A study in the philology and etymology of the surname Cotter and how it appears to be connected to Vikings, Norse Sagas, Beowulf and the Arthurian Legends
By Miriam Ellis
Researching our heritage can be an act of both honoring our ancestors and finding ourselves within a very long familial saga. If your family tree, like mine, includes the surname Cotter, then you have the good luck to be the bearer of one of the most interesting names in Irish history. This article, first published in 2006 and periodically updated since, has been read and responded to by Cotters all over the world who were excited to delve deeply with me into both established facts about our Norse origins as well as several intriguing theories which connect us to nothing less than the famous Anglo-Saxon tale, Beowulf, the Arthurian legendarium, and the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. My greetings to you and good wishes on this journey!
Basic Facts About the Surname Cotter
Professional Irish genealogists agree that the name Cotter is one of just five or six special surnames in Ireland of verifiable Norse origin. While there is debate as to whether the original name is Danish or Norwegian, all parties concur that the root name arrived in Ireland during the period of the Viking invasions which began in the 700s.
In your research, it’s vital that you understand how Irish surnames changed over time so that you can distinguish our family name throughout history.
Our Scandiavian ancestors arrived in Ireland bearing the name Ottar/Othere. In Sweden, for example, it was King Othere who ruled that country’s first dynasty in the 6th century according to Norse records and sagas. When the Vikings invaded unfortunate Ireland, the name came to be spelled Oitir. When Oitir had a son, Gaelic linguistic tradition called him McOitir or MacOitir (meaning “son of Oitir”). When the English later subjugated the country, they Anglicized many surnames and place names, and, in their ignorance, made nonsense out of most of them. What happened to McOitir during this period of linguistic anarchy? The “M” of the “Mc” got dropped from the name while the “C” stuck to it, hence: Cotter.
It is sometimes mistakenly asserted that Cotter is a diminutive of the Anglo-Norman “Cottager”. This is incorrect and is based on the faulty notion that the root of the name is “cottage” when, in fact, it is the well-documented and prevalent “Ottar” of ancient history.
An Exciting Theoretical Cotter Timeline
Ottars put in a number of astonishing appearances in both fact and fiction and the in-between realm we call “legend”. It’s fact that Ottars (variously spelt) appear in the historic records of Ireland, England, and Wales. It’s also fact that the epic Beowulf treats of a power struggle going on in the House of the Scylfings (Swedes) featuring the king’s son Othere. It is also quite lovely that J.R.R. Tolkien, the foremost Beowulf expert of the 20th century, uses the name Ohtar as the esquire of Isildur in his own epic account of the Disaster of the Gladden Fields. There is no doubt about any of this.
Where I would, however, beg the indulgence and imagination of my readers relates to an additional thought of my own. When I was a little girl, my father read me T.H. White’s Sword in the Stone. The name of young Arthur’s father –Uther Pendragon – stood out, as important words have always had a habit of doing to me. I always remembered it, and recollected it when I began researching my Cotter history and understood that our ancestors were really called Ottar/Othere/Otter. I would propose that Othere and Uther are, in fact, the same name. This gives us a rather exciting potential connection to another Celtic cycle of mythology and history.
To make sense of all this, I offer my own, original timeline to help give Cotters a sense of time, place and our identity across the centuries.
The Ottar/Cotter Timeline
5600 BC – Mediterranean Sea bursts the Bosporus, flooding the black sea basin, very likely spurring the beginning of the tribes we collectively refer to as Indo-Europeans. This large body of peoples, including the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Celts, Slavs and Norse, were located around Germany and they moved out into Europe and Asia. Their once-shared proto-language diverged into many tongues. When the Celts arrived in Britain is unknown – possibly around 500 BC, when they must have conquered the island’s native inhabitants.
55 BC – Romans arrive in Britain and subjugate the Celts. It is the Romans who call the Celts the ‘Britons’.
407 AD – Romans depart from Britain. Celts again in power.
432 – St. Patrick brings Christianity to Ireland. This is a traditional date – though it is believed he actually may have arrived as late as 461.
C. 450 – Invasion of Angles/Saxons/Jutes.
500 – The earliest mention of the name ‘Arthur’ is found in Welsh writings which go from this period up to the 10th century. Who this was remains a source of huge debate. All we can say from the sources is that the name was known to the Celts and that it was connected with some magnificent and peerless warlord. Who this was has not been proven…nor has it been proven that Arthur was even a real person. Great debate goes on. The name Art(h)ur would regularly develop in the Welsh vernacular from *Artgur, ‘man of the bear; bear-man’ by c.500AD (when compounded as a second element Brythonic -gur becomes -ur by c.500AD giving, from *Artgur, Art(h)ur). A main source for the name lies in is the collection of heroic death-songs known as Y Gododdin, relating to a battle fought in the late 6th century.
C. 515- C. 530 – The following entry borrowed from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ohthere):
Ohthere, Ohtere (the name is sometimes misspelt OhÞere), or Ottar Vendelkråka (Vendelcrow) (ca 515 – ca 530) was a king of the Swedish house of Scylfings. Ohthere is considered to be a fairly historical king of Sweden, the memory of whom has been conveyed both by Beowulf, Norse sagas and Swedish tradition (see also Origins for Beowulf and Hrólf Kraki). His name has been reconstructed as Proto-Norse *Ohtaharjaz or *Ohtuharjaz . He was the son of OngenÞeow and the brother of Onela. He was the father of Eadgils, and according to Beowulf he also had a son named Eanmund.
According to the oldest source, Beowulf, he was captured by the Geats together with his mother and his younger brother Onela. They were saved by his father OngenÞeow who killed the Geatish king HæÞcyn and besieged the Geats in a forest named Raven’s wood (wið Hrefnawudu and in Hrefnesholt 1). However, Geatish reinforcements arrived led by the Geatish prince Hygelac whose warrior Eofor slew OngenÞeow. Later Ohthere died and his throne was inherited by his brother Onela. This version fits the Swedish tradition which claims that Ottar resided at the ancient royal estate in Vendel, in Uppland, and that he was buried in Ottarshögen (Ohthere’s mound). An archaeological excavation in 1917 supported the tradition dating the finds to the first half of the 6th century. It was a burial befitting a king.
According to the latest source, Ynglinga saga, Ottar refused to pay tribute to Frodi. Then Frodi sent two men to collect the tribute, but Ottar answered that the Swedes had never paid tribute to the Danes and would not begin with him. Frodi then gathered a vast host and looted in Sweden, but the next summer he pillaged in the east. When Ottar learnt that Frodi was gone, he sailed to Denmark to plunder in return and went into the Limfjord where he pillaged in Vendsyssel. Frodi’s jarls Vott and Faste attacked Ottar in the fjord. The battle was even and many men fell, but the Danes were reinforced by the people in the neighbourhood and so the Swedes lost (a version apparently borrowed from the death of Ottar’s predecessor Jorund). The Danes put Ottar’s dead corpse on a mound to be devoured by wild beasts, and made a wooden crow that they sent to Sweden with the message that the wooden crow was all that Ottar was worth. After this, Ottar was called Vendelcrow.
Ynglingatal only mentions that Ottar was killed by the Danish jarls Vott and Faste in a place named Vendel, whereas Historia Norwegiae only informs that Ottar was killed by the Danish brothers Ottar [sic.] and Faste in a Danish place called Vendel.
Swedish scholars doubt the Icelandic and Norwegian localization of Ottar’s death to Denmark. According to the classic Swedish encyclopedia, Nordisk Familjebok, Vendelcrow was a name given to any resident of the parish and the ancient royal estate of Vendel until the present time. Consequently, Snorri Sturluson’s version could be considered to be a later addition explaining a cognomen, the meaning of which he did not know.
Moreover, the Old Norse expression corresponding to putting someone on a mound has two meanings, one of which is putting him on top of the mound, while the other one is to bury someone in a mound. Consequently it is thought that the tradition of Ohthere’s burial in Vendel was misinterpreted as his being put on top of a mound in the more well-known Vendsyssel.
See Ottarshogan here.
C. 520 – The Celts defeat the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon, halting their advance for decades.
577 – The Saxons defeat the Celts at the battle of Deorham, dividing and cutting off the Celts in Wales from the Celts in Cornwall. The Celts are pushed out to Ireland and Scotland as well.
597 – St. Augustine brings Christianity to Britain.
688-728 – Ina is the Saxon king of Wessex at this time. Possible earliest Arthurian legends date to this time, written by a Welsh hermit around 720 who said that a vision of an angel had revealed to him information about Joseph of Arimithea and the Grail. The book is dedicated to “Vualwnaus (this is Gawain)” and his writings do speak of some of the knights. I find this book being referred to as “The Holy Grail Book I”, but references to this are very scarce.
787 – The first Viking raid. They sack the monastery at Lindisfarne.
795 – The first recorded Viking raid of Ireland, near Dublin.
C. 850 – Harald Fairhair, the first king of Norway is born around this time. I note this here because I have found a brief and incomplete reference to the fact that in the long battles which went on between the Norwegians and the Geats (the Goths of Southern Sweden), King Harald is said to have battled with and killed one Jarl Ottar of Ostergotland. This fact was recorded in the historian Snorri Sturluson’s 13th century work, Heimskringla. This work was meant to be a history of the Kings of Norway, dating back to their somewhat legendary connection with the ancient Kings of Sweden, the Ynglings, mentioned above. When the actual battle between King Harald I and Jarl Ottar of Ostergotland took place, I am not sure, but it would have been between the years 850-933 as King Harald I died in c. 933.
852 – Vikings Ivar Beinlaus and Olaf the White land in Dublin Bay and establish a fortress, on which the city of Dublin now stands. Olaf was the son of a Norwegian king and made himself the king of Dublin. By coincidence, Olaf was the grandson of a man named Ketil Wether (and this word, ‘wether’ could related to ‘otter’, not sure of this). Ketil Wether was born around 806.
865 – The Danes/Vikings invade England.
871 – The Saxons defeat the Danes at Ashdown. Alfred the Great becomes king of Wessex. His reign continues until his death in 899. It was during his time that the Dane Law was established.
890 – Ottar was a Viking adventurer from Hålogaland. Around 890 he traveled to England, and Alfred the Great had his tales written down. Ottar told that he lived farthest to the north of all the Norwegians. He told about his travels to the Bjarmaland (White Sea), and south to England, accurately describing the entire Norwegian coast. He told about the Kvens, the Samis and the Swedes. Ottar’s tales are the earliest known written source using the term Norwegians. Much of what we know about the Viking Age Bjarmland comes from the Norse and Icelandic sagas, also from the writings by the Norwegian explorer Ottar.
913 – The Welsh Annals state “Otter came”. Reference to Jarl Ottar is also found in the Welsh Brut t tywysogion, “Chronicle of the Princes”. A ‘Jarl’ is a Viking nobleman or chieftain. The English word ‘earl’ derives from this.
913 – We hear of a naval battle off the Isle of Man in which Ragnall, king of a part of Northumbria, defeated “the navy of Ulster,” with their leader, “Barid Mac Ottir,” with almost his entire army being slain. I do not know the exact source of this, but found it mentioned in a book on the History of the Isle of Man.
915 – The Anglo Saxon chronicle relates that Jarls Ohtor and Hroald or Hraold come from Brittany to raid the Welsh coast along the Severn Estuary. They concentrate their initial attacks on Archenfield, the Ercing where Aurelius and Uther Pendragon of the Arthurian legends are first placed when they come to England from Brittany. Hroald is slain but Ohtor goes on to land “east of Watchet”.
916 – From the Annals of the Four Masters:
Oitir & na Goill do dhul o Loch Dá Chaoch i n-Albain, & Constantin, mac Aedha do thabhairt catha dóibh, & Oitir do mharbhadh co n-ár Gall immaille friss.
Translation: Oitir and the foreigners went from Loch Dachaech to Alba; and Constantine, the son of Aedh, gave them battle, and Oitir was slain, with a slaughter of the foreigners along with him.
1014 – Brian Boru puts and end to the Viking invasions of Ireland by defeating them at the Battle of Clontarf, near Dublin. Here is something of interest: Lothlend/Laithlind is Viking Scotland (and probably includes Man) and I believe one can deduce this from a close reading of a reliable and dated Irish source: the account of the battle of Clontarf in the Annals of Ulster dated 1014.
Sloghud la Brian m. Cenneitigh m. Lorcain, la righ n-Erenn, & la Mael Sechlainn m. Domnaill, la righ Temhrach, co h-Ath Cliath. Laighin uile do leir i tinol ar a cinn & Gaill Atha Cliath & a coimlin do Ghallaib Lochlainne leó. .i. x.c. luirech. Gnithir cath crodha etorra – In quo bello cecidit ex adhuersa caterua Gallorum Mael Mordha m. Murchada ri Laigen, & Domnall m. Fergaile rí na Fortuath: cecidit uero a Gallis Dubghall m. Amlaim, Siuchraidh m. Loduir iarla Innsi Orcc, & Gilla Ciarain m. Gluin Iairnn rigdomna Gall, & OITTIR DUB, & Suartgair, & Donnchad h. Eruilb, & Grisene, & Luimne , & Amlaim m. Laghmaind, & Brotor qui occidit Brian, .i. toisech na loingsi Lochlannaighi, & .ui. mile iter marbad & bathad.
Translation: Brian son of Cennétig son of Lorcán, king of Ireland, and Mael Sechnaill son of Domnall, king of Tara, led an army to Dublin. All the Leinstermen were assembled to meet them and the Foreigners of Dublin and an equal number of the Foreigners of Lochlainn i.e. 1000 mail-clad men. A valiant battle was fought between them…In this battle there fell on the side of the opposing troop of the Foreigners Mael Mórda son of Murchad king of Leinster and Domnall son of Fergal king of the Fortuatha; of the Foreigners there fell Dubgall son of Amlaíb, Sigurðr son of Hlo[hook]ðver jarl of the Orkneys, and Gilla Ciaráin son of Glún Iairn heir-designate of the Foreigners, and OTTIR DUB and Suartgair and Donnchad ua Eruilb and Griséne and Luimne and Amlaíb son of Lagmann and Broðar who killed Brian, commander of the fleet of the Lochlannaig, and 6000 who were killed and drowned’.
It would appear that someone, a viking, named Ottir Dub died in this battle against Brian Boru.
1066 – The Norman invasion. William the Conqueror (another Viking who was living in Northern France) becomes king after winning the battle of Hastings.
C. 1142 – Ottar, son of the son of Ottar, of the people of the Hebrides, was chosen by the Norse of Dublin as their King. This is recorded in something in Ireland called the Annals of the Four Masters under date 1142 which apparently states the son of Mac Oitir assumed “the chieftainship and government of Dublin”. The Mac Oitir referred to was one of the Gaels of the Hebrides. Gaels was the name being given at that time to people of mixed Viking-Celt origins from the intermarriages that had taken place from the Viking invasion onward. The Annals of the Four Masters or the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters are a chronicle of medieval Irish history. The annals are mainly a compilation of earlier annals, although there is some original work. They were compiled between 1632 and 1636 in the Franciscan monastery in County Donegal. The entries for the 12th century and before are sourced from medieval monastic annals. Here is the exact translation I found from a site on the Four Masters:
“The son of Mac Ottir, i.e. Ottir, one of the people of Insi-Gall the Hebrides, assumed the chieftainship and government of Ath-cliath.” I want to see the Gaelic.
1144 – Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Welsh clergyman, wrote Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), which is supposed to be a history of Britain going all the way back to the 600’s. This is one of the earliest writing known today about King Arthur. He also wrote of Gawain (changing the name to this from the welsh Gwalchmai), and about Merlin. I am not sure what texts he worked from, how much was actual history, or how much he simply invented on the spot. This book was hugely popular, and a surprising number of copies were printed and circulated. For the most part, this is a battle book…not in any sense a romance, but the splendour of it lies in the magnificence and valour of its knights. As you will see below, scholar August Hunt proposes that Geoffry of Monmouth created the person of Uther Pendragon by fleshing out the story of the 10th century viking, Ottar (Otter, Othar). Uther Pendragon is the father of King Arthur. It is important to note that Arthur is from the Gaelic word ‘arth’ meaning ‘bear, and in the Shetland Islands, ‘Arthur’ is the version of the Norse name ‘Ottar’.
1155 – Wace, an Anglo-Norman, writes Romans de Brut – a verse history of Britain. It goes from the founding of Britain, by Brutus of Troy, to the end of the legendary British history created by Geoffrey of Monmouth. He is the first we know of to mention Arthur’s Round Table, and also to name the sword ‘Excalibur’. Because he wrote in the vernacular, his work make the Arthurian legends widely accessible.
1170-1181 – Chretien de Troyes of France wrote the following five well-known poems. Eric & Enide; Yvain, the Knight of the Lion; Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, Cliges and Perceval, le Conte du Graal (Perceval, the Story of the Grail). His sources for this may have been both Geoffry de Monmouth and Wace, but neither of these writers had ever writted of Lancelot, so perhaps that character is de Troyes’ invention. It is de Troyes who worked the themes of courtley love and romantic chivalry into his Arthurian legends.
c12th C. – A work called the Life of St. Carannog is published in land “east of Watchet” **see above.
From August Hunt’s article:
“The Willet or “Guellit” River, adjacent to Carhampton, the ancient Carrum, is east of Watchet. Both the Willet and Carhampton feature in this work in the tale of Arthur and the terrible dragon (“serpentem ualidissimum, ingentem, terribilem”). This is the basis on which scholar, August Hunt proposes (in an attempt to associate Othar with Uther Pendragon) that this terrible dragon in the story owes its existence to the dragon-ship of Ohtor, i.e. a typical Viking ship with a dragon’s head at its prow and a dragon’s tail at its stern, and that Geoffrey of Monmouth made use of the terrible dragon’s presence at Carrum to associate Uther with Ohtor. After an unpleasant stay on an island (Steepholme or Flatholme), Ohtor and what remains of his host go to Dyfed, where Uther is said to fight Pascent and the Irish king Gillomanius. Ohtor then proceeds to Ireland, where Uther had previously fought Gillomanius over the stones of Uisneach/Mount Killaraus.”
August Hunt points out the following correspondences between Othar and Uther Pendragon:
|Uther is found in Brittany||Ohtor is found in Brittany|
|Carrum (as terrible dragon)||east of Watchet|
|Menevia in Dyfed||Dyfed|
1204-1210 – Two works should be mentioned here: the chronicle of Helinandus and the Grand St. Graal of the Vulgate. Helinandus, again, makes mention of the Welsh hermit’s vision of 720. I cannot find accurate information about the other work. I’m assuming it was written in the vernacular and furthered the ‘grail’ aspects of the Arthurian legends.
c1210 – Wolfram von Eschenbach, the great German poet, writes his version of Chretien de Troyes, Percival, “Parzival”. There are differences between the two, and Wolfram’s is my personal favorite.
1225 – Snorri Sturluson writes the Heimskringla – a collection of sagas recorded in Iceland. The collection contains tales about the Norwegian kings, beginning with the legendary Swedish dynasty of the House of Ynglings in the section of the work called the Ynglinga saga. This includes King Othere. The work then goes on to record the lives of the more historical Norwegian rulers of the 10th to 12th centuries, up to the death of Eystein Meyla in 1177.
1300 – The name Mac Oitir or MacCotter is apparently very well established in County Cork, Ireland by this time.
C. 1450 – Sir Thomas Mallory writes Le Morte D’Arthur, his collection of Arthurian legends which are among the best known today, and those from which most modern sources draw.
Onwards – William and Thomas Cotter were Gaelic poets of that century whose songs have survived till the present. Sir James Cotter was in command of King James II’s troops in Co. Clare. His son, James Cotter (1689-1720), ended his life on the gallows. His son, another Sir James Cotter (1714-1770), having forsaken the religion and politics of his forebears, was created a baronet and among his posterity were a number of Protestant clergymen in Co. Cork, including Rev. George Sackville Cotter (1754-1831), who was a translator of classical works of some merit. The name is still most prevalent in Cork. There are no less than eight place names in that county which incorporate the surname, e.g. Ballymacotters and ScartMcCotters near Cloyne. Recently, I discovered something of considerable interest while visiting the Danish website of the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. The staff of this museum constructed a Viking ship recently. And what did they dub this ship??? Ottar! You guessed it. See a video clip and information about this amazing project here: http://www.vikingeskibsmuseet.dk/page.asp?objectid=369&zcs=402
Whether you think of all of the above as pure history, or as a mixture of legend and fact, the conclusion is that our surname, Cotter, has a fascinating origin and has been in some very interesting places for many hundreds of years.
My Own Cotters
It’s my personal belief that our ancestors are our well-wishing host of witnesses to the part of the family saga we are now living. I have many, many Celtic-Irish surnames in my family, as well as the Norse Cotter, and thinking about the people and places has inspired many of my paintings, as well as my study of the Irish and Norse languages.
My own Cotters (and perhaps yours, too?) were living at Inchigeelagh in County Cork, Ireland in the early 1800s before moving a short ways off to Breenymor. It was from Breenymor that my great-grandfather, Sylvester Cotter, emigrated to California in the early 1900s, and we have been here ever since. When I showed my grandfather (also named Sylvester Cotter) my first paintings in my youth, he told me I was going to become the most famous person in the family. If I knew then what I’ve learned since about our surname, I would have told him that we Cotters have been famous since time beyond recall.