Out of the Celtic Mists... 

("A prayer for Gillacrist who made this cross")

Where did our name originate?  Was it at Whithorn (Candida Casa)?
Some Gilchrists have begun to say so lately, but we really can't say that for sure.  This is all we can honestly say:

In the fourth century A.D., a young man left the northern shores of the Solway Firth to travel to Rome. The Romans named him St. Ninian, and he was both a product and an agent of the culture that flourished in his part of the world. He visited St. Martin of Tours, and when he returned home around 397 A.D., he established a local church and monastery which he called St. Martin's, at Whithorn (= "white house") in Galloway. This makes Whithorn the earliest centre of Christian mission in Scotland, and St. Ninian the first Scottish missionary.

Mind you, historians don't know much about this period or this person; we only know what Bede wrote about St. Ninian over 300 years after he died, and Bede even qualified his remarks by saying "as they relate", or in other words, as he'd been told by oral tradition.  He didn't have any old letters or documents to substantiate the legend.  Fortunately, modern archeology and anthropological research support Bede's accounts, and there really are ruins of an ancient stone abbey which was called Hwit-aern, which I visited a few years ago.  Its stone walls were covered by a white plaster. The local Britons ("Brythons") were said to be quite impressed by the structure, since their building tradition was all in wood.  Subsequent buildings on the same archeological site were erected by Northumbrians, then Vikings and finally Scots, including a 17th century priory which still stands today.

Whithorn has also been known as Candida Casa.  Perhaps that was St. Ninian's original Latin name for it, although he dedicated it to St. Martin of Tours; but it's also possible that it garnered that name three centuries later when the Venerable Bede wrote about it in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum: The History of the Primitive Church of England, which was originally written in Latin, of course.

Whithorn was a landmark tourist attraction in those days. Youths from Ireland and other surrounding regions were sent there to be educated, and subsequently became missionaries and monks - the first Giolla Chriost, or "servant(s) of Christ", perhaps.  I've never seen any direct proof that the earliest Gilchrists originated at Whithorn Abbey, or Candida Casa, but it is a valid possibility, and provides us with a romantic notion as to how our name sprang forth.  It may have been disseminated by Norse invaders and slavers in subsequent centuries (see below).

There are at least two ancient bards whose first two names are Giolla Chriost (a particularly Irish spelling), and this appears to have been the first version of our name ever recorded; there are contemporary Irishmen with the same name to this day, with exactly the same spelling, e.g. Mr Diarmait Mac Giolla Chriost at Trinity College in Carmarthen.

Many other names with the "gille" prefix were proudly carried by those ancient Celtic monks who were the first bloom of learning and culture in the British Isles: Gillespie = the Bishop's man; Gillepatric and Gilpatrick = followers of St. Patrick; Gilchomedy = follower of "the Lord"; Gilfillan = follower of St. Fillan; Gillebrede = follower of St. Bride; Gillecollum = follower of St. Columba.

Gilla Criosd and Gille Criosd are both early variants of our name, and evolved into Gillacrist (as seen on the Ionian stone cross of St. Martin in the photograph at the top of this page).

We do know for sure that our name is over a thousand years old.  It appears on St. Martin's Cross in Iona, which provides us a Viking connection:

In the fifth century, the Romans were driven out of Britain by an alliance of Picts (from what we now call Scotland), Scots (from what we now call Ireland - they were named Scotti by the Romans, but they called themselves the Alba) and other cultural groups. There was a danger of being overrun by European tribes, and over the centuries that did happen several times in varying degrees; but in the meantime they were thrilled with their victory, and one of the ways they consolidated their emergence as a unified native population was by granting the peninsula of Kintyre to the Irish "Scots" in gratitude and recognition for their support. This was the ancient kingdom of Dalriada.

In time, this would be the undoing of the Picts, but the Scots had been crossing the 12 mile passage for as long as anyone could remember anyway; one source claims that the word "scot", originally meant "raider", and was also used to refer to the Vikings later on. Indeed, the "Scots" had a unique technology in the form of "currachs", which were large hide boats. These could carry 20 men and provisions over long voyages under sail as well as by oar. Tim Severin and his crew travelled all the way from Ireland to North America in one of these in 1977. Irish hermit monks used currachs to settle in the Faroes around 700 A.D.; visits to the coast of Norway would have been no great challenge, and early Icelandic historians knew that Irish monks had lived in Iceland before the arrival of the first Viking settlers there. Ari the Learned (1068 - 1148) wrote that they left when the Norsemen arrived because they "did not want to associate with pagan people; they left Irish books and bells and croziers, from which one could tell that they were Irishmen."

It takes only a second's reflection to realize that they would not have willingly left these precious things behind - in those days, a single book could have the value of an entire farm - so they were more likely driven away by the Viking settlers. That leads to the recognition that there had to be a reason why Ari the Learned felt it diplomatic to bend the truth; indeed there was, for he lived right in the middle of several centuries of cultural, religious, political and geographic conflict and diplomacy between the Vikings and the Irish Celts.

St. Columba was perhaps the most famous early Christian of the British Isles. He was also a "Scot" from Ireland, where Christianity had become deeply rooted in the form of monasteries; but he was a particularly aggressive, political and some even say "secular" church leader who engaged in empire-building to extend the power and the influence of the church. He established the famous church at Iona in 563 or 565 A.D. As an aside, it is worth noting that the Gaelic spoken by the "Picts" in Scotland at that time, which is now a lost tongue, was so different from that of the Irish Gaels that Columba required an interpreter to converse with the Pictish king during his negotiations to obtain the land for the monastery.

Over the centuries since, many ancient kings were buried at Iona, each in his own national section, including one devoted to "the kings of Norway". Why weren't they buried in Norway? Because the nation of Norway in their time consisted of the western islands of Scotland as well as what we think of as modern day Norway.

One of the last acts St. Columba performed in his lifetime was to transfer the remains of St. Martin, a fore-runner he admired, to Iona. (St. Martin was revered throughout the Gallic world at that time, and St. Columba's own teachers had studied at the church which St. Ninian had named after St. Martin.) Legend has it that the local people of Tours had somehow lost the location of St. Martin's grave over the two centuries since his death; they begged St. Columba to locate it for them, which he agreed to do only on condition that he be permitted to transfer the remains to Iona. This was a shrewd move, since it would increase the sanctity and importance of the Ionian monastery.

Sometime after St. Columba's death, a great many crosses and monuments were constructed at Iona; at one time there may have been 360 crosses in different parts of the island. The Synod of Argyll ordered sixty of them to be thrown into the sea (subsequent to the condemnation of the Culdeas, the "Celtic Heresy", perhaps). No-one knows how the rest were destroyed, but many pieces appear to have ended up as tombstones. However, four remain standing, and one of them is especially significant to us. It stands in front of the Cathedral, fourteen feet high, eighteen inches wide and six inches thick. It is carved of a very hard rock that was brought from somewhere off the island, and sits in a three foot high pedestal of red granite. It is St. Martin's Cross, and there is an Irish inscription at the bottom of the shaft on the west side which reads: OROIT DO GILLACRIST DORINGNE T CHROS SA, which translates, "A prayer for Gillacrist who made this cross".  I wonder how many of the other 359 or so crosses Gillacrist also carved?

When was it made? Some historians believe these crosses were constructed during the time of St. Columba's successor, in the seventh century; but it could actually have been any time up to Christmas Day in 946 A.D. when Iona was sacked for the final time by the Vikings. Anachronisms do occur, but in fact the spelling of the name does match that of Gilchrists of the later period.

In 843 A.D., Kenneth Mac Alpin led the Irish "Scots" to victory over the Picts, and all of the northern British Isles became "Scotland". It wasn't much of a contest, because he already had a claim on the Pictish throne through his mother, and a unification was needed to stand up to Scandinavian and European encroachment. In fact, the Danes and other European groups established "beachheads" and territorial possessions in many parts of England; but it was the Norwegians whose influence was felt all through the Western Isles, the Isle of Man, large chunks of Ireland and the southwest of present day Scotland. In fact, one may almost suppose that Kenneth himself was fleeing from a wave of Vikings, for as he was consolidating his realm in Scotland, it was the Norwegians who founded the first four great cities of Ireland: Dublin (in 853 A.D.), Waterford, Wexford and Limerick.

In those days surnames were not used at all except by people of ancient and high descent, but many men began to identify themselves by expressing their allegiances to a leader, saint or God. Gille (also Gilli in Norse; Gilla in Irish, from earlier giulla, giolla, giullan) was a common method of forming such a designation, since in old Gaelic it meant "man of", and could indicate a follower in either a military or a political sense, or a hunting servant, ploughboy, slave or disciple. One source claims that it comes from a much earlier Norse word "gildr". Its translation as "slave" would fit with the fact that Dublin was a major slave trading market for the Vikings who trafficked in Irish slaves captured from the monasteries in raids.  Educated young men from monasteries would have been a valuable commodity in the slave market. The slaves were often shipped to Norway or to the Islamic empire, to Constantinople (Istanbul) and the Islamic Caliphate of Baghdad, for example. Many such "gill + saint" names could therefore have been created as "inventory" designations, so to speak, used by Viking slave traders to identify and categorize their groupings of slaves; however, if that is was their origin, one would expect to find those names surviving in the destinations to which they were sold, which may have happened, but I'm not yet aware of any instances.  The name did reach Norway itself, mind you, as described in the next page.

A very few similar names have come from other roots: a gil is also a Norse and thence a Gaelic word for narrow glen or mountain watercourse, from which we get our word "gully"; and the name Gilcambon came thus from "Kamban's glen". Norse examples of this kind of name, however, use their typical construction which places the adjective in front of the noun (the opposite of the Gaelic formation), such as Vidigill (wide valley), Galtrigill (galtri = pig) and Urigill (Orri = black cock). As an aside, the origin of the word Viking itself results in a similar English construction: a vik was smaller than a fjord, but the affectionately-named Vikinn was Norway's "great Vik", the whole of the Oslo Fjord. From here the Vikings brought their name with them, and "vik" survives in Britain to this day in many cities and towns whose names end in "-wick".

Another gill originates in the Norse word for jaws, "gjolnar", from which we got the Middle English word "gile" and our modern word for the "gill" of a fish; yet others are "pale white" and "the moon", which are related meanings, but I don't know of any names which were formed from these words.

In summary, the earliest, Old Gaelic form of our name was in two parts:  Giolla Chriost, or the perhaps slightly later version Gilla (or Gille) Criosd.  In Middle Gaelic, around the year 1000 A.D., it suddenly begins to appear in records in its joined, compound form, usually as Gillacrist. It was a name used, in various forms, by Vikings and Celts alike, and interestingly, appears almost exclusively in areas which have also been Norse provinces.
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