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Blair Surname History

by WILLIAM CAMPBELL BLAIR, MD and BRYCE DIXON BLAIR

The Blair surname is of great antiquity, first appearing in Scotland in the 12th and early 13th centuries. The "word" Blair is strongly believed to be territorial in origin, being derived from the Gaelic "Blar" which signifies a field clear of woods or a battlefield. From this, the "name" Blair takes on its territorial connotation. The very early records tell us that "Blair" was originally spelled "Blare" and that there followed a gradual transition to "Blair", completed around 1400. Today, we know of no one using the original Blare spelling.

There are two well-documented, ancient Scottish Blair families, the Blairs of that Ilk (also called the Blairs of Blair) in Ayrshire, and the Blairs of Balthayock in Perthshire. It has long been a matter of debate as to whether they arose separately, or both had a common origin with the Barony of Blair in Ayrshire. Recent research by Jack Blair, of Perthshire, Scotland, suggests they did not share a common ancestor (Ref. 1). On the other hand, Jack Richard Blair, of Sydney, Australia has presented a case that the two early Blair families do share a common origin (Ref. 4). The progenitors of these lines will be discussed below.

There are many Blair place names in Scotland, such as Blair Atholl, Blairgowrie (gowrie means goats so Field of Goats), Blairquhan, and Blairmore. The name Blair, being territorial, suggests there may have been multiple origins of the many Blair family lines we know today, in addition to these two. For example, it is possible that some people living near the large estates at Blair and Balthayock, particularly in the earlier years when surnames were just becoming popular, assumed the name Blair for themselves (Ref. 2). Thus a number of genetic variations can be expected among the various Blair families descending from these various lines. The current y-chromosome DNA project, that is being coordinated by John A. Blair of New Hampshire (Ref. 3) and endorsed and encouraged by both the BSGR and the CBS, will help sort out some of these different Blair genealogical lines. It is hoped many more Blairs, from around the world, will participate and thereby provide an ever larger data pool for use by all.

Charters and other contracts of the realm provide the most important primary records for genealogical research in the landed families in Scotland in the early 13th century. The privilege of being a witness to important royal agreements and documents, was reserved only to bishops, tenants-in-chief (of the monarch) and the nobility. Jack Richard Blair (Ref. 4) could find only five instances in the time frame of 1204 to 1211 in which de Blair's (de Blare's) were associated with contracts of the realm. These included two charters concerning the town of Irvine in Ayrshire in 1205, one witnessed by two William de Blares (father and son) and the other witnessed by Alexander de Blare and Bryce de Blare. Stephen de Blare was witness on another charter. Some of these de Blares were of the Barony of Blair in Ayrshire. However, Jack Blair's research (Ref. 1) indicates that Stephen de Blare owned lands in Blair in Gowrie and granted part of these to the Abbey of Coupar Angus about 1190 - 1200, was witness to another charter of Coupar Angus about 1200 and also a charter of Arbroath Abbey in the above mentioned period 1204 - 1211. He identifies an Alexander de Blair who witnessed a charter of Brechin Cathedral before 1214 and who married around that time to Ela daughter to Hugh de Nyden whose lands were close to St.Andrews, Fife. Hugh de Nyden was also associated with charters of Coupar Angus Abbey. Alexander de Blair also received a grant of lands in the Scottish Highlands about 1225 from the Prior of St.Andrews, this perhaps being the lands of Blacklunnan, north of Blairgowrie and at the foot of Mount Blair. The lands of Blacklunnan were held for many generations by the Blairs of Balthayock lairds. It seems probable that there were at least two persons named Alexander de Blair in the early 1200s, one in Ayrshire in the west of Scotland and another strongly associated with the Angus, Perthshire, Fife area in the east of Scotland.

The Barony of Blair

The surname of Blair in Ayrshire is believed to have started with the Barony of Blair. The earliest known recorded reference to the establishment of the Barony of Blair, is by Timothy Pont, in 1608 (Ref. 5). Pont refers to records of the founding of the Monastery of Kilwinning (which is located a few kilometers from Blair). These original records, which Pont referred to in 1608 but no longer exist today, indicated that the Barony of Blair was conferred upon a man of Norman descent named Jean Francois (Anglicized to John Francis), by King William I of Scots who reigned from 1165 to 1214. The Barony of Blair would have been granted to John Francis after 1165, and probably before the 1190s when construction of a Norman Keep was commenced at Blair. This grant of land by the King, would have been a noble fief in terms of the feudal system of vasalage of those times, an honor which conferred on the Baron both status, and social and political standing, as a member of the nobility. It may have been a reward for something he had done in battle, or a result of the policy initiated by King David I (1124-1153), and continued by King Malcolm IV (1153-1165), and by King William I of encouraging Norman noblemen who were friendly to the Crown and willing to provide military support to the Crown in times of need, to settle in the Lowlands of Scotland by rewarding them with territorial possessions. The progenitor of the Ayrshire Blair family was Jean Francois who already had a surname before acquiring his lands of Blair. Baron John Francis de Blair, (of the Barony of Blair) named his eldest son and heir, William Francis de Blare (born not later than 1160).

John Francis's grandson, also named William de Blare (born not later than 1185), dropped the Francis from his name. This William de Blare is believed to have married a daughter of King John of England who had many children (Ref. 10). This is an indication of the high esteem the de Blare family was held in at that time. It is also of interest that King Alexander II of Scots, the son of King William I, married Joan, also a daughter of King John, thus William de Blair and King Alexander II would have been brothers-in-law (Ref. 10). William de Blare's successor, Sir Bryce de Blare (born ca.1225), was a famous Baron patriot and adherent of Sir William Wallace in the Scottish Independence Cause. He was executed by the English along with other leading Barons of Ayrshire in the Barns of Ayr massacre in 1296. His nephew, Sir Roger de Blare, who succeeded to the Barony of Blair was knighted by Robert the Bruce for his services before and during the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Sir Roger de Blare's wife, Marie Muir was of the Rowallan family. Sir Roger de Blare's wife's sister married King David II, thus Sir Roger de Blair and King David II were brothers-in-law (Ref. 10).

The Blairs of Blair family continued to thrive and enjoy a high position in Ayrshire, with marriage to the most prominent families in western Scotland (Ref. 4, 6 & 7). These included:

  1. John Blair of Blair married Lady Helen Montgomery ca.1476 whose father was Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomery, (who was Justice General of Scotland during the minority of James V, and a Vice Regent of Scotland), and whose mother, Lady Helen Campbell, was a daughter of Colin, 1st Earl of Argyll, Chief of Clan Campbell.

  2. John Blair of Blair married Helen Ross ca.1502, daughter of 2nd Lord Ross, knight, and of Christian Edmonstone, who was a gr- gr- granddaughter of King Robert III of Scots.

  3. Alexander Blair of Blair married Elizabeth Cochrane ca.1600, and assumed the surname of Cochrane as a choice in the marriage. Their son became the first Earl of Dundonald. Today, the 15th Earl of Dondonald, Iain Alexander Douglas Blair Cochrane, of Lochnell Castle, Ledaig, Argyll, is a well documented direct lineal descendant of the Blairs of Blair line.

  4. A high point for the Blairs of Blair family was the marriage of William Blair of Blair to Lady Margaret Hamilton, daughter of William, 2nd Duke of Hamilton, in 1666. This William Blair held an important place in the Convention of Estates from 1669 to 1690, and was one of the Commissioners appointed to effect a Treaty of Union between the two Kingdoms. In the Revolution of 1689, he raised a troop of horse and men along with the Laird of Pollock, in support of King William. This William Blair was captured near Perth by Viscount Dundee, (John Graham of Claverhouse), a supporter of James II, and died of his wounds while imprisoned in Duarte Castle on the Isle of Mull.

  5. Sir Bryce Blair of Blair, who was knighted by King Charles I of Great Britain at Innerwick in 1633, married Marian Dundas of Dundas.

  6. Other marriages connected Blairs of Blair with Kennedy of Cassills, Boyd of Kilmarnock; Campbell of Cargunnock; Grisel Semple, daughter of Robert, Lord Semple III and Cunningham.

The original Blairs of Blair line of inheritance at Blair House and the title(s) that went with it ended with the death of William Blair of Blair in 1732, the only child of Magdalene Blair of Blair. His mother also being an only child was heiress of the Blairs of Blair estate. Her husband, William Scott, as a choice on marriage to Magdalene Blair, assumed the Blair surname. Magdalene died in childbirth before 1715 and her husband, now William Scott Blair, married (2nd), Catherine Tait. However, this by no means ended the genealogical lines of the other descendants of the Blairs of Blair. It took about 24 generations of Aryshire Blairs to reach the year 1732. That many generations would have produced many, many male descendants to carry on the Blairs of Blair line in Scotland and else where in the world.

William Scott and Catherine (Tait) Blair subsequently had eleven children, all with the surname of Blair, which started another genealogically unique Blair line. The eldest son, Hamilton Blair, inherited the Blair estate in 1732. He was a Colonel in the Royal Scots Greys and served at Fontenoy in 1746. Hamilton was followed, at Blair, by William Blair who was MP for Ayrshire and next by William Fordyce Blair. This William was born in 1805 and became a Captain in the Royal Navy. He was followed by Frederick Gordon Blair, a Colonel who served in South Africa during the Boer War, and was an Aide de Camp to King George V from 1914 to 1920. Frederick had only one child, Cecily Madelene Blair, who died single and without issue in 1978 at the age of 94, and was the last in this line of Blairs of Blair inheritance to the Blair estate at Dalry (Ref. 4). Michael Scott Blair, a descendant of this new line of Blair's, lives in Southern California.

The Blair House then passed to Colonel Michael Borwick, a cousin of Cecily Blair's mother. Subsequently, the Blair House has passed to Luke Borwick, a nephew of the Colonel, and has recently been opened as a convention center, where guests can arrange to stay overnight. For more information on visiting or staying at Blair House, see Ref. 9.

The Blair House, (formerly known as Blair Castle) was the seat of the Barony of Blair and the titular line of the Blairs of Blair family for about 24 generations. It is located about two miles southeast of Dalry in Northern Ayrshire, approximately 30 kilometers (20 miles) southwest of Glasgow. The Castle started as a wooden structure in the late 1190s and by 1201, a stone Norman Keep with a moat and a drawbridge was present. Located on an arch, carved in stone, above the drawbridge was an effigy of a stag lodged proper, which is similar to the stag on the Blairs of Blair Coat of Arms (Ref. 5). This early stone castle with its tower, guard room, vaulted ceiling and large fireplace remains within Blair House today (Ref. 9). The House is surrounded by magnificent gardens which were opened to the people of Dalry in the mid 1800s (Ref. 10).

About 1890, A.H. Miller described Blair House "as the oldest inhabited baronial mansion in Scotland which has not been rebuilt" (Ref. 8). In Ref. 4, Jack Richard Blair of Australia states "The long (Blair) surname record of unbroken succession, authenticated by documentary evidence, is unique in Ayrshire and rare in Scotland or any where else". He also states "considering the turbulent history of Scotland down the centuries, its wars and it feuds, it is extremely remarkable that 24 successive generations of Blairs of Blair lived in Blair House, near Dalry in Ayrshire". In his book, Jack Richard Blair discusses his research into the Blairs of Ladymuir, a branch of the Blairs of Blair, many of whose descendants have settled through out Australia and New Zealand.

Blairs of Balthayock

The Perthshire Blairs have an equally rich and ancient history. The progenitor of the Balthayock Blair family was Stephen de Blair who in the 12th century held lands in the parish of Blair in Gowrie, now called Blairgowrie. Stephen was the son of Vallenus who had no surname. An early mention of the surname Blair was an entry in the "Registrorum Abbacie de Aberbrothoc," which recorded Stephen de Blare as a witness to a charter on the lands of Balgillo (near Kettins, Angus) by Dovenald, Abbot of Brechin to the monastery of Arbroath, between 1204-1211. Stephen de Blair (ca.1150 - ca.1210) is first discovered in the records of the Cistercian Abbey of Coupar Angus. This Stephen, son of Vallenus, granted to the monks of Coupar a charter of the lands of Lethcassy (now Carsie) in the parish of Blairgowrie, Perthshire. Clearly, Stephen was a major proprietor of lands in Blair in Gowrie and it was from these lands that he took the surname (Ref. 1). Stephen de Blare was witness to a charter on the lands of Balgillo in the early 13th century. Interestingly, the two major cadets of the Blairs of Balthayock family were Blair of Ardblair and Blair of Balgillo. Ardblair is in the parish of Blairgowrie and borders the lands which Stephen granted to Coupar Angus Abbey. Balgillo lies close to Coupar Angus. It was from the neighbouring lands of Ardler and Baldowrie at Kettins that, later, a Blair of Balthayock gained his title of Baron of Ardler. That barony included lands in Angus, Perthshire and Fife. However, there was no such title as Baron of Balthayock.

Another ancestor of the Blairs of Balthayock was believed to be Alexander de Blair, probably a son of Stephen de Blair, who witnessed a charter about 1214. It was from his marriage to Ela, daughter to Hugh de Nyden, that he gained lands in Fife. The Balthayock lairds held the lands of Cults in Fife for many generations. Alexander de Blair's son and heir,William de Blair, was knighted by King Alexander II of Scots, and became Steward (Governor) of Fife in 1235.

The history and genealogy of the Blairs of Balthayock family and their many cadet branches; Blairs of Ardblair, of Bendochy, of Balgillo, of Balmyle, of Pittendreich and Lethendy, of Glasclune, of Denhead, of Over Durdie, of Melginch, of Balgray, of Friarton, of Gairdrum, of Ballathie, Blair burgesses of Dundee and the Blair family in France; has been researched in detail in the book, The Blairs of Balthayock and Their Cadets, by Jack Blair of Perthshire, Scotland, et al., (Ref. 1) with its many primary sources referenced to assist further research.

The history naturally reflects the role which these Blair families played in local and national history. Ranging through wars with the "auld Enemy" (England) local trade and education, the Reformation of the Church and the Gowrie Conspiracy which threatened the life of King James VI who thereafter appointed Alexander Blair as Provost of Perth in place of Gowrie. During the Commonwealth when Britain was a republic, his great grandson, Sir Thomas Blair was Commissioner of Perthshire. Many eminent men can be identified with the Blairs of Balthayock family. One such became Provost of the University of Lescar in Switzerland and from him came a notable family of Blair in France. The Blair history includes the few Blair men who took up the Jacobite cause in the 18th century and among these, albeit an unwilling recruit, was Dr Patrick Blair (ca.1672 - 1728) who was an eminent physician and a leading botanist. Several of the Blairs of Balthayock cadets were among the early colonialists in Jamaica. Alexander Blair (born in 1676), a surgeon apothecary in Port Royal, Jamaica in the early 1700s, was a cousin of Dr Patrick Blair.

The seat of the Balthayock Blairs was Balthayock Castle, located 4 miles east of Perth on a hill overlooking the north side of the Tay River. The castle was built on lands held of the Knights Templar whereas the barony lands were held of the king. Here, for about 500 years, the titular head of the Balthayock Blairs lived while the family settled in the counties of Perth, Fife, and Angus. The original line of inheritance at Balthayock Castle and the title(s) that went with it ended in the mid 1700's when John Blair of Balthayock died, leaving only a daughter, Margaret, as sole heir to the estate. Margaret married David Drummond in 1728, who assumed the name and Arms of Blairs of Balthayock. His descendant, Jemima Johnston-Blair, married Adam Fergusson, and had seven sons and a daughter. The eldest son, Neil Fergusson-Blair, adopted the name Blair in order to inherit the estate. His Arms displayed the Blairs of Balthayock quartered with the Fergusson Arms. He died in 1862 and the second son, Adam Johnston Fergusson-Blair, who had immigrated to Canada, sold the estate and divided the proceeds with the six remaining brothers. Today, the ancient Keep, all that remains of Balthayock Castle, is in need of restoration. The current proprietor of the Balthayock site, Major David Walter, is doing what he can to preserve and improve the tower.

According to Douglas (Ref. 6), the two families, Blairs of Blair, and Blairs of Balthayock, long competed for Chiefship of the Blair Family, until King James VI put an end to their disputes by declaring in 1658 that "The eldest male of either of the two Families would have precedency over the younger to the Chieftainship". The significance of this could suggest that members of these two family groups had frequent interchange with each other and recognized some form of kinship, whether secular or by blood ties. However, there is no documentary evidence of any marital exchanges between the families. Therefore, given the propensity for Blair to Blair marriages, these appear to take place between cadets of the same main families but not between the Ayrshire and Perthshire families. That and the complete difference in their arms points to separate origins.

Blairs in General

Prominent Blairs in Scottish history include: John Blair, chaplain to Sir William Wallace; Robert Blair (1699-1746), a poet best known for the epic poem "The Grave"; his son The Rt. Hon. Robert Blair of Avantoun (1741-1811) Solicitor General for Scotland under George III, and Lord President of the Court of Session, (equivalent to Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court); Dr. Patrick Blair, botanist and surgeon; Robert Blair, inventor of the aplanatic telescope; Eric Blair, a writer best known by his pen name George Orwell; The Rt. Hon. Tony Charles Lynton Blair (born in 1953 in Edinburgh, educated in Fettis College, read law at Oxford Univ, Prime Minister of Great Britain since 1997); and the Rt. Hon. Robin Orr Blair LVO, WS, appointed Lord Lyon, King of Arms of Scotland by the Queen in 2001.

Blair is also a prominent surname in Ireland. These Blairs are primarily descended from Scots who settled in Northern Ireland in earlier centuries. Many moved on to the U.S. and the British Commonwealth, where they are found today, and were known as Scotch-Irish. Jack Richard Blair suggested, in a separate correspondence, that the Irish Blairs are an important part of our family and he would like to see more research done on them.

The first Blair in America is thought to be Commissary James Blair, born in Edinburgh, educated in the Univ. of Edinburgh, who arrived in Williamsburg, VA in 1685. He founded the second oldest college in America (William & Mary College), and served as president for 40 years and was acting Governor of the Colony of Virginia (1740-41), while The Rev. John Blair, of Fagg’s Manor, helped found Princeton Univ. Other prominent Blairs in American history include John Blair (nephew of James above), President of the VA Council and his son, John Blair, signer of the U.S.Constitution and Supreme Court Justice (appointed by Pres. Washington); Francis Preston Blair, newspaper editor and confidante of several U.S. Presidents; Francis Preston Blair, Jr., Civil War General, U.S.Senator, and candidate for VP in 1868; Montgomery Blair, Postmaster General under Pres. Lincoln; two state Governors, Austin Blair & James T. Blair, and a wife of a state Governor; numerous U.S. Congressman and Senators; John Insley Blair, a railroad magnate and philanthropist; Andrew Blair, Canadian Statesman, and Bonnie Blair of Champaign IL, Olympic Gold Medal winner for speed skating.

REFERENCES:

  1. The Blairs of Balthayock and their Cadets 1150-1180, by Jack Blair, Anne Groome, et al. published in 2001 by Gateway Press, Baltimore, MD. Detailed Genealogical and Historical account of this family and their branches. Available through the Clan Blair Society, www.clanblair.org.

  2. Personal (W.C.B.) communication with Robin Orr Blair, The Lord Lyon, King of Arms of Scotland, 2002.

  3.  Website for information on the Blair y-chromosome DNA project: www.blairdna.com.

  4.  The Blair Surname. Its ancient Scottish Origins and the Genealogies of Three Blair Families, (The Blairs of Blair, Ayrshire ca.1135-1878, The Blairs of Balthayock, Perthshire c1205-1862, and the Blairs of Ladymuir, Renfrewshire ca.1597-1997), by Jack Richard Blair, Sydney Australia, 1999. Available through BSGR (On-Line Sales) or CBS (Book Store).

  5.  Cunninghame, 1604-1608, Pont, Timothy, a descriptive survey of prominent Ayrshire sites, edited by John Shedden Dobie, published by John Tweed, Glasgow, 1876.

  6.  Baronage of Scotland, Douglas, Sir Robert, (a genealogical account of the gentry of Scotland), published by Bell and Bradfute, Edinburgh, 1798.

  7.  The Scottish Nation, by William Anderson, published by H. Fullerton, Edinburgh, 1871.

  8.  The Castles and Mansions of Ayrshire by A.H. Miller, published in Scotland, ca.1890.

  9.  Website for Blair House history and availability of accommodations: www.blairestate.com.

  10.  Visitor’s Information Sheet, History of Blair at Blair House, by Michael Borwick, ca.1980. 11. The Scots Peerage, edited by Sir James Balfour Paul, Blair Family Magazine, Vol. XIII, No. 2 (Summer 1995), pp. 33-37

Revised March 2003

   
Coat of Arms2
Blair of
Blair
    Coat of Arms1
Blair of
Balthayock