Finding the McCains

Scottish medieval warrior

Medieval sculpture of a warrior from Argyll (illustrated in R.C. Graham’s The Carved Stones of Islay, 1885).


The new science of genetic genealogy is now widely used in ancestry research. Although I know very little about the scientific side, I am aware that people sometimes buy my book The Picts after discovering a genetic link to the ancient Pictish areas of Scotland. They want to learn the history behind their family’s ‘Pictish DNA’.

In the past couple of years, I’ve had a number of interesting email conversations with genealogists who use DNA data in their research. One of these is Barry McCain, a writer and historian based in Mississippi. In addition to tracing his own family’s roots, Barry is involved in a genetic study relating to a district of mid-Argyll. Tradition has long held that the medieval origins of Clan McCain lie in the west of Scotland among the old Gaelic warrior-kindreds and the DNA data appears to support this.

Barry runs several genealogy/history websites and has recently produced a book called Finding the McCains in which he traces his ancestors’ migrations from Scotland to Ireland and thence to North America. More than just the story of one kindred, the book shows how to use genetic testing and primary sources to gain an understanding of historical Scottish families.

Here’s an extract from a description of the book:
“The search for the McCains became a mystery story with clues, false turns, many adventures, and then ultimate success through Y chromosome DNA testing. In 2008 the McCains were reunited with their family that remained in Ireland, after 289 years of separation. The author drew from his many experiences of his forty years of travel to Ireland and the UK to present a biography of this well-known Canadian and American family. His book is part memoir, part history, and explores the relationship between Diaspora and homeland. Finding the McCains is also an excellent genetic genealogy how-to guide for people of Irish and Scottish ancestry.”

The link below takes you to a page for the book at the Clan McCain blog:
Barry R. McCain – Finding the McCains: a Scots Irish Odyssey

Three more websites associated with Barry’s genealogical research:
Clan McCain
Mid-Argyll Kinship Group
The Scots-Irish

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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.

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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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