The elusive origins of Clan McCulloch and the mysterious origins of surnames like McCulloch, McCullough and their variants have presented a number of riddles for genealogical researchers and history buffs. Add to this the fact that the McCullochs were a colorful and sometimes notorious lot. Here is some of the legends, lore, and unsolved mysteries surrounding the McCullochs.
As described here, the origins of the name McCulloch are shrouded in mystery. The accepted version is that the name derives from mac Cullach, meaning son of the boar. The identity of the progenitor of the name is a source of much speculation. It is said that Cullach was a fierce warrior who fought the Picts, or perhaps a Crusader who displayed a figure of a boar on his coat of arms.
Others still suggest that the name derives from King Lulach (a slur meaning the “simple”), son of the real life Lady MacBeth and erstwhile King of Scotland. Descendants of Lulach might have taken the surname McLulich, which some have suggested is pronounced quite similarly to McCulloch.
Others still, such as author Sir Andrew Agnew, suggest the name is of earlier Cymric origin and denotes “son of Gwallawc”, honoring a legendary 6th century Briton chieftain.
Cullo Og Neil
Another origin story repeated by James Iredell for the name McCulloch stems from the name Cullo O’Neill or Cullo Og Neill. A son of Cullo would be mac Cullo. Cullo O’Neill, of the Irish Clanaboy O’Neills, was a supporter of Robert de Brus (of Norman descent) in his war for Scottish independence. It is said that King Robert granted Cullo O’Neill certain lands in Galloway for his loyal service. These lands then passed to his son Godfrey McCullo.
It should be noted that the McCullochs of Myreton were supporters of King John Balliol, whose wife was Lady Devorguilla, daughter of the Lord of Galloway. Also, the name McCulloch (Maculagh) was likely already in use in Galloway prior to this time since it has been described as a name from “time immemorial.” It’s first recorded use is by Thomas Maculagh, Sheriff of Wigtown, who along with two others bearing such surname, signed the Ragman Roll of 1296 agreeing to render homage to the English King Edward I.
None of this disproves that Cullo O’Neill was granted lands in Galloway, or that he had a son who honored him by taking the name McCullo. However, the McCulloch’s well-known support of the Balliol cause suggests this was not the origin of their name. As more Y DNA results become available, it will be interesting to see if any McCullochs are able to link their DNA and family trees to the O’Neill Y DNA results, and whether there is any matches to the McCulloch line. (The O’Neills appear to largely be haplogroup R1b, whereas the Clan McCulloch chieftains appear to be R1a, and R-BY32021 in particular.)
Clan McCulloch resided in Galloway, which means Gaels living among strangers (i.e., Norse vikings). The McCullochs lived the among Norse-Gaels, like the MacDougalls. Some McCullochs living outside of Galloway were even septs of Clan MacDougall, which descend from the legendary Somerled. This has led to speculation that Clan McCulloch were Norse-Gaels. This may have been true, or partially true, from a cultural perspective. But if the McCullochs had Scandinavian ancestors, it would be expected that the McCullochs would have “Norse” DNA. (Admittedly, the Vikings themselves did not all share the same DNA). However, purported descendants of the McCulloch chieftains appear to be haplogroup R-BY32021, and do not appear to have a common modern paternal ancestor of Scandinavian origin. Rather, their haplogroup seems to predate, and develop independently from, Scandinavians. While the McCullochs may have been part of, or adjacent to, the Norse-Gael culture, Y DNA evidence does not currently seem to indicate that the McCullochs descended from Somerled.
Yet another origin story is that the McCullochs descend from a warrior named Ulgric who fought alongside King David I in the Battle of the Standard. It is said that Ulgric was a descendant of Owen Gallvus, a king of the Strathclyde Britons. Again, if this is the case, future Y DNA results may shed light on this hypothesis.
According to Sir Andrew Agnew, author of the Hereditary Sheriffs of Galloway, the McCullochs were an ancient Pictish people named for a 6th century chieftain named Gwallawc or Gwallog.
Gwallog, who is featured in Welsh ballads, may have been a king of Elmet and may have conquered part of the Kingdom of Rheged in Galloway.
It is commonly said that the the name “McCullough” derives from mac cu Uladh (Gaelic, for “son of the dog of Ulster”). The “hound of Ulster” (Cu Uladh) in Irish mythology was Cu Chulainn. We are left to speculate whether the names McCulloch and McCullough originated independently or if one of the names was interpreted based on the way it sounded to a Gaelic hearer. To continue speculating, perhaps a Cymric-based name honoring a local Galloway legend “mac Gwallog” was later Gaelicized in Ulster as if the name were meant to honor a local Ulster legend, thus rendering it “mac cu Uladh.”
Cardoness Castle and Thin Ice
According to legend, the McCullochs came by way of one of their castles through a bit of unfortunate events and some conniving. Legend has it that the laird of Cardoness castle called his large family out to an icy lake to celebrate the birth of a son. (One imagines a large family selfie). Unfortunately, the lake was not iced over as much as thought, and all but one young heiress drowned. As the story goes, a clever McCulloch quickly married the young heiress, thereby acquiring Cardoness Castle.
Sir Alexander McCulloch earned the reputation as the Cutler for repeatedly sacking the Isle of Man. It is said that a common Manx prayer at the time was:
Keep me, my good corn, and my sheep and bullocks
From Satan, from Sin, and those thievish McCullochs.
In fairness, they started it. Previously, Thomas, Earl of Derby (Lord of Man) sacked Kirkcudbright. In actuality, Sir Alexander was merely defending the Galloway coast, over and over again.
Sir Godfrey McCulloch and the Gnome
Sir Godfrey McCulloch, 2nd Baronet of Mertoun, and member of the Scottish parliament has the dubious distinction of being the last Scot beheaded by the Maiden (which uniquely placed its victim face up). Or was he?
Legend has it that Sir Godfrey was actually saved from execution by a gnome for whom the Baron had done a favor earlier in life.
King Arthur and the Sarmation Hypothesis
As explained here, the Declaration of Arbroath claims that Scots originate in the Central Eurasian steppe civilization called Scythia Major. A western part of greater Scythia was known as Sarmatia. The Sarmatians told tales of a legendary knight who displayed his prowess and virtue by pulling a sword out of a stone. Some suggest this story found its way to the British Isles as Sarmatian soldiers fought alongside Marcus Aurelius. Some of these Sarmatians may have stayed in the British Isles. The obvious implication is that the tales of King Arthur derive from the Sarmations. Alternatively, perhaps King Arthur was the original McCulloch.