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Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Origin of the Name Gemmill (Gammell)

The Scottish surname Gemmill is of Anglo-Saxon or Danish origin. The bearers of the name probably settled in Great Britain between the sixth and eighth century, when the Anglo-Saxons, and later the Danes, made frequent descents on Britain. The name Gemmill is believed to have come from the Anglo-Saxon word gamel or gamol, Danish gammel, and Norse gamal, all meaning old or ancient [i.e. gammal ‘the old one.’]

Another researcher goes further back in time to reveal that the third letter of the Greek alphabet is gamma and that of the Hebrew is gimel, both of which mean camel; an observation that leads that researcher to conclude that the names of Gemmill and Campbell share the same origin.

After the Norman Conquest (1066 A.D.), large numbers of the Anglo-Saxon freeholders in England were driven from their possessions, and many of them took refuge in Scotland, particularly in the southwest. It is uncertain when or where the Gamels or Gemmills first settled in Scotland, but circumstances point to a very early, if not the first, permanent settlement of Gemmills located in that upland portion of Ayrshire known as Fenwick. Soon after 1570 there are in the old Fenwick registers at least 23 properties held by different families with the name of Gemmill.(1) The progenitor of the Fenwick Gemmills probably first settled on the lands of Raith no later than 1100 or 1200. Most likely, the first of the Raith or Fenwick Gemmills was from one of the Anglo-Saxon Gamal families in the north of England.(2)


Fenwick Parish Church
built in 1643
taken December 2010 by Isabel Wilson of Glasgow

Here at Fenwick James Gammell’s great grandfather John Gemmell married Elizabeth Burns (April 25, 1745.) Their three sons, James, John, and Thomas, were all christened there. Many of the family members, including James’ grandparents, Thomas Gemmell and Alison Wallace, are buried in the Fenwick kirkyard. In this same kirkyard at Fenwick is the grave of a Peter Gemmell, who died as a martyr in the struggles of the Scottish Presbyterians. His gravestone bears this inscription:

Here lies the corps of Peter Gemmell,
Who was shot to death by Nisbet
and his party, 1685, for bearing his
faithful Testimony to the Cause of
Christ. Aged 21 years.


This man like holy anchorite of old,
For conscience sake was thrust from house and hold;
Bloodthirsty red-coats cut his prayers short,
And even his dying groans were made their sport.
Ah, Scotland! Breach of solemn vows repent,
Or blood thy crime will be thy punishment!(3)


Gravestone of Peter Gemmell (died 1685)
Fenwick Churchyard
Photo taken December 2010 by
Isabel Wilson of Glasgow (see her comment below.)

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  1. "It is interesting to note the various spellings, and how Gamal and Gamel gradually changed to Gamyll, afterwards to Gemyl, and, later on, mainly to Gemmill, though some still use the forms Gammell and Gamble. Gemmell has also come to be frequently used, but Gemmill is the older form, and is the prevailing spelling in the Registers after 1570.” (John Leiper Gemmill, p. 22.)
  2. John Leiper Gemmill, Notes on the Probable Origin of the Name Gemmill or Gemmell, Glasgow, 1909, pp.13, 15, 16.
  3. John Leiper Gemmill, p. 34.

6 comments:

  1. I am a descendant of the Templehouse Gemmills (Gemmell) of Dunlop. Would be interested in how these families are related. I am sure that somehow they are. I can follow my line back to 1474 to Johnne Gemmill, heir to Templehouse, which included properties of Holehouse, Netherhill, Thorn and several others.

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  2. As you will see on the Pedigree chart (on post: The Gemmill Covenanters) our particular Gammell/Gemmell line has only been traced, as yet, to the early 1700's in Fenwick. I believe that Dunlop is just a few miles from Fenwick, so there is a strong possibility that our lines have a common progenitor. I would be pleased to hear if you find a connection. Thanks for your comment.

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  3. E-mail message from Isabel:

    Hello Elizabeth

    I have just recently found your sight and am still wondering if your James Gemmell is in anyway related to our family! Thanks for your hard work! Your blog looks really interesting! I have been researching my father-in-law's side of the family tree and find that John Leiper Gemmell is his first cousin twice removed. I see you quote from his book of 1909 quite often. I hope you don't mind me asking do you have you a copy of that book, and would you know where I would be able to get a copy?

    We live about 15 mins away from Fenwick, so now that I've found out such a lot over the last week, I'm looking forward to getting up to the graveyard and checking out a few headstones myself ha ha. If I can check out any for you let me know!

    Kind regards
    Isabel Wilson

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  4. I do believe that James Gemmill is in my family line. My mother's maiden name is Gemmill. Her father's name was Leslie Weir Gemmill.

    Kim (Meyer) Wilson

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  5. I am a descendant of the Templehouse Gemmells. I have found a lot of information on this line in the online book at archive.org-"The Probable Origins of the Surname Gemmell in Scotland" published in Ottawa in 1898 by John Alexander Gemmell. There are some gaps but it is a comprehensive, detailed piece of work.
    Sheena, Ayr, Scotland, 7x gt granddaughter of Patrick Gemmell, born early 1600s

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  6. To sheenayr: I do have a copy of John Alexander Gemmell's 1898 book. I can only trace my Gemmell line to Fenwick in the early 1700's. I have tried to go further back, but it is very confusing -- so many common first names are repeated. Hopefully someday I can make the connection. Thank you for your comment. Elizabeth.

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