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Anthony J. Camp - ROBERT GAYRE

George Gair or Sutherland

alias Robert Gayre of Gayre and Nigg

by Anthony J. Camp, MBE,

an article first published in the

Genealogists' Magazine, vol. 32, no. 8 (December 2017) pages 324-328


In the early 1960s my office at the Society of Genealogists was behind a screen on the first floor landing at 37 Harrington Gardens and I often ran into people coming and going to the neighbouring Secretary's office. One of the most intriguing of these was the late Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Gayre of Gayre and Nigg (1907-1996), Secretary-General of the VIth International Congress of Genealogy and Heraldry, held in Edinburgh in 1962, whose journal of 'racial history', Mankind Quarterly, founded in 1960, he was donating to the library.

Gayre published widely in genealogy, anthropology and heraldry but was prickly and litigious. As early as 1939 at Hastings County Court in a case about unpaid rent a judge told the agent who had leased Gayre a cottage that he ought to have known from the length of Gayre's letters 'what kind of man he was dealing with'! [Note 1]. His International Congress dealt mainly with 'the relevance of genealogy to human genetics, the legal functions of heraldic offices and courts of justice, and the principles of classification and evolution of orders of knighthood' [Note 2] and he became the Secretary-General and later the President of the non-governmental and private 'International Commission on Orders of Chivalry', supposedly a supervisory body but mired in controversy in its support for questionable orders. His racist views were frequently challenged and in 1994 Magnus Linklater wrote openly in The Times of this reclusive and unlovable eccentric as 'the barmy Laird of Nigg' [Note 3].

Many aspects of Gayre's life are controversial but I am here solely concerned with his male line ancestry in which he took a passionate interest. By a series of moves he gained its acceptance in Ireland and then in Scotland and then its publication in the 1952 Supplement to Burke's Landed Gentry and later in Burke's Landed Gentry of Great Britain: the Kingdom in Scotland (2001) [Note 4] and, in an abbreviated form, in Burke's Peerage (2003) [Note 5].

When recently looking at these pedigrees I was struck by the unusually vague way in which some quite recent events were worded and on checking these it was soon found that the claimed descent was seriously flawed. It is many years since A. C. Fox-Davies warned us not to 'believe for one moment, any man's account of his own family .... No matter how truthful a man may be, his probity never seems to have stability on that one point', [Note 6] but the Gayre story is yet another warning, if indeed another is needed, never to trust what people say about their ancestries unless they provide contemporary evidence for the events described.

Robert Gayre was born as George Robert Gair at 4 Westland Villas, Dublin, on 6 August 1907, the son of Robert William Gair, confectioner, by his wife Clara Gair, formerly Hart. He appears with his parents in the 1911 census as 'George Gair', aged 3, born co. Dublin. His parents had married on 28 July 1906 at the Methodist Church, Clonliffe, co. Dublin when his father Robert William Gair said that he was of full age, bachelor, a confectioner, of 50 Shelbourne Road, Dublin, the son of Robert W. Gair, deceased. His wife Clara Hart described herself as of full age, spinster, of 68 Serpentine Avenue, Dublin, the daughter of David Hart [Note 7].

In the 1911 census Gayre's father Robert William Gair was at Sandymount Green, Pembroke East, Dublin, aged 33, confectioner, saying that he was born in Scotland, had been married 5 years and had 2 children. Gayre's parents moved to England at some time after 1911 and his mother Clara Gair died at 130 Prescot Road, St Helens, Lancashire, on 13 March 1930, aged 47 [Note 8]. His father, Robert William Gair, had in 1901 been a boarder at Cornmarket, St Anne's Ward, Belfast, unmarried, aged 25, pastry baker, born Scotland, and in the 1939 Register he was at 30 The Avenue, Huyton, Lancashire, retired confectioner, giving his date of birth as 9 December 1875. That was the address which his son, as 'G. Robert Gair', gave when elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1930 [Note 9]. The father died at Portelet, Melton Road, Sprotborough, near Doncaster, also on 13 March but in 1957, aged 81. His will as Robert William Gayre or Gair was proved, 16 May 1957, by his son George Robert Gayre [Note 10].

On 19 November 1940 George Robert Gair, then of Telham, Battle, Sussex, Captain in the Royal Artillery, Master of Arts of the University of Edinburgh, a natural born British subject, had given notice (dated 12 November 1940) in The London Gazette that he intended after twenty-one days from publication 'to assume the surname of Gayre (which is the ancient spelling of the name) in lieu and instead of his present surname of Gair' [Note 11].

On 30 September 1948 George Robert Gayre obtained a confirmation of arms from the Chief Herald of Ireland at Dublin, to 'the descendants of Robert William Gayre, of Dublin, and his son Lt. Col. George Robert Gayre, of Naples, &c' [Note 12]. It was re-registered in full, with both the Irish and English texts, at the College of Arms in London [Note 13]. In Ireland the language of 'confirmation' was always used even when it was in effect a new grant and Gayre claimed in his petition that his family had been using arms previously unrecorded in Ireland. He was allowed a simplified form of the arms of Gair of Nigg recorded by Alexander Gair, portioner of Nigg, on the Public Register of Arms in Scotland in 1672-7, Gayre retaining the mullet but not the chief [Note 14]. Also on 30 September 1948, as of Gulval, Cornwall, he was granted a Badge by the Genealogical Office [Note 15]. Burke's Peerage (2003) incorrectly represents the Confirmation of Arms as being to Robert William Gayre.

Two years later, in October 1950, as of The Mead House, Gulval, he recorded a pedigree (illustrated with the arms previously granted) at the Genealogical Office showing a descent from (but not going beyond) 'Alexander Gair descended from the house of Gair of Nigg, Ross Shire, Scotland', by his wife Catherine Ross, whose child Alexander Gair, of Greenock, was born at the Cape of Good Hope in 1810 and died at Partick, Greenock, 10 September 1884 [Note 16]. The pedigree says that Gayre's father, Robert William Gayre, was 'born abroad', 11 (sic) December 1875, and was formerly of Dublin and now of Huyton, Lancashire. That he had married at Dublin, 28 July 1906, Clara Hart, daughter of David Hull (who assumed the name of Hart), of Boane (sic, recte Bourne), Cambridgeshire. The pedigree further says that Gayre's father was the son of William Gillies Gair, artist (the son of the above mentioned Alexander Gair), who was born 26 September 1842, 'lived in London and abroad', and died 'before 1906, believed overseas', by a wife Mary O'Connor, 'married abroad in or before the year 1875'. No additional details are given about Robert William Gayre or his father William Gillies Gair. This is the pedigree as printed by Burke in 1952, 2001 and 2003.

On 13 April 1951 as of The Mead House, Penzance, he was granted a Standard and Lance Pennon, by the Genealogical Office at Dublin [Note 17], but then as Robert Gayre on 27 May 1954, following a Petition in which he described himself as 'Representative of the House and Family of Gayre of Gayre and Nigg by virtue of descent and lawful possession of the undifferenced Arms of the name' and 'eldest son of the late Robert Gayre chief of the Name of Gayre and representer of Nigg', he had a matriculation of the Irish arms from Lord Lyon in Edinburgh [Note 18]. His father, of course, was alive and did not die until March 1957.

Burke's Landed Gentry (2001) says incorrectly that he matriculated Arms at the Lyon Office on 23 December 1957 and that the mullet was 'for difference'. The Arms matriculated on 27 May 1954 included a quartering for McCulloch of Nigg in token of Gayre's alleged descent from Alexander Gair(e) and Katherine McCulloch who had married before 1620, though documentary evidence for that descent was not recorded at the Lyon Office. Gayre's wife, Nina Mary Ferry or Gayre (by petition dated 14 January 1959), matriculated Arms at the Lyon Office on 23 February 1967 [Note 19] and Robert subsequently had a Grant of Supporters, Standard, Badge, Pinsel and Guidon also at the Lyon Office [Note 20].

We have noted that the pedigree recorded in Ireland and later printed shows Robert Gayre's father Robert William Gair as the son of William Gillies Gair whereas his father said at marriage on 28 July 1906 that he was the son of Robert W. Gair, deceased. Initial searches for the birth of Robert William Gair in Scotland in 1875 proved negative and it was assumed that Gayre had himself made extensive searches there but without success, so searches were concentrated on William Gillies Gair the claimed grandfather. The outline biography that follows, constructed from the British Newspaper Archive [Note 21] and the census returns, shows that Gillies Gair, as he was sometimes known, almost certainly never married and that he was not deceased when Robert William Gair married in July 1906.

William Gillies Gair was born at Greenock, Scotland, 26 September 1842, the only son of Alexander Gair (1810-1884) who, according to the pedigree in Burke, had the Gair or Gayre of Nigg descent. According to newspaper accounts of an action which he brought in 1878, when he accused a local painter of publishing a defamatory libel of him in the form of a painting as a red-faced drunkard, he was from about 1867 to 1874 a student at the Royal Academy in London. He said that he had trained as a portrait painter and then worked in London, Bath and elsewhere, and was now living in Merthyr Tydfil [Note 22]. In the 1871 census he was at 98 Roxburgh Street, Greenock, aged 28, art student academy London [Note 23]. In 1881 he was at 4 Albert Street, Merthyr Tydfil, aged 32, artist, portrait & landscape [Note 24]. In 1891 he was at the Alexandra Hotel, 124 Queen Street, Cardiff, aged 48, portrait painter & artist [Note 25]. In 1901 he was boarding at 16 Shepherds Bush Green, Hammersmith, aged 52, artist [Note 26]. In all these census returns he described himself as unmarried or single. According to the Greenock Telegraph he died at Montborough Square (seemingly a mistake for Montpelier Square, Brompton), London, on 27 September 1906, but the death notice, which mentions his father, does not say anything about a marriage [Note 27]. His death was registered at Chelsea as William Gillies Gare (sic), aged 64 [Note 28]. He left no will or administration in England or Scotland.

Turning again to Scottish sources and the birth indexes available on 'Scotlands People', the official website of the National Records of Scotland and the Court of the Lord Lyon, the birth of a Robert William Gair in 1875 was quickly noted, registered in Gorbals district in 1876 [Note 29]. This Robert William Gair was born illegitimate at 4.30 a.m. on 9 December 1875 at 166 Hospital Street, Glasgow, to Jessie Gair, fancy goods shopwoman, who registered the birth on 14 January 1876, and is undoubtedly the correct entry [Note 30]. The birth date agrees with that in the 1939 Register. The mother Jessie Gair, as of 31 Breadalbane Street, Glasgow, drapery saleswoman, spinster, aged 26, married William Sutherland, of 60 Breadalbane Street, plasterer journeyman, widower, aged 39, at St John's Episcopal Church, Glasgow, after banns, on 28 November 1877, when she said that she was the daughter of Alexander Gair, joiner, and Mary Gair formerly McKay [Note 31]. Jessie Gair was thus a sister of the artist, William Gillies Gair, though not shown on the pedigree recorded in 1950.

In 1881 this Jessie Sutherland, aged 35, born Greenock, and her husband, William Sutherland, aged 45, plasterer, born Duffus, were at 31 Mansfield Street, Glasgow, with children William Sutherland, aged 12, born Insch, Aberdeenshire, David Sutherland, aged 7, born Glasgow, Robert Sutherland, aged 5, born Glasgow, and Jessie Sutherland, aged 2, born Glasgow.

The birth of the child Jessie, aged 2 in 1881, at 60 Breadalbane Street, Glasgow, on 13 October 1878, shows that she was a child of Jessie and William, but the child David, aged 7 in 1881, was born 19 February 1874, at 10 Paterson Street, Glasgow, the son of William Sutherland and Catherine Birnie who had married at Insch on 7 November 1868. Catherine had died at 10 Paterson Street, Glasgow, on 5 March 1875. William Sutherland died intestate at Barnhill Poorhouse from 14 Mansfield Street, Glasgow, on 22 August 1881, aged 45 [Note 32].

As noted above the illegitimate Robert Sutherland was aged 5 in 1881. In 1891 he was boarding with Catherine Ruthford, aged 49, at 8 North Coburgh Street, Glasgow, he being described as aged 15, pastry baker (apprentice). His mother Jessie Sutherland, sewer, widow of William Sutherland, plasterer, and daughter of Alexander Gair, joiner, died from Partick at an asylum in Gourock on 13 October 1897, aged 47. As we know Robert William Sutherland then moved to Belfast where he next appears as Robert William Gair, aged 25, pastry baker, in 1901.

One cannot say if William Sutherland was the father of Jessie's child, but whatever the case, the late Robert Gayre had no male line Gair descent. Gayre's father may not have been fully aware of the circumstances of his illegitimate birth, but by the time that he made his will in January 1950 he had, perhaps at his son's suggestion, informally adopted the surname Gayre. The only bequest that he made to Robert that year was of 'the carved oak shield of arms of my ancestors and such books as he may find of use' [Note 33]. His younger son, Alexander William Gair, M.B.E. (1946), who died in 2001, retained the spelling Gair [Note 34], as did Alexander's two sisters Evelyn Lorraine Gair [Note 35] and Alice Clara Gair [Note 36]. If the confectioner had doubts about his birth and legitimacy he may not have communicated them to his son but knowing Robert's interest in family history it is difficult to believe that he did not know the full truth.

The International Commission on Orders of Chivalry, with Gayre latterly as its President, was, as noted above, embroiled in many controversies and it may be noted that Gayre's close colleague Terence McCarthy, the Commission's Vice-President, who had been given courtesy recognition by the Genealogical Office in Ireland in 1992 as The MacCarthy Mor, Chief of the Name, and who claimed to be Prince of Desmond and Lord of Kerslawny, was himself investigated in 1999 when it was found that his pedigree was similarly bogus. His courtesy recognition was declared null and void, the ratification and confirmation of his arms in 1979 was declared invalid, and his pedigree registered in 1980 was declared without genealogical integrity [Note 37]. One has to wonder to what extent these two gentlemen were aware of each other's fabrications.

Acknowledgments. I am indebted to Patric Dickinson, LVO, FSG, Clarenceux King of Arms, for his advice; to Dr Joseph J. Morrow, QC, Lord Lyon King of Arms, for his kind assistance; and to Caroline Gerard for being generous with her time and expertise in Edinburgh.


[1] Hastings and St Leonards Observer, 17 June 1939, page 13.

[2] 'Nobility descends on Edinburgh', in The Times, 10 September 1962, page 12; 'Congress of Genealogy and Heraldry', in Daily Telegraph, 11 September 1962; 'Colonel "£2,431 Out of Pocket"', in The Times, 5 December 1962, page 7; '£2,000 grant that failed', in Daily Telegraph, 5 December 1962.

[3] Magnus Linklater, 'Racism and the barmy Laird of Nigg', in The Times, 23 November 1994, page 18; see also (accessed 30 July 2017).

[4] Burke's Landed Gentry of Great Britain: the Kingdom in Scotland (19th edition, 2001), pages 489-91.

[5] Burke's Peerage (107th edition, 2003), vol. 2, pages 1530-31.

[6] Arthur Charles Fox-Davies, 'The Abuse of Arms', in Armorial Families: a directory of gentlemen of coat-armour (1929) xv.

[7] Registered in Dublin North, September Quarter of 1906, vol. 2, page 445.

[8] Principal Probate Registry, Grant of Administration, to her widower Robert William Gair, works manager, 12 March 1932; GRO Death Indexes, March Quarter 1930, Prescot, 8b 886.

[9] Dundee Courier, 2 December 1930, page 4.

[10] Principal Probate Registry, Grant of Probate, to George Robert Gayre, university professor, and Evelyn Loraine Gair, spinster, 16 May 1957; GRO Death Indexes, March Quarter 1957, Don Valley, 2b 481.

[11] The London Gazette, 19 November 1940, Supplement 34996, page 6666.

[12] Genealogical Office, MS 111g folio 58.

[13] College of Arms, Irish Grants Register, 3, folio 92. It was the first time in the history of the College that an official entry was registered in the Irish language; see Susan Hood, Royal Roots - Republican Inheritance; the survival of the Office of Arms (Dublin, 2002) page 194.

[14] No. 2663, 'Argent a fleur de lys Sable, on a chief of the second a mullet of the first', in Sir James Balfour Paul, An ordinary of arms contained in the public register of all arms and bearings in Scotland (Second Edition, Edinburgh, 1903) page 180.

[15] Genealogical Office, MS 111g, folio 59.

[16] Genealogical Office, MS 182a, folios 51-51.

[17] Genealogical Office, MS 111g, folio 78.

[18] Lyon Office, vol. 42, folio 94.

[19] Lyon Office, vol. 66, folio 2.

[20] Lyon Office, vol. 66, folio 25.

[22] South Wales Daily News, 21 January 1878, page 4; Merthyr Telegraph, 25 January 1878, pages 2-3; Cardiff Times, 26 January 1878.

[23] Transcription on

[24] The National Archives, RG11/5312-108-15.

[25] The National Archives, RG12/4391-32-57.

[26] The National Archives, RG13/50-139-9.

[27] Greenock Telegraph, 20 October 1906.

[28] English & Welsh GRO Death Index, as William Gillies Gare, December Quarter 1906, Chelsea 1a 243.

[29] Scottish GRO Birth Index, 1876, Gorbals, 644/1261.

[30] Register Entry 61, page 21 (District of Gorbals in the County of Lanark).

[31] Register Entry 267, page 134 (District of Anderston in the Burgh of Glasgow).

[32] Register Entry 1260, page 420 (District of Dennistoun in the County of Lanark).

[33] Will of Robert William Gayre, formerly known as Robert William Gair, of Dunedin, 30 The Avenue, Huyton, Lancashire, gentleman, dated 30 January 1950, proved at Liverpool, 16 May 1957. He had died at Portelet, Melton Road, Sprotborough, near Doncaster, Yorkshire, on 13 March 1957, with estate of £1,606-2-0 gross, £1,521-8-6 net.

[34] Will of Alexander William Gair, of Keighley, proved at Leeds, 10 April 2001. He had died 25 February 2001.

[35] Evelyn Lorraine Gair, born 16 July 1914, died unmarried at 154 West Terr, Burley in Wharfedale, Yorkshire, 31 October 1986; her will was proved at Leeds, 22 December 1986.

[36] Alice Clara Gair, born 7 November 1917, married Maurice B. Warren in Prescot RD, June Quarter 1939; GRO Marriage Indexes, 10f 503. She died at Keighley, 17 June 2005; her will was proved at Leeds, 16 August 2005.

[37] Susan Hood, Royal Roots - Republican Inheritance; the survival of the Office of Arms (Dublin, 2002) page 208; (accessed 7 February 2014).

See also (Diary of a Genealogist: the background, foundation and development of the Society of Genealogists and genealogy in London, 1820-2010.