Munro/Monroe Surname Meaning, History & Origin

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Tradition has it that the Munros were Irish mercenaries who came to Scotland in the 11th century and fought against the Vikings under Donald Munro, son of the Irish chieftain O’Caenn.  As a reward they were granted lands in Ross-shire in the Scottish Highlands.

Some say the Munro name was derived from the Gaelic Mac an Rothaich, meaning “man from Roe,” where Roe is the Roe river in Ulster.   That would support the supposed Irish origin of the Munros.  An alternative version has Munro coming from the Gaelic maolruadh, meaning “bald and red.”

Munro spelling variants are Munroe, Monro, and Monroe – with an “o” supplanting the original “u” and an “e” added at the end.  Monroe describes the fifth President of the United States and a famous American actress.

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Scotland. The Munro lands around Foulis extended along the north side of Cromarty Firth in Ross-shire and later into Sutherland.  Robert de Munro was the first chief of the clan to be recorded in 1350 by contemporary evidence.  Disputes with other clans featured in the succeeding centuries, although most of these were minor skirmishes.

The Munros took a different path than other Highland clans in that they were early adopters of the Protestant faith.  John Munro of Foulis, a devout Presbyterian, welcomed the Glorious Revolution of 1689 and the Munro clan stood by the British Government in the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745.  Although the Munros did not suffer as did other clans in the aftermath of Culloden, this event did in fact mark the end of their traditional clan way of life.

The Munro tradition in warfare probably began with those Munros – including Robert Munro, the black Baron – who fought for Protestant causes abroad in the early 17th century. Some returned home to serve in the Covenant armies or to join the Royalist cause.  Munros later distinguished themselves as generals in the British army in India during the 18th century.

The main cadet branches of the Munros have been those of Milntown, Newmore, Teanininch, Balconie, Novar, Obsdale, and  Auchinbowie.  The clan history was first described in Alexander Mackenzie’s 1888 book History of the Munros of Foulis.

America.  The Munro spelling did not transfer to America, but Munroe and Monroe did – principally because the Royalist Munros sent to America during the English Civil War spelt their names that way.

New England.  William Munroe had been taken at the Battle of Worcester in 1651 and transported to Massachusetts as an indentured servant.  He married three times and was the progenitor of a large New England Munroe family.

Munroe Tavern in Lexington, built in 1695, had a part to play in the Revolutionary War and George Washington supped there in 1789.  James Phinney Munroe, a descendant, outlined the family lineage in his 1890 book A Sketch of the Munro Clan.  An updated version was published by Richard S. Munroe in 1966.

Virginia.  Andrew Monroe meanwhile was sent to Maryland after his capture at the Battle of Preston in 1648.  These Monroes became Virginia planters in Westmoreland county.  Andrew’s great grandson James Monroe fought in the Revolutionary War and became the fifth President of the United States in 1816.

Canada.  John Munro had come out to America from Munro country as a soldier in the 1750’s and stayed.  He was one of the Loyalists who crossed the border into Upper Canada in 1784.  His son Henry joined the North West Company as a surgeon in 1796.  

Other Loyalists crossing the border were Daniel Munro to Nova Scotia, Samuel Munro to Prince Edward Island, Hugh Munro to Bathurst, New Brunswick, and another Hugh Munro to Glengarry county, Ontario.  Philip Munro, who was involved in the siege of Quebec in 1757, stayed and married there.  His children were Monroes.

From Morayshire in Scotland came James and Helen Munro in 1816 to take up a land grant in Nova Scotia.  Their son Philip Munro uprooted his family in 1881 for the long trek west to homestead in Manitoba.  James Munro came to Theorold, Ontario from Scotland in 1844 and prospered with a cotton factory.  His house, Munro House, still stands.

South Africa.  Alexander Munro departed Aberdeen with his wife on the Barossa in 1823 under assumed names.  He was granted a seal hunting permit at Mossel Bay and there he built a house and tavern. Apparently he gambled most of his money away.  However, the tavern and Munros remain in the area.

Australia.  Early Munros in Australia were convicts.  Some made good, such as James Munro from London and Alexander Munro from Inverness:

  • James, transported in 1800 to Sydney, became a skilled seaman who later settled on Preservation Island in the Bass Straits. Mount Munro was named after him.
  • Alexander, transported in 1830, made his mark with his vineyard in the Hunter Valley. 

Lydia Munro was a First  Fleeter who arrived on the Prince of Wales in 1788.

Some later Munro free settlers in Australia from the Scottish Highlands were:

  • Donald Munro who came to Sydney with his family from the Black Isle in Scotland to Sydney on the John Gray in 1848. He started cattle ranching in the Hunter valley ten years later.  It was his son Alec who started the breeding of shorthorn cattle under the Weebollabolla name.  
  • Hugh Munro who came with his brother Joseph to Victoria from Golspie in Sutherland in 1851.  Later Munros in Hugh’s family were jockeys, including Darby Munro, one of Australia’s greatest jockeys.  
  • Donald and Catherine Munro who arrived in Melbourne under the Bounty Scheme from Skye in 1854.  After Donald’s early death in 1865, Catherine moved the family to new farming lands in NSW.  
  • and two Munro brothers, Archibald and Donald, who left their home at Barnaline in Argyle for Queensland in 1871.  They set up a timber mill on the banks of Gehan Creek and later were early users of locomotives there.

James Munro, a descendant of the Munros of Foulis, left Sutherland for Melbourne with his family in 1858.  He made money from the building society he started there and became Premier of Victoria in 1890. However, his business practices were dubious and he is remembered as one of the corrupt politicians of the land boom era. 

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Munro/Monroe Miscellany

Munro and Variants.  The Munro spelling predominates today, except in America where the main spelling is Monroe.

Numbers (000’s) Munro Munroe Monro Monroe Total
UK   20     1     1     1    23
Canada    16     1     1    18
America     2     2    15    19
Elsewhere    12     1     1    14
Total    50     5     2    17    74

Munro Country.  The country of the Munros lies on the north side of the Cromarty Firth.  Known as Ferindonald from the traditional founder of the chief’s family (Donald’s land or Fearainn Domhnuill in Gaelic) these lands comprised the area of the two adjoining parishes of Kiltearn and Alness.  The clan occupied the fertile coastal strip alongside the firth, with access mainly by sea, and spread up the river valleys into the uplands around Ben Wyvis.  In time the Munros held lands as well east of
the river Alness and also in the Black Isle on the other side of the
Cromarty Firth.

According to a late tradition, the forest of Wyvis was held on a ‘whimsical tenure’ of delivering a snowball on any day of the year, if asked: but the earliest recorded duty was the more usual nominal one of a pair of white gloves or a silver penny.

Foulis was at the heart of Munro country.  By the 1550’s the chief’s lands had been incorporated into the barony of Foulis, giving him a hereditary jurisdiction with power of ‘pit and gallows’ (drowning for women, hanging for men) for the more serious offences.

The Munros and the Mackintoshes at Clachnarry.  In 1454, after the Munros had made a raid into Perthshire, they were returning home through Mackintosh country and were obligated to pay “road collop” or passage money as was the custom.  A dispute arose over the amount. The Munros sent their spoils ahead, but were hotly pursued by the Mackintoshes who overtook them at Clachnarry.

John Munro of Foulis, leader of the band, was – according to one account – left for dead on the field. He was said to have been found by an old woman after the battle who nursed him back to health. He was subsequently returned to his own people.  However, he had had his hand so severed or mutilated in the affray that he was known from that time on as John Bachlach. 

The Scottish Munros.  Sir Hugh Munro, the son of a Scottish landowning family, lived from 1856 to 1919.  He led an active life.  But what he is most remembered for is the “Munros,” his list of mountains in Scotland over 3,000 feet which was published in 1891.

This was the result of exhaustive work with the large scale Ordnance Survey maps then available, supplemented by Munro’s own extensive experience in the mountains.  Munro’s Tables listed 538 tops, of which 283 were considered by him to be separate mountains and soon became known as “Munros.”

Munro’s failure to set out clear objective criteria for deciding when a top could be counted as a separate mountain has been a cause for debate. Indeed he was working on a revised set of tables at the time of his death that would have changed these numbers.  Since his death the lists have been revised on a number of occasions, most recently in 1997.  There are now 284 Munros and a further 227 tops over 3,000 feet.

Modern “Munro Baggers” tend to go for the Munros without worrying too much about the tops.  Munro’s untimely death in France meant that he fell fractionally short of climbing all of his own list of peaks and tops (he managed 535 out of 538).  But he came rather closer than most will ever manage.

James Phinney Munroe’s Mistake.  In 1889 the Lexington Historical Society commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Presidential visit to Munroe Tavern. They invited James Phinney Munroe, the great grandson of Colonel Munroe, to speak on the public dinner from a family perspective. As the young graduate from MIT couldn’t find any family letters about the visit, he made up a letter that he said was written at sixteen by his great-aunt Sarah.

To his great surprise the letter sparked an interest and in the following years he had to send corrections to newspapers that quoted the letter as a solid fact. Finally, in his book sketching the Munroe family history, he included the forged letter as part of a
public penance.

Philip Munro’s Westward Trek to Manitoba.  In 1881, at the age of 54, Philip took his wife and six children for the long trek westward from Nova Scotia to homestead in Manitoba.  They arrived by barge at Brandon and then travelled upriver to settle some twelve miles north of Minnedosa.  They chose a site which reminded them of their Nova Scotia home.  They had to start from scratch in Manitoba, building a log home and providing food for the family.  It was said that they nearly froze and starved to death the first years in their drafty old cabin.

In 1886 a terrible prairie fire from across the river swept up the valley and north east over the hills destroying many of the settlers’ homes.  Philip’s home was saved by his son Charles plowing a headline with the oxen led by grandson David Munro, then a boy of only ten.  He later said: “I was never so frightened in all his life.”  Twenty years later the Munros themselves lost their barn and stock in a valley fire.

In these pioneer communities, the wife generally stayed at the farm with the children to take care of the cattle.  The husbands and older sons would go out to help during harvest and then work in the bush camps until spring.

In 1884, the All Saints Anglican Church was built three miles north of the village of Clanwilliam.  Henry and Agnes Munro were married there in 1903.  And Philip Munro, patriarch of the family, was buried in the cemetery in 1911.

Alexander Munro of Singleton, NSW.  Alexander’s beginnings in Inverness in Scotland were unpromising.  By the time he was fourteen his father had died and he was caught thieving.  Despite his youth he was sentenced to transportation to Australia.

He made good in Australia.  Meerea Park in the Hunter valley can trace its winemaking roots to the 1850’s when Alexander Munro started his Bebeah vineyard at Singleton.  He was at one time the largest and most successful winemaker in New South Wales. He built Singleton’s first hotel and was its first mayor.

He in fact spent much of his life trying to atone for his early mistake. This paragraph from Munro’s Luck perhaps summarized his life and achievements.

“Alexander Munro died in his home, Ardersier House at Singleton, on 26 January 1889.  He was described as a vigneron, ‘a prominent philanthropist and one of nature’s gentlemen’ and ‘the father of Singleton,’ in the lengthy obituaries published in the Maitland Mercury and Singleton Argus.

The funeral cortege, which stretched for half a mile, was led by Masons and Oddfellows in their regalia and wound through the streets of Singleton before his burial in the Glenridding cemetery which he had donated to the town.  A tall but simple granite column, which Alexander Munro himself had purchased and imported from Scotland, was erected in his memory, to his wife Sophia, who died later in the same year and to the family of his adopted daughter Harriet.

The inscription on the memorial stated: ‘After life’s fitful fever, they sleep well.’  Was the reference to ‘life’s fitful fever’ an allusion to their conviction and transportation?”


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Munro/Monroe Names

  • Donald Munro of Foulis, who died in 1039, was considered in tradition the first chief of the Munro clan.
  • James Monroe was the fifth President of the United States.  He is best-known for having formulated the Monroe doctrine in 1823.
  • H.H. Munro was an English short-story writer who went under the pen-name of Saki.
  • Sir Hugh Munro was a mountaineer best known for his “Munros” Scottish mountain classification.
  • Matt Monro was an English ballad singer of the 1960’s.
  • Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jean Mortensen, was the famous American actress of the 1950’s and early 1960’s.
  • Alice Munro is an acclaimed Canadian short story writer.

Select Munro/Monroe Numbers Today

  • 23,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Perthshire)
  • 22,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 32,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Select Munro and Like Surnames 

These surnames originated from the northern part of Scotland, either the northeast of the country, the Scottish Highlands, or in one case (the surname Linklater) the Orkney isles north of Scotland.

BlackDavidsonLinklaterMunro
CraigGuthrieMcKeanMurray
CruickshankInnesMcPhersonOgilvie

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