The Origin and Spread of the Extended Sproul Family.


The earliest use of surnames in Great Britain is generally said to have been introduced by the Normans led by William the Conquerer. The famous Domesday survey was completed in 1086. Apparently surnames were required to be adopted by landholders so that they and their heirs could be tracked for tax purposes. Subsequently, the practice spread geographically and socially until every person in every locality used a surname. The spread occurred over a period of 200 - 300 years.


The earliest recorded use of the name Spreull is generally attributed to Walter Spreull, born 1244 AD in Scotland. It is unknown why he used the surname, or what is its meaning. Perhaps he adopted it because under the auspices of the Earl of Lennox and the Scottish King Robert the Bruce, he became a landholder, or possibly as a heritage (pure speculation) from an ancestor in the Norman Army. I have seen references to his father and grandfather, each also named Walter. All three Walters, it is said, were Senechals at Dumbarton to the Earls of Lennox. However, I have found documentation of the use of the surname Spreull only by the last of the three. I am led to speculate that the family of the three Walters were the keepers of Dumbarton from the time of Briton rule there, and that the first Earls, when they moved in, retained them in that capacity.


The estate known as Cowden, adjacent to, perhaps encompassing, the present-day town of Neilston in Renfrewshire, was granted to Walter Spreull by Malcolm II, the 5th Gaelic Earl of Lennox, in about 1305. There Walter established his home. It lies about 12 miles southwest of Glasgow. Cowden remained the family home for the next 300 years (approximately) until it was reportedly sold in 1622 by James, the last Spreull occupant. Recent visitors to the site describe it as a walled, or fenced, area enclosing trees, overgrowth, and a few piles of brick, all that remain of the former house and outbuildings.


In addition to Cowden, Malcolm II granted to Walter, in 1306, the proprietorship of the lands of Dalquherne and Dalmure. Dalquherne lies on the west bank of the River Leven, a few miles from its confluence with the River Clyde. It contains the present town of Renton. Dalmure lies on the north bank of the River Clyde just downstream from Glasgow. It is the site of the present city of Clydebank. The grant of these two properties gave Walter the title of Lord. He was also granted a coat of arms. Apparently the Earl was most appreciative of Walter's services.


My research indicates that in the period 1600 - 1630 there lived in the area about Cowden probably some 10 - 12 Spreull couples who were actively raising families. In that era, all Spreull marriages and baptisms apparently were performed in the Glasgow High Church, the renamed former Roman Catholic Cathedral. This indicates to me that they were all members of the same close-knit family, rather obviously descended from Walter. That appears to be the sum total of the world population of Spreulls at that time. From that beginning, the family grew and scattered throughout the English-speaking world, and beyond. The spelling of the name gradually morphed, along with its pronunciation. Modern variants include Sproul, Sprowle, Sprowl, Sprowls, Spruill, and more than 20 others. Both spelling and pronunciation vary by country.


I estimate, based on the best available census records from 1900 and 1901, extrapolated to the year 2000, that today there exist probably no more than 1600 Sproul households worldwide. The notion that most Sprouls are members of the same extended family is supported by DNA analysis. Of random DNA samples so far collected, the percentage of family matches has run consistently at about 75%. That is unusually high among European surnames. I believe that most mis-matches are also members of the same family. Although that can not be directly proven by genetics, I believe it may be possible to place a mis-match on the genetic tree by identifying cousins who do match.


The initial emigration of Sprouls from Scotland was to Ireland during the course of the Seventeenth Century (1600s). There could not have been many emigrants because there weren’t many Sprouls. The next step in the spread of the family was to North America, principally from Ireland, during the Eighteenth Century (1700s). There have been a smaller, but significant number of emigrants to Australia, Canada, and other countries since. It is in North America that the greatest proliferation occurred, during the Nineteenth century (1800s).


An interesting document illuminating the first 300 years of the Spreull family is The Ancient Spreulls by Robert James St. George Sproule. Chapter One contains a great deal of fantasy regarding the relationship between Walter Spreull and the Earl of Lennox, liberally blended with historic fact. The reader is left to determine for himself what is fact and what is fancy. The rest of the document is a more or less detailed account of Spreull history set in the context of Scottish history. If you wish a copy contact me.


I have seen references that Captain John Sproul, one of the more high-profile Scots-Irish Sprouls, was of Cowdenknowes. Cowdenknowes is a place distinct from Cowden, located toward the eastern side of Scotland. The old Lords of Cowdenknowes were successively families of Humes, Livingston, and Hamilton. I have found no evidence that any Sproul ever lived within the boundaries of Cowdenknowes. Historically, and yet today, most of the Sproul family lived in and about Renfrewshire and Glasgow, with a few in and near Edinburgh. I suspect that Captain John was actually of Cowden.