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: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/2685/1/2011mcnivenphd.pdf

(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.