Menzies Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Menzies Surname Meaning

This Scottish surname had its origin in the place-name Mesnieres near Rouen in Normandy and a Norman knight of that name who arrived in England at the time of William the Conqueror.

One branch of the family remained in England and their name was anglicized as Manners. Another branch moved north to Scotland where they were well received by the Scottish king.  The name here was first de Meyners but became Menzies over time.

The spelling of Menzies as Menzies reflected Gaelic influences and how it came to be written down and later printed.  But the pronunciation of Menzies in Scotland, although not necessarily elsewhere, was more like “Ming” or “Mingis.” Thus the Scottish Liberal Democrat politician Menzies Campbell was called “Ming” Campbell; while the Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies went by “Menzies” (although he himself preferred the Scottish ”Mingis.”).

The alternative Means and Minnis spellings, that can be found in Ireland and America, followed more the Scottish sound of the name.

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Menzies, Means and Minnis Surname Ancestry

ScotlandThe early Menzies in Scotland were of Norman origin, bearing the name of de Meyners.

Based initially in Midlothian, this family rose in prominence in court circles and Robert de Meyners was given the position of Chamberlain of Scotland under Alexander II in 1249.  The King turned out to be exceedingly generous to Robert and his family, granting them extensive lands in Perthshire, notably at Culdair in Glenlyon and at Weem near Aberfeldy.

Perthshire became the base for the Menzies clan:

  • the Menzies of Weem held the Palace of Weem, later Castle Menzies, from the 16th century onwards.  This senior line ended in 1910.
  • while the Menzies of Culdair – descended from Colonel James Menzies, a prominent Covenanting officer in the 1660‘s – were later Jacobite supporters and held Meggernie castle in Glenlyon at one time.  This line still continues.

Archibald Menzies from Weem became well-known in England as a naturalist and botanist following his voyages to the Pacific in the 1790’s. He was the first European to reach the summit of the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa and he introduced the monkey puzzle tree to England.

Other notable Scottish Menzies have been:

  • John Menzies who as a young man of twenty-five started up a newspaper shop in Edinburgh in 1833.  This has expanded into John Menzies PLC, a national chain.
  • and Graham Menzies from Angus who was a whisky distiller in Edinburgh in the mid/late 1800’s and became hugely wealthy.  This fortune was later much dissipated by his son John.  John’s son Stewart was Chief of MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, from 1939 to 1952.

Ireland.  Some Menzies departed Scotland for Ireland at the time of the Ulster plantations of the 17th century.  But the spelling generally changed in the crossing.

It was Means in Tyrone and Fermanagh.  There were early Means in the Clogher area of Tyrone and two Means families were recorded in Fermanagh by the 1650’s. Joseph Means arrived in Fermanagh from Weem as a young man in the 1670’s.
His son John emigrated to New England in 1718, later settling in Pennsylvania. His line was covered in Elizabeth Foglesong’s 1972 book Means in America.

The spelling was more Minnis in county Down.  William Minnis was recorded in the linen business in Lisdoonan in the 1780’s. John Minnis had by then departed for America where he was a soldier in the Revolutionary War and later settled in Tennessee.
His line was covered in Elizabeth Austin’s 1913 book Minnis Family of Ireland and America.

America.  There are Menzies, Means, and Minnis names in America.  The Menzies numbers have been relatively small – only four in the 1840 census and less than 2,000 in family numbers today.  There have been a few reasons for this, other than the fact that not that many Menzies did come to America:

  • some came, but then went back.  That was the case with James Menzies of Culdair who was captured and exiled to Maryland after the failure of the 1715 Jacobite rising.  He was later allowed to return.  
  • some had their name changed on arrival in America, or shortly thereafter.  Thus it was James Menzies who arrived in Virginia in 1753, but he was known as James Minnis from 1763 onwards.  And the descendants of Andrew Menzies in North Carolina around that time went by the name of Mings.
  • and then there were Menzies Loyalists at the time of the Revolutionary War who departed for Canada.  Three Menzies families from New York left at this time and resettled in New Brunswick.  

The family of the Rev. Adam Menzies did stay in America and did keep their name (although the locals pronounced it Minnis).  He had been a Jacobite supporter in 1745 who had fled to Virginia after their defeat.  His son Samuel fought in the Revolutionary War and distinguished himself at the Battle of Yorktown. Samuel moved with his family to Kentucky in 1805.  His son Samuel Jr was an army surgeon at the time of the Civil War and his grandson G.V. Menzies a prominent Indiana lawyer.

Canada.  Robert and Catherine Menzies emigrated from Perthshire in 1832 at the time of the Highland Clearances when small farmers were being driven off their land.  They settled to farm near Milton, Ontario.  Their second son David moved away and started his own farm at Clinton in Huron county. He and his wife Jane had two remarkable offspring:

  • their son James Menzies, born in Clinton in 1885, who worked in China over the period 1910-1936 as a Christian missionary.  He also had expertise on ancient Chinese oracle
    bone scripts and was the foremost non-Chinese scholar on the Bronze Age culture in China.  
  • and their grandson Arthur Menzies, born in China in 1916, who became a famous Canadian diplomat, serving as ambassador in a number of Asian countries.  He returned to China as ambassador in 1976.

Australia.  Two Menzies arrived in Australia in the mid-1800’s, one from a notable Perthshire family and the other being a seaman who had probably jumped ship in Melbourne. Surprisingly it was the latter’s line which was to have the bigger impact in Australia. 

In 1839 a young Scottish couple – Dr. Robert Menzies and his bride Margaret – arrived in Sydney with the intention of settling on a farm and making a future for themselves and their family there. They established their farm at Jamberoo, some seventy miles south of Sydney.

Sadly their time there was not to last long.  Robert Menzies’ untimely death occurred at the age of forty-nine in 1860.  His wife Margaret passed away a year later. They left four daughters, but no sons to carry on the farm and the family name.

Robert Menzies, a seaman, had rushed to Ballarat in the 1850’s in search of gold and a fortune.  Born and bred in the Glasgow region, he had little incentive to return to Scotland.  His parents had both died, leaving him no property.  His father James was in his time a bleacher, chargekeeper and gardener.

There was no gold for him in Ballarat. But his son James was determined that he and his family should do well.  “James and Kate Menzies had little money, but they had all that respect for education and learning so typical of Scots of humble origin of their times.  They were determined that their children should achieve the best education of which each was capable.  What school taught him was supplemented by the habit the parents had of reading to their family.”


Their son Robert Menzies, born in Ballarat, rose to become the longest-serving Prime Minister in Australian history
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Menzies Surname Miscellany

The Pronunciation of Menzies.  Why has Menzies been pronounced as Ming or Mingis?  The Scots language used the non-Latin “yogh” character which had a soft guttural sound.  It was shaped like a cursive ‘g’ or ‘z’ and used as a hyphen between two syllables. However, when printing presses increased during the 1600’s, a ‘z’ was often used to represent the yogh.  From this came the divergence between how Menzies was written and how Menzies was pronounced.

A Scottish limerick played on this difference.

  • “There wis a young lassie named Menzies,
  • That askit her aunt whit this thenzies.
  • Said her aunt wi a gasp,
  • ‘Ma dear, it’s a wasp,
  • An you’re haudin the end whaur the stenzies’!”

We might say this limerick today as follows:

  • “There was a young lassie named Ming,
  • That asked her aunt what is this thing.
  • Said her aunt with a gasp,
  • ‘My dear, it’s a wasp,
  • And you’re handling the end where’s the sting!’”

The pronunciation of Menzies varies across Scotland.  In the north many still use the “-enz” version; elsewhere, it is “-ing.”  And those who do not know the history will also tend to use the “enz” version. So the Scottish newsagent chain is referred to as both John Menzies and John Mingis.” 

Early Menzies.  The Book of Menzies, written by D.F. Menzies in 1894, claimed a fabulous line of descent from Mannus, the second son of King Fergus in 333 BC.  Some believed him at the time.  But it is a total fable with no basis in fact.

George Fraser Black in his 1946 book The Surnames of Scotland began by stating that the Menzies name is of Norman origin, being originally de Meyners.  He continued as follows:

“Robert de Meyners, who was created Great Chamberlain of Scotland, is generally considered first of the name in Scotland.  He witnessed charters by Alexander II in 1224 and 1246.  David de Meynness, knight, was one of the Queen of Scotland’s retinue in 1248.

Thomas de Meineris was one of the signers of the Barons’ letter to the Pope in 1320. Alexander de Meyneris or Meinzeis had a charter of the lands of Durisdeer from Robert I and Robert Maynhers had a charter of half the barony of Culter from Robert II in 1385.  John of Menzhers was notary in Perth in 1421.”

Black gave later spellings of the name as Megnies in 1447, Mengues in 1487, Menyeis in 1500, Mengzes in 1572, and Meinzeis in 1658.

The Ghostly Kady at Menzies’ Meggernie Castle.  The story goes that one of the chiefs of clan Menzies got married to a woman of breath-taking beauty, and that for this same reason he became pathologically jealous, incessantly accusing her of infidelity. One day, controlled by his irrational jealousy, he murdered her.

To cover his tracks, he first cut the body in half at the waist, and hid the corpse in a locked chest inside one of the castle towers. Right after which he told everybody that he and his wife were going on a trip. He later said that his wife had drowned while boating in Italy and the body was never found.

However, he was still concerned about the possibility of somebody finding the body.  He thought about a more permanent way to get rid of the evidence. He would bury the body in the graveyard.

He moved the putrid lower limbs to a hole he had dug in the graveyard.  Then he tried to repeat the procedure, this time with the upper part of the body, but he couldn’t bear the repulsion as the body was in an advanced state of decomposition. Instead he hid the remains under the floorboards.  That was the last act committed by Menzies before he himself was brutally murdered.

Since then guests staying at the castle have reported the apparition of the upper part of a woman’s body. One visitor stated that one night, while he was sleeping, the feeling of something extremely hot burning his cheek woke him up.  Being fully awake, he saw the upper half of a woman’s body disappearing through the locked door. The lower part of the body has been seen in the corridors and outside the castle, in an alley of lime trees, and even in the old castle graveyard.

Menzies, Means and Minnis in America Today

US Family Numbers Mostly Found Mostly Originating
Menzies    1,600 California Scotland
Means    6,000 Texas various places (incl. Ireland)
Minnis    1,400 California Ireland (Scots Irish)

The Menzies Family at Minamurra House, Jamberoo.  In January 1839 a young Scottish couple – Dr. Robert Menzies and his recent bride Margaret – arrived in Sydney aboard the Earl Durham.  Like so many other free immigrants of the time, they had journeyed to New South Wales with the intention of settling on a farm and making a future for themselves and their family there.

After a brief stay in Sydney the Menzies moved onto Liverpool and began their search for land.  They eventually decided on 600
acres at Jamberoo, near Kiama, on the coast approximately seventy miles south of Sydney. The Menzies went on to name their property Minamurra after the Aboriginal term for the stream which flowed through it. The house they built there in the early 1840’s still stands and is one of the oldest in Illawarra.

They had high hopes of perhaps even acquiring a small fortune within a decade or so, selling up at a profit, and retiring to their beloved family and friends back home in Scotland. However, such was not to be the fate of the Menzies.’  Their residence of a mere two decades in the colony was to end in tragedy, despite an initial period of adventure and promise of a prosperous future.

Dr. Robert Menzies had been a hard-working medic of somewhat precarious health. His untimely death at the age of forty-nine in 1860 was perhaps foreseen. But Margaret’s death the following year could possibly be attributed to heartbreak and to the shock of having seen both her beloved husband and mother pass away at Minamurra in 1859, the latter shortly after arriving in the colony.

Their story has been told in a small 1962 booklet entitled The Story of Dr and Mrs Robert Menzies 1839‐1861 by Arthur Cousins, a local historian. 

The James Menzies They Called Old Bones.  In his first few years as a Christian missionary in China, Menzies became fluent in the language and used his engineering skills to build homes and dig wells. By 1914 he was based about 500 kilometres
south of Beijing in Zhangde, a city in Henan that is now known as Anyang.

One spring morning he went for a ride on his old white horse along the Huan river where cotton farmers were plowing their fields and turning up ancient pottery shards.  Already fascinated by archaeology, he was studying the shards as several half-naked children collected willow-tea leaves nearby.  One boy asked Menzies if he wanted to see “some dragon bones with characters on them.”  The missionary said he did and he was led to a hidden gulley where one slope was white with powdered bone particles.

He had stumbled upon Yin, the ancient capital of the Shang dynasty.  When archaeologists excavated the site, never before been visited by scholars, they discovered the remains of a vast Bronze Age city built by an astonishing civilization. Yin stretched across 24 square kilometres and had a population of 100,000, one of the world’s biggest at that time. Finding it made the Shang China’s first documented dynasty.

As for the “dragon bones” when Menzies first visited Yin, few people realized their true importance, even though they had been ground up and used in traditional medicine for centuries.  Menzies understood the crucial importance of these fragments, commonly called “oracle bones,” because the Shang people believed that they could tell the future.  Over the next twenty-two years Menzies became an obsessive collector of oracle bones and other ancient artefacts.

Fellow missionaries would call him “Old Bones.”

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Menzies Names
  • Robert de Meyners was appointed Chamberlain of Scotland by Alexander II in 1249. 
  • John Menzies started up the newspaper chain of John Menzies in Edinburgh in 1833. 
  • James Menzies from Canada was a Christian missionary to China in the early 1900’s.  He was also the foremost non-Chinese scholar on the Bronze Age culture in China. 
  • Sir Robert Menzies has been Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, from 1939 to 1941 and from 1949 to 1966.
Menzies Numbers Today
  • 5,000 in the UK (most numerous in Perthshire)
  • 2,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 7,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)
Menzies 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.

AbercrombieCrawfordGordonMenzies
AlexanderCunninghamGrahamMurdoch
BaxterDouglasHamiltonPollock
BoydDowHepburnSloan
BurnsEwingLennoxStewart
CochraneFergusonLivingstonWitherspoon

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