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From FHM issue 150

Featured name: Murray

Murray is a prime example of a ‘locative’ surname – that is, one that derives from the name of a specific place. The name originates from Moray in the North East of Scotland, although the roots of the place itself are unclear. There is some evidence to suggest that it may have been adopted following the invasion of the warlike Moravii from Germany, although it is more commonly believed to be a composition of the Celtic terms meaning ‘sea’ and ‘settlement.’

Without a standard set of spelling rules, Medieval Scottish scribes recoded names according to their sounds, and as a result there are a number of variations of what is essentially the same name. The most easily identifiable are Murrey, Moray, Murry, Morey, Morry, and Morrey, although there are some more obscure ones. For example, in Ireland, the surnames ‘McMurray’ and ‘Gilmore’ are the anglicised form of the Gaelic Mac Muire aigh and Mac Giolla Mhuire respectively, and the traditional English variant of the name is ‘Merry.’

Then name came about in the 12th century when a Flemish knight named Freskin was given the Pictish kingdom of Moray, (in Gaelic Moireabh), by King David I. It is likely that he was the chieftain of the Duffus branch of the Royal House of Moray. The ‘b’ in the word Moireabh was at that time pronounced as ‘v’, hence the Latinization of the province to ‘Moravia’. Within two generations Freskin’s descendants went by the name of ‘de Moravia,’ which, in Lowland Scots, soon became ‘Murray.’

Many of the Murray descendents went on to play quite prestigious roles in Scottish history. For example, Walter de Moravia, who had the title of Lord of Bothwell, acted as a co-regent of the country in the 1250s, while Alexander III was still a minor. Another heir of this line was Sir Andrew Murray who was a colleague of Sir William Wallace in the fight for Scottish independence from English rule, and was to be killed at the great victory of Stirling Bridge in 1297.

In the 18th century yet another descendent made a name for himself. Lord George Murray was one of the great Jacobite generals responsible for leading the notorious rising of 1745, and it was he who actually unfurled the Royal Standard of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Glenfinnan. With a motto of ‘Furth, Fortune, and Fill the Fetters,’ it is perhaps not surprising that the Murray clan were such good fighters!

In terms of geographical distribution of the name Murray, it is unsurprising that the highest concentration has, throughout history, been in Scotland. From looking at the map of 1881 those counties with the highest proportionate percentage of the surname are Ross-shire and Cromartyshire, Inverness-shire in the North of Scotland, and Wigtownshire, Kirkcudbrightshire, and Dumfriesshire in the South. There was also a substantial number to be found in Aberdeenshire, East Lothian and Midlothian, and the south east of the country.

Although not portrayed on this particular map, it is significant that Murray was also extremely common in Northern Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries, however, it seems to have been very uncommon in England at the time.

It is interesting to see that the distribution map of 1998 paints a very similar picture to the earlier one, with the highest and lowest concentrations being seen in the same parts of the map. The name has become more popular in Aberdeenshire, Sutherland, Caithness Ayrshire and Lanarkshire and slowly creeping south as far as Lancashire and West Yorkshire. Interestingly, it would seem that many have stayed close to their roots, as in the 1998 map as well as the 1881 one there is a very high concentration of the name in Morayshire.

In both years the single area in Great Britain where the name Murray was most common was Harris, the southern part of the largest island of the Outer Hebrides. In 1995 it was listed as being the country’s 12th most common surname.

Being a fairly common name on both sides of the Atlantic, there are a great many Murrays who have contributed their skills to society. There are academics, including Gilbert Murray, a well-respected British intellectual and activist who was influential in setting up Oxfam; and Francis Murray, the American mathematician known for his foundational work on functional analysis.

In the entertainment world, the most famous person bearing the name was Ruby Murray. An Irish singer in the fifties and sixties, she arguably added much to both music and to Cockney rhyming slang, giving us songs such as ‘Scarlet Ribbons’ and ‘He’s a pal of mine’, as well as the enduring name for curry among Londoners.

Nowadays, the Murray flag continues to be flown by two talented – and almost identically-named – actors, Bill Murray and Billy Murray. Bill is the highly-acclaimed American actor who has starred in films such as Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters and Lost in Translation, while Billy Murray is the London-born actor famous for appearing in soaps including The Bill and Eastenders.

This list would not be complete, of course, without probably the most famous, and my personal favourite of all well-known Murrays – the ‘Murray Mint’. What a sweet note to end on!

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