This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 2nd October 1995, reproduced by kind permission of the author, the late Desmond Holden.

The “What's in a Name” series was a regular feature in the Advertiser over the period 1993‑2004, taking a refreshing look at the derivation of some typically Derbyshire surnames.

Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames, and do not indicate any particular interest on Desmond's part in the genealogy, descent, or family history of individuals bearing the surnames featured.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

“In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves.”


This name has a double origin: Ireland and Scotland. Because our area lies equidistant between them, it seems that families bearing the surname "Cunningham" are as much likely to be associated with one place as the other. It is evenly distributed across the British Isles although there is a noticable concentration in the Strathclyde Region.

There are about 200 entries altogether in the local directories under this spelling of the name but the number could be enlarged if other variations were included. Some of them are easily recognised from the spelling, such as "Coningham" and "Conynghame" but others are less apparent, as, for example, "Cunehan", "Kinahan" and "Kinaghan".

The Irish form was originally "O Cuinneagain" which meant "One who is a descendant of Cuinneagan" and that last name means "the little one (i.e. child) belonging to Conn". The expression "Conn" is interpreted as "Chief" and is likely to be related to the same root-words which give us "king" since old spellings of that title include the form "cynn". This notion is supported by the fact that is also an Old Celtic word, "Kunovals" which has similar meanings to "chief" and "king". It might very well be that the name of the great British Chieftan, Cunobelinus, who flourished about 43 A.D. was constructed on this unit.

During the time of the English occupation in Ireland, the use of native Irish surnames was prohibited and so "O Cuinneagain" was anglicised into "Cunningham". It almost certainly took on this form because of familiarity with a Scottish counterpart which had been well-established since the Norman Invasion (1066). Because Irish immigrants tended to congregate in larger cities, the number of entries in the local registers of such places in considerably higher than in rural ones. This may furnish some guide to those who might be interested in tracing their ancestry.

Otherwise the name is very definitely Scottish. It is a location- name and attaches itself to a well defined region in Ayrshire and north of Lanark. It more or less corresponds with the line of hills, and the crest which separates the county from Renfrewshire.

The name first appears (1153) as "Cunegan" and no doubt there is some link with the corresponding Celtic name which appeared in Ireland as "Conn". The additional "-ing" signifies, in place-names, "the followers of -" or "the tribe of-" and is found, for example in "Pickering" and the old form of "Westmoreland" which was "Westmoringaland". This suggests that the base-name "Cunning-" might possibly have meant "the land belonging to the tribe descended from Conn".

Again, it is most tempting to look for connections from which the great British leader, "Cunobelinus" might have derived his name. In passing it might be mentioned that in Welsh the name appears as "Conbelin" (but is more familiar to us from Shakespeare's version, "Cymbeline").

It is not often realised but the Normans extended their influence across the borders into Scotland and established feudal manors there. Since they were familiar with the Old English expression "-ham" (one of the most frequently encountered units in place-names) and which, to them, meant "estate" or "manor" it is not surprising they tagged it on to give it the meaning of "the feudal manorial estate of Cunegan". It is frequently spelled "Cunninghame" but this makes no difference.

Among the Norman Lords who held the Manor of Cunningham was the family called "de Morville" (celebrated in history for its involvement with the murder of Thomas À Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170). Should the Morville in the name be the place in Shropshire, then it is just possible that some of the inhabitants of the Scots manor could have been transferred south and later be identified as "the folk from Cunningham". A very faint hint of credibility for this piece of inspired guesswork is provided from a glance at the local directories for the area, where there seems to be a slightly higher concentration of the name "Cunningham" than elsewhere - but (?).

As might be expected, nearly all the distinguished bearers of the name are associated with the Earls of Glencairn (whose family name it was) or have connections with Scotland. The Reference Works list over 30 people beginning with Alexander Cunningham (died 1488) and ending with Sir Alan Cunningham (1887-1983) a Second World War Commander. Locally we are able to point to Peter Cunningham who was Curate of Eyam from 1775-1790. He was a popular figure there and wrote a few poems which were admired in their day.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 2nd October 1995.

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