Eila Williamson and Simon Taylor gave a presentation on the project at the recent spring conference of the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland (SNSBI), which was held online on 10–11 April. Attended by around 100 delegates from throughout Britain and Ireland and from as far afield as Nigeria, Iceland, Norway, Estonia and Hungary, the conference provided us with an opportunity to spread news of our place-name project and the CCLP to an international audience. A pdf of slides from our presentation is available on the SNSBI website.
The subject of this blog is just one name: Auchinleck. This is the name not only of a village but also of a large parish which forms the most northerly and easterly part of the CCLP area.
The earliest appearance of this name is in a charter issued around 1230, by which Walter son of Alan, the royal steward, granted the church of Achinlec to Paisley Abbey. Through this we know that already 800 years ago Auchinleck was important enough to have its own parish church, and we can assume that this parish covered an area approximately the same as the later one. The earliest reference to the lordship of Auchinleck is in 1385 (Auchinlek). The name itself is Gaelic, as are so many of the more important names in Ayrshire (see the previous blog). It is made up of two Gaelic nouns, which, in modern Gaelic would be written achadh and leac. They are joined by the Gaelic definite article meaning ‘of the’. Let us take each of these words or elements in turn.
The basic meaning of Gaelic achadh is ‘field’, but at an early date it developed the meaning ‘farm, farm-stead, farming settlement’. Achadh in place-names usually appears as Auch- or Ach-, although beware of names such as Auchtermuchty, Auchterarder and Auchtertyre, the first element of which is Gaelic uachdar ‘upper part, upland’.
There are literally hundreds of achadh-place-names in Scotland, from Caithness to Galloway. Within a ten-mile radius of Auchinleck alone there are at least 17, e.g. Auchmannoch, Auchincross and Auchengibbert. What makes our Auchinleck stand out is that it is the only parish-name in the whole of Scotland which contains this element.
Qualifying achadh is the noun an leac ‘the flat stone, the slab stone, the flagstone’. In Old Gaelic it can also refer to bed-rock underlying earth or water. So in modern Gaelic this might be Achadh na Lice ‘farm of the flat stone’ or Achadh nan Leac ‘farm of the flat stones’. Because the final element of Auchinleck always appears as le(c)k it is most likely from the plural form leac, so ‘of the flat stones’. James Boswell (1740-1795), who grew up in Auchinleck House, provides us with the most likely explanation of the name, even contradicting his great hero Dr Samuel Johnson in this regard.
In August 1773, on their journey through Scotland in 1773, Johnson had teased Boswell about the name of his estate:
“I see a number of people barefooted here; I suppose you all went so before the Union. Boswell, your ancestors went so when they had as much land as your family has now. Yet ‘Auchinleck’ is the ‘Field of Stones’: there would be bad going barefooted there. The Lairds, however, did it.”
This had clearly piqued Boswell, though it took several months for him to respond. In his Journal for 4 November 1773 he writes:
I was glad to have at length a very fine day, on which I could show Dr Johnson the Place of my family, which he has honoured with so much attention in his Journey. He is, however, mistaken in thinking that the Celtic name, Auchinleck, has no relation to the natural appearance of it. I believe every Celtic name of a place will be found very descriptive. Auchinleck does not signify a stony field, as he has said, but a field of flagstones; and this place has a number of rocks which abound in strata of that kind.
So there, Dr Johnson!
Dane Love, in his excellent book on Auchinleck (2015), corroborates Boswell’s interpretation, stating that the flagstones referred to in the name are to be found in the area around the old castle, ‘where the sandstone rock protrudes through the earth.’ The slab-like nature of the rocks here can be clearly seen in this picture.
Auchinleck as a name is not alone. It is in fact one of Scotland’s most frequently occurring achadh-names. There are at least 17 such places, from Aberdeenshire in the north to Kirkcudbrightshire in the south. They differ from Auchinleck only in that some omit the definite article linking achadh and leac, and some appear to contain the genitive singular na lice ‘of the flat stone’ or simply lice ‘of a flat stone’, rather than the plural nan leac ‘of the flat stones’. The other difference is that several appear on the modern map as Affleck, which reflects how Auchinleck was often later pronounced, with -ch- in Gaelic place-names sometimes becoming –f– when these names were adopted by Scots-speakers. Our Auchinleck can also be pronounced thus. It appears on Roy’s military map of Scotland (c.1750) as Affleck, and is enshrined in the modern name Mill Affleck on the Lugar Water.
While there is no doubt that the Ayrshire Auchinleck is the most important of the bunch, being the only one that has come to refer to both a parish and a village, it is not the oldest recorded. That honour goes to Affleck, Lesmahagow parish, Lanarkshire (NS847428), which first appears sometime between 1160 and 1180 as Auchynlec’ (see Taylor 2009, 74-5), followed by Affleck, New Deer parish, Aberdeenshire (NJ919483), which first appears around 1200 as Auhelic (Auchlek in 1493). Another early recorded one is Affleck, Monikie parish by Dundee, Angus (NO494387), when we find one Matthew of Affleck (Aghelek’) paying homage to Edward I at Berwick in 1296. It may be noted that this Affleck appears as late as the 6 inch 1st edition Ordnance Survey map (1863) as Auchinleck, but on the next edition of the map in 1903 it appears as Affleck. Other forms in which some of these names appear on modern maps are: Achadhlic, a deserted settlement on Carna Island at the mouth of Loch Sunart, Argyll; Achleek, also on Loch Sunart; Auchaleck near Campbelltown in Kintyre; and Auchleeks, Blair Atholl parish, Perthshire. Two others appear with the very minor spelling variant Auchenleck, one in Kilmacolm parish, Renfrewshire, the other in Rerrick parish, Kirkcudbrightshire.
In each of these places we can assume that the leac of the name is an important feature which differentiates it from other places in its vicinity. We are fortunate to have James Boswell’s own acute observation as to what the element in our Auchinleck refers to, as well as such clearly visible evidence. However, given the distribution of these names over such a wide area with such differing geologies, we should not expect the leac to refer to an exactly similar feature. We cannot say much more at this stage since no systematic study has been made of this group of names. It would make for an interesting project one day, when we’re all allowed out.
Taylor, Simon (2009), ‘Place-names of Lesmahagow’, Journal of Scottish Name Studies 3, 65-106.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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).
It has been exciting to start work on the new place-names project for the Coalfield Communities Landscape Partnership (CCLP). Our project is one of 22 which once completed will help to highlight the heritage of the East Ayrshire coalfield communities and enrich the lives of those who live and work there as well as those who visit its landscape.
Since I began working part-time on the project I have been assembling the head-names for our database using the Content Management System designed by Brian Aitken, our systems developer here at Glasgow. This is based on similar databases for other place-name projects centred on Berwickshire and Galloway, which Brian has also designed. Our head-names are the names which feature on the OS 6 inch 1st edn map sheets for Ayrshire (published in 1853–60) plus additional names from the later OS 6 inch 2nd edn Ayrshire map sheets (published in 1896–99) and the present day OS Explorer.
As a starting point Brian was able to incorporate into the database data from the GB1900 project which captured all the names from the OS 6 inch 2nd edn map series, recording the National Grid References (NGRs) and parishes. However, the NGRs that that project has used are for the first letter of each name rather than for the feature itself so in the majority of cases the NGRs need to be altered for the purposes of our survey. Unfortunately, too, there were some problems with the map projection used for the GB1900 project and this has led to the wrong parish being assigned to approximately one-third of the names.
Our head-names for the parishes of Auchinleck, Old Cumnock, Ochiltree and Dalmellington are now complete with the relevant NGRs and parishes sorted out and the correct code (e.g. R for Relief feature such as a hill or glen; S for Settlement such as a village or individual house; W for Watercourse such as a river or burn) assigned to each name. Once I have completed a similar process for New Cumnock parish and the extra names from Straiton, Dalrymple and Coylton parishes that are included in the CCLP’s area, I will be able to start searching systematically for early forms of the names from other historical maps and documentary sources.