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.

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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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23 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
    KK

    Reply
    • 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……………..

      Reply
  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!

    Reply
  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)

    Reply
  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!

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
    • 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 .

      Reply
  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

    Reply
  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

    Reply
  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

    Reply
    • rae

      My third grandfather was Adam Allen Kerr from Sandy Lake, Mercer Co, Pa.
      His son was Allen Adam Kerr…..I am wondering if there is any relation.
      My dad…a Kerr….was not left handed.
      I am basically right handed…but use both well.

      Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply

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