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Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Origin of the Name Calhoun

The Lennox The ancient land of the Britons, the Kingdom of Strathclyde, was based in what is now Dumbartonshire in west-central Scotland.  If you locate the city of Glascow on a map, look a bit to the north and west and you will find Loch Lomond.  Flowing south from the loch is a river called the Leven, which joins the river Clyde at the city of Dumbarton.  At this junction, a tall pillar of rock juts straight up out of the river; the castle on top is Dumbarton Castle, and castle and city mark the center of the old kingdom.

To the east of and parallel to the Leven valley lies a stretch of land named Colquhoun (pronounced ca-HOON).  It lies between the valley and Dumbarton Moor, and stretches from the Clyde north to the Dumbarton Hills.  It is wooded, famously so, and its Gaelic name apparently means exactly that: a wooded stretch of land.*  The land itself is not particularly valuable, but the location is strategically important for Dumbarton.  At its southern end rises another rock out of the river, called Dunglass, with another castle atop, a smaller version of Dumbarton's.

As the kingdom became absorbed into a greater Scotland, the region became known as the Lennox (after the Gaelic name of the river, Levenach), and was controlled by an important family which took the name Lennox.  This family, eventually as Earls to the King, had the power to assign estates to families, with the King's approval.  An estate like Colquhoun would not have been assigned to the most important families, but to someone loyal and not likely to challenge the Earl or the King.  In the year 1241, Malcolm, Earl of Lennox granted the land to Humphrey of Kilpatrick (Kilpatrick was the name of the parish encompassing the Colquhoun estate).

Little is known about Humphrey.  He was of Norman descent, and probably attached to the court of Lennox by the King with instructions to absorb him into the family.  It is not clear who his forbears were, and he apparently had no family with him.  It is not clear if he is the same as a Humphrey of Kirkpatrick, a contemporary who lived further south.  He did prove to be loyal, he did marry into the family, he was not politically ambitious, and he turned out to be very successful at managing the land.  He moved into Dunglass Castle and took the name Colquhoun for his own.

The success of his family was evident when, about five generations later, Robert of Colquhoun married the daughter and heiress of Luss.  Luss was a magnificent, culturally significant estate on the western shore of Loch Lomond, and had been held by an important branch of the Lennox family for a very long time.  Robert moved the family seat to Luss, and became Laird of Colquhoun and Luss.  Over the generations the estate grew and eventually became a Barony.

In the early 1600's, Adam Colquhoun received an estate from his Stuart in-laws which was located in northern Ireland.  It was one of many estates confiscated from the Ulster Irish by the English and awarded to prominent English and Scottish families under the condition that they live there and bring their own tenants.  When the family moved to Ireland, they officially changed their name to Colhoun.  Colhouns came to own other estates in County Tyrone and County Donegal.  Over time, and especially in the nineteenth century, many Colhouns came to North America, both Canada and the US, and the name would change to Calhoun.

Who uses the name Colquhoun, or its variants, Cahoon, Calhoun, Colchun?  Obviously, anyone descended from the aristocratic lines I have described here.  But others adopted the name as well.  In this country, some slaves held by Calhouns adopted the name.  Peasants and tenants in both Ireland and Scotland whose Lords were named Colhoun or Colquhoun also would adopt the name.  And anyone living in a place called Colquhoun could refer to himself as So-and-so of Colquhoun, as did Humphrey of Kilpatrick all those centuries ago.


* The word "colquhoun" is sufficiently distorted from the original Gaelic that no one really knows its meaning.  There are many attempted translations, some quite colorful and fanciful, but this one seemed the most straightforward.

Related websites:
History of Clan Colquhoun
History of Drumchapel (and Dumbartonshire)
Dunglass Castle
Early Map and Account of the Lennox