The History of the Surname

Rutherford is an ancient Scottish family and family name. There are 4 different stories that suggest how the Rutherford name originated. Several legends regarding the origin of the Rutherford name have been handed down for centuries.

The Stories

John MacLeod, Searcher of Records in Edinburgh, examined Rutherford family annuals dating back to the Crusaders. He related that during an insurrection in Scotland, King Ruther had to flee for safety. Being unable to cross the River Tweed, his life was saved by a young man of Teviotsdale who aided him in crossing at the ford. The spot was henceforth known as Ruther's Ford, and the land contiguous to the spot was later given to the family of his benefactor by Ruther as a token of his appreciation. The family thus became known as Rutherford when surnames were adopted.

James Coutts, a candid historian, revolted at this venerable legend, but to his surprise he found a portrait of the semi-historic Rutherus among the portraits of the Scottish kings in Holyrood House. "Still more surprising," wrote Mr. Coutts, "was the date of the reign of Rutherus, put as 231 B. C. Little wonder that the Rutherfords have been described as 'one of the oldest families in the Border'." (from the Anglo-Norman Peaceful Invasion of Scotland 1057-1200, p. 133).

Another romantic version of the establishment of the name was related in a letter written by A. Rutherford of Stirling, Scotland, December 15, 1906, and addressed to George Ernest Rutherford, No. 1852. "The Rutherfords are not Highlanders, they are Borderers: they belong originally to Roxburghshire. They are pure Scots, and they derive their name from thrashing an invading English Army. This incident occurred before the time of Wallace. The tradition is that an English invading force was allowed to cross the river at the ford, and after they had done so, the Scots fought and defeated them, and drove them back across the ford making the English "rue the ford."

A fourth story, probably with more credence, was written by James Rutherford Brown of Liverpool, England, April 13, 1909 to George Ernest Rutherford, No. 1852. He stated there was no doubt that the name Rutherford meant "red ford," an explanation given by Jeffray in his history of Roxburghshire. Jeffray explained that "ruther," meaning red, was a Celtic word. Henry Rutherford of Fairnington, No. 960, also thought this to be the more likely origin of the name.

From www.rutherford:


Two sources are quoted extensively to provide an authentic historical origin of the Rutherford family and of the name.

1. K. Rutherford Davis "The Rutherfords in Britain: A history and Guide." Alan Sutton, Gloucester, 1987.

2 George F. Black, "The Surnames of Scotland: Their Origin, Meaning, and History." The New York Public Library, Astor, Lennox and Tilden Foundations.

From Davis we have:

P xi Everyone of Rutherford ancestry on the male or the distaff side shares the heritage of descent from a late twelfth century Scottish laird;...(that became ) a vast family-once virtually a Border clan-

By a strange paradox, while the historic branches have seemed to die out, no part of the family's original lands remains in their possession, the parent village lies destroyed and all the early strongholds have disappeared, yet the name is now widespread throughout the English- speaking world, forgotten though its ancestral Border home may be.

P xii ...One can only speculate how the senior branch might have fared had it not been cheated out of its property about 1500. The family long maintained a position of local strength in Roxburghshire and later Northumberland, intermarrying with those of similar status-Kerr, Scott, Heton, and Swinburne; and while its territorial basis shrank it soon ramified broadly, geographically and socially. By the fourteenth century a member settled in Aberdeen, in the next others in Perthshire, Northumberland, East Anglia and Southern England, and in the seventeenth century in New England.

P 5 The origin of the ancient and now world-wide family of Rutherford was the vanished Roxburghshire village from feudal tenure of which it drew its name, lying on the south bank of the river Tweed midway between Melrose and Kelso. Etymologically the place name, derived from the Old English hryther meaning 'ox, cattle' and ford is synonymous with Oxford. Over 300 different spellings of the surname are listed in appendix 2.

The surname Rutherford goes back to the twelfth century. Although family relationships are unknown until much later there is no reason to doubt that all subsequent occurrences of the name, in both Scotland and England, refer to members of the same family....Every person with a Rutherford ancestry by blood is descended from the medieval lairds of Rutherford.

Although the fragmentary Scottish records of this remote period seldom afford precise clues to the provenance of early Lowland landowners, it is well known that during the reign of David I (1124-1153) and later many Anglo-Norman adventurers entered Scotland, encouraged by a royal policy designed to transform its social economy into a feudal state with a centralized administration organized on lines similar to those of Norman England, and depending on a nucleus of immigrant barons, knights, their followers and clergy who could apply the experience they had gained in the neighboring realm where David himself held two earldoms.... From this period came such famous families as Stewart, Bruce, Baliol and Comyn. Indeed the orle in the Rutherford arms must be derived from that in the arms of Baliol and indicate that at some time the Baliols were feudal superiors of the lairds of Rutherford.

P 6 ...But the first known Rutherfords must have been living there (Lowland Scotland in Roxburghshire) in the second half of the twelfth century, and their names - Hugh, Gregory, William, and Richard - of similar character introduced by the newcomers may point to an Anglo-Norman founder.

(The earliest records mentioning Rutherfords are charters, wills and deeds for or witnessed by a Rutherford. Some of these Rutherfords may have been collateral with the laird Rutherfords but there is no evidence. The dates span the period 1150 to 1250.)

The thirteenth century with fuller records brings us to historical personages, two successive knights named Nicholas who between them span from c.1226 to c.1300, with some revealing details of their family.

P 14 ...The number of separate families known before 1500, not only on the Borders but as far away as Perthshire, Aberdeen and even southern England, and the likelihood that others left no traces, suggests that the main stem (of Rutherford families) soon began to ramify widely.

P 31 ...The ancestral village of 'Rothersfurth' was spoiled by the English (i.e. Henry VIII) in July 1544 and destroyed on September 6 , and on October 1 it was reported that 'certain English and Scottish men burnt Roderford in Tividaill'. The rest of the village was 'brent, raised and cast downe' between September 9 and 13, 1545.

P 169 Rutherfords produced their share of 'witches'. A celebrated case comes from south of Ochil Hills, less than ten miles south of Dunning. ISABEL in Crook of Devon was sentenced in 1662, strangled and burnt. ... A generation earlier in 1621 MARION wife of Alexander Scott in Kirkaldy was to be tried on suspicion.

From Black we have:

RUTHERFORD. This, the name of an ancient and once powerful Border family, is of terri-torial origin from the lands of Rutherford in the parish of Maxton, Roxburghshire. In the reigns of William the Lion and Alexander we meet with the names of Gregory and Nicholas de Rutherford or Rutheford (Melros, p. 75, 76 77, etc.). In the reign of Alexander III (1249-1285) several others of the surname appear, among them being Sir Richard, lord of Rotherford (ibid., p. 295, etc.; Kelso; REG., 174). William de Rwthirford, a cleric, wit-nessed a charter by Henry de Grahame, a. 1200 (RHM., p. 3), and c. 1215 Huwe de Ruwerfort witnessed a charter of Philip de Valoniis (Panmure, II, 124). Nicolas de Rotherford witnessed a quitclaim by Malcolm de Con- stabletun and Alicia, his wife, of a carucate of Edulfistun (now Eddleston) to the Church of Glasgow in 1260 (REG., p. 176), and he also appears several times as a charter witness in the Kelso chartulary between 1270 and 1297 (Kelso, 174, 305, 308). He is probably the Nicholas de Rothirford, knight, who ren-dered homage at Montrose in 1296, in which year also Margarete la fielle Nicol de Rother-forde also rendered homage for her lands (Bain, ii, p. 181, 207). An Aymer de Rother ford of the county of Roxburghe also ren-dered homage for his lands in the same year, as also did Mestre William de Rotherforde, persone of the church of Lillesclyve. The seal of the former bears an eagle displayed and the legend S' Aimeri de Rotherford, and that of the latter bears a wild bull's head cabossed, a human head between the horns, and the legend S' Will' mi de Rothirford (ibid., P. 199, 202, 532, 558). Eva and Margery de Rotherforde, heirs of "Monsire Nichol de Roth-erforde chiivaler Descose," their grandfather, petitioned for seisin of the annual rent of the mills of Doddingestone in Northumberland in 1306 (ibid., 1879). Richard de Rotherford witnessed a charter of Sirildis Saddeler, c. 1330 (Kelso, 491), and in 1354 William de Rotherford, dominus ejusdem, appears in the same record (496-500). William de Roth-erford and Nicholas of Rothersford were jurors on an inquisition held at Roxburgh in 1361 (Bain, IV, 61, 62), and Sir Richard of Rother-furde, knight, was one of the 'borowis' for the earl of Douglas's bounds on the middle march, 1398 (Bain, IV, 510). Richard Rither-ford was admitted burgess of Aberdeen in 1411 (NSCM., I, p. 4), and George de Ruth-erfurde witnessed a charter of Archibald, fourth earl of Douglas, c. 1413 (Home, 18). James Ruthyrfurd and Nicholas Ruthyrfurde were two of the thirty Scottish conservators of the truce between Scotland and England in 1451 (Bain,IV, 1239). In the edition of Samuel Rutherford's Examen Arminianismi, published at Utrecht in 1668, his name is transformed into Rhetorfortis, and by his continental con-temporaries further changed to Retorfortis. Among the Scots settlers in Prussia in 1644 the name appears as Ritterfart. Routherfurd 1338, Rudderfoord 1654, Ruderford 1581, Ruder-fourd 1530, Ruderfurd 1545, Ruderfurde 1574, Rudirfurd and Ruthyfurd 1544, Rutherfurd 1436, Ruyerfurd 1589, Ruyrfuird 1592, Rwth-erforde 1464, Rwtherfurd 1584, Rwthirfurde 1426, Ruddyrfurd (in Inverness). Daniel Ruth-erford ( 1749-1819 ), scientist, discoverer of nitrogen, was born in Edinburgh. Much non-sense has been written by amateur philologists about the origin of the place name, which is simply OE. hrythera ford, cattle ford, the ford of the cattle. In OE. hryther or hrither has the meaning of "horned cattle."

Note: In the summer of 2000, John Rutherford of Ottawa Canada, visited the site of the original town of Rutherford. There is now a house called "Rutherford House", occupied by a John Rutherford, on the brow of the bank above the Tweed River at a point where the river is wide, shallow and stoney. Possibly the original hrythera ford. Nearby is a town called Rutherford, that now consists of a railroad station of an abandoned rail line.

Symbols: Crests, Flags, Tartans, Etc.

Rutherford Coat of Arms and Shield

A coat of arms has four basic parts: the background, or escutcheon; the color of the design or field; the design of the chare; and the position of the figure in the design.

The escutcheon of the Rutherford arms is usually in the shape of a badge. The field contains an orle which is the principal armorial figure of the family. By some it is taken as an inescutcheon voided; and it is said by heralds to have been used in the arms of those who have given protection and defense to their king and country; for as the bordure defends the figures that are within, so also doth the orle. It may be thought on that account, to have been carried by some ancient families who were very active in defending the Borders of the Scottish kingdom against the English, such as the Rutherfords.

The field also contains three martlets, to show that some of the heads of the family had been in the warlike expeditions in the Holy Land, against the Saracens, as these birds intimate.

The color of the field is argent, or silver, and the color of the design or chare is a red orle, orle gules, and three black martlets with red beaks, martlets sable, beaked of the second.

The crest, the uppermost part of achievements of arms, is set above the escutcheon on a wreath or bandeau composed of six twists which has the same tinctures as shield and charges, the metal in all cases being the twist on the dexter side. The Rutherford wreath is alternately siver and black.

The crest of Rutherford of that Ilk was a martlet sable. Other branches of the Rutherford family were identified by the crests which they carried.

The Motto of the Rutherfords of that Ilk, Nec sorte nec fato, is translated as "Neither by strategy nor by chance."

Yet another take on the Rutherfords:

Clan/Family Histories: - Rutherford

The name is from the lands of Rutherford in Roxburghshire. There is some debate as to whether the placename is derived from a man named Ruther who guided an ancient king of the Scots over a little-known ford on the river Tweed or from "Rue the Ford" after an English army had been defeated crossing the river.

There are records of Robert de Rutherford witnessing a charter by around 1140 and there was a Gregory and Nicholas de Rutherford (1165-1249). Others appear in (1249-1286). The Rutherfords were well known for their raids into Northumberland.

Thomas Rutherford, the Black Laird of Edgerston, turned the tide at a battle at Carterfell in 1575. Lieutenant General Andrew Rutherford was raised to the peerage in 1663 and later became Governor of Tangier in Morocco. The title became extinct when he died without issue.

Maternal grandfather was John Rutherford and his son Daniel was the discoverer of nitrogen. Ernest Rutherford (later Lord Rutherford) won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1908 and is also known as the "father of atomic power" having named the proton and propounded the theory of smashing the atom. His father had emigrated to New Zealand in 1841.

The Rutherford clan motto is "Nec sorte nec fato" which means "Neither by chance nor fate".