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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Friday, April 20, 2018

Gaelic harp players Galloway and Gigha

Keith Sanger 'Mapping the Clarsach' 2017

This post is part of the research I am doing for the Gaelic Galloway conference in September. [Tickets still available from https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/date/488900 ]

I will be discussing the transition from Gaelic to Scots. Although there are  claims that there were still some Gaelic speakers in Galloway and Carrick (south Ayrshire) into the eighteenth, nineteenth or even twentieth centuries, Scots was well established in the region by the end of the sixteenth century.
See http://greengalloway.blogspot.co.uk/2018/04/gaelic-women-and-reformation-in-galloway.html

However, I have found that there was a high status family of clarsach /Gaelic harp players on record as having a Galloway connection between 1471 and 1513. This was the McBratney - MacBhreatnaich family. There are still McBratneys living in Whithorn in Galloway [Thanks to Stephen Norris for this information].

I had assumed that by the early sixteenth century Gaelic would have been the language of the  more remote countryside and Scots the language of the towns (burghs) of Kirkcudbright, Wigtown and Whithorn. I now know that the Priory of Whithorn had a clarsach player circa 1500 and that he was probably a member of the MacBhreatnaich family who had played for king James IV.

On 13 May 1503 ‘Makberty the clarsacha’  was paid 5 crowns by James IV treasurer ‘to pass in the Illis’ -that is to visit the Western Isles. [Treasurer’s Accounts of Scotland vol ii, page 369. Other volumes are online but not this one so I haven’t been able to check the reference given by John Bannerman in Kinship, Church and Community, Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2016, p.310]

As John Bannerman speculated -see second page below- Lachlan MacBhreatnaich’s visit to the Western Isles in 1503 is likely to have included a visit to his relatives on the isle of Gigha.

What Bannerman does not mention is that the Priory of Whithorn had lands in south Kintyre, providing another connection between Galloway and Gaelic Scotland. Graeme Baird ( discussed below) has suggested the MacBhreatnaich family may have arrived in Gigha from Galloway via the Whithorn lands. From  http://www.kintyremag.co.uk/1999/28/page6.html

Lachlan MacBhreithnaich may also known and  visited a family of Kintyre harpers, the McShannons. They lived on lands adjacent to the Whithorn lands in Kintyre and derived their name locally from the church dedicated to St Sennan at Kilmashenochan. Kilmashenochan was one of the Kintyre lands owned by Whithorn.
From http://www.ralstongenealogy.com/number28kintmag.htm

An earlier family of harpers with a Galloway/ Carrick connection were the McWhirters (originally MacChruiter, from Gaelic cruit, a harp). They can be traced from 1261 when they rented land in Irongray parish in the Stewartry to 1346 when Patrick, son of Michael ‘harper’ of Carrick was granted land in Ayrshire by David II and then to 1385 when the land was sold for 12 cows with their calves. [Keith Sanger ‘Mapping the Clarsach’, 2017
www.wirestrungharp.com/harps/harpers/mapping-the-clarsach.pdf ]

Altogether, the clarsach connected Galloway with the Gaelic world until 9 September 1513 when John Bannerman suggested that Lachlan MacBhreitnaich died along with king James IV and many others.

Although Lachlan vanishes from the historic record after 1513, other members of the MacBreitnach family or the McBratney family do not. A John McBratney was a burgess of Whithorn in 1532 and there were at least seven McBratneys in Wigtownshire in 1684. However, none of the later McBratneys are described as clarsach players. It seems likely that Lachlan MacBhreitnaich died before he could train up his successor in the skills of clarsach playing nor pass on his knowledge of Gaelic.

There would still have been Gaelic speakers in Galloway after 1513, but none had the same high status as the MacBreitnaich clarsach players nor would they have had the same cultural connections to the wider Gaelic world.

McBratney - MacBhreatnaich : Gaelic harp players in Galloway and Gigha.

From place names and personal names we know that Gaelic was the language of Galloway for several hundred years. What we don’t know is very much about the Gaelic culture and society of Galloway. A very important feature of Gaelic society and culture were the ‘learned orders’.
The learned orders provided the professional skills for the rest of their society in the fields of literature, law, music, medicine and some of the specialist crafts such as armourer. They were drawn from hereditary families who were given special status and privilege within Gaelic society. The orders placed great emphasis upon oral transmission and memorisation. ['Calvinism and the Gaidhealtachd in Scotland' in Calvinism in Europe 1540-1620 , Cambridge, 1996]

Looking for any evidence of the Gaelic learned orders in Galloway I found a musical connection in a book Kinship, Church and Community by John Bannerman (Edinburgh, 2016). In a chapter on the clarsach or Gaelic harp, Bannerman revealed a link between the MacBhreatnaich family of traditional Gaelic harpists and Galloway.

Bannerman’s evidence comes from two sources: the Exchequer Rolls and the Treasurer’s Accounts which cover the income and expenditure of the Scottish Crown. The entries are usually short, but by cross-referencing the two sources, John Bannerman was able connect payments made by King James IV to clarsach player Martin MacBhreatnaich, his son John and his grandson Lachlan (aka Roland)  between 1491 and 1513 to a gift of the rental income from the farms of Clutag and Knockan in Kirkinner parish, Wigtownshire. This was first made to Martin by King James III in 1471 and continued until 1513.

It is likely that the MacBhreatnaich family were also employed by the Priory of Whithorn and were related to the MacBhreatnaichs of Gigha who were traditional Gaelic clarsach players.

In Historic Whithorn [Historic Scotland, 2010, p. 34] the same Treasurer’s Accounts used by Bannerman are quoted from, revealing that King James IV made payments to the Prior of Whithorn’s lute and clarsach player in 1503 and 1506/7. These payments were made during the king’s pilgrimages to Whithorn, which he made every year.

The Prior’s clarsach player is not named, but it was probably the Lachlan/ Roland MacBhreatnaich discussed by Bannerman. If Bannerman is correct and Lachlan’s grandfather’s forename was Gille Màrtainn (devotee of St Martin)  this could provide an earlier link to the Priory at Whithorn with its ancient dedication to St Martin of Tours.

Significantly Whithorn had lands in south Kintyre. Writing about the Galbraith Poet-Harpers of Gigha for the Kintyre Antiquarian and Natural History Society in 1995, Graeme Baird suggested that the Galbraiths (the Scots form of MacBhreatnaich) of Gigha may have arrived there via the Whithorn lands in Kintyre.

It has been suggested that the Macbhreatnaighs were originally Galbraith clansmen from the Lennox, settled on Gigha by virtue of the friendship between the Earl of Lennox and Alan MacLean (Ailein nan Sop), the infamous brigand, whose depredations caused havoc on Gigha and resulted in his securing the island for himself at the expense of the incumbent MacNeills. However, it was not until c. 1530 that Alan turned his predatory attentions towards Gigha and, as we have seen, it is more than likely that the MacBhreatnaigh family were already well established on the island prior to that date.
While it would, perhaps, be unwise to completely rule out a Lennox origin, we cannot afford to ignore the presence of a contemporary family, similarly styled and following the same profession, appanaged in the predominantly Gaelic shire of Wigtown. In 1471 Martin McBirtny, chiteriste ('harper') received a royal grant of the fermes of Clontag and Knokane for his services.  These he continued to hold until 1479. The ferme of Knokan was subsequently held by John McBretny, then Roland (Lachlan). The Priory of Whithorn in Galloway held extensive lands in South Kintyre, the intercommunication thus generated might serve to explain the appearance of members of this MacBretny family in a new locale. This explanation may not satisfactorily meet the evidence, but, nevertheless, it does seem likely that these Galwegian harpers to the crown were the parent stock of the Gigha family. 
From  http://www.kintyremag.co.uk/1999/28/page6.html

The Galbraith connection seems to come from Gilchrist Bretnach who married into the family of Alwin or Ailin earl of Lennox (Loch Lomond area). He had two sons, Gillespic Galbrait and Rodarcus Galbrait. They witnessed charters between 1190 and 1200 and Gillespic Galbrait is seen as the founder of the Galbraith family.

The People of Medieval Scotland 1093-1314 [PoMS] database includes a Gilchrist Bretnach as a witness to a Melrose Abbey charter. It is from 1193 and concerns a gift of land in Carrick (Ayrshire) to the abbey. Aed, son of Alwine, earl of Lennox is one of the other witnesses. Duncan, son of Gilbert, son of Fergus of Galloway, was the granter. http://db.poms.ac.uk/record/person/5713/#

The PoMS database includes another, earlier Bretnach. This was Gillecuthbert Bretnach. Some time between 1136 and 1185 he witnessed a charter by Ralph son of Dungal of Nithsdale granting land in Dumfries to St Peter’s Church in York.

The two Bretnach references are not very much to go on, but could indicate Galloway origins for the McBratney - MacBhreatnaich family. An early Galloway origin for the MacBhreatnaich family strengthens Graeme Baird’s suggestion that the Gigha branch came from Galloway rather than the Loch Lomond area.

Keith Sanger has extended the Gigha connection back to the 1440s  and a clarsach player called Giolla Criost Brúilingeach.

Giolla Criost Brúilingeach appears from a completely Gaelic source. Two poems by him addressed to an Irish patron are included in the Book of the Dean of Lismore. In the first poem addressed to Tomaltach Mac Diarmada of Moylurg in Connacht [died 1458], he includes a request for a Cláirseach as payment, while the second poem indicates he received one. The ‘poet’ is described by the writer of the manuscript as ‘Bard in Leymm’ and from that it has been argued that he came from a hereditary family of harpers named Mac an Bhreatnaich (or Galbraith), who were associated with Leim in the island of Gigha which lies just to the west of North Kintyre.
From Mapping the Clarsach in Scotland, 2017

The Book of the Dean of Lismore is a collection of Gaelic poems and songs complied in Perthshire between 1480 and 1551. It includes an unflattering poem about Lachlan MacBhreatnaich- but it is uncertain if this is the Wigtownshire one or a namesake from Gigha.

Although  the Wigtownshire  Lachlan/ Roland MacBhreatnaich probably died at the battle of Flodden in 1513, he was survived by other family members. The Wigtownshire Charters (Edinburgh, 1960, page 210, entry 252) show that John McBretny was a burgess of Whithorn in 1532.

In 1684 the Parish Lists of Wigtownshire and Minnigaff  (Edinburgh, 1916) show 7 McBratneys living in Glasserton, Kirkinner, Minnigaff, Mochrum, Portpatrick and Wigtown parishes.


The McBratney-MacBhreatnaich family provide a musical connection between Galloway, Gaelic Scotland and, possibly, Ireland. The overlapping of the family link with Gigha and the landholdings of Whithorn priory in south Kintyre is fascinating and leads on to further possible connections. For example another family of Kintyre harpers, the McShannons, lived on lands adjacent to the Whithorn lands in Kintyre and derived their name locally from the church dedicated to St Sennan at Kilmashenochan. Kilmashenochan was one of the Kintyre lands owned by Whithorn. [From article by Keith Sanger in The Kintyre Antiquarian and Natural History Society magazine, number 28, 1990 http://www.ralstongenealogy.com/number28kintmag.htm ]

Another family of harpers, the McWhirters (originally MacChruiter, from Gaelic cruit, a harp) can be traced from 1261 when they rented land in Irongray parish in the Stewartry to 1346 when Patrick, son of Michael ‘harper’ of Carrick was granted land in Ayrshire by David II and then to 1385 when the land was sold for 12 cows with their calves. [Keith Sanger ‘Mapping the Clarsach’, 2017
www.wirestrungharp.com/harps/harpers/mapping-the-clarsach.pdf ]

The existence of the McWhirter-MacChruiter family of harpers in Galloway in the thirteenth century strengthens the possibility that the  McBratney-MacBhreatnaich family of harpers could have been associated with the Priory of Whithorn before 1471. Finally, if Gillecuthbert Bretnach can be claimed as an ancestor from 850 years ago, the today’s McBratney family may well be one of the oldest in Galloway.


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