Murdoch Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Murdoch Surname Meaning

The name Murdoch comes from the old Gaelic words mur meaning “sea” and murchadh, “sea warrior,” and is thought by some to indicate Norse origins.  The “ch” sound is not present in English.  When Murdochs migrated to northern Ireland at the time of the Scottish plantations “Murdoch” would often become “Murdock.”

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Murdoch and Murdock Surname Ancestry

Scotland.  The largest presence of the Murdoch name in Scotland has been in Galloway in the southwest and, to a lesser extent, Moray in the northeast.

Galloway.  The Murdochs of Cumloden in Galloway received their land, it is said, as a grant from Robert the Bruce for services the family rendered.  The land stayed with the Murdochs until 1738 when it was sold to pay off debts. Their family history was recounted in T.M.Fallow’s 1904 book, A Short
History of the Family of Murdoch in Cumloden
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A Murdoch family from Dalbeattie in Galloway, starting with James and following with Samuel, were sea captains in the 19th century. As death was a constant risk at sea, it became a family rule that at least one of the men should take a trade ashore.  The last of these mariners was William Murdoch, First Officer of the Titanic, who perished with his ship in 1912.

Perthshire.  A branch of the Cumloden family in Galloway established itself at Gartincaber House in Perthshire in the mid-1600’s.  Murdochs were pistol makers at Doune in the mid/late 1700’s. Archibald Murdoch drowned in 1774.  His son William, believing that he lived in the exact center of Scotland, built a folly – a two-storey octagon tower – on the family land in 1799.

“William scandalized his neighbors by marrying his housekeeper Sarah Murdoch.  He died in 1805 at the young age of 48.  His daughter Anne married John Burn of Coldoch.”

Their line became the Burn Murdoch line and they held Gartincaber House until the 1960’s.  William Burn Murdoch was an intrepid travel writer and explorer in the early 1900’s.

Morayshire.  Murdoch roots are also in Morayshire on the northeast coastline. The Murdoch name was to be found in the 18th century at Elgin and in villages along the Spey river.  Alexander Murdoch was a farmer at Kean farm in Duffus at that time and Peter Murdoch a customs house officer at Fochsbers (his family later moved south to England).

Ireland.  There may have been some Irish Murdochs from Murtagh before the Scottish intrusions in the 17th century.  But most Murdochs (and Murdocks) in Ireland came from Galloway in Scotland and arrived at the time of the Protestant plantations in Ulster.

One family line in Forkhill, Armagh traces itself back to these times.  Other Murdocks were to be found in Belfast.  And one farming family near Dublin produced the novelist Iris Murdoch.  Today there are roughly as many Murdocks as Murdochs in Ireland.

America.  The early Murdochs in America came mostly from Ireland and therefore had lost an “h” and gained a “k” in their travels:

  • one Murdock family started with John Murdock in Pennsylvania in the 1740’s and later moved onto North Carolina.
  • William Murdock from Belfast, who fought in the Revolutionary War, died in Pennsylvania in 1791.
  • meanwhile Hamilton Murdock and his family from Ireland had arrived in Charleston, South Carolina in 1768.

There were some Scottish Murdochs.  James Murdoch was recorded as building a house near Kingston in upstate New York in 1771.  Thomas Murdoch was a prominent bookbinder in Philadelphia in the early 1800’s (his son became the well-known actor James Murdoch).  And William Murdoch, a cabinet maker, came to New Orleans with his family in 1846.

These Murdochs in America often became Murdocks, and combined with the Murdock Irish arrivals, the Murdock name became the predominant one in America.

Canada.  Both Murdocks and Murdochs settled in Canada, the Murdochs here somewhat outnumbering the Murdocks.  Among the Murdock arrivals were:

  • James, John and Ellen Murdock from county Mayo in Ireland to Ottawa in the mid 1830’s.
  • Michael Murdock and his family from Derry to Dundas county, Ontario in the late 1830’s.

The first Murdoch arrival in Canada was in fact a ship, the Murdoch, which brought 100 German immigrants to Nova Scotia in 1751.

Just over one hundred years later (in 1854), two Murdochs arrived in St. John, New Brunswick from Paisley in Scotland, William Murdoch, aged 31, and George Murdoch (with his parents), aged just four:

  • William was put in charge of a gas works but later made his mark in New Brunswick as a poet.
  • George set off west in his thirties and arrived in Calgary just as the railroad was arriving.  He became the first mayor of the new town of Calgary.

Australia.  The Murdoch family in Australia began with the Rev. James Murdoch, minister at Rosehearty near Aberdeen in Scotland.  Two of his sons, Walter and Patrick, migrated to Australia.  Walter arrived in Melbourne in 1884 and later settled in Perth where he became founding Professor of English and the Chancellor of the University of Western Australia.

“In 1970, the Prime Minister, on announcing the new university name in Western Australia as Murdoch University said: ‘He is a distinguished scholar and a man of letters.  His name gives dignity to our new university.’  A few weeks later, at the age of 96, Sir Walter Murdoch died.”

His elder brother Patrick was a Presbyterian minister in Melbourne.  His son was Keith Murdoch, who founded the Murdoch newspaper empire, and his son Rupert Murdoch, the international media mogul.

They were not the only Murdochs who came to Australia.  Others were:

  • Dr. James Murdoch from Craigow near Edinburgh, who arrived in Tasmania with his family in 1822 and was followed by three of his brothers.  He was one of its early medical practitioners.
  • Gilbert Murdoch from Scotland, who came to the Victorian goldfields in the 1850’s.  His son Billy Murdoch became a well-known Australian cricketer.
  • James and Sarah Murdoch, who came via Derry to Victoria, also in the 1850’s.
  • James Murdoch from Stirlingshire who came with his family on the Trevelyn to South Australia in 1875.
  • another James Murdoch, who arrived from Aberdeen in 1881 but didn’t stay long.  Nine years later, he moved to Japan as an advisor there and devoted the rest of his life to studying that country’s history.
  • and John Smith Murdoch, who arrived from Glasgow in 1884. He became chief architect for the Commonwealth of Australia in 1919.

Two Murdoch families from Glasgow came to Sydney in the 1830’s and 1840’s.  John and his wife arrived on the Portland in
1838.  John’s life ended prematurely when he drowned near Delegate, NSW in 1868, aged 48.   His brother George came with his wife Agnes ten years later, in 1848 on the Castle Eden.   They first settled in the Hunter Valley but later moved onto Cundle Plains.

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Murdoch Surname Miscellany

Norse Origins for Murdoch.  In the ninth century much of Scotland (as well as other parts of Europe) were under attack from Viking raiders.  Parts of Scotland became part of Norway at this time, notably the Highlands and Galloway in the southwest.  Many Norse settled there, intermarrying with the Gaels and in Galloway becoming the so-called “Gallgaels.”

Those among these societies who had Norse ancestry may well have been known as murchadh, “sea warriors,” particularly as the statistical evidence shows that the largest incidence of Murdochs has been in Galloway and Moray where there has been notable Norse settlement.

There is no positive proof of a Norse connection and so some think that the surname Murdoch may simply have arisen to describe someone whose trade was associated with the sea.

The Murdochs of Cumloden in Galloway.  These Murdochs are said to trace their descent from one Murdoch, who rendered yeoman service to Robert the Bruce in his hour of need. In the spring of 1307, the King of the Scots was hiding in the Galloway hill country with a few hundred followers while King Edward’s troops beset all the passes.

Bruce caused his men to separate into small companies so as to make subsistence easier.  But he appointed a day when they were all to muster at the hill now called Craigencallie on the eastern shore of Loch Dee. Here, in a solitary cabin, dwelt a widow, the mother of three sons, each by a different husband, and named Murdoch, Mackie and MacLurg.

The King arrived first and alone at the rendezvous.  Weary and
half-famished, he asked the widow for some food and she gave him some as it had been promised.

“From whom may that have been,” asked the King.

“None other than Robert the Bruce, “quoth the goodwife, “rightful lord of this land, wha e’er gainsays it.  He’s hard pressed just now, but he’ll come through, sure enough.”

This was good news to the King who made himself known at once and was taken into the house and sat down to the best meal he had eaten in days.  The three sons then returned and their mother straightway made them do obeisance to their liege lord.  They declared their readiness to enter his service at once.  The King, however, would put their prowess as marksmen to the test before engaging them. Two ravens sat together on a crag a bowshot off and the eldest son Murdoch let fly at them and transfixed both with one arrow. Mackie next shot a raven flying overhead and brought it to the ground and the King was satisfied, although poor MacLurg missed his mark altogether.

Many years later, when the widow’s words had been fulfilled by Bruce coming to his own and being acknowledged King of the Scots, he sent for the widow and asked her to name the reward she had earned by her timely hospitality.

“Just gie me,” she said, ” you wee bit hassock o’ land atween Palnure and Penklin (two streams flowing into Wigtown Bay).”

The King granted her request.   The “bit hassock,” being about five miles long and three broad, was divided between the three sons, from whom descended the Murdochs of Cumloden, the Mackies of Larg, and the MacLurgs of Kiruchtrie.

Murdochs in Scotland.  The table below shows the current distribution of the Murdoch name in Scotland, according to telephone entries.

Telephone Entries Per 10,000
Argyll   150    10
Southwest   120    19
Clyde coast   380    16
Clyde valley   140    10
Glasgow   350    10
Central   160     8
Edinburgh   170     7
Borders    20     5
Tayside    90     6
Fife    70     6
Northeast   130    12
Aberdeen    90     9
Highlands    70     6
  Average     9

The southwest coastline of Scotland, including Galloway, still has the highest concentration of Murdochs.

Reader Feedback – Robert Murdoch from Scotland to Massachusetts.  I’m looking for information on a Robert ‘Mordo’ Murdoch.  He was the son of Jackson Murdoch who was born in Strilingshire, Scotland in 1663.  Robert came through Plymouth and died in Newtown, Massachusetts. I did find a baptismal record in Ayr, Scotland.  Any info would help, just wondering if you ran across anything related to them.

Regards, Roland Bechtel (ghog2121@gmail.com)

George Murdoch in the Canadian West.  George Murdoch had learnt his trade as a saddle and harness maker in Chicago but had been forced to vacate that city after the Great Fire.  By 1883 he was in Winnipeg.  He purchased there an ox and wagon and set out for Fort Calgary, reaching the fort after ten days’ trundling through hostile Indian territory.

He wrote in his diary that night:

“The view of the Rockies is beautiful tonight. They seem about ten miles off, but are forty five.”

The next day he built a shack outside the Mounties’ stronghold and hung a business sign: “Harness Maker.”  His customers were the Mounted Police.  By living among the Blackfoot Indians, he taught himself their language.  They called him “Leather Man.”

George circulated the petition and raised the $100 that got the town of Calgary incorporated.  The election that followed had more fistfights than speeches.  When the dust settled, George was the first mayor and they carried him shoulder high around the town in a torchlight parade.

William Murdoch on the Titanic.  William Murdoch was the officer in charge on the bridge when an iceberg was spotted at 11:39pm on 14 April 1912.  Murdoch is generally believed to have responded by ordering “Hard a’starboard” and setting the telegraph used to communicate orders to the engine room to “Full Astern”.  To no avail, because 37 seconds after the iceberg was sighted, it was struck by RMS Titanic.

When the order was later given to abandon ship, Murdoch was in charge of the starboard evacuation and was last seen attempting to launch one of the collapsible lifeboats.  It is not certain what became of him, though by one account he was washed into the sea during the ship’s final moments afloat.  Some of the many film and TV depictions of the sinking of the Titanic have shown Murdoch committing suicide as the ship sank, although there is no evidence that he did so.

There is a memorial in his honor in his home of Dalbeattie in Galloway.

A William Murdock from Belfast was also on the Titanic and he by some fortune did survive.  He claimed that he survived the sinking by jumping into the water and then being “picked up” by a collapsible boat that he had helped lower.  But this was not thought possible and there must have been some other chain of events which ended with him in a surviving lifeboat.

Reader Feedback – Murdochs from Scotland to South Australia.  My great grandfather Scotsman James Murdoch migrated to South Australia on the ship Trevelyan in 1875 with his wife Emily and three daughters Emily 8, Lucy 3, and Alice a babe in arms.  Seven other children were born there in South Australia.

James next appeared in the 1880’s in Maitland on the Yorke Peninsula with a business as a blacksmith and wheelwright.  He then sold everything and took up farming, which he did for the rest of his life.

James’s father Colin was likely born at Gartincaber in Perthshire.. I’ve traced James’s ancestors back to a Patrick Campbell of Dunderave and Inverchaggernay.  Patrick’s daughter Beatrix married a Murdoch.

Kind regards, Anne Tichborne (annemtich@gmail.com)

A Broadside from Keith Murdoch.  Sir Keith Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s father, was a prominent Australian journalist who started the Murdoch newspaper empire.  He had been in London at the onset of World War One and became irate at British treatment of him and his compatriots. This broadside found its way to the desk of the Australian Prime Minister of his day:

“The conceit and self-complacency of the red feathered men are equalled only by their incapacity. Along the line of communications, especially at Moudros, are countless high officers and conceited young cubs who are plainly only playing at war.

What can you expect of men who have never worked seriously, who have lived for their appearance and for social distinction and self satisfaction, and who are now called on to conduct a gigantic war?

Kitchener now has a terrible task in getting pure work out of these men whose motives can never be pure for they are unchangeably selfish.  Appointments to the general staff are made from motives of friendship and social influence.  Australians now loathe and detest any Englishman wearing red.”

PC Murdoch.  To many Scots PC (Police Constable) Murdoch, the fictional character in the comic strip Our Wullie, is “as weel kent as ony Murdoch!”  Our Wullie first saw light of day as a cartoon in The Sunday Post in 1936.  PC Murdoch has been keeping an eye on the wee rascal all these years.

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Murdoch Names
  • William Murdoch was a Scottish engineer and the inventor of gas lighting in the 1790’s.
  • James Murdoch, born in Philadelphia, was one of the foremost actors in America in the 19th century.
  • Sir Walter Murdoch was a prominent Australian academic and writer after whom Murdoch University in Western Australia is named.
  • Dame Iris Murdoch, from a Irish farming family, was one of the foremost English novelists of the 20th century.
  • Rupert Murdoch is a media tycoon and the head of the global media corporation, the News Corp.

Murdoch Numbers Today
  • 12,000 in the UK (most numerous in Glasgow)
  • 7,000 in America (most numerous in Pennsylvania).
  • 11,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada).
Murdoch 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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