Sir Andrew Agnew tells an intriguing story of the McCulloch family origin in his “Hereditary Sheriffs of Galloway.” Sir Andrew mocks the common narrative that the name McCulloch derives from “son of the boar.” Rather, he relays the oral tradition the family claims descent from Briton chieftain Gwallog ap Lleenog. If this were true, the name would originally have been something akin to “mac Gwallog.” It doesn’t require much imagination to see how the latter name might be recorded as “mac Ulagh” by the end of the 13th century.
Gwallog is believed to have been a historic 6th century figure, however his history has been embellished in Welsh ballads and even Arthurian legends. The historic Gwallog appears to be a Briton chieftain in the north of Great Britain. While we know his father was called “Lleenog” we don’t know his origins (despite a purported genealogy tracing him back to King Coel Hen of the Alt Clud Britons).
According to the ballads of Talliesen, Gwallog seems to have been a sometimes ally of King Urien of Rheged. However, Gwallog may have conquered Rheged (in what later became known as Galloway) after the death of King Urien.
The first part of the name “Gwallog” appears to include “gwal,” a Brittonic word for “wall.” Hence, the name may mean “man of the wall.” Author Carla Nayland speculates this may indicate that Gwallog originally lived near Hadrian’s Wall. Gwallog is also nicknamed the “battle horsemen.” Apparent connections to Hadrian’s Wall and horsemanship are particularly intriguing, as discussed below.
Current Y DNA data indicates that descendants of the McCullochs of Galloway are Haplogroup R-BY32010, which indicates Indo-European or Sarmatian ancestry. This haplogroup is distinct from Scotti Gaels, Norse-Gaels, or even Picts. So, how did Sarmatians arrive in Scotland?
In 175 AD, Iazgyes Sarmatians living in or near modern Hungary were conquered by Rome and forced into a military settlement. That settlement required these Sarmatians to provide 8,000 troups to fight on behalf of Rome. Of these, 5,500 we commended to go to Britain. Because of their prowess in horsemanship, these soldiers may have served as auxiliary cavalrymen along Hadrian’s Wall at such places as Chesters Roman Fort. A stone carving of what appears to be a Sarmatian cavalryman has been found at Chester, England. (Independent historian Giuseppe Nicollini also writes that Sarmatian artifacts have been found at Chester’s along Hadrian’s Wall, among various other sites). The most notable Roman fortress that stationed Sarmatians was Ribchester, a cavalry fort and eventual retirement settlement for Sarmatian veterans.
Interestingly, Gwallog was referred to as the “judge of Elmet,” a small Briton kingdom near modern day Leeds. Later his son, Ceretic ap Gwallog, briefly ruled the Kingdom of Elmet. Coincidentally, Leeds is in the vicinity of the Ribchester Veternorcum. To speculate further, we could imagine that Gwallog was based originally near Hadrian’s Wall to the north, but conquered Elmet with the assistance of Sarmatian cousins from Ribchester.
The consensus among historians of medieval Galloway is that the McCullochs were a prominent, “native” family who were in the region since time immemorial. The McCullochs appear to be one of the most prominent families in the region. Another prominent family, the MacDowells, appear to have arrived with the Norse-Gaels. The Gwallog hypothesis would explain how the McCullochs gained prominence in Galloway prior to the arrival of the Norse-Gaels.
It appears that the prominent families of Galloway did not adopt a Norman-style surname until the end of the 13th century. If the McCullochs named themselves for a 6th century ancestor (real or imagined), they would have had to maintain an oral tradition of that connection over several centuries. While this may seem hard to believe, we could look to the examples of the Irish Ui Neill as evidence that it is possible for a family to preserve the memory and tradition of an eponymous founder over hundreds of years.
Does any of this prove Gwallog was either the name-sake of Clan McCulloch or genetically related? Absolutely not. But the oral tradition that Gwallog was the eponymous progenitor of Clan McCulloch is proving hard to debunk.