Hunter Family Origins

By Dr. Raymond Hunter, Royston, Georgia

Dr. Raymond Hunter

The ancestry of our Hunter line has been, and still is, a topic that generates a considerable amount of heat.  Here is what I know, and what I have deduced, from all records that I have seen.  The Clan Hunter then sitting chief, Neil Hunter, appointed a clan historian (Dr. “Pat” Patterson) who explored a lot of vague references and concluded that the original chief and his family received a grant of land at Hunterston from William the Conqueror (known in his lifetime as William the Bastard, but that has been euphemized by his adorers, especially the public school history teachers).  Pat and I had several fairly extended conversations on the subject.  He relied heavily on two items: first, that in the batch of women in William’s court (a “lady-in-waiting”) was a young girl supposedly named Hunter; second, that David I of Scotland was posted by his older brother, King Alexander of Scotland, to William’s palace to learn the ways of the Norman French Kings, and there married Maud, a grand-niece of William (the proof of that marriage is a bit questionable, but never mind).  David returned to Scotland after a few years to serve his brother-king in various capacities, including heading up an inquiry to settle the matter of the extent of church lands in the area south and west of Glasgow.  That session was held in 1116, and the resulting agreement between local principal landholders and the church was signed by William Hunter (actually as “Venator,” in Latin as was done with all legal documents involving the church).  David succeeded to the throne on the unexpected death of his brother in 1124.  Pat concluded that the standing of David and William Hunter was such that the latter was given a grant of land at Hunterston.

Now, there is a big problem—or rather two: first, there is a print of an article dated 1110 with drawing in Blairquhon, palace of Jamie Blair-Hunter, in 1987 (when I attended a clan gathering of the Hunters) one of the three managers and owners of the Royal Bank of Scotland, that shows a wooden castle described as the castle of the Hunters at Hunterston.  While David may well have been enchanted with the Normans and William and might have given a grant of land to a Norman in William’s court, known as William Hunter/Venator, David was in no position to grant anything to anybody in 1110, it being 14 years before he would become king, with no notion on anybody’s part that he would in fact be so destined.  William the Conqueror certainly could not grant Scottish land to anybody, in spite of his notion that Scotland had somehow shown fealty to William.  So the story of the Hunters being the recipient of a grant of land because of being a favored Norman does not pass the “Giggle Test.”  Further, no landholder who acquired land in the area around Hunterston as late as 1110 (the first documented reference to the Hunters having a castle) would have been included as one of the thirty principal residents in that area in 1116, when William Hunter signed the document concluding the session chaired by David.

Second, there is no reference to any Norman receiving any recognition as far north as Glasgow as early as 1116.  William was busy consolidating his acquisition in England.  David did finally grant lands to a few Normans, notably the Bruce, Balliol, and FitzAlan heads, but that came well after he was king in 1124.  Any person who had become sufficiently powerful and important to be on the document in 1116 simply had to have been in residence there for a substantial period of time.  The Clan’s official history that claims that William Hunter/Venator was the chief huntsman for William the Bastard is plain eyewash, and when I said as much to Pat Patterson, he grinned and agreed.  He embellished the few things he had been able to document with a lot of unsupported entries done to please Neil Hunter, who was enamored with his presumed Norman-French ancestry.

I am persuaded that William Hunter/Venator was the chief of a clan that had been living in the area of Hunterston, including the Milbrae Islands, for a long time, and that they were therefore of Scottish/Norse extraction.  Well, my notion is no more provable than was the stuff put out by Pat.  It is, at least, defensible in terms of the history of Scotland.  Between the 800s and the Battle of Largs in 1263 that was turned by the Hunters on clan property, the Norse had pillaged and then settled in the area in some numbers.  Indeed it was the fact of Norse blood and ancestry of many of the settlers there that justified Haakon’s abortive invasion that landed in the area around Largs.

Turn the clock forward quite a bit, and we come to the accession of King James VI of Scotland to the throne of England as James I in 1603.  He soon had to contend with a bout of insurrection by the Irish in the area of Tyrone County, and in 1607 he solved his problem (sort of) by clearing all the Irish from what became known as Ulster, and invited the Scots to move across the channel and take over that land.  A flood of Scots did so, and thereby set the stage for the “Scot-Irish.”  They did not mingle with the Irish south of the Ulster border and so remained “pure” Scottish.  The United Kingdom shortly afterward opened the Virginia colony and then that of Carolina to the British settlers, offering a land patent of about 45-50 acres of land for each settler, based on giving the land to the person who paid the passage over.  Scotland was then in a hassle with the church authorities, and the Covenanter movement well underway, so a lot of Scots headed for the new colony.  That included those from Ulster and those directly from southern Scotland, although the two mixed in because most immigrant ships set out from Belfast because that was a safer port than those in Scotland, such as Glasgow.  At one point, more than half of the residents in the American colonies were of Scottish descent (including the so-called Scot-Irish).

Some think that our Hunters came from England.  Good possibility; there was a migration of Scots from the area of Hunterston and Peebleshire eastward along the region given to sheep and wool industry.  It is highly instructive that William of Nansemond was known soon as “weaver.”  Martha Rester of Santa Rosa Beach, Florida located a most promising set of information.  Records from The Register Book of Ingleby iuxta Grenhow, by John Blackburne, 1889, give the marriage and children’s birth records for Nicholas Hunter and Ellen Wood.  They were married in Greenhow, North Riding, Yorkshire, in 1637 and had children Mary, Elizabeth (who died as an infant), Henry, Sara, Rebecca, Dinah, and William, born between 1639 and 1653.  The birth of William in 1653 fits very well with the inferred birth of William Hunter of Nansemond County, Virginia.

The town of Ingleby Greenhow and tiny village of Battersbye lie on the eastern fringe of the principal sheep-growing region of northern England.  The region north of Settle and Skipton is solid with herds of sheep, laced with the classic free-standing stone fences that date to the 8th century.  The sheep-growing region extends unbroken through Northumberland to the border of Scotland, and through southern Scotland to the center in Moffat.

Strong support for this being the birthplace of William Hunter of Nansemond comes from the Rountree family connection; Charles Rountree paid the transportation of William Hunter to the Virginia Colony.  The Rountree family was located in the North Riding district of Yorkshire.

A bit more documentation is needed before we can conclude that this is definitely the location of the family of William Hunter of Nansemond; research is in progress to explore the records in North Riding for just such proof.


Dr. Raymond Hunter recently retired after a career in theoretical physics at the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories, Valdosta State University, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.  He served nine years as Membership Chairman for Clan Hunter Association USA.