The kingdom of the Strathclyde Britons ended in c.1070 when it was conquered by the Scottish king Malcolm son of Duncan (Mael Coluim son of Donnchad). Its royal dynasty was deposed, never to be reinstated, and the native aristocracy had to submit to Malcolm or flee into exile. Those who remained had little choice except to embrace the Gaelic language and culture of their conquerors to eventually become ‘Scots’ themselves. What became of these high-status Britons in the ensuing decades is unknown but it seems likely that some of them secured positions of power under the patronage of Malcolm and his successors.
Around a hundred years after the fall of Strathclyde a man called Gilchrist Bretnach appears in landholding records relating to Lennox, the district between Dumbarton (Dun Breatann, ‘Fortress of the Britons’) and Loch Lomond. Gilchrist’s name means, in Gaelic, ‘Christ’s servant, the Briton’. He apparently married a sister of the Scottish earl of Lennox and had two sons, Gillespic Galbrait and Rodarcus Galbrait. In adulthood, around 1190-1200, both sons witnessed charters confirming grants of land made by the earls of Lennox. Gillespic Galbrait is often seen as the first chief of the Galbraiths, a Scottish clan which rose to prominence in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
Galbraith derives from Gaelic Gall Breathnach (‘foreign Briton’) a nickname identifying Gillespic and Rodarcus as people whose ancestors were Britons rather than Scots. There can be little doubt that this aristocratic family was thoroughly Gaelic-speaking at the time of its first appearance in the charters. What is more puzzling is why these early Galbraiths regarded themselves as descendants of Britons. The context of the charters suggests that the family already held lands in Lennox by c.1160-1170, when Gillespic and his brother were born, but how far back did this ownership go? Some historians believe that the Galbraiths emerged from the old native aristocracy of Strathclyde, possibly even from a branch of the deposed royal dynasty. This might be true, but it does not adequately explain why the family was considered to be gall, ‘foreign’, in a part of the Scottish kingdom where Britons were hardly likely to be viewed as strangers or foreigners. Thus, although the origins of Clan Galbraith may indeed lie among the Strathclyde Britons, we cannot rule out the possibility that the clan forefathers came to Lennox from somewhere else, such as Wales. A Welsh origin might explain why they were seen as ‘foreign Britons’ rather than ‘local Britons’ by their new neighbours. The ancestors of William Wallace (whose surname means ‘Welshman’) came to Scotland from Wales at the invitation of a Scottish king who gave them a gift of land in what had once been the kingdom of Strathclyde. Perhaps the mysterious Gilchrist Bretnach travelled the same route?
Note 1: I have not yet seen Cynthia Neville’s book on the earldom of Lennox. It is however quite high on my ‘wish list’. I expect I may need to amend this post after reading her book.
Note 2: My information on Gilchrist comes from clan history websites such as http://www.scotclans.com. I have not yet been able to confirm it. The only Gilchrist Bretnach I knew about previously was a witness to a charter from Carrick (Ayrshire) in c.1190. At the moment I’m assuming he is not the Galbraith ancestor but a namesake, but I could be wrong.
Note 3: For discussion of the nickname Bretnach as a possible indicator of Welsh origin see Dauvit Broun, ‘The Welsh identity of the kingdom of Strathclyde, c.900-c.1200’ Innes Review 55 (2004), 111-80 [at pp. 121-2]
*** The subject of Clan Galbraith origins is continued in Part 2.
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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series: