In the previous section (Pre-History Douglas) we learned that the area has been inhabited for millenia. But we know nothing concrete about the name of the village, valley, river or family prior to the 1100’s.
What local people called the area before it was known as ‘Douglas’ we do not know. ‘Douglas’ comes from the Gaidhlig ‘dubh’ and ‘glas’ meaning ‘dark stream’. The river gave its name to the village which in turn gave its name to the Douglas family.
We cannot be sure what their name was before arriving from Flanders but when the family arrived here in the 1100’s they adopted the name ‘De Douglas’ meaning ‘of Douglas’. That name evolved over the centuries so that by the 14th Century the ‘De’ was dropped.
But Gaidhlig was not the original tongue of Douglasdale. What local folks called the area is lost to history. But the very fact that the name is Gaidhlig gives us some information.
Douglasdale is nestled in an area which was dominated by the Cumbric peoples of the Kingdom of Ystrad Clud (Strathclyde) during the ‘dark ages’. Cumbric place names are still present in neighbouring towns such as Lanark a mere 10 miles to the North East. What the valley and the river (and also what the probable settlement that existed at that time) was known as to these Cumbric speakers remains a mystery. It is possible that the Cumbric also meant something along the lines of ‘dark stream’ meaning that it would have sounded much like the modern Welsh ‘Nant-dywyll’(nant douwell).
Nevertheless, the Gaidhlig name of Douglas therefore comes from a later Gaidhlig settlement of the area which had to have happened some time prior to the first recording of ‘Douglas’ as a place in 1174. By 1203 there is a first recording of a parish named Douglas in the area. The fact that the parish was called Douglas suggests a kirk (and town) which had been in operation for a not insignificant time prior to that recording.
This means that the Gaidhlig name most likely comes from the Norse-Gaels of Galloway who spread throughout South West Scotland during 9th-11th Centuries. The Lordship of Galloway, a semi-independent Kingdom which acknowledged the King of Scots as a ‘High-King’ incorporated Douglasdale.
We know Douglasdale was under the authority of the Lords of Galloway for some time before the Kingdom’s de facto independence came to an end at the hands of Alexander II of Scotland in the 1230’s. This may have still been the case, and is indeed likely, up until 1179 at least. This is because men of Douglasdale are recorded fighting alongside the Lord of Eastern Galloway’s men against the rebellion of the Meic Uilleim who had revolted against the Kingdom of Scotland in 1179.
As a reward for his loyalty the lord of Douglasdale, William De Douglas, received power in the Meic Uilleim territory of Moray. His sons, save for the eldest, received prominent ecclesiastical positions in the region.
This William De Douglas, who died in 1214, is the first recorded nobleman in Douglas, and the first recorded member of the Douglas family and the first recorded ‘Lord of Douglas’.
It is possible that this William I, Lord of Douglas is the man behind the myth of the progenitor of the Douglas family, Sholto Douglas, who was allegedly instrumental in putting down an uprising by a usurper, Donald Bain, in 767AD. As a reward he was granted the lands that would afterwards be called Douglas. This is most likely a myth but William I was indeed active at the time of a very real rebellion of the Meic Uilleim, under their chief Domnall mac Uilleim. Early historians may have confused the mythic Donald Bain with Domnall Bán mac Domnaill, the penultimate Meic Uilleim chief.
To read more about William I and his descendants, including William Le Hardy and his son, the Black Douglas (who we call The Good Sir James) have a look at the section in ‘Local History’ called ‘Douglas, the Family’.
- Christopher Blyth MRes, 2018. Historian, University of Glasgow