Scholars have long debated whence came the people and name Graham. Some say the Grahams are descendants of the Graeme who commanded the armies of Fergus II in 404 AD. Others are equally convinced that they are of Norman descent, while yet others claim a Flemish or even Danish descent. Even the early officers of Clan Graham Society could not agree, with first President Harry L. Graham holding to a Norman connection although first Society Genealogist J. Kenneth Graham was in the Pictish Scot (Graeme) camp. Which is correct? We will examine the writings of these and other scholars and allow you to draw your own educated conclusions.

Harry L.Graham and researcher Thomas Dickson Graham of Clearwater, Florida, wrote in From Whence the Montrose Grahams (1979):

“William de Graham was the youngest son of William de Tancarville of Danish descent, and Matilda d’Arques, direct descendent of the Anglo-Saxon and Danish kings. The father was a baron of Normandy, and went to England with William the Conqueror in 1066, and for his services received a great barony in Lincolnshire called Grantham. He also had great properties in Normandy. Eventually he turned his Norman properties over to his eldest son, Rabel, and moved to England where he later became Treasurer for King Henry I and Justice of England.”

William de Graham was born about the time of the Norman invasion, whether in Normandy or in England is unknown, probably Normandy. As soon as he was old enough, he became Seneshal (business manager) for his father at the Barony of Grantham in Lincolnshire, England. He took the name William de Grantham which was soon shortened to William de Graham (sometimes written Graeme). The book, The Norman People says: “In all the early records of England, Graham means Grantham in Lincoln; and William de Graham settled in Scotland in the time of King David I, (1124-1153) and obtained Abercom and Dalkeith.

“The English branches of the de Tancarvilles were generally named Chamberlain. The banner of the Chamberlains of Lincoln bore three escallops, which also appear in the arms of de Graham or de Grantham, originally from Lincoln. (Sir John Graham of Dundaff carried a banner with three golden escallops on a field of black. The same three golden escallops are a part of the Montrose Coat of Arms.) From this family descended the famous Marquis of Montrose and the brave Viscount of Dundee; also Sir James Graham of Netherby, the eminent statesman.”

Evidence from the Falaise Roll

The Falaise Roll (a list of those who assisted William the Conqueror) says, “William de Chamberlain de Tancarville, had a son, William (de Grantham) de Graham, from whom descended the Famous Marquis of Montrose, the Viscounts of Dundee and the Graham family.”

The Encyclopedia Britannica, 13th edition, says under Grantham: “Although there is no authentic evidence of Roman occupation, Grantham (Graham, Granham in the Domesday Book) from its situation on the Ervine Street, is supposed to have been a Roman station. Grantham, in Lincolnshire, England was situated…on the River Witham -105 miles north by west from London.”

William de Graham fought with the forces of King Henry I (1100-1135), son of William the Conqueror, at Laigle in 1116 and in 1119 at the Battle of Bremule. He commanded the English forces in the Battle of Bourgtesraude in 1124. He was in Scotland in 1125 when he witnessed a charter for the gift of land from King David I at Holyrood House.

William de Graham married a daughter or a sister of Odon Stigand, dapifer (meaning steward), an attendant at the Court of Duke William, later the Conqueror. They had these children:

  1. Rabel, who was his successor at Grantham
  2. Peter, who went to Scotland;
  3. John, who went to Scotland; and possibly
  4. Alan, mentioned by Stewart in his book, “The Grahams.”

William de Graham died about 1128. Future Grahams dropped the “de” from their name as it no longer had any meaning, since they were no longer “of” or “from” Graham. Graham then became the surname for all future generations.

Society Officers Divided

Besides the above authorities, Society President Harry L. Graham found many references to the people of Tancarville in the definitive biography of William the Conqueror by David C. Douglas, and in the 13th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

So convinced was he of his Norman research that President Graham added this note at the end: “This does not clear up the origin of the name ‘Graham’ and its derivation among the Pictish Scots.”

Society Genealogist J. Kenneth Graham wrote his thesis on the origins of the Grahams in 1981, advancing his theory of a Pictish Scot connection. This research, a synopsis of which follows, included a needling note to President Graham: “You can be a Norman if you wish, and I will stay a Pict descendant of one who was there with Fergus, and helped pull down a part of the Roman Wall in the early days.”

“I hold that our family line descends from the early Pict people in what is now known as Scotland. The Picts were there long before the year one; and though we may have intermarried with the incoming Scots, and occasionally took a wife from Denmark, our name and main line blood came down from the original natives of old Caledonia, and not from Normandy.”

From “Or and Sable” by Louisa Grace Graeme:

“No facts of William de Græme’s ancestry have reached us; tradition alone records that he sprung from a renowned “Graym,” who was the father-in-law of Fergus II, King of the Scots, and had come over with that monarch from Denmark. “Graym” is said to have married a Princess of the House of Denmark, and their offspring became the wife of Fergus. He also commanded the king’s army, during which period he attacked and demolished the wall of Antoninus, built across Scotland from the Firth of Forth to that of the Clyde, which marked the northern limit of the country conquered by the Romans.

“After the death of King Fergus, “Graym” became guardian to the young King Eugene (his grandson), and when he had restored religion, law and order to the state, he resigned his guardianship and placed the government of the kingdom in Eugene’s hands as soon as that monarch reached full age.

“Whether every descendant of the Montrose family accepts this tradition we must leave to their own decision, but it would seem that the characteristics and records of the family point rather to the Scandinavian than Norman descent, which is the other alternative of William de Graeme’s origin.”

A Mysterious (and Debatable) Inscription

For those who accept the former, a very interesting account of the building of the wall of Antoninus, showing its date and progress, may be found in Mr. Gillespie’s edition of the History of Stirlingshire, to which I am indebted for the following: “When Falkirk Parish Church (which had been built by Malcolm Canmore) was razed to the ground in 1011 a white marble slab was discovered amongst the foundations, about one foot square in size. It bears two inscriptions—one relating to the foundation of the monastery in 1057, and the other to the memory of the Thane who broke down the great wall. The latter runs as follows:




From the existence of this slab*, it seems that the tradition must have been accepted as fact in the year 1057. That the remains of this wall in that district are called to this day “Graham’s Dyke” cannot be disputed. (*Metropolitan Museum Edinburgh: This is thought by some to be a forgery.)

James Browne’s assertion that the whole tradition is “absurd fiction” is scarcely argument, and certainly not proof, especially as he appears unable to give any reason for the name the Dyke bears: the etymology, he says, “has confounded antiquarians and puzzled philologists” which he throws great doubt on its being derived from “Grym,” which signifies strength, in the British and Welsh languages of the period.

In an old black-letter book in the library at Innerpeffray, Perthshire, (the title-page of which is very quaintly ornamented and bears the date 1577 as the year of printing), is the most detailed account of “Grym” that I have hitherto come across.

The book is a history of Scotland, dedicated to the Lord Robert Dunley, Earl of Lycester, Baron of Denbigh, Knight of the Garter, etc. The author is one Raphael Holmshead. The following are extracts:

“The Scots and Picts being informed (of the building of the wall) they assembled together, and under the leading of a noble man called Graym, they set upon the Brytagnes (who were building the Dyke from Abercorn to Dumbarton by order of the Romans, making it of ‘turfe,’ sustained with certain posts of timber passing athwart the border) as they were busie in working about the same, and slue not only a great number of labours and souldiours, which were set to labour to defend the work, but also entering into the British borders fetched from thence a great bootie of cattaile and other riches, etc.

“This Graym, who as I sayde was chief of the enterprys, was borne in Denmark (as some hode opinion) in the tyme of the Scottish men’s banishment, and had a Scottish man to his father descended of a noble house, and a Danish lady to his mother; he himself also married a noblewoman of that nation, and had by hir a daughter, whom Fergus by the perswasione of the King of Denmark took to wyfe, and had issue by hir (before his coming into Scotland) three sons, Eugunius, Dongarus, and Constantuos, of whom hereafter mention shall be made.

“Others affryme that this Grayme was a Briton born, and that thro’ hate of the Romanes for their cruel government he fledde forth of his native country, and continued ever after amongst the Scottes, first in Denmark and then in Albion.”

“The Leadership of Graym”

The author goes on to relate that whilst the Britons were busy sending “ambassors” to Rome to consult about their defenses, the Picts and Scots advanced under the leadership of “Graym.” He was chief in repulsing the “Bretagnes, and razed down the wall of Abercorn, not leaving one piece thereon, so that only a few tokens are left to this day of that huge and wonderful work; it is called now in these days Grams Dyke, because that Grayme ye have heard was not only chief in repulsing the Bretagnes from the same, but also at this time in the razing of it he was the greatest doer.”

Mr. Gillespie’s History of Stirlingshire tells us this wall runs along from Castle Cary parallel with Bonny water. After clearing Seabog Wood, it passes on to Chapel Hill, where a small Castellum stood on the north side of the ditch. It is between this point and Eli Hill that the wall bears the local name of “Graham’s Dyke,” from the tradition that it was at this spot “Graym” broke through the military cordon defending it.

For my purpose, the years 1125-39, with their indisputable proof of the tenure of the Græme on Scotch soil, are sufficient. Certainly at this period, William de Grame was a person of assured position and wealth and established (as many of his descendants were to be also in the confidence and friendship of his king).

The first time the spelling of the name is written Graham is in the Cambuskenneth charters in 1361. Hitherto, it has been spelt Grame or Graym.

George Graham born 1669, the Bishop of Orkney and Zetland had a large illuminated tree of his descent which was presented by him in 1747 to Stuart Thriepland in consequence of their relationship though the monk’s mother, Anna Smyth. This tree is elaborately drawn out and shows 22 quarterings on either side; here and there some blanks are left; it is illuminated on parchment folded into a red morocco leather cover, and was drawn up to show his descent — a necessary qualification before being made Father Superior of the Capuchins. This tree is later on proved of some use in the “service” of the eighth laird to the Earldom of Montrose in 1770. On the left of the tree Father Græme traces his descent back to Græme the father-in-law of King Eugene, son of King Fergus, whose storming of the Roman wall in 407 A.D. has given the place near Falkirk the name of Græme’s Dyke, which it holds to this day. The centre tablet states that “This is the five and fourty branches of the stems of which those four brothers James, Patrick, Robert and William Græme are all heritably descended both from the father’s and mother’s side.”

Norman, Pictish or Danish?

Other sources and scholars had opinions and theories on the origins and we present some of them to help in your decision to be of Norman, Pictish or Danish descent:

From “Clans and Families of Scotland,” page 95:

“According to Buchanan of Auchmar, an ancestor of this family was appointed Regent or Governor of Scotland, during the minority of Eugenius, the successor of King Fergus; and, being engaged in war with the Britons, he led an army over the wall of Agricola, from which circumstance this wall has ever since retained the name of Graham’s Dyke. In the year 1125, William de Graham is witness to the foundation charter of Holyrood House, after which date the family appear as Grantees in many charters, and are incidentally mentioned in others, so that thenceforward their history appears pretty clear and credible. A Sir Patrick was created Baron Graham in 1455; William, third Lord, was killed at the battle of Flodden; and his grandson, Robert, fell at the battle of Pinkie.”

Dictionary of National Biographies, Vol. 6, page 51, another book on peerages says: “The name has always been written interchangeably with Græme, the Scottish orthography. The earliest traceable ancestor (for we reject, of course, the fifth-century hero, Greme) is William de Graham, who settled in Scotland early in the 12th Century. The surname, therefore, is clearly local and from its termination undoubtedly English. The only place in S. Britain of the name, which we find, is Graham, near Kesteven, in Lincolnshire.” The place meant is the well-known town of Grantham, which is found as “Graham” in mediæval records.

The Book of Ulster Surnames by Robert Bell, Page 81: “The name is territorial in origin from Grantham in Lincolnshire, a place noted in the Domesday Book as both Grantham and Graham. The de Grahams were an Anglo-Norman family who settled in Scotland in the early 12th Century. The first of the name on record is William de Graham who witnessed the foundation charter of Holyrood Abbey in 1128. He was later granted the lands of Abercorn and Dalkieth in Midlothian by David I. From that time the Grahams played a very important part in the affairs of Scotland.”

A Vote for the Anglo-Saxons

In The Clan Graham News, Vol. 2 No. 5, July 1984, an article entitled “Who are the Grahams?” states that “Until recently the origin of the Grahams and their ancestors before they went to Scotland in the year 1026 was obscure. We now know that the family ancestry of the Grahams is traced to the ancient Anglo-Saxon Kings of England through King Alfred the Great and the Norwegians who settled in the Orkney Islands and became the original Vikings under Rollo the Great. They occupied the western Districts of France in 911 A.D. and became the historic Normans.

“Matilda, a descendent of King Alfred, married William, the youngest son of Duke Richard I of Normandy. Duke Richard II was the father of Duke William I, the Conqueror. Matilda’s daughter, and cousin of Duke William I, married Gerold de Tankerville. Their youngest son, William de Tankerville, was a first cousin of William the Conqueror. His family were the hereditary Chamberlains of the dukes of Normandy and prominent in Norman history. They served with Duke William at Hastings and were rewarded with the Great Barony of Graham in Lincolnshire. The name ‘de (of) Graham’ originated here. Years later in Scotland the ‘de’ was dropped and thus the surname became ‘Graham.’

“William de Graham, who was an English Baron and famous soldier, accompanied King David I, also a Norman, to Scotland and, as first Justicar of Scotland witnessed the charters for Holyrood Abbey (1126) and the chapel (1128). He was given the baronies of Dalkeith and Lothian, south of Edinburgh. From this family came all the future Grahams who comprised the “Great Historic Family of Grahams” in Scotland, the Grahams of Montrose and Menteith being the most prominent.

“Twice they married into the royal family. From them came many notable men, including Sir John de Graham, right-hand man to the Great Wallace, killed in the battle of Falkirk in 1298; the Great Marquis, religious leader, poet, but above all, the most distinguished soldier of his time. He was martyred in 1650.”

Evidence of a Flemish Origin

The last theory we present to you on the origins of the Grahams was first presented in an article written by Claire Brooks and published in the official newsletter of the Clan Graham Association (UK) in 1998. In it she forcefully advances the possibility of Flemish beginnings. The late Roger Graham, then-chairman of the Association introduced the article as “… a masterly piece of original historical research, drawing together the many and various strands of the story, producing this lucid and readable account.”

The article states that “William de Graham was attending King David I of Scotland in his coronation procession in 1124. Many questions arise about the ancestors of William. Nine centuries later, the Grahams believe that he was a Norman and the son of a Norman, Ralph de Tancarville, Hereditary Chamberlain to the Dukes of Normandy.

“Recent research and writing by Mrs. Beryl Platts, an expert in Heraldry, now presents an entirely different identity for William de Graham, which is justified by her detailed research and her wealth of knowledge of her subject. She has published three fascinating books: The Origin of Heraldry, Scottish Hazard Vol. 1 – The Flemish Nobility and their Impact on Scotland and Scottish Hazard Vol. 2 – The Flemish Heritage, Published in 1980, 1985 and 1990 respectively, by the Proctor Press, Greenwich, London, SE10 8ER.

“Platts writes that our William was neither the son of Ralph de Tancarville, nor any other Norman, but was instead the son of Arnulf de Hesdin, son of Folk and nephew of Count Enguerrand, Comte de Hesdin in Flanders. Arnulf was of a Flemish noble family with an incredible pedigree and many lines of descent from Charlemagne.

“William, Duke of Normandy, needed ships and skilled officers for his invasion of England in 1066. The Flemish Nobles agreed to lend him 42 ships and crossed the channel themselves to fight with the Normans at Hastings and were duly rewarded in return for English land grants. Arnulf and many Flemish nobles fought on the right wing opposite Harold of England and undoubtedly contributed greatly to the Norman victory. Arnulf received land grants in 14 English counties, including part of Oxfordshire, where he built Chipping Norton Castle.

“William the Conqueror was wise to seek the help of the Flemish Nobles as they were the best educated nobles in Europe, who were great shipbuilders and international traders, experts in science and agriculture, not to mention their military prowess.

“Arnulf, despite the fact that he was a second son of a second son in his family, was nevertheless an important figure in Europe; he married a daughter of Ralph de Ghent, Peer of Flanders and Lord of Alost, and his wife Gisela, daughter of the Count of Luxembourg; and his father, Folk, married a daughter of the great European family of Vermandois. He was related to most of the Counts in Flanders and it is said that his pedigree was revered by the Flemish. It should be noted that local historians in Chipping Norton, Grantham and Shropshire County Council were contacted by Roger Graham and they provided considerable help about Arnulf and his own immediate family.

“The proof of the identity of William de Graham and his father rests principally on the Flemish Heraldry from the 10th and 11th Centuries and ongoing, which was of great importance and pride to the Flemish. England did not have a real development of heraldry until the 13th Century. The de Hesdin family heraldic devices were – “Azure, three escallops or” i.e. a blue background and three gold escallops – the Arms of the Comte de Hesdin. William de Graham would take his Arms to Scotland and it is interesting that a couple of centuries later Sir John Graham, a great-great-great-great-grandson of William de Graham slightly altered the de Hesdin/Graham heraldic devices by adding a chevron of the black and silver tinctures of the de Ghent family of Alost, into which family Arnulf had married. The personal Arms of the Duke of Montrose still carries in two quarters the three escallops of de Hesdin. Confusion about Ralph de Tancarville could well have arisen when he borrowed the de Hesdin devices, as did the Malet family also. The Menteith Grahams also included the three escallops on their Arms, as do the Grahams of Inchbrakie with rather different colors, and did several Border Graham families.

“The second piece of evidence as to identity is the fact that the Scottish Graham family and the Scottish Stewart family called each other “cousins” from their early presence in Scotland. To make the relevant point as to identity one must relate to Arnulf’s daughter, Avelina. Arnulf had four or five children – son Walter, heir of the Comte de Hesdin, our William, a son called Arnulf and a daughter, Avelina. Walter’s adult home was in Flanders. Avelina inherited a great part of Arnulf’s English property and was known as the Domina de Norton. She married Alan FitzFlaald, son of Flaald, grandson of Fleance, and great-grandson of Banquo, and one of their sons was called Walter FitzAlan who became the first High Steward of Scotland, whose family took the surname of Stewart. Arnulf de Hesdin became the grandfather of the first Scottish Stewart and father of the first Scottish Graham, which is why they called each other cousins.

“The third piece of evidence relates to William’s presence in Scotland and association with David, later King David I. David, Earl of Cumbria, the youngest child of King Malcolm Canmore never expected to become king. In his teenage years his father sent him to England, to watch over his sister who married Henry I of England, and he lived there until his accession. He married a very important Princess of Flanders, Maud, widow of Simon de Senlis, around whom congregated many Flemish Nobles, whose company David enjoyed and from whom he learned much. He and his wife spent most of their time in England until his accession in 1124, when he then invited many of his Flemish friends, including William, to join him in Scotland to help him modernize his country, and, among other things, he gave William de Graham land grants in Dalkeith and Abercorn.

“Fourthly we come to the matter of the surname. How did William come to change his name? Arnulf, after enjoying 29 happy and successful years in England, was accused in 1095 of having joined Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumberland, in his rebellion against King William II (Rufus) and was about to be executed when the pope requested William Rufus to produce an army for the First Crusade. Arnulf was reprieved, provided he fought a judicial duel and won, and that he surrendered some of his English assets and some of his Flemish assets, and also that he agreed to join the First Crusade, all of which he accepted. He left his children in Chipping Norton Castle. In 1098, he was killed at the siege of Antioch. The closest relatives of the children were almost certainly from the de Ghent family of Alost, some of whom had settled at the Manor of Folkingham near Grantham. His son, Walter, was to return to Flanders and succeeded to the de Hesdin Compte; Avelina was married; and it is a reasonable possibility that William joined his relatives near Grantham, which may help the question of the ‘Graham.’ Both Mrs. Platts and the local historian from Grantham confirm that in the medieval period Grantham people ignored the ‘nt’ in the name Grantham and, in fact, called it “Graham” and it was pointed out that Norman writers frequently left out the ‘nt.’ All of the Flemish nobles who emigrated to Scotland took more appropriate surnames for their new country. It is more than reasonable to accept that William did seek his relatives and settled in the Grantham area and remained there until his emigration to Scotland. His de Ghent relations took the surname of ‘Lindsay’ and William chose ‘Graham.’

“Finally, it is submitted that Ralph de Tancarville never set foot in England, as he remained loyally at his post as Chamberlain in Normandy, and his absence from England is confirmed by David C. Douglas in his book William the Conqueror, first published 1964.

“The research of Beryl Platts has rendered much important knowledge for the Scottish people about their incredible Flemish heritage and for genealogists around the world who have Scottish ancestry. She has listed at least 29 Scottish Clans which originated in Flanders, and there were more.”

Well, you can see that the many hours spent by scholars pondering our origins have only entrenched their resolve in the correctness of their own theories. The several and varied ideas presented here will allow you to draw your own conclusions and, perhaps, encourage you to prove your further research and arrive at the answer you find most fitting.

“Theories on the Origins of the Grahams” was first published on July 2000 in the Clan Graham Society 25th Anniversary Souvenir Publication, edited by Larry M. Nichols, former Vice President for Communications, Clan Graham Society.