Saints in Scottish Place-Names

Keills Cross Knapdale

Ancient chapel and cross at Keills in Knapdale, beside Loch Sween. Photograph by Erskine Beveridge in The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (1903).


A research project in the School of Humanities at the University of Glasgow has produced a fascinating online resource: a searchable database of hagiotoponyms in Scotland. Hagiotoponyms are place-names that commemorate saints. They are found all over the Scottish landscape as names of old parishes, medieval churches, holy wells and standing stones. Many of them give clues about the geography and chronology of the cults of saints. In some cases, the cult is localised to one small district or even to a single site. In others, the cult is linked to important religious or political changes that affected a very large area. The introduction of the cult of St Andrew, for example, was obviously significant in the evolution of a national ideology for the kingdom of Alba. On a regional level, the promotion of Mungo (Kentigern) as the patron saint of Glasgow seems to have played a role in the Gaelicisation of Strathclyde.

The original project was called Commemorations of Saints in Scottish Place-Names. It gathered information on a bewildering number of hagiotoponyms, ranging from the well-known (e.g. St Andrews) to the obscure (e.g. Exmagirdle). The project team clearly worked hard, for the resulting database is huge: 13000 place-names, 5000 places, 750 saints. I only wish it had been up and running a couple of years ago, when I was writing my book on Saint Columba. Back then, my main source of toponymic information was the ever-redoubtable CPNS (aka William Watson’s History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland) but an online resource would have been a useful quick-reference tool. Databases are always faster than printed book-indexes when you’re trying to work out which Kildonan is the one you really need.

The link below will take you straight to the database. Enjoy!

Saints in Scottish Place-Names

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Notes, references & more links

Terry O’Hagan wrote on this topic at the Vox Hiberionacum blog last month. Terry is a specialist on Early Irish Christianity, which means he knows a thing or two about Scotland as well. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter if you’re interested in Celtic saints.

In addition to the database, the project Commemorations of Saints in Scottish Place-Names has its own webpage at the University of Glasgow.

William Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1926). This indispensable tool for students of early Scottish history is available as a paperback from Birlinn Books.

Birlinn is also the publisher of my book on Saint Columba.

columba_cover2

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Brunanburh in 937: Bromborough or Lanchester?

King Athelstan

Athelstan, king of the English (924-39), in a manuscript of Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert.


Last Thursday evening (4th December) the eminent philologist Andrew Breeze gave a lecture to the Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries at their headquarters in London. His main topic was the battle of Brunanburh, fought in 937, one of the most famous events of the Viking Age. The victor was the English king Athelstan who thwarted an alliance of Norsemen, Scots and Strathclyde Britons. Frustratingly, the site of this mighty clash of arms is unknown. Some historians think it took place on the Wirral Peninsula in Cheshire, near the present-day village of Bromborough. Others think Cheshire is too far south and instead suggest alternative locations, one of these being the River Browney in County Durham. Professor Breeze believes that the Roman fort of Lanchester, slightly north of the Browney, may be the lost ‘fort of Bruna’ implied by the Old English place-name Brunanburh.

The lecture is now available on YouTube. Although I’m not convinced by the Lanchester theory, I like to keep up with the Brunanburh debate so I enjoyed watching the video. At the heart of Professor Breeze’s argument is his belief that the Norsemen sailed in via the Humber estuary – as indeed the twelfth-century chronicler John of Worcester said they did – before mooring their ships and marching to the battlefield. Not everyone is happy to accept the chronicler’s words on this important logistical point. Some sceptical folk (myself included) think it more likely that the Norse commander Anlaf Guthfrithsson brought his army across the Irish Sea to a landfall on the western coast of Britain. The earliest source for the battle of Brunanburh is a tenth-century poem which says that Anlaf fled across the sea to Dublin after his defeat. I support the theory that he probably arrived at the battlefield via the same western route rather than by sailing all the way around Scotland to come down to the Humber.

The link below will take you to the video of the lecture. Look out for a glimpse of my latest book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. Needless to say, Professor Breeze isn’t convinced by what I’ve written in the book’s fifth chapter, which mostly deals with the Brunanburh debate. There I suggest that the great battle may have been fought in North Lancashire, although I conclude that the true location is likely to remain elusive for the foreseeable future.

Society of Antiquaries [YouTube] – Brunanburh in 937: Bromborough or Lanchester?

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Notes

I am grateful to Andrew Breeze for telling me about the lecture and video.

A brief summary of the lecture can be seen at the Society of Antiquaries events pages.

I mentioned both Lanchester and Bromborough in a blogpost published here last October.

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Kelpies

Kelpies Falkirk Helix
Old Scottish legends speak of malevolent spirits lurking in streams and pools, waiting to catch and devour unwary travellers. These dangerous beings are often shape-shifters who adopt various human or animal forms. Perhaps the most feared of all are those that appear as beautiful horses: the each uisge (Gaelic ‘water horse’) of the sea-loch and the kelpie of the riverbank. Woe betide anyone who dares to approach a sleek, dark mare grazing peacefully at the waterside. In the blink of an eye, the victim is dragged beneath the surface to be drowned and eaten.

The origin of these mythical creatures is shrouded in mystery. One theory sees them as later versions of gods and goddesses who in ancient times were associated with particular lochs and rivers. Another sees them as symbols of the real danger posed by deep or fast-flowing water. ‘Don’t go too near the loch, or the kelpie will get you!’ was no doubt a warning issued to countless generations of inquisitive children in the Highlands.

It has been suggested that the enigmatic Pictish symbol known as the ‘swimming elephant’ or ‘Pictish beast’ might represent a kelpie or each uisge. Other explanations have been put forward but, on a personal note, I quite like this one. I’m sure the Picts had their own dark tales of deadly water-spirits in equine form, and maybe these were in some way ancestral to the creatures of later folklore. The strange ‘beastie’ carved with remarkable consistency on more than fifty Pictish stones does indeed resemble a horse.

Pictish Largo stone

Pictish beast carved on a stone at Largo in Fife.

On the Pictish cross-slab in the kirkyard at Aberlemno in Angus, a pair of creatures with horse heads and fish tails intertwine in the lower right-hand corner. Although usually identified as seahorses they bear a striking resemblance to how kelpies are sometimes portrayed in later art. Many present-day artists, for example, depict the kelpie as an aquatic creature with the tail of a dolphin.

Pictish Aberlemno stone

Seahorses on the Pictish cross-slab in Aberlemno kirkyard.

In 2014, no discussion of the mythical kelpie can ignore the two magnificent examples of the species that now reside near Falkirk. These enormous steel sculptures soar into the sky, completely dominating the local landscape and dwarfing the human visitors who teem like tiny ants on the ground below. The giant Kelpies stand beside the Forth and Clyde Canal in the new Helix Park – an extensive recreation area with playgrounds, walking paths and a lagoon. Andy Scott, the sculptor who designed the Kelpies, drew inspiration not only from the water-spirits of legend but also from the powerful horses who once served heavy industry in the area. The two gigantic heads are 30 metres high and certainly exude an aura of strength and vigour, just like the Clydesdale horses on which they are modelled.

Kelpies Falkirk Helix

I’d been keen to visit the Kelpies since April, when they were officially unveiled to the public. I eventually managed to see them at the end of August. Needless to say, the experience far exceeded all my expectations. To say I was lost for words would be an understatement. Descriptions such as impressive, imposing and awesome fail to reflect the majesty and energy of these sculptures when you’re walking beneath them. Like the ancient water-spirits that inspired their making, they exude a magical aura which – judging from the faces I saw during my visit – leaves most human visitors utterly spellbound.

Kelpies Falkirk Helix

Kelpies Falkirk Helix

Kelpies Falkirk Helix

Kelpies Falkirk Helix

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Notes & links

Archaeologist Sally Foster suggested that the mysterious ‘Pictish beast’ of the symbol stones is ‘apparently a dolphin or perhaps the fantastic kelpie or water-horse of later Scottish folklore.’ (Picts, Gaels and Scots, p.74 of the 1996 edition)

One of the most famous kelpie legends tells of the snaring of one of these creatures by the lord of Morphie (near Montrose) who forced it to drag stones for the construction of his new castle. After toiling hard with ‘sore back and sore bones’, the kelpie managed to escape, laying a curse on its cruel captor as it fled back to its pool:
‘Sair back and sair banes,
drivin’ the Laird o’Morphie’s stanes.
The Laird o’Morphie’ll never thrive
sae lang as the Kelpie is alive!’

[Link] The Kelpies sculpture website
[Link] Sculptor Andy Scott’s website

Photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.

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Picts at Moncrieffe Hill

Moncrieffe Hill Pictish fort
A new project to promote the history and archaeology of the Carse of Gowrie is set to run for the next four years, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other sources. One of the key sites involved in the project is Moncrieffe Hill which has a large Iron Age fort on the summit. The fort has never been excavated before, but the new project will see the first ever ‘dig’. This is likely to shed light on how the hill was used by the ancient inhabitants of Perthshire, not only in the Iron Age but in the Pictish period that followed.

The name Moncrieffe is an Anglicised form of Monadh Craoibh (Gaelic: ‘Hill of Trees’). A glance at the Latin text of the Annals of Ulster turns up an interesting item from the year 728:

Bellum Mónidchroibh inter Pictores inuicem, ubi Oenghus uictor fuit & multi ex parte Eilpini regis perempti sunt. Bellum lacrimabile inter eosdem gestum est iuxta Castellum Credi, ubi Elpinus efugit.

‘The battle of Monadh Craoibh between the Picts themselves, in which Óengus was victor, and many were slain on the side of king Alpín. A woeful battle was fought between the same parties near Castle Credi, where Alpín was put to flight.’

Castle Credi is unidentifed, but Monadh Craoibh is undoubtedly Moncrieffe Hill. The context of the battle was a power-struggle between rival claimants for kingship in southern Pictland. Four ambitious men – Óengus, Alpín, Nechtan and Drust – fought a bitter war that lasted through the 720s. By the summer of 729, a victor finally emerged in the shape of Óengus, who defeated Nechtan, his last remaining rival, on 12 August. In the previous year, Óengus had trounced Alpín’s forces at Moncrieffe Hill and Castle Credi.

Moncrieffe Hill Pictish fort
Óengus (pronounced ‘Oyn-yus’) went on to become one of the greatest of all Pictish kings. In the 730s he conquered Dál Riata, the land of the Scots, which thereafter seems to have lain under permanent Pictish overkingship. One result of the long period of Pictish supremacy was the gradual merging together of the Scots and Picts as a single, Gaelic-speaking people inhabiting a new kingdom called Alba. If we credit Óengus as one of the main architects of this process, his victory at Moncrieffe Hill should perhaps be seen as an important milestone in the birth of the Scottish nation.

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I deal with the Pictish dynastic war of the 720s in my book The Picts: a History (at pp.150-3).

The image below shows the Israelite king David, as depicted on the eighth-century St Andrews Sarcophagus. It is possible that the stone-carver tried to capture the likeness of Óengus, king of the Picts, who may be the person commemorated by this famous monument.

St Andrews Sarcophagus

The new heritage project for the Carse of Gowrie is described in an article in The Courier. The project also has its own website.

Check out these photos of Moncrieffe Hill in a blogpost by Keith Savage.

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The Kilmorie Cross

Kilmorie Cross

Illustration from J. Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland


My list of ‘must see’ monuments includes this magnificent cross-slab from the Rhinns of Galloway. It originally stood near St Mary’s Chapel at Kilmorie but was moved in the early nineteenth century to Kirkcolm, two and a half miles away, where it was used as a door-lintel in the parish church. It was moved again in 1821, to the grounds of nearby Corsewall House. There it was photographed by a Mr Hunter of Newton Stewart, the resulting image being reproduced in Allen and Anderson’s Early Christian Monuments of Scotland of 1903. In 1989, the slab was returned to Kirkcolm church and placed in the churchyard where it resides today.

The slab is sometimes known as the Kilmorie Cross because of the large hammer-headed crosses on both sides. It stands a little over five feet high and is made of ‘greywacke’ sandstone. On one side, the hammerhead cross carries a rough representation of the Crucified Christ. Another figure stands below, flanked by two birds, a set of blacksmith’s tongs and an unidentified rectangular shape. It has been suggested that this lower figure is the Scandinavian hero Sigurd, juxtaposed with the Crucifixion to highlight the mingling of pagan and Christian beliefs in a region colonised by Vikings. On the other side of the slab, the hammerhead cross is decorated with spiral patterns, below which are two horns, a coiled serpent and a panel of interlace terminating in a pair of snakes.

Kilmorie Cross

Photographs from Allen & Anderson’s Early Christian Monuments of Scotland


The slab was probably carved in the tenth century, a very obscure period in Galloway’s history. The region takes its name from a people known as Gall-Gaidhil (‘Foreign Gaels’) whose origins are uncertain. They first turn up in the ninth century, as warbands serving Irish kings, probably as mercenaries. Their name suggests that they were Vikings who spoke Gaelic, or Gaels who behaved like Vikings. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, groups of Gall-Gaidhil seem to be in control of various seaways and coastlands in what is now South West Scotland, from Kintyre down to Galloway. At what point they gave their name to Galloway is unknown, but medieval chroniclers suggest that Gall-Gaidhil or ‘Galwegian’ lords ruled as far east as the district north of Carlisle. Current thinking envisages a sort of ‘Greater Galloway’ by c.1050, extending northward through Ayrshire to the Firth of Clyde, but whether this was a single realm or a patchwork of independent lordships is a mystery. The amount of Scandinavian culture introduced into this very large area is likewise a matter of debate. What the Kilmorie Cross seems to be telling us is that pagan Viking settlers and indigenous Christians were able to live side-by-side in one small corner of Galloway.

Map of Galloway

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Notes & references

Having not yet visited the Kilmorie Cross I don’t have any photographs of my own to accompany this blogpost. A couple of nice images can however be seen at the website of Kirkcolm parish church via these links to the ‘front’ and ‘back’ of the slab.

Kilmorie is a Gaelic place-name which may mean ‘Church of Mary’. Kirkcolm means ‘Church of Columba’, with Gaelic cille replaced by Old Norse kirkja.

The cultural affinities of Galloway’s early medieval sculpture have been discussed in a number of publications. A useful article is Derek Craig’s ‘Pre-Norman sculpture in Galloway: some territorial implications’, in Richard Oram & Geoffrey Stell (eds), Galloway: Land and Lordship (Edinburgh, 1991), pp.45-62.

The Kilmorie Cross is described on the Canmore database, which also has an entry for the old chapel of Kilmorie.

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Degsastan discovered?

Degsastan
Hot on the heels of his suggestion that the battle of Brunanburh (AD 937) was fought in County Durham comes another thought-provoking theory from Professor Andrew Breeze. This time, the battle in question was fought not in the tenth century but in the seventh, in the year 603. On one side stood an army of Scots from Dál Riata, led by King Áedán mac Gabráin. Facing them were the English of Bernicia under the command of their king Aethelfrith. The ambitions of these two mighty warlords clashed at a place called Degsa’s Stone, a name rendered in Latin as Lapis Degsa and in Old English as Degsastan.

The Venerable Bede, writing more than a hundred years after the battle, described Degsa’s Stone as a ‘very famous place’. Unfortunately, he didn’t give its precise location, although he did hint that it lay within the extensive territories controlled by Aethelfrith. As an Englishman and a Bernician, Bede resorted to triumphal rhetoric when describing the battle’s political repercussions:

‘From that time, no king of the Scots in Britain has dared to make war against the English nation to this day.’

As with many ‘lost’ battlefields, people have tended to begin a search for Degsastan by looking for similar-sounding names on a modern map. Long ago, this quest turned up the place-name Dawston, borne today by a stream and hillside in Liddesdale, the valley of the Liddel Water on the border between England and Scotland. Dawston has attracted many supporters, partly because it not only has the enticing D-st-n combination but is in an area where Áedán and Aethelfrith might have met in battle.

I’m not a supporter of Dawston. It’s too far south for me, and too far off the beaten track. In fact, I’m wary of using ‘sounds-like etymology’ as a starting-point when searching for lost battlefields. All too often, this technique brings forth a large red herring, which then slithers away in all kinds of strange directions with a posse of enthusiastic hunters in frantic pursuit. Much time is wasted, I believe, on the ‘sounds-like’ game. I don’t think it is necessarily the best way to begin the quest. Would it not make more sense to start from a different point, by using political considerations, landscape reconstructions and logistical factors to establish a likely geographical context, which could then be searched for possible place-name matches?

Andrew Breeze, an expert on place-names, thinks Dawston doesn’t even pass the test on linguistic grounds. He suggests instead a site further north, on the upper reaches of the River Tweed, near the village of Drumelzier between Biggar and Peebles. Here he notes the place name Dawyck, whch he says means ‘David’s settlement’ (where the first element is a North Brittonic personal name equivalent to Welsh Dewi). He proposes that a nearby monolith might once have been known as ‘Dewi’s Stone’, a name subsequently part-translated by speakers of Old English as Degsastan.

It’s an intriguing theory. While not being entirely swayed by the ‘Dewi’ argument, I am inclined to believe that this is the kind of area where we should be looking for the battlefield of 603. Upper Tweeddale lay on a key route linking the Clyde valley – and places further north and west – to the Bernician heartlands on the east coast. This seems to me a plausible setting for the earliest recorded clash between English and Scottish armies.

Andrew Breeze’s theory appears in a recent article in the Peebleshire News:
Ancient mystery battlefield discovered in Tweeddale

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I am grateful to Andrew Breeze for sending me the link.

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The lost island of Saint Columba

Colonsay Cross

Sculptured cross from Riskbuie Chapel, Colonsay. Illustration from Allen & Anderson The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (1903).


According to the vita or ‘Life’ of Saint Columba written by Adomnán at the end of the seventh century, the monastery on Iona had a number of satellites on various islands and coastlands around Argyll. One of these was on an island called Hinba and seems to have been the chief daughter-house of Iona. Adomnán tells us that it was founded by Columba himself and comprised not only a monastery but also a separate hermitage. Frustratingly, the precise location of Hinba is not made clear, so we are left to wonder which of the numerous Hebridean islands it was.

People have been suggesting possible identifications for Hinba for a long time, ever since modern historians first began to study Adomnán’s Vita Columbae. The obvious starting-point is to rule out those islands which are clearly identifiable in Adomnán’s narrative, such as Skye, Islay, Tiree, Eigg, Mull and of course Iona itself. None of these was Hinba, so the search is immediately narrowed. It also seems clear that Hinba lay at no great distance from Iona, for Columba was able to visit the satellite monastery quite easily and frequently. His uncle Ernán, who served as prior on Hinba, was able to undertake the sea-voyage to Iona when very elderly and in poor health.

Columba

The hermitage on Hinba was situated near what Adomnán calls Muirbulc Mar, ‘Great Sea-Bay’. As with some other places in Vita Columbae he gives the name entirely in Gaelic – his own native language – rather than rendering it into a Latinised form. Muirbulc Mar must have been a prominent feature, so any island without a large bay can effectively be ruled out in our search for Hinba. For example, the small island of Eileach an Naoimh, ‘Rocky isle of the Saints’, in the Garvelloch archipelago has been suggested as a possible candidate for Hinba but it doesn’t have a prominent sea-bay. Also, Hinba is a Gaelic name, so it is very unlikely that it would be given an additional or alternative Gaelic one. Indeed, it is far more likely that it today bears a name of Norse origin, as do many of the Hebridean islands.

The eminent place-name scholar William Watson proposed that Hinba derives from inbe, a Gaelic word meaning ‘incision’. In this context, the ‘incision’ would presumably be the great sea-bay of Muirbulc Mar. If Watson’s derivation is correct, the bay must have appeared to slice through the island, as if the sea had bitten a big chunk out of the coastline.

Only two candidates seem to tick all the boxes: Jura, which has a large sea-bay called Loch Tarbert; and the single island which is formed by Colonsay and Oronsay when the sea-bay between them is at low tide. Jura and Colonsay/Oronsay have Viking names, and we don’t know what they were called in Adomnán’s time. Jura has an early church dedicated to Columba; Oronsay has a medieval priory with a Columba dedication and an old tradition of having been founded by the saint. In favour of Colonsay and Oronsay is the observation that they are closer to Iona.

The upshot is that the puzzle of Hinba remains unsolved. This mysterious island, so important in the early history of the Columban familia or network of monasteries, seems to float beyond our reach. My own view is that it is now the single island formed by Colonsay and Oronsay at low tide, and that Oronsay Priory stands on the site of Columba’s monastery.

Oronsay Priory

Oronsay Priory

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Notes

References to Hinba in Adomnán’s Vita Columbae occur at: Book 1, chapters 21 & 45; Book 2, chapter 24; Book 3, chapters 5, 17, 18 & 23. The Latin edition I use is the one edited by Alan and Marjorie Anderson in 1961 (revised in 1991). For an English version I use the Andersons’ translation and the one by Richard Sharpe for Penguin Classics (1995).

I discuss Hinba on pp.109-11 of my book on Saint Columba.

A useful summary of the various Hinba theories can be found on pp.91-102 of Alan Macquarrie’s The Saints of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1997).

Hinba is the island where Saint Columba narrowly escaped being murdered. The story is told in my blogpost Columba and the Pirates.

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