The Strange Disappearance of the Town of Eliot and the Settlement of Auchtereleot

The dispossession of a Scots-Breton patriot clan in 1306, and its resettlement on lands adjacent to Hermitage Castle, Liddesdale, by Robert Bruce.

by Keith Elliot Hunter QPM, BA


The problem with limited access to primary sources and university libraries is over-reliance on citations in recognised works of scholarship, textbooks and articles in various journals by leading Scottish historians. Since the publication of my last article in the Elliot Clan Society newsletter, the archaeologist David Perry of Perth has provided me with details of certain surviving documents which cast further light on the resettlement of the Elliot clan in Liddesdale, by Robert Bruce. Incontrovertible evidence provided by surviving maps showing the existence of a town called Eliot and to its east a vill with a long ago disappeared church or other main building, mapped as Auchtereleot,  gives rise to the only possible conclusion that Alyth and Auchter Alyth, which did not appear on maps until the mid eighteenth century, were formal, charter names (with several variants) written by a small number of successive literate clerks, whilst Eliot became the more familiar and popular name. The lands with which the Elliot chieftains were infefted were recorded in a list of forfeitures of 1306, as ‘The Brae.’ The popular naming of the town as Eliot surely reflects the main, predominant power and influence exerted in and around ‘Alyth’ by Elliot barons or chieftains. Undoubtedly pronounced in medieval times as Alit, the name is purported to be a version of the Gaelic word áilt, to which a French and Latin- speaking scribe probably added a superfluous h. The early spelling of Eliot as Aliot almost certainly did not affect pronunciation, but whether or not a purely coincidental closeness to the name Alit, of the Eliot/Aliot name had anything to do with it, the undoubted pronunciation of the town name as Eliot when John Adair and Herman Moll surveyed and mapped it shows quite clearly that in the competition between the charter name of Alyth (which was only one of several spellings) and the proudly vaunted locally popular Breton name, the latter was for a very long time the winner.  Alyth remained known only to a few literate scribes.

On 27 April, 1296, at Roxburgh, a clerk in the English royal administration drew up a list of Scottish knights and esquires taken prisoner following their surrender at the Battle of Dunbar. Numbers meant that the task may have been given to more than one clerk, who on asking each prisoner for his name, almost certainly spelt it according to early English chancery spelling conventions.  The names given by two of the prisoners were  written as Thomas de Alyght and Walter Alight.[1] The letters gh were not superfluous, since they had a phonetic ‘value.’ At that time the digraph gh  had come into use as a replacement for one of the three values formerly represented by the Middle English letter yogh (? ?), that of the velar /j/ and its allophone io. Walter was incarcerated in Tonbridge Castle, whilst his younger brother, Thomas was taken off to Kenilworth Castle, where he was still imprisoned in June, 1298.

The surname given by Walter and Thomas was, in modern phonetic spelling, d’Aliot,  often mistakenly represented as Dalliot, a variant of the name Elliot, the version later used by or given to their descendants, probably due to pronunciation of the name with an  opening middle or frontal vowel, as ?liot. This was the popular or familiar name used undoubtedly by the Elliots and their neighbours instead of the charter name Alyth, which they and Elias, probably the first of the Scots-Breton Elliot tenants-in-chief, would not have been able to read.  Alyth, remained the Aliot/Eliot charter name, known only to and used by the clerks of the writing offices of successive kings. Elias and his descendants  would not  have given up their  Breton name so easily. Despite the dispossession of Walter in 1306 and his resettlement elsewhere, Eliot was to remain for over five centuries in use as the popular alternative to a charter name spelt variously as d’Alyth (Alitht, Alicht, Alect, Alith).  The Eliots (Elliots, Eliotts or Elliotts) were to become eventually one of the most powerful of the Border Reiver clans, until the pacification of the Borders  following the accession of James VI  to the English throne.  Now Y-chromosome research has, via enduring bloodlines and close kinship, shown the Elliots to be one of the most ‘clannish’ of  Scottish clans, yet one of Celtic-Brythonic origin, already a clan before settlement in Scotland.

[1] PoMS, H5/0/0; (accessed 21 August 2016).

I first became interested in the history of the Elliots during my teens, following visits to Liddesdale and Hermitage Castle, and to my grandmother Catherine, née Elliot’s cousins  at Toftholm and Gorrenberry. Many years later a chance remark by a distinguished French acquaintance of Breton origin sparked off an active interest and  my first venture into serious historical research, since graduating as a mature student from University College London in 1971 where I had read Modern History.  He insisted that the name Elliot was Breton, just as any trawl through Breton telephone directories would have long since suggested, but thanks to Y-chromosome research and the digital revolution there is now an easier way of confirming the Celtic-Brythonic origin of the name and its many variants, which appear in databases culled from French états-civils, and in finding that some of the Anglo-Breton variant names which have dogged past research into Elliot history, principally those of Alliot, Allot, Ellot, Eligott, Ellacott and Elicott, also originated in Brittany. Doubts about the ethnic origin of the Elliots, English and Scottish, had until that stage arisen from a long-standing, unsupported assumption that the Eliots of St Germans, now represented by Albert, the grandson and heir of the late Peregrine Eliot of Port Eliot, the earl of St Germans, were of Norman origin.  As for their Scottish cousins, attempts to trace their origins were made almost impossible by destruction of  family records by fire at Stobs Castle in 1712, and perhaps hindered by the unsubstantiated  assumption that the St Germans Eliots were Normans and that the Scottish Elliots were not, often accompanied by the mischievous view of some Elliots that an Eliot with one L and one T could not be an Elliot, Eliott or Elliott, despite the fact that the old parochial St Germans spelling of the name was Ellyot, and that Eliot was a Peebles parochial spelling. The existence of two Eliot earls, one of St Germans and the other of Minto, failed to shake this belief, notwithstanding the work of the  the mid-19th century American genealogist, William Harvey Elliot, whose Genealogy of the Elliots, published in the USA, appears to have escaped twentieth century attention.

Following discussions with Margaret Eliott of Redheugh, I agreed to undertake further research, despite the handicap of lack of direct access to a university library and various archives. This did not, however, affect my aim to find sufficient evidence to establish the history of the Elliots before their arrival in Liddesdale during the early fourteenth century. The list of sources, primary and secondary, on which I have relied, appended at the end of this essay, is not therefore a long one, but together they meet the test of providing a sufficiency of proof. Acquisition of the works of leading scholars relating to the period under review, Geoffrey Barrow, Richard Oram, Michael Penman and Michael Brown and others, including Michael Jones and Katharine Keats-Rohan relating to the post-Conquest settlement of Bretons, was essential, as was information provided by the Breton historian, Professor Louis Elegoët, (from whose surname the English Eligott was almost certainly derived) regarding the toponymic origins of the old Breton name Halegouët with its several French-corrupted variants, including Helliet, Alliot and Elliot. Access to certain databases, such as those of the People of Medieval Scotland and The Soldier of Later Medieval England, based on Hundred Years’War muster rolls, was crucial, but incontrovertible evidence has now emerged from Y-Chromosome research, and surviving maps.  The results of the Elliot DNA project (2005 to 2015- Appendix C), involving samples from nearly three hundred male Elliots (Eliotts, Elliotts and Eliots) has revealed the predominant Elliot DNA haplotype to be Celtic-Brythonic. Its salience and endurance indicates the maintenance of an extraordinarily tight kinship, and the strength and vigour of  Elliot lineages, possibly equalling that of any other so-called ‘clan.’ Several thousand Elliots today, in the United Kingdom, Ireland, the USA, Canada, Australian and New Zealand share a common Breton ancestor.  The geographic distribution of the name revealed in fifteenth century muster rolls, suggests that numerous Breton Elliot mercenaries settled in various English locations along with their families, during the period immediately following the Conquest of 1066.

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