The Viking Settlers

As the population of Norway grew, the meagre arable land in the narrow fjords could not support it. Fishing became increasingly important, and this led to the development of Viking ship technology, the best of its time. With these boats, some Vikings raided vulnerable communities on the Scottish coasts, and others began to emigrate to the western Scottish islands. This was the first, gradual wave of Norse invasion.

When Harald Fairhair united all Norway, c. 890, many defeated and recalcitrant chieftains, independent-minded magnates and sea-kings fled the homeland to their lands in the Orkneys, Shetland, Iceland, Scotland and Ireland. They were would-be princes in search of princedoms. Harald pursued them, and in the process placed his own loyal supporters at the head of Norwegian provinces thus created. This was the second great wave of Norse invasion. The lords of these provinces were called "jarls", and became known as the "earls" of Scotland.

Viking gravesites have been found all up the coast of Scotland, but in Galloway they contained grave-goods, indicating permanent settlement prior to the end of the 9th Century, when Christianity imposed itself with sufficient strength to compel them to discontinue the custom. Some historians feel that the Scandinavians of Galloway moved there from an even earlier settlement in the north-west of England; and indeed, while there are no early Irish Gilchrists on record, there are a couple of "Gilchrist Bretnach", or Welsh Gilchrists, who could have originated in that earlier Norse settlement.

Early in the 10th century the Irish captured Dublin from the Norse, and the Scandinavian settlers in northern Ireland were forced en masse to western Scotland and north-west England. These people were known as the Gall-Gaidhil, or "foreign Gaels". They were half-breeds of Irish/Norse extraction, and their name survives today in the region they settled, where it has transmuted over the centuries to its present form, Galloway. One old source calls these people "renegade Irish associates of the pagan Norseman".

Of the vocabulary and place-names of the region, it is said, "There is perhaps no district of Scotland where the intermixture of language is as perplexing as in the southern part of Strathclyde". Many parts of western Scotland, for example, have places beginning with the Gaelic "Kil-", which comes from Latin "Cill" and means "church". In the Galloway area, however, "Kil-" has been replaced by the Norse "Kirk", about 60 times in a tight radius. This is an "inversion name" for the Norse. who would normally have placed the noun at the end of the compound word; in at least one instance, the intentional replacement was recorded in writing. But it occurred nowhere else in Scotland, except for one town in the region of Forfarshire, and another in the Orkneys.

By the end of the century, the Norwegians based in Ireland recovered from defeat, and a powerful Scandinavian dynasty re-established itself in Dublin, abetted by the Gall-gaidhil, Scots, Strathclyde Welsh, and other kinsmen. According to linguists, Ulster dialects abound in Scandinavianisms to this day.

Shortly thereafter, the Gall-gaidhil themselves were bound together as a distinct kingdom by Godfrey Crovan, from a base in the Isle of Man. It lasted from 1075 until 1265, and spread like a cummerbund from the Solway north to Ayr and across the southern uplands to places like Borthwick, Gilchriston and Kirkmuirhill, which are all distinctly Norse-Gael names. It encompassed Lanark, Dalserf and Lesmahagow, where my own ancestors have lived for perhaps a thousand years until just a century and a half ago. Robert Burns used dozens of Scandinavian words and expressions in his poetry, out of his native Ayrshire dialect.

Olaf was the king of York and Dublin. Godfrey Crovan was the "King of the Innse Gall", the "isles of the strangers". The dynasty he and his successors founded included Colonsay, Islay and the Hebrides. Any island which has a name ending in "-ay" is Norse, because that was the Norse word for island. Godfrey Crovan himself died in Islay in 1095, but Norse continued to be spoken in the Hebrides and the Isle of Man right into the 1400's.

At least one of the Gilchrist families living in Ontario today originated in the Hebrides, and several families came from Islay. Isabelle Gilchrist of Lindsay notes that a cousin of hers visited Islay in 1972 and found rows of Gilchrists in the Killnaughton cemetery, in the older part, near the ruins of an old church wall; and the inscriptions on the monuments employed Norse spelling. Her own ancestors owned a farm which is the site of the present day airport on Islay (and carries the Norse name of the original farm), however, she believes that her first Islay ancestor moved there from "Bute, Kintyre" around 1770 - it must be one or the other, because they are separate places, but close together. She also mentions Rothesay, which is the largest town on the island of Bute (a Norse name, originally for the whole island.) My own great-great-great-grandmother originated there also. Malcolm Gilchrist Sr. came to America from Campbeltown, "Cantyre" (as it was then spelled) in 1770.

An odd possibility for why Gillacrist survived as a name in these Norse regions but not in Irish ones (more about that later) crystallizes from an error in the New York Public Library reference, "The Surnames of Scotland". It states that the name MacGill comes from Gaelic "Mac an ghoill", meaning "son of the Lowlander or stranger", and was an early surname in Galloway. However, although the Lowlanders were indeed Gall-gaidhil or "ghoill-gaidhil" of hybrid Scandinavian-Irish origin, we also know that the first MacGille (or M'Gill) on record was actually so named because he was the son of an early Norse magnate in Galloway, the Earl Gille, who was a protector to King Sigurd, circa 1014 A.D. - in other words, MacGill was simply "Gille's son", nothing more complex than that.

However, an interesting point to realize is that if modern researchers could make an erroneous assumption because of the similarity between "gille" (servant) and "ghoill" (stranger, or foreigner), the largely illiterate population of the day might be forgiven for feeling that the name Gillacrist bore the phonetic connotation of a "ghoill" or "foreign" origin. The suggested meaning to Gaelic speakers might even be, "Christian, but an outsider"; whereas in Norse it would only have indicated a "servant " in a positive sense.

Further, it is conceivable that the words were once related in Gaelic, since slaves and servants (note that indentured slavery existed in Scotland until only two centuries ago, and accounts for the non-voluntary emigration of several New World Gilchrists to "the colonies" - the United States and the Carribean) would originally have been acquired from war and raiding on populations of "strangers". The word "slave" has had a similar etymological migration from "Slav" in English, as has the slang word "nigger".

To expand on this point, the name Gilchrist existed and survived in areas where Norse intermarried with Gaels, and in areas where they did not; but where the Norse never lived, the name does not occur, in spite of the overwhelming evidence which insists that it is a Gaelic name.

King James I of England was actually James VI of Scotland - he was the first monarch to unite England and Scotland. He was a Protestant king who sponsored the King James translation of the Bible. In 1608 he began putting the rebellious Irish Catholics of northern Ireland off their land, and installed large numbers of loyal "Scots-Irish" (as they became known) in Ulster, Antrim, and throughout the northern provinces. A Gilchrist coat of arms was granted in Ulster in 1657. From there, many of these hardy and adaptable people also made the Atlantic hop to North America, in such numbers that Benjamin Franklin estimated they comprised a third of Philadelphia in his day. (The English and the Germans were each another third).

Extensive research convinces me that the name was pushed out of Ireland when the Irish Gaels captured Dublin and the Gall-gaidhil were forced to emigrate. It returned only with the return of the Gall-gaidhil in their 17th century incarnation as Protestant Scottish settlers. It does not appear in Irish land records or family name histories prior to that time.

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