Meaning of “Fairweather”

I am no expert in our family origins but I have developed my own theory – and it is just a theory. I suspect that those who became Fairweathers were not part of a distinct ethnic group or clan but may have lived in various communities as farmers, agriculturalists and shepherds, almost “under the radar”. There are good grounds to suggest that they were given the name “Fairweather” because of the jobs they did rather than where they were from or because they belonged to a clan. For that reason it could be that the various groupings of Fairweathers might not share identical DNA markers. Something we need to look out for as more results are published.

So what might the word mean? The typical explanations for the origins of the name, as I’ve said, lack credibility. Both Burke’s Peerage and explain the origins as “a nickname for a person with a sunny temperament”. I’d like to think that was descriptive of the Fairweather nature but I find it surprising that there is no better explanation. Might it be possible that we do have Norse or Viking connections even if the DNA is not a distinct match?

While looking through papers accumulated by my father I found a book titled the “Memoirs of the Fairweather’s of Menmuir”. I have yet to establish a family tree link to these Fairweathers, but I’m sure it exists. Around 1874, a certain Alexander Fairweather wrote a manuscript as a record of the history of the Fairweathers. Because it was just in manuscript form, and partly due to some inaccuracies, a gentleman by the name of Dr William Gerard Don, having married an Ann Fairweather, did further research and published the above book. It makes for fascinating reading. Mr Don’s son was called David Fairweather Don.

In the original manuscript Alexander comments, “It is curious to note that in 1604 among the Scottish Fairweather’s there was one, Jacobus of Blairno, Lethnot, Forfarshire whose surname was also spelled Fawvedder, exactly as his English contemporaries in Suffolk and London.”

He goes to explain that the Fairweathers “are of purely Saxon origin” and that “the name probably originated among the watery levels of the Eastern Counties of England, where of course, fair-weather would naturally be longed for and much spoken of.” So there is a widely held belief that the name has to do with temperament.

However, in his commentary, William Don says that this interpretation is a mistake and takes the view that, “The migration of the Fairweather’s to Scotland, in the train of the Norman nobles, during the 12th and 13th centuries, may account for their appearance at an early date in the fertile county of Forfar and its neighbourhood.”

Dr Don makes a connection to the Normans, a contraction of“norsemen” and he does so based on his understanding of the origins of the Fairweather name. He says, “There are many places in Britain that have no relation to the adjective, ‘fair’ – meaning clear, pure, light-coloured, etc, but are derived from an old Norse root noun, faar or fær meaning sheep: Thus:

Fairfield – ‘faer fall = sheep fell.

Fairgirth – ‘faer garor’ = sheep fold

Fair Isle – ‘faer ey’ = sheep island

This explanation is supported by other studies on the word – fær; a Noun meaning “sheep” from Old Norse, itself from Proto-Germanic ‘fahaz’ – (Hypothetical prehistoric ancestor language of all Germanic languages, including English.)

The wife of William Don was Ann Fairweather. Her father was a certain George Fairweather. I was intrigued to find this man in the 1851 census, living in Dundee and working as a factory overseer. A number of families lived at the stated address and those of working age had jobs in the mills. So this building may have been owned by the mill to house workers. The address recorded was 195 Faerweathers Land!

How interesting that in the word “faer”, we have a Norse word with a Germanic root, especially that, as a Fairweather, my own roots are “Germanic”. But what about “weather”? Early spellings of the surname include Fawvedder; Faarvedder; Faarwedder; Fairvedder so it’s a word that has evolved and changed over the centuries. It is interesting to note that of all18 Fairvedder births recorded at in the 17th century, only one or two of that name are recorded as deaths the following century. That in itself suggests that the name recorded at death may have had a different spelling from that at birth.

An online search for “vedder” or “wether” turns up an interesting definition – once again linked to sheep. It is a term used to describe a neutered male sheep and those of the older generation in Scotland are still very familiar with it as a word. It is Old English, of Germanic origin (there’s that link again); related to Dutch weer and German Widder. In can also be used as a Verb “to wether”, ie. the act of wethering a sheep or goat. The term is commonly used on web sites relating to sheep farming, eg. “The need for castration is based on the management of the farm and demands of the market place. Ram lambs grow faster than ewe and wether lambs……wether lambs are easier to manage and eliminate the possibilities of early and/or unwanted pregnancies. ”

More on the subject here – The equivalent in the horse breeding world is a gelding (another Norse root word).

In both these words, “faer” and “wether”, we have Norse and/or Germanic root words, and both with a strong connection to sheep and sheep farming. Perhaps the Fairweather name was given to those who kept sheep or may have worked with shepherd’s giving assistance as a “wetherer of sheep”. We’ll probably never know but it’s a suitable description of an activity common in the rearing of sheep.

The New Statistical Account of Scotland – 1837 – Fordoun, Kincardineshire, makes an interesting reference – “About 600 black-faced wedders are bought in by farmers, and fed off on turnips, and this practice is yearly extending… Once ready for sale many sheep were shipped by steamer to London for sale in markets there.”

Recently, a friend with knowledge of the old Flemish language has proposed another possible origin. Bear in mind that my DNA places our origins in the low countries of Europe, currently the Benelux countries, and historically referred to as “Germanic Peoples”. Two words occur that may offer a more credible explanation of the name. “Fähre” is a word in old Flemish that means “ferry”. Wedde is a small village in the Netherlands and is also an old German word for “salary” or payment.  Could it be that the Fairweather name, which early on was spelt as “Faarwedder”, has its origins as the occupation of a ferryman? In that part of the world a ferryman would be a fairly common occupation. This explanation seems more credible as it links the language and an occupation to the geographical origins of the Fairweather DNA in the low countries.