The name Donald has long been popular in Scotland, both as a forename and a surname. Like its Irish equivalent Donal it is a modern, Anglicised version of Gaelic Domnall, a name found in various early medieval sources. In the Irish annals a fairly large number of kings in the Gaelic-speaking regions of the British Isles are called Domnall, most of them ruling kingdoms in Ireland, Argyll or (after c.800) parts of Pictish territory. However, the name may have originated not among the Gaels but among the Britons, in whose language it appears in medieval Welsh sources as Dyfnwal.
The precursor of Dyfnwal is an older form Dumnagual (where gu represents the sound of w) which in turn evolved from an original Brittonic name Dumnoualos, meaning ‘world ruler’. The latter form was probably in use until c.450 when the Brittonic languages entered a period of change. Scotland has several place-names containing Donald, an element which at first glance looks distinctly ‘Scottish’ and Gaelic. Closer inspection reveals that this might not be true in all instances. In areas where Brittonic long survived as the language of everyday communication a Donald place-name might commemorate a Dyfnwal rather than a Domnall.
A northern Brittonic dialect was spoken in parts of southwest Scotland as late as the twelfth century. It is often referred to as ‘Cumbric’ to distinguish it from Welsh, Breton, Cornish and Pictish. Cumbric was the main language of the Strathclyde Britons until the collapse of their kingdom in c.1070, after which they came under increasing pressure to adopt Gaelic. In South Ayrshire, where the Clyde kings probably held sway in the tenth century, the imposing medieval castle of Dundonald (‘Donald’s fort’) has a name which looks like a straightforward compound of Gaelic dun+Domnall. However, its earliest known form Dundeuenel, recorded in a twelfth-century Life of Saint Modwenna, might derive instead from Cumbric din+Dyfnwal. Given the likelihood that the native Britons of this area still spoke their ancient language around the time when Dundeuenel found its way into the Modwenna traditions we can tentatively propose a Cumbric origin for the modern place-name. The castle we see today may therefore owe its name to an earlier stronghold called Din Dyfnwal, ‘Dyfnwal’s fort’, which Gaelic-speakers later re-named Dun Dhomhnaill, subsequently Anglicised as Dundonald. If this is the correct etymology we may wonder who Dyfnwal was. Perhaps he was one of the several Strathclyde kings who bore this name in the ninth and tenth centuries? Or was he the ancestral figure Dyfnwal Hen (‘Old Dyfnwal’), a shadowy forefather of the royal dynasty, who lived around c.500? Beneath the ruins of Dundonald Castle archaeologists found traces of a hillfort destroyed by fire in the early eleventh century. Although the identity of the fort’s occupants is unknown it is possible that they were Britons under Strathclyde rule.
Finally, a rough guide to pronunciation: Gaelic Domnall is pronounced Dov-nal, Welsh Dyfnwal is pronounced Duv-noo-al.
Kenneth Jackson, Language and history in early Britain: a chronological survey of the Brittonic languages, 1st to 12th centuries AD (Edinburgh, 1953), pp.421-2
Stephen Driscoll and Katherine Forsyth, ‘The Late Iron Age and Early Historic Period’ Scottish Archaeological Journal 26 (2006), 4-11 [Dundonald Castle excavations]
Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh, 2007), xiii
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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series: