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“… sufficient evidence remains to be able to assert with confidence that Orwell was in male line descent from Alexander de Blair who flourished in the first half of the 13th century.”
                                                Gordon MacGregor (email correspondence)

Five years ago I first wrote about Orwell’s Scottish ancestry and subsequently published it formally (2020) in George Orwell Studies journal. The paper cited extensive sources which revealed the Blair family had been deeply-involved in the slave trade two generations earlier than previously thought and were active members of the colonial political class in Jamaica.

Since then, convincing evidence has become available which pushes Orwell’s Blair family lineage back several hundred years. Gordon MacGregor’s The Red Book of Scotland has justly been described as an “ambitious…genealogical blockbuster”. His meticulous archival research has made it possible to trace George Orwell’s Scottish ancestry back to the early thirteenth century – and perhaps beyond.

In my original research paper, the focus was firmly centred on Orwell’s earliest confirmed Scottish ancestor, his great-great-great-great-grandfather – the slave-owning, colonial politician – Colonel John Blair (1668-1728). There were snippets of information about his father being Andrew Blair but I decided to stay in the realm of verifiable evidence.

The Red Book of Scotland lists Andrew Blair of Inchyra (1641-1699), the second son of Thomas Blair of Balthayock (1619-1652), as John Blair’s father. This linked the Inchyra Blairs to the Balthayock clan, whose genealogy is well-established. The first known primary source documents for that family date from the the reign of King William (c. 1142-1214) when Stephan de Blar, the son of Vallenus, granted land in the parish of Blairgowrie to the monks of Coupar Angus Abbey. His successor, probably his son, was Alexander de Blair.

King William (c. 1142-1214)

I traced Eric Blair’s paternal line, making a list as part of my process for trying to work it all out – and contacted Gordon MacGregor. He responded generously and double-checked my interpretation of his genealogical tables. He agreed that we can say, “with confidence” that Alexander de Blair and, “on a balance of probability, it seems very likely,” Stephan de Blar were Eric Arthur Blair’s direct paternal ancestors:

“On the matter of Alexander de Blair being the son of Stephen de Blar/Blair, or at least in descent from him, on a balance of probability, it seems very likely, however, even if that were to be disregarded, sufficient evidence remains to be able to assert with confidence that Orwell was in male line descent from Alexander de Blair who flourished in the first half of the 13th century.”

It was awesome to track through the generations that preceded Eric Blair, marvelling at MacGregor’s methodical scholarship in assembling such disparate sources.  If you are keen for a historical treat, the updated, searchable fourth edition (2023) pertinent to the Blair surname may be purchased here. It is also worth getting hold of the difficult to obtain, The Blairs of Balthayock and their Cadets, 1150–1180.

A Brief Recap of the Biographies

How far can any biography explore genealogy? One imagine readers skipping those pages or chapter at the beginning of a book unless it has some greater connection to the subject.

The biographies of Orwell – probably due to page limits and the time-consuming nature of original research – have little to say about Orwell’s ancestors and are riddled with errors. The genealogical story always commences with Charles Blair (1743-1802) which has become a biographical trope badly in need of an update.

The Unknown Orwell (1972) by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams, provided a clue which led me to research the Scottish “Darien Scheme”:

“Charles Blair, his great-great-grandfather, who was born in 1743 and died in 1802, was a man of considerable wealth, the owner (we learn from his will) of “Estates, Plantations, Messuages, Lands, Tenements and Hereditaments … in the Island of Jamaica,” as well as ““Negro, Mulatto and other Slaves”. It would appear that his fortune was increased when he married Lady Mary Fane, the second daughter of Thomas, eighth Earl of Westmorland, for there is a record of an exchange of deeds between his father-in-law and himself in 1765 in Jamaica. (Blairs, probably of the same family, had been prominent in Jamaica since the early eighteenth century; they might also have been associated with the abortive Scottish Darien scheme in Panama of 1698.)”

The Honourable Henry Fane with Inigo Jones and Charles Blair by Sir Joshua Reynolds c. 1766

Bernard Crick, whose entry on Orwell, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, really needs updating, has the dates wrong (and this error remains in place at the ODNB entry and the second edition of the biography):

“Life had not dealt Richard Blair, as he might have put it, particularly good cards. His great-grandfather Charles Blair (1743-1820) had been a rich man, an owner of plantations and slaves in Jamaica, who had married into the aristocracy; but his fortune had dwindled away by the time his tenth and last son was born. “

Jeffrey Meyers wrote in 2000:

“Orwell’s family, who originally came from Scotland, had colonial connections that went back to the eighteenth century. His great-great-grandfather, Charles Blair of Winterborne, Dorset, was the absentee owner of tropical plantations and wretched slaves in Jamaica. His great wealth enabled him to ally himself with the aristocracy and marry Lady Mary Fane, daughter of the 8th Earl of Westmorland, a Bristol merchant who’d inherited the title from a second cousin at the age of sixty-two.”

Gordon Bowker, in 2003:

“Charles Blair, Eric’s great-grandfather, was born in 1743, probably of Scottish ancestry. By way of Jamaican sugar plantations and the slave trade he became sufficiently prosperous to be an acceptable husband for Lady Mary Fane, youngest daughter of the Earl of Westmoreland, to whom he was married in 1765.”

D.J. Taylor, in 2003:

Each of the descendants of Charles Blair (1743–1801), who married the daughter of the Fane Earl of Westmorland, was somehow less distinguished than his immediate predecessor. The family fortunes, built on the now decaying Jamaican sugar and slave trades, were sharply diminished.”

D.J. Taylor, in 2023:

“The Blairs were descendants of Charles Blair (1743–1801), who, having built up a fortune in the Jamaican sugar and slave trades, took steps to enhance the family’s social position by marrying his son Thomas to the daughter of the eighth Earl of Westmorland.”

Michael Shelden (1991) did not mention Charles Blair, nor did Robert Colls (2013) but he does say Orwell’s “great-great grandfather had been a slave-owner in Jamaica”.

John Blair

The narrative pertaining to Orwell’s Blair ancestors genuinely needs be updated. There is no need to track the family back to Vallenus, Stephan or even Alexander de Blair but the life of Colonel John Blair (1668-1728) is an important part of the story of Orwell’s family deserving wider recognition. If you do not have time to read my research from 2020, I have summarised, removing the extensive referencing for readability (but you can check out the sources here or here).

Orwell’s earliest confirmed Blair ancestor, his great-great-great-great-grandfather Colonel John Blair (1668-1728), was a survivor of the ‘Darien scheme’ that so disastrously failed in the late-1690s. The Scottish parliament had endeavoured to establish a Central American colony at the Isthmus of Darien (Panama) – a foolishly optimistic plan, disproportionate to the size of the Scottish economy – involving an attack on the Spanish at a time when England was at peace. King William III ordered a boycott of the struggling colony which, as a result, soon foundered disastrously. Seven months after arriving in 1698, four hundred Scottish settlers were dead. The collapse of the colony in 1699 brought Scotland, already suffering from harvest failures, to the verge of financial collapse.

‘The Honourable Colonel John Blair’ was ‘a surgeon’ and ‘one of the Scotch colonists of Darien’. In 1701, this ‘survivor of Darien’, was elected as a member of the House of Assembly of Jamaica for St. Thomas in the East and was to ‘fill many other offices of trust’ in the years that followed. He represented St Catherine, St George and Port Royal and was considered a ‘major slave-owner in Jamaica’. Blair was appointed to be the Speaker of the House of Assembly in 1715. State papers show he was allied, or friends with other planters and politicians, including John Ayscough who served in the 1720s as President of the Council, Chief Justice and also Governor of Jamaica. The Ayscough clan were one of ‘the most noted families in Jamaica history’. Blair’s son, also named John (1712-1742), married Mary Ayscough.

On his death in 1728, the elder Blair owned 419 slaves of whom 221 were male and 198 female; 63 were children. The total value of his estate at probate: £22036.07 in Jamaican currency of which £10173.5 was the estimated value of the enslaved people.  Blair was interred, along with his young second wife Elizabeth Blair (1694-1721) and other members of his family at Saint Jago de la Vega Cathedral in Spanish Town in 1728. Inscribed on the family tomb:

Here Lyes Interr’d the Body of ELIZABETH the late wife of JOHN BLAIR ESQ’R who departed this Life the 7th of Fber 1721, Aged TWENTY SEVEN YEARS. Likewise their Four Children JOHN, THOMAS, CHRISTIAN, and MARY. (HERE) also Lieth Interr’d ye Body of the Hon’ble JOHN BLAIR. 27th day of June 1728. Aged 60 Years (Scooter 2014).

Image courtesy of Find-a-Grave

His son, John Blair (1712-1742), by the time he was buried in the same cathedral, had amassed an even greater fortune and much more property. The ‘Jamaican Quit Rent books’ and probate records reveal that his son Charles (1743–1802), the first Blair mentioned in biographies of Orwell, would inherit vast tracts of land and hundreds of slaves:

… 150 acres of land in St Catherine, 930 acres in St Thomas-in-the-East, 500 acres in St Ann, 300 acres in Clarendon and 1020 acres in St Thomas-in-the-Vale, total 2900 acres … Slave-ownership at probate: 392 of whom 211 were listed as male and 181 as female. 0 were listed as boys, girls or children. Total value of estate at probate: £20342.91 Jamaican currency of which £12269 currency was the value of enslaved people.

It is significant that Charles, who was born after his father’s death, probably returned to Dorset in England, rather than Scotland where his grandfather was born. Charles’s mother, Mary Ayscough, was connected to the Fane and Michel families, slave-owners who also had addresses in ‘Wessex’. Her husband had died aged 26 and the young mother had an unborn infant to raise. There was certainly enough money to live more than comfortably back in England. Her son, Charles, was later to marry into the politically well-connected Fane family and reside at Down House, in Dorset.

The ‘parish’ was a Jamaican administrative unit in use from 1655. Blair plantations were extensive and located in many parishes including Saint Thomas-in-the-Vale, Clarendon, Saint-Thomas-in-the-East, Saint Ann, and St Catherine. One smaller property, Blairs Pen, was used for ‘livestock’. It was about 200 acres and was more likely used for cattle than slaves. Records showed that other slave-owning families – the Sinclairs, Michels and Fanes – managed the Blair family estates and finances while he was a minor and that for almost a century Orwell’s ancestors were absentee landlords.

Parishes in Jamaica 1723-1769 when Charles Blair (b 1743) inherited slaves and plantations
Parishes in Jamaica 1723-1769 when Charles Blair (b 1743) inherited slaves and plantations

Jamaicans commonly have Scottish surnames at a higher rate than any other country outside of Scotland. There are more ‘Campbells’ per acre in Jamaica than in Scotland.

The Blair family, like so many other Scots, prospered due to the incredible profitability of these Jamaican plantations that supplied rum, sugar, cattle and sheep. It is worth remembering that Orwell’s father was born during 1857, into declining circumstances, due to the loss of revenue that followed the abolition of slavery.


Sadly, from my point of view, this research has not been employed in the most recent biographical work on Orwell. Objectively, it is more than just extremely historically topical – in the post-colonial studies that dominate the field – but contextually relevant to the story of Orwell, the great anti-imperialist who never mentioned his family history in either the slave or opium trades.

My hope is that a renewed effort to share Eric Blair’s male lineage will lead to the slave-owning and colonial politician, Colonel John Blair, finding his way into the story of George Orwell.


Bowker, Gordon (2004 [2003]) George Orwell, London: Abacus

Colls, Robert (2013) George Orwell: English Rebel, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Crick, Bernard (1992 [1980]) George Orwell: A Life, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, second edition

Dobson, David (2011) Scots in Jamaica, 1655-1855, Baltimore: Clearfield

Groome, Anne, Blair, Jack and McCullough, Noel Blair, The Blairs of Balthayock and their Cadets, 1150–1180, New Jersey: Clan Blair Society, 2001

Hall, Catherine, Draper, Nicholas, McClelland, Keith, Donington, Katie and Lang, Rachel (2014) Legacies of British Slave-Ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Kindle edition

MacGregor, Gordon, The Red Book of Scotland – Volume 2: Bai-Bru, 2023

MacGregor, Gordon, Email Correspondence, 21-22nd January, 2024

Meyers, Jeffrey (2000) Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation, New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Moore, Darcy (2020) “Orwell’s Scottish Ancestry and Slavery”, George Orwell Studies (2020) Vol. 5, No. 1 pp. 6-19

Moore, Darcy (2019) Orwell’s Scottish ancestry & slavery, Darcy Moore’s Blog. Available online at, accessed on 6 September 2020

Prebble, John (1970) The Darien Disaster, London: Penguin

Shelden, Michael (1991) Orwell: The Authorised Biography, London: Heinemann

Stansky, Peter and Abrahams, William (1972) The Unknown Orwell, New York: Alfred A. Knopf

Taylor, D. J. (2004) Orwell – The Life, London: Vintage

Taylor, D.J., Orwell – The New Life, London: Constable, 2023


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