Origin and history of the Gammell Name


Anglo Saxon - Gamel/Gamol
Danish – Gammel
Norse – Gamal
Old Gaelic – Gamall

The name or a likenesses of it is unusual, but widespread, across north and western Europe. There were certainly Gammell (or similarly named) families in the British Isles more than one thousand years ago and we can surmise well before that. It was probable that they were of ancient Briton stock, moving into southern Scotland, in response to invasions of Southern Britain. Some may however have been more recent arrivals, since there are certainly Gammells (or similar names) in Germany and the Scandanavian countries.  Indeed, there are also Gamell families from Girona, Catalonia, Spain.  It is thus difficult to be sure from whence our family originated, but it seems most likely, since we know our earliest ancestors were resident in Glasgow, that they came from the south of Scotland. "In Scotland it was a not uncommon name in the southern counties, especially in Ayrshire" (The surnames of Scotland).

Two sources are quoted for the origin of the name

The Surnames of Scotland (the following is a quote):

"Gamel "the old one", a common personal name, Latinised Gamellus. In Scotland it was a not uncommon name in the southern counties, especially in Ayrshire. Gamel or Gamellus, hostiarius, witnessed charters by Richard, bishop of St Andrews, a. 1173 (RPSA p. 134-139, Scon p.27 etc) and c1189-1196 he witnessed a charter by Roger, bishop elect of St Andrews relating to the church of Haddington (RPSA, p. 153). Gammellus, clericus, witnessed Lady Eschina de Lundon's gift of Molle to Kelso c. 1190 (Kelso 147) and a toft and croft formerly held by Gamellus was granted to the hospital of Soltre between 1201-33 (Soltre p.14). Warin and Gamel, 'norensi servientibus nostris' were witnesses to a charter by Brice, bishop of Moray of the church of Deveth (Daviot) to Spyny c. 1202-22 (REM p.53). Walter, son of Gamel was one of an assize of marches in Fife in 1230 (RD 196). William, son of Gamell de Tuinham, gifted the church of Tuenham to the monks of Holyrood about the same time (LSC 72), and about 1250 there is mention of a croft in Maxtun which belonged to Gamel, son of Walleve (Melros 302-306). Hugh Gamyl held lands near Langneuton in Roxburgshire c 1377 (RHM , II, 5), John Gamill was a witness in 1444 (Cambus 214), Gabriel Gymmill was a cordiner in Edinburgh in 1599 (Edinburgh Marr.), William Gemmill was retourned heir of John Gemmill, his brother, in Carrik in the same year (Retours, Ayr 24), Andrew Gemmello was burgess of Dundee in 1612 (Brechin), John Gemill took the Test in Paisley in 1688 (RPC 3 ser XI p.496).

Notes on the probable origin of the name of Gemmill or Gemmell by J. Leiper Gemmill, writer of Glasgow, and printed in 1909 for private circulation by N. Adshead and Son, printers, Glasgow.  

A PDF of this book can be downloaded from the downloads section of this website, but the following is a summary:

Florence of Worcester (Vol. i. p.223) mentions Gamel, who was an officer in King Harold's army, and son of Orm, being slain on December 28th 1065 by Tostig. John Charles Brooke read before the Archaeological Society on January 16th 1770 a paper (Archasologia or Miscellaneous Tracts published London 1779), of which a copy is in the British Museum, giving among other information of the family of Gamel, detail of a Saxon inscription on a large stone slab on the doorway behind the porch of the church of Kirkdale in Rydale (N. Riding of Yorkshire) which reads 'Orm Gamals son bought St. Gregory's Minster when it was all broken down and fallen and he renewed it from the ground to Christ and St. Gregory in the days of Edward the King and Tostig the Earl'. This makes the date between 1056 and 1065, and the inscription was still visible in 1909.

The history of Northumberland by Bates (p.102) mentions two vicars of Hexham of the name Gamel about 1031, and Doomsday Book (Additamenta p.576) mentions Gamel de Rogansepp and Gamell son of Godric. Radolphus Gamell is mentioned in Archaeologia (London) Vo. XLVII p. 105 and 106, in connection with ground at Barnsley, Yorkshire about 1231, and there was a vicar of Elsted, Sussex named Gamel in 1355/6 (Elsted Parish Records).

The earliest traced reference to the name in Scotland appears in the National MSS of Scotland (Vol. 1. No.38), which mentions in a Charter by King William the Lion in 1165 a gift by Gamel. It may well be that many of the Gamels retreated to Scotland after the Conquest. The estates belonging to Orm were given to a Norman noble. Various other references appear in early Scottish documents, for example:

Liber de Melros (Vol. i. pp.212 and 214) Gamelinus Magister, Lord Chanceller of Scotland 1250 and Archbishop of St. Andrews 1255.

Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland December 13th 1382. Protection for John Gamel going abroad on the King's Service, and again (p. 298 sect. 1485) Thomas Gamylle naturalised in London.

Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland. (Vol. i. under date 1474) for Dyk Gamyll 'for Satyne to lyne the cuffs of a jacket for the ,, King' (James III) and again (p. 73) for Dyk Gamell for a gowne for my lady. He seems to have been a court draper.

Registrum Magni Sigilli 1424-1513. (p. 490) Nigello Gammyll appears as a witness to a charter dated August 7th 1495 of the lands of Prestwyk Schawes in the county of Ayr, and again Johannis Gammyl mentioned as having assigned lands in Ayrshire (November 3rd 1532).

In the records of the Burgh of Irvine in Ayrshire Stephani Gammyll is mentioned as the owner of a tenement in 1542, and again in 1572, but this time spelt Stevin Gemmill.

From about 1550 onwards, what parish registers exist, become somewhat less uncertain, although still far from complete or accurate, and from that date on there can be found fairly frequent references to Gemmills/Gammyls/Gemmells etc. around Fenwick and Dunlop near Kilmarnock, and at Cumnock and Irvine also in Ayrshire, but somewhat nearer the coast.

Turning to more recent times, a study of registrations of births, marriages and deaths using Ancestry.com, and the General Register Office in England, and Scotlands People in Scotland, as well as other sources show that in Scotland while the name Gemmell/Gemmill remains common particularly in the South-west, the name Gammell no longer occurs in Scotland except for our own family. Edinburgh records include only 17 'Gammell' births between 1855 and 1888 and NONE thereafter, excluding in both cases of course those of our family.

In England on the other hand, apart from our family, there were two families of Gammells established before 1840, one around Manchester and the other in North London. The Manchester family, which was a large one appears to be now nearly extinguished, but the London family still exists.

The first of these new families of Gammells to appear in England was one from Cork in Southern Ireland, whose ancestor John Gammell made a considerable fortune in horse dealing at the time of the Crimean War. Other Gammells unrelated to our family, but living in England, appear to be decendants of Gammells originating from Ireland, where the name Gammell, although uncommon, has long been established.

The name Gemmell/Gemmill appears infrequently but widely dispersed throughout England, probably representing immigration from Southwest Scotland.

There are Gammells in Ireland, UK, the United States, Canada, Australia, Singapore and elsewhere, but the links between their families and this family, if they ever existed, are lost in history.  There are also many families with similar names to the name Gammell and those families too may well be linked, given that care over the precise spelling of family names was not normal until about 200 years ago. 

Against the above background, we can now examine the origins of our particular family. The earliest factual record I have been able to trace is an entry in the Parish records of Greenock West, Scotland, which reads as follows:

'August 19th 1727. William Gemmil, shipmaster, and Margaret Scott, both of this parish booked to proclamation of banns, and were married 31st August 1727.'

This man we know to have been our ancestor, but the important point in this entry is in the spelling of the surname. It is clear that in those days spelling of surnames in Parish Registers depended on the clerk or minister, who entered names as they heard them, and thus spelling varied widely. This is borne out by the fact that the children of William and Margaret appear in the same Parish Register under the names of Gemmel, Gemmil, Gamel and Gammel.

The Parish Registers of Greenock West from 1698 to the end of the 1700s, and those of the new parish of Greenock Central, contain no record of any other families of Gammel/Gamel or Gemmel or anything like, and thus it seems not unreasonable to assume that William Gammell (born about 1695) migrated to Greenock when of age to take up a maritime career.

The question then arises from where did he stem.  Looking at the birth records for a William Gammell (or similar spellings of the name) between 1690 and 1710 (dates which would have made him between 17 and 37 when he was married, which seems a reasonable assumption), gives 14 candidates all except one of whom were born either in Glasgow or south-west of Glasgow, but which of these, if any, was our ancestor remains unknown. (see further details here).

Further research is likely to be difficult, as is indicated by the following extract from 'Sources of Scottish Genealogical Research' by D.J. Steel:

'After the restoration in 1661, renunciation of the Covenant was made a condition of Office, and ministers were ejected. Many Presbyterians began worshipping in secret. From 1662 to 1689 the parish churches were Episcopalian, and even if parish Registers exist for the period, many baptisms, marriages and burials took place in secret and were not recorded - thus to trace ancestors from parish records prior to about 1690 is almost impossible.'

So our story begins with our earliest established ancestor, namely William Gammell, the shipmaster, who was probably born in about 1695 and probably sprang from yeoman stock from the area south-west of Glasgow.