Cunningham History Part I

My maternal grandfather’s mother was a Cunningham and I have written about the first Cunninghams to come to America from Ireland and spread their proud Scots-Irish branches during the birth and development of our country. While the family tree from my great grandmother Mary Ann Cunningham is on firm ground, with sources verifying our direct line to Hugh Cunningham and his wife, the Irish and Scots connections are still a bit tenuous. For once, then, I write of the Cunningham history from the first Cunningham through his many descendants and their accomplishments and struggles.

Around 500 AD, the Dalriada Scots emigrated from Ireland to Scotland, only to confront the Britons and Picts. 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 Wernebald received had been named Cunninghame for centuries, eventually encompassing the northern third of Ayrshire. Following custom, Wernebald’s offspring assumed the name Cunningham, as did the serfs and villeins who worked for the family.The Cunninghams were Lowlanders who looked down on their ‘savage’ neighbors and were often called to fight Highlanders by the Kings of Scotland.



Finlaystone, the ancestral home of Clan Cunningham, is located along the River Clyde in Renfrewshire, west of Glasgow. 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. 

Wernebald (Warnebald) was a vassal of Hugh De Moreville, Constable of Scotland, who gave him the Cunningham lands. Wernebald sounds Scandinavian, perhaps Danish. His son Robert De Cunynghame De Kilmaurs is probably the same Robert who married Richenda De Barclay (Berkeley) and gave the patronage of the Church of Kilmaurs to Kelso Abbey.  He was succeeded by his son, Robert De Cunynghame De Kilmaurs, who had three sons: Robert, William, Sir James. Of the last two there is no descent known. The eldest son, Robert, succeeded him.

Robert De Cunynghame of Kilmaurs is listed as son and heir of Lord of Kilmaurs in a donation to Paisley Abbey about 1240. His son, Hervey De Cunynghame of Kilmaurs, 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 Riddell of Glengarnock, by whom he had two sons: Galfridus–the second son–was ancestor of the Cunninghames of Glengarnock. His eldest son, Sir William Cunynghame, succeeded Hervey in Kilmaurs. He appears in records dated 1269 and 1275 and died in 1285.

He was succeeded by his son, Edward Cunynghame of Kilmaurs, who appears in a record in 1290. His second son, Richard, was ancestor of the Cunninghames of Polmaise. His eldest son, Gilbert Cunynghame of Kilmaurs, was one of Robert De Bruce’s nominees in the competition with John Balliol for the Crown. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Sir Robert Cunynghame of Kilmaurs. He swore fealty to Edward I in 1296, but afterwards joined De Bruce, and was rewarded by him with valuable lands in Kilmaurs. His second son, Andrew, was ancestor of the Cunninghames of Ballindalloch, Drumquhassel, Balbougie, Banton, etc. He died about 1330, and was succeeded by eldest son Sir William Cuninghame of Kilmaurs.

Sir William appears in records in 1350, 1354 and 1364. He married Eleanor Bruce, Countess of Carrick; and in her right was created Earl of Carrick; they had no children. By a previous 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 his second son, Sir William Cuninghame of Kilmaurs, who acquired land by marriage with Margaret, the eldest co-heir of Sir Robert Danielston. 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, and 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, Sir Robert Cuninghame of Kilmaurs. He married Anne, the only daughter of Sir John De Montgomery of Ardrossan in 1425, by whom he had two sons. The second son, Archibald, was the first of the Cunninghames of Waterstoun, now extinct. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Alexander Cunningham, the first Earl of Glencairn.

The Earls Of Glencairn:

  1. (1488): Alexander Cunninghame–Alexander became the Earl of Glencairn in 1488, taking his title from the family’s estate in Dumfriesshire. 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 beside his king.
  2. (1488-1503): Robert Cunninghame–When the Earldom was rescinded by King James IV, Robert was left with only the title of Lord of Kilmaurs.
  3. (1503-1540): Cuthbert Cunninghame–The title was restored to Cuthbert who created the Burgh or Barony of Kilmaurs in 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.
  4. (1540-1547): William Cunninghame–The 4th Earl was active in the cause of the Protestant Reformation. He was loyal to the Crown at first, but when he witnessed the atrocities of the English, he joined the forces of the Reformation and played no small part in the cause.
  5. (1547-1574): Alexander Cunninghame– He supported the Reformers and openly encouraged John Knox to return to Scotland. Known as the “good earl,” Alexander and Knox became firm friends. It is said that Knox gave his first communion under the yew tree which still stands at Finlaystone. On the battlefield, Alexander 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.
  6. (1574-1581): William Cunninghame–He concentrated on trying to cool the on-going blood feud between the Cunninghame and Montgomerie families. He was somewhat successful in establishing bonds of friendship with Campbells, Montgomeries, Boyds, Wallaces, and his own family. This allowed arbitration to adjudicate disputes between families.
  7. (1581-1629): James Cunninghame–James did not support the work of his father. Thus, the Cunninghame-Montgomerie feud was renewed in local skirmishes and bloody battles followed the murder of Hugh, 4th Earl of Eglinton at Stewarton by Cunninghams. Although he denied knowledge of the affair, James was never able to remove suspicion until he took legal action to counter the charges laid against him. 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. He subsequently commissioned the erection of a sculptured mural in that part of the Parish Church known as the Glencairn Aisle.
  8. (1629/30-1631): William Cunninghame–William’s reign as the Earl was short and it is unclear when he assumed the title because the exact date of his father’s death is open to question.
  9. (1631-1664): William Cunninghame–A consistent supporter of Charles I, the 9th Earl was forced to forfeit his title to the Scottish Parliament, but when he realized the possibility of Scotland being drawn into the feud between Charles and his Parliament in London, William’s support quickly evaporated. His title was restored and, following the execution of Charles I, William 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, then engaged 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 against Cromwell’s government. When the kingdom was restored, Charles II rewarded him with an appointment as Privy Councilor. He was elevated to Lord Chancellor but further political intrigues reduced his powers to almost nothing and he died a disillusioned, broken man.
  10. (1664-1670): Alexander Cunninghame–His time as Earl was spent in comparative peace concentrating salvaging family property from litigation stemming from family feuds of former days. On his death his brother John succeeded to the title.
  11. (1670-1703): John Cunninghame—John was a committed Royalist and was appointed a Commissioner of the Crown, empowered to enforce laws abhorrent to the Covenanters’ cause. This role earned him the dislike of many in Western Scotland, as the Covenanters considered that the new laws (which affected the Church and its ministers) were a return to the days before the  reformation. John’s enthusiasm for enforcement waned and he and other Cunninghames became supporters and defenders of the Covenanter cause.
  12. (1703-1734): William Cunningham–His 31 years as Earl were uneventful. He was appointed Privy Councilor and served as the Governor of Dumbarton Castle, previously held by his father. The Cunninghams by this time were residents at their Finlaystone home in Renfrewshire but still had business interests in the Kilmaurs. William and his wife lost seven of their eight sons.
  13. (1734-1775): William Cunningham–Like his forebears William was involved in the affairs of the Church and became embroiled in bitter wrangling in the Laigh Kirk in Kilmarnock. The root of the problem was internal politics of the Church which occasioned Robert Burns to write “The Ordination.” William’s presentation of a “New Light” minister displeased the congregation to the point of rioting. His marriage to Elizabeth Macquire was not approved of by the aristocracy, as his wife was the daughter of a carpenter and traveling fiddler. From this marriage his son, James, succeeded to the title.
  14. (1775-1791): James Cunningham–To Burns enthusiasts, James is the best known of the Cunninghams. 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. James 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’ journey back from Portugal ended at Falmouth where he died of a severe illness on 30 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,” is an emotional eulogy for the Earl.
  15. (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 (Anglican!), 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. 

Select Sources

Scots Peerage

Clan Cunningham (

Ayrshire History (

Part 2 will focus on the Cunninghams who moved from Scotland to Ireland on the Ulster Plantation.


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