Home» About Scots» History» Scottish place-names

Scottish Place-Names

Scotland's place-names provide a window on the past that allows us to examine issues of language contact dating back many hundreds of years. The earliest names belong to major natural features, especially major rivers (e.g. Ayr, Avon, Clyde). A subset of these names have parallels throughout Europe, and more than one theory has been put forward to explain their language of origin. Currently, the prevailing view (advocated by such luminaries as Prof. Hans Krahe and Prof. W. H. F. Nicolaisen) remains that these names belong to a very early period of language, before the collective Indo-European language split into its Celtic, Germanic, Romance (and other) branches. Later influences on Scottish names come from the P-Celtic languages spoken throughout the country from about the second to the ninth centuries. Although the northern and southern forms of this language may simply belong to a larger whole, they are often referred to as Pictish (in the north) and Cumbric (or, confusingly, Welsh, Brittonic, etc.) in the south. Gaelic place-names are found all over Scotland, and Gaelic place-name elements are often found in combination with elements from other languages, sometimes indicating that a former, Gaelic name, was no longer understood in its original sense by the incoming population. Knock Hill in Fife, for example, was originally a Gaelic place-name derived from cnoc 'hill', but later Scots settlers who did not understand the Gaelic meaning added 'hill' to the name. They would therefore have understood Knock Hill to mean 'the hill at the place or in the area called Knock'. Scandinavian influence can be traced in place-names in several different areas of the country. In the far north, Scandinavian settlers had a direct impact on many names, and in the south Gaelic-Scandinavian populations influenced the west and Anglo-Scandinavian speakers influenced the east. The transition from Old English to Scots is normally dated at around the year 1100, and although evidence from this early period is patchy, there are a number of Old English names that date from before this shift in linguistic perceptions. Over time, these languages have interacted, with the result that the present map is a palimpsest of cultural and historical information. Although designations have now been agreed for the vast majority of places in Scotland, coinage still continues, and Scottish languages including Scottish English, Scots and Gaelic continue to contribute to this process of evolution.