The origins of Scotland’s most powerful clan are shrouded in legend but there seems to be general agreement that the name derives from Gaelic caim beul, “crooked mouth”. In the form Kambel this nickname is first attested in the 13th century when it was borne by an early chief. The name is often interpreted as a description of some facial characteristic or deformity, perhaps resulting from disease, or as a metaphor for broken promises and treacherous dealings (compare the well-known phrase attributed to Native Americans in old cowboy movies: “he speaks with forked tongue”).
Some years ago I recall being told of an old theory that the Campbells originated among the Britons of Strathclyde. I was unsure of the source of this idea and, being distracted by other things, I did not pursue it further. Recently, however, I came across the Wikipedia entry for Clan Campbell and saw an interesting piece of information:
“There is also a theory that the ‘crooked mouth’ idea related to the tongue spoken by Brythonic wanderers. The ‘crooked mouth’ was probably what is now known as Middle Welsh and hence suggesting that the Campbell’s were indeed first of Brythonic decent and not Gaelic/Scottish.”
No citation is given so I do not know where this information comes from but it presumably accounts for the theory of the clan’s Strathclyde origin. To me the idea of Brittonic (or Brythonic) as a “crooked language” seems unconvincing, mainly because Gaelic speakers around the Firth of Clyde in c.1200 must have known that it had once been widely spoken in the area. They may even have heard it being used as a patois by older elements among the population or in isolated communities. Brittonic was a Celtic language and Gaels are unlikely to have regarded it as sounding more “crooked” to their ears than the various Germanic dialects spoken by travellers or settlers from much further afield (e.g. from England, Normandy, Flanders and Scandinavia).
The nickname caim beul can perhaps be taken quite literally, as an epithet bestowed on an early Campbell chief to denote some aspect of his facial appearance. He and his kin, we may assume, were not Britons from Strathclyde but Gaelic-speaking Scots from the coastlands of Argyll. To find a clan with a more probable link to the old Strathclyde aristocracy we can look instead to a small island in Loch Lomond where the ruined castle of the Galbraiths still stands – but that’s a tale for another day, or for a separate post on this blog.