Galloglaich/Galloglas/Gallowglass: The mercenaries of Scotland


The gallowglass were a mercenary warrior elite among Gaelic-Norse clans residing in the Western Isles of Scotland (or Hebrides) and Scottish Highlands from the mid 13th century to the end of the 16th century. As Scots, they were Gaels and shared a common origin and heritage with the Irish, but as they had intermarried with the 10th century Norse settlers of the islands and coastal areas of Scotland and the Picts, the Irish called them Gall Gaeil (“foreign Gaels”).


They were the mainstay of Scottish and Irish warfare before the advent of gunpowder, and depended upon seasonal service with Irish lords. A military chieftain would often select a gallowglass to serve as his personal aide and bodyguard, because as a foreigner, the gallowglass would be less subject to local feuds and influences.


The term “gallowglass” or “galloglass” is an anglicisation of the Irish, gallóglaigh (“foreign soldiers”), incorporating the Celtic word Óglach, which is derived from oac, the Old Irish for “youths”, but later meaning “soldier”. Encarta specifies the plural of gallowglass to be “gallowglasses”, but this article assumes that the singular and plural terms are both “gallowglass”, as the English term is derived from an Irish plural. Shakespeare uses the form “gallowglasses” in the play Macbeth.


The first 160 Gallowglass, who appear to have been from Clan MacDoughall arrived in Ireland in 1259AD (CE) as part of Dougall MacSorley’s (King of the Hebrides) daughter’s dowry in her marriage to Aedh O’Connor, the then King of Connaught. The Gallowglass fought like the Normans protected in mail coats and iron helmets, but they were notable with their characteristic two handed axes and Claymores (a large two handed sword). This trickle of warriors became a flood as many mercenary Gallowglass Clans either sought new lords after backing the losing side in the Scottish wars of Independence or just somewhere to ply their trade, and given the battle against the encroaching Normans or the constant inter-Clan warfare, there was always a demand for their services in Ireland.




But who were these warriors who effectively changed the course of Irish history, and how can you tell if you are descended from them? Clues as to the origins of the Gallowglass can be found in the surname of the first to arrive; the MacDoughalls (MacDougalls), whose surname translates as ‘son of the dark foreigner.’ This indicates that they were descendants of Vikings (foreigners) who settled in the western highlands and Islands of Scotland, who had intermarried with the Gaels they found there and adopted their Gaelic language and customs, but had still retained the fearlessness and fighting prowess of their Viking forebears. So if you know what to look for, you can reveal whether you are directly descended from these fearless Norse-Gaels.


Training and Equipment


While there was little formal training, many of the gallowglass took advantage of the schools back in the Hebrides whilst the weather in Ireland made it impossible for any army to make progress, and thus their services were not required. At these schools they would have learned from experienced professionals how to use their weapons more effectively at the expense of the local tacksman. Those that did not go to these schools would have been those who had acquired enough prestige to be trained at the expense, and often at the court, of the Irish kings.


The skill in weapons that the gallowglass displayed was unmatched in Europe, and there were not many military units in the world who were capable of wielding so many arms and armour. A typical gallowglass would have known how to use a battle-axe (what became the sparth axe), a claymore, a bow, a shillelagh, javelins, darts, and many of the Irish martial arts such as wrestling and boxing. The best among the gallowglass would have known how to use longbows, knives, and even early firearms, although they generally disdained the use of gunpowder as it could not be employed on rough terrain.


The gallowglass wore mostly chainmail and some leather, although many have also been depicted wearing iron and steel helmets. Many oral stories say that some of the gallowglass would have worn robes over their armour, although that may be referring to the professional warriors of clans, such as tacksmen, who were not mercenaries, and who would have worn similar attire.



Each gallowglass would have taken every weapon to a battlefield with him, as well as his food. Their two kerns would have been present, one of which was responsible for the weapons and the other for the supplies. The kerns would have had some basic training and experience in combat, possibly the equivalent of a Highland clansman.




The selection of weapons that the gallowglass wielded meant that they could use most tactics on the battlefield. Their birth gave them knowledge of the tactics of two of the most famous warrior societies - the Celts and the Norse - and their access to mainland Europe made them familiar with the strategies employed by feudal armies. The arrival of the Knights Templar in the Lordship of the Isles after their persecution in the rest of Europe also added to their capabilities.


But the gallowglass were most often employed to guard the raiding parties and to form the front ranks of an army on the battlefield, although in a charge they would usually throw their javelins before falling back to let the light infantry, or their kerns, take advantage of the gaps in the enemy's lines before they broke them. Their battleaxes were apparently used to scale the walls of small fortifications, and, while this is entirely possible, it is unknown whether or not it is just a proud boast that happens to have found itself in someone's family history five hundred years after it was made.


Clan Doyle – An Irish link to MacDougall/MacDowall


At dusk on a summer’s evening in the year 795 AD (CE), a sinister looking high-prowed ship ploughed into the sands at Lambay Island just north of Howth Head on the east coast of Ireland near Dublin. Immediately from the body of the Longboat, the oarsmen rushed to attack the monastery of Saint Columkill. They slaughtered the monks, plundered the monastery for for all the gold and silver vessels they could find, and then disappeared back into the Irish Sea. The Irish Annalists, referring to the incident, describe the unwelcome arrivals as 'dubh-ghaill'.


Viking (from the Old Norse Vikingr) means 'sea-rover' or 'pirate', and this precisely what these people were. Ethnically, they were Teutons, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian farmers, fisherman and sea-merchants, who were forced onto the open sea in search of a livelihood by over-population and a shortage of arable land at home. From the eighth century, their plundering raids terrorized much of the known world, reaching as far as America, North Africa and Constantinople.


Members of Clan Doyle /Clann O DubhGhaill ('Dubh-Ghaill' ... pronounced 'Du-Gall') take their family surname from the Irish Gaelic words meaning 'Dark/Evil Foreigner'; and this is just what the indigenous Celts called the Danish Vikings who started settling in Ireland and Scotland more than 1,000 years ago.




In Ireland, the annalists distinguished two groups among the raiding Vikings, the Lochlainn, or Norwegians, and the Danair, or Danes, the Norwegians being described as fair, the Danish as dark (because they wore chain-mail armour). Initially, the Norwegians dominated, and their raids were sporadic and unsystematic. From about 830 AD (CE), however a new phase of large-scale attacks, involving the use of fleets of long-ships, began, and the Vikings penetrated deep inland though the use of rivers and lakes. Attracted by the wealth of the monasteries and churches they plundered them steadily. From this period date the first Vikings' fortified settlements. In 852 AD (CE), the Danes wrested control of one of these settlements, the military and trading post of Dublin, from the Norwegians under their king Olaf (in Irish Amlaoimh), and founded the Danish Kingdom of Dublin which was to last three hundred years, until the coming of the Anglo-Normans.


For the next 100 years, up to the middle of the tenth century, the Vikings consolidated and extended their power though unremitting aggression. From about 950 AD (CE) on, however, the east Clare Gaelic sept of the Dal Cais began its rise to power, capturing first the Kingship of Munster from the Eoganachta and then, with Brian Boru, taking the high-kingship of Ireland from the Ui Neill in 1002 AD (CE). Brian fused the disparate Gaelic forces together with some renegade Vikings into a single confederate army, and stopped the combined might of of the Norwegian and Danish forces in the battle of Clontarf on April 23 1014 AD (CE), neutralizing the power of the Vikings in Ireland permanently.


Although their political power declined after this, as a people the Vikings were soon thoroughly absorbed into the religious and political life of the country, adopting the Irish language and the Irish customs, intermarrying and intermingling.


To them also we owe all of the earliest towns in the country: Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick all began as Viking settlements, and, even after their absorption into the Gaelic culture, the commercial interests of the newcomers kept them centred in these areas.


As early as 851 AD (CE) one DubhGilla, son of Broder, is mentioned as king of Idrone in County Carlow. From this time onwards, it is an interesting exercise to trace the development of the name in the calendars of Irish records. We instance the following as examples:- O Dowill, Dowyll, O Dowile, O Doule, O Douell, Duggal, McDuggal, McDowell, Dowell, McDowall and Dowall. All are clearly forms of 'dubh-ghaill' mentioned above.


The McDowell family in Ireland are descended from the Danish Vikings who settled in Argyll and the Western Islands of Scotland. Their great ancestor was Somerled (a Viking word meaning “summer warrior”), he was the master of Argyll (on the west coast of Scotland) and he was killed in battle against the Scots in 1164 AD (CE), though Argyll and the Western Isles were not ceded to Scotland by the King of Norway until 1266 AD (CE). A branch of this family settled in Ireland in the 1240s. Initially they served as 'galloglass' (professional mercenary soldiers) for the O’Conor Clans in the Province of Connacht. For the next 300 years or so, the McDowells are recorded in various ancient Irish records as professional soldiers, serving a number of different Irish Warlords in various parts of Ireland.


The modern English language version of 'Dubh-Ghaill' in Ireland today is 'Doyle', 'O’Doyle' or 'Dowell', 'McDowell', and in Scotland it is 'Dougall' or 'MacDougall' (the modern Scots-English pronunciation is closer to the original Gaelic). In Ulster and Roscommon, these names now exist as 'McDowell' and 'Dowell', and are carried on by the descendants of the original immigrant Irish/Scots/Norse Galloglass mercenaries. A more complete list of surname varients include all the following: Dougall, Dowell, Doyle, O'Doyle, DubhGhaill, MacDowall, MacDowell, McDougal, McDougall, McDoughall, McDowall, McDowel, McDowell.


With information from...

The Last Gaelic Empire

Clan Doyle - Australia

Galloglass: 1250-1600, Osprey Publishing Ltd.


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