A few miles to the east of Glasgow stands the town of Kirkintilloch. At first sight the name of this place seems to be an example of the kirk– type found all over Scotland. Names prefixed by kirk(originally a Scandinavian word) usually mean “Church of…” and often contain the name of a saint, e.g. Kirkpatrick (Church of St Patrick) or Kirkbride (Church of St. Bridget). Closer inspection of Kirkintilloch reveals, however, that it is not in fact a kirk– name at all but instead provides a curious snapshot of early medieval history.
In one version of the ninth-century Welsh chronicle Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons) the Antonine Wall is said to terminate in the west at Carpentaloch. This is the oldest form of Kirkintilloch and shows clearly that it does not belong among the typical kirk– names. It had a different origin that pre-dated the arrival of Scandinavian words as elements in Scottish nomenclature.
Carpentaloch can be broken down as caer–pen–tulach, a hybrid name formed from Brittonic and Gaelic words and meaning “Fort at the head of the hills”. This form must have originated at a time when Strathclyde, the last surviving kingdom of the North Britons, was absorbing an influx of Gaelic-speaking immigrants of Scottish or Norse-Scottish ancestry. Such a hybrid place-name can only have been formed after 870, when Strathclyde was ravaged by Vikings and brought within their sphere of colonisation. Prior to this time Brittonic speech held sway and Gaelic terms such as tulach (hill) were absent from the area’s etymology. The original form of Kirkintilloch may thus have been Caer–pen–bryn or something broadly similar. Eventually, long after bryn was replaced by tulach, the Brittonic word pen (head) was altered to cenn which has the same meaning in Gaelic. This change will have occurred when the ancient speech of the Britons was in terminal decline, probably in the decades after c.1070 when Strathclyde was conquered by the Scots. By c.1300, when the town of Kerkintalloch was first recorded in Scottish landholding documents, only the prefix caer (fort) remained to indicate that the original inhabitants were speakers of a language that had long since faded away.
Reference: W.J. Watson, The history of the Celtic place-names of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1926), p.348.
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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series: