History of the Cunningham Name
Scottish Lowland Rabbit

The name of Cunningham is a place-name recorded in the early history of Scotland. The District of Cunninghame is shown on an early atlas as the area now known as Renfrewshire and Ayrshire west and southwest of Glasgow, encompassing a large area with many small towns.

Coat of Arms of the Earls of Glencairn

Several Gaelic words are tied into the meaning of this ancient name. Before the lands were inhabited by Friskin (generally considered the progenitor of the Cunninghams), they were called "Cunygan" which comes from the root words "Cunny" or "Coney" meaning rabbit and "Hame" meaning home. Hence comes the meaning "Rabbits Home."

 Some research seems to affirm the word Cunning did indeed come from "coney" or rabbit. This theory is especially popular because the full achievement of arms of the Earls of Glencairn reflects two coneys as the "supporters."  It is interesting to note that in a Gaelic dictionary, the word "coney" (or rabbit) translates as "coinean" and the name Cunningham translates as "coineagan." 

Another translation of "Cunning" is "milk pail" from the Gaelic word "cuineag" and the Saxon "Ham", meaning "village."  The district of Cunninghame's agriculture has traditionally given it the reputation as the "land of milk and butter," but this theory is less plausible.

Around 500 A.D. a group of Teutonic (German) peoples had spelled the name as "Konigheim"; "Koening" (King) with "Heim" (Home); properly signifying "Cunningham" or "Konigheim" as the "Kings Home."

The name Cunningham may be even older than we think.  Kennedy Clan historian Kip Kennedy says "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 Ayshire, Scotland."

Historian and member Nigel D. Cunningham of Australia says "Cunning" originally signified "courage in battle" and came from "Cunedda" who was a king of the "Gododdin," a Celtic branch of Britons known by the Romans as the "Votadini."  The district of Cunninghame (not the surname) may well have taken its name from the Cunedda Britons.

Ancient Briton

.The kingdom of the Gododdin (or Goutodin) centered on its capital of Din Eidyn, later called Edinburgh by the Angles. They also used Traprain Law (Haddington in Lothian) as a substitute capital. This region, between Hadrian's and the Antonine Walls, was under direct Roman military rule between AD 138-162.  Afterwards the area was organized as a buffer state, reaping many of the rewards of alliance with Rome, while not being under its rule. A branch of the Gododdin inhabited the area of Manaw (Manau) around the Forth's headwaters and a natural citadel at Stirling. It is from here that Cunedda Wledig migrated to Wales in about 450AD to found Gwynedd. His pedigree suggests a Roman family in origin, running as follows: Tacitus - Paternus - Aeternus Cunedda. According to BRUT Y BRENHINEDD, a medieval Welsh history, Cunedda's daughter, Gwen, was the mother of Eigyr (Igraine), Arthur's mother, thus making Cunedda Arthur's great-grandfather.  

King Malcolm III

Some say the first to bear the surname Cunningham was Malcolm, son of Friskin. Malcolm had concealed Prince Malcolm, son of King Duncan (1st Historical King of Scotland) as he was making his escape from MacBeth's soldiers following the murder of King Duncan. Upon regaining the throne of Scotland 17 years later, King Malcolm III awarded Malcolm (son of Friskin) the Thanedom of Cunningham for having saved his life.

Other sources say that Warnebaldus de Cunningham was the first to bear the name. In the twelfth century, Hugh de Moreville granted the manor of Cunninghame and most of the parish of Kilmaurs to his loyal warrior. The land which Wernebald received had been named Cunninghame for several centuries. In the 12th century many landowners took the name of their estates as a surname, as did Wernebald's sons and grandsons. It is from Warnebaldus that the Earls of Glencairn and many branches of the Cunningham family are descended.  Eventually the area known as Cunninghame grew in size, taking up the whole northern third of Ayrshire.  


Cunninghame - Ayrshire

The under noted is extracted from: http://www.fairlieburne.co.uk/fairlie.html   

'Topographical description of Ayrshire, more particularly of Cunninghame together with a genealogical account of the principal families in that Bailiwick'. Written by George Robertson, published by the Cunninghame Press, Irvine and printed by Edward McQuistan - 1820.  

"Cunninghame - all that part of Ayrshire to the northward of the Water of Irvine."

Said by Buchanan that 'the name is Danish and signifies the King's House' - but there is no evidence that the Danes inhabited this part of the country or that any king had a house or 'hame' in it. Cunninghame is distinguished, in old sayings, as a country of butter and cheese.

It is more probable that the name is derived from the Gaelic, the ancient language of the inhabitants. If the name were spelt according to the usual Gaelic pronunciation, Cunnigam or Cunnigham, the meaning may be less obscured by the mists of time.

The terms Cunninghame or Conynghame are refinements in modern (sic) orthography which, by deviating from the ordinary pronunciation, confound all etymology. A Gaelic expert stated that Cuinneag means butterchurn and that Cuinneag'am would mean the Churn district.

Expressed in the ancient language of the district, Cuinneag'am, quasi Cunigham, the very mode of spelling used 200 years ago (17th century) by the families of Cunigham of Caprington, and Cunigham or Cunighamhead. (See Supplement to the Retours, date Maii 12th and 18th, 1613.)

Irish Cunninghams

Cunninghams are both Scottish, Irish, and Scots-Irish. In the 17th Century, Cunninghams emigrated from Scotland to Ireland and settled in the Plantation of Ulster. These are now referred to as Scots-Irish. While many of these Scottish settlers later left Ireland and sailed to the colonies in America, the Cunningham name still  remains one of the most prominent in all of Ireland. There is an explanation for the prevalence of Cunninghams in Ireland. There were native Irish whose last name sounded similar to Cunningham. 

Their names were:

Mac Cuinneagain
Mac Cunnigan
O Cuinneagain
O Connachain
O Conaghan
O  Connagain
O Conagan
O Cuineachain
Mac Donnegain

Many of these Irish changed the Gaelic spelling of their name to the Scottish spelling "Cunningham."  The combination of the Scottish and native Irish  Cunninghams made the name among the top 100 most common names in Ireland (74th). 

Want to hear how to pronounce Cunningham in Gaelic?


Ayrshire, Scotland
Donegal, Ireland

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