Rowan Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Rowan Surname Meaning

The Irish and Scottish surname Rowan has derived from the old Gaelic Ó Ruadain (pronounced o’roo-ahn), meaning “descendant of the red one.”  The root is the Gaelic word ruadh meaning “red.”  What is this red? Does it mean red-haired, ruddy cheeks, or red with blood from battle?  Opinions are divided.

In Scotland Rowan could be a variant of the Roland name. William Rowan of Aberdeen in 1513 appeared earlier as William Rolland.  Irish variants to Rowan have been Ruane and Roane.  The Northern Ireland pronunciation of Rowan is said to sound like “cow”-an.

Rowan Surname Resources on The Internet

Rowan Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Lowland) and from Ireland (Galway)
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America and Canada

Scotland.  The early Scottish Rowans reflected more than one origin of the name. It has been mainly a Lowland name, found principally in the Glasgow/Ayrshire coastal areas.

The line from John Rolland in Glasgow in the 15th century devolved to later Rowans; while Rowans were prominent in the Govan community from the 1600’s onwards.

“The Rowan family, old renters from the Church, had obtained a charter from James VI after the Reformation granting them perpetual rights to their land.  James Rowan of Marylands, a descendant, purchased the Bellahouston estate in 1726. When his descendant Thomas died in 1824, the estate then passed out of Rowan hands.”   

Meanwhile Stephen Rowan was born at Govan in 1690.  Another line began there with Matthew Rowan who was born in Govan in 1753.

There was Rowan emigration to Ulster in Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Their numbers included Andrew Rowan, the son of John Rowan of Greenhead in Govan.

Ireland. The Rowan name, originally O’Ruadain, was mainly to be found in the West of Ireland – from Galway southwards to county CorkSaint Ruadain of Lorrha lived in Tipperary in the sixth century.  Imar Ua Ruaidin was the Bishop of Kilmacduagh in Galway who died in office in 1176, Felix O’Ruadhain the Archbishop of Tuam in 1215.

There were two principal early O’Ruadhain septs:

  • one belonged to the Ui Maine (an ancient territory embracing mid Galway and south Roscommon)
  • and the other was located in Ui Fiachrach (north Mayo, Sligo and south Galway).  The latter were described as “people of property and importance in the barony of Gallen in Mayo.”  O’Ruadhain here sometimes became Ruane, sometimes Rowan.

In addition to these two septs, there was the small sept of O’Robhachain in Clare which became Rowan. They are recorded as accompanying the O’Gradys in the unsuccessful attack on Ballyalla castle in 1642 when all but one of their number were killed.  In Petty’s 1659 Census, the name was prominent among the nobility of Bunratty and East Carbery in Clare and Cork.

Scots Irish.  Rowans in Ulster meant Scots who had crossed the Irish Sea to Ulster.

The Rev. Andrew Rowan from Govan came to Ulster in 1655.  He was a Presbyterian minister and was inducted into the rectory of Clough in county Antrim in 1681.  His notebook, which has been preserved, provides valuable insights about his life and times there.   Andrew Rowan was the ancestor of the Rowans of Mount Davys and Callybackey in Antrim and of the Rowan Hamiltons of Killyleagh in county Down – from whom sprang that remarkable character Archibald Hamilton Rowan.

Related to these Rowans was Robert Rowan, an impoverished landowner at Ahoghill in Antrim in the late 1700’s. He and his wife raised ten children, of whom three turned out to be special:

  • the eldest, John, was a major in the Antrim militia and a Justice of the Peace  
  • Sir Charles was a soldier who fought at the Battle of Waterloo and was the first Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police (from 1829 to 1850).  
  • and Sir William was also at the Battle of Waterloo and later became a Field Marshal, serving as Commander-in-Chief in Canada. 

Sir Archibald Roane from Argyllshire was said to have been granted land in Antrim after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.  Two of his sons came to America.  Andrew was the grandfather of Archibald Roane, the Governor of Tennessee in 1801.

America.  The Rev. John Rowan, a Presbyterian minister in county Antrim, had a number of sons who crossed the Atlantic to America in the early 1700’s:

  • Matthew Rowan came to North Carolina around the year 1724 and was a merchant and shipbuilder in the colony.  He served as acting governor of North Carolina in 1753.  Rowan county was later named in his honor. 
  • his brothers Robert, Hugh and Aicheson followed him there at later dates.

Meanwhile Andrew Rowan arrived in Pennsylvania in 1732, settling in York county.  His line was covered in John Young’s 2008 book The Rowan Book – The Families of Andrew Rowan.  The main line of descent was through his son Captain William Rowan.

Other early Rowans to America were:

  • Henry Rowan who came to Pennsylyania from Ulster in 1732 and settled in the Manor of the Maske in York later Adams county. Some of his descendants migrated to Ohio around the year 1800.
  • John Francis Rowan who arrived in Maryland at the same time.  His son the Rev. John Rowan survived a British cavalry charge at the Battle of Brandywine.  He later moved with his family to Randolph county, West Virginia.  Mabel Baker’s 1980 book The Rev. John Rowan Family charted his family.  
  • and John Rowan who left Ballyhay in Monaghan in 1764 with 300 other Presbyterians following the Rev. Thomas Clark to America.  He settled in Salem, New York.  

Kentucky.  Captain William Rowan migrated with his family from Pennsylvania to Kentucky in 1784, eventually settling in Bardstown.  William’s son John was appointed Kentucky’s Secretary of State in 1804.  He made his home at the Federal Hill mansion in Bardstown. This house was later immortalized in Stephen Foster’s song My Old Kentucky Home.

Alexander Rowan was a plantation owner in Ohio county, Kentucky in the 1830’s.  One of his slaves adopted the Rowan name.  Harry and Catherine Rowan are the forebears of eight generations of African American Rowans that now hold annual reunions.

Canada.   John Rowan was a shoemaker from Newry in county Down who came to Canada in 1831 with his five sons, settling in Manvers township, Ontario. They were all farmers in the area.

Charles Rowan arrived in Bytown near Ottawa from Sligo with his family in 1833.  He was an early land speculator there and kept a hotel for many years.   His son James ran a hotel in Ottawa.   Later members of his family moved to Chicago.

“In 1898 John Rowan was attending a Knights of Columbus dinner in Chicago and was dressed in evening clothes.  He was later found unconscious at his front door. He had been clobbered on the head, leaving a trail of blood.  He died the next day at the age of forty.  The culprits were probably Orange radicals.”

Rowan Surname Miscellany

Saint Ruaidhain of Lorrha.  Saint Ruadháin mac Fergusa Birn was an Irish Christian abbot who founded the monastery of Lorrha in Tipperary.  He was known for his prophesies. After his death in AD 584, he was venerated as a saint and as one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.

The abbey is still there, as is his headstone.  The bell of St. Ruadhain was found in a well named after the saint and has been preserved in the British Museum.

Early Scottish Rowans.  George Fraser Black in his 1946 The Surnames of Scotland defined Rowan as either from (a) Ruadhain, diminutive of Ruadh, meaning ‘red’ or from (b) the Scots pronunciation of Rolland, as with Thomas de Rolland who was the common councillor of Aberdeen in 1439.

He provided the following early Rowan examples:

  • Agnes Rowan who was tenant under the bishop of Glasgow in 1511.
  • Edward Rowane who appeared in Stirling in 1525.
  • Thomas Rowand who was a witness in Glasgow in 1550.
  • John Rowane who was the servitor to Robert Pont of Trinity College, Edinburgh, in 1575.
  • and James Rowane who was a burgess freeman of Glasgow in 1595.

David Rowane, a Frenchman, was engineer to Mary, Queen of Scots in 1557.  He probably derived his surname from the French town of Rouen. 

Reader Feedback – Rowans from Scotland.  I’m a Rowan tracing my family and looking at family mottoes and heraldry.  Our family motto is “haec lucra laborum” which, according to Washbourne’s family crests book, is from the Irish Rowans.

However, my line of Rowans is known to have been in Scotland (Glasgow) since the 1780’s. Wondering if anybody has any historical insights they might share. Was there a period of mass Irish to Scotland immigration before that time?  PS – we’re red heads haha.

Katharine Rowan (

The Wealth of the Rev. Andrew Rowan.  It was said that the Rev. Andrew Rowan grew modestly wealthy from his position of rector at Clough in county Antrim in the early 1700’s.  The following story was told about him by locals in the area:

“On the west side of the street in the village of Clough stood the ruins of an old house that was said to have been the residence of the rector the Rev. Andrew Rowan.   Mr. Rowan was robbed, as tradition says, when an old man. The inhabitants of Clough pointed out the window in the upper story through which the bandits who robbed him entered.  He was heard to say afterwards that no two horses in the parish could have carried his money.  From this I am led to conjecture that all the horses must have been ponies and all his money brass.”

Archibald Hamilton Rowan.  Archibald Hamilton Rowan was born in 1751 in the home of his grandfather, William Rowan, in London. He lived there with his mother and sister for much of his early life.  When his grandfather died in 1767, he inherited a large sum of money under the stipulation that he would add the maternal name Rowan, receive an Oxbridge education, and not visit Ireland before his 25th birthday.

It is thus strange that Archibald, coming from this privileged English position, should espouse the cause of Irish independence.  But his travels to Europe and America in his twenties awakened him to a changing revolutionary tide.  He returned to Ireland in his thirties in 1784.  He quickly became a celebrity there and, despite his wealth and privilege, a strong advocate for Irish liberty.

In 1790 he became a founding member of the Dublin Society of United Irishmen, working alongside well-known radicals of the time.  Three years later he was tried for sedition and sentenced to two years imprisonment at Newgate prison in Dublin.  He later fled to France, fearing a punishment even worse.  He then spent ten years in exile in America.

In 1806 Hamilton Rowan returned home to Ireland, to his ancestral home of Killyleagh castle in county Down, and received a hero’s welcome.  He was now a respected figure, spending time in both Killyleagh and Dublin. While he had agreed to be a model citizen under the conditions of his return to Ireland, he remained active in politics and retained his youthful radicalism.  He lived to be 84 and died in 1834.

Captain William Rowan – from Pennsylvania to Kentucky.  William Rowan and his wife Eliza had a secure life in York county, Pennsylvania in the years before the Revolutionary War.  When the war came, William joined the 4th York Battery and was soon promoted to Captain.  When the war ended, he found his finances more precarious and decided upon moving his family to Kentucky in search of building his fortune.

In October 1783 the Rowans and five other families embarked on a flat bottomed boat near Redstone Creek and began their journey down the Monongahela River toward the Falls of the Ohio.  The travelers expected the journey to last a few days at most.  But ice along the river slowed the journey and a lack of provisions exacerbated the delays.

Three of the families disembarked near what is now Maysville, Kentucky.  The Rowans would later learn that most of them were killed by Indians.

The remaining settlers continued downriver.  When their flatboat neared Yellow Banks, smoke was noticed in the distance.  The Rowans realized the fire had been created by Indians and proceeded with caution. A war whoop was sounded by the Indians and in broken English the Rowans were ordered ashore.  As canoes neared the flatboat, each man grabbed an axe to defend himself. Fortunately the dispute was settled peacefully and there was no harm done to the Rowans.

They reached Louisville, Kentucky in March 1784.  The next month the Rowans and five other families set out for a tract of land on the Long Falls of the Green River that Rowan had purchased before leaving Pennsylvania. The party arrived in May and constructed a fort which they dubbed Fort Vienna.

The fort, then located approximately 100 miles from the nearest white settlement, is the present-day town of Calhoun. The settlers at Fort Vienna frequently clashed with the Shawnee who used the area as a hunting ground. The Rowans would remain at Fort Vienna for six years before moving to Bardstown.

My Old Kentucky Home.  Judge John Rowan built the Federal Hill mansion in Bardstown in 1818.  It had an unhappy early history.  In 1833 an epidemic of cholera killed eight family members and eight slaves within a 24 hour period.

Another tragedy occurred when John Rowan’s son John lost his life.  He was sitting in the window seal of his second-story bedroom with one leg dangling out of the window.  According to his wife Rebecca he dozed off, lost his balance, and fell out of the window.  He hit a tree on the way down and this killed him.  After the shock his wife never slept in that bedroom again.

A house that had once seemed jinxed became immortalized in 1852 when Stephen Foster composed his song My Old Kentucky Home based on Federal Hill.  As the song’s fame spread, so did the popularity of the home.  People poured into Bardstown for a first-hand view of the Rowan home.

In 1920 the state of Kentucky recognized the importance of retaining Federal Hill as a symbolic gesture of American hospitality and decided to enshrine it for future generations.  A commission was formed to investigate and secure the property for a state park. Three years later Federal Hill officially became “My Old Kentucky Home,” with more than 15,000 onlookers cheering the preservation of the home.

In 1928 My Old Kentucky Home was made Kentucky’s state song.  By 1959 the park grew in popularity and new attractions were added, including the “Stephen Foster Story” – an outdoor musical that is considered to be the longest running outdoor musical in America.  In 1975 the park’s attendance reached over 275,000 people annually.

Reader Feedback – Rowans in Mississippi.  My father’s family eventually settled in NE Mississippi. I am researching where my family entered the United States. I have relatives in North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia.

Alfred Rowan (

Reader Feedback – Charles Rowan at Bytown in Canada.  My mother’s maiden name was Rowan.  She and I are descendants of Charles Rowan who arrived in Bytown near Ottawa from Sligo with his family in 1833.

Wally Clemens (

Rowan Names

  • Felix O’Ruadhain was the Archbishop of Tuam in Galway in 1215. 
  • Archibald Hamilton Rowan was a founding member of The Dublin Society of United Irishmen in 1790 and a celebrated advocate for Irish liberty. 
  • Sir Charles Rowan served as the first head of the London Metropolitan Police in 1829. 
  • Judge John Rowan’s home in Bardstown, Kentucky provided the inspiration for Stephen Foster’s song My Old Kentucky Home.

Rowan Numbers Today

  • 5,000 in the UK (most numerous in Glasgow)
  • 6,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 5,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)




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Written by Colin Shelley

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