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Scottish Placenames

The names of our towns, villages, rivers, hills and so on have real meaning behind them, and you can depend upon it that each name was appropriate when given.

Dundee’s Meadowside is a built-up area now, but the name once meant what it said. Often the meaning of a name becomes obscure because of changes in spelling. St. Fort, on the south side of the Tay, is an example. On an 18th century map it appears as St. Ford. In the 17th century it was santford, and two centuries further back still it was Sannford. Probably all the name ever meant was “a sandy ford” and there was no saintliness about it.

Gleneagles is another name inclined to be misleading. It has, in fact, no connection with the king of birds, and the only “eagles” likely to be recorded there are on the golf-links. The name is derived from the Gaelic “eaglais,” meaning a church.

River names are very old. Names like Tay, Esk, A’an, Forth, Dee, Don, suggest by their very brevity that they belong to a time when language was terse and primitive. Certainly they appear to have been firmly established at the beginning of recorded history. The Roman historian Tacitus mentions the Tay and its estuary in his account of Agricola’s campaign against the Caledonians in
79 A.D.

Esk and Avon (or A’an) come from the Gaelic “uisge” and “abhuinn.” Both signify water, or something that gushes forth. The Dean implies a dark and deep stream. In early records the Isla appears as Ylaf and Hilef, and even at that time suggests “a flooding river.” The turbulent Garry derives from the Gaelic word “garbh,” meaning rough.
I cannot enlarge greatly on place-names in this web site as the subject is much too wide. But it should be noted that many names should not be taken on their face value. Baldragon, Rottenrow, Bonnymoon, Maiden Castle, Mugdrum, Tarrybuckle, Kinnettles, Brig o’ Turk, Aldbar, all these are fairly heavily disguised.

Baldragon has nothing to do with fire-breathing monsters. The name refers to a house or hamlet situated among thorny coppices. It should be pronounced Baldraygon, from the Gaelic "draighionn” or thorns.

Bonnymoon was once Balnamoine, and it alludes to a nearby peat-moss, while Maiden Castle (traces of which are to be seen on the clifftop between Arbroath and Auchmithie) most likely comes from “maith-dun,” or large fort, and has no romantic connections.

Earlier versions of Mugdrum Island (Newburgh) give Muc-druim, which means “shaped like a sow’s back,” and Rottenrow (Arbirlot and elsewhere) might refer to rottans or rats, but more likely to a soft quality of the soil.

Kinnettles may be an exposed height or a height with a view, but it seems to have no connection with the stinging nettle, while names like Brig o’ Turk and the Turkey Burn show corruptions of the Gaelic “tuirc,” meaning a wild boar.

Tarrybuckle was once Tor na buichaille-the hill of the shepherd or watcher. And as for Aldbar, the only liquid refreshment available is in the burn-” allt barra,” or the burn by the hill, which still cascades down to join the Lunan Water.

“What’s in a name ?“ says a character in Shakespeare, but it is evident that a name may well have something in it that does not meet the eye. The examples I have quoted show how the original Gaelic name can be altered and given new meaning (of sorts) by a non-Gaelic speaking people. Not all our place-names are based on Gaelic, of course; some are Scandinavian in origin, others French and so forth. Place-names make an intriguing study, and as they are linked with the peoples of the past, I make no apology for mentioning the subject in a small way here. Most books on place-names are out of print or out of date, and a great many puzzling names are still waiting to be unravelled.



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