The Kilmorie Cross

Kilmorie Cross

Illustration from J. Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland

My list of ‘must see’ monuments includes this magnificent cross-slab from the Rhinns of Galloway. It originally stood near St Mary’s Chapel at Kilmorie but was moved in the early nineteenth century to Kirkcolm, two and a half miles away, where it was used as a door-lintel in the parish church. It was moved again in 1821, to the grounds of nearby Corsewall House. There it was photographed by a Mr Hunter of Newton Stewart, the resulting image being reproduced in Allen and Anderson’s Early Christian Monuments of Scotland of 1903. In 1989, the slab was returned to Kirkcolm church and placed in the churchyard where it resides today.

The slab is sometimes known as the Kilmorie Cross because of the large hammer-headed crosses on both sides. It stands a little over five feet high and is made of ‘greywacke’ sandstone. On one side, the hammerhead cross carries a rough representation of the Crucified Christ. Another figure stands below, flanked by two birds, a set of blacksmith’s tongs and an unidentified rectangular shape. It has been suggested that this lower figure is the Scandinavian hero Sigurd, juxtaposed with the Crucifixion to highlight the mingling of pagan and Christian beliefs in a region colonised by Vikings. On the other side of the slab, the hammerhead cross is decorated with spiral patterns, below which are two horns, a coiled serpent and a panel of interlace terminating in a pair of snakes.

Kilmorie Cross

Photographs from Allen & Anderson’s Early Christian Monuments of Scotland

The slab was probably carved in the tenth century, a very obscure period in Galloway’s history. The region takes its name from a people known as Gall-Gaidhil (‘Foreign Gaels’) whose origins are uncertain. They first turn up in the ninth century, as warbands serving Irish kings, probably as mercenaries. Their name suggests that they were Vikings who spoke Gaelic, or Gaels who behaved like Vikings. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, groups of Gall-Gaidhil seem to be in control of various seaways and coastlands in what is now South West Scotland, from Kintyre down to Galloway. At what point they gave their name to Galloway is unknown, but medieval chroniclers suggest that Gall-Gaidhil or ‘Galwegian’ lords ruled as far east as the district north of Carlisle. Current thinking envisages a sort of ‘Greater Galloway’ by c.1050, extending northward through Ayrshire to the Firth of Clyde, but whether this was a single realm or a patchwork of independent lordships is a mystery. The amount of Scandinavian culture introduced into this very large area is likewise a matter of debate. What the Kilmorie Cross seems to be telling us is that pagan Viking settlers and indigenous Christians were able to live side-by-side in one small corner of Galloway.

Map of Galloway

* * * * *
Notes & references

Having not yet visited the Kilmorie Cross I don’t have any photographs of my own to accompany this blogpost. A couple of nice images can however be seen at the website of Kirkcolm parish church via these links to the ‘front’ and ‘back’ of the slab.

Kilmorie is a Gaelic place-name which may mean ‘Church of Mary’. Kirkcolm means ‘Church of Columba’, with Gaelic cille replaced by Old Norse kirkja.

The cultural affinities of Galloway’s early medieval sculpture have been discussed in a number of publications. A useful article is Derek Craig’s ‘Pre-Norman sculpture in Galloway: some territorial implications’, in Richard Oram & Geoffrey Stell (eds), Galloway: Land and Lordship (Edinburgh, 1991), pp.45-62.

The Kilmorie Cross is described on the Canmore database, which also has an entry for the old chapel of Kilmorie.

* * * * * * *

Battle of Clontarf anniversary

Battle of Clontarf
This year marks the millennium of the Battle of Clontarf, fought on the outskirts of Dublin on 23 April 1014. The battle is often depicted as a defining moment in Irish history: a great victory by King Brian Boru over the Vikings. In popular mythology, it heralded the end of two hundred years of Viking influence in Ireland. But, as with many of the best myths, the true picture is somewhat different. Like most battles of the Viking period, Clontarf was first and foremost a clash between ambitious rulers rather than a struggle between Celts and Scandinavians. Both sides mobilised Irish and Viking forces, each contingent serving the interests of its own leader, with scant regard for the ethnic origin of friend or foe. It would have been no great surprise to Brian’s Irish warriors to learn that their enemies were led not only by Sihtric Silkbeard, king of the Dublin Norse, but also by the Irish ruler Mael Morda, king of Leinster, or that their own allies included Vikings from Limerick.

By setting aside the myths we can see the battle for what it really was: a mighty contest for superiority in which forces from all over Ireland took part. Its significance will be highlighted in 2014 with a series of commemorative events. Links to some of these can be found at the end of this blogpost, but more are being announced as the anniversary of the battle approaches.

The battle has a Scottish connection, too, which is why it gets a mention here at Senchus. For, although the causes of the conflict lay among a complex web of rivalries and overlordships in Ireland, the pattern of wider allegiances brought warriors from further afield into the fray. On Brian’s side, the list of slain commanders included Domnall, son of Eimin son of Cainnech, the lord of Mar (now part of Aberdeenshire), while on the other side the casualties included Earl Sigurd of Orkney.

Click the links below for more information on the millennial celebrations:

Battle of Clontarf

Battle of Clontarf

Battle of Clontarf

Battle of Clontarf

* * * * *


Boru is an Anglicised form of Bóruma which might mean something like ‘taker of cattle-tribute’, a suitable epithet for a Dark Age king.

The information about Sigurd of Orkney and Domnall of Mar comes from the Annals of Ulster.

Much of the mythologising which turned Clontarf into a contest between the native Irish and the Vikings is due to the twelfth-century text Cogadh Gaedhil re Gallaibh (‘The War of the Irish with the Foreigners’), written as propaganda for Brian’s descendants. In its account of the battle of Clontarf it tells of a fight between the Scottish nobleman Domnall of Mar and a Viking called Plait who may have come from Normandy.

* * * * * * *

Searching for Brunanburh

The battle of Brunanburh, fought in AD 937, was a notable victory for the English king Athelstan. On the losing side stood an alliance of Scots, Vikings and Strathclyde Britons, led by their respective kings. Contemporary annals, later chronicles and an Anglo-Saxon poem have left us in no doubt of the battle’s importance. Some modern historians regard it as a defining moment in the history of Britain: the moment when ‘England’, the territory of the Anglo-Saxons, became a true political entity.

But where was Brunanburh?

Where was Wendune, another place associated with the battle?

Where was the stretch of water called dinges mere – mentioned in the Brunanburh poem – if indeed this is a place-name at all?

Many theories have been put forward to answer these questions, but none has so far solved the mystery. Bromborough on the Wirral peninsula is often promoted as the best candidate for Brunanburh, primarily because it was recorded as Bruneburgh and Brunburg in twelfth-century documents. The place-name argument for Bromborough is certainly strong, but it is by no means decisive. Even if it was once known as Brunanburh, there is no certainty that the great battle of 937 was fought nearby, for we have no reason to assume Brunanburh was a unique place-name in Anglo-Saxon England. There might have been several places so named, in different areas, with not all of them being identifiable today behind modernised forms. It is also worth considering the position of Bromborough relative to tenth-century political geography: the Wirral peninsula is a long way from Scotland. Why would a combined force of Scots and Strathclyders choose to fight a battle there? If these northerners wanted to raid Athelstan’s territory and challenge him to a showdown, they could achieve both objectives without marching so far south.

Professor Andrew Breeze of the University of Navarre has recently proposed Lanchester in County Durham as an alternative candidate for Brunanburh. Andrew draws our attention to the nearby River Browney as a possible source of the Brun- element in the name. Could he be right? Lanchester clearly has a body of support and could even emerge as a strong rival to Bromborough, especially if the local media keep it in the spotlight.

For myself, I prefer to look west – not east – of the Pennines. I’ve said so in a couple of comments at Revealing Words, the fascinating blog run by Anglo-Saxon specialist Karen Jolly. Fans of the Brunanburh debate might like to know a few of us have been discussing the battle at Karen’s blog in the past week or so. Some interesting ideas are being bounced around, with input from various points of the spectrum.

The map below shows Lanchester, Bromborough and other candidates. More places could be added, but then things would get rather cluttered. These five sites should, however, be enough to show that Brunanburh has not yet been identified.


I’ve been working on a Brunanburh-related blogpost of my own, to show where my thoughts are heading at the moment. It means I’ll be dusting off my old thesis to refresh half-forgotten memories of early medieval military logistics, as well as reading some newer stuff. I now have in my possession a pristine copy of the ‘Brunanburh Casebook’, which I’ll be examining closely in the next couple of weeks. Not sure when the blogpost will appear, but it won’t be imminent. It will be preceded by a couple of others from the Senchus backlog, one of which will be on St Columba.

I will also be looking at Brunanburh in my fifth book, which I’m due to start very soon. It’s about the kingdom of Strathclyde and will probably include an entire chapter on the Brunanburh campaign. An announcement of this new project will appear here at Senchus and at my other blog Heart of the Kingdom.

In the meantime, here are some interesting links to explore….

Karen Jolly’s blogpost on Brunanburh (with discussion)

Andrew Breeze on Lanchester as a candidate for Brunanburh

The case for Bromborough, summarised by Michael Livingston, editor of The Battle of Brunanburh: a Casebook.

A concise blogpost from three years ago, written by Diane McIlmoyle.

* * * * * * *

Govan hogbacks redisplayed

Govan hogback stone

‘Viking’ hogback gravestone at Govan Old Parish Church (from Sir John Stirling-Maxwell’s Sculptured Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan, 1899).

Last week at my other blog Heart Of The Kingdom I mentioned that the hogbacks have recently been moved to their new positions in Govan Old Parish Church. I also posted a link to a nice gallery of photographs from the Facebook page of the Weaving Truth With Trust project. These images are well worth seeing, so I’m re-posting the gallery link below.

The Govan hogbacks redisplayed

* * * * * * *

More Brunanburh links


King Athelstan depicted on a Victorian cigarette card.

The Battle of Brunanburh was a great victory for the English king Athelstan over an alliance of Vikings, Scots and Strathclyde Britons. It took place in 937 but its location has long been a mystery.

This blogpost adds four more links to the two I noted in an earlier post relating to the battle.

In a new paper uploaded to his webspace at Academia, Mick Deakin examines the case for locating the battle near Kirkburn in Yorkshire. Using old chronicles alongside place-name data, Mick reminds us that we should not be too quick to place the battlefield west of the Pennines (as many of us do – including myself). Several pieces of information in this paper were completely new to me, and it has certainly got me thinking about my own westward-leaning view of the campaign.

Those of you who follow the comment thread below my previous ‘Brunanburh links’ blogpost will have seen Damian Bullen’s recent comments supporting the case for Burnley. Damian sets this out in more detail at his blog where, among other things, he looks at possible clues offered by local place-names. Lancashire antiquarians of the 18th and 19th centuries were happy to believe that Athelstan’s great victory was indeed won on the moors above Burnley, just as their Yorkshire counterparts thought that its true location lay in the White Rose county. Whatever our own individual views on the location of Brunanburh, the important point is that neither Burnley nor Kirkburn can be ruled out as long as the site of the battle remains a mystery.

It’s good to see these and other theories being brought into the limelight, not least to keep the debate alive, and to remind everyone that the mystery still persists. At the moment, there’s a real risk of the debate being pushed aside by a growing academic consensus that the battle took place at Bromborough on the Wirral. In the paper cited above, Mick Deakin quotes from the recently published Brunanburh Casebook, a collection of articles dealing with various aspects of the topic. The book’s editor Michael Livingston writes: ‘…put simply, the case for Bromborough is currently so firm that many scholars are engaged not with the question of whether Brunanburh occurred on the Wirral, but where on the peninsula it took place…’. While it is true that Bromborough has a strong case on place-name grounds, its identification as the battlefield of 937 remains unproven, and this uncertainty needs to be acknowledged. Alternative theories should therefore be kept in the foreground, to be studied alongside Bromborough, and with equal scholarly vigour.

My third link is to an item by Kevin Halloran, an expert on 10th-century history and the author of two fascinating studies of the Brunanburh campaign (both published in Scottish Historical Review). In a paper recently uploaded at his Academia webspace, Kevin looks in detail at Athelstan’s invasion of Scotland in 934, a military venture that turned out to be a prelude to Brunanburh. Much of the background to the latter campaign was put in place three years earlier, so Kevin’s paper will be useful to anyone with an interest in the wider political context. Some of you will already be aware that Kevin has made a strong case for identifying Burnswark, a prominent hill in southwest Scotland, as the location of Brunanburh.

Finally, a valuable resource is Jon Ingledew’s Battle of Brunanburh website which summarises the respective arguments for Burnley, Bromborough and Broomridge (in Northumberland). Jon has also gathered the various chronicle references, which makes it easier to see the different names given to the battle by medieval writers.

And so the debate continues……

N.B. You’ll need to be signed up to Academia to download the papers by Kevin and Mick.

* * * * * * *

Vikings and other things

Dingwall, Easter Ross

A view of Dingwall by I. Clark (1824).

Interesting news from Dingwall in Easter Ross which is soon to get a new visitor centre celebrating its rich Viking heritage. The town is located at the mouth of the River Peffery, hence its Gaelic name Inbhir Pheofaran, and was once a thriving port giving access to the Cromarty Firth. Dingwall is a name of Norse origin meaning ‘field of the thing’ (thing = ‘assembly’) and indicates a public meeting-place where disputes were settled and judgments pronounced. The venue was most likely a substantial artificial mound in the vicinity of the old parish church of St Clement’s. No trace of the mound survives today but archaeologists believe that the site is now occupied by the Cromartie Memorial Car Park.

The recent archaeological survey and the new heritage centre are linked to a wider initiative called the THING Project (the acronym means ‘Thing Sites International Networking Group’). This involves agencies and experts from Scottish regions such as Orkney and Shetland which were intensively settled by Vikings, together with partners from Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the Isle of Man and Norway itself. Among the project’s long-term aims is a nomination for the thing sites as a group entry on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites.

More information on these interesting developments can be found via these links:

Heritage hub for Dingwall (Highland Council/Dingwall History Society)

Norse heritage and thing site (Dingwall Business Association)

THING Project

* * * * * * *

A battle in 952


Those of you who are familiar with Kevin Halloran’s articles in academic journals will know that he has a special interest in the political history of 10th century Britain. Kevin recently sent me his thoughts on a little-known event from this period: a Viking victory dated by the Irish annalists to the middle years of the century. In giving a summary of his views Kevin produced a useful and original piece of research which I think deserves a wider audience. As it relates to Scotland I’m publishing it here as a blogpost, with Kevin’s permission.

* * * * * * * * * *

A Small Matter Of Identity
by Kevin Halloran

In his excellent overview of early Scottish history, From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070, Alex Woolf considered the identity of the victors in an obscure battle of 952. The event is mentioned in two Irish annals: the Annals of Ulster 952.2 and the Annals of the Four Masters 950.14. The entries are fairly similar, recording that ‘The foreigners won a battle over the men of Alba, the Britons and the Saxons.’ One question at issue is: were the ‘foreigners’ led by the Eric, son of Harold, who took over as king of York that year, by the ousted Amlaib Cuaran and his Irish-based Vikings or were they Vikings from elsewhere?

In both annals the Irish text uses the word Gallaibh to mean ‘foreigners’ and it is evident from many entries in both annals of the period that this term was used to describe the Vikings based in Ireland. The very fact that the event was mentioned in two separate Irish annals suggests strongly in my view that the victors were from Ireland. There is further support for this view. The AFM 940.9 records a battle between Irish-based Vikings and other ‘foreigners who came across the sea’ and is the only entry from either source in the period that refers to Vikings definitely based other than in Ireland. The Irish Vikings are as usual described as G(h)allaibh but their enemies are not, instead being called Goill dar muir. The annal’s use of Goill cannot be simply to differentiate between two groups of Vikings as there are many entries that depict conflicts between Irish Vikings where both sides are described as Gallaibh.

The annals give no context for the battle of 952. The fact that Alba, the Britons (presumably of Strathclyde) and the Saxons (again, presumably of Bamburgh) were in alliance suggests, as Woolf argues, that this was a north British event and also in my view that the alliance was a defensive one as I know of no precedent for such a coalition invading southern Northumbria or elsewhere. Four possibilities come to mind, although there may well be others. Firstly, that Amlaib left York to attack Lothian or Bernicia and Eric usurped the throne in his absence. Secondly, that the ousted Amlaib fought the battle after being driven from York. Thirdly, that supporters of Amlaib fought the battle en route to an attempt at reinstating him in York. Fourthly, that this was simply an unconnected large-scale raid by Irish Vikings into lowland Scotland.

The annal entries give no hint as to the cause of the conflict and, so far as we can tell, there appear to have been no significant or lasting political consequences. There are, however, two events in Ireland prior to the battle that might bear some relation to it. The first took place in 951 and is recorded in AU951.3, AFM949.10, Chronicon Scotorum CS951 and the Annals of Clonmacnoise under 946=951. These all record major raids against Irish churches by the Dublin Vikings under Guthfrith, son of Sihtric, in which 3000 captives and a great spoil of cattle, horses, gold and silver were taken. Similar attacks in Ireland preceded other Viking incursions into Britain and may well have provided the necessary finance for an expedition.

The other event occurred over the winter of 951-2 and is recorded in three of the annals, AU951.7, AFM949.15 and AClon 947=952. The first two refer to an outbreak of leprosy and dysentery among the Vikings of Dublin while the third states that ‘The pox ran over all Ireland’ and describes it as ‘Dolor Gentilium’. It is possible then that the Vikings abandoned Dublin temporarily and crossed over to Britain to escape the outbreak of disease.

* * * * * * * * * *

Kevin examines other aspects of the 10th century in these articles:

‘The Brunanburh campaign: a reappraisal’ Scottish Historical Review 84 (2005), 133-48
‘The identity of Etbrunnanwerc’ Scottish Historical Review 89 (2010), 248-53
‘Welsh kings at the English court, 928-956′ Welsh History Review 25 (2011), 297-313

* * * * * * * * * *

Clan Galbraith: Part 3 – Viking Britons?

Recently I’ve been wondering what the name Galbraith really means. In an earlier blogpost I mentioned that the Clan surname derives from Gaelic Gall Breathnach which incorporates the words for ‘foreign’ and ‘Briton’. The second element indicates an ancestral connection with the Britons, a people whose identity is represented today by communities in Wales, Brittany and (to a lesser extent) Cornwall. In the second half of the 12th century, the period when the name Galbraith first appears in documents, a ‘British’ identity lingered also in a fourth region – the area around Glasgow. Here, in what had once been the kingdom of Strathclyde, the language of the Cumbri or North Britons had only recently been supplanted by Gaelic. Historians call this language Cumbric to distinguish it from Old Welsh, although the two were actually very similar. Cumbric had almost died out by the mid-1100s but might still have been spoken by a few older folk in remote Clydesdale villages.

It is generally accepted that the ancestors of the Galbraiths were identifiable, in some sense, as ‘Britons’, otherwise they would not have been called Breathnach. When we first encounter them in the earldom of Lennox in the late 12th century they are indistinguishable from other Gaelic-speaking families and seem to be just as ‘Scottish’ as everyone else. Their ‘Britishness’ was therefore bound up with their name but may already have been a distant memory by 1150. How, then, did the name originate?

Loch Lomond

Land of the Galbraiths: Loch Lomond and Ben Lomond (c.1780)

As stated in previous blogposts, I take the view that the Galbraiths are descended from the Cumbric-speaking aristocracy of Strathclyde. The idea that the clan forefathers held land and authority in the old kingdom has been voiced by various people, not least by the Galbraiths themselves in their own histories and traditions. Against this scenario is the possibility that the clan ancestors came to Lennox from Wales, perhaps in the early 1100s, at the invitation of a Scottish king. Either theory could explain the ‘British’ connotation of their surname. The hypothesis of a Welsh origin has the added advantage of easily explaining the prefix Gall, ‘foreign’, because a Welshman in Strathclyde would not have been a Cumbric-speaking Briton but a ‘foreigner’. Otherwise the prefix is hard to explain, for it is unlikely that any indigenous Briton of Strathclyde would be regarded as a foreigner in his homeland.

There is, however, another possibility. This popped into my head a few days ago while I was reading about the Gall-Gáidhil, the mysterious people who gave their name to Galloway. The Gall-Gáidhil first appear in the 9th century as warriors in Ireland, and later as raiders and settlers on the western seaboard of Scotland. In the chronicles of the time their origin is left unexplained but their name, which means ‘foreign Gaels’, indicates that they spoke Gaelic. Their recorded activities suggest that they had much in common with the Vikings. Indeed, they seem to have comprised several Gaelic-speaking groups who prowled the seaways between Scotland and Ireland in the period 850 to 1100, some of whom no doubt claimed Scandinavian ancestry. The first Gall-Gáidhil may have originated in Ireland, or in the Hebrides, or perhaps in both areas at the same time. They were, to some extent, distinguishable from the ‘true’ Vikings whose ancestors had come from Norway and Denmark, but the differences were probably quite blurred by c.1000. The name applied to the original Gall-Gáidhil may have identified them as native Gaels who had adopted a ‘Viking’ way of life, possibly as a result of intermarriage with Scandinavians. This would be the reverse of a situation that had already led many Scandinavian settlers to settle down as ‘Gaelic’ farmers within a few generations of the first Viking raids.

Although the Gall-Gáidhil are usually associated with what is now Galloway – clearly one of their main areas of settlement – their colonies in southwest Scotland evidently stretched northward to Ayrshire, into lands bordering the kingdom of Strathclyde. Much of Ayrshire had been ruled by the Clyde Britons in the 8th century, and again in the 10th, but by c.1000 large parts of the modern county had fallen to the Gall-Gáidhil. By c.1030, when Strathclyde was weakening, Gall-Gáidhil lords probably controlled a continuous band of territory between the Solway Firth and the North Ayrshire coast. In 1034 we hear of a Gall-Gáidhil king called Suibhne (‘Sweeney’) who may have ruled this area as a single realm.

So, where does this leave the origins of Clan Galbraith?

Galbraith tartan

Clan Galbraith tartan

The following questions popped into my head while musing on the Gall-Gáidhil:
1. Could the name of this mysterious seafaring folk offer a clue as to why the Galbraith ancestors were regarded as ‘foreign’ Britons?
2. What did the prefix Gall really mean when applied to a particular group of people in the 10th and 11th centuries?

To answer the second question we need to look at the old Irish chronicles of the period. The authors of these texts didn’t use our word ‘Viking’ but instead referred to a Scandinavian raider as Gall, ‘Foreigner’. Since this term was used without any ethnic qualification we can assume that it conveyed a sufficiently precise meaning by itself, especially in the context of the time. Every native of Ireland in the period c.800 to c.1100 would have understood the connotations and implications of Gall. To them it meant simply ‘Viking’.

The Gall-Gáidhil, then, were not merely ‘Foreign Gaels’ but ‘Viking Gaels’. They behaved like the original Scandinavian Vikings but spoke Gaelic rather than Old Norse. Some may have had Danish or Norwegian ancestry mingled with Irish or Hebridean blood but their primary cultural affiliation or preferred ‘ethnicity’ defined them as Gaels. We can be reasonably certain that Gall-Gáidhil was a nickname bestowed by their neighbours and not a label they adopted for themselves. More than this we cannot say, for history tells us little about who they were and where they came from. But there might be enough here to permit some speculative musing on the origins of Clan Galbraith.

Returning to the first of my two questions, I’ve devised a new theory about the meaning of the clan surname, based on the above discussion. If one possible translation of Gall-Gáidhil is ‘Viking Gael’, might not a possible translation of Gall Breathnach be ‘Viking Briton’? I’m not sure if this is actually a new theory, or if it has already been suggested by somebody else, but I’ll run with it to the end of this blogpost and see how far it goes.

For the theory to have any substance it needs to fit with the circumstances of the period. In this regard it does not seem too preposterous. Everything we know, or can guess, about 10th-century Strathclyde suggests that the kingdom developed close links with several Viking powers. Relations in the previous century had been dominated by a significant event in 870: the destruction of Alt Clut, the ancient capital of the Clyde kings at Dumbarton Rock, by a Viking force from Dublin. By the early 900s, however, these two erstwhile foes were getting along much better. Alliances were forged and combined military expeditions were undertaken, often in co-operation with Scottish kings against mutual enemies in England. Dynastic marriages between the Strathclyde royal family and the Scandinavian dynasties of Dublin and York probably sealed a few of these political agreements. When the last Viking kings of York were expelled by the English in the middle of the 10th century, it is quite possible that some of their henchmen sought sanctuary with the Clyde Britons. This would, at least, provide a plausible context for the Scandinavian-style hogback tombstones at Govan, the main centre of political and religious power in Strathclyde.

Govan hogback

Hogback tombstone at Govan Old Parish Church, Glasgow (photo © B Keeling)

Any Scandinavian exiles from York or elsewhere who made permanent settlements among the Clyde Britons would have assimilated with the native population by adopting Cumbric speech and local customs. Otherwise they could not have thrived in their new home. Within a couple of generations they, too, would have become ‘Britons’, even if there was something noticeably different about their origins, a difference that identified them not as true natives of Clydesdale but as ‘Viking Britons’. Their descendants in the following century would have been caught up in the displacement of Cumbric by Gaelic after the Scottish conquest of Strathclyde (c.1040-1070). But their Scandinavian ancestry might not have been forgotten, even after they adopted Gaelic speech, and a prominent individual among these ‘Viking Britons’ perhaps became known by the nickname Gall Breathnach. Or, in self-recognition of his family’s heritage, he may have coined the nickname himself.

The above scenario would not be inconsistent with the earliest mention of the Galbraiths in medieval landholding documents. In the late 12th century we hear of Gillespic and Rodarcus Galbrait, sons of Gilchrist Bretnach (‘the Briton’), and of their kinsman Mac an Bhreatnaich (‘son of the Britons’). The epithets or nicknames show that these men treasured their ancestral Britishness, with Gilchrist being also keen to highlight the ‘foreign’ aspect by using the prefix Gall. The name Rodarcus, incidentally, looks like a Latin rendering of Radharc or Riderch (Welsh: Rhydderch), a name borne by at least one famous king of the Clyde Britons in former times. The early Galbraiths, of course, were not Britons in any meaningful sense, nor was anyone living in Scotland in the late 12th century. Both Bretnach and Gall Breathnach (=Galbrait) were anachronistic labels in any Scottish context after c.1100. If Bretnach here does not mean ‘Welshman’ – and I presently believe it doesn’t – then its usage by the early Galbraiths was little more than a nod to the past. It was, nevertheless, an important part of their family’s identity and an aspect of their heritage that they wanted other people to know about.

This is about as far as I can take the theory right now. The whole thing is pretty much straight off the top of my head, with minimal consultation of primary or secondary literature. For instance, it hasn’t been tested against current scholarly thinking on acculturation, language acquisition and other relevant topics. As a viable hypothesis it seems to work on a historical level, given what we know of political events in southern Scotland in the 10th and 11th centuries, but it might not stand up to scrutiny by an expert in Celtic linguistics. In any case, I’m not sure how far an ethnonym (Gall Gáidhil) given to a dispersed collection of pirate colonies can be employed as a plausible analogy for the surname of a prosperous Scottish landowning family. It’s a question I’ll leave for another day.

Comments welcome.


* As stated above, my idea about ‘Viking Britons’ might not be new, but the only similar thinking I know of at the moment is a footnote by the place-name scholar William Watson: The name Galbraith goes to show, as has been noted, that there were ‘foreign Britons’ as well as ‘foreign Gael’ (Watson 1926, p.174, n.1).

* The usual Gaelic name for the Hebrides recalls their colonisation by Vikings: Innse Gall, ‘Isles of the Foreigners’.

* The Galbraiths call their clan, in Gaelic, Breatanuich (‘The Britons’) or Clann-a-Breatannuich (‘Children of the Britons’).

* I haven’t discussed the possibility that the Galbraith ancestors originated among the Gall-Gáidhil. The latter’s settlements in North Ayrshire were close to the heartland of Strathclyde and probably encroached on the kingdom before 1050 (see Broun 2004, p.139, n.117).

* Some theories on the identity of the Gall-Gáidhil, any or none of which might seem relevant to this blogpost:
‘Gaelic-speakers perceived to be of Norse origin’ (Broun 2004, p.136)
‘renegade Irish associates of the pagan Norse and Danes’ (Kirby 1975)
‘A Gall-Gáidhil, a foreign Gael, was clearly a foreigner who spoke Gaelic’ (Cowan 1991, 72)
‘They are described as Scots and foster-children of the Norsemen, and sometimes they are actually called Norsemen’ (Watson 1926, 172)

* Why did Gilchrist and his sons portray themselves as Britons? Here’s a possible answer from my book The Men of the North: ‘a Gaelic-speaker might identify himself as a Bretnach in contexts where a claim to British ancestry conferred some specific advantage, such as in property disputes over land formerly held by Britons’ (Clarkson 2010, 198)

* And finally, a rather wild shot in the dark… Thinking about Inchgalbraith, a tiny artificial island or crannog in Loch Lomond where the early Galbraiths had their main stronghold, and musing on the idea that Gall Breathnach might mean ‘Viking Briton’, I’m wondering whose grave was marked by the hogback tombstone at Luss Church on the western side of the loch. Could this ‘Viking’ monument, carved in typical Strathclyde style by a Briton of the Govan stonecarving school, commemorate a Gall Breathnach from the island-fortress further along the shore?

Luss hogback

Hogback tombstone at Luss Church (photo © B Keeling)


Dauvit Broun, ‘The Welsh identity of the kingdom of Strathclyde, c.900-c.1200′ Innes Review 55 (2004), 111-80

Thomas Owen Clancy, ‘The Gall-Ghaedheil and Galloway’ Journal of Scottish Name Studies 2 (2008), 19-50

Tim Clarkson, The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010)

Edward J. Cowan, ‘The Vikings in Galloway: a review of the evidence’, pp.63-75 in Richard Oram & Geoffrey Stell (eds.) Galloway: land and lordship (Edinburgh, 1991)

David P. Kirby, ‘Galloway prior to c.1100′ p.22 in P. MacNeill & R. Nicholson (eds.) Historical Atlas of Scotland (St Andrews, 1975)

William J. Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-names of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1926)

* * * * * * *

Click here for Clan Galbraith Part 1

* * * * * * *

This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

The Vikings in Scotland and Ireland

The text of Professor Donnchadh Ó Corráin’s 1997 O’Donnell Lecture The Vikings in Scotland and Ireland in the ninth century is available as an online article at the Irish e-journal Chronicon.

Professor Ó Corráin gives an excellent overview of the initial impact of the Vikings. He proposes that the mysterious Lochlainn - a region named in Irish sources – was a large chunk of northern Scotland brought under Scandinavian control before 850. A few topics previously mentioned here at Senchus turn up along the way. The great battle of 839, in which the Picts and Scots were crushed by a Viking army, gets a mention, as does the Pictish marriage of Rhun of Alt Clut. As regular visitors to this blog will know, I don’t share the view (expressed in the article) that the Clyde Britons lost their independence after 870, but that’s only a minor quibble.

Here’s the abstract:
‘This study attempts to provide a new framework for ninth-century Irish and Scottish history. Viking Scotland, known as Lothlend, Laithlinn, Lochlainn and comprising the Northern and Western Isles and parts of the mainland, especially Caithness, Sutherland and Inverness, was settled by Norwegian Vikings in the early ninth century. By the mid-century it was ruled by an effective royal dynasty that was not connected to Norwegian Vestfold. In the second half of the century it made Dublin its headquarters, engaged in warfare with Irish kings, controlled most Viking activity in Ireland, and imposed its overlordship and its tribute on Pictland and Strathclyde. When expelled from Dublin in 902 it returned to Scotland and from there it conquered York and re-founded the kingdom of Dublin in 917.’

And here’s a link to the full-text at Chronicon.

Viking mice?

Episode 5 of the BBC Radio Scotland series ‘The Scots: A Genetic Journey’ was broadcast last week. It’s currently available via the BBC iPlayer, until Wednesday 23rd March. The series is presented by Alistair Moffat and looks at how the DNA of today’s Scots has been influenced by contact with various peoples in the past.

Some folk have a much better handle on this kind of topic than I have. I find it intriguing and fascinating, even though I’m no scientist. Michelle of Heavenfield, who certainly knows a thing or two about genetics, sometimes tries to explain particular aspects to me. Not an easy task, but she perseveres nonetheless. I like to be fed scientific information in simple bite-size chunks, which is why I don’t feel too much out of my depth when I read Michelle’s posts on plague (even the ones at her bioscience blog Contagions). She breaks the jargon down nicely so that even an ‘un-scientist’ such as myself can understand what’s going on. Historical geneticist Jim Wilson takes a similar line in ‘The Scots: A Genetic Journey’. This is the type of science I can handle, the kind that doesn’t leave me scratching my head in bewilderment or reaching for a dictionary.

The Scots: A Genetic Journey

In Episode 5 of the BBC series, Jim Wilson and Alistair Moffatt discuss the impact of the Vikings on Scotland’s gene pool. Jim talks about research indicating a substantial Norse component in the DNA of places such as Orkney and the Western Isles. As an Orcadian himself, he has a personal stake in the topic, and it’s interesting to hear what he says about his own family’s genetic heritage. I’m familiar with the Orcadian data from reading about it a few years ago but I didn’t know that the studies extended to rodents as well as humans. It turns out that the mice of Orkney share DNA with their Norwegian cousins, suggesting perhaps that their ancestors arrived as stowaways on Viking longships. Someone should write an adventure story about this – or even a screenplay for an animated film.

In the same episode, Alistair pays a visit to Stirling where he and local historian John Harrison talk about the Viking impact on the Picts, and about the great battle of 839 which decimated the Pictish elite. Also on the itinerary is Dumbarton Castle, built on the site of Alt Clut (‘Clyde Rock’) the ancient fortress of the Strathclyde Britons. Here, on the highest point of the castle, Alistair and Yours Truly talk about the Viking attack on the Rock in 870. This was no ordinary raid but a full-scale assault on one of the major political powers of the time. It culminated in the surrender of the Britons, and the capture of their king, after a prolonged siege. The weather was terrible (during the radio recording, not the siege) but Alistair and I somehow managed to say what we wanted to say in spite of a fierce gale billowing around the summit.

The sixth and final episode of the series is broadcast on Wednesday 23rd March at 2.05pm. The accompanying book, published by Birlinn, had its official launch in Edinburgh ten days ago. A description of it can be found on Alistair’s website.

BBC Radio Scotland – The Scots: A Genetic Journey (Episode 5)