Turnbull Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Turnbull Meaning

This Scottish surname started out as a nickname, for a man thought to
have been strong enough to turn back a charging bull.  Turnbull
has it that it was a name bestowed by Robert the
Bruce on the clan leader for this act of bravery.   The
Turnbulls were a Border clan and Turnbulls were to be found on both the
Scottish and English sides of the border.

Trimble, Trumble, and Trumbull are all possible variants of Turnbull.

Turnbull Resources on

Turnbull Ancestry

The Turnbull
clan is thought to have descended from the Rule family of Roxburghshire
on the
Scottish borders, named after the Rule river in Hobkirk parish.  The first recording of the name was in 1315
when William Turneball was awarded lands at Philiphaugh.  A
Turnbull later lost his life against the English in humiliating fashion
at Halidon

These Turnbulls became a notorious Border reiver
clan from their base at Bedrule castle.
records that the Turnbulls could easily put 500 reivers into the saddle
one of their forays.  In 1513, Lord Dacre
led an English army through the Rule valley for an assault on the
reivers.  But George Turnbull quickly
rallied 700
Turnbulls, Kerrs, Douglases, and Scotts and defeated the invaders in
the battle
of Sclaterford.  In 1545 the English destroyed the Turnbulls’ main
fortress, Bedrule castle, in retaliation.

History also recorded territorial land disputes between the Turnbulls
and their neighbors the Stewarts.  John Turnbull held the Minto
lands along the Teviot river in 1390.   The land then
reverted to the Stewarts.  But the Turnbulls then came to be
predominant from about 1530 onwards.

the crowns of Scotland and England became one under James VI of
Scotland in
1603, many members of Border clans like the Turnbulls were
dispersed to northern England, elsewhere in Scotland, and to Ireland.

By the time
of the 1891 Census
, the Turnbull numbers in Scotland were
down to 20
percent in the Borders and there were more Turnbulls in
than in Scotland.

England.  The
between Scotland and England was porous and many
families would move into the Cheviot Hills
and the northern lands of Northumberland, depending on the
politics of the
day.  One
family line in Northumberland traces itself back to Mark
who was born
in Chester-le-Street in 1616.

Those who became “English” often changed
from their Presbyterian roots to Church of England.  For
example, John Turnbull was born at Roddam
in 1789 in the Anglican parish of Ilderton, but was baptized in the
Presbyterian church at Branton.

Adam Turnbull, a keelman, was recorded as dying in
Newcastle in 1744 at the mighty age of 112.
He had married four times, the last when he was over 100 years
old.  It was said that he could walk twelve
miles a
day until within three years of his death.

Joe Turnbull was the first piper of the Duke of
Northumberland at Alnwick castle.  There
is a picture of him, painted in 1756, playing his pipes at the castle.

Turnbulls began to move south for work reasons in the early 1800’s, to
Tyneside and later to the Durham coalfields.  Many Turnbulls
coal miners.   Joseph Robinson’s 2007 book Tommy Turnbull – A Miner’s Life
described the life of one such miner.

Ireland.  In Ireland the
Turnbulls settled in county
Donegal under the name of Rule, in Antrim under the name of Trimble,
and in the rest of Ulster under the name of Turnbull.

Canada.  Thomas
Turnbull and his
family arrived in Pictou county, Nova Scotia in 1776 as part of an
early Scottish
settlement.  Little was known about the
family as they had been picked up in the Isle of Man as “fugitives from
Scotland.”  These Turnbulls settled in McClennan’s Brook.

Another Turnbull family was based in Digby,
Nova Scotia.  Their story was recounted in
John F. Turnbull’s 1960 book The History
of the Turnbull Family of  Digby.

Turnbull family of
Charleston, South Carolina, who owned numerous plantations in
Mississippi in
the antebellum period, were descendants of the Scottish doctor Andrew Turnbull who had led
a failed
attempt to establish a British colony in Florida.

The Turnbull
numbers have been fewer in America than in Canada.  One
set of
Turnbulls settled in America near Canada, Thomas Turnbull and his
family arriving at Rossie on the St. Lawrence in upstate New
in the 1830’s.  Trumbulls from Northumberland,
possibly at one time Turnbulls, were a noted Connecticut family.
Some Scottish Turnbulls in Virginia became Trumbles when they settled
in Texas in the 1850’s.

Australia.  John and Ann
Turnbull arrived from Scotland with other Presbyterians on the Coromandel in 1802.  They
settled at Ebenezer along the Hawkesbury river in NSW.  The
Turnbulls’ sandstone home, completed in 1810, still stands.  They
have a
large number of descendants living in Australia today, including the
Liberal politician Malcolm Turnbull.
family story was related in Dorothy and Roy Turnbull’s 2002 book Turnbulls on the Coromandel.


Turnbull Miscellany

The Story of Turnbull.  A legendary account of the Turnbull name was told by Hector Boece in his History
of Scotland
.  Boece told of the legend during the Wars of
Independence that William of Rule saved King Robert Bruce by
wrestling to the ground a bull that had charged at the King.  For this feat, the King rewarded William with
the lands of Philiphaugh, now part of Selkirk, and dubbed Rule
“Turnebull” (the “e” was later dropped from the name).

The poet John Leyden wrote in 1801:

“His arms robust the hardy hunter flung

Around his bending horns, and upward wrung,

With writhing force his neck retorted round,

And rolled the panting monster to the ground,

Crushed, with enormous strength, his bony skull;

And courtiers hailed the man who turned the bull.”

But there are those that doubt the veracity of the story:  “Like many other similar tales, the story is made to fit the name rather than the reverse.  If the surname was acquired through any
achievement, it is much more probable to have resulted from a daring
act in the
brutal sport of bull-running, which was popular from time immemorial up
to the
last century.”

In fact this story resembles other stories of clan leaders
and their legendary exploits that were probably made up after the event.

A Turnbull Vanquished at Halidon Hill.  Before the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333, a
champion on the Scottish side, a huge man named Turnbull, accompanied by his
huge black mastiff, approached the English host and challenged
anyone to
single combat.

Sir Robert Benhale, a
Norfolk knight, answered the challenge.  He started by
killing the mastiff.  This evidently disconcerted
Turnbull and the Englishman sliced off his arm and then his head.
He returned to the English host with the trophy of Turnbull’s

Bedrule Castle.  The oldest
and largest stronghold in the Rule valley was undoubtedly Bedrule
Castle, some four
miles southwest of Jedburgh, built in the 13th century by the Comyns.  The castle stood on a bluff jutting out from
rising ground on the right bank of Rule Water.

On the death of the Red Comyn at the hands of
Robert the Bruce in 1306, all the Comyn’s lands were forfeited.  Before 1320 the castle had been added to the
Douglas possessions.  Sir James Douglas
installed a Turnbull as its occupant and members of that branch of the
remained there for many generations.

The Turnbull fortunes declined in the 1500’s with Sir Thomas
Turnbull of Bedrule.  Bedrule castle itself was destroyed by the
English in 1545 during a
raid.  The Turnbulls continued in heritable possession until about
end of
the 18th century.  An American Wally Turnbull acquired the land

Turnbulls in the 1891 Census

Location Numbers (000’s) Percent
Scottish Border counties    2.5    20
(mainly in Roxburghshire)
Elsewhere in Scotland    2.9    23
English Border counties    5.1    40
(mainly in Northumberland and
Elsewhere in England    2.3    17
Total   12.8   100

 Andrew Turnbull in Florida.  Andrew Turnbull,
a Scottish physician from Melrose in Roxburghshire, had married the daughter of
a wealthy Smyrna merchant.  Her money
enabled him to mix in London political circles and to secure some large
grants in the new and unsettled territory of Florida.
In 1767 he assembled 1,400 putative colonists
recruited from a number of Mediterranean countries and they set off for
in eight vessels.

named his new colony New Smyrna after
the birthplace of his wife.  But his
inability to produce marketable crops in quantities large enough to
satisfy his
investors cost him their support, as well as that of the British
government. Half
of his colonists died in the next ten years.
The end of the New Smyrna colony came in 1777 when the
plantation was
virtually abandoned by most of the surviving colonists who fled to the
and security of St. Augustine.

the inevitable accusations and lawsuits that
followed the settlement’s demise, Dr. Turnbull was temporarily
imprisoned but
then released.  He and
his family moved to Charleston on the South Carolina coast, where he
lived out the remainder of his life.

Thomas Turnbull in Upstate New York.  The town
of Rossie is located by the St. Lawrence river in the northern part of
New York
state.  The town was founded in 1813 and an
iron foundry was built there two years afterwards.  Thomas
Turnbull arrived with his wife Elizabeth
from Jedburgh in Scotland some fifteen years later.  Thomas
was a farmer there.  He also owned a
sawmill and a shingle mill and
became one of its civic leaders, serving as a Justice of the

Thomas enjoyed writing poetry and one of his poems
is shown below:

“Jesus my savior ever dear

O! bind me by loves sacred tye

That casteth out all doubt and fear

And hold me steadfast till I die

O! grant to me that living faith

That works by love and purifies

That triumphs in the hour of death

And anchors safe beyond the skyes

Here Jesus my dear Savior’s gone

A mention to prepare for me

That I may stand before his throne

Acquitted in Eternity.  Amen.”

Thomas died in Rossie in 1882 at the age of 85.


Turnbull Names

  • William Turneball, a contemporary of Robert the Bruce, was the first to bear the Turnbull name.
  • William Turnbull from Bedrule
    became Bishop of Glasgow in 1448 and later founded Glasgow University.
  • George Turnbull was called the first railway engineer of India, having laid the first line there between Calcutta and Delhi in the 1850’s.
  • Stephen Turnbull is a best-selling author who writes about medieval Japan and its people.

Select Turnbull Numbers Today

  • 21,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Durham)
  • 3,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 13,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)


Select Turnbull and Like Surnames

The border between Scotland and England was a lawless area for well over three hundred years and the subject of many stories and hearsays.  Families on both sides of the border took part in the raids, attacking villages and stealing cattle on the way.  Eventually, following the unification of the Scottish and English crowns in 1603, the area was pacified.  There were mass executions and banishments, many to the new Protestant colony in Ulster.  These were some of the prominent Border family surnames at that time that you can check out.




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