Left Handed Clan Kerr and The Reverse Spiral Staircase

Diagram of the Clan Kerr staircase

Diagram of the Clan Kerr staircase

The use of spiral staircases in medieval castles served as clever defence systems. They were almost always built with the spiral in the same direction (clockwise, when looking up from the bottom) so that the defending swordsman, who would either be coming down the stairs or backing up in reverse, could freely swing his sword. Conversely, the attacking swordsman (ascending the stairs) would have his swing blocked by the wall.

This, of course, assumed that both attacker an defender were right-handed, which most were.

Left-handed swordsman, though rare, had the advantage of surprise when attacking out-in-the-open – they had fought (and trained against) more right-handed opponents than their adversary had fought left-handed opponents. Their attack when ascending standard spiral staircases was also not blocked by the wall.

The warlike Clan Kerr trained to use their weapons with their left hands. Scottish Poet James Hogg (1770-1835) wrote, in The Raid of the Kerrs:

But the Kerrs were aye the deadliest foes

That e’er to Englishmen were known

For they were all bred left handed men

And fence [defence] against them there was none

and Walter Laidlaw wrote, in The Reprisal:

So well the Kerrs their left-hands ply

The dead and dying round them lie

Legend has it that, to allow them to more easily defend Ferniehirst Castle – seat of the Clan Kerr – the staircase was built spiralling in the other direction (see illustration above, with left-handed Kerr shown with ginger hair).

Is this true? Certainly, the castle does feature a reverse spiral staircase, but a 1993 study found no increased incidence of left-handedness in Kerrs.


About Amanda Moffet

I run www.scotclans.com with Rodger Moffet. Live in Edinburgh and love travelling around Scotland gathering stories.

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56 thoughts on “Left Handed Clan Kerr and The Reverse Spiral Staircase

  1. Kitty Kerr

    Hello! My name is Kitty and I live in Melbourne Australia.

    My husband Russell Kerr, (3rd generation Aussie), just so happens to be left handed as was his late brother and father before him. I cannot verify any further back than that though. Funnily enough, I have red hair although it is a little more grey these days!

    best wishes

    • sandra ballum

      Strange, I have been intrigued about this for a while, my mother’s family in Ontario Canada, at a Christmas dinner some years ago of the 17 people sitting at the table 11 of them were left handed. I myself am left handed although neither of my girls are although my grandchildren both golf left handed. I wonder……………..

  2. Ken Proud

    What happened to the Davidson clan? I know they almost got wiped out 200-300 years ago, but some are still around!

  3. Thomas Kerr

    I hail from Kerr’s who settled land in Upper Canada shortly after the War 1812-1815. {Soldiers were apparently offered a trip back to their mean little crofts in Scotland or Northern Ireland or 160 acres of free land in Canada – albeit mostly trees)

    I can recall my grandfather in the 1950’s with wonderfully mishappen left hand where his teachers had broken his knuckles trying to force him to write with his ‘right’ hand way back in the late 1800’s.

    My father was spared that indignity, but I wonder how he made it as far as uni (to be an engineer of course) whilst coping with a steel pen and an inkwell. To his dying day, he wielded even a ball point in a semi circle of his left arm to avoid smearing ink. His 3 brothers were all left handed too.

    In primary school, I also endured about 2 years of ink blots but then a modern fountain pen with fast drying ink cartridges hit the market (Schaefer if I recall correctly) and dad brought one home. (Ma protested the cost but lost that contest)

    So is my son, but not my sister. So there you have it. Four generations of leftie Kerrs + 3 similar uncles!

    But maybe not in the female line….Now I know about the poverty of genetic material on the Y chromosome but there could still be something missing here.
    There are 2 contradictory studies of left handedness in Kerrs, but I wonder if they include details of gender, order of birth, etc (Just for fun, she might hsve cheated about the middle but settled for a Kerr for #3 and last)

  4. Janette nee Keir

    Both my daughter and i are very left handed and i remember my grandparents, when i was very young, saying that there were many corrie fisted folk in our family and i was continuing the tradition. It was my granny who was able to teach me how to sew left handed!

  5. Louisa Pocock

    I am left-handed as was one of my sisters, although neither of our parents were but both my sons are. However there are no Kerrs in my background. The left handedness came from my grandfather Drury! A lot of his grandchildren are lefties.

  6. Cynthia McCurry Putman

    The study mentioned was in 1993. There would not be much correlation on people who were trained to fight left handed hundreds of years ago. It does not prove it was or was not an inherited trait.

  7. Cate Kerr

    I am a leftie as is my brother. More of us around now as not forced to change hand. One of my five children carries on the tradition.

    • Mardi

      I was a lefty but my brother told me that because that was not “normal” my parents encouraged me to use my right hand.

    • Helen Tinline

      There is also the theory that Kerr comes from the French word Coeur, meaning heart, because they were left-handed, as the heart is on the left .

  8. Sean mccaff

    My mother is a Kerr from Belfast she is left handed I am left handed and so is one f my sisters so r most f my cousins n that side

  9. Lesley Taylor

    My Grandmother was Annie Burgess Kerr must have been born around 1820 died in Edinburgh. I am able to use both my hands quite well, I do remember though my mom saying there where a few lefties in the family! I am looking for information about my gran and family any help appreciated

  10. Marisa Clarke

    Hi my dad told me when I was a little girl about left handed staircases and left handed swords. He could speak gaelic. Hr is sadky no longer with us I marri he was left handed and tod me at school his hand was tied behind his back to make him write with his rigt hand.
    I have married an Engish man oddly enough he is left handed our sons ate not lefy handed.
    Marisa Dover

  11. susan verran

    My ancestor was Hannah Carr another form of the same family Kerr whose family originated from the border of Scotland like the Kerrs.They originally came out with William the Conqueror from France.

  12. Jane Brownlee

    My paternal, Scots born grandmother had the maiden name Kerr – she was left handed as am I, my sister and my son. It mostly missed my dad’s generation (only 2 of the 7) but over half of my many paternal cousins are lefties. Of the 3 children of my son’s generation (so far…) 2 are left handed.

  13. James Kerr

    Being *trained* to use a weapon left-handed is not the same as *being* left-handed. I am right-handed and perform martial training with my left hand as well as my right.

    • James Henry kerr

      I am also a James Henry Kerr living in South Africa middelburg and I am also left handed so I wonder where will I perhaps fit in my father Gerald George Kerr was also left handed

  14. J. Campbell

    Not a Kerr but just had to mention I love Ferniehirst Castle. My mother’s name was Fern Hirst (maiden) and she was called Fernie. We are/were left handed.

  15. Ian Kerr

    I’m a Kerr right handed as we’re my father and both my daughters , however my Grandson is left handed.

  16. Justin

    My mother in law is a Kerr, daughter of ascot émigrés. She has 2 sons and 2 daughters. 3 left handers including my wife. 1 of our two sons is mostly left handed. He writes left handed. In cricket he bowls right handed but bats left handed.

  17. F Mackenzie

    The story I heard is that a left-handed Kerr chief trained his men to fight left-handed as he recognised the advantage. So add the natural left-handers to the initially undecideds or ambidextrous, and train the right-handers from a young age… it makes strategic sense. And given we know very sadly that left-handers can be forced to write with their non-leading hand, it is also credible. As a result of the advantage left-handedness offered in times of constant fighting in the Scottish Borders, it is also possible that the survival rate of left-handers was better then, leading to greater numbers at the time – a result which would not necessarily be reproduced in studies now.

  18. Vicki Campbell

    My mother was of English descent but her maiden name was Fern(ie) Hirst and she was left handed
    Ironic the Kerr castle is Ferniehirst castle.

  19. Mardi

    On a recent trip to Scotland we had the extreme privilege to visit Ferniehirst Castle. We were there researching our family history and were on our way to catch a ferry to the Isle of Arran. We drove by the castle to see it and possibly get some picture when the caretaker approached us. We explained that we are Kerr’s and since the Lord was not there, he invited us in for an abbreviated tour. What a wonderful memory.

    Our branch of the clan is from around Kilmory on Arran. The thought of standing on the ground that our ancestors walked on and farmed was so awe inspiring. It is one thing to do research at home but to actually go to the start is beyond words.

  20. Alan D Kerr

    Ascending a set of SPIRAL stairs backwards (let’s not forget the taper at one end of each tread), while fighting for one’s life with a sword …. not possible by my reckoning ……. bound to spend the bulk of one’s time falling over backwards and landing on one’s fundament ….. hardly a recipe for longevity!

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  23. Joy Sewell Chrnalogar

    My paternal great grandmother was Myrtle Agate Kerr and my maternal great great grandmother was Mary Ann Kerr. Both of my parents were right handed but me and 3 siblings are left handed as are 2 of my grandchildren and numerous cousins. My paternal Kersscame via South Carolina to Georgia to Alabama. My maternal Kerr’s came from Pennsylvania to Virginia to Tennessee.

    • Nadine Kerr

      Kerr Family, Brisbane, Australia

      I am left handed along with my identical twin brothers, My parents had 3 children all left handed and three out of five Grandchildren are left handed:
      My paternal Grandmother (although not a Kerr, married a Kerr) told me the story of the Kerr Castle and the reverse spiral staircase when I was younger in the 90’s. She was told the story after visiting a left handed doctor who happened to have the surname Kerr. I loved the story and told many people when they would make a comment about my Brothers and I all being left handed. Although, the sudy has found no increased incidence of left-handedness, it could be the case in my family of Kerr’s or just a big coincidence…..

  24. J.kere

    Hi it is very interesting reading everyone’s comments. I am in the UK and my paternal grandfather is James Kerr know as Jim, he died in 1993. He moved to England in the second world war and met my grandmother and stayed here and had my father and aunty. My grandfather was from Renfrew near Glasgow. He was one of 8 siblings. I did a DNA test on ancestry and in the 1800s the migration map shows family going to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and America. The map shows a connection in France from that time too which is interested me reading the French history above! It’s hard to see on the map exactly who and what side went where. I show up as having 192 cousins but mostly 4th to 8th and most seem to be in America and abroad! My brother , dad and grandad are/were all left handed too.

    • Laurel

      My Kerr ancestors were from Renfrew too. My branch were early 1700s in Pa then off to Va and Ohio. Both my parents have Kerr but a healthy distance! I also have Bruce and Wallace. Laurel

  25. G. Kerr

    I am direct descendant of the Kerr Klan and most of my family I’ve met are right handed, from what I’ve been told they trained to be left handed as well.


    I too am a Kerr born in Michigan. I have traced my ancestors back to the Canadian and to Ireland and many places there of. I have two in my mother family that are left hand and One is decease and the other is in a home at the age of 90. My mother Married Eldon Kerr who father is George Kerr from Canada and then we go back from there. You can look up my ancestary on my web site under the Kerr name and see if we are connected in any way. I also have a web site on Geni.com So far I have found many great grand fathers. If I can help you with anything in the family history please let me know. Thank You.

  27. J. Carr

    I’m a Carr, I’m left handed bit and the anomoly of the family! I actually was amdexterious but was “forced” to pick a side in school because I was beating everyone else in sports

  28. Sheila Fergusson

    My grandmother was Isabella Kerr, father John Kerr, deer forester, Laggan. I am fairly ambidextrous, taught to be right-handed, my brother is left handed, so is my son and it looks like my granddaughter will be too. My son has found one advantage of being a leftie, board writing, your body does not block the students’ view.

  29. Charles Carr

    Our Ancestry Came to the US in about the early 1600’s but seem to be able to trace our family tree to the MO. In the late to early 1800’s than the trail gets iffy. We originally spelled out name Kerr and as time went on and some one deserted in WWI ans shamed the family part of the family changed to Karr and when my grand father went into business in early 1900 or some time in the late 40’s Moved to South bend washington he change our name to Carr So the only people I know that are related to us that spell it with a C are my dads brothers Kids.

    But left handed i am basically right handed but can do as well left as right handed

  30. Eric Symons

    My Grandmother was a Innes-Ker and there were lots of left handlers in her family. My father was left handed as am I and one of my two brothers. There were lots of stories about the Kers being the oldest known left handed family and being a Borders family a lot of their homes had a left handed staircase for fighting. I saw this in a few of the places I visited in Scotland a few years ago.

  31. Sarah-Jane Onken

    My Mum is by birth a Carr. My Grandfather told us the stories passed on to him about the left- handed staircases and the battles fought with swords in the left hands. His Uncle was ambidextrous, writing with both hands. Both myself and Mother are right handed but with many left handed traits, for example, eating with cutlery left handed and wearing watch on the right hand and being able to do sports both ways so that people think we are left handed! My Mum’s school tried to get her to eat the ‘correct’ right handed way but as I also know this is not possible for us. We are not far from the Scottish border still to this day, descended from Carr’s in Newcastle.

  32. Matt Rogers

    Always heard this through family lore. I’m a southpaw, my mom’s dad was too, their name is Keir (family legend has it that my family was asked/forced to leave Scotland and altered their name on the ride over). My 5th grandpa was Adam Kerr, married Agnes Ditchburn from Dalgetty, and were the ones to leave Scotland.

  33. Carlos Cortes

    wonderful conversations and opinions. Incredibly interesting about lefties and their relationship with the Kerrs.
    I am left-handed, but not of Scottish descent, my world circulates in Latin America, from Chile.
    But I have great admiration for the culture and life of Scots and Irish.
    I am surprised that all my life I have had a very strong admiration for Europe and its history. I lived many years in Sweden and I had the opportunity to know Europe. Just walking through old streets was very impressive.
    Hugs to all the Scots

  34. Helen Schirmer

    My maternal great grandfather was a McBride and my great grandmother was a Kerr.
    Was told they both came from Scotland and immigrated over to Ireland. Later they came to the United States.
    My mother is lefthanded and she came from a family of 8 children. Neither of her parents were lefthanded nor were any of her 7 siblings.
    My mother had 6 children, 3 boys and 3 girls. Two of the boys and two of girls are left handed. I am one of the girls. That means 4 out of 6
    children are lefthanded. Surely there is some genetic component to it. I had an old maid school teacher who told me I was being rebellious by writing with my left hand, even though I was a good student. I told my parents and they met with her and set her straight, my mother telling her that she was left handed. I know of at least one great uncle on my father’s side who was left handed. I know of one girl cousin on that side who is lefthanded too. As a child, I picked up crayons and pencils with my left hand to color and write. Never coerced one way or the other. I still have a brother and as sister who are right handed. Who knows why we are one or the other. A mystery. to be solved.

  35. Adrianna

    My family is from a branch of the Kerr’s that intermarried with Cherokee. My grandfather, my sister, and brother are all left handed. As well as several ancestors who passed before I was born. I believe in the legends of the left-handed Kerr’s

  36. Sean Carr

    My grandfather Peter Carr traced our family tree back to the Kerr name and to Ferniehirst Castle. I am left handed and in our family we had a strange pattern form where the first born child would use the opposing hand to their father. As a result my daughter is first born and right handed, I am first born and left handed, my father was first born and right handed and his father was first born and left handed. I was born in South Africa but have since moved to Toronto and very please to hear there is a Carr/Kerr community here.


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