Settlement Names in the Galloway Glens

Threave Castle
Photo: Thomas Clancy

This is the first blog on the site in a long time, and it will be (alas!) the final blog during the active period of the parent project, the Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership, which comes to an end 30th September 2023. The members of the Place-Names of the Galloway Glens team are incredibly grateful for the chance to explore place-names afforded to us by the GGLP, and salute the staggering achievement of the GGLP over the past 5 years. It has been a delight to be even a small part of it. Our particular thanks to McNabb Laurie and Nick Chisholm for their patience, comradeship and good humour across the years.

One of the final outputs of the GGLP has been the publication of a booklet about ‘Glenkens Place-Names’, written by Gilbert Márkus, in its excellent booklet series. You can find it, alongside the other booklets, here. We are grateful to all the team at GGLP, and especially Martha Schofield and Sarah Ade, for getting this into the real world.

However: this place-name website, which is independent of the GGLP, will remain, and we will hopefully be blogging on it again in the near future!

Now, to the blog proper!


In this blog, I want to consider what ‘settlement names’ in the Galloway Glens can tell us about the earliest strands of names preserved for us in the records of the area. ‘Settlement names’ here refers to place-names which contain a ‘generic element’ (that is the word which describes what kind of place it is) referring to human settlement. In modern English this would be a word like ‘town’, ‘city’, ‘house’, ‘farm’ etc.

My interest here is particularly in place-names employing the most common early settlement generics, in the different languages attested in the record for Kirkcudbrightshire. These are Northern Brittonic/Cumbric trev, Gaelic baile and Old English/Scots tūn / toun, all meaning ‘farm, farming settlement’, in Scots ‘fermtoun’. All of these are present in the Galloway Glens area, as they are more widely in south-west Scotland, but the more we research Scottish place-names, the more it is clear that lessons learned about such elements in one region can not necessarily be replicated in another. The Galloway Glens have an important and unique tale to tell about them.

map from People of Medieval Scotland web resource:

In a comparatively early document relating to our region, we find all three of these generic elements represented, even if one is only by implication. In the 1170s, William the Lion, king of Scots, confirmed the transfer of four churches in Galloway to the Augustinian abbey of Holyrood. These four churches had previously pertained to the Hebridean monastery of Iona; we don’t know how that came about, but it is not our concern here.

The grant confirmed: “the churches or chapels in Galloway which pertained to the usage of the abbacy of Iona with all its teinds and other ecclesiastical benefits; that is, the church which is called Kirkcormack (Kirchecormach), and the church of St Andrew [=Kirkandrews Balmaghie], and that of Barncrosh (Balencros) and that of Kelton (Cheletun).” (RRS ii, 49).

The positioning of these four churches is intriguing and, as has been suggested by Gilbert Márkus in a previous blog, is suggestive that they may have had some relationship with the estate of Threave, later the nodal point of the Douglas lordship in Galloway, which sits at the centre of all of them (discussion at:

Three of these names, Barncrosh, originally given as Balnecros; Kelton; and Threave (not mentioned in the document, but perhaps implied), contain the three most common settlement generics from each of three of the main languages historically spoken in Galloway, and more specifically, in Kirkcudbrightshire, the three I have already mentioned.

Of them, the one containing tūn / toun is in fact likely to be the earliest: Kelton. It can be extremely difficult to date names containing this element, because it was in such long use both in English and in Scots, even into the contemporary period.[1] But Kelton is likely to be early. It fulfils some crucial criteria:

  • It is mentioned comparatively early. The 1170s is about as early as we get detailed charters relating to the area. The context also implies a certain degree of longevity—the churches mentioned in the grant had previously pertained to Iona. It seems very unlikely in that case that these are “new build” estates.
  • The specific here is most likely to be the local equivalent of ON kelda or OE celde ‘(well)spring’. The situation of Kelton church reveals it as an area where there are a number of springs and water-sources, such that “spring-farm” might be an appropriate name. This element is uncommon, though not unknown in Scots; and it is found here and there in place-names. (There are issues with the phonology of the name, but this is not the best place to explore that.)

    OS 6″ 1st edn 1853 via NLS map images at
  • Kelton appears to be incorporated in a later, probably Gaelic, place-name. The church appears several times on record as Lockelleton and variations on that. The first element here is almost certainly G loch, and Lockelleton almost certainly an earlier name for what is now Carlingwark Loch, which dominated the middle part of Kelton parish. The implication is that Kelton was already an extant place-name when Gaelic became the dominant language of the area.

    Lockelletun < G loch + en Kelton ( = Carlingwark loch?)
    Map is OS One-inch, “Hills”, 1900 via NLS map images
  • Kelton has a further association with the Old English period, in the form of the church’s dedication. The church of Kelton was dedicated to St Oswald, the Northumbrian king and martyr, as we learn from a grant of 1210 mentioning Ecclesia Sancti Oswaldi martiris de Kelletun. (RRS ii, no. 489; See also the saints database ) In this it joins a number of other churches commemorating either Cuthbert or Oswald which suggest continuity of one sort or another from the Northumbrian period.[2]


  • As we can see, Kelton was a prominent church; and it is also described elsewhere as a villa. There is good reason to think this was an important early estate—and in some way was probably related closely to the later estate of Threave, which, however, lay in the neighbouring parish.


All these give us good reason to think of Kelton as a name deriving from the period of Northumbrian rule and settlement in this part of Galloway. There are other tūn / toun names which probably come from this period also: Parton, for instance, as also the specific in Glenswinton, in Parton parish.[3]

fragment of Northumbrian cross built into wall of Kilterliltie Cottage, near Barncrosh
image from Derek Craig (1992) ‘The distribution of pre-Norman sculpture in South-West Scotland’, (unpub. PhD thesis, Durham)

What of our two Celtic settlement generics then? While baile is one of the most common Gaelic settlement elements, we know that it came into toponymic usage comparatively late – the earliest instances being the late 11th century – and in some areas to have been in active use for naming new farms as late as the 16th and 17th centuries. Barncrosh, originally Balnecros, for baile na croise ‘the farm of the cross’ is probably one of the earliest attested baile-names in south-west Scotland, maybe even the earliest.

The name may refer to an ecclesiastical monument—there is a fragment of a Northumbrian cross embedded in a local cottage. Not only is baile a comparatively late element, but the name contains the definite article, also a sign of comparative lateness. The name is thus probably not much older than the 12th century, when it is first found.

Other examples in the region suggest that baile-names are to some degree a high-medieval phenomenon, such as the two parish-names, Balmaghie (Baile Mac Aoidh) and Balmaclellan (Baile Mac Gille-Fhaolain), both of them containing the family names of kindreds which only seem to coalesce under those names in the 13th and 14th centuries, and both names superseding earlier ones which we know. In Balmaghie’s case, that earlier name was an ecclesiastical one, Kirkandrews, a name which, though Gaelic in form, suggests an underlying Northumbrian heritage. (see Gilbert Márkus’s blog on Balmaghie.)

Balmaclellan Church
Photo: Gilbert Márkus

The second of these, Balmaclellan, seems on first record to be called by a Northern Brittonic or Cumbric name, Treuercarcou. This name, like that of Threave itself, employs the common Brittonic word for a farm or settlement, trev (Welsh tref). Brittonic was of course the earliest of the languages we know of spoken in south-west Scotland, but there is ample evidence of its comparatively late use in the area as well. Alan James has made a strong case for some trev-names belonging to this period, and Treuercarcou looks likely to be among them.[4] Like Barncrosh (Balnecros) in Gaelic, this name contains the definite article (the specific element, -carcou, is problematic), and in NBr/Cmb the presence of the definite article in names is thought to be a feature belonging to the 10th or 11th century at the earliest. Although this does not apply to Treuercarcou, a number of other local trev-names show linguistic features met elsewhere in the south-west, features which suggest that they may have either come to us through Gaelic, or perhaps even that the element trev has been adopted by Gaelic speakers locally. This would be no great leap since Gaelic had a directly cognate word, meaning much the same thing: treabh. While that word is not found in use elsewhere in place-names, perhaps in the south-west language contact between Brittonic and Gaelic speakers caused it to be adopted.

The implication of this study is that all these terms, tūn, trev and baile, were being used by different speech-communities during a roughly similar period of time in the central middle ages. Perhaps surprisingly, the oldest of the names studied here is the ‘English’ one, Kelton, with the two Celtic names being somewhat later, but this does fit our understanding of the complex historical development of the south-west Scotland. This linguistic complexity has long been recognised. This area is not one where one language simply succeeded another, but rather neighbouring linguistic communities coexisted for a considerable time, evincing a fair amount of bilingualism, particularly during the period from, say, 900 to 1200. The settlement names of the Galloway Glens bear out that scenario, and further study will deepen our understanding of them.

NB: This blog is based on a talk given to the Scottish Place-Name Society in November 2021, and subsequently published in their Newsletter. I am grateful to the SPNS for permission to repurpose this as a blog for the website.

[1] See discussion in T.O. Clancy (2013) ‘Many Strata: English and Scots Place-Names in Scotland’, in J. Carroll and D. N. Parsons (eds) Perceptions of Place: twenty-first-century interpretations of English place-name studies (English Place-Name Society: Nottingham) pp. 283-320.

[2] For some interesting comments on the cults of Oswald and Cuthbert in the south-west, see Gilbert Márkus (2017) Conceiving a Nation. Scotland to AD 900 (Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh), at pp. 101-2.

[3] For a seminal discussion, though the material needs revisiting, see Daphne Brooke (1991) ‘The Northumbrian settlements in Galloway and Carrick: an historical assessment’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 121, pp. 295-327.

[4] Alan G. James (2008) ‘A Cumbric diaspora?’ in Padel, Oliver J., and Parsons, David N., eds., A Commodity of Good Names: Essays in Honour of Margaret Gelling Donington, pp. 187-203; (2011) ‘Dating Brittonic Place-Names in Southern Scotland and Cumbria’, JSNS 5, 57-114; (2014) ‘Cumbric trev in Kyle, Carrick, Galloway and Dumfriesshire’, TDGNHAS 3rd Series 88, 21-42.