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From FHM issue 142

What's in a name? Blair

In the last decade the name Blair has risen to prominence in the UK (no prizes for guessing why) but it is actually only rated as the 567th most popular name, with 10,000 Blairs scattered around the country. Interestingly, it is more common in the US (maybe that’s why the Anglo-American relations have been so good, Tony?) where it’s ranked 369th.

            Blair derives from the Gaelic ‘blàr’ meaning ‘plain, field, or battlefield’. Before 1400 the name was spelled ‘Blare’, but since then there has been a gradual transition to ‘Blair’ so that today there are no records of anyone alive using the original version. While the name has been spelled 16 different ways, the most popular variants are Blaire, Blayr and Blayre. McBlair and Bleher are also possible variants. Particularly since the 1980s, Blair has become a popular first name for both boys and girls so there are now 1,073 people in the UK who answer to it as a forename.

            With Scottish origins, it is unsurprising that the most highly concentrated county of Blairs is in the central lowlands of Scotland. Many of them are huddled in Paisley, Angus, and West Dunbart – there are hundreds of them in the town of Tighnabruaich – and also many in County Londonderry and County Down in Northern Ireland. In England, York is the most popular town for Blair residents as the surname is the 54th most common.

            The surname stems from two ancient Scottish families: the ‘Blairs of that Ilk’ (also called the Blairs of Blair) who were found throughout Ayrshire, Renfrewshire, Wigtownshire, and Dumfriesshire; and the Blairs of Balthayock from Perthshire. Controversially, some contend that both clans had a common origin with the Barony of Blair in Ayrshire while others believe that they arose separately. Due to the Gaelic meaning of the word blàr however, it is likely that there are multiple origins for the various Blair family lines that we know of today.

            Indeed, there are many place names in Scotland that bear the name Blair, such as Blair Atholl, Blairgowrie (gowrie meaning goats, so ‘field of goats’), Blairquhan, and Blairmore. As a result, it is likely that people who lived on large estates that included the word Blair assumed it as a name for themselves when surnames became popular at the time of the Norman Conquest.

            The original meaning of the word explains why lots of Scottish places have ‘blair’ in their names without being associated to any Blair family members. For instance, no Blair has ever lived in the 13th Century Blair Castle in Perthshire, and it was a mere coincidence that Sir David Hunter, who owned the castle Blairquhan (pronounced Blair-wan) in Ayrshire, married one Jean Blair in 1770.

            In India, Port Blair, with a population of 240,089, consists of two island groups in the Bay of Bengal and is situated on the east coast of South Andaman Island. In 1789, Captain Archibald Blair of the Bombay Marine (the East India Company's Navy), acting under orders from the government of Bengal, established a penal colony on this site, and named it Port Cornwallis in honor of his commander, Admiral Sir William Cornwallis. By 1858, the first European settlers on the islands, who were established near the site of the old penal colony, renamed it Port Blair in honor of Captain Blair.

            The most famous Blair today must be the Right Honorable Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, whose roles include: the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, First Lord of the Treasury, Minister for the Civil Service, Leader of the Labour Party, and Member of Parliament for the constituency of Sedgefield in North East England. During the anti-war campaigns surrounding the 2003 invasion of Iraq the spelling of his name worked against him as he was christened a ‘bliar’. Also much beleaguered by the modern media is Sir Ian Warwick Blair, head of the Metropolitan Police Service and, in practice, the most senior police officer in the UK.

            More popular representatives of the name include Les Blair – is one of Britain’s most original film-makers, most famous for his film Bad Behaviour, which scored great critical success and won him the Peter Sellars Award for Comedy. Another entertainer with the moniker is Lionel Blair, who first hit our screens in the 1960s. His popularity led his name to be used in cockney rhyming slang for flares, a popular style of trousers in the 1970s (i.e. “Look at that pair of Lionels!” A closer look, however, reveals his birth certificate to belong to one Lionel Ogus, so he is unlikely to be a relative!

            A real Blair, who shed his name for his writing career, was Eric Arthur, born in 1903. His pseudonym – George Orwell – later became one of the most influential names in twentieth century literature after the publication of the modern classics Animal Farm and 1984.

            Across the pond, American Hollywood actress Selma, uses her surname Blair in the credits of Cruel Intentions and Legally Blonde. Turning to scarier films, The Blair Witch Project, was the most successful independent film at the time of its release in 1999. The horror revolves around the Blair Witch who is, according to legend, the ghost of a woman executed for witchcraft in 1785 in the Blair Township.

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