The Cunningham Family Lands
The ancient Cunningham lands lie opposite the Isle of
Arran on the wind-blown west coast of Scotland - an
area that until the recent reform of local government,
was known as 'Cunningham District'. More specifically, the Cunninghams controlled, or sought to control, the valleys of the Annick Water, Lugton Water and the Bombo Burn - all good farmland stretching between the towns of Kilwinning, Kilbirnie, Stewarton and Kilmaurs (incidentally the 'kil-' prefix in Scottish place names means 'cell' or church: Kilwinning means church of St Finnan and Kilbirnie the church of St. Brendan).
The story of the Cunninghams starts in the twelfth century with King David I of Scotland. He was exiled as a boy to the English Court, which was then dominated by the Norman associates of William the Conqueror, and when David became King, he brought with him to Scotland a group of Norman friends to whom he distributed land. One of these, Warnebald, received lands in Cunningham, Ayrshire and in the manner of that time, adopted the name.
The word 'cunningham' may come (rather prosaically) from the Saxon word 'cunneag' meaning 'milk pail' and 'ham' meaning 'village'; otherwise it may be from the word 'ingas' meaning 'people' and 'ham' (as in Coldingham, the village of the people of Colud), the origin of the 'cunn' element having been lost. In any case it is clear that Cunninghams descend from Warnebald, who preferred to call himself 'de Cunningham' rather than 'de Kilmaurs' or 'de Kilwinning'.
Warnebald obviously came from good stock since the Cunninghams prospered; in 1263 we find Hervey de Cunningham supporting his king with an army of peasant-warriors against the Norsemen at the battle of Largs, fought on the beach very close to the Cunningham lands. The Norsemen were driven off and a grateful king confirmed Hervey as legal owner of all the Kilmaurs lands in the following year.
In the 15th century Cunningham of Kilmaurs became Lord Kilmaurs and later Earl of Glencairn, a title still held by the head of the clan. In the early 16th century, William, third Earl of Glencairn was entrusted with the (successful) negotiations for James V's marriage to Mary of Guise. By this time some judicious marriages on their own part meant that the Glencairn lands stretched from Port Glasgow on the Firth of Clyde south to Moniaive just north of Dumfries where the Cunninghams had built Glencairn Castle, now known as Maxwellton House.
Whilst the Kilmaurs Cunninghams flourished, junior branches of the family were settling lands elsewhere: notably at Polmaise and Auchenbowie, just south of Stirling and at Kilmaronock Castle by Loch Lomond. There were also some Cunninghams at Barns in Fife, at North Synton in the Borders and at Balfron in Dumbartonshire.
However the family's success in Ayrshire had led to conflict with another expansionist Norman family who had received lands a little further north in Renfrewshire - the Montgomerys. Relations might, in any case, have been strained in the troubled sixteenth century since the Montgomerys were strong supporters of Mary Queen of Scots and the Cunninghams were Protestant reformers (the Earl of Glencairn had John Knox dispense communion to him and his family privately at his house near Port Glasgow in 1556). The struggle for local domination was certainly on fire in 1528 when the Montgomerys sacked the Cunninghams' Kerelaw Castle and it came to a head in 1586 when Alexander Cunningham of Aiket, David Cunningham of Robertland and others killed Hugh Montgomery, 4th Earl of Eglinton near the Bridge of Annick. The Montgomery revenge was ruthless: they shot Alexander Cunningham near Aiket, cut David Cunningham to pieces then killed every other Cunningham they could find. However they did not find them all since the Montgomery seat of Eglinton Castle was then burnt in retaliation - and the feud rumbled on for another twenty years.
In the next century the Earls of Glencairn continued prominent in national life: the 9th Earl raised an army for King Charles II in 1654 in an attempt to overthrow Cromwell's Scottish administration. The rising failed but when Charles II returned as king, he appointed Glencairn as his Chancellor of Scotland, a post he held from 1661 to 1664.
By coincidence, three Cunninghams were close friends of the Ayrshire bard, Robert Burns: James, fourteenth Earl of Glencairn (who was one of the poet's principal patrons and on whose death Burns wrote a moving lament) Sir William Cunningham of Robertland, and Alexander Cunningham the historical writer, to whom he wrote verses of which the first runs:
My godlike friend - nay! do not stare;
You think the phrase is odd-like!
But God is love the Saints declare
Then surely thou art God-like!
Living so close to the west coast, it is not surprising that many Cunninghams ventured into the Atlantic - settling in Northern Ireland and further afield. But when their descendants return to their roots in Ayrshire they find that most of the prominent Cunningham castles - Clonbeith, Robertland, Kerelaw and Glengarnock - are now in ruins. Kilmaurs, Aiket, and Caprington Castle survive, although much altered, and are in private hands. Only one of the Cunningham houses is open to the public each summer: this is Finlaystone three miles east of Port Glasgow (where the Earl of Glencairn entertained John Knox) and which now houses an exhibition on the MacMillan clan. Maxwellton House in Dumfriesshire is now a private house but the gardens are open to the public. Dean Castle, north of Kilmarnock, which the Earls of Glencairn had for some thirty years in the late 18th century, is open to the public all year round but is really the family seat of the Boyds, Earls of Kilmarnock.
The Cunninghams were essentially a successful farming people and for many centuries the headline events - affairs of state, murder and revenge - had little impact on the families that eked out a living beside the Annick Water. They were not much involved in war, being more pre-occupied with their milking pails - and as the family motto has it, with "Over Fork Over".
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