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About the study
I first researched the surname in 1963, and since then have focussed on the Orkney Irvines, including those of the parish of Sandwick from which I am descended, and the island of Shapinsay, from which the author Washington Irving was descended, the Irvings of Bonshaw and their cadets the Irvines of Castle Irvine, the Irvines of Drum, and the surviving records and publications associated with these lines. I have been particularly interested in the tradition recorded by Dr Christopher Irvin c.1680 that all these lines shared a common ancestor. To this end in 2005 I co-founded with Kent Irvin the Clan Irwin Surname DNA Study, which has alas challenged this tradition, but at the same time thrown much new light on the origins and evoluton of the surname. It transpires that through loss of records very few of our surname today are fortunate enough to be able to reliably trace our paternal pedigrees back to the 16th century, let alone to the time of Robert the Bruce.
In February 2013 I registered Irwin and its variants as a One-Name Study as a step to further increase understanding of the early branches of the surname, and of how those bearing the surname today may be related even if reliable paper trails have not survived. Having encountered the problems inherent in drawing up a family tree based on a complete transcription of the Old Parish Registers, census return, burial records, kirk session registers and much other archive material relating to the Irvines in Sandwick, Orkney, I have no appetite to extend such comprehensive studies to all the Orkney Irvines, let alone other branches of the surname. But I am convinced much can be gained by DNA studies of the surname even if I am unable to attempt the classic 'bottom-up' indexing and relating of all those bearing the surname today.
Meanwhile I am writing a comprehensive book on "The Irwin Surname: its Origins, Diaspora and early Genealogies".
The origin of the surname has been contentious. Dr Christopher Irvin claimed the Scottish name meant a 'true or stout man from the west'. He believed the family gave its name to the town of Irvine in Ayrshire, whereas his contemporary Sir George Mackenzie and most later writers believed the family took its name from this town. Modern writers believe the town took its name from the river Strathirewin, first recorded in the 1120s. The town Irewin was first recorded in 1184. Early references to scotsmen using the name include Phillipus de Irewin in 1190x1224, Robert de Hirewin and Reginald de Irewin in the mid 13th century, and William de Irwyn in 1322/3, although it seems unlikely to have been used as a hereditary surname before c.1300.
Some modern writers believe other Scots took their name from an old parish of Irving in Dumfriesshire, but this claim dates from 1794 and I believe can be discounted, there being no contemporary evidence of such a parish. The earliest contemporary record of the surname in Dumfriesshire is 1376.
Many books on surnames stress that the surnames Irvine/Irving are Scottish and are quite unconnected with the English and Irish names Irwin, which date in both countries to the 11th century, or to the German name Erwin, which dates back to the 13th century. But it is now clear that many descended from Scots migrants today bear the name Irwin in England, Ireland and America, and a surname study rejecting these surnames would be shortsighted.
The earliest record of the surname in America of which I am aware is an Edward Erwin who lived in New Hampshire in 1658, but it is my impression that a majority of Americans using the name are descended from Irvings of Dumfriesshire who migrated to Ulster during the 17th century and from there to America in the 18th century.
Historical occurrences of the name
- Hugh OhEireamhoin (later anglicised to Irwin)(died 1100) Bishop of Kildare.
- Reginald de Irwin fl.1242x58, archdeacon of Glasgow, Oxford scholar.
- Erwin von Steinbach (a village 20 km from Strasburg)(1244-1318) designed Strasburg Cathedral.
- William de Irwyn (-c.1333) granted Barony of Forest of Drum in 1323 by Robert the Bruce, and Clerk of the Rolls 1328-1332.
- Edward Irving (c1510-1605) built present Tower of Bonshaw c.1570.
- Dr Christopher Irvin (1618-1693), author of The Original of the Irvins, appointed Historiographer Royal in Scotland in 1685.
- General Sir John Irwin (1727-1788), C-in-C His Majesty's Forces in Ireland.
- Brigadier General William Irvine (1741-1804) fought in US Civil War.
- Washington Irving (1783-1856), author of Rip van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, US ambassador to Spain.
- Jessica Seymour Irvine (1836-1883) wrote Crimond, the tune for Psalm 121.
- Sir William Hill Irvine (1858-1943), Premier of Victoria 1902-4.
- Leslie Leroy Irvine (1895-1966), parachute and ejector seat manufacturer, made first free fall parachute descent, 1919.
- Andrew 'Sandy' Irvine (1902-1924) died near summit of Mount Everest.
- Commodore Sir Robert Irving (1877-1955), Laird of Bonshaw, berthed RMS Queen Mary in New York without tugs.
- James Benson Irwin (1930-1991) became 8th man to walk on the moon in 1971.