McEwen Surname Meaning, History & Origin

McEwen Surname Meaning

MacEwen and variations thereof are Scottish surnames derived from the Old Gaelic name MacEoghainn or “son of Eoghann” of uncertain meaning.  McEwen and McEwan are the main spellings today, on a roughly 45/55 basis.  McEwan predominates in Scotland; but the older McEwen is more numerous in the US and Canada

McEwen Surname Resources on The Internet

McEwen and McEwan Surname Ancestry

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

Scotland.  The MacEwen name was to be found at different locations around Scotland, mainly in the Highlands.

There were MacEwens in Galloway in SW Scotland from 1331 when Patrick McEwyn was the provost at Wigtown. According to tradition, they fought with others in a feud against the Black Douglas in the mid-1400’s.  

Ewen was recorded further north at Loch Fyne in Argyll in the early/mid 1300’s.  He was the first of the MacEwens of Otter.  They were a clan with a recognized chieftain, but they only lasted until the mid-1400’s.  At that time they lost their lands to the Campbells and were forced to disperse. 

The MacEwens around Loch Tay in Perthshire have preserved a tradition of descent from the MacDougall clan at Lorne in Argyll.  This was in particular true for the MacEwens of Muckley.

During the 16th century, a group of Camerons in Lochaber in the Highlands were also known as Clan Ewyne.  The leader of this clan was Donald Mac Ewen Vic Ewen Cameron of Erracht who was killed in 1570.  His followers took the MacEwen name.

And there was a MacEwen bardic family that practiced classical Gaelic poetry.  They served the MacDougalls of Lorne and later the Campbells of Argyll. The last of the line was apparently Neil MacEwen whose poem to the Campbells was composed in 1630. It is thought that this family originated in Ireland.

During the 19th century McEwan was displacing the McEwen spelling.  The ratio was 58/42 in 1841, but increased to 80/20 in the 1911 census as the McEwan numbers rose and the McEwens fell.

The older MacEwen was still evident in the Orkneys and, at a lesser density, in Inverness-shire. Sir William MacEwen the eminent brain surgeon was born on the Isle of Bute in Argyll in 1848. But, again, there were more MacEwans than MacEwens around in 1911.

The McEwen spelling did persist with some families. James McEwen who drowned at the age of forty-two in the Stinchar river in Ayrshire in 1732 was the first of the McEwens of Bardrochat.  His grandson Robert was a captain in the Ayrshire militia in the late 1700’s. Then came:

  • Robert Finnie McEwen who was a successful lawyer in Edinburgh in the late 1800’s.  He subsequently abandoned his law career to pursue musical interests. Among his philanthropic activities here, he organized free concerts for the poor people of London who might otherwise not have been able to attend such events.  
  • and his son Sir John or Jock McEwen who was a Scottish MP from 1931 to 1945 and was made a baronet.  Sir John’s third son was the folk singer and painter Rory McEwen.

The McEwan spelling was more numerous, particularly on the west coast of Scotland and in and around Edinburgh.

James McEwan, born in Stirling, founded the legendary firm of McEwan golf clubmakers in Edinburgh in 1770.  This business went through succeeding generations of McEwans until the club-making stopped in 1897.  But later McEwans were able to earn a living as golf professionals and so continue the family involvement in golf.

William McEwan from Alloa founded the Fountain Brewery in Edinburgh in 1856 through money borrowed from his family.  This made him rich.  And beer money enabled his daughter Maggie to mix with royalty and the aristocracy by the early 1900’s.

Ireland.  McEwens have been in Ulster, mainly as a result of McEwen arrivals from Scotland.  Indeed there was a good deal of back and forth between Ireland and Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries.  Their main presence was in Antrim and Down.

These counties also had similar-sounding names such as McKeown (originally MacEoin) and McCune which sometimes became McEwan:

  • for instance, McKeowns were to be found at Fedany in county Down from about 1750.   Subsequently the name fluctuated between McKeown and McEwan.  Henry McEwan moved with his family to Scotland and later in 1860 to America.  
  • John McKeown, born in Tyrone in 1815, crossed the Irish Sea in 1850 to Ayrshire where he was known as McEwan, as were his descendants.  His grandson Davie took up cycling in 1891 and won many cycling races in Ayrshire.  
  • while Donald McKeown migrated from Belfast to England in the early 1900’s and worked as a printers’ compositor in Berkshire.  His daughter who was born there in 1932 became the actress Geraldine McEwan, best known for her role as Miss Marple in the TV series Marple.

America.  The McEwens who came to America were mainly from Scotland.

Robert McEwen came from Dundee and was a Covenanter. At the age of 18 he was fighting against the king at Bothwell’s Bridge in 1679 and was captured.  Six years later he was sent as a prisoner in a ship to colonize the isthmus of Darien.  The commander of the ship died a few days after they set sail and the poor and half-starved passengers onboard the vessel during a gale managed to beach it at Amboy in New Jersey.

In 1686 Robert settled in Stratford, Connecticut where he was a tailor. George, one of his sons, moved to Milford in 1742 and died there in 1786.  A later George moved to Hinesburg in Vermont.  The line was covered in Ruth Coleman’s 1992 book Descendants of Robert McEwen.

James McEwen from Perth married Isabella Miller clandestinely in Edinburgh around 1740.  “It is a tradition in the family that Isabella belonged to the Stuart family and that she and James fled from Scotland because she had married beneath her rank and that there was a price on James’ head.”  

She and James escaped to the Isle of Man for seven years and then sailed for America, first to Pennsylvania and then, sometime in the 1760’s, to Rowan county in North Carolina. Their son David moved to Roper’s Knob in Williamson county, Tennessee in 1798.

Alexander McEwen meanwhile came from Scotland in 1777, settling in North Carolina.  His son Robert received a land grant in NE Georgia after having served in the Georgia militia.   Robert’s son Kirkham settled in Alabama in 1836 and Kirkham’s son George was a planter and miller there.

William Penn McEwen also enlisted in the Georgia militia, but later in 1836. He arrived in Florida around 1858 and was a circuit-riding Methodist minister there.

John and Jerusah McEwen from North Carolina headed west, first stopping in Iowa before moving to the Kittitas valley in Washington state in 1871.  They homesteaded there near Ellensburg.  Later McEwens of the family were top horsemen, both at their ranch and at local rodeos and horse racing tracks.

Canada.  Possibly the earliest McEwen arrival in Canada was Duncan McEwen, probably from Perthshire, who came to Prince Edward Island on the Falmouth in 1770.  He married twice and established families in both St. Peters and New London before his death in 1831.  Most McEwens of PEI are his descendants.

Charles and Jane McEwan, originally from Scotland, had settled in upstate New York before crossing the border into Ontario around 1815.  Their son John married Margaret, the granddaughter of the American traitor Benedict Arnold, and they moved to Windsor where John opened a lumber yard.  He later started the town’s first newspaper, the Windsor Herald.  He became sheriff of the county in 1856.

Peter McEwen, a crofter from Perthshire, departed in 1829 with four other families to seek a new life in Canada. They settled in Osgoode township near Ottawa in Ontario.  He and his family proved hardy pioneer farmers.  Six generations of the family have now lived at their Heather Crest farm.

New ZealandJohn and Neil McEwan, the sons of Archibald McEwing from Islay in the Inner Hebrides, emigrated to New Zealand in 1871.  Little is known of John’s line.  Neil settled in Tokanui near Invercargill on South Island where he farmed. He and his wife Janet raised thirteen children there.

MeEwen and McEwan Surname Miscellany

McEwens and McEwans Today

Numbers (000’s) McEwen McEwan Total
UK    2    9   11
America    3    1    4
Canada    6    3    9
Australis/NZ    2    4    6
Total 13   17 30

The MacEwen Clan of Otter.  The Rev. Alexander McFarlane, a minister of the parish of Kilfinan in Argyll, writing in 1794, said the following:

“On a rocky point on the coast of Loch Fyne about a mile below the church of Kilfinan is seen the vestige of a building called MacEwen’s Castle.  This MacEwen was a chief of a clan and a proprietor of Otter.”

The MacEwen lands were located on the southern shore of Loch Fyne with the Lamonts to the south and the MacLachlans to the north where the terrace sloped looked down onto Otter Spit and the stream divided the parishes of Kilfinnan and Strathlachlan.

The MacEwens were said to have descended from Aodh Anrothan (Hugh the Solitary) who came from Ireland to Argyll in the early 11th century and married an heiress of the lords of Cowal.  In the early 1300’s a descendant named Ewen established a base on Loch Fyne and the head of the clan that resulted became known as the MacEwens of Otter.

The MacEwens were not a clan for a long time. Swene MacEwen, the last Chief, apparently squandered his clan’s inheritance and ended up borrowing money from the Campbells of Lochow.  It was recorded in 1463 that the lands of Otter were granted to the Campbells.  The story goes that the MacEwens were deceived and massacred and that the Campbells then marched into Otter and took possession of the lands with minimal resistance.

The MacEwens that survived became outlaws and fled their homes.  Legend has it that some were able to get protection from their neighbors the MacLachlans.

McEwens and McEwans in Scottish Censuses

1841 1881 1911
McEwen   1,403   1,386   1,272
McEwan   1,863   4,175   5,600
MacEwen       96       56       66
MacEwan       51       68      171

The Rev. William Penn McEwen in Florida.  The Rev. William Penn McEwen came to Florida around 1758 and was the first Methodist preacher in that part of the state.

He used to ride his horse and swim the river. They had no bridges to cross the Peace river.  So he’d take his horse with a high horn on the saddle, and he’d take his clothes off and get naked, and tie his clothes up on the horn of his saddle and swim across with his horse, and then dry off with moss, and put on his clothes and then he’d go out in the woods and preach.

They had no churches and he preached under the trees.  It was said that he converted a lot of Indians.

He was so poor because the people were not able to pay him anything and he had a black frock coat.  He came home and his wife said: “Mr. McEwen, you’re going to have to stop preaching and get a job because we cannot raise these children on what you make.” He said: “Patch my coat!” “This coat has a big hole in it and I can’t patch it anymore.” “Patch my coat, woman!  Woe unto me if I don’t preach the Gospel.”

So she patched his coat and he preached the Gospel until he died in Arcadia in 1883.

McEwan Beer Money Mixing with Royalty and the Aristocracy.  William McEwan, a successful Edinburgh brewer, had stayed unmarried until the age of fifty-eight in 1885 when he married his erstwhile housekeeper Helen Anderson. But it transpired that he had fathered a child, Maggie, with her over twenty years earlier.

Back in 1863, Maggie’s birth certificate had stated that her parents were Helen Anderson and William Murray Anderson.  The latter was in fact an employee at McEwan’s Edinburgh brewery. To save Helen’s reputation and to provide the baby with legitimacy, it is believed that McEwan sent Helen and William Anderson to London to have the baby. As they had the same surname, no one would question whether they were actually man and wife when they registered Maggie’s birth.

At twenty-two, at the time of her parents’ real marriage, there must have been rumors about Maggie’s actual parentage, although she was generally referred to as William McEwan’s stepdaughter.  This might have impaired her own marriage prospects.   But beer money talked and in 1891 she married Captain Ronnie Greville, heir to a baronetcy and a member of the Marlborough house set, the social circle around the future King Edward VII.

Maggie and Ronnie lived in Mayfair and in 1906 they bought Polesden Lacey near Dorking in Surrey as their weekend retreat.  However, two years later Ronnie died and in 1913 so did her father William – leaving her, as his only heir, with what was then a huge inheritance of 1.5 million pounds.

This she lavished on entertaining as a Society hostess.  She hosted her first house party at Polesden in 1909, the guest of honour being none other than King Edward VII.  She continued to host the great and good of the day for the next thirty years – including such luminaries as Winston Churchill, Beverly Nichols and Queen Ena of Spain.  And she also remained close to the Royal Family.  Prince Albert, who became George VI, and his wife Elizabeth in fact spent part of their honeymoon at Polesden in 1923.

Rory McEwen, Folk Singer and Painter.  An Eton-educated aristocrat, Rory McEwen’s love of blues would take him and his brother Alex to the US in the late 1950’s where he met the widow of his hero Huddle “leadbeely” Ledbetter.  He also spent time with folk singer Pete Seeger, as well as appearing on consecutive nights on the Ed Sullivan Show.

When McEwen returned to the UK he went on to host ATV’s Hullabaloo music show and appeared on Tonight with Cliff Michelmore on the BBC, inspiring young hopefuls such as Van Morrison and Billy Connolly with his 12-string guitar playing. The 1960’s found McEwen mixing with a bewildering array of public figures from Princess Margaret to Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar and Jim Dine, before deciding to put aside his music to concentrate on painting.

Although he would also go on to create light-refracting Perspex sculptures and other art forms, it is his beautiful, hyper-realist paintings of plants upon which his reputation as an artist rests.

In 1958 Rory had married the debutante Romana von Hofmannsthal and they were to have four children.   In 1982 he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  In a state of despair, he threw himself under a train at the South Kensington tube station.   He was just fifty.

Reader Feedback – McEwan in Ghana?  I’m a Melanin colored McEwan and an upcoming inventor living in Ghana, West Africa and wanted to know the history behind the ancestry of my Scottish surname. I couldn’t get any information on the name of my Scottish ancestor (McEwan) that came to the then Gold Coast in the colonial era.

Tony McEwan (

McEwen and McEwan Names

  • Swene MacEwen who died in 1493 was the last chief of the MacEwen clan of Otter in Argyll. 
  • William McEwan founded the Fountain Brewery in Edinburgh in 1856.  His McEwan beer became a big seller in Britain and in the export market. 
  • Rob McEwen is a highly successful Canadian gold mining entrepreneur. 
  • Ian McEwan is an acclaimed British novelist who was the Man Booker prize winner in 1998 with Amsterdam.

McEwen and McEwan Numbers Today

  • 11,000 in the UK (most numerous in Glasgow)
  • 4,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 15,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

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Written by Colin Shelley

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