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The Origin of the Bothwell Surname

The name Bothwell is of Gaelic or Celtic origin and probably was used to describe people from the lordship of Bothwell, located near Glasgow some 9 miles (14 km) E of Uddingston in the South Lanarkshire region of Scotland.

There are several theories to explain the origin of the name, including one rather fanciful one about how Archibald "The Grim," third Earl of Douglas, was prompted by remorse to found the Collegiate Church of St. Bride in 1398.

According to the legend, he summoned two of his best archers and ordered them to aim at the rising sun and shoot their arrows as far as possible. Wherever the furthest arrow landed was where the altar of the church would be placed.

When the arrows were found, they were side-by-side, whereupon the Earl is said to have exclaimed "Both well shot."

However, since Bothwell Castle, where the Earl resided at that time, long predated the founding of the church, the story is clearly apocryphal. (Bothwell Castle was built by the Moray family in the 13th century. The castle later passed into the hands of the "Black" Douglas family, then became the property of the Crown in 1445 and was subsequently acquired by the Douglas Earl of Forfar and the Earls of Home, who finally passed its ruined remains into state care.)

Other theories, which are related, clearly appear more likely.

One, from Dr. George Neilson, is quoted in the book "The Surnames of Scotland: Their Origin, Meaning, and History," by George F. Black, Ph.D. That theory is that the name is derived from a "wuell" or fishpool in the river Clyde, which flows past Bothwell Castle and the Village of Bothwell. Thanks to Bothwell researcher Jo Hammond, who found this book in the library at Aberdeen on a recent visit to Scotland, and emailed the information to us.

Another theory, found in the booklet "Walks Around Bothwell," prepared in 1984 by the Bothwell Village Association, credits the origin to a combination of the words "both," which describes a dwelling, and "hyl," a river. Thus Bothyl means "dwelling by the river," a description which fits both the castle and the village.

Bothwell researcher Cecil Bothwell reported that at Bothwell Castle, the name attribution is Gaelic or Celtic and is approximately bothe ueille, later Botheuyle, which means "by the gray river" - the river Clyde.

The parish church in Bothwell, which really is two churches joined at the tower in the center, (the older part being the church built by Archibald the Grim in 1398) is built on the site of a Norman structure thought to have been built around 1165. Of the Norman structure, only a few stones and two memorial slabs remain, including one slab carved with the Moray arms, leading to speculation that it is the tombstone of Walter de Moravia.

Although the origin of the name Bothwell remains unclear, it appears certain that the use of it as a surname originated in the area around Bothwell Castle and the Village of Bothwell.

According to the Black book, the earliest appearance of a form of Bothwell as part of a name was in the period from about 1190 to around 1220, when William de Bothvile witnessed a grant by Bernard de Hauden to the house of Soltre.

From then until 1449, when Richard Bothwell is listed as abbot of Dunfermline, the word is used with the modifier "de," which comes from the Latin for "from" or "of," thus indicating the word was used as a title or a place name. The use of "de" appears to have arrived in the British Isles through the Normans, who conquered England in 1066.

These appearances, cited in Dr. Black's book, include the use of the seal of Ricardi de Boteville appended to a document relating to fishing on the river Tweed in 1250; a record showing that Roger de Bodevill served as a juror on an inquisition in 1259 relating to the lands of Hopkelchoc; a document showing Richard de Botheuile was provost of Aberdeen in 1342; a dispensation granted to Patrick de Bothewill, clerk of the diocese of Glasgow in 1346; a land conveyance in the tenement of Denburn in 1347 to Thomas de Bothwyl; a record that John de Bothuyle served as a canon of Aberdeen in 1366 and another naming John Bodvell as fermorar in Aberdeen in 1697.

There are other documents mentioning the name in Orkney in 1369 (John of Boduel), at Whalsey in 1576 (Erasmus Bothwell), and in Shetland as Bodwell (date not available). Other spellings listed in Dr. Black's book include Boudall, Boithuile, Boituile, Boithwell, Bothuile, Bothvile, and Bothwill.

By 1601, however, the name Bothwell as a surname is recorded in sufficient numbers to indicate that it had been well established for perhaps a century. (Thanks to John William Bothwell for contributing significant portions of this information.)

The Soundex Code for the name Bothwell is B340. Other spellings of the name include: Botwell, Bathwell, Boswell, Buthwell and variants of each spelled with only one "L." The Genealogy Research Office in Scotland is quoted as listing the following as possible transitional spellings of Bothwell during the period of French and Gaelic to English during the 15th to 17th centuries: Buthill, Buthell, Bedell, Biddell, Bodell, Bodwell, Bothuell, Boduell, Beddell, Bidwell, Bethell, Bithell, Buttell, Bodwall, Bodley, Buttle, and Butle.

A modern variant spelling is Boutwell, but there is reason to suspect that the listing of this as a variant spelling resulted from the development of the Soundex code. I have never seen a documented case of the name Bothwell evolving into Boutwell or visa versa. However, after examining various U.S. census documents, it is clear that anything could happen. I've seen it transcribed in the census indexes as Betherell, Borhazee, Rockwell, and Rothwell.

Although it is nearly certain that the name Bothwell originated in Scotland, it should be noted that there is a possible Irish source as well. In the 7th century in Bangor, Ireland, there was an abbot by the name of Bathan and there was a water source there which was referred to as Bathans well. And the Celtic tribe known as the Scots, who settled in and gave their name to Scotland, originated in Ireland.

However, there is no evidence of any Bothwell families living in Ireland prior to the time of the Plantations, which began in 1603 when six counties of Ulster--Armagh, Cavan, Derry, Donegal, Fermanagh, and Tyrone -- were "planted" with English and Scottish protestant settlers. Two other counties, Antrim and Down, were settled later. In subsequent plantations, the English government made other settlements in Carlow, King's County, Leitrim, Longford, and Wexford. This is a very cursory summary of the Plantation period, which was spread over nearly 100 years, and I recommend anyone seriously interested in the subject read more on it elsewhere.


A tartan is merely a woven colored cloth. But in Scotland and Ireland, these tartan patterns have developed into an expression of identity and specific patterns are associated with families, clans, military units, and communities.

Unlike heraldry, the use of tartans is not controlled by law, only by good taste and social convention (with the exception of the period of the Proscription Act that banned the wearing of the tartan or any distinctive form of Highland Dress from 1747 to 1782 following the rebellion of 1745 in Scotland.)

For more information on the history of the tartan and its use, I recommend the website of the non-profit, non-commercial Scottish Tartans Society (at, which also maintains "The Register of All Publicly Known Tartans," including Irish and North American tartan patterns.

A search of the registry does not show any tartan associated with the Bothwell surname, which is not unusual as only about 25 percent of all Scottish surnames are associated with a clan or family with a known tartan.

However, persons desiring to celebrate their Scottish or Irish heritage could legitimately wear an appropriate district tartan or one of the universal tartans, or they could have a new tartan created and registered in their name.

Universal Scottish tartans include the Black Watch (which was the only tartan allowed in Scotland during the time of the Proscription Act), Hunting Stewart, Scottish National, Scottish National dress, National, Brave Heart Warrior, Pride of Scotland, Flour of Scotland, Caledonian, and even Jacobite, although the latter has specific political connotations. Those from the Irish Bothwells could wear All Ireland Blue (or Red) or a local tartan such as County Fermanagh, which is one of the Northern Ireland counties known to have been settled by Bothwells from Scotland.

Site created 1 July 1999
Updated 14 June 2024

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All original content in this document is copyright 2005-2024 by Kearney Bothwell. unless otherwise noted. It may be freely copied or distributed to others for research purposes as long as this copyright notice is included. Any other reproduction or republication, including posting on the internet, is prohibited without express written permission of Kearney Bothwell.