The name Auchinleck

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.

Auchinleck House (left) and Auchinleck village (right) as shown on Armstrong’s map of 1775, via

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 Castle Site. Photo: cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Mary and Angus Hogg –

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.

Simon Taylor

Taylor, Simon (2009), ‘Place-names of Lesmahagow’, Journal of Scottish Name Studies 3, 65-106.