Project News

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












Place-Names and Red Kites


When I’m working in the Galloway Glens, trying to figure out how place-names and landscape fit together, I’m often disturbed by the piercing cries of the numerous red kites (Milvus milvus) that now live in the area.  I quite regularly see them wheeling overhead, sometimes alone, sometimes in considerable numbers.  You can hear their sound here:

These birds became completely extinct in Scotland in the nineteenth century, thanks to human persecution – much of it by the owners of ‘sporting estates’ seeking to maximise grouse numbers for shooting. But the red kite has recently been reintroduced in some places where it is now doing rather well.

The old  Scots word for ‘kite’ is gled.  And there are several place-names in the Galloway Glens which contain this word (often in the local dialect form glede).  Glede Craig, for example, is a rocky knoll on a hillside at 490m altitude.  According to OS Name Book ‘it is a resort for kites which are commonly called gledes in this country’.  Another place-name is Glede Bog, a rough pasture just outside Carsphairn village at the much lower level of 165m.

The Gaelic name for the kite is clamhan gobhlach (‘the forked clamhan’ – look at the tail in this photograph – the word clamhan on its own usually refers to the buzzard).  I have been looking for place-names containing clamhan, but have yet to find one in my patch.

We can’t be absolutely certain that all our gled-names referred originally to kites.  The word was also used (perhaps in later periods) to refer to buzzards, and even to other birds of prey such as sparrowhawks and hen harriers (grey gleds).  That is certainly a complicating factor.

One of the features of the red kite, however, is that unlike buzzards and other hawks it is a bird given to forming large flocks.  You can see fifty or sixty at a time in Balmaghie parish, where this photo was taken.


Not only do they fly around together in large numbers, they also roost together. 

We might wonder, then, what gled place-names refer to.  Are they favourite roosting-places for kites,  where dozens might spend the night together in the trees?   Or are they productive feeding-grounds?  Kites are pretty opportunistic scavengers, but also  eat worms and beetles, and will also occasionally hunt live prey – mice, voles, young rabbits and smaller birds.

The kite population in the Galloway Glens, in the years since its reintroduction, has tended to be concentrated in particular areas.  But as the population increases and moves further afield, it will be interesting to see if Glede Bog and Glede Craig and other such places become once again places of notable kite activity.

Gilbert Márkus


Surveying the place-names of the Galloway Glens

In this project, Place-Names of the Galloway Glens, we will be exploring one of the key areas that the Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership has highlighted–the ‘intangible heritage’ of the landscape. The names that surround us can often become an unremarked, unnoticed part of our world–when we pay attention to them, and understand where they come from and what they mean, they can often illuminate the past in important ways.

Language is one way. Several languages have contributed to Galloway’s landscape. The language we will call Northern Brittonic (sometimes called Cumbric), closely related to Welsh, is one of them. Not very many names survive from this language, but perhaps we will find more in this survey. (One example is the lost original name of Balmaclellan, Trevercarcou ‘the settlement of the … [something no one has figured out yet]’). Likewise, there may be a few names derived from Old Norse, a Scandinavian language spoken by some of those who ruled over this area in the 10th and 11th centuries. Grobdale in Balmaghie parish may be from this language.

The two languages contributing most to the landscape are Scots and Gaelic.

Place-names show us how prominent the Gaelic language was in the past. Six of the seven parishes we will be surveying in this project have, at present, Gaelic names (Carsphairn, Dalry, Kells, Balmaclellan, Balmaghie, Crossmichael). A later blog will explore these parish names for what they can tell us. But certainly two of these names belong to the period of the high or later middle ages, because they incorporate family names which only became a feature of how society worked in that period. Balmaclellan and Balmaghie contain word baile ‘farm, settlement’, followed by the surnames Maclellan (Gaelic Mac Gille Fhaolain) and McGhie / McGee (Gaelic Mac Aoidh). As can be seen, such place-names also tell us about local society, families, and politics–they can reveal aspects of ownership. Crossmichael contains the name of a saint, and the original name of Balmaghie, Kirkandrews, also contained the name of St Andrew. Saints allow us a way in to the religious development of Galloway in the past.

Some names which appear to be Scots may in fact come from a much earlier period in Galloway’s history, and derive from Old English, the language spoken in the early medieval kingdom of Northumbria, which ruled Galloway from around AD 700, and ran the church as the diocese of Whithorn from around the same time. A parish name like Parton is a case in point. It probably derives from Old English port tun ‘settlement at a harbour’, referring to its situation on Loch Ken. But in fact, the name could have been created at any time from the 8th century until its first recording c.1275. Many Scots place-names are more obviously recent, however, such as Thorniehill, Blackpark, Kirkland.

But as well as the human dimension of the past, place-names can illuminate the natural environment of the past, whether this be the type of land (Laggan ‘hollow’; Monybuie ‘Yellow Bog’); or flora (Arndarroch ‘oak-grove portion’; Barscobe ‘broom hill’) or fauna (Polmaddy, ‘the burn of the wild dog’; Glede Hill ‘hill of the kites’).

Over the next few years we will be researching all these names, and making new findings and interesting musings available via this blog. Stay tuned!

Gilbert Markus and Simon Taylor surveying the landscape from the motte, Dalry.