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. (It’s worth noting that according to the “Gaelic Names of Beasts” by Alexander Robert Forbes (1905), the Gaelic words “culloch” and “cullach” may mean a fat heifer, a boar, yearling calf, bat, a male cat, or a stallion).
The identity of the progenitor of the name is a source of much speculation. It is said that Cullach was a fierce but forgotten warrior who fought the Picts, or perhaps a Crusader who displayed a figure of a boar on his coat of arms. However, the earliest seal known for a McCulloch included a squirrel, not a boar. Also, the standardization of the spelling as “culloch” occur much later.
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. In the “Surnames of Scotland,” Dr. George Fraser Black indicates that the McLulichs are distinct from the McCullochs of Myreton (even though they are sometimes referred to as the McCullochs of Oban).
Cullo Og Neil
Another origin story repeated by James Iredell for the name McCulloch stems from the name Cullo O’Neill (whose Gaelic name would likely be “Cu Uladh Ua Neil”) l. A son of Cullo would be mac Cullo. Cullo O’Neill, of the Irish Clanaboy O’Neills, was a supporter of Robert de Brus 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.
By contrast, it is well-documented that McCullochs of Myreton were supporters of King John Balliol, who was the son of Lady Devorguilla, daughter of Alan, 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, it would be surprising to forego the well-known name O’Neill). However, no documentation of this seems to exist despite the fact that Robert the Bruce’s Scottish War for Independence and Edward the Bruce’s bid to rule Ireland are highly documented and well-researched episodes of Scot and Irish history.
However, the McCulloch of Myreton’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 chief male descendants appear to be R1a, and R-BY32010 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 chief appear to be haplogroup R-BY32010, 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 Briton chieftain of Galloway named Ulgric who fought alongside King David I in the Battle of the Standard in 1138. After the death of Ulgric and his compatriot Dovenald (another Briton chieftain) the Norse-Gael Lords of Galloway ruled the region. The McCullochs were loyal to the Lords of Galloway. Could it be that the McCullochs followed the Lords of Galloway because their own chieftain had been slain? (Also note that the name McCulloch need not refer to Ulgric for this oral tradition to be true. The surname may have been adopted a few generation later).
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. This name can also be rendered Uoloch.
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.
We can’t rule out the possibility that the McCulloch honored a local legend associated with the Old North (including Galloway). Such an origin story would indicate the McCullochs who adopted the surname were embracing a local, Briton identity predating the arrival of the Norse Gaels.
A more prosaic explanation is that the surname was adopted by 13th century sons of a man named Uoloch. The name would harken back to Gwallawc, but would not necessarily imply descent from Gwallawc ap Lleenog.
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. The forename Cu Uladh appears in Irish records as early as the 11th century. The surname “mac con Uldah” first appears in a historical record pertaining to a murder in 1532 in Dunbo, Derry, Ireland. We know that McCullochs and McCulloughs are not all genetically related. We are left to speculate that the names McCulloch and McCullough originated independently.
Makwolock or St. Walloch
In The Hereditary Sheriffs of Galloway (1893), Sir Andrew Agnew mentions Makwolok, a bishop of Scotland, who died in 733. (However, the Aberdeen Breivary dates him in the fifth century). This St. Walloch is mentioned in Adame King’s Kalendar of Scottish Saints (published in 1598). St. Walloch was a Celtic Christian missionary based first in St. Ninian’s Candida Casa (now Whithorn, near McCulloch lands at Myretoun and Drummorrell). His missions work led him to Logie-Mar in northeast Scotland to evangelize the Picts. He founded churches at Dunmeth in Glass, Strathdon, and Balvenie. Walloch’s Stone at Logie-Mar honors him.
As with other origin stories, it’s possible the McCullochs took the name MacWolloch to honor a local hero, rather than indicating a direct ancestor. So rather than honoring a Celtic warlord, perhaps the McCullochs adopted their name to honor a local saint.
According to Dr. George Fraser Brown, writing in the “Surnames of Scotland,” the name McKelly (mac Ceallaigh, the “warlike one”) is sometimes anglicised as McCulloch. Brown continues that the McKelly’s descended from Gilmagon mac Kelli who witnessed a gift by Abbot Arnold of Duueglas lands to Theobald the Fleming around 1150. The name appears again in Galloway in 1298 records.
Lore and Legends
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 Myrertoun, 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 Sarmatians. Alternatively, perhaps King Arthur was the original McCulloch.