Murray Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Murray Surname Meaning

Murray has both Scottish and Irish origins.

Scottish Origins.   The Murray clan in Scotland descends from a Flemish nobleman Freskin who had crossed the North Sea in the 12th century and been granted lands along the Moray Firth coastline.  His family took the name Moray which became over time Murray.  The name may have come from the Pictish word moritreb, meaning “seaward settlement,” which described the ancient province of Mormaer in Moray.

Irish Origins.   The Irish Murray dates from an earlier time.  The Siol Muiredhaigh (pronounced Sheel Murray) was the territorial and dynastic name for clans descended from Muireadhach Muilleathan (Murray the long-headed) who died around the year 700.  The name Muiredhaigh, meaning “lord” or master,” was a fairly common personal name in The Annals of the Four Masters.

Murray Surname Resources on The Internet

Murray Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Perthshire and Borders) and from Ireland (Roscommon)
  • to England, America (incl. African Americans), Canada, Caribs (Jamaica), South Africa and Australia

Scotland.  The early Murrays became the lords of Bothwell in Clydesdale and Andrew Murray led the Scots in their uprising against the English in 1297.  However, the last of this line died of the plague in 1360 and the Murrays then splintered into various groupings.

The main branch, based in Perth, were the Murrays of Tullibardine.  They assumed clan leadership in the 16th century, taking the title of the Dukes of Atholl.  Also from Scone in Perthshire were the Murrays of Stormont who later became Earls of Mansfield.

Then on the Scottish Borders were:

  • the Murrays of Cockpool in Dumfries
  • the Murrays of Broughton in Wigton
  • the Murrays of Philiphaugh in Selkirk
  • and the Murrays of Stanhope and Cordon in Peeblesshire.

There also remained some Murray pockets in the Highlands, at Abercross on the banks of the river Briona in Sutherland.

The Jacobite rising of 1745 found the Murrays divided, with the clan chief supporting the British Government and his son, Lord George Murray, the Jacobites.  After the defeat at Culloden, many Murrays fled Scotland, with a number departing for America.  The American writer William Faulkner was said to have told a friend: “My great grandfather Murray had his grandfather’s claymore which he had carried at the battle of Culloden.”

As the 19th century proceeded, the Murray demographics within Scotland changed, with a greater concentration around Edinburgh and Glasgow.  Murrays left as well for Canada, Australia, and New Zealand at this time.

Ireland.  The O’Muiredhaighs or Siol Murrays who took their name from the ancient Siol Muiredhaigh were to be found in northern Roscommon, as place names there such as Ballymurray, Cloonmurray, and Kilmurray testify.  Bishop Donogh O’Murry served as Archbishop of Tuam from 1548 to 1574.

The clan seat of these Murrays was at Moate Park in Ballymurray.  But it was confiscated by the English in the late 17th century.   The Irish Murray surname has also appeared in Monaghan and county Down.

Scots Irish.  As the Irish Murrays were losing their lands, the Scots Murrays were stepping in.

The Murrays of Broughton obtained a plantation grant in SW Donegal in 1610 and held onto these lands against competing claims.  They remained mainly absentee landlords.  Later, another Murray gained some notoriety in the area.  In 1860 a Scottish land steward at the Adair estate, James Murray, was brutally murdered by tenants who were upset at being evicted from their lands.

The Murray name was becoming established in Ulster through the Scots Protestant immigrants. County Wicklow was also a Murray outpost, but of Scots Catholics who had fled Scotland after the defeat at Culloden.

Some Scots-Irish Murrays had left for America in the 18th century.  But the emigration really gathered pace as the 19th century proceeded.  The following were some of the Murrays who left:

  • William Murray and his brother Richard from Wicklow to Baltimore (America) in 1795
  • John Murray and his family from county Offaly to Prince Edward Island, Canada in 1818
  • John and Jane Murray from county Monaghan to Ontario, Canada in 1832
  • Charles and Susan Murray from county Fermanagh to NSW, Australia in 1839 Michael Murray from Waterford to NSW, Australia in 1860.

England.  The 18th and 19th century saw an overflow of Scots Murrays into northern England.  Many went to work in the Durham mines, first in the Derwent lead mines near Hunstanworth and then in the coalfields. William Murray, the son of a flour merchant, founded the Murray engine works and iron foundry in Chester-le-Street, the economic mainstay of that town for much of the 19th century.  Meanwhile, some Irish Murrays made their way to industrial Lancashire.

London had been receiving Murrays a century or more earlier:

  • John Murray, known as Sour John of the Spiceries, arrived in the 1590’s and made his money as a spice merchant.
  • William Murray of Stormont came in 1730 from Perth and rose to become Lord Chief Justice.  His nephew David was a British ambassador at the time of the American Revolutionary War.
  • and John Murray founded the publishing house which bore his name in London in 1768.  It continued under his family for seven generations.

America.  The American Revolutionary War divided Murrays as the ’45 rebellion had thirty years earlier. James Murray for instance, who had arrived in America in the 1730’s as a planter along the Cape Fear in North Carolina, was and remained a Loyalist.  He departed Boston in 1776 for Nova Scotia where he ended his days in poverty and in exile.

But his nephew John Boyles Murray, who had arrived in Boston in 1770, cast his lot with the colonists.  After the war he and his son James prospered in New York as merchants.   Meanwhile, other Murrays from the Cape Fear area made the trek in 1769 to Georgia where, according to Alton Murray’s Kindred Murrays, they apparently fought on the American side.

Then there was the family of Robert Murray who had immigrated to Pennsylvania from Ireland in 1732.  A Quaker, he went on to establish himself as a merchant and shipping magnate in New York City.  The Murray Hill neighborhood in midtown Manhattan, where Murray had a great house and farm, was named after him.

However, during the Revolutionary War these Murrays were another family divided.  Some were known for their support for the patriots; whilst others, including the eldest son Lindley, were led by their loyalist sympathies to return to England.  Lindley, however, had the last laugh.  His English textbooks later became bestsellers in America.

Meanwhile, on the sea islands of South Carolina, James Murray was, according to the family tradition, “killed by the explosion of a cannon while defending the island from the British enemy, leaving one child.”  That child, Joseph James Murray, was the forbear of the Murrays still living on Edisto island (including the writer Chalmers Murray).  Their family history is recounted in J.G. Murray’s 1958 book, The Murray Family of Edisto Island.

Scots-Irish Murrays had been tobacco planters at Cross Roads in North Carolina since the 1740’s. Andrew Murray of this family became well-known after the publication of Alex Haley’s book Roots.  It transpired that Haley’s great grandfather, a slave and blacksmith on his plantation, had taken his Murray name.

African Americans  The Murray name has been more evident as an African American name in Maryland.  Perhaps the presence of William Murray and his family in Cambridge, Dorchester county, a place where there had been a thriving slave market, was a contributing factor.  In any case the state of Maryland produced:

  • Anna Murray, the free woman who married the abolitionist Frederick Douglass
  • Daniel Murray, the son of a freed slave who became an authority on African American affairs in Washington
  • Donald Gaines Murray, the first African American to gain admittance to the University of Maryland’s law school (after a protracted legal battle in the 1930’s)
  • and Pauli Murray from Baltimore, an early civil rights campaigner and the author in 1956 of Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family.  She wrote there:

“If grandfather had not volunteered for the Union in 1863 and come south three years later as a missionary among the Negro  freedmen, our family might not have walked in such proud shoes and felt so assured of its place in history.”

It was appropriate that the Baltimore Orioles should have been the home of Eddie Murray, the best switch-hitter of his generation, for most of his baseball career.

Canada.  Alexander Murray, a Scots army captain based in Nova Scotia, made a decisive early contribution to the development of the colony.  In 1755 he superintended the evacuation of the Acadian population.

Later came Murray settlers, mainly Highlanders it would appear.  Walter and Christian Murray arrived in Pictou county on the Hector in 1773.  Peter and Elizabeth Murray who came in 1819 settled at Spiddle Hill.  The present-day Canadian songstress Anne Murray hails from a small town in Nova Scotia.

Three Murray brothers set out from Glasgow in 1840 to seek their fortunes in Canada.  History records only one of these brothers, Alex.  He joined the Hudson Bay Company and established a fur trading post at Fort Yukon in what was then Russian territory.  His sketches of the trading post and the people who frequented it provide an interesting souvenir of that time.

Two other Murray brothers, Thomas and William, were the sons of Irish immigrants in Goulbourn township, Ontario.  They are best remembered today for the nickel deposits in the Sudbury region known as the Murray mine.

Caribbean.  A number of Murrays came to Jamaica from Kirkcudbright in Scotland.

The earliest may have been David Murray who owned the Bath plantation in Westmoreland parish and may have been resident in Jamaica from 1790 to 1810.  Andrew Murray, who was in Jamaica from about 1820 until his death in 1841, was a plantation overseer and later owner elsewhere in Jamaica.

Then there was Patrick Murray, a distinguished London physician who became a judge in Jamaica.  His son Peter was born in Montego Bay in 1782.  However, on growing up, Peter returned to Scotland to study medicine and then practiced in Yorkshire.

And finally there were two Murray brothers who arrived in Jamaica in the early 1800’s.  The son of one of them, Elias Murray, born around 1812 in Jamaica, had mixed blood in him and led a somewhat undisciplined life.  His grandson Reginald would gain respect as the Headmaster of Jamaica College between 1933 and 1941.

Murrays in Jamaica were not just from Scotland.  The first Jamaican entertainers who can be identified by name were the three members of a Murray family of African ancestry – father Henry and his sons Andrew and William.  They kept Jamaica laughing for nearly four decades between 1869 and the year 1905 when William died.  The “Funny Murrays” as they were known were popular because they spoke in the Jamaican dialect.

South Africa.  Murrays were early settlers in what was then Cape Colony:

  • John Murray had arrived from Scotland in 1807 to assist his brother Samuel in a store he ran on Strand Street.  He and his wife Martha had nine children and there are many descendants of this family in South Africa today.
  • The Rev. Andrew Murray, also from Scotland, came in 1822 and settled in the Graaff Reinet area
  • and another Murray family, Alfred and Mary, arrived from England in the 1830’s.  Alfred was not born a Murray but, strangely, had adopted the Murray surname for some reason on his wedding register.

Australia.  John Murray from Scotland was one of the earliest explorers of the coastline of Australia.  In 1804 he discovered Port Philip, the bay on which the city of Melbourne was to be sited.  Then came Murray convicts, mostly from Ireland the records would suggest.

Early Murray settlers came from both Scotland and Ireland.

Alexander Murray from Dumfriesshire who was a pioneer sheep-breeder in South Australia.  Together with his brother John, he founded the famed Murray Merino flocks.  His son George rose to be Chief Judge of the state.

Terence Murray arrived with his father from Limerick in Ireland in 1827 and devoted himself initially also to raising sheep – at Yarralumla near Sydney.  A Catholic, he then became active in New South Wales politics, married into the Anglo-colonial establishment, and was knighted.  One of his sons became a judge, another a Professor at Oxford University.

New Zealand.  Two Murray brothers, George and James, left Scotland in 1863 to start a new life as farmers in New Zealand.  It was said, once in New Zealand, “that one gave up the porridge and the other the Bible.”  A third son, John, rose to be head of the Bank of New Zealand.

Murray Surname Miscellany

The Outlaw Murray of Philiphaugh.  The incident of the Outlaw Murray refusing homage to the King but finally giving way on being installed as Sheriff of Ettrick Forest has long been considered to be merely a picturesque legend perpetuated by a well known ballad.

  • “Who ever heard, in ony times,
  • Siccan an outlaw in his degree,
  • Sic favour get before a King,
  • As did Outlaw Murray of the forest free?”

However, the story may also have been true as well.

This Murray, John Murray, lived at Hanginshaw in Effrick Forest and came from one of the oldest families in Selkirrkshire. Legend has him as a man seven feet tall who commanded his own retinue of followers.  He may have been the origin of the term “muckle-mouth” Murray or big mouth Murray.

He was outlawed, but possibly for different reasons.  In 1460, he was in fact recorded as the Queen’s herdsman in Ettrick Forest and, a year later, obtained a charter for Philiphaugh.  He did give his submission during the King’s occupation of Ettrick Forest.  And the Murrays of Philiphaugh were certainly Sheriffs of the Forest before 1530.

Sour John of the Spiceries.  John Murray went to London as a young man, pushed his way in trade, and became a rich merchant.  His dealings were probably in East India goods as he was ordinarily known as “Sour John of the Spiceries.”

He would appear to have entertained some expectation of being buried in grand style in his local churchyard of Newlands back in Peeblesshire.  When he did return to Scotland, he occupied himself in constructing a mausoleum to receive his remains, bearing an inscription in Latin and Greek which read as follows:

“This stony fabric is erected as a memorial in gratitude here, because I am purified by the holy fount.”

Sour John of the Spiceries died in 1625 at Halmyre and was laid to decay in state in the aisle which he had prepared for his reception.  But every vestige of posthumous finery has long since gone and nothing is left to distinguish the spot from the graves of parishioners.

Clan Murray and the ’45.  During the Jacobite uprising, Murrays fought on both sides.  The Chief of Clan Murray, the Duke of Atholl, supported the British Government; but three of his sons chose to support the Jacobites.  This resulted in the forces of the chief and his sons fighting against each other in battle.

At the battle of Prestonpans in 1745, two Murray regiments, the 46th and 42nd, fought for the British Government.  On the other side was another Murray regiment led by the Duke of Atholl’s son, Lord George Murray. Lord George Murray was in fact the Jacobite general who was responsible for their early successes in the campaign.

William Murray had fought on the Jacobite side in 1715 and returned in 1745, landing in Scotland at the same time as Bonnie Prince Charlie.  Meanwhile, John Murray of Broughton served as the Prince’s secretary.

After the defeat at Culloden in 1746, William Murray was captured but died in prison later that year in London.  Lord George Murray escaped to the continent and died in obscurity there.  John Murray earned the enmity of the Jacobites by turning King’s evidence. Other Murrays fled Scotland.  One group ended up in Wicklow, Ireland.  Others left for America.

John Murray and Lord Byron.  The first John Murray of the publishing dynasty that bore his name had been born in Edinburgh, the only surviving son of Robert McMurray.  According to the family legend, Robert had appended the “Mc” to distance himself from his brother who had fought for the Jacobites in the 1715 uprising and ended up a wanted man.  John had dropped the “Mc” once he had established himself in London.

It was really his son, the second John Murray, who made this publishing house one of the most important and influential in Britain.  He was a friend of many of the leading writers of the day and launched the Quarterly Review in 1809.   His home and office at 50 Albemarle Street in Mayfair was the center of a literary circle, fostered by Murray’s tradition of “four o’clock friends,” afternoon tea with his writers.

Murray’s most notable author was Lord Byron who became a close friend and correspondent of his.  Murray published many of his major works, paying him over £20,000 in rights.  In 1812 Murray published Byron’s second book Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage which sold out in five days, leading to Byron’s observation: “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.”

In 1824 Murray participated in one of the most notorious acts in the annals of literature.  Byron had given him the manuscript of his personal memoirs to publish later on.  Together with five of Byron’s friends and executors, he decided to destroy Byron’s manuscripts because he thought the scandalous details would damage Byron’s reputation.  The two volumes of memoirs were dismembered and burnt in the fireplace at Murray’s office.

James Murray the Loyalist.  For James Murray, Britain was always the center of his world and North Carolina the edge.  He had arrived there in 1735 and become a planter along the Lower Cape Fear.  An early letter of his expressed gratitude to an Edinburgh relative for his continued correspondence, fearing that he “would be forgotten in this remote part of the world.”

In 1763 Murray removed himself to Boston and lived there through the Boston Tea Party and the early days of the Revolution.  The letters he wrote at that time were moderate in their tone.  But in them he wholeheartedly supported the British Government.  The patriots seemed to him traitors.

“You will have heard long before this reaches you what a spirit the Stamp Act has raised in these colonies which, for want of power on the part of the Crown, to check into these three great towns, Boston, New York and Philadelphia, has gone to very great lengths indeed, particularly in New York.

The truth is, we are children of a most indulgent parent who have never grown to manhood and have acted accordingly.  The Stamp Act, so far from being a hurt to the colonies which they pretend to be unable to bear, will be a necessary spur to their industry.  The difficulty will be to keep that industry from being employed on articles that will interfere with the Mother Country and to preserve the benefit and dependence of America to Britain as long as may be.

But in the process of time, this extensive fertile country, cultivated as it will be by millions of people healthy and strong, must by the nature of things preponderate.  Our comfort is that period seems to lie far beyond our day.”

Murray remained in Boston until 1776 when, on the evacuation of the city, he left for Halifax, Nova Scotia where he died five years later in poverty and in exile.

Reader Feedback – Murrays from Canada in KentuckyI am trying to find out which John Murray who immigrated to Canada in the early 1800’s is related to my great grandfather Frank Henry Murray who was born in 1887 in Canada.  He lived in Kentucky and his father was Charles H. Murray who was also from Kentucky.

I cannot find which John is Charles’s father. There are several Charles Murray’s and several John Murray’s and I can’t connect any of them to my Frank Henry Murray who died in Michigan in 1952.

Cheryl (

The Murder of James Murray in Donegal.  James Murray had became a very unpopular figure with the Glenveagh and Derryveagh tenants on the Adair estate.  He would capture their animals which trespassed and demand a ransom for their release; and, it was said, he also sought compensation from them by falsely swearing that eighty five of his employer’s blackfaced sheep had been killed or stolen.  Then, in January 1860, he delivered notices to the Derryveagh tenants to leave their holdings.

Thus his murder, discovered on November 15, 1860, was perhaps no surprise.  The following was the account of the murder which appeared in The Times of London.

“It appears Murray left his cottage about ten o’clock on Tuesday morning, accompanied by two or three dogs, to look after his master’s estate.  He had travelled nearly a mile and a half from home when he met his fate.

The tenants of the Adair estate had been warned to turn out and search for the missing land steward, they being familiar with the district.  They succeeded in finding him at the foot of a precipice about nine o’clock on the Thursday morning and they at once brought the intelligence to a party of police.

Murray was lying on his back on a ledge of one of the rocks of the precipice, with his face turned upwards.  One of his arms lay across his breast and the other by his side.  His hair was dis-shevelled, clotted with blood, and the eyes were open.  The body bore marks sufficient to prove that Murray had met his death by violence.

The poor fellow seemed to have made a desperate fight for life, for all along the edge of the precipice footmarks indicated that a struggle had taken place.  The face of the murdered man presented a sad spectacle.  Immediately under the right eye was a frightful wound, as if inflicted by a blunt instrument; and there was a similar wound on the right temple.  Murray’s skull, upon examination, was found to have been completely smashed in.

The body was carried to the cottage which he had left only two mornings before in health and strength.  One can well imagine the feelings of his poor widow on receiving the remains of her dead husband.”

Murray’s murderer was never caught.  But Adair, alleging a conspiracy among his tenants, used the killing to complete the evictions.

Elias Murray in Jamaica.  The family story is that two younger sons of a peer came out from Kirkcudbright in Scotland and set up as ship’s chandlers at Port Royal in Jamaica.  .

Elias Murray was the son of one of these brothers born to either a free woman of color or a slave. He was born around 1812 and was variously a butcher, shopkeeper and a clerk for a Mr. Powell of Port Royal.  He was married in the Anglican church in 1836 to Ann Campbell on the same day that their son William was christened.  He died in 1868.

Andrew Murray, A Revivalist in South Africa.  One of four children born to Andrew and Maria Murray who had arrived in South Africa in 1822, Andrew Murray was raised in what was considered then the most remote corner of the world – Graaff Reinet, near the Cape in South Africa.

It was here, after his formal education in Scotland and three years of theological study in college in Holland, that he returned as a missionary and minister.  Murray consistently drew large crowds when he preached and led many to trust Christ as their Savior.

When revival came to Cape Town, Murray initially was hesitant.  He didn’t want to be swept away in the heart of emotion.  But one Sunday evening during the youth fellowship meeting an African servant girl rose and asked permission to sing a verse and pray.  The Holy Spirit fell upon the group and she prayed.  In the distance there came a sound like approaching thunder.  It surrounded the hall and the building began to shake.  Instantly everyone burst into prayer.

Murray walked up and down the aisle, trying to quiet the people. But a stranger in the service tiptoed up to him and whispered: “Be careful what you do.  For it is the Spirit of God that is at work here.”  And Murray soon learned to accept the revival praying.

Chalmers Murray and His South Carolina Sea Islands Novel.  “The finest picture of the Sea Island Negroes even written: simple, vivid, and taut…raw and outspoken,” read the Library Journal’s back cover blurb for the novel Here Come Joe Mungin, written by Chalmers S. Murray in 1942.

Murray and his sister, natives of Edisto Island, had grown up on their father’s farm in an area populated by blacks, the descendants of the slaves of the Sea Islands, and were isolated from the other white people on the island.  Murray knew the blacks well – so well in fact – that his parents carefully “screened” the black boys he played with.  His father made two thousand dollars a year operating a general merchandise store “that catered largely to Negroes,” Murray recalled in Turn Backward O Time In Your Flight, his 1960 reminiscence of growing up on Edisto Island.  He had been born there in 1894.

Murray grew up around Negro spirituals and superstitions, he stored knowledge of Negro myth and folk sayings, and he understood the area’s Gullah speech and in his writings often seems charmed by it.  He knew the ritual of the Negro churches and the difference in sophistication the black preachers from Charleston had over the rural Island black preachers.

During his work with the FWP he learned Negro work songs, saw what they ate, witnesses their despair, observed their rage and gained a gauge for their temperaments.  He was thus well suited to write Here Come Joe Mungin, his “raw and outspoken” novel of the Sea Island Negroes.

Murray Names

  • Andrew Murray of Petty and Bothwell led the Scots army against the English at the battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297.  He died of his wounds after the victory.
  • Donogh O’Murry of the Roscommon sept in Ireland was the Archbishop of Tuam in the late 15th century.
  • Lord George Murray of Tullibardine was the Scottish Jacobite general who fought against the English in the 1745 campaign.
  • John Murray from Edinburgh founded the London publishing house which bore his name in 1768.  It continued under his family for seven generations.
  • Sir John Murray was a pioneering Scots-Canadian oceanographer and marine biologist of the late 19th century.
  • John Middleton Murry was an early 20th century man of letters, married to the novelist Katherine Mansfield.
  • Arthur Murray founded his Arthur Murray dance studio chain in America in 1938.  He had been born Moses Teichman in Hungary and changed his name during the First World War.
  • Ruby Murray was a popular singer in Britain during the 1950’s.  She hailed from Belfast.
  • Bill Murray is a well-known American comedian and actor, best known for his performances in Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day.  He was born in Chicago of Irish stock.
  • Andy Murray is the Scottish player who has won the Wimbledon tennis tournament twice.

Murray Numbers Today

  • 77,000 in the UK (most numerous in Glasgow)
  • 67,000 in America (most numerous in Florida).
  • 100,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada).

Murray 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.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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