Ancestral Notes

My Family History blog

Origins of the Fairbairn name

from the Armstronog Clan Society. website:

The Armstrong – Fairbairn Link

By DeWitt Armstrong and Donald Fairburn. From The Milnholm Cross Newsletter, Summer 1991, Vol. III No.4. This was the newsletter of The C lan Armstrong Trust and is now called The Milnholm Cross and Trust Topics. The Clan Armstrong Trust helped start the Armstrong Clan Society. Also appeared in The Armstrong Chronicles, August, 2005.

Why is Fairbairn, or Fairburn, a sept of the Armstrong Clan? The answer lies buried deep in the past. So few are the written records surviving from eight or ten centuries ago that our best clues come from oral legend. As with the border Ballads, however, folk legends passed down through untold generations may prove more reliable than written history.

The Armstrong name-legend most widely known appears in many places, but the earliest version was written in 1754. Curiously, every other version contains the same elements and the same omissions. The story goes that in an ancient battle the King of the Scots was unhorsed. His armor bearer Fairbairn, with one arm, picked up the king and sat him upon Fairbairn’s own horse. The grateful king decreed that Fairbairn should thereafter be know as Armstrong, and gave him land along the Scottish Border.

Unmentioned in any version are details of the battle, the name of the king, and who won. Partly because the name Armstrong is recorded along the Border as early as 1223, a consensus among our clan historians inclines towards the Battle of the Standard in 1138, when David I lost to the English about 90 miles south of the Border. To us this seems reasonable, especially since the legend makes no claim that, owing to Fairbairn’s gallant rescue, the Scots were victorious. Had they won, would the legend have failed to say so?

Another legend, however, has come down through centuries of Armstrongs. It used to be immersed in a fog of fairy tales, closely matching Danish folklore, whose interest for our present purpose would be slight, except for the appearance within them of the Fairy Bear, which is to say the Fair Beorn.

According to this ancient legend, the Armstrong progenitor was an Anglo-Danish Earl of York, Northumbria, Huntingdon, and Northampton named Siward. Earl Siward was a great warrior, sometimes called, ‘the Strong’, and he was a major figure in the final chapters of Anglo Saxon history just before the Norman Conquest in 1066. The College of Heralds says that Earl Siward’s father was an Earl in England named Beorn, and some scholars say that Siward was a nephew of Cnut (or Canute), King of England. It was Cnut, at any rate, who about 1033 made Siward the Earl of York. Siward then conquered Northumbria about 1042, to bring that kingdom for the first time under the English monarch, with Siward as its earl. On gaining the English throne, Edward the Confessor kept Siward in his earldoms, so that Siward remained one of the most powerful men in Britain.

Then, up in Scotland, Macbeth killed King Duncan, who had married Earl Siward’s sister (or possibly his cousin ). Siward provided sanctuary for Malcolm, son of Duncan, and in 1054 led his army north, accompanied by Malcolm At Dunsinane, Earl Siward defeated Macbeth, whereupon Siward’s nephew (or cousin) became Malcolm III, of Scots. (Editor) This killing by Macbeth and mention of Siward’s victory is noted in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth.

Let us now note some evidence incised in stone. From Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Recall the witches’ prophecy “… until great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come..”, and we recall Siward’s troops advancing camouflaged with oak bows. Well, oak trees and bows appear on a number of ancient Armstrong coats of arms, some still visible on tombstones along the Scottish Border and in Northern Ireland. Also appearing on tombstones are swords of Danish Viking style. Moreover, the main feature of the most ancient Armstrong monument, the Milnholm Cross in Liddesdale, (dating from between 1250 and 1350), is a great two-handed, cross-hilt sword of the Viking sort. A similar sword is on the 1583 arms of the Armstrong clan chief, among the remains of Mangerton.

We turn to chronicles of the time to trace the sons and grandsons of Earl Siward. His younger son Waltheof, also a noted warrior, became Earl of Northumbria under William the Conqueror but in 1076 was beheaded for rebellion. Siward’s elder son Osbeorn was killed in the battle at Dunsinane, but he left two sons of his own, Siward the Fair (or the White) and Siward the Red. About the latter we know only through family legend, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and other contemporary sources call the former by the name of Siward Barn, and they tell of four events in his life.

1) In 1070, King Malcolm while ravaging Northumbria, found on ships at the mouth of the Wear River and a band of royal and noble Anglo-Saxons. They were Edward the Confessor’s heir Edgar Atheling, his mother and sisters, plus Siward Barn, Earl Marlswein, and ‘several other Englishmen of great rank and wealth’. Having failed in a Danish aided attempt to expel William the Conqueror, they hoped for refuge in Scotland. Malcolm assured them of safe residence there, and after his return soon married Atheling’s sister Margaret, whose pro­foundly civilizing effect upon Malcolm and Scotland led to her sainthood.

2) In 1071, another revolt against William the Conqueror occurred. Siward Barn brought a large body of troops deep into England, to Ely, and joined in rebellion with several noble kinsmen, including Hereward the Wake and the former earls Morcar and Edwin. Against them William the Conqueror personally led the coun­teroffensive, shattering the rebel force. Capturing Siward Barn and Morcar, he kept them alive, as captives, in Normandy for seventeen years.

3) When dying in 1087, King William the Conqueror released Morcar and Siward Barn. Morcar was re-impris­oned by the new king of England. Siward Barn managed to avoid capture and re-imprisonment.

The final written record of Siward Barn is dated 1091, in Durham, near the Border and well east of Carlisle. It is a charter bearing signatures of King William Rufus, of royal officials, and of noble witnesses. The latter include several earls and Siward Barn. Historians think the charter may be a forgery made a few decades later. Even if it is, we see that a knowledgeable ecclesiastical forger of the early 1100s regarded Siward Barn as a Border region noble sufficiently worthy to list in exalted company.

The language used between 1104 and 1108 by the Durham chronicler Simeion to report the 1087 release by the dying king is worth noting. Simeon wrote “he liberated. . . Siward surnamed Barn.. .”. The significance for us is that nine centuries ago scarcely anyone in Britain possessed a surname. Only in the 1100s did surnames begin to appear, and most people lacked them until the 1300s or 1400s.

Spelling was picturesquely variable in the Middle Ages, and later, too. Bjorn, Biorn, Beorn, Barne, Barne, Burn, and Bairn could equally be used for the same person, even though in Denmark Bjorn meant ‘bear’ and in Scotland Bairn meant ‘child’. We could hardly be so foolish as to assert that no Fairbairn in Scotland by the 1500s, say, owed his surname to the juvenile handsomeness of some forbearer. But we do believe that the Border landholder Thomas Fairbarne who sued in a North Tynedale court in 1279 derived his name from Earl Siward’s grandson Siward Barn. Further research into records of the region, we feel, may well turn up still earlier Fairbarns, however spelled

Research by the Clan Armstrong Trust in Scotland has uncovered earlier instances of the sllnl’!h’tlt: Armstrong in the early 1200s. Their locations, like Thomas Fairbarne’s, are all in the near vicinity of the Border as it then existed. In that era Scotland and England were still actively contending for possession of Northumberland and Cumberland. Even though the second Anglo-Norman king turned the Carlisle area into an English stronghold in 1092, that area was frequently held by Scottish monarchs thereafter. Penrith, located further south, was often a possession of the King of Scots as well. These are areas where the Armstrongs were recorded in the 1200s.

Exactly when the Armstrongs settled in Liddesdale will probably never be known for sure. On that front line, records did not survive the incessant warfare.

Some students think Liddesdale was Armstrong country during the 1200s and possibly during some of the 1100s. Just across a saddle in the Cheviot Hills from Liddesdale lay North Tynedale, where we know of one Fairbarne in 1279.

So these two legends, of Armstrong descent from Siward through Siward Barn (or the Fair), and of Fairbairn renamed Armstrong by a rescued king, strike us as simply two sides of the same coin. To date, each new discovery has tended to reinforce this opinion, to support the ancient conviction that Armstrongs and Fairburns (or Fairbairns) are the same stock. Short of the Pearly Gate we are not likely to know for sure, but let the search go on!

Filed under: Fairbairn, Family Files, Genealogy, , ,

3 Responses

  1. FairbairnDNAAdmin says: has a link to the relevant portion of the ARMSTRONG dna project.I’m afraid that science isn’t looking good as a tool to reinforce the legends.One of the members of the main Scottish Borders FAIRBAIRN lineage has also joined the ARMSTRONG dna project.The majority of the ARMSTRONGs tested are haplogroup R1, and our main FAIRBAIRN lineage is haplogroup I1, and absolutely no ARMSTRONG matches come up when checking their results against the entire Family Tree DNA database (out to a genetic distance of 7 at 67 markers)’tis a pity to bring science to bear against such legends however.RegardsLorna

  2. Earline Hines Bradt says:

    Thanks for the info Lorna, it makes a nice story though. So if the Armstrongs and Fairbairns aren’t linked genetically,they’re just a sept of the Armstrong clan? Has there been any comparisons to Norwegian halpogroups to establish descent from Siward Beorn?

  3. cheviot hills homes for sale says:

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February 2009
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