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How Somhairlidh became Somerled

From the Gàidhlig to Latin to English

If it were simply a translation from Gàidhlig (Gaelic) to English this article could be one brief sentence.  But this 12th century Gàidhlig name has suffered through multiple mistranslations, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations that include connotations never associated with the original name.  The old histories of Scotland (John of Fordun 1360, the 12th century Chronicles of Mann, Hector Boece 1527,  & George Buchanan 1579) were all written in Latin.  They were written for the instruction of the royal heirs and usually twisted history to justify the politics of their royal ancestors and malign their opponents (politics haven't changed much in 600 years!). Each of these historians only briefly mentioned our ancestor as a rebellious leader of Argyle who invaded lowland Scotland in 1164.  Fordun Though brief, this account includes a Latin form of his name (Sumerledus) that minimizes who our ancestor was and what he had achieved.  From this derogatory Latin form of the Gàidhlig name Somhairlidh came the modern English form Somerled.

The Latin form Sumerledus

According to Lieberman's Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology the Latin suffix ledus in Sumerledus connotes a a person of very low status (colonus) in Roman culture.  George Buchanan, who translated his own name into Latin  as Georgio Buchanano, translated the Gàidhlig Somhairlidh as Somerledus. This translation includes the connotation of a person "not quite a freeman, but just above a serf".   In Roman culture a colonus was never free to leave (sounds like a slave).   At least in the feudal cast system a serf was subject to the Laird's bidding only while he chose to live on the laird's land.  Both the Latin & feudal class concepts were foreign to Celtic thinking.   Understanding the added meaning of the Latin ending, as used by these early Scottish historians,  helps us to see that how they portrayed our ancestor was very different from how his Gàidhlig (Gaelic) contemporaries saw him. The "d" sound on the end of Somerled comes from the Latin which Scottish historians used to make it clear to those reading in Latin that Sumerledus was the lowest class of commoner (just above a slave), definitely not of any royal pedigree. The original Gaelic ending of the name Somhairlidh has quite the opposite connotation.

The original Gàidhlig name Somhairlidh

In Gàidhlig, "Lidh" was a common abbreviation of milidh (meaning champion) used in Gaelic names to denote a Celtic warrior, a very high station in Celtic culture.  Celtic society included such "stations" that were determined by one's ability rather than their caste or class determined by birthright.   Milidh was also the name of the first ancestral king of the Gàidhlig race in the Milesian myth. The fate of an entire kingdom was placed upon the shoulders of the kingdom's champion (Milidh) who represented the kingdom in battle (sometimes in single combat, but often like Cú chulainn battling immense odds).  Kings (Righ) were looked to as judges by their clansmen, and most  Righ had the good judgement to send their champion into battle before them.  This Gaelic ending denotes the highest status as opposed to the Latin suffix which conveyed the opposite.  The 1536 translation of Boece's work into Scots rendered the name "The Lord of Argyle wes callit Symmerleid."  This "Scots" version of the name literally compounds the errors of the mistranslation into Latin and then back into "Scots". These early Scottish historians, and most subsequent historians have chosen to ignore the Latin title the  Chronicles of the Isle of Man used to introduce our ancestor, "Sumerledo regulo Herergaidel" (literally Somhairlidh in Latin without the derogatory suffix, a ruler of Gaelic heritage).  Ironically the Manx Chronicles describe him as a Gaelic ruler who invaded the Isle of Man, but the Scottish histories written Latin make the man who invaded Scotland appear as a common rebel of little consequence and not Gaelic.   Sir David Dalrymple of Hailes' 1776 "Annals of Scotland" was basically an English translation of those old Latin histories.  Volume I included the mistranslated Latin form of Somhairlidh. His vol. II corrected what the author stated was "a translation error", but the mistranslation "Somerled" has continued to be used in place of the original, Gaelic name.

The Actual Transition From Somhairlidh to Somerled

The Ancient Scots

The 1858 Duncan M'Callum "History of the Ancient Scots from the Shenachies" is characteristic of the evolution of the mistranslation to Somerled.  Although this is one of the few histories that preserves the Highland traditions concerning   Somharle-mor (an alternate spelling in Gaelic), it is indicative of how Somerled gradually replaced the Gaelic Somharle-mor in the 19th century.  M'Callum began on p. 156 with a version of the Latin, "A young man who was a volunteer, tall in stature, and magnanimous in fight, was adopted by them. His name was Summerled" with a footnote clarifying this was Somharle-mor  Macghillebride. His next reference (p. 159) is to Somharle-mor with a footnote denoting this is Somerled and the remainder of his history uses Somerled without even a footnote.  If someone unfamiliar with Gaelic heard a Gaelic speaker say Sorley mor it may have been confused with the Norse name Sumarliði commonly used in areas such as the Orkney and Shetland Islands where Norse culture prevailed.  When the 19th century English heard the Gaelic say "Sorley mor" they claimed it was how the Gaelic said the common 19th century English name,  Samuel (meaning "heard of God"). Bear in mind these are the people who thought they heard "Scotch" whenever they heard a Scotsman said "Scots". Most "What to Name Your Baby" web sites still incorrectly state Somerled means "Summer traveler" or "heard of God" (meaning of Samuel) .

The Misconception Somhairlidh was made up of Two Norse Words

Buchanan's 1579 historyFifteen years later, the 1873 History of the "MacDonnells of Antrim" went into a detailed explanation in the footnote (that occupies more than 1/3 of page 7) that the name Somerled was comprised of two Norse words, Sumar and liði, denoting "Summer soldier" not even mentioning the original Gaelic name in a footnote.  This break down of the name Somerled into two Norse words has been universally accepted and restated in almost every modern work that mentions the name Somerled.  In the Norse language Sumar and liði do mean Summer soldier or sailor.  This term is believed first used to refer to a bear that hibernates in the Winter and hunts through the Summer. Sumar liði was later used by the Norse to denote those who went "a viking" because, like a bear, they confined their raids to the Summer.  In the Norse language "viking" was a verb rather than a noun as it is used in English.  Unlike the name Samuel, Sumarliði is just as old as the Gaelic name Somhairlidh. In fact there is one record of Somhairlidh's Viking enemies referring to him in their Icelandic language as Sumarliði, but Gaelic records universally use Somhairlidh. A similar misnaming persists with the Native American (incorrectly called "Indian") leader "Tatanka Iyotake".  Most would be confused if the literal translation "short buffalo" were used instead of "Sitting Bull",  as he was dubbed by "Buffalo Bill Cody" (whose real name was William Frederick Cody).  Among the Dakota Sioux, their chief was "Tatanka Iyotake".  Bill Cody had actually taken Tatanka's name (Buffalo) for his internationally famous "Wild West Show" so he dubbed Tatanka Iyotake "Sitting Bull" which has become his English name in history despite the historians knowing better.  The same culturally blind ego that causes our culture to continue saying "Indians" and "Sitting Bull" changed our ancestor's name to "Somerled" and that remains what he is called today even among his own descendants.  In his own contemporary culture he was never Somerled.  In our ancestors time and culture he was Somhairlidh, pronounced Sorley.

The Orkneyinga Saga - Source of Sumarliði

The Orkneyinga Saga is an ancient history of the Orkney Islands (off the northern coast of Scotland) translated from its original Icelandic language.  Even today there is at least as much evidence of Norse Viking culture as there is Scottish culture in the Orkney Islands.   The book that was the basis of the Dreamworks movie "How to Train Your Dragon" (that had Vikings speaking with a Scottish accent!) was based upon the author's (Cressida Cowell's) memories of holidaying (vacations) in the Outer (Northern) Hebrides where there is a blending of both cultures almost as much as in the Orkney & Shetland Islands. The Shetland Islands are almost as close to Norway as they are to Scotland both on the map and culturally.

Thorfinn Sigardsson, an 11th century Norse Jarl (Earl) of Orkney, had a step brother named Sumarliði.  Two other men named Sumarliði are referred to in the Orkneyinga Saga, one from Iceland and one from "the Scottish fjord".  This one reference  to a Sumarliði Höld on page 181 even names his wife as Ragnhild daughter of Olaf.   The author definitely intended the reader to identify this Sumarliði Höld with Somhairlidh mhór mac Gillebride. It is to be expected that an account written in Icelandic used a familiar Icelandic name to identify a Celtic enemy.  The Saga then claims Swein Asliefsson slew  this Scottish Sumarliði in 1159, but Somhairlidh was not slain in 1159. Ironically, Clan Donald tradition states Somhairlidh slew a Viking named Sweno who had courted Ragnhild. But the original name of our ancestor as recorded in Gaelic histories was not Sumarliði, Sumerledus, or Somerled.  His name was Somhairlidh ( Somuirle or Somherle) mhór mac Gillebride mhic Gilledomnán pronounced Sorley mor muk GiaBridje 'ic Gi'Adonan. The Gaelic contains similar letters to the Norse Sumar liði , the Latin Sumerledus, or the English Somerled, but the Gaelic name Somhairlidh has an entirely different pronunciation and no etymological connection to these mistranslations.  After centuries of British suppression of Highland history, a renaissance of sorts began in the early 19th century which, unfortunately, proliferated the mistranslation of Somhairlidh as Somerled.

All of the original Gaelic manuscripts render the name of our ancestor as various spellings of Somhairlidh consistently pronounced Sorley, never Somerled. Rather than seeking the meaning of Somerled in Norwegian isn't it more relevant for us to seek an understanding of What Somhairlidh May Mean in Gaelic? This web site is based upon Donald J. Macdonald's history Clan Donald, but we have gone back to the original Gaelic name of our ancestor rather than use the common mistranslation Somerled.