What’s in a name?
Not much is known about pre-history Douglas but the past has a way of whispering hints to us where written records are lacking.
One thing we can be sure of is that the settlement of Douglasdale and the surrounding area was already an ancient affair by the time written records began.
On the Paigie hill, which overlooks the village of Douglas, a Neolithic axe head has been discovered, indicating a stone-age presence. The axe head was generously loaned to the museum and is on display there.
Also in the museum are shards of ‘blasting’ residue dating from the stone-age. These were found in nearby Glen Taggart. This tells us that during the stone age there were people in these dales and hills making pottery and charcoal.
Much later, yet still about a millennium before the first written records of Douglasdale appear, the Romans and local Celtic tribes were here.
We know there was a Roman presence in the surrounding area: there was a Roman fort atop a hill at Crawford (14 Miles South) and the Roman road ran right past Douglasdale as it marched North through Clydesdale from Hadrian’s Wall to the Antonine Wall.
As for the natives; we know a thing or two about them too. There are the remains of a native Hill fort atop the nearby Arbory Hill above Abington so we know there was a native population in the general area. If there was a permanent population of peoples in Douglasdale itself then evidence of their existence is yet to come to light. However, due to Douglasdale’s geographical location (a route through the Southern Uplands linking the Clyde valley with Ayrshire) it is highly unlikely people were not living here. So what tribe did these people belong to?
There are two candidates. First the Damnonii, whose nearest known settlement is probably Lanark or Carstairs (10-15 miles away in Clydesdale and therefore just down river from Douglas). Or the Selgovae who probably had a settlement in Sanquhar which is in the next glen over from Douglas, about 20 miles to the South West. The Selgovae most likely took part in the Brigantes resistance to Roman rule and for their efforst were awarded with a heavy Roman military presence in their territory. Peaceful tribes did not receive such ‘supervision’ and so, since the nearest forts to Douglas are ones which guard fording points on the Roman Road, Douglas most likely fell under Damnonii dominion. However, one thing is certain, Douglasdale would have been on or near the borders of these tribal forces.
What these people called the area we do not know. Douglas comes from the gaidhlig ‘dubh’ and ‘glas’ meaning ‘dark stream’ and is a relatively new name. The river gave its name to the village which in turn gave its name to the Douglas family. When they arrived from Flanders 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 the original Brythonic folk residents called the area is lost to history. But the Gaidhlig name gives us some information.
Douglasdale is nestled in an area which was dominated by the Cumbric (Brythonic) 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.
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 of 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 Douglas most likely got its ‘newer’ Gaidhlig name 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’ did incorporate modern day Galloway as well as parts of Nithdale, Carrick and Douglasdale.
We think it is likely that 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 in Moray 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. In fact it is from during his lifetime that we have the first recording of a Lord of Douglas in which William is a witness to a charter by the bishop of Glasgow in 1174. It is also during his lifetime that we have the earliest recording of the parish of Douglas from 1203.
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.
Sholto 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 later be called Douglas. This is most likely a myth but William was active at the time of the real rebellion of the Meic Uilleim, under their chief Domnall mac Uilleim. The earlier historians may have confused the mythic Donald Bain with Domnall Bán mac Domnaill, the Meic Uilleim chief whose rebellion William I helped put down alongside Lochlann Lord of East Galloway.
Going forward from William I’s time Douglas finally sets foot within the pages of written history.