Turnbull Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Turnbull Surname 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 tradition 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 Surname Resources on The Internet

Turnbull Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Borders) and Northern England
  • to Ireland (Ulster), Canada, America and Australia

Scotland.  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 Hill.

These Turnbulls became a notorious Border reiver clan from their base at Bedrule castle. History records that the Turnbulls could easily put 500 reivers into the saddle on 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.

When 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 England than in Scotland.

England.  The border between Scotland and England was porous and many Turnbull 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 Turnbull 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 nearby 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 became 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.

AmericaThe 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 York 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 who became Australia’s Prime Minister in 2018.  The family story was related in Dorothy and Roy Turnbull’s 2002 book Turnbulls on the Coromandel.

Turnbull Surname 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 Scottish 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 head.

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 soon installed a Turnbull as its occupant and members of that branch of the family 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 devastating raid.  The Turnbulls continued in heritable possession until about the end of the 18th century.  An American Wally Turnbull acquired the land recently.

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 land 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 Florida in eight vessels.

Turnbull 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 safety and security of St. Augustine.

In 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 Peace.

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.
  • Malcolm Turnbull was Australia’s Prime Minister from 2015 to 2018.

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)

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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Written by Colin Shelley

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