The Wigtownshire Pages

Origins of the People of Wigtownshire

by Crawford MacKeand
Prehistoric Times
Possibly the first Gallowegians were a very few Stone Age hunters, but a fairly strong farming economy appears to have evolved by about 4000 B.C. As Bronze gave way to Iron Age, the Gallowegians were fighters building defensive forts, the remains of which are still visible at such sites as Barsalloch Point near Port William on Luce Bay in Southern Wigtownshire, In the six or seven hundred years after 800 to 700 B.C. a Celtic influx occurred, of language and culture, or of people or of all three, maybe originating with Britons speaking a language akin to Welsh. The Romans called the tribes Novantae, Damnonii a little to the North in today's Ayrshire and Selgovae to the East in Dumfries. Very likely these folk, probably with a little genetic input from many of the previous residents, were still the people of Galloway years after the Romans left Britain around 420 A.D. The Roman army had penetrated as far as Wigtownshire, but evidently not in very great strength. Christianity was a growing force in the later Roman Empire, and even as the Empire began to die, the Church moved in. Ninian came as a Bishop to Whithorn, likely serving an established Christian community in the period 390 to 450, and building his Candida Casa or white chapel. Away to the North, in this same period, Norsemen and Irish Gaels were colonizing the Scottish West and the Isles, and the Northern Irish Dal Riata were establishing their first Scottish outposts on the Clyde, though in this last case with little apparent effect on Galloway.
As History Began
The next scene finds Anglians from Northumbria moving farther afield than the future Anglo-Saxons of South Britain and invading Galloway in some strength. By 580 or 590 they had subdued the Novantae, probably subjects of the British Kingdom of Rheged which had, together with Strathclyde, until then dominated South West Scotland. Northumberland's King Oswy married Rhienmelth, a grand-daughter of King Urien of Rheged, in about 632, thus emphasizing the new situation. Meanwhile, neatly bypassing Galloway, Danes swept from England and the South into the Forth-Clyde valley, and the Strathclyde British departed to join their brethren in Wales and defeat the English at the Battle of Conway. The Clyde coast and further South were now invaded by Norse-Gaels from their Hebridean bases, despite the best efforts of Edmund of England and Malcolm of Scotland, whose hands were already too full with Danish raiders on the East Coast.

These Norsemen, warriors and settlers both, moved down the coasts and southward, to establish themselves in strength in the Isle of Man and eventually to found in Ireland the city of Dublin, where their king sat. That kingship even for a short time linked up with the Norse kingdom based on York. The power was ephemeral, but the settlements were long lasting, and it is to these Norse-Gaels that we can look for the arrival of some of our forebears. They were said to be a hybrid race from Norse fathers and Gaelic mothers, who appear to have settled the Whithorn area in the early 900s, thence spreading around our coasts and into the higher valleys. The Icelandic Njal's Saga tells of Kari Solmundarsson wintering at Hvitsborg, or Whithorn, with earl Malcolm soon after the battle of Clontarf in 1014, and by 1034 there was recorded the death of Suibne, king of the Galwegians and son of Kenneth. The Orkneyinga Saga says that the next king, Thorfin the Mighty, resided in turn in Caithness and in Gaddgedler, where England and Scotland meet. In 1054 the Norse fleet sailed under the command of a Norseman, MacScelling; ships and men were of the Gallgaedel, of Arran, Man, Kintyre and the Alban seaboard. So as the Norman Conquest was coming up on the southern horizon, Norse-Gaelic Macs of the Gall-Gaedel, or far-away Gaels, were thoroughly at home in Wigtown and probably Kirkcudbright too, whether they called themselves Galwegians or Gall-Gaels or whether they called Galloway by the earlier forms of Gaddgedler or Gall-Gaedel or even Galwedia or Gallwitheia. It was by all accounts a cosmopolitan, if rough, community, with Welsh, Irish, Anglian, Danish, Norse and certainly Gaelic roots, part pagan and part Christian, making a wild and often dangerous living in an isolated but precarious political independence.

One historian has said that the history of Galloway is a blank from the time when the father of Kenneth I was slain upon the borders of Kyle, in 844, until the days of David I, who ruled Scotland from 1124 to 1153. Other sources than the written document have helped to make the Dark Ages less dark, by combining the efforts of archaeologists, linguists, place-name specialists and historians. Even legend can, with great care, sometimes be effectively woven into the final fabric. But as that period ended, Malcolm's campaigns in 1197 took Carrick, today's Southern Ayrshire, into the Scottish kingdom, and established a boundary that still defines Galloway. Fergus was at this time (pre 1136 - 1161) the ruler of Galloway. He was born in Galloway, his father probably being named Somerled, a name frequent among the Gaelic-Norse. One of the sons of Fergus was Gilbert, who held Kirkcudbright. The other was Uchtred who had Wigtown from 1161 to 1174, when he was murdered by his brother, and who, like his father, had favored the Norman introduction of feudalism. But all in all, it is fairly clear that our corner of today's Scotland was ever an independently minded realm, although freedom in any modern sense was surely notable only by its absence. Wars, raiding, and slave trading were then very normal facts of European life.
A Later Record of Galloway
In 1821 the New Edinburgh Encyclopaedia said, of Wigtownshire, "The people of this county are industrious, moral, intelligent and enterprising." While this is very pleasing to hear, it goes on to say that they "have from the remotest antiquity been a warlike people." And also that "the present inhabitants can trace back their descent through many generations. They are originally .... a Celtic people; and it is a curious fact that they retained their early predilections so long that the Gaelic was their vernacular dialect in the time of Queen Mary, when it was unknown in every other district in the South of Scotland. This speech was not disused in the remoter parishes even at the beginning of the 17th century; and if tradition may be relied on, it is not more than a hundred years since it entirely disappeared in the parish of New Luce." [Maybe this should be no surprise, given the continued trade & passage across the very narrow seas to Ireland.] Names of former Galloway princes and lords are considered at some length, noting the most powerful families in the 1300s as M'Dowalls, M'Cullochs, Hannays and Adairs, and commenting on others, Christie, M'Kerlie etc. etc. Finally, "The oldest names, in addition to those already mentioned, are M'Guffie, M'Kinnen, M'Keand, M'Gowan, M'Geoch, M'Nish, M'Gill, M'Cracken, Milwain, Milhench, Clumpha, Broadfoot, Dickson, Donnan, the most of which are evidently Celtic, and must have come down from the remotest antiquity."
Crawford MacKeand
Greenville, Delaware USA, Feb 2002
Useful historical references, especially for the earlier periods, are
  • Galloway Land and Lordship, R.D. Oram and G.P. Stell, eds., Scottish Society for Northern Studies, Edinburgh 1991
  • Wigtownshire Charters, R.C. Reid, ed., Constable, for University of Edinburgh and the Scottish History Society, Third Series, Vol. 51, 1960. (see the introduction)
  • Discovering Galloway, I. McLeod, John Donald Ltd., Edinburgh, 1986
  • Scottish Place Names, W.C. McKenzie, Kegan Paul etc., London 1931
  • The Place Names of Galloway, Sir Herbert Maxwell, Castlepoint Press Dalbeattie, 2001
  • New Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, D. Brewster, ed., [American Edition],Whiting & Watson NY 1815 - 1821 (entry for Wigtownshire, p522-525, final volume.)
  • The Surnames of Scotland, G.F. Black, New York Public Library, NY 1946
  • Lands and their Owners in Galloway, P.H. M'Kerlie, 1890
  • History of Dumfries and Galloway, Sir Herbert Maxwell
  • Galloway - A Land Apart, Andrew McCulloch, Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2000
Search billions of records on