Clan Galbraith: Part 1

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 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.

* * * * * * *
This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

9 comments on “Clan Galbraith: Part 1

  1. Michelle says:

    Maybe the Galbraiths were British from Strathclyde on their mother’s side.

    Although if Wessex can call the Britons foreigners, ‘Welsc’, then perhaps the Gaels can call the Britons foreigners even if they are from Strathclyde.

    I guess it depends on who bestowed the name. If the name stuck because a Gaelic king referred to them as such it doesn’t necessarily mean the first generation or two even liked the name.

  2. Tim says:

    Picking up your train of thought, Michelle, I’m wondering if Galbraith might not mean ‘foreign Briton’ but something like ‘British foreigner’, literally ‘a non-Gael who speaks Brittonic rather than English or Norse’. This description would fit a Strathclyder as easily as a Welshman.

  3. […] castle of the Galbraiths still stands – but that’s a tale for another day, or for a separate post on this blog. Published […]

  4. Henry Gough-Cooper says:

    If genuine, the so-called Leges inter Brettos et Scotos would suggest a connection with the Britons of what is now Southern Scotland is possible for Bretnach.

    • Tim says:

      In the Galbraith post I’ve tried to be circumspect but my personal view aligns with your suggestion, Henry. For me, the epithet Bretnach in Scottish contexts is a link to Strathclyde and adjacent districts rather than to Wales. On a related note, seeing your first name and Bretnach reminds of a reference to Henry Bretnach who joined the Dublin Merchant Guild in c.1238. In the article cited above, Dauvit Broun suggests Bretnach here might denote a Welshman, but he also notes that no other Welsh members are similarly tagged as ‘Britons’ in the Guild Roll. This Henry looks to me like someone who had (or claimed to have) North British ancestry.

      I’m glad you brought up the Leges inter Brettos et Scotos, which is a text I would like to know a lot more about. I wonder if any scholar is working on it at the moment? Apparently, the title is no older than 1609 but the oldest manuscript (with its curious ‘Welsh’ legal terminology) was written c.1270. It might go back even further, to a time when the law-codes of Britons and Scots needed to be compared, in which case it could be a genuine relic from the Scottish conquest of Strathclyde.

  5. […] is a kind of sequel to last year’s blogpost on the Galbraiths. At the end of that post, I scribbled three hasty notes, the first of which is pasted […]

  6. Nick Barbier says:

    Perhaps the foreign Britons were Breton like the Stewarts? Better positioned to achieve suzerainty over the Strathclyde Britons through the Norman connection.

  7. Patti Haney says:

    I am an American descendant of Clan Galbraith and I read the three parts of your blog on my clan. I can confirm your Viking theory. I recently had the opportunity to have my DNA tested and although the majority of my DNA is classified British & Irish (72.8%), 0.7% showed Scandinavian ancestry. Thank you for your research.

    Patti Haney

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