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Southwest Virginia Campbells

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The Campbell Surname

by Phil Norfleet

The foremost 19th Century historian of the Highland Clans, R. R. MacIan tells us the following concerning the Campbell surname:

"The appellation is personal, and is composed of the words cam, bent, or arched and beul mouth; the individual so distinguished was of the race of Dairmid or Duibhne, who is much celebrated in traditional story, and was contemporary with the heroes of Ossian, an antiquity which few clans can claim with equal confidence, but the Campbells do not come forward very prominently in national history until the time of Robert the Bruce." [1]

A modern (1988) discussion of the Campbell surname, with particular emphasis on the Campbells of Ulster, is given by Robert Bell of the Linen Hall Library, Belfast:

"Campbell is an extremely popular and widespread name in Ulster. Nothing can illustrate this better that the report of the Irish registry general for the year 1890. In that one year there were 349 Campbells born in Ireland and 279 of these were born in Ulster. Campbell was then the thirty-first most common name in Ireland and fifth in Ulster, third in Down, fourth in Armagh, seventh in each of counties Tyrone, Antrim and Derry and thirteenth in Donegal. Not all these Campbells were of Scottish descent and of those who are, not all are Protestant Planters by origin.

"The name itself is from the Scots Gaelic Caimbeul, meaning ‘wry mouth’ or ‘crooked mouth’, from the Gaelic cam and beul, and was, presumably, a description of the first bearer. … " [2]


Another twentieth century historian of British surnames, the barrister L. G. Pine, makes the following statements concerning this surname and clan:

"Campbell is from a Gaelic word meaning wry or crooked mouth. This must refer to the characteristic of some early chief of the line, … No family in Scotland has achieved greater success or more hatred (probably the two things are naturally connected) than the Campbells. Almost all the clans dislike them, even to this day, but it is perhaps the necessary tribute paid to success, for after every conflict or upheaval in the Highlands the Campbells came out of the turmoil with more property. Certainly there is no greater family among the nobility of Scotland." [3]


I personally can vouch for the unpopularity of the Campbell Clan among many of the Scots of modern-day Britain. During the years 1981-1986, I was seconded to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) staff at the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), located near Mons, Belgium. During those NATO years, I had numerous occasions to meet with members of the British Forces who were of Scottish ancestry, not only in Belgium but also in the United Kingdom. It is characteristic among Europeans, that when meeting an American for the first time, they are almost always interested in ascertaining from which ethnic group the American has derived. Of course, they are always pleased if the American can cite ancestors from their own country. In my own case, I would always try to oblige if I knew of such an ancestor. For example, when among British of English descent, I would mention that the Norfleets derived from a family that had lived in northeast Kent. When among Germans, I always mentioned that I was descended from a Mueller (Miller) from Bavaria (my mother’s side of the family). In the same manner, the first few times that I met British officers of Scottish background, I would mention that I had Campbell ancestors. Unfortunately, this usually resulted in me hearing a lecture about how unpopular the Campbells were in Scotland! Finally, I stopped mentioning my Campbell connection at all. Instead, I would only mention that I was descended from the MacFarlands and the MacNeals (also my mother’s side of the family). This usually elicited a positive response and I soon found that such an approach was a great social "icebreaker."

It is difficult to ascertain just why the Campbells are so unpopular in Scotland. However, I think it is more than just the jealousy implied by L. G. Pine. A 19th century British historian of family surnames, S. Baring-Gould, has a somewhat different answer:

"The clan rose upon the ruin of the MacDonalds, and its whole policy for ages was to supplant and ruin that race, leading to the massacre of Glencoe, that has left an indelible stain on its badge of the wild-myrtle." [4]

Robert Bell, previously cited, gives us a more modern but similar view:

"The chiefly house, the Campbells of Argyll, despite leading the covenanters against Charles I, despite their support for Cromwell (which cost the 8th Earl, later 1st Marquis, of Argyll his head at the Restoration) and despite coming out for the Monmouth rebellion (which cost the 9th Earl his head), grew in power throughout the seventeenth century at the expense of the McDonalds, Lords of the Isles. The 10th Earl was created 1st Duke in 1701 and his titles give the best illustration of the extent of clan territory at this point: Duke of Argyll, Marquis of Kintyre and Lorn, Earl Campbell and Cowal, Viscount Lochow and Glenlya, Lord Inverary, Mull, Morvern and Tiree. From that point they were avid supporters of the English Crown and led government forces against the Jacobites in the 1715 and 1745 rebellions. Under government orders, Robert Campbell of Glenlyon in Perthshire, a cadet of the house of Argyll, carried out the massacre of the Clan Iain Abrach MacDonalds of Glencoe in Argyllshire which gave rise to the famous feud." [5]

Overall, I believe that the unpopularity of the Campbells among the Scots primarily stems from the Campbell Clan’s consistent support of the English Crown against the forces of Scottish nationalism during the late 17th and early-middle 18th centuries. The Glencoe incident was a particularly notorious example of this support. Accordingly, I believe the Massacre of Glencoe should be examined in some detail.


1.  R. R. MacIan, The Clans of the Scottish Highlands (1845), page 30.

2.  Robert Bell, The Book of Ulster Surnames (1988), page 28.

3.  L. G. Pine, The Story of Surnames (1965), page 112.

4.  S. Baring-Gould, Family Names and Their Story (1910), page 377.

5.  Robert Bell, The Book of Ulster Surnames (1988), page 28.