A Little Bit of Ancient Carrick History, Part Two: Place Names and Clan Names

A wintry day on the Dyrock


 Kirkmichael
Our deeds show that our house was built between 1806 when the deeds refer to a piece of land belonging to Cloncaird, and 1811 when they talk about the land and the ‘house built thereon’. The person who built the house had been a gardener on that nearby estate. There was a long tradition of giving land to a favoured servant. Many houses round about are newer or older, but only by a margin of twenty or thirty years, and even the oldest cottages in what is now the conservation area of the village seem to date from no earlier than 1780 or thereabouts. The village is much older, though perhaps it wasn’t a village as we know it today, but more a parish, a collection of clachans around the kirk and Kirkmichael House. 

The present kirk is the newest of three or more buildings on the same site since the Mediaeval period. In the 13th century, we are told that one John de Gemilstoun obtained permission from the priory of Whithorn to estabish a shrine dedicated to St Michael at a peaceful location beside the bank of the stream now known as the Dyrock. In Latin charters, this shrine was described as Ecclesia Sancti Michaelis de Gemilstoun and much later, in 1325, Robert I confirmed this ownership. 

John de Gemilston
Records are disappointingly silent about John, except that he was the son of another John de Gemilston, Knight. I’ve found myself looking at the various mediaeval spellings of the name and wondering if he was actually of the Gaveston family, like Edward II’s pal Piers, son of a Gascon knight, who met with a very nasty end. There are some later commentators who have pointed out that the name may, in fact, be Gavelston, which isn’t a million miles away. Why did he want to establish a shrine here? Was he an incomer? I also wonder whether the shrine was for the good of his soul, or to combat lingering paganism in the area. After all, the name of the burn that runs past the church is from the Celtic word for oak, and such trees were a key part of Celtic custom and belief. 

It would be good to be able to fill in some of this period of 400 years, between the founding of the church, and the more systematic record keeping of the 17th century and beyond. We know that there was factional fighting between the two branches of the ancient Kennedy family in Carrick: the Bargany and Cassillis Kennedies. There is plenty of material about that, especially the great feud of 1601 that was to end in Bargany’s murder and there are excellent local historians who know more about all this than I do. You could also do worse than read S R Crockett’s The Grey Man for a fictional overview. But to try to go into it in any detail for this small part of Carrick would involve a great deal of digging into charters and old records to find out more about the Kirkmichael Kennedies in particular. The truth seems to be that they tended to keep their heads down and not get too involved if they could possibly help it. 

The road to the kirk with lych gate
 
Place names
Like so much else in Kirkmichael, habitation seems to have revolved not just around the kirk, which always sat a little separate, along with the Manse, but in another direction, around the feet of Kirkmichael House. Look at older maps, look at the place names and there is a focus on Kirkmichael House as much as on the kirk. Why should this be? Could it be that the site of the house is the site of an older settlement altogether? 

Some distance to the south of the village is our little cluster of Britonnic place names although there are others round about. These also seem to be sites of habitation, even older than the village as an entity, and mixed in with plenty of old – possibly even older - Gaelic names like Barskelly and Bargannock. Names such as Threave, Barbrethan, (literally the height of the British) Tranew and Troquhain also go back a very long way and some like Barbrethan seem to suggest two communities living cheek by jowl.

The place names in and around Kirkmichael itself are mostly Scots Gaelic but older people in the village still call or at least pronounce the village as opposed to the church name ‘Ker-mich’l’. There are plenty of old documents in the archives spelling it Carmichael. Caer generally meant a stronghold or citadel in Britonnic, and sometimes came to be used in conjunction with the name Michael, mostly as an early Christian reference to the power of the archangel, at sites where the older religions had once been practised. Michael was your go-to archangel for casting out devils – or pagan beliefs.

Kirkmichael House itself sits on a natural ridge, not a man made hill. Still, the Celts liked these naturally defensive positions. Within the Victorian house is a seventeenth century house, and buried deep in that is something older yet. Sparse written records go back to the eleventh or twelve century. But the surrounding place names suggest something older still, at least going back to the time of the Scots Gaels as well as to the Britonnic tribes of the Kingdom of Strathclyde.

Silver Spurs on St Michael's Day
There is an intriguing, if cryptic, reference to Kirkmichael in the preface to a Victorian translation of an ancient volume called The Book of Deer. This book, a 10th century Scottish book of Gospels, with 12th century additions, contains some of the earliest Gaelic writing in Scotland. It was found at the Monastery of Deer in Aberdeenshire (a monastery no longer in existence) but with some evidence of a possible lowland origin. 

A strange little footnote in that Victorian translation, trying to establish some kind of connection between the ancient Kingdom of Strathclyde, and the Celtic tribes of Brittany, refers to Mediaeval records of Kirkmichael. In them, it is called the ‘parich of Kyrmychel Muntirduffy’. There is a reference to ‘Malcolm son of Roland of Carrick, by his charter, said to be dated 1370, to John Kennedy lord of Dunnowyr the lands of Freuchane and Kennethane, lying in the parish of Kyrmychel Muntirduffy, in the earldom of carrick and shrie of are, with all the right that Murdach son of Sowerli had, paying at the feast of St Michael Archangel, at Kyrmychel, a pair of silver spurs.’

Dunnowyr is Dunure, Shrie of Are is Shire of Ayr. Freuchane is, in fact, Treuchane, modern day Troquhain, outside the village in the Patna direction, with the T having been mistaken for an F by whoever was transcribing. There are other transcriptions of this charter confirming this. What is now a hilltop farm was once quite an extensive estate. Kennethane is elsewhere referred to as Kennochane and is linked to Troquhain or Treuchan but I can’t find its equivalent anywhere on the ground or even on old maps. However, this may be the same place as Knockaneckie or Kennackie named elsewhere in mediaeval charters and could be a variant on Cnoc an Eachann (Hector’s hill?) I still don’t know where it was though. Sowerli is Gaelic Somhairle, aka Somerled, who was one of the descendants of the Lord of the Isles, and like his name, of Norse origin. This indicates that he owned lands near, but not necessarily in Kirkmichael. As I discovered when researching the Isle of Gigha, land was often used by the great and the not-so-good as a reward for services rendered, and trying to work out exactly who owned what can be a woeful business. 

Another footnote adds that among the charters of King David II is one ‘anent the clan of Muntircasduff, John McKennedy, Captain thereof.’

We find Murdoch, Son of Somerled, the original owner of these lands near, but not necessarily in, Kirkmichael, cropping up as ‘Juror’ – a man of power and influence - at a couple of enquiries into local legal disputes in 1260, such as this one, in which in-laws have clearly fallen out: 'An inquest was made at Girvan in Carrick in the presence of (among many other lords) Murdoch son of Somerled, who said that they knew well that a marriage was contracted between Hector, son of Sir Hector, and Samuel MacCann’s daughter. Sir Hector placed his son in full sasine of the five-pennyland of Auchensoul for a sum of money paid to him by Samuel; and Hector his son was in sasine for a year and a half, during which time Samuel was guardian. After anger and discord arose between Sir Hector and Samuel, Sir Hector recognosced (reclaimed possession by feudal right) and took sasine of the land, not judicially but by will, and so cultivated the same, and at length deceased.' 

The confirmation of Kennedy ownership of Troquhain and Kennochane comes a hundred years after this Carrick son of Somerled is going about his business, so we’re not sure when the transfer took place – only that Kennedy had to pay for it with a pair of silver spurs and that this may even have been an annual payment, a form of rent.

King David’s charter also defines John McKennedy as the Captain of Muintircasduf Clan. Unpicking this still further, I’m immediately struck by the spelling reflecting the traditional pronunciation of the village name. It would also suggest that even in 1370 the whole place was strongly associated with the feast of St Michael. The Celts celebrated his feast day on 29th September and this day was also associated with horses and horsemen – (I wrote about this feast day in a very popular novel called The Curiosity Cabinet) which helps to explain the ‘silver spurs’. Were they made here? There is a tradition of silver mining outside the village, of which more later. 

The Tribe of the Curly Black Hair?
That name Muntircasduff is perhaps the most intriguing reference of all.

It means something like the ‘clan of the people of the curly black hair’. Later scholars translate this as ‘black feet’ but the ‘curly black hair’ description seems to make a lot more sense. This clan name might help us to make some sense of the origin – or one of them - of this branch of the Kennedy family, and their connection to the Britonnic people in this part of Carrick. 

Cairenn Chasdub was said to be the mother of one of the High Kings of Ireland: Niall of the Nine Hostages, who died around the turn of the 5th century. She is described variously as the daughter of a Saxon king (which she couldn’t have been, given the dates) but also and much more likely as the daughter of the King of the Britons – possibly even of Romano British origin, like King Arthur himself. She too has an interesting story involving victimisation by her husband’s first wife and later rescue from near slavery by her grown up son. 

Whatever the meaning of the name, it’s clear that those ancient Kennedies living where Kirkmichael House now stands, considered themselves to be part of the clan of the people of the curly black hair, with roots going back to the ancient Britonnic people of these islands.

If you want to read more, follow the link to Part Three




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