8. The Kelburn Castle Origin of the Boles Family: A DNA Success Story

The subject of this article is now covered at length in a  New Book!  Also mentioned in the article is a Boles family of Clontibret parish, co. Monaghan, Ireland, covered in The Ancestors and Descendants of Pearcy and Ann (Swanzy) Boyle (Bole, Boles) of Co. Monaghan, Ireland (2014). Both books are available for download through Lulu.com. Please press here to access the site.

In the 1980s, while preparing to write a book on my paternal ancestry, I noticed something curious about my Boles surname. In Pennsylvania records of the 18th century there seemed to be little barrier to the name being alternatively spelled Bole, Boles, Boyle, or Boyles [1].

A little investigation revealed two different causes. First, as surname expert E.C. Smith pointed out:

The addition of -s as it developed later was doubtless just fashion or force of habit, a friendly but meaningless ending to a name… [10]

That made some sense. But the second, more interesting cause actually suggested the possible origin of my family. For in writing about the name Boyle, Scottish surname authority G.F. Black noted:

This Scottish surname . . . is of Norman origin, from Boyville, otherwise Boeville or Beauville, near Caen . . . [David de Boiuil] appears as a witness between 1164-74 . . . In 1291 Henry de Boyville was castellan of the castles of Dumfries, Wigtown, and Kirkcudbright . . . In course of time the pronunciation of the name slipped into one syllable, written in 1362 Boyll, 1367 Boyuil, 1482 Boyle, 1500 Boyl . . . The name is not common anywhere outside of Ayrshire and Wigtownshire, where until recently [publishing in 1946] it was pronounced in common speech as “Bole.” [2]

In other words the equivalence between “Bole” and “Boyle”, names quite different to the modern ear because they are pronounced “Bowl” and “Boil” respectively, betrayed a possible Scottish origin. In the two counties mentioned, Ayrshire and Wigtownshire, they had historically been pronounced the same.

I was immediately drawn to this explanation of the equivalence between “Bole” and “Boyle” because my immigrant ancestor James Bole (his son William adopted the “s”) was a Presbyterian from Ireland [1]. The Presbyterian religion is well represented in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. I could easily envision an immigration route leading from southwestern Scotland to Northern Ireland to Pennsylvania.

Kelburn Castle

Taking my cue from Black’s discussion of the surname, I next investigated the Scottish Boyles. I quickly located records of an extraordinary family seated at Kelburn (or Kelburne) Castle, Ayrshire, two miles SSE of the town of Largs. They were distinguished from nearly all other landed Scottish families by having resided at their castle almost continuously, it was reputed, since about the year 1140. That was an important consideration, because the intervening 800+ years had provided ample time to spin off many descending lines — and Northern Ireland was just a short boat ride away.

As Black noted, the Scottish surname likely originated as a place name, specifically Boyville in Normandy. It presumably came to the British Isles on the heels of the Norman conquest in 1066. It spread widely throughout England, with one prominent family of Boyvilles taking up residence in co. Cumberland, on the border of Scotland, before 1130 [9]. It is thought to have been imported to Scotland as the result of a project of King David I, who after his accession to the throne in 1124 invited families from the north of England to settle in the lowlands. His intention was to create a garrison to thwart rebellion in the northern reaches of his country [3].

Allegedly the Boyvilles were connected to the Anglo-Norman Hugh de Morville, who was granted much of northern Ayrshire by the king. Under the feudal system, he in turn granted Kelburn to them [4]. There they built a castle, much-altered and supplemented to create the present structure. In fact there is some controversy as to whether any of the original castle remains, but it is thought that the east end may include a portion of an early building [5].

Although there are fragmentary mentions of the family at Kelburn in the early centuries — e.g., Richard de Boill in 1329, probably the same Richard listed in Ayrshire in 1296; Richard’s son Robert also in 1296; John Boyle in 1417; Sir Patrick Boil in 1433 — the connected pedigree of the family commences with one Robert Boyle, who had sasine (i.e., a transfer implying that his predecessor had died) of the Kelburn lands in 1456. He was the grandfather of William Boyle, who possessed Kelburn sometime before 1478. From William can be traced the modern family at Kelburn, in unbroken descent [6].

The great ancestor of the family was David Boyle, elevated to the peerage of Scotland in 1699 as Lord Boyle, of Kelburne, Stewarton, Cumbra, Largs, and Dalry. By patent dated 1703 he was created Baron Boyle of Stewarton, Cumbra, Fenwick, Largs, and Dalry, Viscount Kelburne — and most importantly, Earl of Glasgow. His prominence is attested by his appointment to the king’s Privy Council. He died in 1733, having married twice and having had several children [7]. It is through David that the present family at Kelburn trace their ancestry, and a representative remains the Earl of Glasgow.

KelburnCastle01In 2002, with my family I was privileged to enjoy a tour of the castle guided by Lady Isabel Glasgow. Much of the grounds are part of “Kelburn Castle, Country Centre & Estate” (www.kelburnestate.com), a park offering verdant strolls along forest paths and waterways; riding and camping facilities; and play activities for children. In 2007 the estate received international notice when four Brazilian artists were allowed to decorate the oldest portions of the castle (see photo).

DNA Despair

Over the quarter century since I initially suspected a family connection to Kelburn, I doubted I would ever be able to either prove or disprove it. At one point I thought I had covered part of the distance by tracing my Boleses to Clontibret parish, co. Monaghan, Ireland. That apparent discovery, however, quickly fell to ruin when DNA testing revealed that I am genetically unrelated to two descendants of the Clontibret family [11].

DNA testing emerged as a popular genealogical research tool at the beginning of this century. The most-used procedure is to test the Y chromosome in men for a set of genetic markers that can vary in number, most often 25, 37, or 67 markers. If two men have markers that match sufficiently closely, and they share the same surname or variants of a surname, there is a high degree of confidence of relationship. Because the Y chromosome descends only from father to son, the relationship is exclusively through the male (typically the surname) line.

Thus it was that having tested, I learned in 2010 that I differed in a number of markers from the two Clontibret descendants [11]. That outcome threw me into a kind of genealogical despair, because I was right back to where I’d been in the 1980s: All I knew was that my immigrant ancestor was an Irish Presbyterian who had come to the country sometime after the mid-1700s [1]. Because many Irish civil records of a genealogical nature had perished in a disastrous fire in 1922, it seemed all I was ever likely to know.

DNA Delight

In the intervening years, I assumed administration of the Bowles DNA Project from its founder. Despite the title of this project (located at http://www.ancestors-genealogy.com/bowles/index.html), it serves all variations of the surname including Boals, Boales, Boles, Bolles, Bolls, Booles, Boules, Bowles, Bowls, Boyle, Bolds, and others — with or without the friendly ending “s”. The duties are relatively light, consisting mostly of checking the results of new Y-DNA tests for relationships to existing members, inviting new members, and keeping the website up to date. My own test, of course, is entered at the site. Over the years results accreted that led to my categorization under “Group 8”, a set of about a dozen related test results from families appearing to originate in Northern Ireland.

In mid-February of this year I checked an unusually large backlog of test results. In the most recent batch I found that one new test, of a man named Boyle, matched a number of members of my group. I emailed a routine invitation, advising that the results placed him in Group 8 and asking that he consider joining the project.

Almost immediately I received an answer. It was from a professional genealogist in Scotland. He indicated that his client, who he was not free to identify,

… has a proven documented ancestry from the Boyle family of Kelburn Castle in Ayrshire, Earls of Glasgow.

To say I was stunned would be an understatement. With one simple genetic test result, my connection to Kelburn Castle was proved beyond any reasonable doubt. While the genealogist assured me that his client was not of the immediate lineage of the current Earl of Glasgow, he was a descendant of John Boyle (1688-1740), the 2nd Earl of Glasgow.

The Relationship

Of course I delved into the results as quickly as I could. I concluded that as Group 8 members go, I am not particularly closely related to the castle family. My best guess, based on estimates of mutation rates in the Y-DNA markers and of the average number of years between generations, is that my line converges with theirs about the year 1430. There is of course much imprecision in this estimate. But in any case it highlights the futility of attempting to establish a true genealogical connection: Even the castle family’s connected pedigree only extends back to about that time, and intervening records are few.

Other members of the group may have brighter genealogical prospects. A number appear closely related enough that they may converge with the castle family’s ancestry after 1550. That is well within the timeframe of the established pedigree. It is even possible that some are descendants of known Kelburn Boyles who moved to Ireland. Among them were William Boyle, who in 1614 leased Moyle in the manor of Donboy, precinct of Portlough, co. Donegal, Ireland, and his sons Robert and James; Robert Boyle, of Carrickmacross, co. Monaghan, Ireland, in 1665; and Thomas Boyle, of Tullochdonell, co. Louth, Ireland, in 1680 [6]. There was also a possible branch of the family located at Limavady, co. Londonderry. It descended from a James Boyle who settled at Limavady about 1660. The family used a coat of arms similar to that of the Kelburn family, although the exact genealogical connection if any is unknown [8].

For me personally, however, knowing there is a genetic connection is plenty enough. It means that I will always have a place in Scotland I can visit with some “pride of ownership”. For the first time I can stroll along its forest paths and waterways knowing, and not just suspecting, that I’m stepping in the footprints of my ancestors. I anticipate a very satisfied feeling.

The subject of this article is now covered at length in a  New Book!  Also mentioned in the article is a Boles family of Clontibret parish, co. Monaghan, Ireland, covered in The Ancestors and Descendants of Pearcy and Ann (Swanzy) Boyle (Bole, Boles) of Co. Monaghan, Ireland (2014). Both books are available for download through Lulu.com. Please press here to access the site.


[1] Boles, D.B. (2016). The Omnibus Ancestry. Tuscaloosa, AL: private print.  Available through Lulu.

[2] Black, G.F. (1946). The Surnames of Scotland: Their Origin, Meaning, and History. New York: New York Public Library

[3] Fry, P., & Fry, F.S. (1982). The History of Scotland. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

[4] Tales from Scottish Lairds (1985). Norwich, Eng: Jarrold Colour Publications.

[5] Information retrieved from http://data.historic-scotland.gov.uk/pls/htmldb/f?p=2200:15:0::::BUILDING,HL:7294 (2015).

[6] Boyle, R. (1904). Genealogical Account of the Boyles of Kelburne. Private print.

[7] Burke, B. (1876). A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage of the British Empire. London: Harrison and Sons.

[8] Boyle, E.M.F.G. (1903). Genealogical Memoranda Relating to the Family of Boyle of Limavady. Private print.

[9] Information retrieved from http://www.1066.co.nz/library/battle_abbey_roll1/subchap76.htm (2015).

[10] Smith, E.C. (1969). American Surnames. Philadelphia: Chilton Book Co.

[11] Boles, D.B. (2014). The Ancestors and Descendants of Pearcy and Ann (Swanzy) Boyle (Bole, Boles) of Co. Monaghan, Ireland.  Tuscaloosa, AL: private print, available through Lulu.

Picture attribution: Owner Supergolden, KelburnCastle01.jpg, retrieved from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:KelburnCastle01.jpg. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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