Elliott (And Border Reivers)
This website has been established to examine the historical and genetic origins of the Elliotts (or Elliots) and other Anglo-Scottish families known collectively as the Border Reivers.
Reivers In Full Regalia
Spittal of Glenshee
1) Who are the Elliotts? The Elliotts are the descendants of an Anglo-Scottish Border Clan that settled in Liddesdale and Teviotdale in the fourteenth century. According to family legend, the Elliotts originated at the foot of Glenshee in the central Highlands of Forfarshire, now the Scottish county of Angus. Robert The Bruce, aware of their warrior skills, invited them to The Borders to hold lands that he had confiscated from a nobleman named William de Soulis, who was reputedly a devil-worshipper and a traitor to the Scottish crown. Basing themselves near Hermitage Castle, and serving initially as military vassals of the Douglasses, the Elliotts became one of the most notorious of the Border Reiver families.
2) Who were the Border Reivers? The Border Reivers were a group of Anglo-Scottish families that conducted raids against towns, farms and even fortresses during some of the most turbulent years in British history. The region between Scotland and England, which includes The Borders, Dumfries and Galloway on the Scottish side, and Cumbria and Northumbria in England, were wartorn and unsettled for more than three hundred years. From the reign of Robert The Bruce to the ascension of James I to the throne of England, Scottish and English armies led punitive expeditions against one another, ravaging the countryside.
These were also years of great treachery, during which many families, noble and common alike, switched allegiances as it suited them. Those families that resided along either side of the border did not know whom to trust, and took the law into their own hands to survive. Alliances developed, like the bond between the Elliotts and the Armstrongs - but so did feuds, such as those between the Kerrs and the Scotts, the Maxwells and the Johnstones, and the Fenwicks and the Elliotts. These families sallied forth against one another, stealing cattle and sheep, burning homesteads, and avenging grievances with utmost violence.
The Border Reivers became so inured to the continual strife in their lives that, when they baptized their sons, they left the right hand unblessed, so that it might wield a sword. That was when they baptized their sons at all. The Border Reivers were not known for their piety. It was said that they would rob Jesus himself if he rode among them. A tale is often told of how a man visiting The Borders asked why there were no churches in the town, to which his interlocutor replied, "Nae, we're all Elliotts 'n' Armstrongs here." Nor were the churchmen any fonder of the reivers. The Archbishop of Glasgow publicly cursed them with a resounding ferocity that still has the power to chill our souls.
Riding their shaggy ponies of Norse extraction, dressed in an assortment of helmets and homemade armor, the Elliotts and their counterparts brought sword and musket to bear against their enemies with neither rest nor mercy. Even when England and Scotland were officially at peace, the raids continued.
Map of The Scottish Lowlands
3) What are some other Border Reiver families? The following is a partial list of the Border Reiver families - ARMSTRONG, BEATTIE, BELL, BURN, CHARLTON, CROSIER, DIXON, ELLIOT, ELLWOOD, FENWICK, FORSTER, GRAHAM, HALL, HETHERINGTON, HUME, HUNTER, IRVINE, JOHNSTONE, KERR, LITTLE, MAXWELL, MUSGRAVE, NIXON, NOBLE, ROBSON, SCOTT, SIMPSON, STOREY, SELBY, TAIT, TAYLOR, TURNBULL, WATSON and WILSON.
4) Where did they come from? The border region between Scotland and England has been a melting pot since before The Middle Ages. According to James Leyburn, author of The Scotch-Irish, the Lowland Scots were a mixture of eight main groups - Picts, Gaelic Scotti, Brythonic Celts, Irish emigrants, Angles, Saxons, Norse and the descendants of the soldiers who manned the frontier forts of Roman Britain. These, plus a smattering of Norman nobles and Flemish traders - even a few Hungarian courtiers from the entourage of Margaret Atheling, bride of Malcolm Canmore - made the people of this region one of the most diverse in the Medieval British Isles.
Certain groups were more prevalent in some areas than in others. The Flemish gravitated to Edinburgh, while Northumbria was ruled by Angles and Danes. Irish-Norwegian Vikings, fleeing from The Battle of Clontarf in 1014, sailed from Dublin to Cumbria, and settled from the coast to the Pennines. Celtic tribes like the Brigantes preceded the Norse in Cumbria, while the Gall-Gaedhil - Irish Gaels who had defected to the pagan ways of the Vikings - merged with the native Britons of Galloway.
Sarmatian cavalrymen, drafted from the plains of Hungary and the Russian steppes to support the interests of Rome, stayed to settle in Lancashire. Here, over time, they became as much Celtic as Roman, possibly contributing to the legend of King Arthur's mounted knights. Centuries later, more soldiers came, and Norman families like the De Bruses and the De Vauxes raised castles all across the land.
All these groups became, collectively, the ancestors of the Border Reivers.
Roman Ruins Near Hadrian's Wall
5) What happened to them and where are they now? The era of the Border Reivers ended abruptly when Elizabeth I died and James I was crowned King of England. The Elliotts had often served as mercenaries to Elizabeth, and had harried James's mother, Mary Queen of Scots, on her behalf. Consequently, they feared and resented the Stuart king. In defiance of the new regime, a large party of Elliotts, Armstrongs and Grahams rode into Cumbria, and stole 3,000 sheep. This last hurrah of mayhem took place in 1603, and has been remembered ever since as "Ill Week". Later, more than a hundred of the perpetrators were apprehended, and many were hanged. Many others fled with their families to the Ulster Plantation of Northern Ireland, where they served as a buffer between the Gaelic Irish and their English overlords. The Border Reivers thereafter became the core of that fiercely self-reliant people known to history as the Scotch-Irish.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, thousands of Border Reiver descendants had emigrated in the American colonies. They settled the frontier, and acquitted themselves valiantly in the fight for independence. Many others emigrated to Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The American presidents Andrew Jackson, Andrew and Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Woodrow Wilson were descendants of the Border Reivers. The inventors and entrepreneurs Thomas Watson, Thomas Edison (whose mother was an Elliott) and Alexander Graham Bell were descended from them as well. So were the generals Winfield Scott and Ulysses Simpson Grant. So are Lance Armstrong and Neil Armstrong (whose pedigree boasts a union between an Armstrong AND an Elliott) - and so is Billy Graham.
6) How are they related? The intermingling of peoples along the Anglo-Scottish border produced a tough, hybrid culture claiming many lines of descent. Individual clans often explained their own origins with stories as grand as any creation myth. A chieftain of the Armstrongs once recounted that the Elliotts and the Armstrongs were descended from two brothers whose mother was a Viking woman and whose father was a bear, and that the Icelandic Sagas had extolled their mighty deeds. (Most of the time, however, the Armstrongs attribute their origins to the mere son of a Danish nobleman, or to a brave Norman squire named Fortinbras who saved his master's life in battle.)
It is unlikely that all the members of any Border family were descended from the same ancestor. The pervasive social upheaval increased the chances that men sired by members of one clan might be born or raised under the surname of another. So did the matrimonial customs of Border families, which encouraged trial marriages and allowed wives to keep their maiden names. Moreover, the clans themselves were political entities as much as families, and many men adopted the surnames of other clans to obtain their protection and a franchise on their power.
There is particular uncertainty in the case of the Scotch-Irish, as much of their genealogy was lost or scrambled when they were forced to resettle in Ulster. There is even a rumor that the name "Elliott" was generically applied to many of these emigrants because of its sheer notoriety, whether they were really "Elliotts" or not.
It is a contention of the Elliott (And Border Reivers) DNA Project that many of these clans have multiple progenitors, possibly of quite different ancestry, and that many of them may also share some of the same ancestors.
7) Are the Elliotts one family - or many? The Elliotts are a prime example of a Border family that may have multiple origins. Consider the fact that the Elliott name has seventy-seven different variations - Eliot, Elliot, Ellot, Eloth, Hellwood, Ellwood, Elwald, Elwold, Ellett, Elewald, Aliot, among many others. Consider also the implications of the poem below.
The double L and single T
Descend from Minto and Woolflee.
The double T and single L
Mark the old race in Stobs that dwell,
The single L and single T
The Eliots of St Germains be,
But double T and double L
Who they are, nobody can tell.
The Elliotts may not only descend from different families. They may also descend from what were originally different peoples. The ultimate origin of the family - or families - has been a matter in dispute for centuries. Genealogical records were destroyed in a fire at Stobs Castle in 1712, and since then no one has known the truth.
According to some, the Elliotts who came from Glenshee bore the name of a stream in Angus. Now called Elliot Water, this stream was once called Elloch, which is Gaelic, or Eloth, which may be Pictish. Eloth is also nearly identical in sound and meaning to the name of a town in Perthshire, 18 miles from Glenshee. This town is called Alyth, probably from "ar leithio", which - like Eloth - means "high place overlooking low ground that floods" in Pictish or Welsh. Alyth is an old town, dotted with Pictish symbol stones, and may itself be the ancestral home of the Elliotts.
Yet another strain of the Elliott family began with a man named Robert Elwald, who was a squire to the Earl of Angus and, later, the Captain of Hermitage Castle. He most likely come from a family named Elewald which resided in Cumbria in the thirteenth century. Some of the Elwalds or Elewalds remained in England and eventually became Ellwoods, while the Elwalds who moved to Scotland became Elliotts. During the time of the Border Reivers, the two names were used interchangeably.
Elwald is said to derive from Aelfwald, an Anglo-Saxon name that means Elf-Ruler. An Anglo-Saxon origin is assumed because a Northumbrian king once bore that name. Yet the name Aelfwald is the same as Alfvaldr, which is Old Norse, and there were many Norsemen in Cumbria. Elwald could just as easily have come from Allvaldr, which means "King" or "Sovereign" in Old Norse - or Allvald, which can mean "All Powerful", "Giant" or "Strong". Other Norse names that could have been transformed into Elliott over generations include Ulfljot, Alfljot, Eilert, Ellert, Ellertsen and Eliassen. These and similar Norse names are found in Cumbrian genealogical records right alongside Elyot, Ellwood, Ellet and Elwald.
Some have speculated that Elwald came from Eld-wealh, which means in Anglo-Saxon "Old Welshman" - or "Old Foreigner". A Brythonic Celt would seem a foreigner to a Saxon. But so might a Sarmatian. In fact, there are place names in Ribchester, Lancashire, where the Sarmatians are known to have settled, that are derived from the word "wealh", and are thought to refer to the original Romanized inhabitants. Another derivation of Elliott is Elget - or "Old Gete". Getae and Getes were terms used in antiquity for eastern barbarian tribes like, respectively, the Thracians and Dacians, who served in large numbers at Birdoswald Fort, and the Indo-Iranians. Even if one cedes Eld-wealh and Elget to Roman auxiliaries, other Elliotts could still be Welshman, as some say the name comes from "Heliat", which is Welsh for "huntsman" or "pursuer".
According to another highly compelling theory put forward by Keith Hunter of the Elliot Clan Society, the surname Elliot is Breton in origin. Recent digitialization of ancient French records indicate that Bretons with the surnames Ellegouet (the precursor of Elligott) and Aliot (precursor of the Border Reiver Elliot variation D'Alliot) had resided in Brittany since before the Norman conquest. William The Conqueror brought many Breton troops to England, the whole of his army's left flank composed of Bretons at the Battle of Hastings. After the conquest, Breton Elliots were dispatched to Devonshire in England, Monmouthshire in South Wales and the marcher counties. Under William II, Breton troops were also deployed in Cumberland, England - the English West March of the Scottish Borders - the Elliots almost certainly among them.
At least one branch of the Elliot clan - the Eliots of Cornwall - is reputedly descended from a Breton or Norman knight named William de Aliot, who shot the arrow into the eye of Harold Godwinsson. To this day there are still Aliots in Britanny and Normandy - and Aliotos in Sicily, who may be descended from the Norman knights who followed Robert Guiscard to Italy. If Keith Hunter's theory is true, the Eliots of St. Germans and the Elliots and Elliotts of the Scottish Borders are not separate families at all, but offshoots of the same original Breton lineage.
Finally, the Elliott name could have arisen independently in many different families from the name "Elias", which means "The Lord is God". Unrelated English parents could have given the diminutive of "Elias" - "Elyat" or "Elyt" - to their sons. When those sons grew to manhood, they may have passed their Christian name as a surname on to their children. "Eloth" itself could refer to "Elath", the name of a port city on the Red Sea that appears in the Bible. In this form, too, the name Elliott could have arisen in families that had nothing in common beyond a shared religion.
One of the goals of the Elliott (And Border Reivers) DNA Project will be to genetically identify the many different strands in the Elliott tartan, and possibly to associate those strands with other Border clans or with particular regions elsewhere in Britain, such as England or Wales. Another goal will be to identify, if possible, the "deep ancestry" of each of these different lines of descent.
8) How can DNA be used to trace their ancestry? Dramatic advances in DNA technology have given birth to the new science of genetic genealogy. It is now possible to identify and compare certain markers on the Y chromosome, which is passed from father to son and changes very little over time. Science can now determine whether or not any two men share the same paternal ancestor - either recently, or at some point in the distant past. The more similar the markers are, and the more markers that match, the more closely the relationship between those two is likely to be. Two men with the same surname whose markers match exactly are very likely to be related. Even two men with the same markers, but different surnames, may be related - especially if their markers are rare and their paternal ancestors had a similar origin.
Another feature of the Y chromosome DNA markers is that particular marker patterns are more common among certain population groups than among others. The most general of these marker patterns have been grouped into classifications called haplogroups. Within these haplogroups, there are individual haplotypes, some of which are common and some of which are rare. Population groups in Europe, Asia and elsewhere exhibit different frequencies of these haplogroups and haplotypes. This enables population geneticists to speculate about human migration, and the genetic interrelatedness of different peoples.
R1b (Haplotype 15) - This is the most common in Western Europe, occurring most frequently among the Basques of Spain and the Celtic-speaking aborigines of the British Isles, such as the Irish, the Welsh and possibly the Picts. Scientists believe that those who belong to this group are descended from the original Paleolithic population of Europe, whose members took refuge from the Ice Age in the caves of the Pyrenees. The most common - or the "modal" - pattern in this group is called the Atlantic Modal Haplotype.
R1b (Haplotype 35) - This is related to R1b (Haplotype 15). Those who belong to this group may be descended from Paleolithic Europeans who took refuge from the Ice Age in the Balkans, and later spread across Asia Minor, the West Asian steppes and the mountains and plains of southeastern Europe. This haplotype occurs most frequently among Turks, Greeks, Hungarians, Romanians, and other Eastern Europeans, as well as among Armenians and the various peoples of the Caucasus. It is also found in Western Europe, where it may have been spread by Alans, Sarmatians, Goths, or the Suevi and other Eastern Germanic tribes.
(Haplotype 35 also occurs occasionally among Border families. My collaborator, David B. Strong, has already constructed a web page that discusses this phenomenon and what it might mean.)
R1a - This is distantly related to R1b, and arose on the Asian steppes among such groups as the Kurgans. It spread with the migration of Indo-European speakers southeast into the Indian subcontinent, and northwest into Poland, Hungary, the Ukraine and Scandinavia. Any male of British ancestry who belongs to this haplogroup may well be descended from Norwegian Vikings.
I - This haplogroup has multiple sub-families or sub-clades. As with R1b (Haplotype 35), the ancestors of those who belong to this group took refuge in the Balkans during the Ice Age, then later spread across the Mediterranean coast of Europe, and northward into Germany and Scandinavia. Males of British ancestry who belong to this group may be descended from Angles, Saxons and Jutes - or the Danish Vikings who invaded northeastern England in the ninth century.
G - This haplogroup originated in Central Asia, and spread into the Middle East and Southeastern Europe. One subclade, G2, appears occasionally among Scandinavians. This haplogroup and its subclades could have brought to Britain by Roman troops and settlers, and possibly by Norwegian Vikings. Since G is the most common haplogroup among the Indo-Iranian Ossetians of the Caucasus, it would likely have been common among the Sarmatians who patroled Hadrian's Wall and the Alanic knights from Brittany who invaded England with the Normans.
J2 - This haplogroup originated during the Neolithic in Central Asia, and spread across the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It may have been brought to Britain by prehistoric farmers, Greek or Phoenician traders and Sephardic Jews among the Normans and the Flemish - as well as by Roman troops and settlers.
E1b1b - This haplogroup arose in the Near East, and spread across North Africa, Western Asia and the Mediterranean during the Neolithic. Its presence in Britain may be a vestige of Roman settlement.
There are public databases that contain haplotypes typical of certain population groups. We can compare the Y chromosome DNA markers of an Elliott and an Armstrong, and reach some conclusion about whether or not they are related. But we can also compare the haplotypes of both men with those in the databases. Our Border clansmen would most likely be descended from one of the haplogoups and haplotypes described above and, with luck, we could make some educated guesses about the origin of their ancestors. The more Elliotts, Armstrongs and other Border Reiver descendants that we test, the more we can learn about the likely origin of their families - or about the branches of those families to which they belong.
This is why we have elected to establish the Elliott (And Border Reivers) DNA Project, which is hosted by the genetic genealogy company Family Tree DNA. Any male who is paternally descended from the Elliotts, the Armstrongs or any of the Border Clans listed above is invited to join.
10) How can I join or get more info? If you choose to join, you may do so at a group discount. Please contact the Group Administrator, James V. Elliott , or David B. Strong if you are interested in the project and wish to learn more details.
To e-mail us, simply click on our names.
If you wish to join now, you may order one of the tests below by clicking on this link.
# of Markers Group Rate
50% chance MRCA falls in this # of generations for exact matches
90% chance MRCA falls in this # of generations for exact matches 95% chance MRCA falls in this # of generations for exact matches 7 23 29 3 10 13 2 to 3 5 7 1 to 2 4 5 12 $99 25 $124 37 $149 67 $238
NOTE: MRCA stands for "Most Recent Common Ancestor".
If you have any questions about Family Tree DNA, please visit their web site and browse their informative web pages and Surname Projects, as well as their library of scientific papers. Among the latter, you might start with "A Y Chromosome Census Of The British Isles".
Our project has, quite literally, attracted international attention. Check out these articles:
This web page is dedicated to my grandfather, John Elliott, whom I never knew. He was born in Drumhome Parish, County Donegal, Ireland in 1878, the son of James Elliott and Isabella Graham. He worked in road construction for his brother, Robert Elliott, before emigrating to the United States in 1904.
After his arrival in Boston, Mass., John worked as a landscape gardener, and as a groundskeeper for the Riverside Press in Cambridge. When he broke his hand building a stone wall, he retired from landscape work and became a nightwatchman for the Hood Milk Company in Charlestown, where he died, on the job, in 1947. He built a house in Arlington, Mass. for his bride, Maggie Vance, a maid, also from Donegal, in 1915. The couple later had three children - Dorothy, Charlotte and James, my father. John never finished secondary school, but his son earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University, on the G.I. Bill, after valorous action as an infantry platoon leader in World War Two.
John Elliott was strong, hard-working and quiet. He was a devout Episcopalian, and taught his children to tolerate all persons regardless of creed, color or nationality. When he passed way, his funeral was attended by the entire congregation of his church.
Click here to visit the Elliot Clan Society