Celtic Christianity and the Cairney surname history are somewhat interfused. Also, for any collection of Cairney surname information, some basic word history for “Cairney” can prove informative. I feel that looking at any surname associated in the past with Celtic Christianity yields historical information that sheds a less generalized light on Celtic religious practice and other matters. The study of such “names” then can perhaps allow the studier to better process and integrate the inevitably more generalized findings of various authors on the subject of Gaelic or Irish history, social anthropology or historical religious studies.
Cairney is a Scots word. That means that anyone who had the surname Cairney was linguistically—and probably culturally and politically—under Scottish influence at some key point in his or her family history between 1650 and 1850. The name is much older than that of course, but it found the form Cairney during that roughly 200 year period.
There would have been other forms of the name earlier from other languages. Scots (related to English, but not a dialect of English) is a language spoken in Scotland and the North of Ireland. Other languages existed in Scotland and the North of Ireland as well, including Gaelic, a Celtic language, and English.
The Cairneys have a history going back to early medieval times (or rather histories, for, like the Fergusons—another set of Gaelic families with a Scots name—there are origins in Scotland and origins in the North of Ireland). Not an entirely local or insular set of people, they were always connected with the medieval church, and so the name has links to the Gaelic world but also to the Norman world and to the world of the Holy Roman Empire. The family was, like many others, consistently involved in the work of the Church, particularly in the work of the Columban Church, the lay and monastic foundations of St. Colm Cille—St. Columba—of Iona, Derry, Dunkeld and several other locations. Most Cairneys are related in this way: they have origins linked to the kindred of St. Columba and are ecclesiastical septs—one way or another—of the Cenél nEógain branch of the Uí Néill.
So, “Cairney” is a Scots surname version (Cairnie, Carny, Carnie) of Ó Cearnaigh or Mac Cearnaigh (where an English translation would typically use “Kearney” or “Carney”). It is also a Scots placename-based surname translating Gaelic “(de) Car[de]naigh”.
There are different lineages: apart from occasional instances of “part-taking” via adoption or assumption of surname or as the result of incidental polyandry, there are a limited number of lineages whose members typically bear the surname “Cairney”, and so we can discuss the names in terms of “origins”.
Most “Cairneys” (Cairnies, Cairnys) are from one of four lineages.
Origin 1: Cairney of Donegal and Derry, Ó Cearnaigh.
Derry/Donegal/Tyrone (probably into Sligo) (probably into Down/Armagh) especially as “Kearney”, “Cairney” and “Carney”, and into Scotland and Glasgow especially as “Cairney” and “Cairnie”. Ó Cearnaigh-Derry Research: Ó Cearnaigh: Bhí clann airchinnigh i nDoire. Carney/Kearney: an erenagh family in Derry. Closely related to the House of Dunkeld. This clann is a branch of the Uí Néill and were at various times coarbs or erenachs of Derry. Several are mentioned in the Irish Annals. In the Annals of the Four Masters for the year 1096: “Eoghan Ua Cearnaigh, airchinneach of Doire, died on the eighteenth of the Calends of January.”
Another mentioned is Gille Críost Ó Cearnaigh who was Abbot and Coarb of St. Columba (St. Colm Cille) at Derry. The Annals of Ulster entry for 1198: “Gilla Mac Liac Ua Brenan put the succession away from him and Gilla-Crist Ua Cernaigh by choice of laity and clergy of the North of Ireland was ordained in his stead in the abbacy of Colm-cille.” The same event is mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters: “Gillamacliag O'Branan resigned his abbacy; and Gilchreest O'Kearney was elected coarb of St. Columbkille by the universal suffrages of the clergy and laity of the north of Ireland.”
Historical variants in Donegal: O'Carnie (1609), O'Carney (1659), O'Kairney (1665), O'Kearny (1665), and Cairney (1743). Many went to Glasgow in the 19th century.
Origin 2: Cairney of Perthshire, Cardenaigh.
Cairney, Carnie, Cairnie and Cairny: Perthshire and into Aberdeen and Glasgow/Edinburgh. Specific lineage from Sir John de Cairdeney of that Ilk (Cardney) near Dunkeld.
Beginning at Cardney, The Cairnys were later seated at Tulchan. They acquired the Perthshire inheritance of the ecclesiastical family of MacNair, a sept of the House of Dunkeld.
Origin 3: Cairnies of Aberdeen, Cardenaigh.
Cairnie, Carnie, Carny, etc.: Specific lineage(s) (early 14th century) from one or other of the various “Cairney” placenames in Scotland besides the one near Dunkeld, the most likely candidate being the barony of Cairney across the Tay from Abernethy. An Abernethy clan lineage, also to Aberdeen, Banff and Edinburg. The Abernethy clan is a House of Dunkeld sept with a Columban connection.
Primarily Pre-1950 Aberdeenshire.
Origin 4: MacCairneys of Galloway, Mac Cearnaigh.
McCarney, MacCairney, etc.: Monaghan and into Scotland, Galloway and Glasgow, especially as “Cairney”, “Cairnie” and “MacCairnie”.
Monaghan in Ireland, Wigtown to Glasgow in Scotland.
Less Likly Cairney Origins:
Ó Catharnaigh: Kearney, Carney of Westmeath and Offaly and into Dublin. Some possible migration into Down/Armagh and into Scotland and Glasgow as “Cairney”.
Ó Ceithearnaigh, Kerney, Kearney of Roscommon (Castlerea): very limited migration to Scotland and Glasgow.
Ó Cearnaigh, Carney, Kearney of Mayo (Balla) and possibly into Sligo. Uí Fiachrach.
Ó Cearnaigh, Carney, Kearney of Tipperary and Kerry and some into Mayo and Dublin. Dál gCais.