Clan Galbraith: Part 2

Clan Galbraith

Shield of Clan Galbraith

This 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 here:

‘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.’

Well, I’m currently reading the Neville book, and finding it very interesting. Its full title is Native Lordship in Medieval Scotland: the Earldoms of Strathearn and Lennox, c.1140-1365. As the book deals with Lennox, a territory nestling between Loch Lomond and the River Clyde, I was hoping it might give me an insight into what was happening in the former lands of the Strathclyde Britons during the 12th-14th centuries. I was not disappointed. Much of the book is completely new to me, chiefly because it deals with a period outside my usual ‘comfort zone’ of pre-1100. As far as the Galbraiths are concerned, my prediction that ‘I may have to amend this post after reading Professor Neville’s book’ has changed to ‘an extra blogpost is now required’. And here it is.

Last year’s post discussed the possibility that Clan Galbraith, a kindred whose original stronghold lay on an island in Loch Lomond, was a relic of the old Strathclyde aristocracy. I mentioned then that the name Galbraith seems to mean, in Gaelic, ‘foreign Briton’ (or perhaps ‘British foreigner’). I also mentioned an alternative theory that this ‘Britishness’ derived from Wales rather than from the North. My current feeling is that the Galbraiths were indeed descended from a high-status family of Strathclyde Britons. To what extent they displayed or promoted this heritage is a different matter. Turning to the Neville book, here’s an interesting extract relating to the earldom of Lennox at the beginning of the 13th century:

‘Some important Lennox families still celebrated their British past. Such, for example, were the men who called themselves Galbraith, already in this period among the wealthiest and most important of the earl’s tenants. The representative of one generation invoked his distinctive past openly with the use of the personal name Arthur, another by referring to himself as Mac an Bhreatnaich, ‘son of the Britons’. (Neville 2005, p.211)

As Professor Neville points out, neither Arthur Galbraith nor the ‘son of the Britons’ had any tangible connection with pre-1070 Strathclyde. They lived more than a hundred years after the demise of the kingdom at a time when its ancient language, known to modern linguists as ‘Cumbric’, had long since died out. Cumbric was a close relative of Welsh, but the language spoken by the Galbraiths of Lennox in the 13th century was Gaelic. Arthur Galbraith, although a namesake of the great hero of the Britons and (in my opinion) a descendant of the old Strathclyde nobility, was certainly no latter-day Briton himself. I’m beginning to wonder if his name owed more to the widespread popularity of the Arthurian legend in his own time than to any romantic nod to his British ancestry.

I’m still curious about the Galbraiths, so this might not be
my last muttering on the topic.


Cynthia J. Neville, Native Lordship in Medieval Scotland: the Earldoms of Strathearn and Lennox, c.1140-1365 (Dublin: Four Courts, 2005)

*** The subject of Clan Galbraith origins is continued in Part 3.

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

Kingdom of Strathclyde

17 comments on “Clan Galbraith: Part 2

  1. Michelle says:

    Remember that parents name the child. So Arthur Gailbraith’s parents named him Arthur. Seems likely that the ‘son of the Britons’ guy is making a voluntary association.

    I don’t think that a 100 years really isn’t that long in a family. A co-worker of mine tells stories of when her grandfather was a child and they was driven off his land by Czars! When she talks about Russian ambitions, she means the Russian empire, not the Soviet Union.

    • Tim Sharon says:

      On the other hand a lot can be forgotten in a generation..
      I have the totally obscure middle name of Rippath which I share with my maternal grandfather… He didn’t know what it meant either… Turns out it’s the Phonetic rendering of Redpath in Scots..which was his grand mothers maiden name

  2. Michelle says:

    How far north did British territory go above Dumbarton?

  3. Phil says:

    British territory is thought at some point to have extended several miles above the northermost point of Loch Lomond. ‘Clach nan Breatann’ (Stone of the Britons) a group of piled schistose megalithis in Glen Falloch is traditionally said to mark the junction of the kingdoms of Dalriada, Pictland and Strathclyde.

    • Tim says:

      The countryside north of the Stone has a real borderland feel, especially around Crianlarich which always seems (to me) a ‘waymeeting’ of great antiquity as well as a modern-day transport hub.

  4. Michelle says:


    If you ever reprint The Men of the North adding these stones to one of the maps would be helpful. Or a map with the marker stones and other stone monuments like Pictish stones at Trusty’s Hill.

    • Tim says:

      While working on the maps for ‘Men of the North’ I toyed with the idea of including one based on the research of Elizabeth Rennie, who used place-names and archaeology to trace a possible frontier between the Clyde Britons and the Cowal Scots. My map would have shown the places mentioned above by Phil (Glen Falloch, Loch Lomond, Clach nam Breatann), together with the Cowal peninsula and part of the Firth of Clyde. Picking up on your suggestion, Michelle, I think I might create the map anyway, for publication here at Senchus, perhaps as part of a blogpost on Rennie’s frontier theory.

  5. Henry Gough-Cooper says:

    It’s a pity the place-name ‘Lennox’ isn’t less ambiguous, with ‘elm’ being similar in p and q celtic languages, and with its likely connection with the Caledonians who in Ptolemy’s time inhabited the land between the ‘Lemannonian Gulf’ and the ‘Varar Estuary’. Were the ‘Gall-Braith’ so-called because they were Britons who were had become culturally Gaels? In which case their legendary origins in the Eoghanacht would be from a British ‘Owain’ which became culturally transformed into ‘Euan’, possibly as late as the time when there was ‘a Brit of Strathclyde placed over the Gaels’? There’s also the Kentigern factor: this would add strength to Alex Woolf’s suggestion that the Glasgow cult was a confused echo of that of St Kentigerna of Loch Lomond, who may well have been the patroness of the Leamhnaich.

    Here’s a nice picture of the ‘Clach na Briton’
    the links show its geographical location.

    • Michelle says:

      Perhaps the Owain is Owain ap Beli who won the battle of Strathcarron and presumably took land from the Scots. Could these Britons me among the families who homesteaded into Scottish territory?

      St Kentigerna is someone I’d like to know more about…

    • Tim says:

      I quite like the idea of the name ‘Galbraith’ being applied to a family of Britons who had adopted Gaelic culture. Presumably the name wasn’t pejorative, or they wouldn’t have used it of themselves. Maybe it was bestowed upon the clan forefather as a compliment by his new Gaelic friends? Also intrigued by your musings on the origin-legend. I wonder if a Galbraith historian has ever published a detailed study of the legend’s roots.

      If the Kentigern=Kentigerna equation is correct it would certainly tie up a few loose ends, such as St Kessog and the ancient church at Luss. The alleged arrival in the Lennox of a nun with a feminine form of the name of Glasgow’s patron saint does look a bit suspicious. I’ve usually given Kentigern the benefit of the doubt, and gone for the ‘it’s just a strange coincidence’ view, but these days I’m less inclined to do even that.

      Good photo-link, Henry. I’m glad the picture shows a human figure because people who haven’t visited the Stone can get an idea of how huge it is. I recall being awestruck when I first caught sight of its strange profile on the skyline. When I got closer and saw it side-on, it looked like an alien space-rocket pointing at the stars. Well worth the steep trek up the hillside from the Falls of Falloch car park.

  6. Tim says:

    Michelle wrote:
    ‘Sounds good to me. How about the stone of the Maetae too. Really makes you wonder where Degastone was…’

    That reminds me. I keep meaning to post a photo of the Manau/Maeatae stone (i.e. Clackmannan) but it always seems to get left on the ‘maybe later’ pile. Not had anything new on the Degsastan thread here for a while, nor seen any new theories elsewhere.

  7. Tim Sharon says:

    Hi Tim
    The Boars on the Galbraith crest intrigue. Has any research been done on the possible emblems / symbols for the Strathclyde royal lines…?? Other than Green Mantles?

    • Tim says:

      Like you, Tim, I wonder how far back these clan emblems go. As far as I know, nobody has worked out what the ‘Green Mantles’ were, or why the author of Berchan’s Prophecy associated them with a 9th-century king of Strathclyde.

      The emblem on the Galbraith shield (and clan crest) is a muzzled bear and seems to be connected with the Latin motto of the clan: AB OBICE SUAVIOR (‘gentler because of the obstruction’). If the ‘obstruction’ is the muzzle, then the motto might imply that the Galbraiths were once a wild, ferocious clan who are now tamed and ‘gentle’.

      The motto actually exists in two forms, each with a different meaning. The one above is the version used by Lord Strathclyde, the most high-profile Galbraith in Scotland today. The variant is AB OBICE SAEVIOR (‘fiercer because of the obstruction’), a direct quote from Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses where it refers to a strong river bursting through a man-made dam. I suspect this warlike phrase is the original motto of the clan. The implication of the muzzled bear might then be that a Galbraith warrior is twice as fierce if someone dares to hinder him.

  8. William Gilbreath says:

    Tim: I am a bit late here, but just now making my way through the Neville ‘Lords . . .” There are a lot of comments on Galbraiths beyond the indexed terms. My principal concern of the moment is origin: First Chief Gilchrist—was he plus some generations of immediate, forbears born in Lennox, say at the south part of Loch Lomond? Or was he a stranger in the region? Why would, as I believe you say, Bretnach be ‘stranger Briton’ if the family was native. Yes, Neville shows a determined belief for a native (following many generations) Bretnach. Her arguments are twisted somewhat by two passages: “. . . of Galbraith. Although originally of British origin, its members had become thoroughly Gaelicized by the later twelfth century” (p.191); and, when discussing important native landholders (p. 58-9) “. . . early representatives of the families of Colquhoun and Galbraith, the later perhaps an import, some time previously, from Brittonic Strathclyde” But Neville, in speaking) of trusted counsel to the Earls Lennox (as well as in many other mentions) clarifies her findings (p.55), with: “were, without exception, of native stock. . . Gilleasbuig Galbraith, Mael Coluim son of Gilleasbuig . . .”, where her Gaelic Gilleasbuig is our second Chief Gillespic and Mael Coluim (Malcolm) is a younger brother to third Chief Sir Arthur. Note that she also speaks of 3rd Earl Lennox granting land to native Galbraith, next to de Graham in order to balance the incomer. Rather than contradictive assessments the difficulty appears to be in defining with exactitude when the Galbraiths had settled–perhaps several generations or even centuries earlier before Bretnach.
    The point I have not found addressed (it might there) is a Galbraith relationship from Bretnach back to Hugo the Brit of Glasgow, who has many charters fl 1120-50. Looking at your Charter book by Lawrie—there is no other Brit, Brett etc noted except for Hugo.
    Thanks for the wonderful site.

    • Tim says:

      Many thanks for dropping by, Bill. It’s good to receive comments on this post from a clan member. Clearly there’s a need to look at Hugo the Brit, who I’ve not yet brought into this series of posts. There might be some additional info about him at PoMS, which I’ll check.

      Having now had time to think about the Neville book I’m still of the opinion that the Galbraiths descended from the Strathclyde nobility. If their name means something like ‘Briton-stranger’ it may have had an ironic sense, i.e. they weren’t strangers at all, but natives. Or perhaps they were indeed regarded as ‘strangers’ in Lennox, having been displaced from ancestral estates in Clydesdale? Galbraith might then be a nickname bestowed by Gaelic-speakers, but retained by the Galbraith forefathers when they, too, adopted Gaelic (c.1100?).

      I’m planning a Part 3 which will pick up on a point raised in an earlier comment by Tim Sharon regarding the clan emblem. This will look at possible indications of bear symbolism in Strathclyde, with speculation about the origin of the Galbraith crest and shield.

      • Tim says:

        A very late correction to the final paragraph of my previous comment….

        Part 3 in this series has turned out to be about ‘Viking Britons’, so the post dealing with the Galbraith clan emblem will be shunted along to Part 4.

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