Select Cunningham Surname Genealogy

Here are some Cunningham stories and accounts over the years:

Cunningham Origins

There have been a number of theories as to the origin of the place-name Cunninghame in Ayrshire. 

One source has suggested that the name came either from the Danish appellation 'of “King's House” or from the Gaelic cuineag, meaning “milkchurn.”  Others have suggested the root as cyning meaning “king” or coney as “rabbit.”  And then there has been the suggestion that the name derived from that of Cunedda ap Edern or Cunetacius, an early leader of the Welsh who lived in the 5th century.  

It was said by Chalmers in his Caledonia that the settlement of Kilmaurs in Ayrshire was known as Conygham until it was changed sometime in the 13th century.  By that time the family had adopted the surname of Cunynghame.   Paterson, a man brought up in Kilmaurs parish, has argued that the original name of Kilmaurs was Cunigham and that the local people pronounced it that way until relatively recently.   The modern view is that the name Kilmaurs was derived from the Gaelic Cil Mor Ais, meaning “Hill of the Great Cairn.” 

The various branches of the family have spelt their name differently: 
  • as Cunninghame for Glencairn and Corsehill 
  • as Cuninghame for Caddel and Monkredding  
  • as Cunningham for Baidland and Clonbeith  
  • and finally as Cuningham for Glengarnock.

Cunninghame at the Time of Macbeth

In Robert Cunnighame’s manuscript written in 1740, the original Cunningham was called Friskin and he lived at the time of Macbeth. 

Macbeth's men were almost upon King Malcolm when Malcolm saw a peasant named Friskin turning hay in a barn nearby.  Friskin hid Malcolm who then escaped to England with Friskin as his retainer.  Malcolm later returned to Scotland with an army and killed Macbeth at the Battle of Lumphanan in 1057. 

The grateful King gave Friskin the thanedom of Cunninghame and the family took that name, together with the motto of '”over fork over” which they have retained to this day.  It was also said that the Cunninghames were Masters of the King's horses and that they took their motto from this position in the punning way which was typical of the armorial bearings and mottos of a number of aristocratic families.

The Cunninghams of Finlaystone Castle

It was Sir Alexander Cunningham who moved the seat of the Cunningham clan to Finlaystone in 1484.  He had helped King James II defeat the Douglas' and was to be made Lord Kilmaurs and the 1st Earl of Glencairn by royal charter.  However, Sir Alexander was killed along with his king at the Battle of Sauchieburn and his titles were stripped of him.  But his son Robert Cunningham managed to retain his title and to keep Finlaystone as the family seat. 

Finlaystone received John Knox, the founder of Scottish Presbyterianism in 1556, and Robbie Burns, the poet, in 1791.  But Finlaystone later came into the hands of William Cunningham Cunningham-Graham, a gambler and a forger known as Wicked William.  Finlaystone fell victim to a card game which Wicked William lost to a Colonel Archibald Campbell, after which no Cunningham or relative of the Cunninghams owned the estate.  

Early Cunninghams in Ireland

The villages of Newtown Cunningham and Manor Cunningham in east Donegal were where some of the original Cunninghams from Scotland settled in 1610. 

The story goes that these migrants were a group of notorious cattle and sheep thieves who had been 'persuaded' by their neighbors to leave Ayrshire and move to Ireland where their talents might be put to better use. 

Instead, they were apparently personally selected by the Duke of Lennox who had received large land grants in the area.  He was from Ayrshire and chose Cunninghams that he knew.  Among them were Sir James Cunningham, who was granted 2,000 acres, and John Cunningham, Cuthbert Cunningham and another James Cunningham who each received 1,000 acres.  It was John Cunningham who established Newtown Cunningham.  His grave can still be found in the local churchyard. 

A Conyngham family from Ayrshire acquired the Springhill estate in Derry around 1630.  Some sort of farm dwelling was constructed on the site at that time, but this was almost certainly destroyed during the 1641 Rebellion.  The house which stands there today was built about 1680.  The family living there later became known as the Lenox-Conynghams. 

Samuel Blair Cunningham of Jonesborough, Tennessee

Samuel Blair Cunningham, the oldest child of Ebenezer and Martha Cunningham, was born in Limestone, Tennessee in 1797.  He was one of the first physicians of the town of Jonesborough.  He was also, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel edition of February 22, 1908, the man who built the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad. 

"In 1837 the subject of railroads was agitated throughout East Tennessee.  One plan was to build a railroad along the course the South and Western is now taking; another was from Cincinnati via Cumberland Gap to Charleston, South Carolina.  The latter road secured a charter about 1838.  But it was Dr. S. B. Cunningham who finally engineered and built the road from Knoxville to Bristol. 

Dr. Cunningham lifted the first shovel of dirt and drove the last spike when the road was completed.  He gave up a large practice and took the presidency of the East Tennessee & Virginia railroad at a very small salary, devoting his whole time to the construction equipment and management of the road.  He was constantly at work for seven years and forty five days before he saw his dream of a railroad through the valley of East Tennessee. 

When this road was completed in 1858, it meant rails all the way from Chattanooga to Lynchburg.” 

The much told story is that Dr. Cunningham sacrificed his practice as a noted physician to promote the first railroad to Jonesborough.  It was said that he wanted the tracks to run in front of his large Federal-style home so he could sit on one of his porches and watch the trains go by on their way between Bristol and Knoxville.  Much to his disappointment, the terrain forced the tracks to be built behind his house.  Dr. Cunningham died in Jonesborough in 1867.

ABC and Alan Cunningham of World War Two

The Cunninghams distinguished themselves in World War Two, notably Sir Arthur Browne Cunningham (known as ABC), who was the Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, and his younger brother General Sir Alan Cunningham who led the British forces in East Africa. 

These Cunninghams were Scottish and can be traced back to Paisley and Daniel Cunningham, an ironmonger born there in 1777.  One line goes via his elder son Rev. John Cunningham, a Presbyterian minister and Church historian, to Dr. Daniel Cunningham, a distinguished professor of anatomy at the universities in Dublin and Edinburgh, and then to his sons Arthur (ABC) and Alan. 

Another line, via the Rev. John’s younger brother Daniel, moved south of the border to the Birkenhead area.

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