D'Ye Ken Yer Clan?

Clans developed in the highlands after the 10th century, and were created largely by the geography of narrow glens with high walls which contained the descendants of settler families. They tended to feud a great deal, sometimes more for sport and glory than any other obvious purpose. The majority of Gilchrists did not actually live in areas where the population became structured into clans, although a few of them figured in the history of two clans, the MacLachlans and the Ogilvies. They are named as "Septs" or subgroups of both.

The Ogilvie connection is tenuous at best. After corresponding with more than a hundred Gilchrists, I have yet to meet one who knows for sure that his or her family came originally from the northeast of Scotland; nor have they cropped up in recent historical record. For another, the clan system was devastated after Culloden in 1745, and when it was finally revived in the 1820's in the name of a new industry of fashion, "tradition", much of the structure and history of the clans was fabricated by "researchers" - men who even invented clan tartans, in some cases, in order to have something to sell to the tourists, the original pattern sticks having been completely lost.

There were once Gilchrists in that region, admittedly: a Gille Criosd was the first "Earl" of Angus, probably Norse, and a friend of the court of Malcolm IV in 1157 A.D.; another was the "Earl" of Mar (perhaps even the same person); there is a Gillecryst who was a serf of the Earl of Mar in 1219 A.D.; and an Alun mac Gillecrist was a witness to a charter by Moregrund, Earl of Mar.

The Earl of Airlie claims descent through Gilbert, who had the baronetcy of Ogilvie in Forfarshire bestowed upon him; Gilbert is supposed to have been the third (some say second) son of Gillebrede or of Gilchrist. No-one knows which name is correct, but it seems to be considered important to try to link the Ogilvies to the Earl of Angus - perhaps because the Earl of Angus was governor of Scotland in the 1500's. In any case, the baronetcy passed in marriage to the Umbravilles (an Anglo-Norman family) in 1243, then to the Stuarts and after that the Douglasses (both foreign families), and finally to the Flemish family Hamilton. So any Gilchrist family histories which imply a claim to the lands of Airlie or the Ogilvies are sustaining an amusing fiction.

On the other side of Scotland, however, there were a much greater number of Gilchrists, a few of whom lived in the clan land of the MacLachlans, on Loch Fyne in Argyll. The MacLachlans like to claim all Gilchrists these days, but ours is a much older and more far flung name than that. The association is strong, however, since the MacLachlans themselves are named for the lands of their origin: the Gaelic "Mac" attached to "Lochlannach", the "men of Lochlann" which was the early Gaelic name for Norway. Thus, technically their name translates as, "sons of the men of the land of the lochs". Their own history has them coming out of northern Ireland as descendants of a "King of the North of Ireland" who reigned from 1030 to 1033. This is about the time when the Irish captured Dublin, subsequent to the capture of Clontarf in 1014 by the Irish "King" Brian Badu, which forced the Norwegian founders out of their strongholds; so the MacLachlans were actually Ghoill-Gaels themselves, one ray of a much larger migration which I described on page one.

It should be noted at this point that there are two paragraphs that someone quoted to me in a letter, from the MacLachlan Commissioner's Handbook, which should be taken with a tablespoon of salt. They claim that the true Gaelic spelling of Gilchrist is "MacIllechriced", which is unsupported by any other linguistic or historical source. All of the examples of the name which they choose to list are of Gilchrists with the Gaelic "Mac" prefix, i.e. only people who existed after the middle of the 13th century, and only in their general area. In contrast to these two paragraphs, the clan is elsewhere said to have originated from Lachlan Mor, son of Gilpatrick and grandson of Gilchrist, who apparently lived in the mid-l3th century, which therefore places this particular Gilchrist as the earliest progenitor of the entire MacLachlan clan. Sometimes he is referred to in "history" books about the clan (which often contain an equal measure of recently-created mythology with historical fact) as Gilchrist MacLachlan, perhaps because there was an actual Gilchrist MacLachlan who witnessed a land charter in 1230 A.D.; there was also a Gelleskel MacLachlan who received lands of his own in Argyll in a 1292 charter.

Lowland Gilchrists (like myself) who hail from south of Glasgow and north of Hadrian's Wall would have been in the service of abbeys or of landed families like the Douglasses, Kennedys or Hamiltons. These have their own tartans, if one is determined to wear a tartan; one could also wear general Scottish tartan, the Glasgow city tartan, or a tie embossed with the badge of Scotland, for example. At the beginning of this web site I have included a tartan called Strathclyde Blue, which might be worn by someone from the Lanark region. 

[A later note: when I began this research in 1992, I agonized over what tartan plaid I ought to wear, if it ever came to that; but it never did.  In the interim, I learned from many historians that the practice of ascribing tartan patterns to clans is a relatively modern invention, first created by a couple of Bohemiam brothers who produced a "book of long lost tartan patterns" in order to cash in on the new 19th century industry of resurrecting romantic Scottish traditions.  One resource on this topic, and many others, is the 2001 book by Arthur Herman, "How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It".  The original clan practice was to wear an identifying badge, which could be something as simple as a sprig of holly or some other vegetation; and if they wore a plaid at all, it would be the most colourful and best one they could find, regardless of pattern. When clans were formed up into military regiments and uniforms were desired, a particular plaid might become the uniform kilt for the soldiers; and it is true that weavers of different areas and regions had distinct styles that could be recognised on the wearers of garments from that region; but there were no specific tartan plaids for each clan.]

I have no more specific advice to offer Gilchrists who hail from the Western Isles; but to both groups I assert that it would be a shame to fall into the modern trap of imagining that the only real Scot is a stereotypical Highland clansman. There are at least three distinct types of Scotsmen: the Highlanders, the Lowlanders and the Islanders. All three have richly dramatic, romantic cultures and histories, and no one is of greater authenticity than the other two.

The Covenanters, and the Reivers

The second half of the 17th century was a time of religious strife and persecution for the people of the Southern Upland parishes, who stood up against "Popish" soldiers and Kings in spite of brutal suasion which often ended in violence and death, the breakup of families and the loss of property. One writer notes: "Posterity has acknowledged that Scotland owes nearly all that she possesses of civil and religious liberty to the dauntless bearing of our Covenanting forefathers at a critical period of her history." The stories which survive are both tragic and heroic, and it should be recognised that the Gilchrists who came to America recorded as "criminal covenanters" were brave and honorable victims swept up in an ugly period of political and religious strife in Scotland. Some names include:

Bessie Gilchrist, from Kilroy, was arrested for being a Protestant Covenanter. She was imprisoned at Dumphries, and banished to the plantations in 1684. Robert Gilchrist suffered the same fate and went to East New Jersey in 1685 as the property of George Scott. A fellow covenanter named Gilkerson was transported on the same boat .

There are a number of good sources of information about the Covenanters, but a very interesting one that I was recently introduced to is this one: http://www.sorbie.net/covenanters.htm

Many Gilchrists have lived north of the Solway, near St. Martin's (that St. Ninian built), where they may well have lived since the days of St. Ninian, as well as in the bounds of the great abbeys of successive centuries which arose nearby, near to Dumphries, Kelso, Melrose and Lesmahagow, to name a few. "Gillcries" was one of the Border Reiver family names, listed on the Scottish side of the Middle Marches, so the ferocious two-century legacy of the southern border clans may also be an element of our family history, and a possible origin of our branch of the family tree, which may have moved northward when the Reiver clans were abolished during King James I (VI of Scotland) attempt to unify England and Scotland. You can read a good account of that period here: http://www.sorbie.net/border_reivers.htm

Closer to our time...

In the 1720's, Edward Goldie's daughter Grizel married Doctor Ebenezer Gilchrist. Their daughter married her cousin James Gilchrist, a merchant in Dumfries, and they had a son. Another record probably refers to the same couple, saying that Mary married the Baillie James Gilchrist of Dumfries, and they had several children.

In what was likely a later generation of the same family, Thomas Gilchrist of Halifax, North Carolina, was recorded as being the only son of Thomas Gilchrist the merchant and baillie of Dumfries, in 1783; his brothers were John and James Gilchrist, and his sister was Grizel Gilchrist who, in a rather nice turn- about, married Joseph Goldie of Craigmore, a surgeon working in Liverpool - as if to return the favour of Grizel Goldie who married James Gilchrist sixty years earlier. The Goldies and the Gilchrists of Dumfries must have been close friends and allies over the decades.

In the mid-1700's, John Brown, minister of the parish of Troqueer, had a daughter Marion who married John Gilchrist M.D., from Dumfries.

Rev. John Brown lived in interesting times. He would have wrestled with some of his Protestant parishioners, many of whom (according to published sermons of the day) appear to have harboured feelings of ambivalence or even admiration for the "Catholic Pretender", Bonnie Prince Charlie. Rev. Brown would have considered this a serious challenge to the faith.

However, Gilchrists in my region would not have have gone so far as to support Prince Charles outright. They had been staunch Protestants for almost two centuries prior - since John Knox had led the Scottish Parliament in the creation of the Presbyterian church as the national church of Scotland in 1560. I mention this in order to lay to rest the romantic rumour whispered by members of my own family and at least one other Gilchrist family that I know of, that the Gilchrists fought in support of the Bonnie Prince, and that after his devastating defeat at Culloden, they adopted their surname in order to conceal their identity. While it is true that the Gilchrists near Lesmahagow were not present on earlier tax rolls, Culloden happened eighty years before our name surfaced there; and of course, Gilchrists were already widespread in Dumphries and elsewhere at least 60 years prior to Culloden.

There were Catholic Gilchrists in Ireland, mind you.  In 2008 I was contacted by a descendant of the eldest sister of my g-g-grandfather.  Her surname was Shaw until she married a Gilchrist from Kilmore parish, County Armagh, Ireland, and thereby bizarrely acquired the same name as her own g-g-g-grandmother (and mine), Isabel(la) Gilchrist.  She describes many variant surnames from her husband's area, listed in the parish records: "Kilcreest, Chilchrist, Kilchrist, Kilgriest, Cilchrist, Gilcriest and Gilgrist!"

Many Gilchrists came to North America as convict slaves and "indentured workers", and others were employed to assist in the trade in tobacco and other commodities (I have a tennis aquaintance from Guyana who knows of a famous founding family of Gilchrists), which made the city of Glasgow immensely wealthy as the middleman between America and France:

Robert and William Gilchrist, born c. 1711 in Ayr, came to America in 1736.

William Gilchrist, a blacksmith who had been working in Edinburgh, was banished to America for seven years in 1741 for participating in a riot at Charles Sawyer's mill.

In 1757 the Rev. Mr. Gilchrist was baptising children at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Salem, Mass (65 years after the Salem witch trials).

Robert Gilchrist, born in 1721 in Scotland, died in Port Royal, Virginia in 1790.

Robert Gilchrist from Kilmarnock, near Ayr, was living as a merchant in Maryland in 1770 and had to discharge a debt of his father, William Gilchrist Sr.

Georgina Beckwith Gilchrist, the youngest daughter of William Gilchrist of Antigua, died in 1829.

From these and other examples, one gains the impression that the most popular Christian names for Gilchrist men of the last two centuries were William, Robert and Thomas, followed closely by James and John. There was a distinct set of customary rules for naming of children in Scotland which often guides the researcher accurately from one generation of a family tree to the next. The men from Islay and the Hebrides, who tended to come to America later on as economic migrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, had a different set of names.
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