Project News

Developing the place-name search and browse facilities

I’m Brian Aitken, the Digital Humanities Research Officer for the School of Critical Studies at Glasgow, and the person responsible for designing and developing the technical infrastructure for the REELS project.  Since the start of this year I have been working on the public-facing search and browse facilities that we are hoping to launch in the autumn and I wanted to share with you some information about how things are progressing and what facilities we will be offering.

The first step when developing an online resource should always be to document exactly what it is that needs to be developed – to figure out the ‘requirements’, as they are called.  This needs to be done in collaboration with the project team to ensure that all the required facilities are considered and there is no confusion between the developer and the researchers as to what features are important.  We all met as a team at the start of the year and through this meeting, email exchanges and follow-up meetings I came up with a document that gives an overview of all of the facilities we hope to offer and how they might work.  This document then acts as a sort of checklist or recipe that I can then follow as development proceeds.  Of course, requirements are never set in stone and things change as features are developed and demonstrated.  A developer needs to be flexible enough to deal with these changes, but at the same time the team needs to understand that not every new, exciting feature can necessarily be implemented in the available time, at least not without dropping some other feature.

With my requirements document to hand I could begin work on the actual development.  I decided to create an ‘API’ that all of the search and browse facilities would connect to and use.  An API (Application Programming Interface) is basically a website that allows you to submit queries to it through a URL, it then processes the query and then outputs the data in a structured format that can then be used either by scripts (e.g. in JSON format) or by humans (e.g. in CSV format that can be viewed in Excel).  The main advantage of this approach is that any script can connect to the API, whether it’s the server-side scripts I will write in PHP, or the client-side scripts I will write in JavaScript, or indeed some other scripts that any other developer might want to create in future.  It’s an approach that keeps the querying of the data and the processing of the data for display nice and separate.

I’m still working on the API, adding in facilities to output data required by features of the front-end as I develop each feature, but to date I have created facilities for outputting data for the quick search, the advanced search and other types of data such as that which will be displayed in our map pop-ups.  Here’s an example of the structure of a returned search result, structured in the JSON format:

The REELS place-name search and browse facilities will present users with a map-based interface for accessing place-names.  As with previous projects, I decided to use Leaflet for the map, as it is a simple, lightweight library with no external dependencies that you can easily install on your own server (unlike Google Maps where everything has to get sent to Google’s servers for processing).  I set Leaflet up with an initial MapBox basemap (which I am still going to work with to improve the interface) and managed to connect the map to the API in order to display the search results.  I then split the results up into different map layers based on the place-name type, and assigned each type a different coloured dot.  Eventually I will replace these with icons, but this was a good first step.  With this in place and the legend visible it then became possible to turn on or off a particular type, for example hiding all of the settlements, or hiding all of the grey dots.  Here’s an example of the map, showing a search for ‘h_ll’ (all names with these characters somewhere in them):

I also added in hover-over place-name labels (as you can see for ‘Stichill Linn’) and created popups that appear when you click on a place-name.  These are AJAX powered – none of the map markers actually includes the content of their pop-ups until the user clicks on the map marker.  At that point an AJAX request is sent to the API and the data is retrieved in JSON format, then formatted by the script and the pop-up is displayed.  If the user clicks to open a popup a second time the system can tell that the popup is already populated and therefore a second AJAX request is not made.  This is all much more efficient than loading all of the data in straight away.  Here’s an example of a map pop-up, but note however that more information is still to be added, such as a link through to the complete record for the place-name:

Quite often with map resources the map markers are not put to good use – for example they will all be the same colour and shape.  However, more information can be conveyed by markers, such as using different colours to represent different classification types as in the above screenshot.  We’re intending to provide multiple ways of categorising map markers, such as by altitude and by date of earliest recorded form, although I still have to implement such features.

Another issue with some map-based resources is that it can often be difficult for people to process the data displayed on a map.  In many cases just seeing a textual list of the data can be more useful.  For this reason we’re giving users the option of switching from the map view to a text view of the data via different tabs, as you can see in the screenshot above.  Clicking on the ‘text’ tab allows you to view a list of all of the matching place-names (not including the grey dot data), as you can see here:

The last feature I’m going to mention for now is the advanced search facility, which is pretty much completed.  The quick search allows users to enter a term which then searches just the current place-names, the place-name elements, plus grid references (e.g. if you want to see all of the names in a particular square, such as ‘NT7__6__’).  The advanced search gives users to freedom to tailor a search across up to 16 different fields, such as historical forms, altitude, classifications, sources, elements and languages.  We’ll have to test this facility out as it’s possible it might be a little daunting to use for some, although it is targeted more at advanced users.  Here’s a screenshot that shows a part of the search form:

There is still lots to be done before the front-end has all of the features we are intending to include, but to date I’ve made really good progress.  The design of the interface (such as colour schemes and the layout of elements) is not something I’ve spent a lot of time on yet and this is an aspect that is likely to change considerably in future, and as of yet it’s not possible to access the full place-name data for each record, but we’re hoping to have a fully functional initial version completed and possibly shared with some users for feedback before the summer.  Hopefully we’ll have a place-name resource that looks nice, works well, is easy to use for both casual users and hardcore place-name researchers and can be a model for future place-name resources.

Names and other names

Names interact with each other in many ways, and on many levels. A saint’s name may be used for a railway station (St Pancras in London, via a church dedication), an entrepreneur’s name used for a brand (Estée Lauder), or a surname used for a settlement (Renton in central Scotland, from Tobias Smollett’s niece-in-law Cecilia Renton). However, appearances can be deceptive, as with the parish name St Dennis in Cornwall, originally from Cornish dinas ‘hill-fort’, but later confused with the third-century Saint Denis, bishop of Paris. Even more striking is the island name St Kilda in Scotland (of obscure origin), where a non-existent saint has been created by analogy with genuine dedications such as the island name Saint Helena in the Atlantic, discovered on the feast day of St Helena.

Leader Water (Photo: © Eila Williamson)

In the REELS study area, many place-names are similarly based on or incorporate other types of names. Another Renton in Coldingham parish is from an Old English personal name Regna with Old English tūn ‘village’ or –ingtūn ‘village associated with’. Edrom and Leitholm contain the river names Adder and Leet, both with Old English hām ‘village’; and St Leonards in Lauder parish is named from a hospital dedicated to St Leonard. Again, though, appearances can be deceptive. Lauder itself is on the Leader Water, but early spellings indicate that the two names are unconnected; while the stream known as Philip Burn, which runs through the parishes of Abbey St Bathans and Cranshaws, does not contain a personal name but an Old English compound fugel-hop ‘bird valley’ or fūl-hop ‘foul valley’.

Horses at Grizzlefield Farm. Viewed from the road up to the farm. (Photo: © Copyright Walter Baxter and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)
A total of 46 toponyms in our dataset contain forms resembling modern or early modern personal names or nicknames. Some are what they seem to be. Grizzlefield (Griselda) and Rachelfield in Earlston, Harrietfield in Nenthorn, Johnsfield in Duns, Maryfield in Mordington and Nansfield (Ann) in Hutton are in all probability named from eponymous local men and women. Indeed, there is sometimes corroborative evidence. Two occurrences of Georgefield, in Coldstream and Earlston, are identified in the 19th-century Ordnance Survey Name Books as the property of George Wilson and George Baillie respectively. Johnsfield, on the other hand, is more ambiguous, potentially representing a dedication, as with the settlement names St Johns and Lower St Johns in Foulden. Similarly, Maryfield might plausibly refer to the Blessed Virgin, as in St Mary’s Well, Ladykirk.
Red soil at Georgefield, Earlston. A distinctive colour due to the Old Red Sandstone soil in this ploughed field at Georgefield, seen from Black Hill. (Photo: © Copyright Jim Barton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

Like Philip Burn, other toponyms in this group have developed their modern form through folk etymology, and have no connection with the name of a local person or saint. These include Anton’s Hill in Eccles, first recorded as Anttaslau towards the end of the 12th century, which is from an uncertain first element with Scots law ‘hill’. Also misleading is Evelaw in Westruther, first recorded as Yflye c.1535, and possibly containing Old English yfel ‘evil’. As our work on the collection and analysis of historical spellings continues to progress, more such imposters may be unmasked.

Some of the above material is discussed more fully in Carole Hough, ‘Misleading personal names in Berwickshire place-names’, in Katharina och namnen: Vänskrift till Katharina Leibring på 60-årsdagen den 20 januari 2018, edited by Leila Mattfolk and Kristina Neumüller, Namn och samhälle 30 (Uppsala: Institutet für språk och folkminnen och Ortnamnssällskapet, 2018), pp. 161–166.

Visit to Coldstream for the Scottish Borders Heritage Festival

On Saturday 30 September, the REELS team was in Coldstream to take part in two events for the Scottish Borders Heritage Festival. We were based in the Leet Room of Coldstream Community Centre, the former St Cuthbert’s Church. In the afternoon we hosted a drop-in event at which visitors could view our exhibition and share their knowledge of local place-names. A steady stream of people came through the doors, from even before our official opening time of 2pm. Some of them stayed for the full three hours!

We were delighted to hear so many pronunciations of local place-names in our study area, and to gain information about names which don’t appear on modern maps. We will be able to use much of what we learned on the day in our research, and will include phonemic versions of the pronunciations in our place-name volume and database.

In the evening Simon Taylor presented a paper on ‘Place-Names and their Place in the History of Berwickshire’. Many of our afternoon Berwickshire visitors came back to hear this, joined by others from south of the present-day border.

We are extremely grateful to John Elliot, Joan Turnbull, Eleanor Moffat and Martha Andrews, members of the sub-committee of the Coldstream and District Local History Society, which had been set up especially to help us. They did a wonderful job of advertising the events, and encouraging interested and knowledgeable local people to come along. Thank you also to Linda Trickett, former co-ordinator, and Adrian Price, caretaker, of Coldstream Community Centre, for all their help and for making us feel so welcome.

European Researchers’ Night

A highly enthusiastic and well-informed audience came to the place-names talk/quiz at Explorathon Glasgow on 29 September 2017.

Explorathon is Scotland’s European Researchers’ Night – a continent wide celebration of research and the contribution it makes to our lives. Each year on the last Friday in September over 300 cities across Europe host events uncovering some of the most amazing research happening in their area. These events are funded by the European Commission and Glasgow’s events are organised jointly by the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde.

photo: Alice Crook

Carole Hough, Alice Crook, Katie Cuthbertson and Sofia Evemalm presented “Patterns and Puzzles in Place-Names”, explaining some of the techniques used in place-name research, and inviting the audience to take part. Place-names discussed were from the REELS study area and other parts of Scotland. It was a great night!

REELS Project Events at Scottish Borders Heritage Festival 2017

The REELS team is looking forward to participating in two events at this year’s Scottish Borders Heritage Festival, which takes place over the month of September in venues throughout the Scottish Borders.

On Saturday 30 September join us in Coldstream any time between 2 and 5pm to visit our exhibition and share information about local place-names:

What’s your Place in Berwickshire?

Come along to Coldstream Community Centre to find out why the places in Berwickshire have the names that they do

Learn about the Recovering the Earliest English Language in Scotland project at the University of Glasgow and its survey of Berwickshire place-names

Share your own knowledge of local pronunciations and of unusual names that don’t appear on the map

Coldstream Community Centre
High Street, Coldstream, TD12 4AP
Saturday 30 September, 2–5pm
Linn Burn meets the Tweed

The second event – a free public talk by Dr Simon Taylor – will also take place on the same day and in the same venue at 7pm:

Place-Names and their Place in the History of Berwickshire

A talk by Dr Simon Taylor, exploring the rich heritage of Berwickshire place-names and what they can reveal about the landscape, environment and history of the south-east Borders

Coldstream Community Centre
High Street, Coldstream, TD12 4AP
Saturday 30 September, 7pm
Cove Harbour and the Berwickshire Coast

Patterns and Puzzles in Place-Names

As part of the annual European Researchers’ Night on Friday 29 September, Carole Hough (aka Radio Scotland’s “Cryptic Carole”) will present Patterns and Puzzles in Place-Names.

Place: Sir Charles Wilson Building, 1 University Avenue, Glasgow.

Time: 6pm-7pm.

To book, and for more details of the evening’s events (all free), see


Guest blog by Liz Curtis

On a beautiful April morning, my friend Val Wilson and I set out to explore Carfrae in Berwickshire and investigate the possible source of its name.

Carfrae (Carfra 13th cent.) comes from Brittonic *cajr ‘enclosed, defensible site’ and *bre ‘height, hill’, pronounced *cair-vre. Watson (CPNS 369) interpreted this as ‘hill fort’, but Alan James in The Brittonic Language in the Old North (online at the Scottish Place-Name Society website) explains under bre that it may be an early compound meaning ‘fort hill’. He adds that this may imply ‘a hill with naturally defensive properties, albeit enhanced by man-made works’ (pers. comm.).

Sign to Hillhouse farm and settlement (photo Liz Curtis)

Val and I had already been to Carfrae in East Lothian, some 15 km to the northeast, also in the foothills of the Lammermuirs. A fort is on record there, but has now disappeared, absorbed into cultivated land. It was built on a plateau in a rolling landscape, with a panoramic view to the Forth in the north and with a fairly steep bank to the southeast. The farmhouse sits about 0.5km to the southwest.

Hillhouse fort in the distance (Photo Liz Curtis)

The name Carfrae BWK is more complicated, because there are two fort sites here, almost equidistant from Carfrae Farm. CANMORE, the archaeological database, lists western site as Carfrae and the eastern one as Hillhouse, after Hillhouse Farm. So which was the original *cair-vre?

We park opposite the Carfraemill hotel. According to the Ordnance Survey Name Book, the inn which preceded it was on the site of Carfrae Mill. We walk northwards up the road, bare sheep-dotted hills rising to our right beyond Hillhouse, and ploughed and grassy fields to our left surrounding Carfrae Farm. Rising steeply ahead is the hill topped by Hillhouse fort. A wooden signpost reads ‘Hillus Fort – 2 furlongs’ – Hillus is presumably a variant of Hillhouse.

Sign to Hillus (Hillhouse) Fort (Photo Liz Curtis)

We climb up through tussocky grass to the fort. It is very impressive. Grass-covered ramparts still stand to the north and southwest, though quarrying and water erosion have wreaked considerable damage. The view is stupendous, running down the Leader valley to the Eildon Hills some 22km away.

View down the Kelphope Burn and Leader Water from Hillhouse fort, looking south. The Eildon Hills just visible in the distance on the right (Photo Liz Curtis)

From Hillhouse fort we can see the fort site at Carfrae. It is beyond the farm steading, higher up the same hill, in the far corner of a field. Beyond are trees which mask a steep drop. Ramparts, now almost completely ploughed out, once cut off the end of the ridge. This fort was likewise strategically placed, overlooking the main north-south routeway.

Carfrae farm foreground, with the fort site in the distance, at the patch of green with a white structure on it, below the left-hand pylon. Looking southwest from Hillhouse fort. (Photo Liz Curtis)

So which hill might be the original *cair-vre? The main bearer of the Carfrae name today is Carfrae Farm. The fort known as Carfrae is on the same hill as the farm. On the other hand, Hillhouse fort is more impressive and therefore more likely to have been singled out for a name.

In the past the Carfrae name had wider resonance. It appears in charters of the middle ages as the name of lands. Rev. Archibald Allan in his History of Channelkirk cites a charter of c. 1196 which sets out the boundary of the ‘lands of Carfra’. (Edinburgh 1900, 404, on The boundary ran up the Kelphope Burn on the east and the north-south road on the west, thus enclosing both sites.

Val in the ditch between ramparts on the north side of Hillhouse fort. Cottages at Carfrae are beyond. Carfrae farm is out of sight on the left. (Photo Liz Curtis)

This suggests that the name Carfra was applied to a landholding which included both fort sites. If so, it is possible that Hillhouse fort was the original *cair-vre. Alternatively, it perhaps once had a name more distinctive than ‘fort hill’ – perhaps a name beginning with *dun (from Gaelic dùn or Northern P-Celtic dūn ‘fort, place of refuge’).

Note: Thanks to Alan James for his advice. The final result is my responsibility.

Silverwells, Steven(s)ton and SNSBI

Three members of the REELS team spent last weekend in Steventon (near Oxford), at the annual study conference of the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland (SNSBI). Carole Hough and Simon Taylor gave papers on the project, respectively entitled ‘“All that glisters”: gold and silver in English and Scottish place-names’ and ‘Dating medieval Scottish place-names: from Balbuthie to Stevenston’. Simon focused on place-names containing Gaelic or Scots personal names, while Carole put forward a new interpretation for the place-name Silverwells in Coldingham parish. Previously explained as a reference to silver birch trees, wild plants, silver mining, or silver coins thrown by pilgrims on their way to Coldingham Priory, she suggested that the name alludes instead to the sparkling quality of the water – a possibility supported by comparison with early quotations for silver as a colour adjective in the Oxford English Dictionary, and with stream names such as Silver Beck in northern England.


In addition to a lively discussion following both papers, other delegates contacted REELS after the conference to offer information on further ‘Silver’ place-names. Oliver Padel, a past president of SNSBI, contributed a very rich collection of such names, mainly in Cornwall, which will be tremendously useful as comparative material for the project. Overall, a highly productive weekend!


For further details of a truly excellent conference, including abstracts of all the papers, see

The Ordnance Survey Name Books

One of the historical sources we have been using in the REELS project is the first series of Ordnance Survey Name Books (or Original Object Name Books) for Berwickshire. These record information about the place-names that appear on the Ordnance Survey 1st edition 6 inch and 25 inch map sheets for the county, which were published between 1854 and 1862.

The 41 name books for Berwickshire date to 1853–8 and contain the notes of the surveyors who travelled throughout the county, asking local inhabitants about the orthography, usage and, at times, meanings of place-names. The people they consulted were often prominent members of the community, such as landowners, ministers and teachers, but tenants and fishermen also appear among the informants. The surveyors’ notes were supplemented with details from printed sources including existing county maps, like that of Andrew and Mostyn Armstrong from 1771, and the Old and New Statistical Accounts of Scotland.

Among the useful toponymic information provided in the name books is that of names which were changed within living memory. Examples of this include: Meadow House in Hutton parish which at the time of survey was said to have been renamed Broadmeadows House by its owner James Macbraire; in Eccles parish the small village Ploughlands had been renamed Thirlington by Mr Nisbet of Lambden, the landowner – this had happened by 1826 as the name appears as Thirlington on the Sharp, Greenwood and Fowler map of that date; and also in Eccles parish, the cottage Stonefoldbrae had formerly been called Lambden Brae ‘until it came into the hands of the present proprietor’, Mr Dickson of Belchester (1).

James T. M. Towill’s photo shows the site of Thirlington (formerly Ploughlands) as seen by him in 2012. As Towill discovered, the village can be traced through historic mapping until 1957.
Photo: © James T. M. Towill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

As well as informing us about names which were no longer in use, the name books also tell us about former names that were still being used, albeit no longer officially. A good example of this concerns the farmhouse Abbey Park in Coldingham parish, which the surveyor was told ‘is commonly called “Bee Park”’(2). The name Bee Park appears on the Armstrong map and slightly earlier on the mid-eighteenth-century map of William Roy.

References and further reading

(1) OS1/5/25/19 (Broadmeadows House); OS1/5/17/24 (Thirlington; the name book describes the village as having only two or three cottages plus a carpenter’s shop); OS1/5/17/45 (Stonefoldbrae).

(2) OS1/5/10/22 (Abbey Park).

Image of the site of Thirlington:

For more on the Berwickshire name books, see the following article (including a bibliography): Eila Williamson, ‘ “hence the name”: Berwickshire parishes along the Anglo-Scottish Border as described in the Ordnance Survey Name Books’, Journal of Scottish Name Studies 9 (2015), 83–96.

In recent years the Ordnance Survey Name Books have been digitised. Images of the original pages along with crowd-sourced transcriptions are now freely available online via the ScotlandsPlaces website.

Another kind of map

Most Scottish place-names are descriptive, but not all are literal. Something we’ve become very aware of through the REELS project is the large number of metaphorical place-names in our study area. Eccles parish is not unusual in containing at least a dozen, including Caldron Pool, Cocked Hat Cover, The Kaims (‘combs’), Puncheon Bridge (apparently named from a resemblance to a puncheon, i.e. pointed tool), and Ship End – explained in the Ordnance Survey Name Book as “a breakwater faced with wood, and said to resemble the stern of a ship”.

Metaphor is prevalent in ordinary language as well as in place-names, and a freely available online resource now makes it possible to trace all metaphorical connections between semantic fields throughout the history of English. The resource comprises a pair of online Metaphor Maps, produced by the AHRC-funded project “Mapping Metaphor with the Historical Thesaurus” (PI Wendy Anderson) at the University of Glasgow. The Metaphor Map of Old English covers the Anglo-Saxon period, while the Metaphor Map of English covers the period from Middle English up to the present day. Each Map divides the semantic space of English into three main parts: the External World (green), the Mental World (blue) and the Social World (red). These in turn are divided into sub-sections and categories, with links between them representing metaphorical connections.

MM image

Using this interactive resource, we can establish that caldron forms part of a wider network of words for containers applied to landscape, which also includes basin, bowl, kettle, pot, trough and others, and is evidenced as far back as Old English (e.g. OE byden). Other metaphors occur mainly or exclusively in place-names, although – like Cocked Hat Cover, The Kaims, Puncheon Bridge and Ship End – many are motivated by shape, one of the most productive sources of metaphor in both Old and later English.

The REELS team uses maps extensively: mostly historical maps, either printed or online. The Metaphor Maps are a very different kind of map, and they add a new dimension to the study of language.