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 – geograph.org.uk/p/2845253

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 https://maps.nls.uk/

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 – geograph.org.uk/p/1096709

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).