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Scottish Place-Names,

Scottish Place-Names

  In the rich poetry of Scottish place names, the layers of ancient people and their languages stand out clearly. It is no exaggeration to speak of poetry. In the poem " Canedolia, " by modern Glaswegian poet Edwin Morgan, an imaginary stranger asks about Scotland, and receives only place names in reply. " How far?" asks the stranger, and the answer comes:

from largo to lunga from joppa to skibo from ratho to shona from ulva to minto from tinto to tolsta from soutra to marsco from braco to barra from alva to stobo from fogo to fada from gigha to gogo from kelso to stroma from hirta to spango
" And what do you do in those places ? " asks the stranger.

we foindle and fungle, we bonkle and meigle and maxpoffle. we scotstarvit, armit, wormit, and even whifflet. we play at crosstobs, leuchars, gorbals, and finfan. we scavaig, and there's aye a bit of tilquhilly. if it's wet, treshnish and mishnish.

  All the above are actual places, and the poem goes on to name such evocative points on the map as Wamphray, Blinkbonny, Scrishven and Cambus-puttock.

The ingredients in the modern Scottish mix of peoples are diverse. Working back through time immigrants include Asians from former British colonies; Poles and Italians fleeing poverty or oppression in Europe; much earlier, French-speaking Normans; Vikings from Scandinavia; Anglo-Saxons--the original English; Scots from Ireland; and Picts who fought the Romans in the first century A.D.

The Picts left their mark in many place names, particularly in the east of the country. Names beginning with
Pit (Pitlochry, Pitsligo, Pittenweem) referred to Pictish farms. Those starting with Aber (Aberdeen, Abernethy, Aberfeldy) spoke of the place where two rivers met or a river met the sea.

Other names speak of the claims staked by the Gaelic-speaking Scots. They replaced
Aber with Inver, giving us Inverness, Inverkeithing and Inverurie, and introduced the prefix Kin, meaning the head or top of something--hence Kinross and Kinlochewe. The place name Kincardine is testimony to the union of Picts and Scots: The Gaelic Kin is joined to the Pictish Carden, meaning thicket. There are six different Kincardines in Scotland.

Later, the Anglo-Saxons christened homesteads, which grew into towns like Haddington and Coldingham, while the Norsemen gave names to a host of settlements, particularly in the far north. The extreme north of the Scottish mainland is given the apparently upside-down name Sutherland (Southland) because it was the southernmost province of a Norse kingdom. Some of these Scandinavian names repeat themselves, changing slightly from place to place as they echo the far corners of the vanished Viking empire: Tinwald near Dumfries, Dingwall on the Cromarty Firth, Tingwall (one each in Orkney and Shetland) and Thingvellir in Iceland are all based on the same Norse root name, meaning an open-air parliament.

The final phase of naming came with the spread of English as the main tongue of Scotland. Market towns were called "burghs" (pronounced 'burra"). Some had the word included in their name, like the English boroughs: Edinburgh, Musselburgh, Jedburgh. Meanwhile, aside from human settlements, the main features of the landscape-- mountains, glens, rivers--kept and still keep their Gaelic names. These two languages, English and Gaelic, are what native Scots speak today.

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