The reassertion of a historic name
by Keith Elliot Hunter QPM, BA
Advances in the fields of information technology and genetics now enable us to put the Breton origin of the Elliots beyond dispute, even though several centuries of ‘parental events,’ almost certainly including the adoption of many orphans and broken men during a bloody, death-strewn era, led perhaps long ago to dilution of the Breton pedigree. Be that as it may, a picture now emerges of a clan of ancient Celtic-Brittonic origin, like that of the Stewarts, whose founder Walter fitzAlan came from Dol in Brittany, mutating, through the fortuity of the 12th and 13th century introduction of feudal military tenure into Scotland, into a typical Scottish clan based on kinship, whose name survived an official attempt to change it. In the United Kingdom the Elliot name is still at its most prevalent in the counties of the Scottish Borders and the northern counties of England, and a similar prevalence occurs in Brittany, north of the Loire, in Morbihan and Îlle et Vilaine, while its mutable co-variant, Alliot, prevails south of the Loire, in former Breton territory, but now in the département of Loire Atlantique, with a number of Halliots, Allots and Elots in the mix. We should not, however, overlook the association of Eliot (formerly spelt quite correctly as Ellyot ) with the counties to which a Breton army, was sent by William the Conqueror to quell a revolt and repulse a Godwin invasion. Counties in which David I (1124-1153), King of the Scots, would later have allies, who like him, supported the claim of his niece and Henry I’s eldest daughter Matilda to the throne of England, seized by Stephen, the last of the Norman kings. Within just a few decades of the Conquest of 1066, a new aristocracy had established extensive interconnections, largely through a combination of feudal military tenure and dynastic marriages leading to a number of great lordships containing estates scattered up, down and across the length of England, and into Scotland through the strategy of David I and his grandsons. While Cornwall was given to Brien Trihern, the vast honour of Richmond, given to his Penthièvre brother Alan ar Rouz, contained estates throughout eastern England and in the West Country. Their cousin Judicael’s lordship of Totnes covered much of Devon, where Eliots first settled. The Norman-tutored Canmores needed the medieval equivalent of modern tank regiments, and this is where the Elliots came in, along with many Norman, other Breton and Flemish soldiers of fortune, with their retinues and families. Within just over a century some of these men with lands in both Scotland and England were still European in outlook, but many others, especially those like the Elliots who rallied immediately in 1306 to the support of their new king, Robert Bruce, and stuck with him through to Bannockburn (1314) and beyond, had clearly come to see themselves as fierce Scottish patriots. Some had integrated into the Highland clan structure, combining feudal lordship with chieftainship, a status accorded exclusively to the Elliots even as later as 1583, by the Elliots’ arch-enemy, Thomas Musgrave, captain of Bewcastle. Others like the Douglases sought domination south of the Forth in Galloway, Lothian and the Borders, where highlanders were still regarded with suspicion.
There is perhaps still much to be learned about the Elliots, and the presumed connection between them and the town of Arbirlot in Angus, a name derived from Aber-eloth, Aber-elliot or Aber-ellot, whose existence was not recorded until the early 13th century, remains the subject of further research. Eloth was an Elliot variant name, which itself is a unique variant of a Breton name, corrupted by Norman French, still predominating in Brittany. The chances of the coincidental appearance of a name Elliot of Gaelic or other non-Breton origin in Scotland are now, in the light of its unique Breton pedigree, nil. The mystery has yet to be, and may never be, solved. In 1225 the bishop of St Andrews gave the parish church of Arbirlot to the monks and abbot of the abbey of Arbroath, but kept the church lands to himself. It is now clear that d’Elliot was retained, in the Norman fashion, as a noble title, but none of the barons neighbouring Arbirlot, or the head waters of Elliot Water reaching up to Carmyllie, were named as d’Elliot. Research is being continued.
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