Recently I’ve been wondering what the name Galbraith really means. In an earlier blogpost I mentioned that the Clan surname derives from Gaelic Gall Breathnach which incorporates the words for ‘foreign’ and ‘Briton’. The second element indicates an ancestral connection with the Britons, a people whose identity is represented today by communities in Wales, Brittany and (to a lesser extent) Cornwall. In the second half of the 12th century, the period when the name Galbraith first appears in documents, a ‘British’ identity lingered also in a fourth region – the area around Glasgow. Here, in what had once been the kingdom of Strathclyde, the language of the Cumbri or North Britons had only recently been supplanted by Gaelic. Historians call this language Cumbric to distinguish it from Old Welsh, although the two were actually very similar. Cumbric had almost died out by the mid-1100s but might still have been spoken by a few older folk in remote Clydesdale villages.
It is generally accepted that the ancestors of the Galbraiths were identifiable, in some sense, as ‘Britons’, otherwise they would not have been called Breathnach. When we first encounter them in the earldom of Lennox in the late 12th century they are indistinguishable from other Gaelic-speaking families and seem to be just as ‘Scottish’ as everyone else. Their ‘Britishness’ was therefore bound up with their name but may already have been a distant memory by 1150. How, then, did the name originate?
As stated in previous blogposts, I take the view that the Galbraiths are descended from the Cumbric-speaking aristocracy of Strathclyde. The idea that the clan forefathers held land and authority in the old kingdom has been voiced by various people, not least by the Galbraiths themselves in their own histories and traditions. Against this scenario is the possibility that the clan ancestors came to Lennox from Wales, perhaps in the early 1100s, at the invitation of a Scottish king. Either theory could explain the ‘British’ connotation of their surname. The hypothesis of a Welsh origin has the added advantage of easily explaining the prefix Gall, ‘foreign’, because a Welshman in Strathclyde would not have been a Cumbric-speaking Briton but a ‘foreigner’. Otherwise the prefix is hard to explain, for it is unlikely that any indigenous Briton of Strathclyde would be regarded as a foreigner in his homeland.
There is, however, another possibility. This popped into my head a few days ago while I was reading about the Gall-Gáidhil, the mysterious people who gave their name to Galloway. The Gall-Gáidhil first appear in the 9th century as warriors in Ireland, and later as raiders and settlers on the western seaboard of Scotland. In the chronicles of the time their origin is left unexplained but their name, which means ‘foreign Gaels’, indicates that they spoke Gaelic. Their recorded activities suggest that they had much in common with the Vikings. Indeed, they seem to have comprised several Gaelic-speaking groups who prowled the seaways between Scotland and Ireland in the period 850 to 1100, some of whom no doubt claimed Scandinavian ancestry. The first Gall-Gáidhil may have originated in Ireland, or in the Hebrides, or perhaps in both areas at the same time. They were, to some extent, distinguishable from the ‘true’ Vikings whose ancestors had come from Norway and Denmark, but the differences were probably quite blurred by c.1000. The name applied to the original Gall-Gáidhil may have identified them as native Gaels who had adopted a ‘Viking’ way of life, possibly as a result of intermarriage with Scandinavians. This would be the reverse of a situation that had already led many Scandinavian settlers to settle down as ‘Gaelic’ farmers within a few generations of the first Viking raids.
Although the Gall-Gáidhil are usually associated with what is now Galloway – clearly one of their main areas of settlement – their colonies in southwest Scotland evidently stretched northward to Ayrshire, into lands bordering the kingdom of Strathclyde. Much of Ayrshire had been ruled by the Clyde Britons in the 8th century, and again in the 10th, but by c.1000 large parts of the modern county had fallen to the Gall-Gáidhil. By c.1030, when Strathclyde was weakening, Gall-Gáidhil lords probably controlled a continuous band of territory between the Solway Firth and the North Ayrshire coast. In 1034 we hear of a Gall-Gáidhil king called Suibhne (‘Sweeney’) who may have ruled this area as a single realm.
So, where does this leave the origins of Clan Galbraith?
The following questions popped into my head while musing on the Gall-Gáidhil:
1. Could the name of this mysterious seafaring folk offer a clue as to why the Galbraith ancestors were regarded as ‘foreign’ Britons?
2. What did the prefix Gall really mean when applied to a particular group of people in the 10th and 11th centuries?
To answer the second question we need to look at the old Irish chronicles of the period. The authors of these texts didn’t use our word ‘Viking’ but instead referred to a Scandinavian raider as Gall, ‘Foreigner’. Since this term was used without any ethnic qualification we can assume that it conveyed a sufficiently precise meaning by itself, especially in the context of the time. Every native of Ireland in the period c.800 to c.1100 would have understood the connotations and implications of Gall. To them it meant simply ‘Viking’.
The Gall-Gáidhil, then, were not merely ‘Foreign Gaels’ but ‘Viking Gaels’. They behaved like the original Scandinavian Vikings but spoke Gaelic rather than Old Norse. Some may have had Danish or Norwegian ancestry mingled with Irish or Hebridean blood but their primary cultural affiliation or preferred ‘ethnicity’ defined them as Gaels. We can be reasonably certain that Gall-Gáidhil was a nickname bestowed by their neighbours and not a label they adopted for themselves. More than this we cannot say, for history tells us little about who they were and where they came from. But there might be enough here to permit some speculative musing on the origins of Clan Galbraith.
Returning to the first of my two questions, I’ve devised a new theory about the meaning of the clan surname, based on the above discussion. If one possible translation of Gall-Gáidhil is ‘Viking Gael’, might not a possible translation of Gall Breathnach be ‘Viking Briton’? I’m not sure if this is actually a new theory, or if it has already been suggested by somebody else, but I’ll run with it to the end of this blogpost and see how far it goes.
For the theory to have any substance it needs to fit with the circumstances of the period. In this regard it does not seem too preposterous. Everything we know, or can guess, about 10th-century Strathclyde suggests that the kingdom developed close links with several Viking powers. Relations in the previous century had been dominated by a significant event in 870: the destruction of Alt Clut, the ancient capital of the Clyde kings at Dumbarton Rock, by a Viking force from Dublin. By the early 900s, however, these two erstwhile foes were getting along much better. Alliances were forged and combined military expeditions were undertaken, often in co-operation with Scottish kings against mutual enemies in England. Dynastic marriages between the Strathclyde royal family and the Scandinavian dynasties of Dublin and York probably sealed a few of these political agreements. When the last Viking kings of York were expelled by the English in the middle of the 10th century, it is quite possible that some of their henchmen sought sanctuary with the Clyde Britons. This would, at least, provide a plausible context for the Scandinavian-style hogback tombstones at Govan, the main centre of political and religious power in Strathclyde.
Any Scandinavian exiles from York or elsewhere who made permanent settlements among the Clyde Britons would have assimilated with the native population by adopting Cumbric speech and local customs. Otherwise they could not have thrived in their new home. Within a couple of generations they, too, would have become ‘Britons’, even if there was something noticeably different about their origins, a difference that identified them not as true natives of Clydesdale but as ‘Viking Britons’. Their descendants in the following century would have been caught up in the displacement of Cumbric by Gaelic after the Scottish conquest of Strathclyde (c.1040-1070). But their Scandinavian ancestry might not have been forgotten, even after they adopted Gaelic speech, and a prominent individual among these ‘Viking Britons’ perhaps became known by the nickname Gall Breathnach. Or, in self-recognition of his family’s heritage, he may have coined the nickname himself.
The above scenario would not be inconsistent with the earliest mention of the Galbraiths in medieval landholding documents. In the late 12th century we hear of Gillespic and Rodarcus Galbrait, sons of Gilchrist Bretnach (‘the Briton’), and of their kinsman Mac an Bhreatnaich (‘son of the Britons’). The epithets or nicknames show that these men treasured their ancestral Britishness, with Gilchrist being also keen to highlight the ‘foreign’ aspect by using the prefix Gall. The name Rodarcus, incidentally, looks like a Latin rendering of Radharc or Riderch (Welsh: Rhydderch), a name borne by at least one famous king of the Clyde Britons in former times. The early Galbraiths, of course, were not Britons in any meaningful sense, nor was anyone living in Scotland in the late 12th century. Both Bretnach and Gall Breathnach (=Galbrait) were anachronistic labels in any Scottish context after c.1100. If Bretnach here does not mean ‘Welshman’ – and I presently believe it doesn’t – then its usage by the early Galbraiths was little more than a nod to the past. It was, nevertheless, an important part of their family’s identity and an aspect of their heritage that they wanted other people to know about.
This is about as far as I can take the theory right now. The whole thing is pretty much straight off the top of my head, with minimal consultation of primary or secondary literature. For instance, it hasn’t been tested against current scholarly thinking on acculturation, language acquisition and other relevant topics. As a viable hypothesis it seems to work on a historical level, given what we know of political events in southern Scotland in the 10th and 11th centuries, but it might not stand up to scrutiny by an expert in Celtic linguistics. In any case, I’m not sure how far an ethnonym (Gall Gáidhil) given to a dispersed collection of pirate colonies can be employed as a plausible analogy for the surname of a prosperous Scottish landowning family. It’s a question I’ll leave for another day.
* As stated above, my idea about ‘Viking Britons’ might not be new, but the only similar thinking I know of at the moment is a footnote by the place-name scholar William Watson: The name Galbraith goes to show, as has been noted, that there were ‘foreign Britons’ as well as ‘foreign Gael’ (Watson 1926, p.174, n.1).
* The usual Gaelic name for the Hebrides recalls their colonisation by Vikings: Innse Gall, ‘Isles of the Foreigners’.
* The Galbraiths call their clan, in Gaelic, Breatanuich (‘The Britons’) or Clann-a-Breatannuich (‘Children of the Britons’).
* I haven’t discussed the possibility that the Galbraith ancestors originated among the Gall-Gáidhil. The latter’s settlements in North Ayrshire were close to the heartland of Strathclyde and probably encroached on the kingdom before 1050 (see Broun 2004, p.139, n.117).
* Some theories on the identity of the Gall-Gáidhil, any or none of which might seem relevant to this blogpost:
‘Gaelic-speakers perceived to be of Norse origin’ (Broun 2004, p.136)
‘renegade Irish associates of the pagan Norse and Danes’ (Kirby 1975)
‘A Gall-Gáidhil, a foreign Gael, was clearly a foreigner who spoke Gaelic’ (Cowan 1991, 72)
‘They are described as Scots and foster-children of the Norsemen, and sometimes they are actually called Norsemen’ (Watson 1926, 172)
* Why did Gilchrist and his sons portray themselves as Britons? Here’s a possible answer from my book The Men of the North: ‘a Gaelic-speaker might identify himself as a Bretnach in contexts where a claim to British ancestry conferred some specific advantage, such as in property disputes over land formerly held by Britons’ (Clarkson 2010, 198)
* And finally, a rather wild shot in the dark… Thinking about Inchgalbraith, a tiny artificial island or crannog in Loch Lomond where the early Galbraiths had their main stronghold, and musing on the idea that Gall Breathnach might mean ‘Viking Briton’, I’m wondering whose grave was marked by the hogback tombstone at Luss Church on the western side of the loch. Could this ‘Viking’ monument, carved in typical Strathclyde style by a Briton of the Govan stonecarving school, commemorate a Gall Breathnach from the island-fortress further along the shore?
Dauvit Broun, ‘The Welsh identity of the kingdom of Strathclyde, c.900-c.1200’ Innes Review 55 (2004), 111-80
Thomas Owen Clancy, ‘The Gall-Ghaedheil and Galloway’ Journal of Scottish Name Studies 2 (2008), 19-50
Tim Clarkson, The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010)
Edward J. Cowan, ‘The Vikings in Galloway: a review of the evidence’, pp.63-75 in Richard Oram & Geoffrey Stell (eds.) Galloway: land and lordship (Edinburgh, 1991)
David P. Kirby, ‘Galloway prior to c.1100’ p.22 in P. MacNeill & R. Nicholson (eds.) Historical Atlas of Scotland (St Andrews, 1975)
William J. Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-names of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1926)
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Click here for Clan Galbraith Part 1 (which has a link to Part 2)
The series continues with Clan Galbraith Part 4
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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series: