A Short History of the Sterretts
by Douglas W. Sterrett, FSA Scot., Idaho Regent and Sterrett Sept Commissioner for the Clan Douglas Society of North America, Ltd.
According to Black's "Surnames of Scotland" the name Sterrett is derived from the name of a farmstead in the parish of Dalry, Ayrshire, near the present town of Mauchline. This land was known in medieval times as "Stairaird" and allegedly means "path over a bog" in Gaelic.
The western seaboard of Britain, including western Scotland from the river Clyde south, was invaded about 500 B.C. by tribes of Celts. They had migrated throughout Europe from east of the Danube, and displaced the ancient people who lived in this part of Britain. It is likely that the early inhabitants of Ayrshire were of this Celtic racial stock. Centuries of invasion, war and intermarriage with many other peoples who played historic roles in this area followed. Romans entered this vicinity about 80 A.D. as part of their conquest of southern Scotland. In 360 A.D. it was invaded by an army of Picts from the north, Scots (from Ireland) and Saxon pirates. Scots strayed into the area again after their settlement of the western Highlands about 400 A.D. Angles, Germanic invaders, began moving into eastern lowland Scotland after 600 A.D., and Vikings came to Ayrshire during their great, terrifying raids of the 800 and 900's. Fighting and intermarrying, these various warriors and settlers blended to make up the early humble folk of the Stairaird farmstead locale. Soon after the Norman conquest of England in 1066, Normans arrived in Scotland and Ayrshire, invited by King Malcom III and Queen Margaret who granted them land. These Norman lords introduced feudalism, replacing the ancient Celtic tribal form of government which survived in the Highlands as the Clan system.
In the period following the war for Scottish independence (1295 - 1314) large landholdings in Ayrshire, including Stairaird, were awarded to Sir James Douglas, "the Black Douglas", for his tireless service and loyalty to the king, most likely about 1315, but certainly before King Robert Bruce's death in 1329. About this time surnames began to be adopted and the progenitors of the Sterrett family were called "Stairaird" after the farmstead which they inhabited, a common custom at the time and origination of many present-day surnames. As the land they farmed was part of the holdings of the Douglases (which they held in fief from the lord), they were vassals of this great family and consequently constitute a sept of the House of Douglas. In early medieval times the people of the farm were villeins (low-born freemen who were subjects of a lord) and lived as farmers, herdsmen, household servants, maids, etc. Under feudalism they were granted tenancy of the Stairaird farmstead and were obligated in return to provide part of their produce, time, and labor for their lord, including military service.
Black states the earliest record of the ancestral name is from the reign of King David II when Andreas Starheved resigned the serjandship of Lanark in 1349. (Serjand possibly meant sargeant and would refer to a military commander of a district, similar to an English sheriff.) Lanark was in the heart of the Douglas territory at the time, and the fact that Andreas Starheved held the serjandship there suggests that he had risen in the service of the Douglases to that position. The name Starheved is an early form of Stairaird, and is part of the evolution of the name to one of its modern forms. In Scotland many final "D"s in words were pronounced as "T"s, such as in the word steward, which of course evolved into the name Stewart. Thus it is easy to see how the name "Stairaird" evolved to Sterrett. Black records a John Starhede in 1493; and Robert Sterhed as witness to a charter in Irvine in 1499. Irvine was also originally part of the vast Douglas holdings which were forfeited to the Crown in 1455 when the Earl of Douglas was attainted for treason by King James II.
By this time the family had grown in numbers and members had spread across lowland Scotland. The Protocol Book of James Young 1485 - 1515, lists about a dozen individuals, mainly in Leith near Edinburgh, with names spelled Starhed, Sterhede, Sterheid, or Sterhed. As time goes on other variations of the name are noted in Scottish records as Storrat, Stirrat, Starratt, and Stirret with the greatest concentration of the names still in Ayrshire and the southwest coast of Scotland. Sterretts are mentioned in historic records as having been clergymen, poets, deacons, and tradesmen. None are found to have risen to any great offices or to have held any titles, nor to have achieved notoriety through villainy or treachery, so it would appear safe to say that for many generations they were humble and law-abiding folk going quietly about their daily lives without attracting much attention. It would also appear from the records that the family was never very numerous.
In the late 1500's or early 1600's a branch of the Sterrett family emigrated to North Ireland, perhaps as members of one of the colonization schemes known as the Ulster Plantations. As the family became established there, it spread to counties Armagh, Tyrone, and Donegal where it is still found today.
After a period of time in Ireland some members of the family left for America, probably shortly before 1700, and settled in Pennsylvania.
There is a Sterrett family plot dating from the early 18th century in a churchyard in Donegal, Pennsylvania; and a township known as Sterrett's Gap in western Pennsylvania. This was settled by a Sterrett who operated a toll road through a "gap" or pass on his property in the Appalachian mountains. There was also a township called Sterrettania in this region.
The family prospered in the New World and other immigrants with the name arrived from Ireland, Scotland, and England, settling in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, New England and across the Southern Colonies. In the Revolution, Sterretts fought on both sides; many on the Loyalist side moving on to Canada following the end of hostilities. In the Civil War Sterretts were again found on both sides and several with the name distinguished themselves by gallantry in action. Though the name has never become common, it is now found from coast to coast. Sterretts immigrated to other British colonies also, and are found world-wide.
Variations of the name include Storrat, Stirrat, Starrett, Starritt, Sterritt, Sterit, and others. A correspondent once told me his Grandfather had eleven brothers and sisters and, after their names were recorded in as many parishes, the name had been spelled eleven different ways.
The Genealogy, Heraldry and History of the Douglas Family by Arthur Douglas MLJ, FSA Scot.
A History of the House of Douglas by Sir Herbert Maxwell
The Lion in the North, One Thousand Years of Scotland's History by John Prebble
published by Crescent Books, New York
Red Hand, The Ulster Colony by Constantine Fitzgibbon
published by Doubleday and Co., New York
Scotland, Archeology and Early History by Graham and Anna Ritchie
published by Thames and Hudson, New York
The Sterrett Genealogy by T. Woods Sterrett
published by Tuttle, Morehouse and Taylor, New Haven, Conn., 1930
The Surnames of Scotland: Their Origin, Meaning and History by George Black
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