The Family of Birnie

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Name Origins

BIRNIE, From “MacBirnie” .

McBirnie, Byrny, Birney, M’birnie, Byrne, . . . . .

        There are many historic variations concerning the origin of our name. And naturally, the variant name spellings often changed during the lifetime of our early ancestors.

         However, today it is classed as a Place Name derived from a small area located along the Lossie River, just south of Elgin in Moray (13th C,). The original settlers were of mixed local tribes (i.e. Celts, Picts, Scots, and Nordic).

           Historically, the primary mail garment used by a knight was a simple shirt, called a byrnie or birnie. The flexible short sleeved, waist length shirt was made of interlocking metal rings that protected from slashing attacks, and was the precursor to the haubererk. The haubererk was often rather long, falling well past the waist and sometimes as far as the knees. In old Irish “ birnie” was defined as the “knight in shinning armour”.  See Nordic Origins ? for insight.

            As a traditional story, it is written that in 838 A.D., while serving as a Knight to Kenneth MacAlpine (Scotland's first King), Birnie (sp.MacBirnie) and his two sons were captured by the Picts. Birnie as a descendent of the Dalradians, was facing an automatic death penalty. The three escaped the stocks by cutting off their legs. As a reward for bravery in the war that united Scotland, Birnie was bestowed the title of Baron, and was awarded the lands south of Elgin.

            Note that the origins of MacBirnie, a Sept of Clan Matheson, a West Coast Clan that appears in Western Ross. The Clan reportedly fought with Kenneth Mac Alpine, against the Picts. This coincides with John Birnie’s narrative of a Birnie and his sons, who did fight for the first King of Scotland. (See Lord Hamilton). The Mathesons (Clan of the Bear) later dispersed, often under the MacKenzie Clan.

            Geographically, the area was a moist, oozy place that had abundant hazel nut trees. (Birnie, before 1200 was "Brennack"), simply G. Broanach, a moist place. The dative-locative is "braonaigh", which becomes "birnie" in Scots by the usual metathesis (from History of Celtic Name Places in Scotland by W.J. Watson, 1926).

  Regardless of our origins, our modern history continues to be that of diverse global family with deep roots in Scotland.


Nordic Origins ? Lord Hamilton History

BIRNIE, a surname derived from a parish of that name in the county of Elgin. About the beginning of the thirteenth century this parish was named Brenuth, “a name probably derived from Brae-nut, that is, ‘high land abounding in nuts;’ for many hazel trees once grew upon the sides of the hills and banks of the rivulets, and the general appearance of the parish is hilly. The natives pronounce it Burn-nigh that is, ‘a village near the burn or river.’ This etymology is descriptive enough of the particular place now called Birnie.” [Old Statistical Account of Scotland, vol. ix. p. 155.]


      As a specimen of the absurd and oftentimes fabulous accounts given by genealogists of the origin of old families we find in Nisbet’s Heraldry, (Appendix, vol. ii. page 68,) the following Sennachy’s tradition of the origin of the family of Birnie, said to have been formerly in the possession of the Birnies of Broomhill; – One Birnie (an Irish word signifying bright, a name bestowed upon him from his glittering armour), with his two sons, were in the army of Kenneth the Second, king of the Scots, raised to avenge the death of his father, Alpin, by the Picts in 838 or thereby, and when pressing furiously one evening into the thickest of the Pictish force, were all made prisoners, and chained by the leg to a stock of wood. To obtain their freedom, says the legend, they cut off their bound leg, and in the next battle were observed – upon their remaining leg – to behave themselves with extraordinary courage. In reward of their valour, a barony of lands near Elgin was bestowed upon the father by the victor, which still bears his name. And in confirmation of the fable, it is gravely added, that – (in anticipation, we suppose, of an institution and of terms not known in Scotland until centuries afterwards) – he gave them for their arms Gules, in resemblance of a bloody battle, a Fesse, the mark of honour, betwixt a bow and arrow in full draught, and three legs couped on the thigh.

     It might have been nearer the truth to have conjectured that as Byrne of Birnie is obviously derived from Biron (the origin of the modern English Byron) pronounced short as in France, Birnie may have been the usual diminutive of Birony, as Barry, from Bar, and that Birony, like Barry and others, may have been the name of some Anglo-Norman follower of Malcolm IV., who received a grant of lands in Moray (Elgin) on the occasion of the conquest and transportation thence of the native inhabitants.

      The estate of Birnie continued in the possession of the Birnies till about the end of the civil wars in the minority of King James the Sixth. The last proprietor of this family was William Birnie, who married Margaret, daughter of Frazer of Philorth; after her husband’s death she was by Queen Mary made Mistress of the Mint. Their only son, Mr. William Birnie, when he came of age, and after three years’ study abroad, entered the church, and on the 28th December 1597, he was presented by King James the Sixth, to the church of Lanark. He was also appointed by the king a member of both the courts of high commission. It is recorded of him that “because of the several quarrels and feuds amongst the gentlemen of his parish, he not only learnedly preached the gospel, but was obliged, many times, as he well could, to make use of his sword.” He was the author of an old and learned work published in Edinburgh in 1606, quarto, entitled ‘The Blame of Kirk-Buriall, tending to persuade to Cemeterial Civilitie,’ an interesting reprint of which was, a few years ago, made by William Turnbull, Esq., Advocate. In quaint but powerful language the author inveighs against the practice of burying in the area of churches, but delivers many admirable sentiments on the honour due to the resting-places of the dead. He married Elizabeth, a niece of Lindsay of Covington, and had issue, John, a merchant, who died without heirs male; James, a merchant in Poland, afterwards secretary to John Cassimir, king of Poland, who had no male issue; and Robert, who, by presentation from King Charles the First, of date 23d November 1643, was also, like his father, made minister at Lanark. Robert married Christian, the daughter of Dr. Patrick Melville, professor of the oriental languages at St. Andrews, of the family of Raith, a lady of so great proficiency in the Hebrew language, that she was able to English it in any part, even without the points. They had issue, a son and a daughter. The daughter, Janet, married John Irvine of Saphock, ancestor of the Irvines of Drum. The son, John Birnie, styled of Birnie, married Jean, daughter of James Hamilton of Broomhill, Bishop of Galloway, second son of Sir James Hamilton of Broomhill, baronet, a younger brother of Lord Belhaven, from whom the bishop seems to have acquired the lands of Broomhill. The bishop had two sons, both of whom died without issue, and the estate of Broomhill, came into possession of his daughter Jean above mentioned, through whose right it devolved upon the Birnies. She was succeeded by her eldest son, John Birnie of Broomhill.

      Sir Andrew Birnie of Saline, her second son, was admitted advocate 14th June 1661, elected dean of faculty 1st February 1675, and became a lord of session, under the title of Lord Saline, 28th November 1679. He retained his seat on the bench till the Revolution.

      Isabella Birnie, his only sister, married George Muirhead of Whitecastle.

      The estate of Broomhill, which is in the parish of Dalserf, Lanarkshire, remained in possession of the Birnies till about 1825, when, from the death of the last direct descendant, a lady, the estate was sold by her heirs to James Bruce, Esq., a native of the parish, who had returned from India, with a fortune.

COLLINS Publications

Noted: other Broomhill locations:

Broomhill is a hamlet in Scotland. Broomhill is situated west of Muir of Ord. (East of Inverness). This is close to the traditional Matheson territory.


Another Opinion on our Name Origins: