Ramsey Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Ramsey Surname Meaning

Ramsey is the English spelling, Ramsay the Scottish.  But both Ramsey and Ramsay have derived from the same source – a market town named Ramsey in Huntingdonshire not too far from the Essex border. 

Ramsey Abbey had been founded there as a Benedictine abbey in 969 and the name Rameseia appeared in the 1086 Domesday Book. The root of the name was the Old English word bramsa meaning “wild garlic” and eg, “island” or “strip of land in a fen.”

A Norman baron from Huntingdonshire brought the Ramsay name to Scotland in the 12th century; while Ramsey emerged as a surname in England in Ramsey, Huntingdonshire in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Ramsey Surname Resources on The Internet

Ramsey and Ramsay Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Lowland) and England
  • to Finland, Ireland (Ulster), America, Canada and Australia

Scotland.  David, the Scottish King’s brother, was also the Earl of Huntingdon and he was accompanied by a number of young Norman barons to Scotland in 1124 – including, it is thought, Symon de Ramesie.

Symon was granted lands in Midlothian by David around the year 1140.  He is considered the founder of the main Ramsay line in Scotland.  He was also the first to have had lands at Dalhousie and to have started construction of Dalhousie Castle there.

These Ramsays felt the force of English aggression during and after the Wars of Scottish Independence:

  • William Ramsay was captured by the English at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346, yet lived to tell the tale.
  • Sir Alexander Ramsay held out at Dalhousie Castle in 1400 against a six-month siege by the English.
  • while Alexander’s descendant, another Alexander Ramsay, was killed by the English at the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513.

But later they became firm supporters of the British Crown. They went onto serve in all of the great campaigns of the 18th and 19th centuries – in Europe, Canada, and India.  General George Ramsay, Lord Dalhousie, was one of Wellington’s generals, a colonial administrator in Canada and, at the end of his life, Commander-in-Chief in India.  His son James was Governor General of India from 1847 to 1856.  

There were other Ramsay lines.  Ramsay lairds from Angus (Forfarshire), Fife, and the Border country appeared on the Ragman’s Roll of 1296, in addition to the Dalhousie Ramsays:

  • the Auchterhouse line in Angus and the Forthar line in Fife date from the 13th century, although the male line in each case died out two centuries later.
  • while the Ramsays of Bamff in Perthshirehave lasted much longer.  They were descended from Nessus de Ramsay, physician to Alexander II, who was granted these lands in 1232.  Bamff House was built in the late 16th century and it remains in the hands of Ramsay descendants.

A Ramsay line from Dalhousie did extend southward to the Scottish borders where they were established at Foulden in Berwickshire until the early 1600’s.  Sir William Ramsay of Foulden died in a duel against the Englishman Sir Edward Bohun in the 1330’s.  George Ramsay, the last of the line, was a well-known Border reiver who died at Foulden in 1592.

By the mid-19th century, the largest number of Ramsays in Scotland were to be found in Midlothian, Angus, and Lanarkshire.  Gordon Ramsay, the celebrity chef, has roots around Paisley in Renfrewshire where his Irish ancestor arrived in the 1860’s.

England.  The first Ramsey of note at Ramsey in Huntingdonshire was William de Ramsey, a 13th century Benedictine monk who wrote about the lives of the saints in verse.  There followed the de Ramsey master masons of the next century, first John and then William who was a prominent Gothic architect of his day.  

“In 1337 William de Ramsey was made chief mason of the King at the Tower of London and chief overseer of the king’s works in all his castles on the south side of the river Trent. The appointment was for one robe annually, with ten pence per day paid at the Exchequer.”  

John Ramsey was recorded in Ramsey in 1435; and another John Ramsey held its office of hay warden in 1473.

The Ramsey name had extended to the market town of Edenbridge in Kent by the late 1400’s. There were five children of John Ramsey of Edenbridge, one of whom – Thomas – was a successful merchant in London who became its Lord Mayor in 1577.  He died in 1590 but left no children.

The Ramsey name did also extend into Essex and London, either from Huntingdonshire or from the Ramsey hamlet on the river Stour in north Essex.  However, the native English Ramseys have been outnumbered by the Scots Ramsays who came into England.

Some arrived in London at the time of the accession of James of Scotland to the English throne in 1603.  These included John Ramsay, a royal favorite who had been a page at court, and Robert Ramsay, a court musician who also followed the King to London.

But most crossed into northern England.  It was noteworthy that the further a Ramsay left Scotland the more likely was it that the name would change to Ramsey.  In the 1891 English census, the Ramsay/Ramsey ratio was:

  • 1.4 in Northumberland
  • 0.8 in Durham
  • and 0.4 in Yorkshire.

Arthur Ramsey, the distinguished mathematician, came from Dewsbury in Yorkshire.  His son Michael Ramsey was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1961 to 1974.  

Finland.  In 1573, some 3,000 Scots went to fight for the Swedish king in his Scandinavian wars, including two Dalhousie Ramsays. For payment, they were granted lands in Finland.  John Ramsay became Hans Ramsay and stayed. The line has continued to the present day.  There was a surprising Ramsay reunion in Finland in 1907.

Ireland.  Ramsey in Ireland is a Scottish implant, predominantly in Ulster, that began with the plantations there in the 17th century. Many left for America during the 18th century. The largest numbers have been in Antrim.

America.  It was more Scots and Scots Irish Ramsays that came to America.  Ramsey may have been seen as the more American spelling.  Many changed their spelling after the Revolutionary War.  The spelling today is mainly Ramsey.

Virginia.  William Ramsay of Scottish Presbyterian stock sailed along the coast of Virginia in 1749 with two other Scots settlers in search of a suitable port for the trading of tobacco.  They found and chose the name of Alexandria.  William Ramsay was one of its founding trustees and his name is still commemorated there today:

  • Colonel Dennis Ramsay, his son, served as mayor of Alexandria and was a pallbearer at President George Washington’s funeral held there.
  • and his descendants remained active in local affairs. William T. Ramsay’s 1999 book The Ramsays: First Family of Alexandria covered this line.

Pennsylvania.  More early Ramseys and Ramsays, most of them Scots Irish, arrived or settled in Pennsylvania. 

William Ramsey was an early settler in Warwick, Bucks county in 1741.  His grandson Robert was a Pennsylvanian Congressman in the 1830’s.

James Ramsay came to farm in Lancaster county around the same time.  He had two notable sons – Nathaniel Ramsey, a Congressman in Maryland, and David Ramsay who settled in South Carolina and made his name as an early historian of the American Revolution.  David was murdered on the streets of Charleston in 1815 by an angry insane man.

Alexander Ramsay had immigrated into Delaware before settling in Adams county sometime in the 1750’s.  His son Reynolds built a merchant mill there and his grandson Francis was born there.  Colonel Francis Ramsey, as he became after the Revolutionary War, moved first to Greene county, Tennessee in 1783 and then to Knoxville.  He was one of its early settlers and made his home, Ramsey House, at Swan Pond.  Frederic Ramsey’s 1982 book Ramsey of Swan Pond covered this family history.

Another Alexander Ramsey came with his father to York, Pennsylvania sometime in the 1760’s.   His grandson, also named Alexander, moved west to Minnesota where he served as its Governor in the 1850’s when it was still a territory and its Senator in the 1860’s and 1870’s when Minnesota had become a state. The Alexander Ramsey House in Minnesota has been preserved as a museum.

Canada.  Most Ramsey/Ramsay immigrants to Canada were Scottish.  They might originally have come as Ramsay, but the spelling often then changed to Ramsey.  There were also English Ramseys such as John and Jemima Ramsey who arrived in Canada from Somerset in the 1850’s.

The Ramsays of Kildalton were a redoubtable family of malsters and distillers from the island of Islay in Argyllshire.  Times were tough in the 1820’s and Robert Ramsay departed for Montreal where he developed a saddling business; whilst his eldest son Thomas involved himself in shipbuilding in New Brunswick.

A younger son John stayed at home to look after family’s interests. His tenants, however, were impoverished and in 1862 he arranged for some 400 of these Islay people to move to Canada. They settled in various places in Ontario. In 1870 he journeyed to Canada to visit them.  His diary of that trip was later published.

Some Ramsays headed West.  Silas Ramsay from Quebec came to the Calgary area in Alberta to hunt buffalo as early as 1870.  He later was a businessman there and served as the town mayor in 1903.  It is not quite clear whether the Ramsay suburb of Calgary was named after him or after William Ramsay, an early land agent in the area.

Australia.  One Ramsay family in Australia can be considered Scots Irish, their forebear William having left Scotland for Athlone in Roscommon around the year 1800.  Son Robert, like his father, joined the British army.  At the end of his service in 1851 Robert came to Freemantle in Western Australia as a guard for convicts being transported from England (he and his family thereby receiving free passages).  Robert’s descendants spread across Australia – to South Australia, northern NSW, and Queensland.

Another Scots Irish family comprised the sons and daughters of Francis and Jane Ramsey of Fermanagh who came to Australia in the 1860’s and settled in and around Candelo, NSW.

Ramsays from Scotland have included:

  • Dr. David Ramsay from Perthshire, the son of a corn merchant, who travelled the world as a ship’s surgeon before coming to Sydney in 1824 to settle.  He married a year later and received the Dobroyde farm on the outskirts of Sydney as his dowry.    
  • and William Ramsay from Angus who came on the Morning Star to Port Adelaide in 1862 under an assisted passage scheme.  He was lucky to arrive because many died during the voyage.  He and his wife Eliza eventually settled to farm in Hope Valley, SA. Although life was not easy for William and Eliza, it was said that they were hard workers, raised their children and made a valuable contribution to the Hope Valley area.   

There were two Ramsay family arrivals from Glasgow to Melbourne in 1878.  First came John and Margaret Ramsay, well-to-do, who made their home at the Clydebank estate in Essendon.  Their son Hugh was a well-known Australian painter.  John Ramsay arrived in the same year and became a successful real estate broker.  He too lived in Essendon.  His son William developed the famous Kiwi brand of shoe polish.

Gordon Ramsay’s Family Ancestry

The celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has Scottish roots, being born near Paisley in Renfrewshire where his forebear from Ireland arrived in the 1860’s.  Just click below if you want to read more about this history:

Ramsey and Ramsay Surname Miscellany

Ramseys and Ramsays Today

Numbers (000’s) Ramsey Ramsay Total
UK     7    13    20
America    24     3    27
Elsewhere     4     7    11
Total    35    34   58

Dalhousie Castle.  Dalhousie castle (sometimes called Dalworlsey) is situated in a strategic spot overlooking the Esk river some eight miles south of Edinburgh.  The castle has been there since the 12th century.  The drum tower, the oldest part of the current structure, dates to the mid-15th century; while other parts are from the 17th century. The walled garden was designed about 1800.

The English have had a presence there.  Edward I stayed there in 1298 on his way to fight and defeat the Scots at the Battle of Falkirk.  Sir Alexander Ramsay withstood a six-month siege by English forces led by Henry IV in 1400. And Oliver Cromwell used the castle as a base for his invasion of Scotland in the 1650’s.

The Ramsay family continued to retain ownership of the castle until 1977.  It has functioned as a luxury hotel since 2003.

The Ramsays of Auchterhouse.  The Ramsays of Auchterhouse in Forfarshire (now Angus) on the east coast date about 1250.  Blind Harry wrote that “Sir John Ramsay of Austerhouse” greeted Sir William Wallace when he landed at Montrose from Flanders in 1303, but this report may not in fact have been true.

Sir Malcolm Ramsay was the hereditary sheriff of Forfarshire in the late 14th century.  However, the male line died out two generations later.  The last of the line Margaret married James Stewart, brother-in-law to James II, in 1466.

The Ramsays of Kildalton.  Christian Ramsay – always known in the family by the old Scots abbreviation of Kirsty – was a redoubtable woman who had rescued the family finances when Robert, her eldest brother and father of John, let slip from his loose grasp the malting and distilling business built up by his father, Thomas Ramsay, and grandfather Ebenezer Morrison on the island of Islay in Argyllshire.

It was said that these Ramsays were an independent lot, possessed of flaring though not sulky tempers; proud of their lineage, descended from Dalhousie and kin to the Stirlings, Morrisons, Erskines, Grahams, Mitchells and Stems.

In earlier generations they had suffered for the Reformed Church in Scotland and fought in the army of the Covenant.  Later in 1747 they had followed the Rev. Ebenezer Erskine in the split of the Secession Church and later still, in 1843, they were to walk out of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to assist in the founding of the Free Church of Scotland.

John Ramsay, the youngest son in a family of seven, was born in 1815, exactly two months after the Battle of Waterloo.  To the end of his days he retained a vivid memory of watching – as a small child from the windows of one of the tall Stirling houses in Edinburgh – the last public hanging in Scotland.

With his father having departed for Canada, he spent much of his youth with his Stirling grandfather at Craigforth. He later involved himself with family affairs at Islay. Times were hard for his tenants and in 1862 he arranged for 400 of them to emigrate to Canada, in many cases paying for their steamship ticket.

One of his descendants later wrote:

“History does not record any other Scottish landlord who, in addition to following the course of adventure of his tenants in the New World, actually crossed the Atlantic to learn for himself the state of their progress. Happily he found that they, as a result of their unfaltering faith, invincible courage and unremitting toil, had built for themselves pleasant and comfortable homes, cleared much land which yielded bountiful crops, and were, on the whole, a happy and contented people. The warm welcome cordially given him by those who at one time were his tenants testifies to the ingratiating qualities which characterized this intrepid humanitarian.”

Reader Feedback – Scottish Ramsays.  My 95 year old mother maiden name was Gladys Ramsay.  She was the twin sister of Mary Ramsay and daughter of Daniel Ramsay who was one of James “Jimmy” Ramsay’s brothers.

Daniel Ramsay moved from Glasgow and married Annie Lyall.  He bought two fish ‘n chip shops in Inverness and lived in Lossiemouth. We are trying to get more information of the World War Two Ramsay family if possible.

Lyall Moore (notmyplanet@outlook.com).

Ramsey House in Knoxville.  Ramsey House was built in 1797 by Knoxville’s first builder, Thomas Hope, for Francis Alexander Ramsey. The home was constructed of Tennessee pink marble and blue limestone. It was known at that time as the finest home in Tennessee.

The Ramsey family was one of the first families to settle in the Knoxville area.   Colonel Francis Ramsey was a founding trustee of Blount College, now the University of Tennessee.   He died in 1820.  The house passed to his eldest son William who was the first elected mayor of Knoxville and the Secretary of State for Tennessee.  Another son, Dr. J.G.M. Ramsey, who authored an early history of the state The Annals of Tennessee, took over the house in 1840.

At the time of the Civil War, the Ramseys fled Tennessee for South Carolina and sold the house.  Dr. Ramsey did return in the 1870’s and regretted the house’s decline.  However, the building did survive and has been restored to something like its earlier grace. 

Reader Feedback – Ramseys from England to Canada.  I am a descendant of John Ramsey and Jemima Simmons from West Pennard and Priddy in Somerset. They moved to Canada likely in the late 1850’s after his mother died. Their boys homesteaded in northern North Dakota.

We are many hundreds of descendants strong all across America and some in the Canadian provinces. It would be nice to connect with other relatives in England or America.

Edward Ramsey (edramsey33@comcast.net)

A Ramsay Reunion in Finland.  In 1904 Sir William Ramsay came to Stockholm from Glasgow in 1904 to receive the Nobel Prize for chemistry.  As he was walking through the streets of Stockholm, he stopped at a window of a bookstore as the name Ramsay caught his eye.  The book was entitled Fran Barnaar till Silverhar (from childhood years to silver hairs) and it was by Anders Ramsay.  He wrote to the author and subsequently came for a visit with his wife three years later.

The Ramsay family mobilized all of its hospitability.  A member of the Swedish family stood waiting in Stockholm. From that point onwards, the plans to see a lot of Finland were instantaneously transformed into plans to see a bit of Helsinki and a lot of the Ramsay family.  A room had been reserved but Sir William and his wife only had time to sleep and eat breakfast there. The Finnish Ramsays were at their summer houses and the days passed travelling from one to another.

When Sir William and his wife departed, no fewer than seventeen Ramsays stood on the docks waving goodbye.

Ramsey and Ramsay Names

  • Allan Ramsay was an 18th century Scottish poet who started the country’s first circulating library in Edinburgh.  He is best remembered for his pastoral work The Gentle Shepherd.  His son Allan was a well-known portrait painter.
  • General George Ramsay, Lord Dalhousie, was an army general under Wellington and later a colonial administrator in Canada.   
  • William Ramsay was the Australian entrepreneur who developed the famous Kiwi brand of shoe polish in 1906. 
  • Sir Alf Ramsey was the English football manager in 1966 when England won the World Cup. 
  • Gordon Ramsay is a British TV chef and restauranteur famous for his bad temper.

Ramsey and Ramsay Numbers Today

  • 20,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lanarkshire)
  • 31,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 11,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

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Written by Colin Shelley

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