This distinguished surname may be either of early medieval Scottish or of Gaelic Irish origin. The Scottish Cuninghams derive their name from Cunningham(e), one of the old territorial divisions of Ayrshire. First recorded as "Cunegan" in 1153, the spelling represents a British (pre-Roman) name of obscure origin, with the later spelling in "ham", appearing in 1180, showing the assimilation of the Olde English pre 7th Century placename element "ham", homestead, settlement. Locational surnames, such as this, were originally given to local landowners, and the lord of the manor, and especially as a means of identification to those who left their birthplace to settle elsewhere. A Scots family of the name trace their ancestry back to one Wernebald, a vassal of the Norman nobleman, Hugh de Morville, who obtained the manor of Cunningham from his feudal superior in the early 12th Century. Early examples of the surname from this source include: Richard de Cunningham, noted in Ancient Records of Scottish Peerage (1210), and William de Cuningham, vicar of Dundonald (1403). The Irish Cuninghams trace their descent from two sources in Connacht; one branch stems from Fiachra, brother of Niall of the Nine Hostages, 4th Century High King of Ireland, and the other sept belongs to Ui Maine (mid Galway and south Roscommon). The name, written in Gaelic as "O'Connagan", translates as "descendant of the Leader" or "Chief". The first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of Alexander de Kuningham, which was dated 1190, in "Early Charters of North Berwickshire", Scotland, during the reign of King William "The Lion" of Scotland, 1165 - 1214. Surnames became necessary when governments introduced personal taxation. In England this was known as Poll Tax. Throughout the centuries, surnames in every country have continued to "develop" often leading to astonishing variants of the original spelling.
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