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.

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!

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

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.