Clan Galbraith: Part 4 – Viking Britons (again)

Viking Longship
It’s been three years since my last blogpost on the origins of Clan Galbraith. Back in 2011, in the third installment of the series, I considered the possibility that the name of the clan (Gaelic: Gall Breathnach, ‘Foreign Briton’) might derive from ancestors who were ‘Viking Britons’. The reasoning behind this theory was based on the fact that Gaelic speakers in early medieval Scotland and Ireland usually applied the term Gall (‘Foreigner’) to people of Viking stock. I speculated that the original ‘Foreign Britons’ whose descendants emerged as the Galbraiths of the Lennox in the twelfth century were associated with the kingdom of Strathclyde, perhaps as warriors of Scandinavian stock who served the kings of the Britons as mercenaries. By way of analogy, I pointed to theories about the mysterious Gall-Gáidhil (‘Foreign Gaels’ –> ‘Viking Gaels’) of the ninth to eleventh centuries. The Gall-Gáidhil are generally regarded as Gaelic-speakers from Ireland or the Hebrides who adopted a ‘Viking’ lifestyle of sea-roving and raiding. Why they chose to behave in this way is uncertain: it may have been due to Scandinavian ancestry or to prolonged contact with Vikings. Three years ago, I wondered if the forefathers of Clan Galbraith were members of a similar group among the Britons of Strathclyde, perhaps arriving originally as Vikings but eventually assimilating by intermarriage until they became Britons themselves. They would, I proposed, have adopted the Cumbric language of their hosts, eventually switching to Gaelic after the Scottish conquest of Strathclyde in the eleventh century. All of this seemed to fit with the Galbraiths’ ancestral connection with the Lennox – the land between Loch Lomond and the River Clyde – and with their self-identification as Breatanuich (Gaelic: ‘The Britons’) and Clann-a-Breatannuich (‘Children of the Britons’).

Strathclyde Lennox Map

Loch Lomond and the western part of the Lennox. The red dot indicates the island of Inchgalbraith, ancient stronghold of the Galbraiths.

I described my theory as ‘new’ but acknowledged that it might not be. At the time, I knew of only one similar train of thought, which I had found in William Watson’s History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland of 1926. Watson saw a possible analogy between Gall-Gáidhil and Gall Breathnach when he wrote that ‘the name Galbraith goes to show, as has been noted, that there were ‘foreign Britons’ as well as ‘foreign Gael’.’ It occurred to me that Watson and myself were probably not the only people to wonder if these two enigmatic names might have similar origins. The more I thought about it, the more likely it seemed that other references were out there. I figured that if historians were in broad agreement that the Gall-Gáidhil were ‘Gaels who behaved like Vikings’, then surely some must have speculated that the Gall Breathnach were people of similar sort, i.e. a group of Britons who displayed Viking traits.

Fast forward to January 2014 and I found myself re-reading a bunch of old journal articles as research material for my latest book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. One of these was a landmark study in the Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society in 1960. Its author, P.A. Wilson, demonstrated beyond doubt that the term ‘Cumbria’ was used in early medieval times as an alternative name for the kingdom of Strathclyde. In one section, he also discussed the origin of the territorial name ‘Galloway’:
‘The form from which the medieval and modern territorial name derives was the name of a people, the Gall-gael, the foreigners, no doubt preponderantly Norsemen, who were Gaelic-speakers (having supposedly acquired that speech from Ireland). The survival of the personal name Galbraith suggests that there were also British speakers who were recognised as in some sense ‘foreign’; perhaps they were natives who had adopted the mode of life, and even the religion, of the foreigners.’

It is clear that Wilson was musing on the possibility that the Galbraith forefathers were not Vikings who assimilated with Britons – as I suggested in my blogpost – but native Britons who behaved like Vikings. Unfortunately, he left the matter there and didn’t pursue it any further. I do, however, think his idea is worth considering. In fact, I’m tempted to prefer it to my own. Back in 2011, my thoughts were influenced by the supposedly Scandinavian character of the five hogback tombstones at Govan – the most impressive examples of sculptural art from the kingdom of Strathclyde. Three years later, I’ve realised that these monuments might have little or no connection with Scandinavian culture. In other words, their presence in the last kingdom of the North Britons does not necessarily imply an influx of Viking settlers. If the Govan hogbacks did not mark Viking graves, then there is no need to envisage a distinct Scandinavian community in the heartland of Strathclyde. This also removes the need to identify the Gall Breathnach as people of Scandinavian ancestry. They may have been, as Wilson suggested, a group of native Britons who embraced the Viking lifestyle. One plausible scenario is that they were members of the Strathclyde nobility who simply chose to increase their wealth by piracy, perhaps plying the seaways in dragon-prowed longships. Another possibility was mooted to me in an email from Barry McCain who has been studying the ancestry of his own clan. Barry suggested that the Gall Breathnach could have been a group of Cumbric-speakers among the predominantly Gaelic-speaking Gall-Gáidhil. Whatever the true origin of the name Galbraith, the idea of ‘Viking Britons’ prowling the Firth of Clyde in the ninth to eleventh centuries – whether as part of the Gall-Gáidhil or as an independent group of raiders – seems far from outlandish.

Govan Hogback

One of the hogbacks at Govan Old Parish Church.

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Notes & references

My 2011 blogpost: Clan Galbraith: Part 3 – Viking Britons?

William J. Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1926). The Galbraith reference is in a footnote on page 174.

Wilson, P.A., ‘On the use of the terms Strathclyde and Cumbria’ Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society. 2nd series, vol.66 (1960), 57-92. The Galbraith reference is on page 91.

Barry McCain runs the McCain Clan Blog and the website of the Mid-Argyll Kingship Group. His genealogical research looks at historical documents alongside DNA data.

* * * * * * *

This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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33 comments on “Clan Galbraith: Part 4 – Viking Britons (again)

  1. Peter says:

    ” Who are you?” “We call ourselves the Foreign Britons” Yeah right. It seems to me inherently unlikely that members of a clan or sect would call themselves “Foreign Britons”. However if the answer was – ” The Fighting Britons”, now that has a bit of a ring to it, and I would suggest much more plausible. The word “Gal” in Old Irish signifies Fighter or Warrior, it goes back a long way, the words Gaul and Galatia are cognate (as admittedly is Gall – A foreigner) and it survives in modern Irish as Galata – valorous. In the present instance it could perhaps be a carry over from Brittonic itself, ie in use by the Galbraiths before they adopted Gaelic speech.

  2. Great stuff, Tim. Far from outlandish, indeed.

    Peter, I suspect you haven’t read Tim’s Part 3′, which clarifies a few things you raise. The term is an external one used and applied by neighbors. I also think you may be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. If ‘gal’ was indeed a “carry over from Brittonic in use by the Galbraiths before they adopted Gaelic speech”, then it would it not be strange that they chose to identify themselves as Britons – in Irish (Bretnach) – despite not having adopted it yet?

    The long term survival of original meaning behind OI gal: ‘seething heat, mental excitement, rage, warlike ardour, fury, valour’ is one thing, but it cannot be seriously considered above the many many attested usages of middle Irish ‘Gall’, meaning ‘Gaul,’Scandinavian Invader, Northman, Foreigner, Hebredean, Norman’, especially when you compare how it is used as a prefix to designate a foreign/norse identity within the relevant period, eg:

    gallda: foreign; (Norse/English), foreign connotations or ways
    gallit: imported foreign treasure
    gaillsech: foreign woman
    gallbaile: foreign house/stead
    gallbélre: foreign speech
    gallbiall: foreign (Norse) axe
    gallbrat: foreign booty/loot
    gallcét: old Scandinavian long hundred
    gallgruitne: Norse Curds
    galliath:Foreign/Norse territory
    gall góidel: a person of norse and Irish blood/identity/ethnicity

    In other words, Gall Breathnach either meant ‘Foreign Britons not from Britain’ (A bit clumsy?) or it means ‘Norse Britons’, or perhaps more likely ‘”Britons with Norse connotations or ways”.

  3. jimthemorr says:

    Very interesting, Tim – more to think about!

    I started sea kayaking 10 years ago and Loch Lomond is my main training (and recreation) area – I can be in the water an hour from leaving home.

    The southern half of the loch is like nowhere else – especially because of the islands. There are 8 bigger ones, three permanently inhabited – one has a hotel and another a farm and there is endless scope for different trips. Four of these form a group off Luss and tiny Inchgalbraith guards the southern entrance to the waters between them. The ruin of the medieval castle more or less occupies the whole of the island.

    The middle of the loch could have been accessed by boats dragged across from Loch long, but it would have been a fair effort to get them there. Much easier to come up the River Leven from Dumbarton, but that would depend on who was in charge at the mouth of the river.

    The islands and much of the land surrounding the southern part of the loch is reasonably fertile. It would presumably have been under the control of the Brits for much of the 1st millennium, but the Picts and the Meatae weren’t far away to the east and north and later the Dalriatans might have pushed in from the west. There would probably have been scope for an aggressive water-based people to carve a niche for themselves.

    • Tim says:

      Kayaking sounds like a great way to explore Loch Lomond, Jim. I’ve visited Luss a number of times but only been on the water once, and that was last year when we had a day trip from Govan with the ‘Something Is Missing’ project team. As we passed Inchgalbraith I had my camera ready but, unfortunately, a gremlin got in the works and the images didn’t turn out too well. If things had gone better, a photograph of the island would have appeared in this blogpost.

      Interesting that you mentioned boats being dragged over from Loch Long. The isthmus between the two lochs is marked at its eastern end by Tarbet which gets its name from a Gaelic term meaning ‘carry across’. The various Tarbets, Tarbats and Tarberts in Scotland seem to mark ancient portage-routes where boats were hauled over narrow strips of land to get from one loch to another.

  4. Wm Gilbreath says:

    Thank you Tim for another stirring Blog re Galbraiths, and its progenitor Gilchrist Bretnach (fl 1135-1195), a lovely mix of tongues. I suggest the given name was added later; very popular in the 12th century, most families had one, Including Earl Lennox, into which Bretnach married. I do not think the complete name ‘Gille’st Bretnach’ was documented until the Melrose charter in 1193. [Watson dates it at 1180]. The charter was for the lands Carrick, Galloway. Did Bretnach have an interest there (from King Fergus) or was he just roped in to witness?
    I still (since my earlier blog-backs) do not think proper attention is paid to Hugo Le Briton of the generation before Bretnach. If name frequency is meaningful, Brit, Britone, were rare—are they the remnants of the Strathclyde Kingdom? We have from Galloway in ancient and modern times By Peter Handyside MacKerlie ‘Somewhat after 1138 “David, King of Scotland, to the barons, ministers, and to all his faithful clergy and laity of his whole kingdom, greeting; witnesses included Uchtred, son of Fergus; and Hugo Briton. In another charter to the same abbey, with no date, but prior to 1153, the witnesses are: Willo Cumi (William Comyn) Chancellor, Hugo de Morevilla (Hugh de Morville); fgus de Galweia (Fergus of Galloway); Hug britone (Hugh Briton); Walto fil Alani (Walter, son of Alan, the progenitor of the Stewarts); Alwino MacArchil (Alwin, son of Archil); Ead filio dunegal (Eadulph, son of Dunegal); Duvenald fre suo (Dovenald, his brother); Apud-Cadihou. As ordered by prestige, Hugh comes out well here and a dozen other charters.
    I would like to introduce results coming in from SNPs in the past month. Several descendants of the Galbraith Chiefs have been tested—with good certainty back to Chief Andrew (b. 1450) and the possibility that it continues to Bretnach—there were two instances where the early Chiefs did not have male sons and the process had to move back to cousins and a change in location. In examining 215 males of Haplogroup R-U160, the Galbraiths, whatever they were called, have existed as isolated ‘novel variants’ since at least c460 AD. At the moment this does not mean much geographically. The DNA had traveled by some means and route since ‘Adam’. It probably means the line got down to one individual. It is not unusual in an enclave, over a couple centuries, to have a single dominant DNA, resulting in many lines. It makes a Viking past less likely, as they are largely Haplogroup I-M233. We do have many Galbraiths of Ireland with this DNA. It might rule out a connection to King Fergus.
    Bill

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for this info, Bill. I’m thinking Gilchrist Bretnach might be just a witness to the Carrick charter, with no landholding in the area. Not sure what to make of Hugo le Briton but I’m tempted to see him as someone with an ancestral link to the Strathclyde nobility. The sons of Dunegal are also interesting – it has been suggested that their father was descended from a line of Cumbrian (British) lords in Nithsdale.

      The Galbraith DNA data seems to deny Scandinavian ancestry while allowing the possibility of native British ancestry – if I’m reading it correctly. As you know from past conversations, my non-scientific brain struggles a bit with this stuff.

      • grdtobin says:

        Fwiw, the Counts of Maine (in France) were often “Hugh”; although the name first achieved fame among the Capetian rulers of Paris, the rulers of Maine had Breton marital connections.

  5. Tim says:

    Having had a few days to think about this series of blogposts I’m now mulling over where it should go next. I feel it’s reached the point where I can advance a firm proposition, a theory that I’ll probably stick with until a better one comes along. The proposition is basically this:

    The surname Galbraith means ‘Viking Briton’ and was originally a nickname bestowed on members of the Strathclyde warrior-nobility who adopted a sea-raiding lifestyle in the 10th/11th centuries AD.

    At the moment, I don’t see any significant objection to it. Nevertheless, alternatives will always be available, so I’ll welcome comment or criticism from anyone with an interest in this topic.

    A fifth installment in the series is a distinct possibility, especially if new information – such as more of the genetic data mentioned by Bill Gilbreath – comes to light in the near future.

  6. Wm Gilbreath says:

    Tim: Some more thoughts (conjectures) after reading again your Blog and the comments. I had never considered that the pre-galbraiths were Viking like pirates plying the Clyde; and then I looked at your map. Recall that an early characterization of Galbraith, “There is an old Gaelic saying about them:
    Bhreatannch o’n Talla Dheig, Ualisle shliochd Albann do shloinn.
    Galbraith of the Red Hall, Noblest of Alban’s race, thy pedigree.
    from I.M.M McPhail’s Lennox Lore.
    The Red Hall being Dumbarton Rock, the south side. Recall that Bretnach married the Earl Lennox daughter, and we know those Lords, controlled the Rock until Maldowen the Third Earl, was forced to yield it to the King (Alexander?) c 1250.
    And, again your map:
    Inch-Galbraith (noted by Pont in 1585 as Gabrachths yl [isle] na[med] Chastel]) in Loch Lomond was originally Elan-na-Gaul; island of the Gaul, according to Wm Fraser in his Chiefs of the Colquhoun.

    • Tim says:

      This is certainly more food for thought. If the Galbraith forebears had a genuine connection with Dumbarton it might indeed add to the sea-raider theory. On the other hand, the Campbells also claimed an ancestral link with the Red Hall, which makes me wonder if the hall and its tower were used as symbols for Dumbarton Castle as a whole, especially by poets attached to clans who tried to claim ownership of the castle via real or invented traditions of ancient possession.

      The name Elan-na-Gaul is interesting. I’ve made a note to look at it more closely, I’m tempted to see it as ‘Isle of the Foreigners’ (‘Viking island’) but this might be jumping the gun.

  7. Offworlder says:

    Hi Tim, – have enjoyed your blog on the Galbraiths – only reading it for the first time today (20 Feb 2015).
    I live in Perth, Western Australia – not Perth, Scotland.

    In 2008, at the age of 56, I found out who my father was – and subsequently connected (a whole blog in itself) to some living first cousins, (over in eastern Australia) one of whom had undertaken some genealogical study and came up with a family tree that includes a great grandmother Mary Ann Galbraith – daughter of a Henry Galbraith, born 1803.

    So I am interested in this name – always wanted Welsh and Scottish ancestry – don’t ask me why!

    1st question:
    From looking at your blog, would I be correct in assuming that there is only ONE line called Galbraith that has its beginnings in Scotland? (And, therefore, that it is no where else used to describe a different line of human genealogy?)
    If that is correct, then I can truly claim at least some Scottish heritage 🙂
    If Galbraith is really an ‘artificial construct’ of ‘recent’ manufacture, then it seems to make it easier to pin down the name and the line of descendants – more so than, say, Harris or Miller or Thomson or Bannister.

    [My wife’s grandfather was a ‘NOBLE’, born in Scotland – a sept, I think, to the MacIntosh clan – so she can easily claim Scottish heritage.]

    Generally, it is amazing how names can change, be changed, etc – so as to make it hard to get much direct ‘lineage’ at all. For instance, I was adopted and became a THORN, but have birth certificate which lists me as a GIBSON (my mum’s surname) – however, she wasn’t married to my father, who was a HARDY.
    But even then, my great great grandfather was Daniel HARDY – (born in 1797; married a Sarah JONES, in Shropshire) was also a casual son, of a Mary nee HARDY – on the marriage certificate to his third wife, gave the naMe of his father as WILLIAM ADAMS!! So this line of HARDY’s are really ADAM’S’s 🙂 🙂 [Now if JONES was only a WELSH surname from that period, I could even claim Welsh heritage 🙂 ]

    ANYWAY, I have really enjoyed reading your blog and seeing the questions raised as to who, what, when, where & why. Keep it up – I admire your tenacity in such matters of unearthing ‘history’. 🙂

    Gregg Thorn

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for reading, Gregg. The story of your own ‘lineage’ is a good illustration of how an individual person’s kinship and identity can be far from simple or straightforward. It’s a kind of microcosm of a broader picture of complex affiliations and identities that I frequently imagine for early medieval Scotland, where an individual’s ‘ethnicity’ and allegiance were probably based on all kinds of factors rather than being a simple matter of calling oneself a Pict or a Scot or a Briton.

      In response to your question, it is my understanding that the surname Galbraith and its variant forms derive from a single aristocratic kindred who held land in the Lennox in the 12th/13th centuries. The other medieval Galbraiths, such as those in Forfarshire (now Angus) appear to be branches from the Lennox line. On that basis, I would say you can lay claim to some Scottish ancestry – which is certainly more than I can say for myself. My surname Clarkson is associated in Scotland with Clan Chattan but, unlike Galbraith, it is a fairly common name deriving from an occupation (clericus or clerk) and my own patrilineal ancestors seem to be 100% English all the way back to medieval times. Luckily on the maternal side I have a few pints of Irish blood to add a Celtic flavour to the mix 😉

      • Offworlder says:

        Thanks again, Tim!

        I forgot to add another conundrum to the matter of investigating family or clan genealogical history – my wife’s great Grandy’s were Bohunovski’s and Freckenhauser’s – and those names got anglicised during WW1 to become “Bonnie” and “Franklin” respectively – just to muddy the trail ever so slightly. 🙂
        Anyway, I think one day I’ll go get myself a nice winter blazer made from the clan tartan. I do so like the blues and greens. 🙂

  8. James Creel says:

    This a great blog and I really hope it continues. Best to all.
    Regards
    jhc Clade S 8368

  9. G. Galbraith Harper, Jr. says:

    Incredible reading… thank you so much for your writings. Anxious to read – Part 5 of your series. I’m 55 years old and great grandfather, James Galbraith always told me similar stories as a young boy of this great ancient name. He immigrated to the US in the late 19th century through Donegal. My father & my son (Clayton Robert Galbraith Harper) also carry this name proudly.

    • Tim says:

      I’m glad you’ve found this blog series useful. I’ve recently got back to the much-delayed Part 5 and, with luck, I’ll get it finished for September upload.

      • Thank you Tim… much appreciated and anticipated! I’m more than impressed how you can master the complexity of this age and society, albeit my partiality to my Scotish ancestory. The Galbraith name has been understood to be carried as long as possible within my family. Such in, Galbraith being my grandmother’s maiden name, now my eldest son’s and my middle name. The Harper’s were septs of Clan Buchanan. Funny how life moves in such a ciircular fashion. I’m not sure my grandmother & grandfather knew how close their ancestors had lived from one another… or maybe they did… ha! In any case, looking forward to Part 5. Cheers!

  10. grdtobin says:

    Viking Britons may be even more interesting than that. Several fjords of Norway have concentrations of – wait for it – exclusively British Y-DNA. So some male Britons settled in the fjords in such numbers that they replaced any male native population.

    Possible causes: (1) Britons were captured by Viking raids and taken to work in the fjords for the Norse. They then either (a) rebelled, and killed their slave-masters, or (b) were so popular with the local women that they thoroughly out-populated the Norse men; in either case they took over. (2) Britons may have voluntarily joined visiting Vikings and sailed with them, settling on vacant shores in Norway. (3) Britons may have invaded Norway.

    Britons and Vikings cooperating in raids is well-attested. In the mid to late 800s both the Bretons and the Franks hired Vikings to join them in raiding each other.

    It would be amusing indeed if Rollo had male-line British ancestry, so William the Conqueror were genetically a Briton.

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