Cunningham History

The name Cunningham, which according to some may signify “courage in battle,” could have come from “Cunedda” who was a king of the “Gododdin,” a Celtic branch of Britons known by the Romans as the “Votadini.” When the Dalriada Scots emigrated from Ireland in about 500AD, they were confronted by the Strathclyde Britons, the Gododdin Britons and the Picts. The name Cunedda eventually led to the names and words Cyning, Kynge and finally King. The “ham” signifies “hamlet” or small town and was probably added in Norman times. Still others claim that in the Celtic language Cunedda was rendered as Cinneidigh (meaning ugly or grim-headed). The name gradually became especially associated with the district of Carrick in Ayrshire, Scotland.

The word “cunning” could mean “coney” or rabbit. This theory is popular because the coat of arms of the Earls of Glencairn reflects two coneys as the supporters. It is interesting to note that in a Gaelic on-line dictionary, the word “coney” (or rabbit) translates as “coinean” and the name Cunningham translates as “coineagan.” Another translation is “milk pail” from the Gaelic word “cuineag.” This theory seems the least plausible.
Despite these different translations, it seems safe to say that the district took its name from the original Cunedda family of Britons. In the twelfth century, Hugh de Moreville granted the manor of Cunninghame and most of the parish of Kilmaurs to his loyal warrior, Wernebald, progenitor of the Earls of Glencairn. The land which Wernebald received had been named Cunninghame for several centuries.

Clan Cunningham was a Lowland Family, as opposed to a Highland Clan. Historically, few of the worldly Lowlanders communicated with the Highlanders whom they saw as savage, dangerous and ignorant. Like the ancient Romans, Lowlanders mostly ignored their heathen neighbors to the North. Even the Scottish kings found it difficult to control the Highlanders, so they looked to Lowland families like the Cunninghams and the Earls of Glencairn, for support.

Finlaystone, the ancestral home of the Clan Cunningham, is located along the Clyde River in Renfrewshire, near Langbank. It came to the Cunninghams in 1399 when Sir William Cunningham, Lord of Kilmaurs, married Margaret, the daughter of Sir Robert Danielston of that Ilk, who presented his new son-in law with Finlaystone in Renfrewshire, Glencairn in Dumfriesshire, Danielston and Kilmarnock. William’s grandson, Alexander, became the first Earl of Glencairn in 1488.

Origins of the Clan Cunningham in Scotland

I. Warnebald is the earliest known in the Cunningham line and was a vassal under Hugh de Morville, constable of Scotland, about the middle of the twelfth century; from from which he obtained land in Cunninghame in the vicinity of Kilmaurs. The name of Warnebald is evidently Gothic, and may indicate a Danish descent. Nowhere is records does he appear to have used a surname. He was succeeded by his eldest son,

II. Robert de Cunynghame de Kilmaurs. Robert de Cunynghame de Kilmaurs is possibly the same Robert who married a Richenda Barclay or Berkeley.  This Robert de Cunynghame is the one who gave the patronage of the Chruch of Kilmaurs to the Abbey of Kelso.  He was succeeded by his son,

III. Robert de Cunynghame de Kilmaurs. He had three sons: 1. Robert; 2. William; 3. Sir James. Of the last two there is no descent now known. The eldest son, Robert, appears to have succeeded him.

IV. Robert de Cunynghame of Kilmaurs is shown as son and heir of Robert Cunninghame Lord of Kilmaurs, in a donation to the Abbey of Paisley, about the year 1240; which corresponds, in time, as a successor to the preceding. His son was,

V. Hervey de Cunynghame of Kilmaurs, who participated at the battle of Largs against the Danes in 1263 and was granted a charter in 1264 for his gallant service. He died before 1268. He married the heiress of Riddele of Glengarnock, by whom he had two sons: 1. Galfridus – the second son, was ancestor of the Cunninghames of Glengarnock. His eldest son,

VI. Sir William Cunynghame succeeded him in Kilmaurs. He appears in records dated 1269 and 1275 and died in 1285. He was succeeded by his son,

VII. Edward Cunynghame of Kilmaurs appears in a record in 1290. His second son, Richard, was ancestor of the Cunninghames of Polmaise—a family not now known by that name. His eldest son,

VIII. Gilbert Cunynghame of Kilmaurs was one of Robert Bruce’s nominees in the competition with Balliol. He was succeeded by his eldest son,

IX. Sir Robert Cunynghame of Kilmaurs. He swore fealty to Edward I. in 1296, but afterwards changed and joined with Bruce, and was rewarded by him with some valuable lands in the parish of Kilmaurs—part of the spoils of the Balliol party. His second son, Andrew, was ancestor of the Cunninghames of Ballindalloch, Drumquhassel, Balbougie, Banton, &c. He died about the year 1330, and was succeeded by his eldest son,

X. Sir William Cuninghame of Kilmaurs. He appears in several records, as in 1350, 1354 and 1364. He married Eleanor Bruce countess of Carrick; and in her right was created Earl of Carrick; by this lady he had no issue; by a former marriage he had three sons. His third son, Thomas, was ancestor of the Cunninghames of Caprington. The eldest son predeceased him, without issue. He was succeeded by the second son,

XI. Sir William Cuninghame of Kilmaurs, who acquired a great addition to the family estate, by marriage with Margaret, the eldest co-heir of Sir Robert Danielstoun. His part of that vast property was the lands or baronies of Danielstoun and Finlaystoun, in Renfrewshire; Kilmarnock, in Dunbartonshire; Redhall and Colintoun, in Midlothian; together with Glencairn, in Dumfrieshire, afterwards the chief title of the family. He died in 1418. His second son, William, was ancestor of Cunninghamhead.  His third son, Henry, appears in 1417 in a transaction at Irvine. He was succeeded by his eldest son,

XII. Sir Robert Cuninghame of Kilmaurs. He married in 1425, Anne, the only daughter of Sir John de Montgomery of Ardrossan, by whom he had two sons. The second son, Archibald, was the first of the Cunninghames of Waterstoun, a family now extinct. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Alexander Cunningham, the first Earl of Glencairn.

The Earls Of Glencairn: A Chronological Listing

The following is a brief summary of the part of the Cunningham clan history that covers the Earls of Glencairn. The Glencairn lineage can be traced as follows:

1st Earl (1488): Alexander Cunninghame

Alexander became the Earl of Glencairn in 1488. Took his title from the family’s estate/property located in Dumfrieshire. His title prior to being granted the earldom was Lord Kilmaurs. Receiving his title for battle services at Blackness, Alexander was killed in the same year at the Battle of Sauchieburn.

2nd Earl (1488-1503): Robert Cunninghame

When the Earldom was rescinded by King James IV, Robert was left with only the title of the Lord of Kilmaurs

3rd Earl (1503-1540): Cuthbert Cunninghame

The title was restored to Cuthbert who created the Burgh of Barony of Kilmaurs in the year 1527. This was introduced in the form of a charter which granted 280 Scots acres to 40 “tennamenters”, each of whom would hold a fortieth part of the total area.

4th Earl (1540-1547): William Cunninghame

The 4th Earl was active in the cause of the Reformation. At first, he was loyal to the Crown but when he witnessed the atrocities of the English, he joined the forces of the Reformation and played no small part in the cause.

5th Earl (1547-1574): Alexander Cunninghame

Like his father, he supported the Reformers and openly encouraged John Knox to return to Scotland. Known as the “good earl”, Alexander and Knox became firm friends. In fact, it is said that Knox gave his first communion under the yew tree which still stands at Finlaystone. While on the battlefield, Alexander was no slouch. He mustered and led 2,500 men to Perth to defend the cause and also opposed Mary Queen of Scots’ return to Scotland. He disavowed her marriage to Darnley and in the name of the Protestant forces, was in the forefront in the battles of Carberry Hill and Langside.

6th Earl (1574-1581): William Cunninghame

He did not seek to emulate his father but concentrated his efforts in trying to cool the on-going and bloody feud between the Cunninghame and Montgomerie families.

7th Earl (1581-1629): James Cunninghame

His father had some success in the setting up of a bond of friendship with the families of Cunninghames, Campbells, Montgomeries, Boyds, and Wallaces, which was in effect a form of arbitration to avoid and/or adjudicate on disputes between the families. James, however, did not support the work of his father. The Cunninghame-Montgomerie feud was renewed in the form of local skirmishes and the bloody battle was in full flood with the murder of Hugh, 4th Earl of Eglinton at Stewarton. Although denying all knowledge of the affair, James never quite shook off suspicion until he took legal action to counter the charges which were laid against him and others. These charges reached the Scottish Parliament, and while litigation dragged on, many of the Cunninghames and Montgomeries were killed or fled the country. In the end James was exonerated and agreed to friendly negotiations with the Montgomeries. It was James who commissioned the erection of a sculptured mural in that part of the Parish Church known as the Glencairn Aisle.

8th Earl (1629/30-1631): William Cunninghame

William’s reign as the Earl was a short one. There is no clear indication as to when he assumed the title principally because (according to McNaught) there is a doubt regarding the exact date of his father’s death.

9th Earl (1631-1664): William Cunninghame

A consistent supporter of Charles 1st, the 9th Earl was obliged to forfeit his title to the Scottish Parliament, but in time when he realized the possibility of Scotland being drawn into the feud between Charles and his Parliament in London, William’s support for the monarch quickly diminished. His title was restored and following the execution of Charles 1st, the 9th Earl fought with the Highland clans against General Monk when Cromwell invaded Scotland. Following a personal duel and skirmishes in the ranks he withdrew his forces/ thereafter engaging Monk’s columns at Dumbarton where overwhelming odds forced him to surrender on honorable terms. He returned home but was thrown into prison on suspicion of plotting/ but following the Restoration, Charles 2nd rewarded him with the appointment of Privy Councilor. A few years later he was elevated to Lord Chancellor but further political intrigues reduced his powers to almost nothing and he died a disillusioned man.

10th Earl (1664-1670): Alexander Cunninghame

His time as Earl was spent in comparative peace and quiet concentrating mainly on the salvaging of family property in respect of litigation stemming from the family feuds of former days. On his death his brother John succeeded to the title.

11th Earl (1670-1703): John Cunninghame

While his brother, Alexander, had presented a profile of non-involvement, this was not the style of John. He was at first a Royalist and as a committed one he was appointed a Commissioner of the Crown. As such he was empowered to enforce laws which were abhorrent to the Covenanter’s cause. This role earned him the dislike of many in the West of Scotland, as the Covenanters considered that the legal requirements (which affected the Church and its ministers) as being tantamount to a return to the days before the  reformation. However, in time, John’s enthusiasm for enforcement disappeared and he and other members of the wider family of Cunninghames became firm supporters and defenders of the cause.

12th Earl (1703-1734): William Cunningham

His 31 years as Earl were comparatively uneventful. He was appointed Privy Councilors and served as the Governor of Dumbarton Castle, an appointment which had been previously held by his father. The Cunninghams by this time were, more or less, residents at their Finlaystone home in Renfrewshire. However, they still had business interests in the Kilmaurs area but William and his wife had much sorrow, as of their eight, sons, only one survived.

13th Earl (1734-1775): William Cunningham

Like many of his forebears William was involved in the affairs of the Church and in this connection became embroiled in bitter wrangling in the Laigh Kirk in Kilmarnock. The root of the problem lay in the internal politics of the Church which occasioned Burns to write “The Ordination”. William’s presentation of a “New Light” minister displeased the congregation to the point of rioting. Some years later in an attempt to placate the “Auld Lichts” his new nominee merely upset the “New Lichts”. His marriage to Elizabeth Macquire was not approved of by the aristocracy. His wife was the daughter of a carpenter and traveling fiddler in Glasgow. The romantic story of this marriage is too lengthy to record here except to say that it was from this marriage that his son, James, succeeded to the title as the 14th Earl.

14th Earl (1775-1791): James Cunningham

To Burns enthusiasts, James is the best known of the Cunninghames. As a Representative Peer he had great influence in Edinburgh. On reading the first published work of Robert Burns he became an avid supporter and patron of the bard. It was James who was responsible for the support given to Burns by the Caledonian Hunt who subscribed “one and all” towards the publication of the Edinburgh Edition of the poet’s work. James was not blessed with good health and on medical advice he went to Portugal and warmer climates. His journey back from his vacation was abruptly halted at Falmouth where his condition greatly deteriorated and he died there on 30th January, 1791. Burns was greatly affected by the news of his patron’s death and his great tribute to James; “Lament for James, Earl of Glencairn“, contains all the pathos and emotion of the poet.

15th Earl (1791-1796): John Cunningham

John was the brother of the 14th Earl and early in his career was an officer in the Dragoons. Later he took orders in the Church of England, much to the dismay of his friends in the Scottish Church. On his death he was buried in St. Cuthbert’s, Edinburgh and the title of Earl of Glencairn has remained vacant since 1796.

Additional information on the Earls of Glencairn can be found in the “Scots Peerage”.

In the 12th century many landowners assumed the name of their estates as a last name, as did Wernebald’s sons and grandsons. Eventually Cunningham became the name of the northern third of Ayrshire. Up until 1975, the County of Ayrshire had three districts: Cunninghame in the north, Kyle in the center and Carrick in the south.


Seat of the Cunningham Earls of Glencairn 1399-1796. It is now home to Clan McMillan.

Located just west of Glasgow on the River Clyde, Finlaystone is open to the public.

Visit their website at:

Caprington Castle

Home to the Cuninghame’s of Caprington, one of the cadet lines of the clan.

John Knox Tree at Finlaystone
(Nov. 2005)

Site where Knox gave his first Protestant communion upon returning to Scotland.

Entrance to the Glencairn Aisle

St. Maurs-Glencairn Church in Kilmaurs, Scotland.

Dumbarton Castle

Located across the River Clyde from Finlaystone. The 12th Earl of Glencairn, William Cunningham, served as Governor of Dumbarton Castle.

Robert Burns
1759 -1796

“The bridegroom may forget the bride
was made his wedded wife yestreen;

The monarch may forget the crown
that on his head an hour has been;

The mother may forget the child
that smiles sae sweetly on her knee;

But I’ll remember thee Glencairn
and a’ that thou has done for me”.

Last Stanza from Robert Burns’
“Lament for James, Earl of Glencairn”