You will find here the handout which accompanies a place-name walk, starting and ending at Highhouse in Auchinleck. The walk was initially conducted by the Place-Names of the Coalfield Communities team on 10th September, 2022.
In addition, for those who prefer to fill it out electronically (or, indeed, for people who conduct themselves on this walk in the future), here is a short feedback form. We would be grateful for people’s views about the walk.
On a dreich morning in October 2021 a group of people stood in the wind and rain above Knockshinnoch farm just outside New Cumnock. In the group were Jackie Dick, Paddy Dornan, Billy Hunter and Jim McCulloch, four former miners who had lived in the small mining villages of Connel Park and Burnside and had worked in the many pits around them. Former miner Tom McGinn was also in the group, but was with us only for a short while. Local historian Bobby Guthrie, a member of Improving New Cumnock, was there, too, and the group was led by Francis Lopez, a location scout and film-maker from New Cumnock, who had brought the group together. The purpose was to guide myself and my friend Dot Clark, originally from Old Cumnock, around the former mining area and its lost villages. As I am involved with the Coalfield Communities Landscape Partnership (CCLP) place-names project, I was especially focussed on the place-names, many of which had been wiped away along with the mines and villages. However, the morning was much more than that. Jackie, Paddy, Billy and Jim painted a vivid picture of a whole lost landscape and way of life, sharing with us with humour and good nature their intimate knowledge of, as well as their lives in these places.
From Knockshinnoch we looked out over a green, rolling landscape that 60 years ago would have been dominated by coal-mines and bings. Directly in front of us a large bing would have reared up – the Washer Bing, so-called because it stood next to the coal-washer.
However, there is still something to be seen in this landscape which evokes the mining era – the boggy depression in a nearby field. This is called locally The Crater, and it is where, on 7 September 1950, a peat-bog emptied itself into the coal-mine below, killing 13 men and trapping another 116 for three days. A huge crater opened up, pictures of which can be seen on Robert Guthrie’s New Cumnock History website under Knockshinnoch Disaster 1950 – NEW CUMNOCK HISTORY where full details of the disaster and the dramatic rescue of the trapped men can also be found. The crater has to a large extent been filled in, but there is still that boggy depression, and its name, which remain as a reminder of the terrible event. There is also nearby, on the footpath which leads to the Afton Water, a memorial erected to the men who died. For some of the ex-miners gathered in the rain that morning, the Knockshinnoch disaster is one of their earliest memories.
The path which goes past the Knockshinnoch memorial is a short-cut from the Cairnhill area of New Cumnock to the Knockshinnoch pits, and is now known as Miners Walk. However, the miners taking this path had to cross the Afton Water using Gibson’s Steps, stepping stones named after Gibson, the then farmer at nearby West Park (formerly Laigh Park). Crossing this way could be difficult, especially when the river was high, so in the early 1930s a bridge was built, but its central pier was dislodged by the first spate. At the instigation of local councillor Daniel Robertson, a suspension bridge was built, which has survived to this day. The bridge was referred to locally as Danny’s Brig, a name which has now become official, appearing as it does on footpath signposts.
By the time we reached the main road and the village of Connel Park, the rain had stopped and a weak sun was now shining. Ayrshire is strewn with the names of villages and streets now demolished because of the demise of the industries which once supported them, and which they once supported – coal-mining and, to a lesser extent, iron-working. Connel Park has clung on as a few houses along the main road, but once it was home to around 1,200 people, mainly living in miners’ rows (locally often ‘raws’). Billy Hunter had grown up in Long Row, while Francis Lopez’s family stayed in Store Row and Paddy and Mary Dornan had stayed in Honeymoon Row.
Some of these rows were called after buildings – at the corner of the Store Row and the main road stood the all-important Co-operative Store; some were descriptive, such as (the) Long Row, running parallel to the Store Road but considerably longer; some were called after nearby features, such as Football Row (Old and New); and some took existing names, such as the Bank Brae, two rows on either side of the brae on the main road leading to Bankglen and Bank House, or the Boig Road, the road passing the farm of South Boig (pronounced /bo:g/ with o: as in ‘oh’, but the same word as ‘bog’). The most memorable name was (the) Honeymoon Row (official name South Boig Street ) on the Bank Brae, so called because it was the houses that newly-weds went into. Some rows had unofficial names – Honeymoon Row was one. Others would change their name officially, such as Railway Terrace, so called because it lay along the single-track industrial railway line. There was another Railway Terrace at Pathhead by New Cumnock station, so to avoid confusion it was renamed Stepends Road, but it too has an unofficial name – Washer Row (pronounced Wahsher Raw /waʃər rɔ:/) because it was so close to the coal-washer and Washer Bing (see the above picture). It was in Washer Row that Bobby Guthrie’s father stayed. Stepends (/stɛˈpɛnz/ with stress on ‘ends’) was named after a cottage beside the Connel Burn, which, as the name indicates, was crossed at this point by stepping stones.
Near where the railway line crosses the main road was a large building called The Clachan, a kind of unofficial community centre, where miners would come together to relax and play, carpet bowling, dominos or cards. Clachan is originally a Gaelic word meaning a wee village, often around a kirk. It was built in 1904 but it was not named The Clachan until after the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow in 1938. One of the many exhibits at this remarkable event was a somewhat romanticised life-sized reconstruction of a Highland village which was called simply An Clachan, ‘The Clachan’. New Cumnock visitors to the Exhibition brought the name back and applied it to the Connel Park ‘community centre’, perhaps with a certain irony. Pictures of An Clachan can be found at British Empire Exhibition 1938.
The Clachan, along with all the rows, has gone, only the building which once housed the Store still stands.
On the Boig Road, at the very edge of the mining village, is the small farm of South Boig. This is known locally at The Bowen, pronounced The Boo-in /ðəˈbuən/, a bowin or bowing signifying a tenancy whereby the tenant (known as a bower) rents both the land and the live-stock (see Dictionaries of the Scots Language:: SND :: bowin n2 (dsl.ac.uk)). Beyond The Bowen is a small wood on the east side of Boig Road. In this wood stood Ardnith House, built for Robert Brown, one of the three partners of the Lanemark Coal Company, formed in 1865. After his death at Ardnith House in 1886, his son Thomas Mathieson Brown took his place in the company. Thomas is remembered for one thing. In November1906 he sent poisoned shortbread to the house of William Lennox in Cumnock. It seems to have been meant for Lennox, but in fact it killed his carer Miss Grace McKerrow. Full details of this dastardly deed can be found on the Cumnock History Group Website at History – Cumnock research items – Cumnock History Group
The small wood on the site of Ardnith House is called Geordie’s Wood (Wid). We were told it was named after a later inhabitant of the house, one John C. George, who in the 1950 General Election stood as a Unionist Party candidate in South Ayrshire against sitting Labour MP Emrys Hughes (son-in-law of Keir Hardie). Needless to say he did not win.
In Connel Park Paddy Dornan left us and we were joined by Ian Howat, farmer at Laglaff and director of the Improving New Cumnock Co. as well as of J. R. Howat Plant Hire. He is also on the board of The Scottish Mines Restoration Trust involved in facilitating the restoration of open-cast coal mines across Scotland. The two major opencast mines which scarred the landscape around New Cumnock were House of Water a few miles to the west and Hall of Auchincross/Rigghead/Greenburn to the north. These have now been filled in and landscaped, and there is a proposal to keep Greenburn in the energy sector by building a wind farm there.
From Connel Park the group drove south-westwards through the small village of Bankglen, through what had been the village of Craigbank, now vanished, and past what is left of Lanemark Row, known locally as Knowe Tap, ‘knowe top’: as the name indicates it is the highest point on the road between Connel Park and Burnside. Burnside is another decimated mining village which once served the mines of Lanemark to the south-west and Bank Colliery and Brick Works to the north-east.
This had been the home of Jim McCulloch for many years. He was born in the village, in Burnfoot Row, now demolished, and grew up in a house in Burnside. There had been 4 rows on the hill at Burnside. Now only a handful have survived, one of which is Jim’s. Jim was the only one of the four whose former house still stood. Beside Jim’s house a steep brae dropped down to the main road – excellent, but dangerous, for sledging we were told. It was known as the Cowsy Brae (ˈkauzɪ bre:/). There was no explanation for the name, but I wonder if it is the Scots causie ‘a causeway, a raised path or road across wet or marshy ground’. Just beyond the main road at the bottom of the brae is a boggy area through which the Lane Burn flows, and there may well have been a causeway across it leading to the farms of Farden and Lanemark. Cowsy Brae would have been so called because it was one of the approaches to the causeway. It was in the Lane Burn that the bairns enjoyed catching minties (minnnows) in bottles.
The burn in the names both of Burnside and neighbouring Burnfoot is the Blarene Burn (/blaˈrin/ Blareen, with stress on reen) flowing from Blarene Hill and taking its name from the long vanished settlement of Blarene somewhere near the farm of Brockloch (Gaelic for ‘badger set’, a safe distance from Knockshinnoch ‘fox-hillock’, cnoc sionnach, another Gaelic name). It gave its name to Blarene Level, an old coalmine south-west of Burnside out of which the large Lanemark Colliery developed.
After leaving Burnside we drove back to New Cumnock to the top of Cairn Hill on the southern edge of the town. In the late 1950s a council estate had been built on this hill to house families from the surrounding villages such as Connel Park and Burnside, and in 1960 Cairnhill Primary school was opened. It had been Francis’s former paper-round: he remembers vividly how he would see all the miners on their way to the early shift stepping out their doors at exactly the same time, as if choreographed. The estate was in its turn demolished gradually from the late 1990s to 2009, leaving a grass-covered hill, with only the tarmac roads surviving to indicate where the houses once stood. Jackie Dick had lived on the hill, which he referred to as Farden Avenue, named after Farden Farm opposite Burnside. The wind was so strong up there that we struggled to open the car doors, and, on the hill itself, had to be careful not to be blown off balance. It was a stark reminder of just how exposed the place is. This was not, however, the reason for its demolition, it was rather because of a drastic decline in population following the closure of the mines.
To the south of Cairn Hill, the so-called Z I Wood (Wid) was pointed out – or rather its remains. It referred to strips of woodland in the shape of the letters Z and I which stretched across the whole north face of Dalhanna Hill. However, with most of the trees cut down, the letters have been erased.
Although we did not linger on the wind-swept hill, we were there long enough to admire the rainbow over New Cumnock.
We then drove back down the hill to New Cumnock Townhall, recently renovated with a grant from the Prince’s Trust. It now serves as a community centre and hall. Before we said our goodbyes we were treated to a recital by Ian Howat of a verse from a poem he had written:
At the cundie by the lunky
whaur the sheugh gans tae the burn
whaur the cowpie wis ee-pickit
and the braxie hoag was fun
It was inspired not by the coal-mining heritage of New Cumnock but by the farming life which has always existed here, both before and during the era of the pits and the bings, and which will long outlast them. Back to the fields.
‘Back to the Fields’ is the title of an excellent film made by Francis Lopez in 2000 about the history of New Cumnock. A significant part of it consists of the older generation of men and women speaking about their memories of living and working in the New Cumnock area, going as far back as the 1920s. It is one continuous film, the divisions having been made for its presentation on YouTube.
Acknowledgements: My sincere thanks go to Jackie Dick, Paddy Dornan, Bobby Guthrie, Ian Howat, Billy Hunter, Francis Lopez, Jim McCulloch and Tom McGinn for sharing so generously their memories of life, work and place in and around New Cumnock. Additional thanks are due to Francis Lopez for making it all happen and to Bobby Guthrie for his input and help in finalising this article. I would also like to thank my friend Dot Clark for her enthusiastic engagement with the whole project.
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’.
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. 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) 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.’
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).
[Gilbert Márkus, on the feast of St Conval of Inchinnan, and the feast of St Finnian, 28 September 2021]
 ‘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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
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.
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 achadhnan 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.