Our Babel Tower of Place Names

Despite a popular destination now for those seeking quality of life, our corner of Scotland was not always the quiet rural backwater it appears. In fact, it has the richest cultural heritage, pulling together in one place the disparate threads from which our ‘mongrel nation’ was woven. East Lothian may be the most mongrel of all.

During Roman times, a Welsh-speaking Goddodin tribe dominated the area from their hill forts on Traprain Law, Berwick Law, Garletons, etc. whose King Loth gave his name to the whole region. By the seventh century, after heavy defeat at Catterick—as described in Y Goddodin the oldest medieval text in Welsh to survive—they fell prey to Northumbrians surging north from their capital at Bamburgh.

Despite becoming a Christianised province of Northumbria, sealed by a monastery founded by Baldred, their rule was weak, explaining survival of many Brythonic place names, such as Tranent (steading by the stream), Pencaitland (land at the head of the woods) and Traprain itself (the steading of the trees), together with its older name Dinpelder (the fort of staves). Others still dot the county: Aberlady (originally Aberlessic, sluggish rivermouth); Pressmennan (upland copse); Longniddry (long new farm).

During the next three hundred years, most of the county’s main settlements appeared with names of Anglian origin: Tyninghame (home of folk by the Tyne); Haddington (village of the Had folk), Preston (priest’s village); Whitberry (white cairn); Carberry (cairn fort); Kingston (laird’s village); Sydserff (henchman’s settlement); Linton (village by the waterfall) and Seaton (village by the sea).

Up to the turn of the millennium, Vikings raiding introduced their influence as they settled and created the origins of Dunbar (barley fort) leaving Norse local names—Fidra (feather island); Markle (small wood); Humbie (river meadow farm); Hedderwick (settlement by the heath); Begbie (small farm); Scoughall (the wood in the hollow). We also have many Laws (from Lög—hill where laws were read out).

Most puzzling are Gaelic names in this area with no Gaelic history. Yet Ballencrieff (village by the tree); Garvald (rocky stream); Macmerry (Mary’s plain); Cockenzie (Kenneth’s cove) and Inveresk (mouth of the water) are pure Gaelic, as are many features along the coast: Craigleith (grey rock) Leckanbane (small white rocks) Leckmoramness (point of big rocks); Maidens (middle rocks). Were there perhaps once gaelic-speaking fishermen who named our coast?

With Malcolm II’s victory at Carham in 1019, the area became part of Scotland and, though new names were created, they were coined in the Scots dialect still spoken, like Whitekirk; Auldhame, Saltoun, or Luggate. But a curious exception to all this is Gifford: it derives from 8th century Frankish (give hard) and probably came with a Norman knight of that name when Queen Margaret was civilising the Scots court in the 13th century.

First published in the East Lothian Couier, Febuary 2014


About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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