Ross Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Ross Surname Meaning

Ross is a Scottish Highland clan name and also describes the territory in NW Scotland that was once called Ross-shire and is now Ross and Cromarty. The name is thought to have come either from the Gaelic word ros, meaning “headland” or “promontory,” or (less likely) from the Norse word hross or “horse.”

The Ross name could have different roots outside of the Highlands:

  • from an Anglo-Norman de Ros family which settled in Ayrshire
  • from the Welsh rhos, meaning “moor” or “bog”
  • or from the Middle English rous or “red-haired.”

Ross in Ireland may denote the O’Donoghue Mor sept who built Ross castle in county Kerry in the late 1400’s.  And there were some Rosses from Ross-in-Wye in England. However, in all of these cases the Ross numbers were not that large.

Ross Surname Resources on The Internet

Ross Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Ross-shire) and from Jewish emigrants
  • to America, Canada and the Indian Ocean (Cocos Islands)

Scotland. Easter Ross in Ross-shire emerged as the stronghold for the Earls of Ross and clan Ross in the 12th century.

Early History.  The first Earl of Ross may have been Malcolm MacAedth around 1155. The first recognizable clan chief was Fearchar who supported the Scottish king in 1214 in dealing with rebellions in Ross-shire.

The title of the Earl of Ross and Ross clan leadership went together until clan leadership passed to the Ross lairds of Balnagowan in 1372. They adopted the Ross surname but they were no longer the Earls of Ross. From their base at Balnagowan castle (now the home of former Harrod’s boss Mohammed Al-Fayed), they did hold onto the Ross clan leadership for more than three hundred years. Feuds with the neighboring MacKay and Sutherland clans were to characterize much of that time.

David Ross, the 12th Laird of Balnagowan, incurred a heavy debt when he raised a regiment of clansmen in support of Charles II. It all ended in disaster. He took a thousand clansmen to fight with him at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. After the defeat he was taken prisoner and died in the Tower of London, while many of the surviving clansmen were transported to the colonies.

The next Laird died childless and even further in debt and the estate had to be sold:

  • first to the Ross family of Hawkhead, an unrelated Norman de Ros family from Renfrewshire in the Scottish Lowlands
  • and then in 1745 to the Lockhart family of Carstairs in Lanarkshire who adopted the name of Lockhart-Ross. These Lockhart-Rosses became noted for their eccentricities. The line lasted until 1942.

“In 1845 Ann Ross was forty. She was beaten up while she laid on the ground at Strathcarron. She was later charged with ‘mobbing and rioting, breach of the peace, and assault on officers.’ She was sentenced to twelve months.”

The atrocities culminated in the slaughter of Ross women, the massacre of Rosses, at Strathcarron in 1854. Then there were the Ross-shire sheep riots in 1872.

The Highlands still accounted for over half of the Rosses in Scotland in the 1891 census. But the 18th and 19th centuries had witnessed a Ross and Highland dispersal – south to lowland Scotland and to England, and more overseas.

America. The Rosses of Philadelphia were unlikely Revolutionary War heroes, but became so. The Rev. George Ross, the Anglican missionary who had come to New Castle in Delaware in 1705, was the son of David Blair, the Laird of Balbair in Ross-shire:

  • his son George Ross was Tory for much of his life. However, disgusted with British intransigence, he changed his views and was one of the last signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
  • while his granddaughter-in-law Betsy Ross is widely credited with having made the first American flag, supposedly at the request of George Washington.

Another patriot at this time was John Ross of Tain in Ross-shire who had come to Philadelphia as a merchant in 1763 and later espoused and helped finance the American cause. George Washington and other leading personalities of the time came to dine at his home at Grange Farm outside Philadelphia.

A notable John Ross of the next generation was Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1828 to 1860. He was in fact only one-eighth Cherokee, being the son of a part-Cherokee mother and a Scottish father, Daniel Ross, who had come to Cherokee country in the 1780’s from Baltimore to trade.

Jewish.  More recently, Ross in America can be a Jewish adopted name:

  • Barney Ross, from New York Jewish roots, was world boxing champion at various weights in the 1930’s
  • while Steve Ross, the CEO of Time Warner, also came from a New York Jewish family; and Stephen Ross, the real estate developer and owner of the Miami Dolphins, was born into a Jewish family in Detroit.

Canada.  Thomas Ross from Ross-shire had moved with his family to upstate New York in 1774 and fought on the British side in the Revolutionary War.  Afterwards they settled in Glengarry, Ontario.  

Alexander Ross from Morayshire came to Canada in 1805, became a fur trader and headed west with the North West Company.  By the 1840’s he had settled in the 1840’s in the Red River colony in present-day Manitoba where he authored a number of books about the Canadian frontier.

James Ross from Cromarty came to work in the Canadian railroads in the 1870’s.  He made his fortune through railway construction, principally for the Canadian Pacific Railway of which he became a major shareholder.  His son Jack Ross was best known as a thoroughbred racehorse owner.  Jack was declared bankrupt in 1928 and later moved to Jamaica.

Indian Ocean. The Ross name was attached to the Cocos islands in the Indian Ocean. John Clunies Ross arrived there in 1825 and he and his descendants were running the islands and trading their copra for the next one hundred and fifty years.

Ross Surname Miscellany

The Earl of Ross and Clan Ross.  The first Earl of Ross, Malcolm MacAedth, lived in the 12th century and died in 1168.  He must have been a man of some importance as he was referred to as one of the “seven Maister Men of Scotland” who served at the crowning ceremony for the King at the Stone of Scone.

Malcolm MacAedth allied his family to the Irish O’Beolan family through the marriage of his daughter to an O’Beolan priest.  The resulting O’Beolan Earl of Ross line lasted until 1372.  The O’Beolans lost the earldom in almost the same way in which they had gained it, through the ancient transference of title through a female.  The Rosses of Balnagowan in Ross-shire then succeeded the O’Beolan Earls as chiefs of clan Ross.

Over the next century they were to forfeit the Earldom to the Crown and there were battles in the Highlands in which the Earldom was wasted and seized by other clans.  Attempts by John Ross of Balnagowan to recover the Earldom all failed.  Thus clan Ross and the Earl of Ross title became forever separated.

The Eccentric Sir Charles Lockhart-Ross.  A gossip column in the American paper The Washington Post remarked that the Lockhart-Ross family was noted for its eccentricities, none more so than Sir Charles Lockhart-Ross in the years between 1790 and 1814:

“Sir Charles was so passionately fond of poultry that he insisted on having all the rooms at Balnagowan castle littered with straw so that he might enjoy the pleasure of watching the chickens scratch and scrape among it.  In his days there was not a room in the castle in which one was not apt to tread upon a sitting hen or a new laid egg hidden among the straw.  One of the very first things that his successor was obliged to do on succeeding to the property was to floor and wainscot afresh every room in the castle.”

A later Sir Charles, the last of his line, inherited the Balnagowan estate in 1883. By then it had grown large and included some of the best farmland and sporting acreage in Scotland.  This estate was still intact in 1942 when he died in America. He had created some complex American corporations for the estate and even had Balnagown declared U.S. territory in order to avoid British taxation.  For these actions, he had been outlawed by a British court and spent many years in exile.

The Massacre of the Rosses.  In 1854 it had been decided to clear the Greenyards area in Strathcarron, Ross-shire.  The women there heard that there were men coming with writs of eviction.  So they met the men, searched their pockets, burned the writs and let the men go.  The men then told the court that they had been attacked by a mob of disorderly people.

Two weeks later two or three men arrived claiming to have writs of eviction. They were met by the women who refused to let them past. The men got nervous and one pulled a pistol. A boy in the crowd, seeing the pistol aimed at his mother’s head, took out his own rusty pistol. The men left peacefully but told their superiors that they had been met by riots.

On March 31 constables from Ross and Inverness set out to clear Greenyards. They were again met by the women. Accounts differ as to whether the Riot Act was actually read.  However, the Procurator Taylor gave the order to ‘knock them down.’ The police attacked the women, kicking them and beating them with ash batons. After the attack the houses were burned and prisoners taken back to Tain jail where they were charged with rioting and disorderly behavior.

Betsy Ross and the American Flag.  Betsy Griscom had been brought up in Pennsylvania in a Quaker household.  In 1773, at the age of 21, she eloped with a non-Quaker, John Ross. They were ferried across the Delaware river and got married in New Jersey. This marriage caused an irrevocable split with her family.

Less than two years after their nuptials, the couple started their own upholstery business. Betsy and John then felt the impact of the war.  John Ross joined the Pennsylvania militia.  While guarding an ammunition cache in early 1776, he was wounded in an explosion and died soon afterwards.  Betsy was left alone to run their upholstery business.

Betsy would often tell her children and grandchildren of that day in May 1776 when three members of a secret committee from the Continental Congress came to call upon her. These representatives – George Washington, Robert Morris, and George Ross – asked her to sew the first flag.  Betsy Ross already knew George Ross as she had married his nephew.  Betsy was also acquainted with General Washington.  Not only did they both worship at Christ Church in Philadelphia, but Betsy’s pew was next to George and Martha Washington’s pew.

According to Betsy, General Washington showed her a rough design of the flag that included a six-pointed star.  Betsy demonstrated how to cut a five-pointed star in a single snip,  Impressed, the committee entrusted Betsy with the making of the first flag.

In June 1777 the Continental Congress, seeking to promote national pride and unity, adopted Betsy’s flag as the national flag.

Daniel and John Ross.  Daniel Ross was from Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands and had come with his parents as a child to America in the 1770’s. They settled at Baltimore.  Young Ross was soon orphaned, however.

As a young man, he left Baltimore with a companion for Hawkins county in Tennessee. There they constructed a flat boat which they loaded with merchandise and set off down the Tennessee river to the Chickasaw country to trade with the Cherokee Indians.

There he met Molly McDonald.  They married in 1786 and settled near her family home to start a family.

Their son John Ross was born at Ross Landing, now Chattanooga, in Tennessee in 1790. There were rumors that young John had blue eyes. But all portraits have shown him as brown-eyed.  As John grew older his father Daniel established a trading store at Chattanooga Creek near the foot of Lookout Mountain.

Under the influence of his grandmother Anna, who was half Cherokee, John was taught the Cherokee ways and he developed a deep love for the Cherokee people, their traditions and the Cherokee way.  He was to serve as Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1828 to 1860. His father Daniel lived to see him made Chief, but died two years later in 1830.

Ross in the Cocos Islands.  The Cocos Islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean were uninhabited until the 1820’s when a small settlement was established by a Scottish adventurer named John Clunies Ross from the Shetland Isles who traded in the area with his brother Robert.  John set about planting hundreds of coconut palms on the islands and brought in Malay workers to harvest the nuts.

Successive generations of Clunies-Rosses built up a business empire based on copra, the dried flesh of coconuts traded for its oil.  Their tenure over their exotic adopted home was confirmed in 1886 when Queen Victoria granted them possession of the islands in perpetuity.

They styled themselves the “Kings” of the Cocos.   There were five Kings in all.

Name King Reign
John Clunies Ross Ross I 1827-1854
John George Clunies Ross Ross II 1854-1871
George Clunies-Ross Ross III 1871-1910
Sydney Clunies-Ross Ross
John Cecil Clunies-Ross Ross V 1944-1978

Meanwhile Andrew Clunies-Ross, a brother to Ross III, established the small settlement at Flying Fish Cove on Christmas Island to mark the families’ claim to that land.  He went on to explore the island and started phosphate mining there.  He withdrew from Christmas Island in 1899 when the British Christmas Island Phosphate Company took over.

On Cocos Island, the Clunies-Ross lived in a grand colonial mansion, Oceania House, which still stands to this day.  John Clunies-Ross paid his Malay workers in Cocos rupees, a currency he minted himself and which could only be redeemed at the company store.

Remarkably, their rule lasted right up until 1978 when the last “King”, also called John Clunies-Ross, was forced to sell the islands to Australia for £2.5 million.

The first John Clunies Ross had been born at Weisdale Voe on the Shetlands in 1786.  The story goes that he met his wife Elizabeth Dymoke as he was running away from a press-gang.  There is nothing left of the area now but ruins, sheep, an old graveyard, and a plaque (marked “birthplace of John Clunies Ross”).

His forebear Alexander Clunies Ross had taken refuge in the Shetlands after the failed Jacobite revolution in 1715 (he had lost his right leg to an English cannonball at the battle of Sheriffmuir).  He had been born Alexander Clunies.  He married Marion Ross, an heiress to lands in Ross-shire, in 1690 and subsequently adopted the Clunies Ross name.  However, he lost possession of their estates in Scotland and he died an embittered man.

Jack Ross’s Bankruptcy.  There was no doubt that Ross was very generous with his money and spent a fortune on parties, horse racing and yachts.  However, there was no single cause for the financial downfall that befell him in 1928, when he was down to his final $300 after inheriting $16 million fifteen years earlier.

After his bankruptcy, the home that he had built for himself on Peel Street in Montreal had been valued at over a million dollars.  But by 1930, with Montreal in a recession following the Wall Street Crash, there were no takers for a mansion that size.  As an act of charity Ross’s friend, the 2nd Lord Shaughnessy, purchased it from him for $51,000 in 1935.

Ross briefly moved into an apartment before leaving for Jamaica where he remarried to the daughter of a planter.  Apart from occasional visits to Montreal, he remained in Jamaica, fishing and sailing until his death in 1951 – happier, he told his confidantes, than when he was rich.

Ross Names

  • Hugh Ross, the first laird of Balnagowan, was in 1372 the first chief of the Ross clan to adopt the name Ross as his surname.
  • Betsy Ross is credited with having sewn the first American flag in 1776.
  • John Ross, also known as Guwisguwi, was chief of the Cherokee Indian nation from 1828 to 1860.
  • Sir John Ross and his nephew Sir James Ross were 19th century Arctic explorers, the latter leaving his name to Ross Sea in Antarctica.
  • Harold Ross founded the New Yorker magazine in New York in 1925.
  • Diana Ross emerged as the lead singer with the Supremes and then as a best-selling solo artist.

Ross Numbers Today

  • 60,000 in the UK (most numerous in Aberdeen)
  • 96,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 55,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Ross and Like Surnames

The Scottish Highlands were Gaelic-speaking and their clan names appeared first in Gaelic and only later in an English version.  Each clan controlled its own local territory and frequently fought with neighbors.  Many, however, took the clan name in order to receive clan protection.

The clan downfall came following the 1715 and 1745 uprisings with the Battle of Culloden when the clan culture was broken up and clan tartans banned (although they came back into fashion with Queen Victoria a hundred years later).  The Highland clearances, supplanting people for sheep, was a further blow and many Highlanders were forced into emigration, still speaking their native Gaelic, to Canada and then to Australia and New Zealand.

Here are some of the clan surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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