”  

Other Kerrs in Dalry emigrated to Illinois in America in 1841. John Kerr became disillusioned, however, and returned home.

England. The name of Osbert be Ker was recorded in the charters of Rievaulx abbey in Yorkshire around the year 1200. However, the English spelling of the name developed as Carr.

Ireland. Many Kerrs came to Ulster during the Scottish plantations and Kerr is a common name in Northern Ireland today, in particular in county Antrim. The Ker and Karr spellings occur in county Down. In 1840 it was said that one in every twenty acres in county Down belonged to the Ker family of Portavo. They were among Ireland’s thirty wealthiest families at that time. These Kers produced the London financier David Ker who had acquired the Montalto estate. 

Kerr in Ireland is generally of Scottish origin; while Carr could be of either Irish or English origin. Some Irish Carrs were said to have changed their names to Kerr.

America. The first Kerr arrival in America may well have been Walter Ker who landed in Perth Amboy, New Jersey in 1686 and went on to found the first Presbyterian church in America. Other Kerrs began arriving in Pennsylvania in the early 1700’s. John and James Kerr were recorded in the 1724 Donegal township records of Lancaster county. These Kerrs later settled in Augusta county, Virginia.

The Rev. Charles Kerr, the long-time pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Tulsa, Oklahoma, came from these same Scots Presbyterian roots. William and Margaret Kerr, tenant farmers in Oklahoma in the early 1900’s, were devout members of the Southern Baptist Church. Their son Robert S. Kerr, born in a log cabin in Chickasaw Nation, grew up to be an oil entrepreneur and was both Governor and Senator for Oklahoma.

Canada. Gavin Kerr was a Presbyterian minister from Lockerbie in Dumfriesshire who came to Canada with his wife and four sons in 1818. They settled in New Brunswick. His oldest son James became the postmaster of New Bandon, a younger son Thomas the lighthouse keeper at the Caraquet lighthouse. However, Thomas was only keeper for three years as he was drowned in the crossing in 1873.

Robert and Eliza Kerr arrived from Fermanagh in Ireland in the early 1850’s, making their home in Huron county, Ontario. Twenty years later their sons George, John and Robert were pioneer settlers at Stoney Creek in Manitoba where they farmed.

Australia.  Robert Kerr came to Victoria on the Thomas Arbuthnot from Fife in 1841.  He married Catherine Hamilton in Melbourne in 1848.  Catherine had arrived there in 1846 as a nursemaid to the Mitchells (Dame Nellie Melba’s family).  Robert farmed at Bacchus Marsh.  There were ten children (including eight sons) and thirty-seven grandchildren in their family.

Three Kerr brothers – William, Robert and George – departed Glasgow on the Selkirkshire for Rockhampton, Queensland in 1892.  George died there in 1913, survived by his third wife and nineteen of his twenty-seven children.  Robert had migrated by then to Western Australia.  In 2002 descendants held a family reunion.

New Zealand.  John and Janet Kerr left Scotland on the Fifeshire for Waimea, New Zealand in 1842.  Their son John, twelve at that time, got into whaling, running a butcher’s shop, and sheep-farming, before representing Nelson as an MP.  He accidentally drowned in Lake Rotoiti in 1898.  Rex and Adrienne Evans’ 1999 book The Family of John and Janet Kerr covered the history.

Kerr Surname Miscellany

Kerr Name Origins.  Burke’s Peerage has maintained the original home of the Kerrs was the Stavanger area of Norway and is supported the presence of ‘Kjaer’ and ‘Kjarr’ families in the region.

Kjarr is Old Norse and there are variations of that name in other Scandinavian languages: 

  • kjarr (Old Norse), meaning “brushwood.”
  • kjerr (Norwegian), meaning “wet ground, especially where
    brushwood grows.”
  • karr (Swedish), meaning “marsh.”
  • kaer (Danish), meaning “meadow,”
  • and kerr (Middle English), meaning “bog” or “fen.”

Dand Kerr of Ferniehirst.  Dand Kerr was one of the great Border characters of his time, with a long and turbulent career. At one stage he was fined and imprisoned, though the offence is not known.  He acquired the lands and barony of Oxnam and was thus qualified to sit in the Scottish Parliament held a few days before the battle of Flodden.

Though the battle, taken as a whole, was one of the worst disasters ever suffered by Scotland, the Borderers won their share of it. But the King was dead and the greater part of his army slaughtered.  Dand, who had been involved in the successful part of the action, seized Kelso Abbey the same evening and installed his brother Thomas there as Abbot.

Ferniehirst Castle.  Ferniehirst castle lies two miles south of Jedburgh in the Scottish borders. The castle had been built originally as a ‘peel tower’ in 1476 by Sir Thomas Kerr to hold the gate for Scotland and to serve as a base for military raids and cattle lifting forays.

It survived centuries of bloody border warfare, being sacked by the English in 1523, attacked and retaken in 1549 with the help of the French and captured by the English once again in 1570.  In 1593 the castle was almost completely demolished by James VI as punishment for the then laird assisting his enemies.  Rebuilt by Sir Andrew Kerr in 1598, it was occupied for two hundred years before falling into decay.  The castle we see today is essentially Ferniehirst as rebuilt by Sir Andrew, though the chambers and cellars at ground level date back to 1476.

Ferniehirst was designed for left-handed folk. The stairways of most castles spiral clockwise.  Ferniehurst’s spiral counter-clockwise, giving the advantage to left-handed swordsmen if they were forced to fight as they retreated upstairs.

The castle was used as a Youth Hostel for much of the 20th century.  It was then acquired by Lord Lothian and restored in the 1980’s and is now a showplace of Kerr and Borders history.

Reader Feedback – Kerrs from Assynt in the north of Scotland.  My grandmother was a Kerr, as was her mother and father. She was born in Assynt. There is a Kerr in Assynt in 1800 and maybe before since Kerr is a border name.

Did they come up with the sheep from the Lowlands.  Since Cathel is common in my line, could they have come up from Northern Ireland. Any advice as to how I could find out their origin? There were many Kerrs in Assynt!

Barbara Matheson (

Kerrs and Lefthandedness.  A 1974 survey by the Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners found that 29.5 percent of all Kerrs in Britain and North America were left-handed, compared to only 11 percent of the general population. Lefties are still called “ker-handed” in Scotland.

David and Medelina Ker and Montalto in County Down.  David Ker was a London financier who decided to invest in some land in county Down. This was seemingly a natural thing for him to do as his ancestors were Scots Presbyterians and he had roots in the area. He originally bought five townlands around Ballynahinch and, following the rebellion, bought the whole place in 1802.

As a young man he had gone off to Italy on the grand tour, bringing home a beautiful young mistress called Madelina Guardi, a 15 year old opera singer and daughter of an Italian painter.  They lived in London.  It was said that he often brought her to county Down and his home in Ballynahinch.  When she was 19, they started a family and they had four children in quick succession. David Ker eventually married her after their fourth child was born.  It was obvious that Madelina was ill and David wished to declare her as his wife and ensure her children would be his legitimate heirs.

In the 1800’s, this kind of family story would normally have been kept quiet. But it seems the Ker family chose to celebrate it.  Indeed in every succeeding generation of the Ker family, there was generally one boy called David and one girl called Madelina.  If you visit the Magheradroll parish church in Ballynahinch, where the third generation of the Kers are buried, there you will see the name ‘Madelina’ engraved on the family tombstone.  She was Violet Madelina Ker, who married a Mr. Rose and became Violet Madelina Rose.

The Ker family fortunes declined in the 1870’s.  But the Montalto estate at Ballynahinch was to stay with the family until 1910.

Walter Ker, Presbyterian Minister in America.  The following was the account by William C. Armstrong in his 1931 book The Kerr Clan of New Jersey of Ker’s arrival in America.

“When James II came to the throne of Scotland, intolerance broke out afresh; sever laws were enacted and sternly enforced against nonconformists, such as confinement in loathsome dungeons and clipping off the left ear.

George Scot, the laird of Pitlochie, a leader among the Presbyterians, suffered great hardships for conscience’s sake.  His persecutors, finding that they could not break his spirit, offered to release him from prison if he would go into exile. He accepted the offer, saying: “I will go to the American plantations provided I may take a colony of my countrymen with me.” To this they agreed.  Ninety of his co-religionists volunteered to go with him.

Scot at once chartered the Henry and Francis and the vessel prepared for sea.  Before departing he obtained permission to take with him some 105 nonconformists who were lying there in prison and, on September 5, 1685, they set sail.

For twelve weeks the ship’s company battled against deadly disease within and raging storms without. In December the vessel dropped anchor in the harbor of Perth Amboy, New Jersey.  Seventy of those who had started for the new world with high hopes, had died and been buried at sea.

Among the passengers who disembarked from the death-plagued ship was a young man named Walter Ker.”

Walter Ker went on to start the first Presbyterian church in America near Monmouth, New Jersey; and that church ordained the first Presbyterian minister in America.  Walter Ker signed his initials in the corner foundation of the church.  He died in 1748 at the age of 92 and was buried in the Kerr burying ground about a half mile east of the church.

John Kerr’s Letter Home in 1849.  John Kerr tried to make a go of it as a farmer in Illinois, but became disillusioned with his lot.  This extract came from a letter home in 1849.

“I will make a remark though a great many will not believe.  Men’s work in general is as low paid here or lower than it was about Dalry when I left it.  This country is not what it has been represented to be.

The representation of some mad dog will hold good if you go back to 1835 and 1836 with regard to wages but not now.

I know that you have dull times now, but we have it dull here too. When I left Dalry I thought that by the year’s end you might find me advising my friends and acquaintances to come on to this land that is said to be flowing with milk and honey.  But no, I cannot say to you – come here and you will be better. Wages are hard to get up, the farmer gets so little for his produce.

I will remark that when I left Dalry the workmen there were far better clad, had more clothes, lived in far better houses, were better educated and could command far more cash and consequently more of the luxuries of life than the farmers around here.”

John returned to Dalry in north Ayrshire in 1853.

The Rev. Charles Kerr and the Tulsa Race Riot.  On the afternoon and evening of May 30, 1921, a large crowd of white people began assembling outside of the Tulsa County Courthouse at 6th Street and Boulder Avenue.  Many of these demanded that the sheriff turn over Dick Rowland to them, clearly indicating that they intended to lynch the young man.  The sheriff was determined to prevent a lynching and refused their demands.  Instead, he and several armed deputies barricaded the building.  In the early evening, the sheriff addressed the crowd and told them to go home.

Meanwhile, some of the black clergymen called Reverend Kerr on the telephone and asked for his assistance. After discussing the situation with his family, Kerr responded by going to the courthouse and pleading with the would-be lynch mob to go home.  He was one of the very few civic leaders to do so.  The mob ignored his plea and continued threatening to storm the building.

The next day, after armed whites invaded the Greenwood district, black clergymen again called Kerr for assistance.  On his own, not waiting to meet with the church session (the governing body of any Presbyterian church), Kerr opened the church basement to temporarily house refugees from the violence.

John Kerr, New Zealand Pioneer.  John Kerr, a Scotsman and a practical farmer, had emigrated with his wife Janet and six sturdy sons to New Zealand in 1842. He had the honor of putting the first plough into Nelson soil on May 25th of that year.

In July, John Kerr, his sons and his neighbors the Tytlers emigrated to Waimea West. As fast as they could break up the land with their light ploughs, they found, however, that the Waimea soil really needed heavier ploughs and bullocks rather than horses. The first harvest was somewhat disappointing as they also had not realised that the fern roots needed to be removed, not just broken up.

Other settlers followed and before long there was a farming community known as the “Village.” In fact in November 1842 the first Bachelors’ Ball was held in Mr Kerr’s barn which was beautifully decorated for the occasion.  Before long church services were also being held there.

John Kerr died in 1863 at the age of 68 and was buried in St. Michael’s churchyard.

Kerr Names

  • Ralph and John Kerr were the forebears of the Kerr Scottish border clan.
  • John Kerr was a 19th century Scottish physicist and a pioneer in the field of opto-electrics. He is best known for the discovery of what is now known as the Kerr effect.
  • Robert S. Kerr was a founder of the Kerr-McGee Oil Company in 1946 and was both Governor and Senator for Oklahoma.
  • Deborah Kerr was the British film actress who starred in The King and I.
  • Walter Kerr was a well-known theater critic for the New York Times.

Kerr Numbers Today

  • 32,000 in the UK (most numerous in Glasgow)
  • 20,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 31,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Kerr 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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