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:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

7 comments on “Dundonald

  1. Tim Sharon says:

    Hi Tim
    having what is most likely a uniquely “Cumbric” surname myself ( traced back to Ayrshire so far) I’ve been following your posts on Strathclyde with great interest.
    In my studies what’s been interesting is how the same stock of Christian names repeat them selves through the generations with little variation. William James and Hugh in particular.
    Tim Sharon

    • Tim says:

      Tim, I’ll probably be posting more on Strathclyde as it’s my main research topic at the moment. Before your comment I assumed the surname Sharon was of Jewish origin (i.e. from the Biblical place-name). However I recall reading that the Britons frequently bestowed Biblical personal names on their children (e.g. Jacob, Samuel, Daniel) far more than other groups did. Or is the Ayrshire surname just a corruption of a similar-sounding Cumbric word?

      • Tim Sharon says:

        Hi Tim here is the outline in short:
        Sharon Sharron Sherran Sheron, all common spellings till it settled down as Sharon in the mid 1800’s
        Family came from Ayrshire through Ulster to Pennsylvania in 1730 or so..
        The Bonedd geneologies list a Seruan.
        Also I’ve seen a break down of the old British word Seron and Seronyydion which leads me to believe in a cumbric derivation for the surname.
        It’s not likely we were wandering Hebrews though quite likely Cameronians 🙂

  2. Tim says:

    Well Tim it looks like you have quite a rare surname. I did a quick search on some online ancestry databases and the only similarity I could find was Sherran or O’Sheeryne, the name of an Anglo-Norman family who settled in Ireland and gaelicised their name from Prendergast. Sheron/Sharon looks altogether different to me, although I suppose a Gaelic origin would be feasible for an Ayrshire surname. I’m thinking here of the Gall-Gaidhil (Hiberno-Norse) who settled not just in Galloway but in Ayrshire too. But the Brittonic word Seron which you mentioned does look closer to Sheron->Sharon.

    • Tim Sharon says:

      The lots of research and documentation establishing us as a typical Scots-Irish kin group… At least one family from the same time frame as the original migration(to pennsylvania) came from Northern England .. my own searchs have Also led to a British Saint Saeron in Wales which is especially interesting given the stories of a North British migration to Wales….

  3. esmeraldamac says:

    That’s very useful. The assorted Donald-alikes in Strathclyde and Cumbria are very difficult to sort out.

    • Tim says:

      Yes, it’s hard to know which of them is being referred to whenever the name appears. Similar situation with the various Owains, Owens and Ewans – a problem you point out in a footnote to your recent post on Urien Rheged.

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