Clan Cunningham History

The first person to take the name Cunningham was Warnebald or perhaps his son, Robertus, who received a grant of the land of Cunningham somewhere between 1160 and 1180.   It is certain that the Cunninghams were long settled in their lands and the parish of Kilmaurs by the late thirteenth century. Hervy de Cunningham, son of the Laird of Kilmaurs, fought for Alexander III against the Norwegian invaders at the Battle of Largs in 1263. As a result of this service he received from his King a charter of confirmation to all his lands.

Battle of Largs, 1263

The family were supporters of the Bruces in their fight for Scottish independence, although in common with many of the Scottish nobility, 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 royal charter in 1319.

Robert Bruce
Sir William Cunningham of Kilmaurs was one of the Scottish noblemen offered to David II's English captors as a substitute hostage in 1354. His son William 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.
James  III

Sir William's grandson, Alexander Cunningham, was made Lord Kilmaurs in 1462 and later in 1488 the first Earl of Glencairn.  There was a large scale revolt of the Scottish nobles against James III which was joined by his son Prince James.  Alexander Cunningham, Lord Kilmaurs brought a substantial force to the aid of the monarch, defeating the rebels at Blackness and as a result was advanced to the rank of the Earl of Glencairn the same year. Unfortunately, Civil wad broke out a few weeks later and in June 1488, the Earl fell along with  his king at the battle of Sauchieburn.

A younger brother of Alexander Cunningham  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 Cunninghamhead, Aiket, Robertland and Corsehill. However, the fortunes of the family remained firmly in the hands of the main lineage, the Earls of Glencairn.  
The fifth Earl, also named Alexander Cunningham, was a Protestant reformer and a patron of the reformer, John Knox. In 1556 John Knox performed  the first Protestant Reformed Communion service on Easter Sunday under a Yew tree at Finlaystone for the 5th Earl.  Alexander Cunningham had 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 which resulted in Mary's surrender in 1567.  Alexander  is also reported to have ordered the destruction of the Chapel Royal at Holyrood.
John Knox
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. What was to become known as "Glencairn's Rebellion" was a failure, but the Earl escaped with his life and after the Restoration he was appointed in 1661, Lord High  Chancellor of Scotland. The title is now extinct.   Eight years later Sir John Cunningham of Caprington, a distinguished lawyer, was created a Baronet of Nova Scotia by Charles II in 1669.
9th Earl of Glencairn

John, the tenth Earl of Glencairn was a supporter of the Protestant William and Mary who replaced the Catholic King James VII in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. He raised a Regiment of which he was the Colonel and was made a Privy Councilor in 1689 and Captain of Dumbarton Castle.

Robert Burns

There was a very close connection between the Cunninghams and the poet Robert Burns. Sir William Cunningham of Robertland was a close friend of Burns the poet. Burn's more important relationship was with his patron and benefactor,  the 14th Earl of Glencairn.  It was Burns that said James rescued him from "fortune's  murkiest gloom."  

By arranging for the poet's financial stability and introducing him to the elite society and the literati of the time, James Cunningham provided the crucial support the poet needed to become world famous.  In the Cunningham's ancestral home at Finlaystone, there is a pane of glass upon which Robert Burns etched his name. The etching was made with a diamond ring given to him by the Earl.  The pane still resides in "The Bards Room" at the  estate.  So affected was Robert Burns by James' patronage that he named his son James Glencairn Burns in his honor and wrote the following poem upon James Cunningham's death in 1791.

During Burn's lifetime there also lived a renowned Cunningham poet. In 1784 at Blackwood in Dumbfriesshire, poet and writer Alan Cunningham was born.  Many believe Alan was only slightly less gifted than Burns himself.  His work was supported by Sir Walter Scott who, on Alan Cunningham's  death in 1828, provided for his two sons.

Lament  For James Cunningham
14th Earl of Glencairn

Robert Burns 1791

The wind blew hollow frae the hills;
By fits the sun's departing beam
Look'd on the fading yellow woods
That waved o'er Lugar's winding stream.
Beneath a craigy steep, a bard,
Laden with years and meikle pain,
In loud lament bewail'd his lord,
Whom death had all untimely taen.

He lean'd him to an ancient aik,
Whose trunk was mould'ring down with years;
His locks were bleachèd white wi' time,
His hoary cheek was wet wi' tears;
And as he touch'd his trembling harp,
And as he tun'd his doleful sang,
The winds, lamenting thro' their caves,
To echo bore the notes alang.

Ye scatter'd birds that faintly sing,
The reliques of the vernal quire!
Ye woods that shed on a' the winds
The honours of the agèd year!
A few short months, and glad and gay,
Again ye'll charm the ear and e'e;
But nocht in all revolving time
Can gladness bring again to me.

I am a bending agèd tree,
That long has stood the wind and rain,
But now has come a cruel blast,
And my last hold of earth is gane:
Nae leaf o' mine shall greet the spring,
Nae simmer sun exalt my bloom;
But I maun lie before the storm,
And others plant them in my room.

I've seen so many changefu' years,
On earth I am a stranger grown;
I wander in the ways of men,
Alike unknowing and unknown:
Unheard, unpitied, unreliev'd,
I bear alane my lade o' care,
For silent, low, on beds of dust,
Lie a' that would my sorrows share.

And last (the sum of a' my griefs!)
My noble master lies in clay;
The flow'r amang our barons bold,
His country's pride, his country's stay:
In weary being now I pine
For a' the life of life is dead,
And hope has left my agèd ken,
On forward wing for ever fled.

Awake thy last sad voice, my harp!
The voice of woe and wild despair;
Awake, resound thy latest lay,
Then sleep in silence evermair!
And thou, my last, best, only, friend,
That fillest an untimely tomb,
Accept this tribute from the bard
Thou brought from fortune's mirkest gloom.

In poverty's low barren vale,
Thick mists obscure involv'd me round;
Though oft I turn'd the wistful eye,
No ray of fame was to be found:
Thou found'st me, like the morning sun
That melts the fogs in limpid air;
The friendless bard and rustic song
Became alike thy fostering care.

O why has worth so short a date
While villains ripen grey with time?
Must thou, the noble, gen'rous, great,
Fall in bold manhood's hardy prime?
Why did I live to see that day,
A day to me so full of woe?
O had I met the mortal shaft
Which laid my benefactor low!

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 hast done for me!

Other prominent Cunninghams include Alexander Cunningham,  an eighteenth century historical writer and British envoy to Venice from 1715 to 1720. Another famous Cunningham was Charles Cunningham, who is best known for his historical paintings.  Some of his paintings still hang in the Hermitage Palace in St. Petersburg and in Berlin. 

Cunninghams of Ireland

Five Cunninghams were among the 50 Scottish undertakers of the Plantation of Ulster.  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 and today the name is commemorated by the towns of Newtoncunningham and Manorcunningham

The most distinguished Irish branch of the Cunninghams is that of The Marquess Conygham. This line is descended from the Reverend Alexander Conyngham (GG Grandson of William Cnningham, 4th Earl of Glencairn) who left Scotland for Ireland in 1611. Reverend Alexander became Dean of Raphoe in Donegal and his son, Sir Albert Conyngham became Lieutenant General of the Ordnance in Ireland. Sir Albert fought at the Battle of the Boyne with King William. In 1753 his grandson Henry was made Baron Conyngham.
Henry was further advanced to the rank of Baron and Earl Conyngham in 1756, having served for over a quarter of a century as a Member of Parliament. The Irish Earldom did not survive Henry's death, however, but the Barony passed to his nephew Francis Pierpont Burton who assumed it with the name and arms of Conyngham. Henry, the 3rd Baron, was a General in the Army, a Knight of St. Patrick, Lord Steward of the Royal Household and Governor of Windsor Castle. After a succession of advances in rank in the Peerage, he was eventually created Marquess Conyngham in 1816.  His son Francis, the second Marquis, was also a General and Knight of St. Patrick; he was Government Minister and Lord Chamberlain. The military tradition of the Conynghams continued with George Henry, 3rd Marquees who was a Lieutenant General and Equerry to Queen Victoria.
The Cunninghams distinguished themselves militarily throughout the 20th century. During World War II the top command of all three British Services in the Middle East, then the main theater of operations, was held by senior officers of the name.  Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham (later Admiral of the Fleet, Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope) was commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet; his brother, General Alan Cunningham was in command of the 8th Army in the desert, while the Royal Air Force in the theater was under the command of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham.

Cunningham-Montgomery Feud

The feud between the Cunninghams and the Montgomerys remains arguably the bloodiest and longest feud in Scottish history, lasting from the mid 15th century to the mid 17th century. They were both prominent clans in the northern lowlands of Ayershire on the Irish Sea.

The origins of the feud can be traced back to 1425, when King James II made Sir Alexander Montgomery Bailie (Chief Magistrate) of the King’s Barony (District) of Cunningham, which had been held by Sir Robert Cunningham, who was married to Alexander’s sister.   Sir Robert believed that his position as Bailie was permanently held by the Cunninghams and not part of his wife’s dowry, as claimed by his brother-in-law. 

During the ensuing years, the bloodshed continued, ranging from murders and assassinations to mounted troops raiding the countryside killing dozens of clansman and civilians, sacking castles and the burning of the crops and fields.  Each clan’s fortunes ebbed and flowed, depending on the rewards for being on the winning side in the struggles for the Scottish throne and the wars with the English.

The feud, simmering since 1458, when the Bailie was restored to Alexander Cunningham for his support of James II, erupted again in 1488 when the Montgomery’s burned the Cunningham’s stronghold, Kerelaw Castle, which remains in ruins to this day.  In 1498, King James IV of Scotland granted Hugh of Eglinton the office of Bailie of Cunningham, resulting in fighting that continued through 1528, when William Cunningham attacked Montgomery territory, destroying the contryside and burning Eglinton Castle. The damage inflicted by the Cunninghames on the Montgomeries was severe; the tenants, having no crops, were destitute and the Earl of Eglinton himself was in no position to alleviate their suffering as he lost his home and possessions.

James V was made aware of the situation and he decided to intervene on behalf of the Earl of Eglinton.  A reason for this may have been that the Earl of Eglinton was a Roman Catholic and the Earl of Glencairn was suspected of heresy and, indeed, of being in league with Henry VIII, who was trying to gain domination of Scotland.

The feud, however, continued.  In 1586, the assassination of the Earl of Eglinton by the Cunninghams sparked another round of bloodshed with any Cunningham or Montgomery, their retainers and allies, as targets.  At a parliamentary session in 1606, the Earls of Glencarin and Eglinton, along with their followers, fought each other from “seven till ten hours at night”.  Neither the King nor the Parliament was able to settle the dispute. 

The feud finally came to an end in 1661 when William Cunningham, appointed Lord High Chancellor of Scotland by Charles II, married Margaret Montgomery.

Further Reading

Much more detailed historical information is can be found in the fifty-six page book "Clan Cunningham Origins, Heritage and Traditions," published by CCSA and available at the Clan Store.

Related Links

For more Cunningham history, please visit the Clan Cunningham Historical Timeline.
For a listing of Cunningham history websites, please visit Cunningham History Links.

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