Commemorations of Saints in Scottish Place-Names

Thomas Owen Clancy, Professor of Celtic, University of Glasgow 

This month’s Feature of the Month is a project ongoing here in the University of Glasgow, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and now two-thirds to completion. It is a project for which I have the privilege of being Principal Investigator, and I am joined on the project by two researchers, Gilbert Márkus and Rachel Butter (who helped write some of the words below), and by Matthew Barr who has been our systems developer.

The ‘Commemorations of Saints in Scottish Place-Names’ project is onomastic in at least two ways—we are interested not only in place-names incorporating the names of saints, but also in the names of those saints themselves, mutable as they can often be, and we also incidentally have to be attentive to the dividing line between saints’ names and what are simply personal names.

Scotland’s landscape is rich in place-names incorporating names of saints (hagio-toponyms), mostly of medieval origin. These names, several thousands of them, span Scotland’s historical linguistic range, including names in Northern British (Ecclesmachan), Gaelic (Kilmacolm, Tobermory), Norse (Barra) and Scots (St Quivox, Ladykirk). As with place-names in general in Scotland, so with these—Scotland’s rich linguistic diversity in the past presents many challenges, but also the opportunities to use linguistic change to gain some purchase on dating and sequencing. Many are the names of medieval parishes, but more are the names of chapel sites, wells, stones, and other landscape features associated with saints (e.g., a flat rock in the Firth of Forth off the East Lothian coast, St Baldred’s Boat). Sometimes it is obvious that there’s a saint in the name, as in St Andrews, but language changes and spelling mutations over time disguise this fact in others, like Exmagirdle (from Pictish *eglés ‘church’ + saint’s name Mo Grill) or Chipperdingan (from Gaelic tiobar, Old Gaelic tipra ‘well’ + saint’s name D’Fhinnian), or Kennethmont (early forms show this to be from Gaelic cill ‘church’ + saint’s name Alhmund). Because place-names ‘fossilise’ saints’ names, they are often the earliest evidence we have of saints’ cults in Scotland and, consequently, the earliest information we have about religious activity in a region. The commemoration of saints in Scottish place-names provide a window on a diverse array of aspects of the past, from the distribution of saints’ cults themselves, through linguistic ebb and flow, to political or regional affiliations and identities. These names thus constitute a major aspect of Scotland’s medieval past, yet they have not been studied systematically.

Our study is attempting to enact a full survey, subjecting the data to rigorous analysis. The main aim of the project—and the project team’s current pre-occupation—is the creation of a fully-searchable online database, which will contain, as far as is possible, all the hagiotoponyms of Scotland. The core data-set of this are the names on the OS 6” 1st edition maps from the mid 19th century, which have been lovingly combed by Gilbert Márkus. Taking these names (some 4000 of them) as our spine, early forms, as well as older names not recorded on the OS 6” 1st edn will fill out our data, and also our ability to analyse the names. This should at the very least allow much more confidence in how old—or new, or indeed spurious, certain names are. There are all sorts of new and different problems that arise when trying to track down when saints’ names first appear in association with, for instance, certain wells—there is a strong 19th century antiquarian trend we have to contend with.

And some interesting methodological questions have been raised in the construction of the database and the protocols that go with it. What is a hagiotoponym—when is a place being named from a saint, or when from a personal name, or when from some other association? A couple of examples might help. There are many examples throughout Scotland and beyond of the name Annfield. Now, there is a saint Anne, and theoretically this could represent a commemoration of her; most of these names, however, are best assigned to the class of early modern estate names employing the female names of members of the landowning families (such as Harrietfield—certainly not a hagiotoponym). But we can’t always be sure, and in the case of Blanefield in Kirkoswald parish in Ayrshire there is good reason to think this might represent St Blane or Bláán of Bute. Another problem is shown by a sort of secondary association. So: Linlithgow’s parish church is that of St Michael’s. Is, then, St Michael’s Wynd in Linlithgow named from the saint? Or is it named because it leads up to the church of St Michael’s? The distinction may seem trivial—but one is a commemoration, the other a mere direction marker. We need to be reasonably omnivorous in our gathering, and nuanced in our analysis, we have found. The database will, it is hoped, embed ranges of uncertainty, rather than boldly proposing clear solutions.

That sense of uncertainty is particularly acute when it comes to identifying the saints commemorated. Sometimes this is easy. In the place-name Kilmartin, in Argyll (from Gaelic cill ‘church’ + saint’s name Martin, G. Martainn), there is really only one saint in the running, that great godfather of European monasticism, St Martin of Tours (†397). But a name like Portmahomack is another matter. It comes from Gaelic port ‘port’ + saint’s name Mo Cholmóc. This name is a hypocoristic form—it employs a diminutive ending and also an ‘honorific’ use of the first personal pronoun—it means something like ‘My Dear Little Colum’. The Gaelic name Colum (Sc.G. Calum) is found in a huge variety of hypocoritic forms, such as Colmán, Mo Cholum, Mo Cholmóc (> Colmag, Calmag), Mo Chummae, Do Chunnae… Some of these could be used as alternative names for the great saint of Iona, Colum Cille or Columba. But not all of them, and there were many other saints called Colum or Colmán. So, confronted with a place-name in the Perthshire countryside like Cladh Chunna (Gaelic cladh ‘burial ground’ + saint’s name Cunna), which saint do we decide is represented here—an Irish saint called Do Chonnae, associated with Connacht? A saint called Do Conna who is listed as one of Columba of Iona’s companions? Or St Columba himself in a hypocoristic form? When the name is only recorded in the late 19th century for the first time, and lacks any other contextual information, it is difficult to know how to decide!

The project will collect and analyse as comprehensively as possible the hagiotoponyms of Scotland. A series of localities will then be selected for fine-grained investigation, employing a greater array of local source material, and integrating non-toponymic information about local saints’ cults, and other ecclesiastical toponyms (e.g., those referring to hereditary relic keepers or church-lands). These studies, it is intended, will investigate the micro-environment of the toponymy of devotion.

The cults of saints have long been studied as a way of understanding religious history, and in Scotland the poverty of other kinds of evidence from the early medieval period give hagio-toponyms special significance. But as discussed above, there are considerable challenges: understanding the derivation of the place-names themselves, for instance, or difficulties in identifying the individuals commemorated. In place-names we find both formal processes of naming (reflecting authority, possession and power), and naming as a reflection of local popular devotion, and the stories people told about their landscape. Study of hagio-toponyms must cope with extremes: dedications to saints as expressions of monastic control, and the mistaken creation of saints out of common name-elements (e.g., St Ford in Fife, originally Sandford). It was, and is, as Rachel Butter has called it, ‘a dynamic process of forgetfulness and invention’. We hope through this project we will be able to reclaim and understand some aspects of the landscapes of Scotland religious past.

The database will we hope be public in the late summer of 2013. There should however, be introductions and discussions available on the project’s website from the early spring. I will make sure to update when that goes live. In the meantime, we’d be happy to hear views on the perils of hagiotoponyms, and are very interested in ‘accidental hagiotoponyms’—stray place-names with saints in them in obscure sources we are unlikely to know about (Gaelic poetry; a field on your grannie’s farm, that sort of thing). Email me at: [email protected]


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