Early Scottish History


Cunninghame is a territorial name which is found in Ayrshire. It is believed to have derive from Cunninges-holme (King Island). The origin of the word King is not known but the word Cunninges, might link to King Inge, who was a powerful 10th century Viking lord, who briefly help Northumberland.

According to Frederic van Bossen the first to take the name was the late 10th century Kenneth de Cunninghame. This Kenneth was brother of Malcolm, who later in his life took the name Frisken. It was either this Frisken, or a son of Kenneth de Cunningham who also took the name Frisken who was the father of Malcolm the Governor, the Thane of Cunninghame.

The ancestry of Warnebald of Kilmaurs is uncertain, but the name appears to have arisen through marriage, and it is unclear if Warnebald was actually a descendant of Kenneth or his brother Malcolm/Frisken. Around the same time that Warnebald de Kilmaurs lived an Amfred de Legbourne cofounded Alvingham Priory, and Amfred was the ancestor of Robert Cunningham de Somercotes and Gilbert de Cunninghesholme. This Gilbert then sold Cunningesholme to a Robert the son of William, but the transfer appears to have been overturned.

In Scotland it is then recorded that Robertus,  received a grant of the land of Cunningham somewhere between 1160 and 1180.

Over the years, with no authoritative information at hand various stories have arisen, all of which can now be discounted.

The most famous, and the one most commonly quoted is One that Malcolm, son of Friskin, obtained the lands of Cunningham from Malcolm III by sheltering him in a barn and covering him with hay. This is said to give rise to the shake-fork in the family arms and the motto, “Over fork Over”. This is now known to be incorrect, and the original coat of arms of Clan Cunningham is the Bishop Pall Y.

Sir George Mackenzie was  also incorrect in stating that the Arms were actually a reference to the office of Master of the King’s Stables, and it is also known that there is no major link with the Comyns. It has been argued, incorrectly, that the Cunninghams were great allies of the Comyns, whose shield bore sheaves of corn. When that great dynasty was overthrown by the Bruces, the Cunninghams adopted the shake-fork used to fork over sheaves of corn as an ingenious reference to their former allies. There is no evidence in any surviving record of any link to the de Comyn family.

Over the years the family has been involved in may of the most important events in Scottish history. They were supporters of the Bruces in their fight for Scottish independence, although in common with many of the Scottish nobility, and their name appears on the Ragman Roll, which was made up of those swearing allegiance to Edward I of England in 1296. As Robert the Bruce was generous to his supporters, the lands of Lamburgton were added to Kilmaurs (Hervy de Cunningham) by a royal charter in 1319.

A Sir William Cunningham of Kilmaurs was one of the Scottish noblemen offered to David II’s English captors as a substitute hostage in 1354. It is believed that it was William II, the son of this Willam, who married Margaret, the elder daughter and co-heiress of Sir Robert Denniston and through her acquired substantial lands, including Finlaystone in Refrewshire and Glencairn in Dumfriesshire. Sir William’s grandson, Alexander Cunningham, was made Lord Kilmaurs in 1462 and later in 1488 the first Earl of Glencairn. A younger brother was ancestor to the Cunninghams of Caprington who were later to achieve prominence of their own. Other distinguished branches of the family include the Cunninghams of Barns, Somercotes Cunninghamhead, Aiket, Robertland and Corsehill.

The fifth Earl, Alexander Cunningham, was a Protestant reformer and a patron of the reformer, John Knox. He has been accused of being in the pay of the English, who saw the Reformation as an opportunity to place the Scottish Crown in an embarrassing position. Regardless of the truth of this accusation, it is a fact that the Earl of Glencairn did rise against Mary Queen of Scots, and was one of the commanders at the Battle of Carbery Hill as a result of which Mary surrendered in 1567. This Earl of Glencairn is reported to have ordered the destruction of the Chapel Royal at Holyrood.

The Cunninghams also were among the Scottish undertakers of the Plantation of Ulster, and Sir James Cunningham, who was married to a daughter of the Earl of Glencairn, was granted five thousand acres in County Donegal. The Cunningham name is now among the seventy-five most common names in Ulster.

The ninth Earl, William Cunningham, joined with Charles II in his bid to gain his father’s throne. He raised a force of about five thousand in 1653 to oppose General Monck, who was Governor of Scotland. In August of that year he went to Lochearn in Perthshire where he met with some Chiefs of the Highland clans, and with a body of fighting men, he took possession of Elgin in 1654. He announced his commission on behalf of the king to raise all of Scotland against the Protector, Oliver Cromwell. It was a failure, but the Earl of Glencairn escaped with his life and after the Restoration he was appointed in 1661, Lord High Chancellor of Scotland. The title is now extinct.

Sir John Cunningham of Caprington, a distinguished lawyer, was created a Baronet of Nova Scotia by Charles II in 1669. Other prominent Cunninghams include Alexander Cunningham, eighteenth-century historical writer, who was British envoy to Venice from 1715 to 1720. Charles Cunningham was famous for his historical paintings, some of which still hang in the Hermitage Palace in St. Petersburg and in Berlin. Sir William Cunningham of Robertland was a friend of the poet Robert Burns. Alan Cunningham, a poet and writer, whom many believe was only slightly less gifted than Burns himself, was born at Blackwood in Dumfriesshire in 1784. His work was supported by Sir Walter Scott who, on Cunningham’s death in 1828, provided for his two sons.