Kerr Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Kerr 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 Resources on

Kerr Ancestry

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
in defense of his
infant son when the royal procession was attacked on the way to
castle. But the Kerrs were on the
English side at Culloden in 1746. Their story was narrated in Lord Lothian’s Border
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.

was a fine fat fodgel wight o’ short
stature. Lively and intelligent and sang
a good song. Afterwards he became a

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
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.


Kerr Miscellany

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

is Old Norse and there are variations of that name in other

  • kjarr
    (Old Norse), meaning
  • kjerr (Norwegian), meaning “wet ground, especially where
  • karr (Swedish), meaning “marsh.”
  • kaer (Danish), meaning
  • 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.

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
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.

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

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
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,
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
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
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
tombstone.  She was Violet Madelina Ker,
who married a Mr. Rose and became Violet Madelina Rose.

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.

James II came to the throne of
Scotland, intolerance broke out afresh; sever laws were enacted and
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
hardships for conscience’s sake.  His
persecutors, finding that they could not break his spirit, offered to
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
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

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

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

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
assembling outside of the Tulsa County Courthouse at 6th Street and
Avenue.  Many of these demanded that the
sheriff turn over Dick Rowland to them, clearly indicating that they
to lynch the young man.  The sheriff was
determined to prevent a lynching and refused their demands.  Instead, he and several armed deputies
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.



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.

Select 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)

Select 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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