Project News

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.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year from the REELS team! We’re now entering the second year of the project, using Berwickshire place-names to investigate the Northumbrian dialect of Old English and its development into Older Scots. We’ll keep you posted on progress, and will be delighted to hear from you. In the meantime, anyone looking for a more general introduction to the Anglo-Saxons and Old English might be interested in the “Learning with the Online Thesaurus of Old English (TOE)” resource at A revised and updated version was launched yesterday, and – as before – includes exercises, ideas for projects, and lots of fascinating information. Unit 11 “Landscape” is particularly relevant to place-names, but the whole resource is designed to explore aspects of Anglo-Saxon language and culture through the study of Old English vocabulary. Other units include “Life in Anglo-Saxon England”, “A Short Description of Old English, “The Vocabulary of Old English”, “Farming”, “Food and Drink”, “Plants”, “The Universe”, and many more. Enjoy!

Of Gods and Kings

Edin’s Hall ‘(Fort & Broch)’ is a remarkable monument situated on the north-east slope of Cockburn Hill above the Whiteadder Water. Possibly dating from the Roman Iron Age (Canmore website), the interpretation both of the site itself and of its name is problematic. I will leave to the archaeologists the arguments as to what its original purpose was, when and for whom it was built and whether or not it is a broch as opposed to a ‘complex Atlantic roundhouse’ (see NMRS Canmore ID 58777). As to the name, our earliest record is from Armstrong’s map of 1771, when it appears as Wooden’s Hall or Castle. Here Wooden has nothing to do with the adjective ‘wooden’ – Edin’s Hall is entirely of stone. Rather it is a form of the Old English god Wōden, the god of wisdom and poetry who appears in the Norse pantheon as Odin. Clearly it was thought that only a god could have built such an impressive and unusual structure.

However, by the 1790s the name Wooden’s Hall was falling out of fashion. We know this because the minister of Duns, Rev. Dr Robert Bowmaker, writes in the Old Statistical Account: ‘by some called Wooden’s hall, but commonly called Edin’s or Edwin’s hall’. In this way he associates it with the famous king, Edwin, 616-32 AD, the first Christian king of the Northumbrians according to the early eighth-century scholar Bede. By the twelfth century it was generally thought that Edinburgh itself took its name from him, being originally *Edwinsburgh. This idea still persists to this day, but Edinburgh originally meant ‘fortification (Old English burh) associated with an area or province called Eiddyn’, Eiddyn itself being a Brittonic (Old Welsh) name of unknown meaning. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Rev. Dr Bowmaker preferred the name associating the fort in his parish with a great Christian king than with a pagan deity! So in this name we have several layers of re-interpretation.

The use of the element hall is also noteworthy. Originally hall meant ‘a high-status dwelling such as a big hoose or castle’, but later (i.e. from about the 17th century onwards), it was often applied ironically, with humorous effect, combined with elements describing poor land, such as whinny ‘associated with whin or gorse’, or bog; also vegetables, such as cabbage or sybie (spring onion), or birds, such as laverock or lark, or corbie (crow). Examples of this can be found in Berwickshire in names such as Partanhall (Ayton parish), containing Scots partan ‘an edible crab’ or Cloverhall (Eccles parish). In the name Wooden’s Hall, later Edin’s Hall, given that it has been a ruin for many centuries, albeit an impressive one, it is difficult to know just how hall was being applied, whether or not tongue in cheek.

Simon Taylor

Edin's Hall

Edin’s Hall ‘Fort & Broch’: part of the walls, looking north, with Retreat House clearly visible on the Whiteadder Water below. Photo: Simon Taylor.


Dirrington Great Law

Dirrington Great Law (left) and Dirrington Little Law (right) looking south-eastwards Photo: © Neil Stewart Neil’s Hillwalking Exploits
Dirrington Great Law (left) and Dirrington Little Law (right) looking south-eastwards
Photo: © Neil Stewart: Neil’s Hillwalking Exploits

October 2016 saw members of the REELS team visit North Berwickshire en route home from attending a day conference in Newcastle organised by the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland.  Dr Simon Taylor and Dr Leonie Dunlop (formerly of STIT, the precursor project to REELS) contributed papers.

Our objective was to conduct fieldwork and to enjoy the view of the rolling Lammermuir scenery and areas to the south from the top of Dirrington Great Law, a conspicuous hill of 398m situated 2.49km SSE of the village of Longformacus LMS and from its nearby smaller twin, Dirrington Little Law (363m), some 2km to the SW.  The forecast was not auspicious, but undaunted we briefly explored the mid-18th century parish church, with its simple Romanesque features and interesting gravestones, before journeying on to begin an ascent of the Great Law itself.

161016 Longformacus Church1
Longformacus Parish Church.  Photo Dàibhidh Grannd.

If you aren’t familiar with the hill-bagging terms such as Marilyn, Hump and Tump then the Online Database of British and Irish Hills is a good place to begin.  According to the database, Dirrington Great Law qualifies as all these three types of hill, being higher than 150m on all sides and having a top separated from other tops by more than 30m.  It is even distinct enough to warrant its very own Wikipedia page.

The earliest reference located so far to Dirrington Great Law and its smaller neighbour comes in a late 12th/early 13th century charter (1), which Dr Taylor translates: ‘also I have granted to them and by this my present charter confirmed the church of Horndean and certain sheilings in Lammermuir which are called (the) Diueringdounes…’ (2)  Further charters supply the variations: Diueringdon (3), Dunrindun (4) and Duurindun(?) (5).  May Williamson (6) adds to these: Diuiringdon and the later forms Deryngton (c1350), Derington (1478) and Derrington Law (1523).  She writes:

‘An OE form *Divering, Difering may be a patronymic based on a much simplified form of Dyċġferð, Dyċġfrið, but compare the River Deerness, Du: Diuerness, c1200, which seems to contain the same base, which is W dwfr, seen in many other river-names (ERN, 118-9). On this, in the OE form *dyfer, an –ing construction may have been made, so that *Dyferingdūn is “the hill by the rivers”.’

The eponymous(?) Dye Water at Longformacus Photo Dàibhidh Grannd.
The eponymous(?) Dye Water at Longformacus.  Photo Dàibhidh Grannd.

Dr Taylor is keen to re-examine this theory, suggesting instead that Dye Water, the major watercourse nearby, may also contain the same element as found in the Dirrington laws.

Dr Eila Williamson and Dàibhidh Grannd beginning the walk up Dirrington Great Law Photo Dr Simon Taylor.
Dr Eila Williamson and Dàibhidh Grannd beginning the walk up Dirrington Great Law.
Photo Dr Simon Taylor.

Our expedition too had a somewhat watery ending as is evident from the picture below.  Nevertheless it was a most enjoyable day out.

Dr Simon Taylor approaching the summit of Dirrington Great Law through low cloud Photo Dàibhidh Grannd.
Dr Simon Taylor approaching the summit of Dirrington Great Law through low cloud.
Photo Dàibhidh Grannd.



(1)  Kelso Lib.i no. 140, dated 1198 x 1214.

(2)  ‘concessi etiam eis et hac presenti carta mea confirmaui Ecclesiam de Horuerdene et quasdem scalingas in Lambermore que vocantur Diueringdounes…

(3)  Kelso Lib.i no. 143, dated 1203.

(4)  Kelso Lib.ii no. 460, dated 1243 x 1254.

(5)  Papal confirmation of Kelso Lib.ii no. 460, dated 1243 x 1254.

(6)  Williamson, M. (1942) The Non-Celtic Place-Names of the Scottish Border Counties, p55.  PhD.  University of Edinburgh.


900px-Common_crane_grus_grusThe Common or Eurasian crane (Grus grus)
Photo: ©Andreas Trepte

In March 2016 I visited Cranshaws, a rural parish in the Lammermuirs with no village within its bounds.  The remains of the medieval kirk lie in an old graveyard on a broad, relatively open slope about 1 km west of the Whiteadder Water, and about 200 metres south-east of Cranshaws Castle (see the accompanying photos).  The name first appears in the mid-13th century as Craneschawes / Cranessawys’ / cranschaus, with reference to the church.

One of the problems with analysing Berwickshire place-names like Cranshaws is trying to decide which language to assign their origins to.  They could be Old English names, coined when Berwickshire formed part of the kingdom of Northumbria from about the 7th to the 10th centuries A.D. Or they could be later, when this northern form of Old English had evolved into the language now referred to as Scots.  A rule of thumb is that those names attached to medieval parishes and other central places are more likely to go back to the Northumbrian (Old English) period, while names attached to minor features such as wee burns or hillocks are more likely to be later Scots coinings.

This leaves a lot of names in between these two extremes, and an important part of the REELS project will be to try to define the Berwickshire name-stock more accurately in terms of language of origin.  However, as far as Cranshaws is concerned, the working assumption is that it was coined in the Northumbrian period.

So how should we analyse this name?  The first element is Old English cran ‘a crane’, the magnificent bird which until the early 16th century bred in Britain and which would have been a familiar site in the landscape of both Scotland and England.  One of the main ways we can judge just how widespread and conspicuous these birds once were is from the many place-names that contain references to them.  An article by S. Boisseau and D. W. Yalden from 1998 tells us ‘The former status of the Crane Grus grus in Britain’ identifies around 300 such place-names.  And there are no doubt many more still to identify (a recent one we can add to this corpus is the lost name Cairnbriggs by St Monans in Fife.

The second element is Old English sceaga (Scots shaw) ‘a small wood, a copse, a strip of undergrowth or wood’. It is not clear whether the original name was in the plural, though it certainly is by the time the name is first recorded.  If so, then it would refer to more than one clump of woodland.

So the name can be interpreted as ‘a small wood or woods associated with cranes’, and through it we are transported back into the first millennium A.D. to a relatively open landscape dotted with small clumps of woodland, where cranes were often seen, and presumably also bred.

Simon Taylor

Boisseau, S., and Yalden, D. W., 1998, ‘The former status of the Crane Grus grus in Britain’, Ibis 140, 482-500

The photos were taken by my old friend Alan McQuillan, who along with his partner Minie Smith accompanied me on my visit.

The ruins of the old kirk of Cranshaws
The ruins of the old kirk of Cranshaws, with Cranshaw Castle in the distance.  Photo: Alan McQuillan.

Looking SE from the edge of the old kirkyard of Cranshaws
Looking south-east from the edge of the old kirkyard of Cranshaws down the gently sloping fields to the Boontree Burn flowing eastwards to join the Whiteadder Water at short distance beyond the gap in the trees.  Photo: Alan McQuillan.

Cranshaws Castle

Cranshaws Castle.  Photo: Alan McQuillan.