Home Origins What Somhairlidh May Mean in Gaelic (part 8)
PDF Print E-mail

Cad Is Féidir Somhairlidh chiallaíonn i nGàidhlig

What Somhairlidh May Mean in Gaelic

According to the 17th century Gaelic "Black & Red Books of Clanranald", found in the Reliquiæ Celticæ our ancestor Giolla bhrighde (Gillebride) was a caoraigheacht (Gaelic for nomadic people who followed wild cattle).  These Celtic cattlemen had chiefs & clans that were known as fierce warriors.  They often acted as mercenaries for other clan chiefs.  But Gillebride had been displaced from his native lands of Morvern and Ardgòur by Viking raids.  So he met with his kinsmen at Fermanach (Fermanagh), Northern Ireland (around 1110 AD) where he was able to raise an army to retake his rightful inheritance in Morvern and Ardgòur, the same lands known anciently as Albain Dalriada.   Two things are significant within this account.  His kinsmen in a very Celtic part of Ireland acknowledged Gillebride as a deposed ruler and were willing to go to battle for him.   The name Gillebride is a very Gaelic name. Gillebride was not successful in regaining his ancestral lands, but his son, Somhuirle or Somhairlidh (Somerled) did succeed in establishing himself as King of Argyle and the Isles.

Somhairlidh from the 1467 mss

By going back to the oldest Gaelic documents such as the 1467 manuscripts, the 1164 entry to the Annals of the Four Masters, and in the MacVurich manuscripts, seanchaidh (historians) to the Lords of the Isles, we find the more ancient form of the Gaelic name which looks more like "yogle" than Shomhairl' or " Somhairlidh.  But this is the way our ancestors wrote the name Somhairlidh, pronounced "Sorley".

Gaelic Names Contain Several Gaelic Words

Gaelic names were frequently given or changed later in life, and were made up of several Gaelic words such as Dhomnaill meaning "world ruler" or Vurich meaning " of those from an island on the sea".  In England the name Vurich became Murdock or even Currie, but only by going back to the original, Gaelic spelling Muiredach it is evident the name contains the Gaelic word for sea (muir) , the Gaelic word for island (e or i), & the prepositional ending "ach" meaning "from" or "belonging to" (as in Sassenach or Lochlannach).  Following this Gaelic naming pattern the words found in Somhairlidh are Somh, a Gaelic word meaning "to convert, to change, or upset". The Gaelic word air means "upon" and lidh is Gaelic for "steep grassy slope" or "grassy hill".  It is also used as an abbreviation of milidh the Gaelic word for "champion" (abbreviations were very common in Gaelic manuscripts, especially in names).  Double meanings were also very common in Gaelic names so both meanings for lidh should be considered.  So the original Gaelic name appears to be a compilation of three Gaelic words that may relate a significant characteristic or event in the life of this man.

The Legend Behind the Name and The Genesis of Clan Donald

The best known Highland legend of Somhairlidh is about his first victory over the Lochlannach Fascimile of Black Book of Clanranald(Gaelic for Vikings).  at Acharacle (original Gaelic = Ath Tharracaill.) Some placename authorities have correctly identified the Norse name Torquil, but missed the local legend that it was Somhairlidh who defeated the Vikings there on the ancient Arnamurchan shore.   Some modern historians (Marsden, Thompson, & now Sykes) follow the early Scottish histories that discredit these traditions or downplay his Celtic roots while others (McDonald, MacPhee, Roberts, & Paterson) recognize the Lordship of the Isles (Clan Donald) as the last truly Celtic society in Scotland.  R. Andrew McDonald, in his excellent work, "Kingdom of the Isles" theorized historians tend to only discuss kingdoms that "failed" to survive to the extent they contributed to countries that thrived. This is certainly the case with Somhairlidh and Clan Donald who are only casually mentioned in most histories of Great Britain as rebellious subjects who "fashioned themselves not subject to their rightful King".  (Continue reading about how Somhairlidh became King of Argyll & the Isles.)

Note:  This web site is based upon Donald J. Macdonald's 1978 compilation of the history of Clan Donald. He followed the practice of the 1896 three volume work entitled The Clan Donald  which substituted Anglicized names for the Gaelic originals. This article returned to the original Gaelic in order to better understand our heritage.