What the experts say.

Edward MacLysaght states that the name derives from the parish of Orr ( Urr )  in Kirkcudbrightshire. It is also the name of an old Renfrewshire family and is most common in the west of Renfrewshire and in particular in the parish of Lochwinnoch.

Mac Giolla Domhnaigh claims that the name was also used as an anglicisation of Scots Gaelic Mac Iomhair, 'son of Ivar', a name also made Maclver, Maclvor, MacUre and Ure 

Some others derive the name from the Gaelic odbar donn, odbar, meaning 'sallow` (of complexion) and donn, meaning 'brown'. I am not too sure about sallow, all the Orrs I have ever met, or seen in photographs and paintings  have generally been of a healthy, ruddy, complexion, or weather beaten and tanned.

In Ireland this name is common only in the Province of Ulster, where it is chiefly found in counties Antrim, Down, Londonderry and Tyrone. Although in Ulster for four hundred years, and probably longer because of the closeness of the West coast of Scotland,  the roots of the family lie squarely in Scotland  The Ures or Orrs are an acknowledged sept (a family giving allegiance to another more powerful family) of Clan Campbell. 

Sorry folks - some myths rejected.

I have seen several claims that the Orr name is derived from McGregor which is inconsistent with the facts. It is not a diminutive form of McGregor, the Orr name had been been in existence in its own right for over 300 years before the McGregor name was banned in 1603. It is just possible that a MacGregor might have taken the Orr name when the clan was forced to give up his own - in the same way that Rob Roy MacGregor took Campbell as his new surname - but that is an entirely different thing. The chances of this having happened is probably small, not least because Orr is essentially a Lowland name. But on the other hand, if you are certain to be transported or lawfully killed on sight, it might not be such a bad idea to take a name of a southern Scottish family.  Neither is the Orr name a derivative from the French d`Or (meaning gold) from the Huguenots or from the name of Spanish sailors washed ashore from wrecked ships of the Spanish Armada.

Existence of the name since at least 1296

A reference book from Inveraray Castle, the home of the Duke of Argyll and Chief of Clan Campbell lists the names associated with the clan and includes Orr:

" ORR .Old Renfrewshire name, originally either from extinct placename or from Gaelic odhar, of sallow complexion. The numerous occurence of Orrs in Campbelltown, Kintyre since c. 1640 likely due to movement from Renfrewshire. John Or in Moy listed as Campbell of Cawdor family, 1578. Alexander Over, alias Robertson, in Connoch mentioned for receiving stolen goods belonging to Clan Gregor, 1613"

Andro Craefurd (Crawford) author of "The Cairn of Lochwinnoch " ca 1836 deeply researched the history of the Lochwinnoch area and in his notes observes that

" the Orrs,  the Montgomeries, the Brydines , the Kirkwoods, the Glens, the Sempiles have charters from five hundred years."   [ from the Abbott of Paisley].

This indicates that the Orrs had been leasing land since then and is consistent with the record that a Hew Orr or Urr swore allegiance to King Edward I (the Ragman Rolls ) in 1296. This is also consistent with the use of a surname from the 13th century onwards which could be derived from Hew or Hugo of Urr  becoming Hew Urr / Orr.

There are many variations in spelling as a result of officials in the past writing the name as it sounded and it was not until the mid nineteenth century that a consistent form appeared. You might try to imagine a stereotype Scotsman with a broad accent pronouncing Orr as Urr,  Ure, Oorr, Oare, Owr, Owar, Ower, Oar, Or, Oarr, Oayre, Oure, Our, - maybe he was just .. err ... clearing his throat or reluctant to admit he was a MacGregor !

The Irish connection

 The Irish connection came about primarily through the acquisition of land in Co Antrim and Co Down by two Scottish landlords, Hugh Montgomery and Sir James Hamilton, both from Ayrshire. They purchased a  great deal of land between 1603 and 1607 and took with them tenants from Scotland to settle on  their new estates.

The earliest Orr recorded in Ireland is James Orr, b ca 1580 in Scotland who with his wife Janet McClement settled in Ballyblack, Co. Down in 1607. We know of James and Janet and their descendents through the work of Gawin Orr of Castlereagh, who researched and documented some 2,900 relatives in his epic `Ulster Pedigree`. This has been added to and published by Ray A Jones in 1977 under the title of " Ulster Pedigrees Descendants, in Many Lines, of James ORR and Janet McCLEMENT who Emigrated from Scotland to Northern Ireland ca 1607 "  This book is in the Latter Day Saints Library in Salt Lake City, Call no 929.2415 Or7j; and on fiche  #6036613.

 A long title but it is the most comprehensive record of Orrs in Ulster there is. This has been loaded into my database and I am happy to search it for specific links. I regret that it is 154 pages long and still in copyright, I cannot therefore do blanket searches as that would mean copying the whole book.  A list of names of people who married Orrs, and are mentioned in the Ulster Pedigree is also available.

More Orrs came to Ireland to settle in especially Counties Londonderry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, and Monaghan  as tenants of Scottish landlords, during the `Plantation of Ireland` between 1610 and 1630.

The Hearth Money Rolls and Poll Tax records for County Antrim  (1660-9) give details of further Orrs .

How, why and when the Orrs migrated round the world is a separate and complex story.

Orr Name Study Ulster Scots Reference material