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The History of Our Name
- starting with some Clan facts
Clan Lands & principal estates: Ogilface Castle, near Edinburgh in Lothian; Carruthers in Annandale; Newgrange, North Berwick; Newmylne and Stenton in Lothian; Redcastle on the Black Isle; the thanage of Colpney/Belhelvie in Aberdeenshire; the thanages of Kincardine and Fettercairn, and Balbegno Castle on the River Norh Esk in Kincardineshire; Craig Castle in Angus by Montrose; the barony of Largo in Fife; Grange, Orky, Anstruther and Lambieletham all in Fife; Bonnytoun Castle (Bonnington) in Angus; Raik in Aberdeen; (further land holdings in Lothian, Perthshire, Nairnshire and Banffshire).
The fortunes of every clan/family's territories have waxed and waned over time; their extent and jurisdiction have fluctuated enormously and continually. The same applies to the clans themselves, and Clan Wood being distinguished by the heraldry and ensigns of its lawful Chief conferred on behalf of the Sovereign is just another part of that enduring process.
The earliest surviving mentions of the name in Scottish annals date back to Lord Wilhelmus (Wm.) de Bosco (bosco = a latinised form for wood). On the 28th June 1211, King William the Lion appointed him Chancellor of Scotland, in which dignity he was confirmed by King Alexander II when the dominance of powerful Normans in Scotland was at its height. William lived and worked in the populous and comparatively well-heeled Lothian region (see the map below) - presumably at Ogilface by Edinburgh. He was concurrently Archdeacon of Lothian from 1214 till his death in 1231. [Back in 1203, the castle, lands and income of Ogilface were bestowed on Edinburgh's Holyrood Abbey - founded by King David I in 1128 - whose church was being rebuilt at the time.] One of the most influential noblemen of his day, William would have been the obvious choice to be their tenant-in-chief. In due course, the estate became a free barony fully within the control of his family, from which our chiefly family is descended.
A number of other men also named de Bosco were occupied in the service of the king during and after William the Chancellor's time. By the second half of the century, it was a §Sir Andrew de Bosco who was laird of Redcastle on the Black Isle in the Highlands near Inverness. His wife Elizabeth de Bisset possessed Kilravock on the River Nairn. Their only daughter Mary married Hugo (Hugh) de Ros, who acquired Kilravock Castle through her in 1293 (probably in dowry), and it has been the seat - rebuilt from 1460 - of the Chiefs of Clan Rose ever since. On the 10th of August 1295, William de Wod, Sir Andrew's younger son, was witness to an Inquest at nearby Cawdor into the extent of the Kilravock estates. [The same document gets a mention in the piece reproduced below entitled The Thanes.] In later times there lived a significant William de Bosco, Thane of Colpney (aka Overblairton, Belhelvie where Donald Trump has installed his golf course) near Aberdeen, from whose third son, Walter, derived the name Walterson ('Walter his son') which, we are apocryphally assured, evolved into the contracted form 'Watson'.
Redcastle, Black Isle
At the foot of this page is an article, written for and about Cawdor Castle, which is pertinent to the Woods and describes what a thane was in mediaeval Scotland.
With forenames like William, Ralph, Hugo, Walter and Richard, the earliest de Boscos (also referred to in Latin chronicles as de Vosco, de Boreo, Bois, Boys and Bosch) were Norman aristocrats who were quite close to the sovereign.
For generations, significant families like the Woods ineluctably shared elements of their culture with nearby Highland clans, some of whose territories were but a moderate horse-ride from Belhelvie, for instance. Such factors will have helped early on to spread the adoption of practices associated with the Norman feudal system that seem to have suited the Highlanders' way of doing things.
That particular branch of the de Bosco/Wood family and their kinsmen, along with their complement of vassals and retainers requisite for such dynasties to exercise their superiority and ensure their defence, appears to have remained settled in the region. Then the thanages of Fettercairn and Aberluthnot, including the sheriffdom and bailliewick of Kincardine, were confirmed (i.e., renewed) by a charter of King James III to Andro Wod of Overblairton, Belhelvie, 'our loyal and familiar servitor'. (The use of the term 'familiar' - which meant in those days, 'a friend, an intimate, a confidant' - tells us that he must have spent a fair portion of his time at Court, like his contemporary namesake and Chief, Admiral Sir Andrew Wood of Largo and their successors.) The charter explains that the family had occupied those lands 'even for a long time bypast', and had served the household of his father, James II (1437-1460). The Woods were still there when James Wood, Laird of Balbegno, and Alexander Wood of Nether Benholm were both appointed in 1646 by the Scottish parliament to serve on King Charles I's Committee of War for the Sheriffdom of Kincardine. Such appointments, though honours, carried with them ruinously costly liabilities like the duty to raise, train and arm a body of men from among their adherents and dependants to fight in the king's cause. When the king lost the Civil War and his head in 1649, many such leading Royalist families forfeited their estates. Most were reinstated after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, but the price had been too high for a lot of families to avert steady decline and even ultimate insolvency: harrowing for them; catastrophic for their dependent peoples.
After 1066 and all that...
There exists a 'family tree' that stems from one Guillaume (Wm.) de Boissay, born around 1020 AD in the tiny village of Boissay (= woodland) just 20km from Rouen, capital city of Normandy. His named children are subsequently recorded in England, which tells us that the family crossed the Channel following the Duke of Normandy, thereafter known as King William the Conqueror, in or soon after 1066. Just a few generations in time later appears our aforementioned Wilhelmus de Bosco, a favourite of the Scottish Crown and a power within the Church. At the close of the twelfth century, Walter de Bosco held Carruthers, a then populous corner of Annandale of which the Bruces (de Bruis) were famously the lords. In 1320, Sir Thomas de Bosco - see below - is recorded as Baron of Ogilface close by Edinburgh. (Both of these latter baronial estates and their incomes were eventually gifted to the Church "for the salvation of [the donors' families'] immortal souls". More about this later.)
The site of Ogilface Castle (Celtic with a 'soft mutation': uchelmaes = high plain)
The adjacent property, coincidentally, is Woodend Farm!
Several men named de Bosco/Bois were prominent during the wars of independence. For instance, four months after the Scots were defeated by King Edward I - 'Longshanks' - of England at the Battle of Dunbar in April 1296, both Thomas de Bosco of Ogilface and Sir Humfrey de Bosco were among the 1,800 Scottish nobles compelled to give homage to King Edward at Berwick-on-Tweed, though Sir Andrew de Bosco of Redcastle stayed fast in the north. Thirteen months later, a Scottish army led by nobleman Andrew Moray and William Wallace (Hollywood's 'Braveheart') routed an English army at Stirling Bridge. However, Edward regained the upper hand in 1298 at the Battle of Falkirk. It was recorded by 1301 that Sir Andrew and Thomas had taken up arms against Edward and in response to this, in 1303, Edward 'the Hammer of the Scots' issued letters of forfeiture against Thomas, removing from him his extensive manor of Ogilface and granting it to William Dacre, resident guardian of the English border county of Cumberland. [Two centuries later in 1513, the Dacres would play a role in defeating the Scots at Flodden.]
The de Boscos' faithfulness to the Scottish cause was to make further tolls on the clan's principal families. In 1304, Sir Andrew was commander of the garrison of Urquhart Castle on the north-western shore of legendary Loch Ness. During its seige by pro-English forces, he was killed within its walls when they were eventually breached by the attackers. For attempting 'to steal the king's jewels'. Thomas was taken prisoner and incarcerated in Edinburgh Castle (he was actually trying to prevent Scotland's Crown Jewels from being plundered and expatriated by Edward who had already carried away to Westminster Abbey the sacred Stone of Scone - pron. skoon or skewn - on which kings of Scotland traditionally were seated while being crowned). On the 12th of April 1305, King Edward issued an order to have him moved from Edinburgh to the Tower of London. He is not heard of afterwards and is presumed to have been executed. From this we can deduce that to have simply executed him in Scotland would have sparked popular insurrection, for the people must have regarded him as a true hero of their shamed and oppressed nation. Following the Scots' victory at Banockburn in June 1314, the lands of Ogilface were returned to Thomas his son who was knighted by King Robert I - The Bruce, quite likely as much for his father's ultimate sacrifice in defending the Honours of Scotland as for the valour he himself had shown during that momentous battle.
Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness
So were those de Boscos really the progenitors of our line of chiefs? Many, if not most Scottish clans and families have difficulty in identifying their founders with absolute certainty, but royal gratitude and patronage tended to accompany the Woods and their following even from those distant centuries when the modern nation was being founded, and several of them, right down to the Andrew Wood of Largo in James VI's time, were appointed to high offices such as Chancellor and Comptroller of Scotland. In 2014, research commissioned by the Clan Wood Society and carried out by one of Scotland's most respected historians and genealogists, Gordon A. MacGregor, brought to light primary documentary evidence showing that the Woods who erected the Fife barony of Largo were the senior line of the family that had firmly established itself in Lothian generations before them. This is further corroborated by the 15th century replication of Sir Thomas of Ogilface's armorial bearings on the seal of Alexander de Wod, the Admiral's father. Despite Sir Thomas's pious daughter, Beatrix, having given away their ancestral barony to the Church in 1386, the family was possessed of properties in Edinburgh, Leith, Dundee and feasibly in foreign ports where they conducted their long-established business. By the mores of their times, the 'quality' of their marital unions during the intervening century continued to reflect their inherent high social standing and their obvious wealth which was sustained by their diplomatic skills and maritime trading interests rather than holding large, populated country estates like their kinsmen further north - though their situation could be said to have normalised when Andrew Wod of Largo and his first cousin Walter Wod of Bonnytoun and Raik acquired their baronies within a few years of each other. Both were armigers to the king.
[It is worthy of note that a number of members of this Society reside in, or have their origins in the Wood homelands referred to here.]
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Historical Revisionism about Scotland's people has been rife down the centuries, so here is a modest attempt to put a few records straight.
The erroneous notion that clans are Highland groups and families are Lowland units is very much a Victorian (19th century) one. In fact, the terms are interchangeable, and many a Lowland laird has held from the Lyon Court the title ‘Chief of the Name and Arms’, together with a Standard and Pinsel (heraldic flags) granted to those, like the Woods, with a clan following. (Vide the authoritative treatise written by Sir Crispin Agnew QC, Rothesay Herald of Arms in Ordinary at the Court of the Lord Lyon, reproduced at - http://www.scotarmigers.net/pdfs/info-leaflet-11.pdf .) Another myth - that only Highlanders wore tartan - was perhaps propagated by those Lowlanders wishing to distance themselves from the defeated Jacobite clans (though some of those clans were divided in their loyalties), during the dangerous years of retribution following the 1746 Battle of Culloden. However, the Scottish Tartans Authority has plenty of evidence to show that it was quite usual for Lowlanders, too, to wear district tartans that later became family-associated, and indeed that the central and border counties of the south had always been a major centre for weaving tweed and tartan cloth of the finest quality. They still are.
This is not to say that the powerful Lowland families organised themselves in the same way as those of the Highlands and of the Borders. But the differences and the bounderies between them were never as clear-cut as some would have it. Human social structures simply do not work as conveniently as that. Lots of Scottish families had their origins in the north, south and middle of the country, not to mention continental Europe. It is probable that most Scots were never part of a clan system. One traditional centre of Wood influence was evidentially seaward of the 'fuzzy' eastern margins of the Highlands. Society and boundaries change, often piecemeal, and with them people's perceptions and aspirations. History still exerts an enormous impact on the present, but that does not mean that people of the 21st century want their lives actually to be governed by the conventions of the past. Modern clan societies record, commemorate and celebrate their members' shared heritage partly because the great appeal of those activities can forge global fellowships and personal friendships. In the process we must never forget to learn from our history - but let our understanding of that history not be skewed or tainted by misplaced zealotry.
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- and now, how people came by their surnames
Before family surnames that pass unchanged from father to son had become commonplace by the late14th century, most non-landed people possessed only the name that was chosen for them by their parents - which, as Christendom expanded, came to be at their baptism. This meant that large numbers of individuals had the same name as others in their community, so ways of better distinguishing each from the others evolved. Many were identified with features that described where they lived (e.g., John [of or at the] ford, hill, brook, townsend, heath, wood, field, cross, moor and so on; or with the name of a village, town or district that they came from - in Norman and later Huguenot French, de Wherever); or their association with the customary handed-down role performed by a family in the popular local religious or mummers' street-theatre plays (like John [the] king, lord, duke, earl, baron, St. George, St. John ("sinjun"), knight, shepherd, wiseman, bishop, priest, deacon, monk, abbot); or with their occupation (John [the] miller, archer, mason, carpenter, shepherd again, thatcher, wheelwright, potter etc.). But people exclusively so surnamed are today nowhere near as numerous as the Woods. In fact, during the early Middle Ages much of the population lived either in or near woodland - the only source of fuel for the majority, so there was nothing especially distinctive or 'nameworthy' about it; moreover, using their own woodcraft skills was essential to the workaday life of all peasants and farmers. It is often said that the surname Wood derives from Anglo-Saxon 'wudu' meaning a wood or forest. No doubt that is true of the word, but not necessarily of the surname. It seems there are too many of us for that to have been the sole origin.
In the year 2000, Wood was the 61st of Scotland's top surnames, and the 25th in the UK as a whole.
Individuals were also known by nicknames reflecting their physical or behavioural characteristics (John [the] short, wise, cruickshank, sweet, toogood, armstrong, peacock - king and pope sometimes signifying 'haughty'). The most frequent surname throughout the United Kingdom is Smith. That derives from 'smitan' the ancient word for 'to smite' (a blacksmith is an iron beater). It is understandable that members of the bellicose warrior tribes of those centuries would want to be famous for being smiters, hence the popularity today of the name Smith. Similarly then, Wood as a nickname probably came from the Anglo-Saxon Wode or Wod, the Germanic storm god of great antiquity known for his wildness (links with Woden/Odin/Wotan, from whom we get Wednesday). Wod, therefore, generally came to mean 'wild' or 'crazy', signifying one who becomes frenzied or savage in the midst of battle - surely a compliment in an unstable, warlike society, and one to prize as a patronymic. It was how our chiefly family, the Woods of Largo, were still spelling their name well into the 17th. century. Writers as late as Shakespeare used 'wod' in the sense of being wild. Arguably, in a fiercely Christian world, that association with an unmentionable pagan god would not have gone down very well, so it can be imagined how comfortably a collective forgetfulness of the connection might have set in. By the 15th century, there were surnames spelt both Wod and Wood (they may have sounded the same) of families resident in the main towns, and supposedly it was when the former had finally become 'modernised' to Wood by the late 17th century that the large numbers of us became evident.
It is believed that numerous Scots Anglicised their Gaelic name Coil/Coyle to Wod/Wood.
Furthermore, the Oak tree is closely associated with the storm god whose thunderbolts often struck it, but seemed only to imbue the damaged tree with extra vitality for growth. The Oak was therefore held to be sacred - a conduit of virility and power. It features prominently on the escutcheons (shields) of all the Woods' coats of arms, and a Sprig of Oak is the proper plant badge of Clan Wood. [Practically every clan has a traditional plant badge. The Crest Badge, on the other hand, specifically signifies the wearer's loyalty to the Chief, the Crest of whose amorial bearings it depicts - in our case, the ship under sail, as shown at the top of this page.]
Personal names that became surnames.
What we now think of as 'given' first names mostly had descriptive meanings of their own (e.g., Peter = Rock; Robert = Bright with glory; Phillip = Lover of horses; Alexander = Defender of men - which itself contains Anders/Andros/Andrew = Manly), to which was often added "son of" (or more precisely, the possessive "[hi]s son" - 'his' being the Old English genitive case simply meaning 'belonging to' or 'pertaining to' regardless of gender or number; the ancient mode still being written in Anglian Scots during the 16th century: e.g., 'the queenis justice') when surnames became necessary in the Middle Ages. [Mac- as a prefix in Scottish Gaelic is a near equivalent.] So, compare the following few examples: Peter, Peters, Peterson; Adam, Adams, Adamson; John, Johns, Johnson; Stephen, Stevens, Stevenson; Will, Wills, Wilson; Robert, Roberts, Robertson; Wood, Woods, Woodson, and scores of others that readily come to mind. Surname etymologists say that early regional practices determined whether -son or just -s expressed 'son of''. [So-called 'possessive apostrophes' - in place of the 'hi' missing from 'his' - did not enter English language texts till the late 1600s.] It can be safely asserted that surnames ending with -son always stem from 'given' personal names as illustrated here, so the very existence and frequency of Woods and Woodson confirms that Wod/Wood was once, perhaps as often as not, a descriptive nickname.
Before Scotland became the nation we know today, all of the south-eastern region - essentially Lothian - was part of the mighty Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, which stretched from the River Humber (where the port of Hull is located) to the River Forth (where Edinburgh - a Brythonic and English name - stands) and sometimes beyond that. The principal language here has been Anglian Scots ever since. By the late 10th century, Northumbria had been so weakened and divided by incessant Viking incursions along its extensive coastline and river systems and by the emergence of an expanding England united under Wessex as the dominant power that, in 1019, it lost its territory north of the River Tweed to what would later become Scotland. It is very conceivable that among the long-settled peoples left behind were extended families headed by men known as Wod.
[Tellingly, even today in and around the formerly Northumbrian county of Yorkshire resides one of the largest concentrations of Wood families in England.]
This story is typical of how a number of Scottish clans melded into being. Quite a lot of clan families were founded by well-born Norman and Flemish mercenaries in the pay of warlords or the likes of King David I. It seems increasingly probable that the Wods and their allies accepted the protection and leadership of one of those powerful Norman families - the de Boscos - who subsequently rendered their name into the vernacular tongue. Another major factor was the commonplace practice of adopting the family name of the local lord to whom fealty was given or demanded.
[It should be remembered that the regulation of word spelling was not seriously attempted until the mid-17th - through the18th century. To make simple comparisons here, note that the usually Scottish name Cook was once commonly spelt Coc; that Andrew was often spelt Andro; that 'good' came from OE 'god', and it may very well be that 'Wod' - which derived from earliest Anglo-Saxon values - was pronounced somewhat as we say 'Wood' today. So these pages ought to be read with that possibility in mind. Curiously, we still have examples like the infinitive verb 'to do' that seem to have avoided that evolutionary change.]
It is apt that the Arms escutcheons - heraldic shields - of the heads of several prominent Wood families in the UK (including the Woods of Bonnytoun) are surmounted by a Crest that proudly depicts a naked Savage - the storm god himself? - bearing a club, and the motto, Defend. Even so, the great Admiral described in the next section chose for his personal crest a portrayal of the weapon he mastered in defence of Scotland's coasts and vital maritime communications: a ship under sail.
Admiral Sir Andrew Wood of Largo, Fife, (circa 1450 – 1515) followed his father as head of the venerable family referred to at the top of this page. He was famous for inflicting many defeats on foreign pirates and privateers as well as squadrons of ships sent by the English government to harass the Scots. In the true patriarchal tradition, his successors built a hospital and a school in Fife specifically for their kinsmen named Wood, and often appear in Scottish archives most especially for their political, ecclesiastical, military and medical careers. As participants in the Scottish Enlightenment when Scotland, having five universities against England's two, was probably the most literate and numerate nation in Europe (75% could read and write by 1750), the Woods continued to be an influence in British politics and were among the foremost of the thousands of educated Scots who contributed enormously to the economic and armed expansion of the British Empire and the Americas well into the 19th century. [Right up to modern times, numerous Scots have been outstanding members of the United Kingdom Parliament: they include Leaders of all the main political parties and several Prime Ministers like the last three: Blair, Brown and Cameron.] The main line of Sir Andrew’s descendants is considered by the Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms to be the chiefly one. The family's record of succession is complete right down to modern times. Our Chief today is Timothy Michael Herbert Fawcett Wood, Representative of the Ancient Family of Wood of Largo and Chief of the Name.
Lower Largo, on the north bank of the Firth of Forth
Footnote. This old fishing village is also where Alexander Selkirk (properly Selcraig) 1676 -1721, son of a local shoemaker and tanner, was born. His adventures as a castaway on a Pacific island prompted Daniel Defoe's tale of Robinson Crusoe, and were the inspiration for William Cowper's eloquent lines: I am monarch of all I survey, / My right there is none to dispute: / From the centre all round to the sea, / I am lord of the fowl and the brute.
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§ Sir Andrew de Bosco (Wood) of Redcastle is an ancestor of the Campbells, Earls of Cawdor.
"The Thane of Cawdor lives, a prosperous Gentleman," wrote Shakespeare with confident grace, but we have no more notion than he did as to how the thanes began to thrive. The first recorded Thane of Cawdor, Donald, comes into the candle-light of history as one of the witnesses to a humdrum legal document in 1295 [the same document that was also witnessed by William de Wod]. The dynastic dignity of a thane was the equivalent, in Scotland, of a feudal baron holding lands from the Crown. A thane was frequently the chief of a clan, always the administrator of his district, usually an influential individual with power of life and death, and was only answerable to the King or to his deputy or to God. The word 'thane' was borrowed from the Saxons who had adapted it from the Norse title thegn - meaning a trusted servant of the King - just as 'earl' was taken from the Norse title of jarl; these were the oldest distinctions of nobility in the Middle Ages. King Edward I of England (d.1307) had defined penalties for injuring the various grades of society: the Cro (fine) for killing the King's son or an earl was 150 cows, and for an earl's son or a thane 100; an ingenious tax - index-linked, quality-controlled, mobile and edible. In Scotland, a total of sixty-three thanedoms once existed, from Haddington south of Edinburgh and Fortingall west of Perth, across the vale of Strathmore to Fettercairn [long held by the Woods of Balbegno and of the royal castle of Kincardine]; up to Aberdeen and over to Dingwall and down to Rothiemurchus. Wherever there was rich red soil, fertile enough to feed warriors, there were sure to be thanes waiting, patiently, for trouble.
Article reproduced with acknowledgements to the Cawdor Estate
While we are thinking about names and their origins, where did the word ‘America’ come from?
Those who accept the most popular notion that America was named after Amerigo Vespucci are actually espousing what would have been considered at the time an unpardonable heresy. To have a place or feature named after your forename, you had to be either a saint or a senior royal. The city of Washington was named for the first US president; neighbouring Georgetown for King George II - after whose Queen the Carolinas were named. The Cook Islands, Sidney, Telford, Canberra, the Hudson River, Buckingham Palace, Columbia are all named for prominent commoners – non-royals. Louisiana, Victoria, San Francisco, Willemstad, Jamestown, St Petersburg, Charlotte all respect the names of kings, queens or saints. Maps of territories all over the world named by Europeans are covered with examples of this standard observance, occasional exceptions not creeping in till the 20th century with the likes of Alice Springs. So, which commoner of the early 1500s might have given their surname to the New World?
Well, when the navigator John Cabot sought financial backing for his planned expedition to the fabulous Indies by a westerly route north of the one taken by Columbus, he went to the notoriously abstemious first Tudor king of England, Henry VII, who granted him a licence, or letters patent, to claim for the English Crown any lands not already known to Christian men, but adding the caveat that the crew’s voyage must be ‘at their own proper costs and charges’.
Scholarly research is ongoing, but it is sometimes conjectured that Italian bankers in London made some contribution to Cabot’s first voyage of 1497. It is certainly known, however, that a consortium of wealthy Bristol merchant-mariners was the prime financer of the expedition, headed by the High-Sheriff of Bristol, Richard Americk (possessed of an anglicised Cornish or Welsh surname given various spellings), members of which may have been among Cabot’s adventurous crew of 18 or 20 men aboard their pocket-size carrack ‘Matthew’. They became the first recorded Europeans to discover the coast of mainland America, between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia (Columbus having found only the islands of the Caribbean five years earlier, then he and Vespucci the South American coast between 1499 and 1502).
Scandinavian, Scottish and English fishermen had been working the abundant cod banks in the north over the continental shelf east of that mainland for many decades prior to Cabot’s voyages. If any of them ever espied or even landed on the coast unaware of its extent, it would not have been their concern or in their commercial interests to make the fact known.
So, whose surname really did become attached to that ‘new’ continent? Hmm?
It was probably a mistake.
To speculate: what if the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller, who produced a famously influential map of the known globe in 1507 which he very soon revised, got hold of a fisherman’s simple chart with the single possessive word ‘America’ noted somewhere on the seaboard, indicating the location of a mundane but essential fish-salting station belonging to a Mr. Americ of Bristol?