Cumnock and Glasgow, Conval and Kentigern: saints and their authority

Today (28th September) is the Feast of St Conval, the patron saint of Cumnock parish. We are grateful to Gilbert Márkus for providing this guest-blog about the saint and his historical associations.

Gilbert Márkus writes:

In 1384 Alan of Cathcart was having a ‘cash-flow problem’.   So he entered into an agreement with a certain Roger Crawford: Alan handed over to Roger various of his lands in Ayrshire, for which Roger paid him £46 13s. 4d. on the understanding that Roger could enjoy the lands and their rents in the meantime, but when Alan’s problems were resolved Roger could expect him to come back and repay the sum and reclaim his lands: ‘one Sunday between sunrise and sunset on the Sunday following the feast of the Birthday of John the Baptist, and should pay, on the high altar of the Church of St Conval of Cumnock’.[1]

This was the medieval church of Cumnock, serving a large parish which was subdivided centuries later into the two modern parishes of Old Cumnock and New Cumnock.  In this blog I want to think a bit about the dedication of the parish church to Sanctus Convallus.  We should also bear in mind that the Connell Burn (now in New Cumnock) probably also contains his name: Conval > Connel/Conall is a relatively common change, as seen in Kirkconnel for example.

Conval himself, as a historical saint, is a bit of a riddle.  We know virtually nothing about him until he appears in late medieval writing, probably about nine centuries after he died.  These writings are interesting, but their interest lies in what they tell us about the people who wrote them; not in what they tell us about Conval himself.  We will come back to those later writers, and what they may have had in mind, in due course.

Even the name Conval is problematic.  It appears in medieval Latin writings (like the charter we mentioned above) as Convuallus.  It is certainly a Celtic name in origin (i.e. either British or Gaelic), but there are two sets of names which it may come from, and these can be hard to tell apart from their later appearances.   One is early Common Celtic *Cunoualos, which means ‘mighty hound’.  That name became Cynwal in Welsh, and Conuall (later Conall) in Gaelic, and either of these might have been rendered in Latin as Convallus.   But there is another name in early Common Celtic, *Cunomaglos ‘hound lord’, which became Welsh Cynfael and Gaelic Conmáel (the Welsh f and the Gaelic m were both pronounced as a /v/), and again a Latin scribe might render the name as Convallus.  So the Latin forms don’t help us much.  We don’t know what his true name was.  Nor do we know whether British or Gaelic was his native tongue.  You might think that that’s not a very good start for a historical enquiry.

One useful way of approaching a saint is to consider where his or her cult appears in place-names, and especially in church dedications (which are a particular kind of place-name).  There is an extremely well-defined distribution of Conval-dedications in Scottish churches and chapels.   This map is generated by the Unioversity of Glasgow’s web-resource, Saints in Scottish Place-Names.  Look how the dedications of churches and chapels to Conval are clustered in the south-west.  There are none north of the Clyde (though there are a couple of possible commemorations of him in an island name, a well and a burn, but they are not certain, and they are not churches).  There are no Conval dedications at all east of Eskdale, either.

This remarkable clustering of Conval dedications may of course refer to more than one saint of that name.  Some of the local stories and features of the Conval cults in these places are rather different from each other.  Does that mean that there were different saints behind the Conval dedications?   Probably not.  It is much more likely that a single Saint Conval underlies them all, but devotion and curiosity and sheer human creativity in local communities created ever more stories, and these localised cults took on different shapes in different places.

Another thing to notice about the Conval churches is that all of them were in the medieval Archdiocese of Glasgow, though there was one possible chapel in the parish of Tongland, the southernmost, in Galloway diocese.[2]   In the twelfth century, when Earl David, later King David I of Scots, established (or re-established?) a cathedral in Glasgow he intended it to rule over the churches of Cumbria.  This self-consciously British-speaking historical territory was at that time gradually being absorbed into the realm of the kings of Scots and David played a key role in that process.  Gradually expanding his core territory, David pushed politically and ecclesiastically into the neighbouring territories of the Gall-Ghàidheil (a Gaelic-speaking polity with Norse historical and political leanings[3]) and of Britons.  The church of Inchinnan and its surrounding lordship of Strathgryfe were taken over from Gall-Ghàidheil control, as were the territories of Ayrshire little by little.

One rather surprising feature of this process is what happened at Inchinnan.   The name of that church is evidently ‘island or haugh of [Saint] Finnian’.  Finnian (aka Winnin, Finnio et al) was another important saint of south-west Scotland, also culted at Kilwinning and Kirkgunzeon for example.  But in the later middle ages, in spite of the obvious meaning of the name Inchinnan, it was the cult of St Conval which was celebrated there.  It was Conval whose stone (on which he had miraculously sailed over from Ireland) was parked in the grounds of Inchinnan church and attracted sick people to its healing power.  It was Saint Conval whose feastday was celebrated at Inchinnan, not Saint Finnian.   Except that Conval was celebrated at Inchinnan on 28th September which in the ancient martyrologies is the feast of Saint Finnian, not of Saint Conval.  It looks as if the church of Inchinnan changed its patron saint, but forgot to change its name (it could have re-named itself Inischonaill) and also forgot to change its annual feast-day to that of St Conval.

That change of dedication at Inchinnan, from Finnian to Conval, may have been part of Glasgow’s gradual encroachment on the churches of the Gall-Ghàidheil.  For the patron saint of Glasgow was Kentigern (or affectionately Mungo), supposedly its founding bishop, as twelfth-century lives tell the story.  And the late medieval dossier of St Conval has him as a disciple of Kentigern.  This is how the Aberdeen Breviary recounted his story:  ‘[Conval] travelled around monasteries and cloisters, seeking a worthy man to whom he could submit himself to be imbued with the discipline of regular life.  For he heard that St Kentigern the bishop was endowed with holiness above all others.  Coming to him, he became his disciple.’[4]

St Conval (left) and St Mungo (a.k.a. Kentigern, right) from the stained-glass window at Inchinnan Parish Church, originally in church of All Hallows, Inchinnan (completed 1904). Photo: Gilbert Márkus.

If Conval was a disciple of Kentigern, then a church dedicated to Conval should be subject to the great cathedral church of St Kentigern.  The authority of the saint gives authority to his principal church in medieval thinking.  The authority of Kentigern over his disciple Conval would reflect the authority of Glasgow over Inchinnan, providing a hagiographical nail in the coffin of Inchinnan’s former independence.

And if the Conval dedication at Inchinnan was a way of subjecting that church to Glasgow, perhaps a similar role was played by Conval dedications elsewhere.  Was the Conval dedication at Cumnock part of Glasgow’s gradual consolidation of its territorial authority?

This is all rather speculative – necessarily so.  It may be that the Conval dedications have other and earlier associations with this territory and with each other.  It might be that they once formed a familia (a group of allied monastic churches) whose mother-house may have been one of the Conval dedications which still survive.  Even if that were the case, however, the expansionist energy of the Glasgow archdiocese absorbed them, and by telling the story of Conval’s submission to Kentigern they brought them into the desired relationship with Kentigern’s successor, the archbishop of Glasgow.

For a more in-depth discussion of the cult of Conval and the expansion of the Glasgow archdiocese, see Gilbert Márkus, Rock-Rider: St Conval and his Church at Inchinnan (Inchinnan, 2018).[5]

[Gilbert Márkus, on the feast of St Conval of Inchinnan, and the feast of St Finnian, 28 September 2021]


[1]  ‘Super magnum altare in ecclesia Sancti Convalli de Cumnok’. Registrum Magni Sigilli, The Register of the Great Seal of Scotland, ed. J. M. Thomson and others (Edinburgh, 1882-1914), vol. II, no. 90.

[2] This appears to have been the name of a small chapel, not of a parish church.  It is quite lost now, but its former existence may be inferred from the name of the farm of Kirkconnel, which we may assume took its name from the supposed chapel.

[3] See Thomas Owen Clancy, ‘The Gall-Ghàidheil and Galloway’, Journal of Scottish Name Studies 2 (2008) 19-50.  On this process of expansion see also Gilbert Márkus (forthcoming), ‘Dating a boundary: Urr Water and Loch Urr’; and also this blog.

[4]  Alan Macquarrie (ed.), Legends of Scottish Saints: Readings, hymns and prayers for the commemorations of Scottish saints in the Aberdeen Breviary (Dublin, 2012), 238-9.

[5]  Booklet available free on line at

Exploring historic languages in the names of the parishes

We know so little about what happened in this part of Ayrshire in the early historic period, but one thing we know is that a comparatively large number of languages were spoken here, many of them probably at the same time: Northern Brittonic, Old English, Gaelic, Scots. It is place-names which tell us this, and one of the many things we can uncover in this project is that earlier period, its languages, and something of its cultures. Although we are still in the early stages of our work gathering and analysing the place-names of the Coalfield Communities landscape, the names of the historic parishes we are surveying allow us a brief but informative glimpse into the multilingual past.

The earliest of the languages preserved in the place-names of our survey area goes by several names. We are calling it Northern Brittonic, but you will also see people calling it simply Brittonic, Northern British or Cumbric. It was a language very closely related to Welsh, spoken by the people historians call the Northern Britons. These were the early medieval descendants of the people who had been here in Roman times and before. We know little about their society because of lack of evidence, although in the 6th century there was a British kingdom called Aeron which may have been situated somewhere in the region of the River Ayr. At least one of our parish names is a Northern Brittonic name: Ochiltree. It contains a very common place-name element in the second part: trev, “a settlement; farmstead”. The first bit of the name is probably best represented as uchel; the same word exists in Welsh, and means “high” or “upper”, so Ochiltree is the “high farm” or “upland settlement”.

Ochiltree Main Street: illustrating the applicability of the name “high settlement”. Photo: cc-by-sa/2.0 – © wfmillar –

There are several other Ochiltrees in Scotland—and also several places called by the Welsh equivalent, Ucheldre or Ucheldref, in Wales. The element trev is found in quite a number of place-names in Ayrshire, particularly in nearby Drongan parish (Trabboch, Tarelgin, Treesmax) and Kirkmichael parish (Threave, Guiltree, Tranew, Troquhain and Tradunnock), while just outside Cumnock we find Terringzean Castle and related names. Although Northern Brittonic is the earliest of the historic languages spoken here, it is not necessarily the case that Ochiltree is a very early name. Alan James, who has examined all these names in detail, has suggested that many of them date from the tenth or eleventh century.

One of the few historical facts we have for this region from the early middle ages comes from the year 750. That year, we are told, the English king of Northumbria, Eadberht “added the plain of Kyle and other regions to his kingdom”. Various Old English names in Ayrshire must come from this period—thinking here of Prestwick (“priests’ settlement”), and the *Bolton (“hall-settlement”) from which Tarbolton gets its name. In our study area, the parish of Straiton has one of these names. It comes from Old English strǣt “a road; often a Roman road” and tūn “settlement, farmstead”, and probably relates to Straiton’s position on a number of early routes. The second element, tūn, is the same as the later Scots word toun, found in many names in the area.  The parish name Coylton, probably a  Scots name containing toun, is not mentioned until fairly late in the record (the first element, despite various traditions, is very uncertain).

The vast bulk of the early settlement names of south-western Scotland are Gaelic, and our area is no exception. The parish name that best represents this is Auchinleck, Gaelic achadh nan leac “field of the slabs or flagstones”. The first element, achadh “a field, a farmstead”, is very productive in the area—it is in any case one of the most common Gaelic place-name elements in Scotland. Another very productive element in the area is Gaelic dail “haugh, holm, water-meadow”, which is found in Dalrymple parish. The old parish church of Dalrymple is situated on just such a stretch of land next to the River Doon, and the Scots name “Holmes” (now “Holms”) preserves this idea also. The second element however is tricky, and will have to await more research.

Ordnance Survey Six-Inch 2nd edition, via

This is not the only tricky name among our parishes. So far, we have seen five parish names containing some of the most common elements from each of our languages: trev, tūn / toun, achadh, dail. But two names stand out for our current uncertainty about what language they were coined in, and what they mean. On the face of it, Dalmellington looks like it contains two of our elements, both Gaelic dail “haugh, water-meadow” and Old English or Scots tūn / toun. However, early forms of the name make it clear that it originally contained neither! As discussed by Michael Ansell, Dalmellington belonged in the central middle ages to the Cistercian monastery of Melrose in the Borders, and as a consequence of this, its name is recorded fairly early for this area, in charters of the early 13th century. In several of the earliest of these, the name is recorded as Almelidun or Almelidon. The first element of this is likely to be either Northern Brittonic *al or Gaelic ail or all “cliff, rock”—there is no shortage of landscape features that this could refer to. The second part is hard to explain as either of our Celtic languages, but most readily understandable as an Old English name, *mǣle-dūn, possibly “variegated hill”  (perhaps referring to Mains Hill?); this is the origin of the name Meldon in Devon, for instance. We should not be surprised by the incorporation of an existing Old English place-name in a later name governed by a Gaelic element: this is exactly what happens in the name Tarbolton (Gaelic tòrr “(conical) hill” with existing name *Bolton). This sort of layering of languages in place-names is what we should expect in a region with such a rich mix. At any rate, it looks as if the name became assimilated to much more common place-name elements, giving us Dalmellington – probably helped by its situation along the River Doon.

Dalmellington with Mains Hill behind. Photo: cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Mary and Angus Hogg –

The final problem name among our medieval parishes is Cumnock (later split into Old and New). The form of the name has been reasonably consistent over the centuries, and various suggestions have been made—so far none of them have won the day as explanations. It looks most likely to be from one of the two Celtic languages spoken in our area—but which one, Northern Brittonic or Gaelic? And what does it mean? There is clearly plenty of work to do, even on the most prominent names in the Coalfields landscape.

Thomas Clancy


For a general overview of the languages of Ayrshire’s place-names, see the article by one of our project team members, Dr Simon Taylor: “Ayrshire Place-Names: a rich seam still to mine”, in Ayrshire Notes 38 (2009).