Echoes of an early territory

Gilbert Márkus writes:

In twelfth-century and later records of churches in Galloway, we occasionally come across a territory called Desnes.  It appears in various spellings (Desnes, Desenes, Denes, Deesnes, Desense) but I will adopt Desnes as the standard form.  It is the name of a territory which, as we shall see, extended along the southern part of Galloway from the River Cree to the River Nith, and it included the southern parishes of the Galloway Glens project area.  In what follows I will reflect a little on what we might learn from this name.

First of all, what language was it coined in, and what does it mean?  Daphne Brooke thought that it was Gaelic deas neas meaning ‘southern promontories’ (1987, 48).   While this is just about formally possible (at least it would be if we read it as a singular ‘promontory’) it is a very odd construtction.  And we should bear in mind that the obsolete Gaelic word neas ‘a promontory’ is not a native word, but a loan from Old Norse, and it is vanishingly rare as an element in Gaelic place-names.  William J. Watson in his magisterial Celtic Place-Names of Scotland (1926) does not cite a single Gaelic place-name containing this element.   But there is a significant number of place-names in Scotland which contain the element nes – that is the Norse, not the Gaelic word – meaning ‘a promontory, a headland’.  J. G. Scott proposed that Desnes is a Norse name, that it contains the name of the River Dee (1993, 132), and that it means ‘promontory, headland or point of the Dee’ – in Old Norse Des nes.   This seems highly likely, though it is also possible that the name is even older, formed during the Northumbrian domination of this area: the river-name and Old English næs ‘promontory etc.’

The ‘promontory’ in question might be the whole area of land which juts out into the Solway at the mouth of the Dee, comprising broadly speaking the parishes of  Borgue, Kirkcudbright and Rerwick (see Map 2 below).

Another possibility is that the nes is a much smaller promontory at the mouth of the Dee – perhaps St Mary’s Isle (which in spite of its name is not an island but a sharp narrow promontory) immediately to the south of the early medieval Northumbrian settlement of Kirkcudbright.  If this is the nes that gave Desnes its name, it may have been because it was an early medieval power-centre (before St Mary’s Priory was founded there in the twelfth century), controlling access to the Dee river system.  On the other hand, much of the landscape around St Mary’s Isle and Kirkcudbright is low-lying and composed of river-silt.  As a result it is likely to have been in a state of flux over the centuries, and it may be that St Mary’s Isle really was an island when the monastery was built on it in the twelfth century, and therefore not the nes.  If so, the nes named in Desnes may be the promontory at the river-mouth on which Kirkcudbright itself sits.  Timothy Pont’s survey of the area in the 1590s, published in engraved form in Blaeu’s Atlas in 1654, clearly show both Kirkcudbright (Kircubright) and St Mary’s Isle as part of a continuous single nes in the middle of the basin of the Dee estuary.

Map 1: St Mary’s Isle and Kirkcudbright, from Blaeu’s Atlas, map of Galloway (1654). (Website of the National Library of Scotland).

It is worth mentioning in passing, if this proposal about Desnes is right, another potentially Norse name in Galloway which refers to the main headland to the west of Desnes.  The medieval deanery of Farnes is recorded in the thirteenth century as containing the parishes from New Luce and Kirkcowan in the north to Glasserton, Sorbie and Whithorn in the south.  This is again a dramatic nes or promontory jutting into the Solway.

The proposed Norse origin of the names Desnes and Farnes sits well with other territorial names of Norse origin in this coastal, such as the parish names Rerwick and Southwick (both in the territory of Desnes) and Sorbie (in Farnes).

The second thing we might notice about the name Desnes is that it usually occurs as the name of a church territory, or rather church territories.  That does not mean it was originally coined as an ecclesiastical name, however, and at least one occurrence of the name suggests it had a political or secular aspect too.

In the 1160s, King William confirmed a grant by Uhtred, son of Fergus, of the church of Kirkcudbright to the newly founded Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh.  Kirkcudbright was said to lie in Desenesmor, that is the ‘large or great’ Desnes (Gaelic mòr) (Holyrood Liber no. 27).  This immediately reveals that already Desnes has been divided up, and the area around Kirkcudbright is the ‘greater’ part – which might refer to its size, or perhaps more likely to its importance.

At around the same time (1161 x 1174) Uhtred granted some land (what is now New Abbey parish at the mouth of the Nith) to one Richard son of Troite (Ricardo filio Tructe).  In return for that grant he requires from Richard the service of one knight and eight pounds of silver ‘as long as I have to render cain of/from [the?] cro and of/from Desnes Ioan’ (del cro et de Desense Ioan) (Ragg 1917, 218).  Here Desnes Ioan is the eastern part of Desnes, and the name is probably ‘Desnes belonging to John’ – John is Iohannes in Latin, Ioan in Welsh (or Cumbrian if you prefer), and is also attested as Ioan in medieval Gaelic.  We will come back to this John in due course.

Now, I would like to refer you back to the previous blog on this page (9 June) when I described how David Prince of the Cumbrians sought to expand his area of control at the expense of the rulers of Galloway in the early twelfth century.  You may remember this map representing Gall-Ghàidheil or ‘Greater Galloway’ territory in its former extent, adjacent to the growing kingdom of Cumbria.  Little by little David, his Cumbrian kingdom (or principality, now under the authority of the king of Scots) and his newly revived church at Glasgow, encroached on southern Galloway from the east, swallowing Annandale and Nithsdale, and assigning Edingham and the land between the Urr and the Nith to the bishopric of Glasgow – a sure sign that it was under David’s military and political control.

Map 2: Gall-Ghàidheil and Cumbria – rival polities

In the scenario I described there, the Urr Water became the boundary between the diocese of  Galloway to the west and the diocese of Glasgow to the east, ruled respectively by Fergus king of Galloway and David prince of the Cumbrians.   The Urr at that point was the limit of David’s expanding reach, but in fact we can see that David and his successors were trying to reach even further.   In 1179 Pope Alexander confirmed various churches and rights to Glasgow Cathedral, his ‘special daughter’ (filia specialis), and these included Glenken (Glasgow Reg. no. 51).  This suggests that the king of Scots had been trying to incorporate Glenken into his territory, but in fact he failed, as can be seen from the fact that the pope’s charter was ineffective.  Glenken did not become part of Glasgow diocese, but remained in Galloway.   In the same charter the pope also confirmed to Glasgow ‘whatever belongs to your jurisdiction in Galloway’ (quicquid tui iuris est in Galweia).  Again we can see the king of Scots trying to expand his jurisdiction into Galloway, detaching churches from the see of Galloway at Whithorn and attaching them to his own see at Glasgow.  Here the phrasing is a bit vague, merely indicating that Glasgow could have any churches which the king succeeded in loosening from Whithorn’s grasp.

So let us return to Desnes and see how that name fits into this narrative.  Here is a map of the area showing all the modern parishes and identifying which medieval deaneries they belong to.  Note that some of the medieval parishes no longer exist but have been absorbed into the surviving modern parishes – but that does not affect what follows.

Map 3: The parishes of Desnes (Galloway and Glasgow dioceses) and Glenken

The parishes of Kells, Dalry, Balmaclellan, Parton and Balmaghie (in green) belonged to the deanery of Glenken – the one that the pope tried (and failed) to give to Glasgow.  The parish of Carsphairn, also in green, was created in the 1640s out of the northern parts of Kells and Dalry, so its territory also lay in Glenken deanery.

All the parish names in red on the map are part of the territory of Desnes.  To the west of the Urr Water was Desnes Mòr or ‘greater Desnes’ belonging to Galloway diocese.  To the east of the Urr Water was Desnes Ioan, as we saw from the charter of Uhtred to Richard, and all its parishes belonged to Glasgow diocese.  Sometimes these two parts of Desnes were mentioned in medieval sources with their affixes, mòr and Ioan, but quite often they are referred to simply as Desnes, and only the context tells us which of the two parts is being referred to.

 The fact that Desnes gave its name to a wide territory which we must assume was only later divided up between Galloway and Glasgow/Cumbria dioceses suggests that the name and the territory is older than 1120, when we first see this division taking place.   It is the name of an originally singular jurisdiction within what is sometimes called ‘Greater Galloway’.  And if Desnes is, as I have suggested, a Norse name, then this confirms its antiquity, locating the name and the territory in a time when Norse-speakers were settling in this part of Galloway.  Of course, if it is an Old English name it (and the territory it names) is earlier still, possibly dating to the late seventh or eighth century.

Finally, while the name Desnes Mòr is transparent, the name Desnes Ioan is of particular interest in the context of the above narrative about when and how the division of Desnes took place.  As I have said, Ioan is a form of the name John, attested in both Welsh and Gaelic.  At the time when I have suggested that David and the bishop of Glasgow were encroaching on Desnes from the east, the bishop of Glasgow was called John.  He ruled that see from 1114 x 1118 till his death in 1147.   As Desnes Ioan was probably taken from Fergus of Galloway during that period and taken into John’s ecclesiastical jurisdiction, it seems likely (as Scott suggested in 1993) that it was actually named after him.




Brooke, Daphne (1987), ‘The Deanery of Desnes Cro and the church of Edingham’, TDGNHAS 62, 48-65.

Glasgow Reg. Registrum Episcopatus Glasguensis (2 vols., Edinburgh, 1843) (Bannatyne Club).

Ragg, F.W. (1917), ‘Five Strathclyde and Galloway Charters’, Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society 17 (series 2), 198-234.

Scott, J.G. (1993), ‘Galloway in the 1100s: notes, footnotes and some comments’, TDGNHAS 68, 131-3.




Boundary? What Boundary? – Urr Water and Loch Urr

Gilbert Márkus writes:

The place-names research in the Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership covers a very specific area: seven parishes in the area of the River Dee and its tributaries.  The eastern limit of our research area is formed by a river, the Urr Water.  This river runs southwards from Loch Urr forming much of our eastern limit.

The parishes of the project area (and a couple of others): Carsphairn (CPH), Dalry (DAY), Kells (KEL), Balmaclellan (BMC), Parton (PAR), Crossmichael (CMI) and Balmaghie (BMG).  Loch Urr (marked with a blue dot) at the head of the Urr Water, is on its eastern boundaryNote: Girthon (GRN), Kirkcudbright and Glencairn (GLN) are not part of the project area.

Let’s think a bit about the name Urr, which appears in both the river-name (Urr Water) and the loch name (Loch Urr), and is probably Gaelic.

Here are our early forms of the names.  The Loch appears as:

     Loch Orr (1654) Blaeu, Eastern Galloway

     Loch Orr (1752 x 1755) Roy, Lowlands

     Loch Urr (1860) OS 6 inch 1st edn.

The river appears as:

     Flumen Hur c.1164 Holyrood Liber no. 23

     portus Hur 1165 x 1174  RRS ii no. 88

     Aqua de Vr 1325 RRS v no. 267

    Orr R. 1654 Blau, Galloway [R. is for River]

     Water of Orr 1752 x 1755 Roy, Lowlands

The river flows south out of the loch.  They clearly share the same element in their Hur, Orr, Urr forms.   It appears to be the Gaelic word oir ‘a border, edge, boundary’.  In Old Gaelic this word was or, but it appears as ur in dative case.  We should also consider the possibility, however, that the element is Northern Brittonic or, with the same range of meanings: ‘boundary, edge, limit, margin’ etc.. It appears for example in the wonderful northern Brittonic poem Y Gododdin in its praise of the warrior Cynon mab Clydno: Glod heb or, heb eithaf – ‘praise without bounds, without limit’.   It survives in modern Welsh ôr ‘boundary, limit’.

 So, we might want to ask, if the Urr is a boundary, what territories is it the boundary of?  When did it function as a boundary?  It might help to start off by looking at how it is a boundary today.  Of course, like many substantial rivers, it is the boundary of several parishes.  On its right (west) bank are the parishes of Balmaclellan, Parton, Crossmichael and Buittle.  On its left (east) bank are the parishes of Dunscore, Kirkpatrick Durham and Urr.

So for seven parishes it serves as a boundary.  But the same is true of most substantial rivers – the same is true of Ken and the Dee, for example, which run through the middle of our area and mark a boundary of all seven of our parishes.  The fact that the Urr marks parish boundaries is unlikely to have justified calling it by that name.

The very upper reaches of the Urr also mark a county boundary, with Kirkcudbrightshire to the west (Balmaclellan) and Dumfriesshire to the east (Dunscore).  But that county boundary coincides with the Urr Water for only a short distance (less than three kilometres), and then takes off eastwards to embrace within Kirkcudbrightshire the parishes of Kirkpatrick Durham, Kirkpatrick Irongray, Terregles, Lochrutton, Troqueer, New Abbey, Urr, Southwick and Kirkbean.  All those parishes are east of the Urr, but all are in Kirkcudbrightshire.  The Urr as a county boundary is surely not significant enough to give it its name.

But we do know of a now-redundant but once very important boundary which coincided with the Urr Water along its whole length.   All the medieval parishes on the west side of the Urr were in the diocese of Galloway, with its episcopal see at Whithorn.   All the medieval parishes on the east side of the Urr were in the diocese of Glasgow.  But, you may be thinking, Glasgow is a long way from Urr, Dunscore, Glencairn and so on, while they are much closer to Whithorn.  Why were these places not part of the diocese of Whithorn?

The answer to this lies in the origins of the diocese of Glasgow in the twelfth century.  During the late ninth and tenth centuries, most of south-west Scotland had been part of the British kingdom of Strathclyde, whose later expanded realisation was known as Cumbria or Cambria in Latin documents, as Fiona Edmonds (2014) has shown.  But a new people, the Gall-Ghàidheil (the origin of the name Galloway) began to expand southwards out of their earlier core territory in the lower Clyde and parts of Argyll.  The Gall-Ghàidheil (their name means ‘the foreign Gaels’) took control of the coastal areas of what are now Renfrewshire, Ayrshire, Galloway and Dumfriesshire and pushed inland, forcing the British kingdom back further east and creating what we might now call ‘Greater Galloway’ – an area stretching from Strathgryfe on the lower Clyde down even as far as Annandale in Dumfriesshire.

It is hard to give a clear time-frame for this process, but twelfth- and thirteenth-century sources are fairly clear about the extent of this Greater Galloway.  It seems that for at least part of this period, the Rinns and Machairs of Galloway may have formed a distinct polity within the Galloway area, but all these people formed part of an intermarrying, warring, jostling matrix of communities who were Gaelic-speaking but also in some respects (politically, ecclesiastically, culturally?) Norse-looking, hence ‘foreign Gaels’ or Gall-Ghàidheil.  This political-cultural sphere in the region of the Irish Sea extended from Dublin via the Isle of Man, through Greater Galloway and up into the Hebrides.

Meanwhile the kingdom of the Scots during the eleventh century also began to put pressure on the Strathclyde/Cumbrian Britons from the north.  Máel Coluim III (1058-1093) may have been able to take control of Cumbria during the 1060s or 1070s, pushing down into the area of Carlisle.  The combined impact on Cumbria of the Scots and the Gall-Ghàidheil was so dramatic that we hear of no king of the Cumbrians after the 1050s, suggesting that this former kingdom with its own king it had disappeared as an independent political entity.

But the ‘kingdom of the Cumbrians’ still had plenty of life in it as an idea.  It was an idea particularly important to the rulers of Scotia – at this stage meaning the area north of the Firth of Forth – as they increased their control over Cumbria.  While Alexander I (1107-1124) ruled Scotia, his brother David ruled in the south as ‘Prince of the Cumbrian kingdom’ (Cumbrensis regionis princeps).  This is not the first exercise of Scottish royal power over the old kingdom of Cumbria, as we have seen, but it is when the historical record begins to appear in slightly more focus.  As the native kings of Cumbria had disappeared, David’s charters show how Scottish power asserted itself by presenting the bishop and church of Glasgow as the heirs of the former kingdom of Cumbria.  Now that there are no longer kings of Cumbria, David as secular ruler (with the bishops as church rulers) is making a strong claim that the diocese of Glasgow – the ecclesiastical territory, with its lands and many churches – is the abiding presence, almost a kind of ‘reincarnation’, of that ancient British kingdom (Broun 2004).

This means that when we read twelfth-century assertions about the diocese of Glasgow, its lands, its possessions, its churches, we can understand them as assertions about the expansion of Scottish power under a ‘Cumbrian’ flag.  When we read about the ‘kingdom of the Cumbrians’ we can understand it as an expression of Scottish ambition to control the south-west of Scotland.  And this Scottish control is an expansive one, often at the expense of the Gall-Ghàidheil.  I have argued elsewhere, for example, that the cult of St Conval at Inchinnan was invented in the twelfth century to assert Glaswegian (and therefore Scottish) control over Strathgryfe – basically modern Renfrewshire – which had hitherto been in Gall-Ghàidheil territory (Márkus 2018).

We can see further penetration of Galloway under Earl David’s rule when he grants the teinds of his cheese-tribute (cain) from Galloway (Galweia) to the newly founded abbey at Selkirk (David I Chrs. no. 14), though we cannot tell which parts of Galloway are implied here; and later, as king, he grants the teind of his cain of cattle and swine from Strathgryfe, Cunhingham, Kyle and Carrick to Glasgow Cathedral (David I Chrs.  no. 57).  It is likely that such grants express his overlordship of a continuing entity of Galloway rather than direct rule.  We see a similar consolidation of Scottish control in a document created by David – one of his first having been made king of Scots in 1124 – in which he grants all of Annandale (Estrahanent) to Robert de Brus, though in this case David is presumably granting rights in a territory over which he does have direct rule.  This had been the most south-easterly part of earlier Gall-Ghàidheil territory, and now we see it firmly under Scottish royal control (David I Chrs. no. 16).  That great sweep of Gall-Ghàidheil territory, from the Gryffe to the Annan, all round south-west Scotland, is being eroded by Scottish expansion.

Another glimpse of this political expansionism is from a document probably of the early 1120s, listing lands belonging to Glasgow Cathedral (David I Chrs. no. 15).  In this document David describes himself as ‘prince of the Cumbrian kingdom’ (Cumbrensis regionis princeps).  He has arranged an enquiry into the lands which Glasgow Cathedral used to have, based on the testimony of some of the ‘older and wiser men of all of Cumbria’.  He also notes that his enquiry concerns ‘the lands belonging to the church of Glasgow in all the provinces of Cumbria which were under his lordship and power, though he did not rule all of the Cumbrian kingdom’ (terras ecclesie Glasguensi pertinentes singulis Cumbrie provinciis que sub dominio et potestate eius erant, non enim toti Cumbrensi regioni dominabatur).  The implication of this last phrase is probably that there are parts of what David considered to be Cumbria over which he thought he should have power, that he has not yet managed to obtain control of them, and that he will do so when he can.  This may refer as Fiona Edmonds has suggested (2015, 52) to parts of the old Cumbrian kingdom south of the Solway in the area of Carlisle (where David actually died in 1153), or to parts of Gall-Ghàidheil territory over which he would claim authority – or both.

In this list of lands belonging to Glasgow cathedral, ‘David prince of the Cumbrian kingdom’ lists the lands of Edyngaheym among his territories.  This is particularly interesting from our point of view and the question of the Urr Water, because it is Edingham.  This is now the name of a farm just outside Dalbeattie, its lands lying on the east side of the Urr.  But in David’s time Edingham was not just the name of a small farm.  Edingham was the name of the mother-church of the whole area between the Urr and the Nith (see Brooke, 1987).  By the 1120s this territory was under the control of the church of Glasgow, but that control was probably a fairly recent development.

We also encounter a lord called Dunegal of Nithsdale (Dunegal de Stranit) in about 1124, probably a native Gaelic-speaking lord whose secular territory may have coincided with the ecclesiastical territory of Edingham (David I Chrs. no. 16).   His two sons appear as witnesses in a charter about the cain of much of Galloway in c.1136 (David I Chrs. no. 57) – Radulfo filio Dunegal, Duvenald fratre suo.  Their territory, part of the old Greater Galloway, was evidently now subject to David, prince of the Cumbrians.

Here, I would suggest, we are witnessing the origin of the name of Urr Water.  At some point before, probably shortly before, this moment in the early twelfth century, the Urr has become the boundary between a shrinking Gall-Ghàidheil territory to the west (under the ‘kingship’ of Fergus) and Cumbrian-Scottish territory to the east under the princely authority of Earl David.

W.F. Skene’s map (1887, 418) of the dioceses of southern Scotland shows how Glasgow has encroached on the former kingdom of the Gall-Ghàidheil (Galloway) by the time of King David.

And, for the sake of comparison, the distribution of place-names referring to St Kentigern (alias Mungo), the patron saint of Glasgow. Note the rough similarity of the southern part of the distribution to the territory of the diocese.



AtlasAtlas of Scottish History to 1707, ed. Peter McNeill and Hector L. MacQueen (Edinburgh, 1996).

Brooke, Daphne (1987), ‘The Deanery of Desnes Cro and the Church of Edingham’, Transactions of the Dumfries and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society 62, 48-65.

Broun, Dauvit (2004), ‘The Welsh Identity of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, c. 900 – c.1200’, Innes Review 55, 111-180.

Clancy, Thomas Owen (2008), ‘The Gall-Ghàidheil and Galloway’, Journal of Scottish Name Studies 2, 19-50.

David I Chrs., The Charters of David I: the written acts of David I King of Scots, 1124—43, and of his son Henry, Earl of Northumberland, 1139-52, ed. G.W.S. Barrow (Woodbridge 1990).

Durkan, John (1999), ‘Glasgow Diocese and the claims of York’, Innes Review 50, 89-101.

Edmonds, Fiona (2014), ‘The Emergence and Transformation of Medieval Cumbria’, Scottish Historical Review 93, 195-216.

Edmonds, Fiona (2015), ‘The expansion of the kingdom of Strathclyde’, Early Medieval Europe 23, 43-66.

Holyrood LiberLiber Cartarum Sancte Crucis. Munimenta Ecclesie Sancte Crucis de Edwinesburg (Edinburgh, 1860), The Bannatyne Club.

Márkus, Gilbert (2018), Rock-Rider: St Conval and his Church at Inchinnan (Inchinnan).

­­­­Skene, William F. (1887), Celtic Scotland vol. II, Church and Culture (Edinburgh).

Why do earrann-names form clusters?

Gilbert Márkus writes:

In a blog a few months ago (5 November 2019, ‘Some earrann-names in Balmaclellan’) I promised I would discuss this interesting element in more depth.  So here we go again.

The Gaelic element earrann means ‘a portion, a share’ (Old Gaelic airrann ‘part, division, portion’).  It is not a particularly common generic element in Scotland (there is only one possible occurrence, for example, in the whole five-volume study of The Place-Names of Fife).  Where it does appear it sometimes appears in unexpectedly large clusters.  Its meaning might partly explain why it appears in clusters.   Perhaps if you are a medieval estate-manager whose lands are divided into several earrann-units (whatever exactly they were) you are likely to attach names to them all which refer to them by that earrann characteristic.  That might explain why they appear in clusters, as they do, but not why the clusters appear where they do, nor why these clusters have some peculiar characteristics.

Earrann in Menteith

Peter McNiven (1) has discussed an interesting cluster of earrann names in Menteith – there are eighteen of them! – and has noted that many of them have some kind of church connection.  Three of them refer to clergy (Arnprior, Arnvicar, Arnclerich) while several others had chapels on their lands, or had names that might refer to saints or were owned by Inchmahome Priory.  Is the element earrann itself an indication that there is some church interest in these divisions of land?   This is by no means certain, but it is a possibility worth bearing in mind, and further research on other occurrences of earrann names may shed further light.

Earrann in the Glenkens

We have a good number of earrann names in the Glenkens, clustering together as on this map.

It’s also worth pointing out that Gaelic earrann was so well-established and influential in this area that it seems to have been borrowed into Scots as an element giving rise to farm names such as Blackerne, Halferne and Chapelerne, as shown on this second map, all in the parish of Crossmichael.

The distribution of earrann and erne in these maps is almost entirely in the southern half of the Galloway Glens project area, with one northern outlier, Arndarroch in Dalry parish (2). This southern distribution also corresponds to the less hilly half of our area, and all the names are within a short distance of the course of the Deugh-Ken-Dee water-course.  This may itself be significant.  The earrann names are also clustered on better quality farmland, and in more populated areas.  Given that the valley of the river was an important road from Kirkcudbright up into Ayrshire, we might also note that they are all relatively close to that route.  None of them is in the high ground of our seven parishes.  And all but one of our earrann names are recorded relatively early with a value in Old Extent of between 2 and 10 marks (see the list below) making them decent-sized farms (not smallholdings or cottages etc.).

This ‘cluster’ of earrann names in the Glenkens can be subdivided into two smaller groups.  If you look at the first map, you will see a northern group in Balmaclellan parish (with an outlier to the north in Dalry), and a southern group in Crossmichael and Balmaghie.  In between them is a solitary earrann-name, Ardmannoch in Parton, which I will argue in due course should probably be seen as part of the southern group.

Here is a list of the Gaelic earrann and Scots erne names with some brief notes as to their meanings, their values and anything else of interest.


The Northern Group

  • Armanillie BMC (Ern mac Nelly 1408) [3 marks] earrann + family name.
  • Ironcraigie BMC [no value recorded] probably earrann + family name, though perhaps earrann creige ‘share of [the] rock/cliff’.
  • Ironlosh BMC £1. 10s. (= 2.25 marks)] ‘burned share’, earrann loisgte.
  • Ironmacannie BMC (Ern Canny in a charter of 1408) [3 marks] earrann + family name.
  • Ern Macgilqwhynny BMC earrann + family name, ‘son of the servant of Uinniau’, only in 1408 charter.
  • Ern mac Cathy BMC (only in 1408 charter) earrann + family name.
  • Arndarroch DAY [3 marks] ‘share of the oak trees’.
  • Dalarran BMC (survives in Dalarran Holm) ‘haugh of the earrann’ – this is not the name of an earrann farm, but the obsolete name of a dail ‘riverside meadow or pasture’ associated with a lost or unidentifiable earrann.

The Southern Group

  • Ernambrie CMI (Ernalmery 1560) [5 marks] ‘share of the almonry or almsgiving’
  • Ernanity CMI – [2½ marks] apparently earrann na h-annaide ‘share of the mother church’
  • Erncrogo CMI [5 marks] the second element is obscure
  • Ernespie CMI [5 marks] probably ‘share of [the] bishop’ earrann easbuig
  • Ernfillan CMI [2½ marks] ‘share of [Saint?] Fillan’, perhaps referring to the saint whose name is also hidden in the name Balmaclellan ‘farm of the servant/devotee of St Fillan’.
  • Ernminzie CMI [5 marks]
  • Ardmannoch PAR (Arnmannach 1531) [5 marks] ‘share of [the] monks’
  • Genoch BMG (Erngawnach 1529) [22 shillings (= 1.65 marks)]
  • Blackerne CMI [5 marks]
  • Halferne CMI [not valued, part of Chapelerne; perhaps its name implies that it is half of Chapelerne, and so worth 5 marks]
  • Chapelerne CMI [10 marks] ‘share belonging to or providing for a chapel’.


The northern and southern groups of earrann and erne names can be distinguished not only by their distribution, but also by the themes expressed in their names.  Of the northern group, four or five of the eight place-names contain a family name, mac-X, ‘sons of X’.  None of the southern group contains a mac-X formula.   The use of family names in the northern group suggests a decidedly secular kin-based naming pattern.

But if we look at the southern group we see a very different pattern. There are no clear references to a mac-X kindred name.  Instead we have repeated references to churches and churchmen.  Chapelerne is clear enough, though we do not know what chapel is being referred to.  The five mark lands of Ernespie seem to be ‘the bishop’s share’, while the five mark lands of Ardmannoch are ‘the monks’ share’.  If, as seems likely, Ernanity is earrann na h-annaide ‘share of the ancient church or mother church’ (3) and Ernfillan refers to Saint Fillan (patron of the Maclellans of Balmaclellan a short distance to the north), then we have two more church-related names.  And Ernambrie ‘share of the almoner’ (the church official or his office dedicated to the distribution of alms, poor-relief) brings the total to six church-related names in the southern group.

This sharp dichotomy (kindred names to the north, religious/church names to the south) is remarkable and invites further investigation.   The southern group (nine names in Crossmichael parish; one in Parton; one in Balmaghie but very close to Crossmichael) looks as if it is the echo of an old church possession in the area.  Perhaps the use of the word annaid in one of the names, ‘ancient church, mother church’, supports this.  The manaich or ‘monks’ of Ardmannoch and the easbuig or ‘bishop’ of Ernespie might also suggest a church estate in which episcopal and monastic rights were connected but distinguished, while the almoner indicated by Ernambrie would be the official administering poor-relief presumably on behalf of either the bishop or the monks.  We really want to ask the question: what was the church which held this estate and its earrann farms?

The nine earrann farms in Crossmichael parish all belonged in the late middle ages to Lindcluden Collegiate Church.  That church itself was founded on the basis of a former nunnery founded at Lincluden, probably in the 1160s, by Uchtred son of Fergus, and it may be that those earrann farms had once belonged to the nunnery and were then transferred to the collegiate church in the fourteenth century when the nunnery was suppressed.   Could it be that the earrann names in our southern group got their church-related terminology from their having been associated with the collegiate church or with the earlier nunnery?

Such an explanation is possible, but there are also reasons to doubt it.  We might think that neither the nunnery nor the collegiate church had a bishop, so Ernespie (‘bishop’s share’) would be problematic, but the name might simply have arisen because the bishop (of Whithorn presumably) had a right to annual payment from the community of manaich which they paid out of their revenues from Ardmannoch.

A more serious problem with the Lincluden explanation is that neither the nunnery nor the collegiate church was occupied by manaich (‘monks’), so the name Ardmannoch (‘monks’ share’) would be hard to explain (4).  Furthermore, I have found no evidence that Ardmannoch was ever owned by or granted to Lincluden.   It is possible, of course, that Ardmannoch in Parton had nothing to do with the group of ecclesiastical earrann farms in Crossmichael, in which case we should exclude it from our consideration of the group as a whole.  It is worth noting that another earrann manach (Arnmannoch in Kirkgunzeon parish, about 7 miles south-east of Ardmannoch) once belonged to the Cistercian monastery of Holm Cultram in Cumbria.  Was our Ardmannoch held likewise by some distant monastery which has left no trace in the records, and was it therefore quite separate from the church-lands in Crossmichael?

We might also doubt whether a nunnery founded in the twelfth century would qualify as an annaid or ‘ancient church’ – a later collegiate church even less so.  Could it be, then, that our earrann farms relate to a church connection that pre-dates the foundation of the nunnery at Lincluden?  Are we looking at the estate of an older church, farms whose produce or rentals supported a community of ecclesiastics?

Further support for this idea may be found in the fact that two of the southern group of earrann names are not in Crossmichael parish at all.  Ardmannoch (the monks’ earrann) and Genoch (formerly Erngawnoch) are in Parton and Balmaghie parishes respectively.  If these two earranns are divisions of the same estate as the nine earranns of Crossmichael, then the estate probably predated the twelfth century when parishes began to be formalised in Scotland (5)

I must add here that I am not suggesting that all the earrann names were necessarily coined before the foundation of  Lincluden nunnery  in the 1160s.  I think that very unlikely in fact – the case of Ernambrie involves a Gaelic loan word from Latin (via French?) or Scots which surely post-dates that.  But a later medieval imposition of ecclesiastical earrann names on these farms may point to a church association which predates the actual naming process.

If the church was an older establishment than Lincluden, where might it have been?  One possibility is that before there was a nunnery or a collegiate church at Lincluden there had been an earlier church whose lands the nunnery and then the collegiate church, inherited.  Lincluden itself is on the lands of Terregles (earlier Treuereglys), whose name is Northern Britonnic meaning ‘farm of the church’, pointing to an association with a church during the Britonnic-speaking period, perhaps as late as the tenth or eleventh century.  Did the church in (or associated with) Terregles hold the earrann farms in the Dee valley before they were granted to Uchtred’s nunnery and then to the collegiate church of  Lincluden?  Or was the church somewhere more local?  Crossmichael church, perhaps, or Balmaghie – remembering that one of our earrann names is in Balmaghie parish?

We might be tempted to look for a connection to Whithorn.  The name Ernesbie points to a bishop, and the bishop of Whithorn would be the natural candidate here.  And we may note that Glenswinton in Parton parish was a property of the canons of Whithorn, and is only about 3 km from Ardmannoch, ‘the share of the monks’.  But the Whithorn community was a house of Augustinian canons, and later Premonstratensian canons, not of monks (though a community at Whithorn before the adoption of the Premonstatensian rule may have been thought of as monks).  Also against the Whithorn connection is the fact that there is no evidence that Whithorn priory ever laid claim to our earrann farms in Crossmichael parish, or challenged the Lincluden possessions here.

Finally we might entertain one further scenario to explain the southern group of ecclesiastical earrann names.  Noting that all but two of them are in Crossmichael parish, we must remember that the church of Crossmichael was granted to the Cistercian monastery of New Abbey (later called Sweetheart) at its foundation in 1275 by Dervorgilla, the daughter of Alan of Galloway and wife of John Balliol in whose memory she founded it (6). The southern group of earrann names may therefore relate to a New Abbey connection. This would make the name Ardmannoch less problematic, since Cistercians were certainly manaich.  I do not know of any record showing that New Abbey held lands in Crossmichael parish in addition to the parish kirk, but it is quite possible that it did.  If so we might entertain a scenario in which the Balliol monastery of New Abbey held both the church and some of the lands of Crossmichael.  When the Balliol lordship of Galloway collapsed in 1369, and the Douglas earl Archibald the Grim took over the lordship, he granted New Abbey’s lands in Crossmichael (and Parton?) to his new collegiate church of Lincluden.  This would have been a deliberate act of ecclesiastical sabotage, undermining the monastic expression of Balliol lordship and asserting his newly acquired control of the area by the foundation of a new church supported by New Abbey’s former possessions.

As yet I don’t think we have sufficient evidence to be confident about identifying the church whose presence is indicated by the earrann names, but the pattern in our southern group is very suggestive and it may be that further thought – and further evidence – might shed some new light.





(1) Peter McNiven, ‘Place-Names and the Medieval Church in Menteith’, Journal of Scottish Name-Studies 8 (2014) 51-92.  For further discussion see his unpublished PhD thesis, ‘Gaelic Place-Names and the Social History of Gaelic-speakers in Medieval Menteith’ (2011), available on line:

(2)  I am not including Irongallows in Carsphairn in this study, as I do not believe it to be an earrann name. All the others are names of farms, and mostly decent-sized farms of 2 marks to as much as 10 marks of Old Extent, and are first recorded in the late medieval period.  But Irongallows is not a farm-name, it is up in the hills of Carsphairn rather than on the lower-lying farmland which other earrann names occupy, and it does not appear in any source I have found until the mid-nineteenth century.

(3)  W. J. Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland (Edinburgh 1926), 170.

(4) Perhaps a caveat is in order here.  Gaelic manach, a loan-word from Latin monachus, originally meant ‘monk’ (i.e. a vowed member of a monastic community), but its semantic range broadened in the early medieval Gaelic world to include something like ‘monastic tenant’, i.e. a lay person with a relationship to a monastery as to his (or her) lord.

(5) It should be noted that Parton was in the Glenkens deanery of the diocese of Galloway, while Crossmichael was in the deanery of Desnes.  It might be thought that this argues against a single estate embracing both Crossmichael and Dalry.  But it is not clear how old these divisions between deaneries were, and there may have been some flux in territorial units during the twelfth century in particular, as Galloway was being absorbed into Scotia, and even the diocese of Glasgow was making claims in Glenkens (Glenkan) in 1181 (Glasgow. Reg. no. 57).  The deanery division may post-date the existence of the proposed church estate indicated by the group of earrann names. In this context, as an example of territorial ‘flux’, it is worth remembering that there were two deaneries called Desnes, a western one belonging to Galloway diocese and an eastern one belonging to Glasgow.  It is likely that both originally formed a single territory of Desnes, carved up between Whithorn and Glasgow during the twelfth century.

(6)  Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland (Edinburgh 1967), 40.

Unpacking Balmaghie

Gilbert Márkus writes:

I am delighted to hear that the University of Glasgow and Historic Environment Scotland have secured funding for a PhD to explore ‘the social, political and economic environment and context of Galloway during the Viking Age (c.800-1100)’. This project will re-evaluate the archaeology and history of this region in light of the recently discovered ‘Galloway Hoard’ – a unique collection of bullion and jewellery of silver and gold, but also including rarely surviving textiles and organic materials – buried in the kirklands of Balmaghie in the early tenth century AD.

The person doing this reasearch has been named as Orla Craig. She will also be supported by National Museums Scotland who are leading the conservation and research programme on the hoard itself. I’m looking forward to meeting Orla and others in early December to see how the research might develop.

In the meantime, and because place-names are part of the evidence for understanding this period, it might be interesting to consider one or two aspects of the toponymy of Balmaghie and the area of the find-spot of the Galloway Hoard.

Divine safe-keeping

Significantly, the hoard was discovered on land close to the parish kirk of Balmaghie. There are traces of a medieval building here, and I would assume that that building itself was built on the site of an even earlier church.  Did the people who buried this treasure choose this spot because the sanctity of church ground would make it safer, less likely to be dug up and stolen before the owners had a chance to come back and retrieve it?



It is worth noting that the old name for the church of Balmaghie is Kirkandrews.  The local clergyman appears as Vicarius de Kircanders Balimeth (‘vicar of Kirkandrews Balmaghie’) in Bagimond’s Roll in 1275, while in 1287 it is Kircandris Balmakethe (Holyrood Liber no. 72) .  In 1348 x 1354 the lands of Kirkandres and Ballemcgethe were granted to William de Aldeburgh and his heirs, with gallows and pit (cum furca et fossa) to maintain peace and keep down robbers (CDS iii no. 1578).  This church-name, Kirkandrews, is also given a rather earlier Latin version, ecclesia Sancti Andree, in 1172 x 1174 (RRS ii no. 141).

Kirkandrews is fairly transparent: ‘the church of St Andrew’ and we might wonder if the cult of St Andrew here reflects early Northumbrian penetration and control of Galloway in the seventh and eighth centuries.  The Northumbrian church of Hexham was an important centre of the cult of Andrew, and seems to have played a key role in Northumbrian expansion into what is now Galloway.  Was St Andrew’s cult established here on the River Dee as part of this expansion?  The use of saints’ cults to make political claims over territory is well-attested elsewhere in Scotland.

The use of the element kirk in this name is also interesting.  While the Old English word for ‘church’ was cyrice with the two letters c palatalised (i.e. pronounced as in modern English ‘church’), the word kirk shows Norse influence, the Old Norse word being kirkja without palatalisation.  So the name Kirkandrews shows a community here whose word for ‘church’ was influenced by some dialect of Old Norse – at least for a time.

But in Kirkandrews the order of the elements – kirk + saint’s name – is not a Norse or English pattern.  In proper Germanic place-names (Norse or Scots) we would expect kirk to take the second position: Whitekirk, Ashkirk, Crosskirk, Ladykirk, Peterkirk and so on.  But here the order is reversed, and kirk is the first element. The order is in fact Gaelic order.  It appears that the Norse word kirkja was borrowed into Gaelic and used to form church-names.  It is a common pattern in the old territory of Galloway, much less so beyond that area.  So we have Kirkmaiden, Kirkcudbright, Kirkmadrine, Kirkgunzeon, Kirkoswald, Kirkbride, Kirkpatrick, Kirkmabreck and so on. These seem to be names coined by Gaelic-speakers, using a word for ‘church’ which they had adopted from Norse speech to name their places of prayer.  So in the name Kirkandrews we have:

  1. a biblical saint
  2. who was devoutly culted by the Northumbrian English,
  3. with a church-name in Galloway ccoined in Gaelic
  4. using a word borrowed from Norse.

This multicultural hagiotoponym (a place-name relating to a saint) gives a flavour of the kind of questions we might want to ask about the Galloway Hoard: how do we identify the cultural affinities, the community or communities, the language or languages, that might have been associated with it when it was made and when it was buried?

Balmaghie and Iona

Here is another complicating factor.  Some time between 1172 and 1174, King William I of Scots granted four churches or chapels ‘which belong to the abbey of Columba’s Iona’ (que ad ius abbatie de Hij Cholumchille pertinent) to his newly founded abbey of Holyrood in Edinburgh (RRS ii no. 141).  These four were:

Kirkcormac (Kirchecormach, now Kelton)

Balmaghie (ecclesia Sancti Andree)

Barncrosh (Balnecros, in Tongland)

Kelton (Cheletun).

These Iona possessions all cluster around the lower reaches of the Water of Dee.  They are close to Threave, which was an important castle in the later middle ages – though I don’t know how important it was in the twelfth century.  But they were also close to Kirkcudbright and to the Insula De, ‘the island of the Dee’, which were key places for the power of the Lords of Galloway.  The removal of these four churches or chapels from Iona’s control by Uchtred Lord of Galloway and King William I of Scots, and their absorption into the king’s sphere of control in the shape of his new royal abbey in Edinburgh, must be seen as part of the attempt by the Scottish crown to impose its authority – hitherto rather weak – in Galloway.

But the question we must ask is why these four churches or chapels had become part of Iona’s sphere of control in the first place.   One possibility is that they were part of the dowry or terms of marriage alliance in the marriage between Affrica, daughter of Fergus, King of Galloway, and Óláfr Godredsson, King of the Isles.  Fergus may have granted these four churches and associated lands to Iona, Óláfr’s principal Hebridean church, as part of this political and marital union (Thomas Clancy, pers. comm.).

If that is the explanation of Iona’s holdings on Dee-side, the relationship had not lasted more than a few decades.   Óláfr died in 1153, and Iona lost her holdings in 1172 x 1174.  But there may be other explanations for the Iona holdings on Dee-side which we do not yet understand.   Scandianvian settlers who had first raided the Western Isles in the 790s had begun to settle and some had probably become Christian and Gaelic-speaking by the mid ninth century.   It was probably exactly that inculturation which led to the identifier Gall-Ghàidheil or ‘foreign Gaels’ for those Norse-Gaelic communities in the Firth of Clyde and some of the inner Hebridean islands – and remember that identifier, Gall-Ghàidheil, is the origin of the term Galloway.

For centuries Galloway was part of a fluid world of trade, political alliance and conflict, intermarriage, and multiple languages – British, English, Gaelic and Norse – as the placenames of the Glenkens and of wider Galloway attest.  In this world of multiple interlocking cultures, we might hope that place-names can shed some light.

The Hoard again

The Galloway Hoard was buried in this multi-cultural world in the tenth century.  Its silver arm-rings are typically Hiberno-Norse, but the runic script found on several of them is English in style, and, as Dr David Parsons has shown, at least one of the names written in that script is an English one – Eggbrect (or Egbert as it would be written now) while some of the other pieces of metalwork are also English in style.  As conservation and analysis of the hoard continues, and as Orla’s research progresses, perhaps we will learn more about the interlocking cultural and ethnic spheres of the people who named these places and buried this treasure.

Microtoponyms – little places with a big role

Gilbert Màrkus writes:

By the time Galloway Glens place-name database is completed it will contain around three thousand place-names.   Most of them are  the names of fairly substantial features of the landscape: mountains, rivers, villages and farms.   Some of them are a little more modest – smaller burns and houses, mills and little hillocks.

But there is a small group of names which refer to much smaller objects in the landscape:  a thorn-tree here, a little boulder there, a small pile of stones or a tiny spring of water.  We call these names ‘microtoponyms’ – the names of small places (as opposed to small place-names).  These ‘small places’ are often things which have no particular significance of their own, and in most circumstances would not have been given a name.  Most rocks lying around in a field don’t get named.  But if you are defining the boundary between two neighbouring farms, and you want to describe that boundary in a charter or some such legal document, you need to name the objects that mark the boundary.  Objects insignificant in their own right become important when they are lying on a boundary.

We can see an illustration of this in a rather nice estate-plan of 1768, showing the lands of Earlston and Barskeoch (respectively in the parishes of Dalry and Kells).

The majority of the names on the map are large-scale features: farm-names, each one with its principal house marked and named, or (clustered around the Water of Ken and Earlston) some field-names.  But in the north-western part of the map, in addition to the names of farms (Garrery, Burnhead, Drumboy, Clenery) we find a whole series of microtoponyms.  Here is a detail of that map showing them:


I have not yet been up to visit this part of the country to see if any of them are identifiable on the ground, but hope to do so soon.  The striking thing about these names is that almost all of them are boundary-markers (boundaries are drawn in colours on the map) between various neighbouring farms.  Their positions can be more or less identified, especially if we use the larger named objects to locate the smaller ones.

In the far west Carson’s Stone is a boundary-marker.  It is still marked as Carsons Stone on OS Explorer map at NX

Millyae is a peak in the Rhinns of Kells, now called Meikle Millyea (to distinguish it from its ‘daughter peak’, Little Millyea, 1500m to the south).  Millyea is Gaelic meall liath ‘grey lumpy hill’ (the th of liath is silent).  It is at NX518828.

Lay Cairn is drawn on the map as a regular pile of stones, such as are commonly used to create boundary markers.  The cairn element is obvious; the Lay part of the name is probably an echo of the Gaelic liath of Millyea – a name which was perhaps no longer understood when the name Lay Cairn was coined, when Gaelic was no longer spoken in this area.  Or could it be a part-translation of an earlier Gaelic name, càrn liath ‘grey cairn’?

On the plan, the nice triangular symbol for the man-made cairn or pile of stones is clearly not drawn to scale – if it were it would have to be about 300 metres high.

Clear Stone is at about NX512815, at a point where the the boundary takes a turn to the south-east. The change in the boundary line direction is still apparent here on modern OS maps where the Forestry Commission boundary continues that old farm division.

Further south, Achneygour Stone (NX519813) is unusual in that it does not mark the boundary, but lies about 300 metres north of it. Given that it is not a boundary-marker, there must be something about this particular

stone that made it interesting enough to attract a name.  Achneygour is Gaelic, being achadh nan gabhar ‘field of the goats’.  This is another site to visit, and perhaps an interesting rock to photograph in the future (watch this space!).

All the names discussed so far have been running south along the north-eastern boundary of Garrery  (modern Garrary) which is garbh àirigh ‘rough summer-grazing land’.  It is certainly rough, and high exposed ground that could only be grazed in the summer months.  For the rest of the year the herds would have to be kept in more sheltered ground.

If we go back to Millyae and go east instead, we follow another boundary (between Burnhead and Clenery, now OS Clenrie, = claon àirigh ‘sloping summer-grazing land’).   Here Rocking Stone is a boundary marker, and again it is crying out for a visit – and perhaps a wee push to see if it still rocks.  Then come the Three Wedders.  I suppose that these are three large boulders – they are marked on the map as three completely rectangular objects (like Rocking Stone), but I suspect that is the map-maker’s conventional symbol for a rock, rather than an actual drawing of the objects.  They seem to be at NX536637.  Again, a visit is required to these stones, which mark the place where three farm boundaries meet.

So a small object which might have no intrinsic interest is loaded with meaning by the fact that it lies on a boundary.  And because it has meaning, because it has legal weight, it requires a name.  It’s a little insight into the way that place-names are created, and the social and legal life that lies behind that naming.

[Plan from Falkirk Council Archives, scanned by Dumfries Archival Mapping Project]

Some earrann-names in Balmaclellan

Gilbert Márkus writes:

A little pleasure today at the National Records of Scotland (formerly the National Archives of Scotland) where  I examined and transcribed a charter of 1408 by which Archibald Douglas, lord of Galloway, granted to Alexander Gordon some lands in the barony of Balmaclellan (RH6/219, reproduced here by kind permission of the National Records of Scotland).

One of the interesting features of the charter is the list of place-names involved: ‘Schyirmirs, le Park, de Contrefe, Erne Canny, Ern Macnelly, Ern Mac Cathy­ et Ern Macgilqwhynny’.

The first of these is clearly modern Shirmers (NX656742), which is probably scír-(ge)mǣre ‘the shire-boundary’.  The ‘shire’, as suggested by Daphne Brooke some time ago, was probably a territory carved out by Northumbrian speakers of Old English in an area which had formerly been Northern Brittonic (N.Br.), that is speaking the language ancestral to Welsh.  The ge-mǣre or ‘boundary’ would be the Dullarg Burn which flows close to Shirmers farm, and is still the boundary between Parton to the south and Balmaclellan to the north.   The name Parton of course is English, while Balmaclellan is Gaelic.  But Balmaclellan used to be called Trevercarcou, which is a N.Br. place-name.

Le Park, ‘the park or enclosed land’, is the land now represented by Low Park (about 1.5 km north of Shirmers) and Highpark (about 1.2 km further north again).  Clearly Le Park was a larger estate which was later subdivided between High and Low parts.

Contrefe is a bit problematic.  The name, clearly a N.Br. one containing *trev  ‘farm’, does not survive today.  Daphne Brooke thought it might be the same place as Troquhain, in the northern part of Balmaclellan parish, but that is by no means certain.

The remainder of the names granted to Alexander Gordon all begin with Ern.  This is Gaelic earrann ‘a share, portion or division (of land)’.  It’s not a very common place-name element in Scotland, there is quite a cluster of them down here in the Glenkens.  We’ll look at that cluster again at more length in the next blog, but for the present we will discuss only those in our 1408 charter.

Erne Canny is what is now Ironmacanny (NX662756).  It was a significant farm, valued at 3 marks of Old Extent in 1512 (RMS ii no. 3772).  The second element Canny (later –macanny) is presumably a personal name, and I would suggest that the name might be Cainnech (later Coinneach, the origin of Scots Kenneth).  It is possible that Erne Canny is simply a mistake for a supposed *Erne Mac Canny, or is it an echo of the owner of the farm who gave it his name, and also gave his name to his sons, the meic Cainneich who themselves continued to farm here and who in turn gave it their name as Ironmacanny (in modern Gaelic earrann mac Coinnich, ‘division of the sons of Cainnech’)?


Another possibility for the personal name may be explained as ‘son of Cano’.  A person of this name is known to have been in Galloway in the thirteenth century: Cane Macgillolane witnessed a charter in 1273 concerning the lands of Loch Kindar and of Kirkpatrick Durham, the latter lying immediately to the east of Balmaclellan parish (RRS vi no. 235).  And it is surely significant that his surname (or is it a patronymic?), MacGillolane, is the same as that contained in the name Balmaclellan.  Furthermore, a lost charter of David II (1329 x 1371) referred to Gilbertus McGillolane who was chief of his kindred (capitaneo de total parentela sua) which were known as Clenconnan, i.e. Clann Canonn (RMS i, App. 2, no. 912, A & B).  Erne Canny in 1408 may therefore be ‘the divsion of Cano (MacGillolane)’.

Ern Macnelly is the name of a settlement that no longer exists.  But it is the place that became Armanillie, shown in 1853 (OS 6 inch map) as a small farm, two buildings in ruins, one still roofed, and a corn kiln nearby.  It was at NX655773.  This also contains a personal name.   It may be the name MacNeillie, of which Black says, ‘A Galloway surname. Probably from Ir. Mac an Fhileadh or Mac an Fhilidh, ‘son of the poet,’ file, a name almost peculiar to N.E. Ulster …. now often shortened to NEIL in Galloway’ (1946, 550).

Ern mac Cathy also contains a personal name.  Unfortunately we have no idea where this place is, and this is the only occurrence that I can find of the place-name.  The farm probably still existed after 1408, but its name had changed – perhaps because the family after whom it was named no longer held it, and so the name was no longer seen as appropriate.   MacCathay is according to Black ‘an old Galloway surname’, and he reports Gilbert Makcathy living on the River Cree in 1481 (Black 1954, 466).

Ern Macgilqwhynny is another place-name that appears only in this charter, and again it contains a personal name.  In more modern orthography the name would be MacGilleWinnin ‘son of the servant/devotee of [Saint] Uinnian’.  The saint here is one whose medieval cult was centred on Galloway, his name taking the guise of Winnin, Winning, Gunzion, Vinianus, Uninniaus and so on.  It may even be that he is the original saint whose misunderstood name underlies the later cult of St Ninian of Whithorn.  This would fit with the fact that the earliest known occurrence of the name is that of ‘Bran filio Macgillegunni’ (Bran son of  Macgillewinnin, using a more Brythonic spelling of the name) who was part of the entourage of the bishop of Whithorn in 1167 x 1186 (Holyrood Charters no. 25).

So we have four names in one charter using the term earrann, all of them with a specific element relating to a family.  That might explain why only two of the names have survived.  If a farm is named after a person or a family, when that person or family no longer hold the farm there is good reason to change its name.

There are more things to say about these earrann-names, and I will explore them further in a forthcoming blog.



Gaelic poll: the fluidity of meaning

Gilbert Márkus writes:

Polmaddy Burn, poll madaidh

In most of Gaelic-speaking Scotland the word poll typically means primarily ‘a hole’.  Its range is slightly extended to mean not only ‘hole’ or ‘pit’, but more watery objects: ‘mire, mud, bog, pond, deep stagnant water, puddle’, and even ‘sluggish stream in peaty ground’, and such-like – basically, holes with water in them.  Its origins lie in Old Gaelic (OG) poll whose principal meanings are ‘opening, cavity, hole, pit’ (DIL). So poll talmain was a hole in the ground.  A key-hole was poll na heochrach.  A hole in a bog was poll móna.  And pollach meant ‘containing holes, perforated’.

(Note, however that the ultimate origin of OG poll was almost certainly British, as that initial /p/ sound is not native to the Gaelic-speaking world.)

It’s clear, then, that meaning of the word was originally to do with holes.  Even in modern Gaelic the stress is on the hole-y aspect, even if some of those holes are water-filled, and so are bogs, pools, ponds, puddles and so on.

In Galloway, however, and in some other parts of southern and eastern Scotland, the word poll appears in place-names which refer to clear-running and lively streams.   Here are some names from the Galloway Glens project area:

Polcheskie Burn     Polcorroch Burn     Polgavin Burn     Polhay Burn   Poljargen Burn     Polmaddy Burn     Polshagg Burn     Polrobin Burn     Polmeadow Burn     Polsue Burn

And so on. There are about thirty such names in the Galloway Glens area.  We can ignore the additional word burn attached to these names.  That was just a later explanatory term.   Clearly the burns were originally simply called Polmaddy (poll madaidh), Polshagg (poll seabhaig) and so on.

These burns are not ‘pools’ or even the ‘sluggish streams in peaty ground’ mentioned above.  They are lively, energetic, sometimes powerful and fast-moving burns.  This is quite a change in meaning from ‘hole’.  One of our burn-names, Garpel, means ‘rough burn’ (garbh-pol), stressing the flowing character of the water, perhaps over a stony bed.

How did this happen?   Why is Gaelic poll, with its range of hole-related and pretty static meanings, used in some parts of Scotland as a word for such lively streams?

The Scottish historian Geoffrey Barrow was aware of this problem (1).  Observing the distribution of poll names in eastern and southern Scotland, and in northern England, he appealed to the old British tongue that had been spoken here before Anglo-Saxon, before Gaelic, and before Scots.  He suggested that Gaelic poll in the sense of ‘lively stream’ was in fact a survival from Northern British (in which he included Pictish).  It was ‘so well established that it survived the appearance of Old English, Gaelic and Older Scots’.

The fact that many of our poll-names have second elements which are Gaelic shows that this was not just a matter of the survival of old British burn-names.   It means that the British word *pol in the sense of ‘lively stream’ was borrowed with that sense to form Gaelic poll in these areas.  It became a word in the Gaelic lexicon and was used to coin new Gaelic stream-names.

Polmaddie, G madadh ‘dog, fox/wolf’

Poljargan, G deargan ‘kestrel’

Polshagg, G seabhag ‘peregrine falcon’

But there is a problem here.  Anyone who speaks modern Welsh (the language descended from our early British language) will understand that the British word *pol (now pwll in modern Welsh) does not mean ‘stream’.  It means (as does its Gaelic derivative poll) ‘hole, pit, depression’, and sometimes this may be filled with water or mud, and be a ‘pool, puddle, pond’ (2).

So if Barrow is right and a British *pol meaning ‘lively stream’ underlies the creation of later Gaelic stream-names it must have been a now lost northern British dialactal usage with this meaning, which was different from that which shaped modern Welsh.

Barrow’s map of Scottish poll-names shows their distribution throughout southern Scotland and then northwards up the east coast, through what was once Pictland (3).  This is somewhat reminiscent of the picture offered by Simon Taylor in his essay on Pictish place-names (4).  The divisions among P-Celtic languages are not necessarily between British and Pictish, but may (as here) be between southern British on the one hand and Pictish and Northern British on the other.  Our poll-names in Galloway might suggest a regional linguistic continuity, long before Gaelic was spoken here, between the Pictish north-east and the British-speakers of the Galloway Glens.  This northern dialect usage of British *pol would then have provided a substrate for the later regional development of Gaelic poll with this particular meaning.


(1)  Geoffrey Barrrow, ‘The Uses of Place-Names and Scottish History: pointers and pitfalls’, in S. Taylor (ed.), The Uses of Place-Names (Edinburgh 1998) 54-74.

(2)  Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru:

(3)  Barrow 1998, 60.  He shows the poll names in our locale as ‘too numerous to plot’.  The Galloway Glens seem to have been the epicentre of this poll use.  It might be suggested that this use of G poll to mean ‘stream’ was due to the influence of Old English pull ‘pool’, in a peculiar northern meaning.  Objections to this are (a) that there is no evidence of pull meaning ‘lively stream’; (b) the distribution of poll ‘lively stream’ in former Pictland, and its concentration in our area among upland streams, make it less likely to have been influenced by Old English pull ‘pool’.

(4)  ‘Pictish Place-Names Revisited’, in Driscoll, Geddes and Hall (eds), Pictish Progress: New Studies on Northern Britain in the Early Middle Ages (Leiden/Boston 2011), 66-118.

One Bog, Three Names – how good fences make good neighbours

The interest of place-names lies in the glimpses they can give us of human lives in the past.  How did people live together?  How did they see the landscape around them?  How did they make their living?

In the Galloway Glens making a living meant, among other things, keeping warm.  The minister of Parton parish wrote in the 1790s, ‘Peat is the general fuel. It is scarce in the southern parts; and the poorer sort of people use broom and furze. It is plentiful in the middle and eastern parts, and of the best quality.  The mosses are of difficult access, as no proper roads are opened.  The inhabitants are obliged to carry home their peat on horse-back in corn sacks, as carts cannot be used’ (OSA i, 188).

The poor burn ‘broom and furze (i.e. gorse)’, because they can’t afford peat, and they haven’t got access to a ‘moss’ or peat bog.  A moss was clearly an important resource for those who had one.  It was the place where you would dig your peat, stack it, dry it, bring it home on horse-back’ (because the ground was too soft and boggy for a cart).  It was perhaps also a place where, in the drier summer months, you could graze a few beasts.

There is a large tract of moss in the southern part of Balmaghie parish.  It is basically one moss, but it has three names:  Drumbreck Moss, Bargatton Moss and Barend Moss.  The large tract is subdivided into three more or less equal sections, all lying in between the farms of Drumbreck, Bargatton and Barend.  Each farm has access to its own section of moss.  The boundaries between them, by the mid-nineteenth century, are defined by fences.

We may think of a bog or moss as a shapeless, trackless, undifferentiated sort of thing.  But in times when its peat was a vital resource, it was managed, demarcated, named in sections, jealously guarded.  Such clarity meant that the farmer at Drumbreck didn’t need to fight the farmer at Bargatton over access.  Such naming was a way of keeping the peace.

The poor, on the other hand – well, they can burn broom.

To  explore this map on line, click:

Gilbert Márkus


In Balmaclellan parish there a farm called Lowes (its farmstead now at NX701790, though it seems to have been centred further east in earlier centuries).

The name is interesting.  The element Lowes appears in several Scottish place-names, and if we look at them we will soon see a pattern which explains Lowes in Balmaclellan

In Caputh parish near Dunkeld there is a farm called Lowes (NO054445).  Here it is in the middle of this section of an early OS 1 inch map (1897):

There is a place in Ettrick parish in the Scottish Borders called Loch of the Lowes (NT238198).  Here it is on the same OS map series in 1896.

And then we have our own Lowes in Balmaclellan, Kirkcudbrightshire:

What do you notice about all these Lowes names?  Yes, you got it in one. They are all at places where two or more lochs are either joined together or very close to each other.

That is because Lowes is a modern spelling of the Scots word lowis, which is a plural form of a loan-word from Gaelic loch.   All these places called Lowes are named after the fact that there were multiple lochs in one place – clearly significant for early observers and namers of the landscape.

This name Lowes invites us to see the landscape with the eyes of those who named it; and to ponder the influences that languages have on each other, and the local context in which those influences take place.

Gilbert Márkus

Crosses and a Crossing

I took a walk up into the hills of Carsphairn recently to try and find some stones – up in the northern part of the Galloway Glens project area.   I thought I knew where I was going, but I couldn’t find them.  So I came back down again.  Just as I got to the bottom of the hill I met Mr McMillan of Eriff on his quad-bike, who told me exactly where to find them.  So I went back up the hill again, and thanks to his directions I found them almost immediately.  By that time the clouds had cleared, and the sun was sinking.  By the time I found the stones the light was clear and warm and raking at a nice angle across their faces, picking out the details of the carving rather nicely.  Perfect condictions for a couple of photographs

Who put these stones here and why is a question I’m going to have to look into in the future.  They are, as far as I can tell (and as far as other commentators have remarked) early medieval.  But what artistic traditions to they reflect?  Are they British or Anglo-Saxon in style?  Or is that question itself a bit misguided, as if we could identify two clear and distinct styles of carving at this period with one-to-one ethnic associations?

We may have a name for the place where these stones lie.  Roy’s map of Lowland Scotland made in the 1750s shows a place called Kiltersin at or near the site of these stones.  This seems to be Gaelic cill tarsuinne ‘’church or burial ground of the crossing’.  The crossing here may refer to the old pack-road that was the main route north from the Galloway Glens, running along the hillside just below these stones.

So far I have found no other references to this name.

Gilbert Márkus