Scottish names for Scottish places, a proposal for the curriculum


by Paul Kavanagh

As I’ve frequently written in the pages of Newsnet Scotland, Scotland is a nation with a rich linguistic heritage, a heritage which until recently we have not treated with the respect and dignity it deserves.  But from the latter half of the 20th century that started to change, and although there remains a vocal minority of Scots who see no value, use or interest in our linguistic heritage, that minority no longer has the overwhelming influence it once did.  For the first time in modern history, Gaelic and Scots are starting to have a public presence on public signs and notices, and Scots people are again aware that our towns and cities have other names, names which don’t always appear on maps or road signs.

Until recently, the only version of a Scottish place name available to the Scottish public was the name in English, or rather, the name in English spelling.  We lost touch with our own names for our own places, they came to be considered ancient history in the case of Gaelic and were forgotten through lack of use.  The social standing of Lowland Scots names sank catastrophically after the Union of 1707 and Scots place names were thought of as corruptions and perversions of English.  

Determining the names of Scottish places was left to institutions and individuals with a firmly North British and linguistically anglicising agenda.  Only these officially approved English names and spellings made it onto maps and other documents.  Real Scottish names like Glesca, Aiberdeen, Dùn Breatann and An t-Sròn Reamhar were thrown into the dustbin of history or onto the rubbish heap of ‘slang’ and many people began to believe that they weren’t proper names at all.

But Scots don’t always call a place by the name listed on an official map.  Naming a place is an act of ownership and possession.  By reviving, using and even re-creating Gaelic and Scots names for places in Scotland we take back ownership of our country, we define it for ourselves.  It’s our country, and it’s our choice what we call it and the places within it.  It our choice how our nation names itself before the wider world and how we choose to present ourselves.

There is still a long way to go in spreading acceptance of Scottish versions of Scottish place names.  There are still people who express concern about the supposed “inauthenticity” of Gaelic place names appearing on railway station name signs in the Lowlands, when the very real inauthenticity of many of our English language place names has never troubled them at all.

The village of Larkhall in Lanarkshire and the hamlet of Barrington near Strathmiglo in Fife are two examples.  The modern names were invented by North British social climbers who felt that the authentic Scots names were the 18th century equivalent of ned-speak.  The modern names have no historical authenticity, they do not reflect the original meanings of the real Scottish names they replaced.  But their authenticity is never questioned by those who question the authenticity of Gaelic or Scots names.

Larkhall is really Larkhauch (pronounced Larkhaw, the final -ch is silent in Lanarkshire Scots).  It’s not a ‘hall’ at all, a hauch is a low lying meadow beside a river or stream.  Barrington is more egregious, it’s from Scots Barntoun, but the local pronunciation was felt to be far less appropriate for social climbing 18th century Scots than the more English sounding Barrington.  

Many other Scottish place names are simply vague respellings of Gaelic names in a rough approximation of their original pronunciation.  The correct Gaelic spelling and meaning were often lost in the process.  There is no “authenticity” to these names either.  

The map of Scotland is littered with the results of such snobbery and disdain for Scotland’s own languages, yet we accept these inauthentic English place names because they’re used officially and appear on maps.   It’s clear then that authenticity is not an issue in English language place names.  If it’s not an issue in English language place names then why is the issue raised in connection with Gaelic or Scots?

Modern Gaelic names in the Lowlands are considerably more authentic than many English language place names.  The Gaelic names used on railway station signs are recommended by Ainmean Àite na h-Alba (AÀA).  AÀA, or Gaelic Place-names of Scotland, is a national advisory partnership for researching the correct and appropriate Gaelic forms of place names throughout Scotland.  The names recommended by this body are a product of extensive linguistic and toponymic research and scrutiny.  These names have an accuracy and exactness which English language names in Scotland can’t hope to compete with.

Neither is ‘inauthentic’ to provide a Gaelic name for a town or village where Gaelic has not been a community language for centuries, nor even for a place in a district where the language never had much of a presence.  Providing Gaelic names for places in the Borders is not imposing Gaelic on people.  No one objects to the fact that Spanish altases show a country called Escocia containing a city called Edimburgo.  No one has written a stiff letter of complaint to the Spanish embassy to protest about the fact that these names have been ‘imposed’ upon Scottish people.  

Scotland and Edinburgh have Spanish names because occasionally Spanish speakers want to talk about them.  The fact they have special names in Spanish, adapted to the phonology of the Spanish language, is a testament to their importance.  Escocia and Edimburgo have not been imposed upon Scots, despite the fact we were never consulted about them, because they are names used by Spanish speakers when speaking Spanish.  In the exact same way, if you are not a Gaelic speaker, it is logically impossible for a Gaelic name to be imposed upon you.  If you are a Gaelic speaker you can choose not to use the Gaelic name if you so desire.

Gaelic is a national language of all of Scotland.  For Gaelic speakers all places in Scotland are important enough to merit Gaelic names.  There may not be many Gaelic speakers in Coldingham in the Borders and it’s never been a Gaelic majority area, but there are many possible reasons why Gaelic speakers might want to discuss the town or bring it up in conversation.  Coldingham should have a Gaelic name in order to allow Gaelic speakers to do so without mangling the Gaelic language in the process.

AÀA has now made the recommended Gaelic versions of place names for some 1,200 locations publicly available on their database, and there are many more names which have been researched but which have still to be uploaded or which are being actively researched.  Their valuable and necessary work continues.  

Crucially, AÀA has established spelling guidelines and rules for Gaelic names.  The partnership has determined standard Gaelic equivalents for many terms which commonly occur in place names making it possible to transpose many common settlement names and street names into Gaelic where appropriate.  It is now possible to record Gaelic names on a map according to official guidelines and rules which have widespread acceptance within the Gaelic speech community.  I follow these guidelines in the Gaelic maps I produce.

Just as importantly AÀA have determined means of transposing Brittonic Celtic names into the related Gaelic language.  There is still no official Gaelic name for Coldingham, but these methods allow us to give the town a Gaelic name.  It was recorded in Old Welsh poetry as Caer Golud (probably pronounced something like Golluthe) meaning ‘the fort on the Colud stream’.  This easily transposes into modern Gaelic as Cair-Choluidh.

There remains more opposition to Scots than to Gaelic.  There is still a significant minority of Scots who vehemently reject the notion that Scots is a language at all.  Descriptive linguists and sociolinguists have devised an entire battery of terminology and specialist terms like Abstand, Ausbau, and isogloss bundle in order to answer the question “language or dialect?”  Using these tests the firm consensus of academic opinion is that collectively the dialects of Scots constitute something quite removed from the normal run of what is usually considered an English dialect.  Scots must be treated as a language in its own right.  

Whitehall mandarins are not generally noted for their susceptibility to the persuasions of Scottish cultural nationalists, but even the UK government officially accepts that Scots is a language.  The matter is settled, the arguments have been won, at least everywhere outside of a Scottish public opinion that has rarely been given accurate information on the topic.

The widespread misconceptions and lack of accurate linguistic information allow many non-specialists to state confidently that Scots is not a “proper language” when they’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between an isogloss and an ice-cream cone and don’t know their Ausbau from their elbow.  Sometimes such people will earnestly stress their education and social standing as though this validates their opinion.  I hate to break it to them, but a degree in maths, English lit. or teaching doesn’t qualify you to answer the question of whether Scots is a language or not.  

There is no reason to respect the views of Scots-deniers any more than there is reason to respect the opinions of those who hold any position which is at variance with scientific evidence and the overwhelming consensus of academic opinion.  They are simply wrong, and that’s the end of it.  People who deny that Scots is a language are the Flat-Earthers of linguistics and the Hyacinth McBuckets (pronounced McBouquet of course) of language, and are increasingly seen as such by the wider Scottish public.  It’s time we lairned thaim tae haud their wheesht.

Even so, there remain formidable obstacles in the way of increasing the public presence of the Scots language.  Even things as fundamental as the Scots language names for Scottish places have yet to be agreed upon.  There is still no agreed spelling for the language, and no agreement on which form is the best to use out of several possible variants.  In Scots the name for the city of Edinburgh is spelled variously Edinburgh, Edinburrie, Embra or Embro.  Glasgow can be Glesca, Glesga, or Glesgie.  Any map or official document would have to make a choice between these forms.  

The Scots Language Centre will be embarking on a place names project in the near future to raise awareness of Scots place names.  It’s hoped that the discussion the project provokes will assist in providing solutions to some of these obstacles.

However the greatest difficulty for ordinary Scots who want to discover and use the Gaelic and Scots names for a place is the lack of easy access to complete information.  There are many publications which contain details of Scots and Gaelic place names but the information is scattered widely and is often found in old out of print books, or in texts which had only a local circulation or were intended for a specialised academic readership.  The website of the Scottish Place Names Society hosts a wealth of resources, but it’s still incomplete and is not suitable for someone who simply wants to know how to say Aberdeen in Gaelic and Scots. It’s Obar Dheathain and Aiberdeen, in case you were wondering.  

AÀA’s database is a fantastic and constantly improving resource, but the organisation is charged with establishing official or recommended Gaelic names, it’s not their job to collect and list Scots names too.  Their public database doesn’t provide information on dialectal versions of Gaelic names, alternative Gaelic spellings, local Gaelic nick names, etc.  These are also outside of the current remit of AÀA.

The introduction of the new Scottish Studies element of the curriculum offers us the perfect opportunity to address this situation, while at the same time teaching Scottish children about local history and the use of Scottish languages within their own community.  

It would not be difficult to establish a standard questionnaire to be sent out to schools, and interested members of the public too.  The questionnaire would ask about local place names, and children could then interview older people in their families and local communities in order to record local place names, their variant pronunciations and spellings, and their meanings, and nicknames.  The children will learn a huge amount about the history of their own communities and the use of Gaelic or Scots locally.  

Children in Gaelic medium education, or who are learning Gaelic, could be asked to investigate the Gaelic names for local places, and to use the official AÀA guidelines to translate street names and other local place names into acceptable Gaelic forms.  

The information could then be recorded in a national database accessible to the public which gave the official or recommended name for every place in Scotland in English, Gaelic and Scots, and which also listed alternative spellings and pronunciations, nick names and pet names for places in each of the three national languages of our country.  It could also list other relevant information like Old Welsh names or names in Norse.  It’s vital that we record this information or we risk losing it forever.   

The schoolchildren who collect the information would be contributing to a project of national importance.  So not only would they learn a huge amount about their local communities, they’d also see how the local story fits into a larger Scottish national story.  

A Scottish National Gazetteer of Place Names would safeguard the knowledge for future generations, and we ensure that Gaelic and Scots continue to have a presence on map and landscape of Scotland.  We give our own names for our own country the respect and dignity they deserve.

It’s a win-win, and it wouldn’t even cost a huge amount of money.