The striking 13th century castle of Caerlaverock, notable for its triangular shape, stands near the shore of the Solway Firth, about 8 miles south of Dumfries. It was built in the 1270s, succeeding a smaller castle erected earlier in the same century. Two older strongholds – a Roman fort and a native British one – stand on the nearby hill of Ward Law.
The origin of the name Caerlaverock is uncertain. Its first element seems to be Brittonic caer, ‘fort’, a very common prefix in the place-names of Wales. In Scotland, caer mostly occurs in those areas where Brittonic speech survived longest, such as the region between the firths of Clyde and Solway. The second element is less easy to decipher, but various plausible explanations have been suggested. As far as the meaning of the whole place-name is concerned, it seems to be a case of ‘take your pick’ from the following list.
caer + Old English lawerce (Middle English laverock), ‘lark’ = ‘Fort of the Lark’
caer + the Brittonic (Old Welsh) personal name Limarch, medieval Welsh Llywarch = ‘Llywarch’s Fort’
Gaelic cathair, ‘fort’ + leamhreaich, ‘elm’ = ‘Fort in the Elm Trees’
These are just three theories that I know of. I would be interested to hear of any others.
The possible connection with larks (or skylarks) has been seen as a link between Caerlaverock and the famous battle of Arfderydd (AD 573) which was allegedly caused by a ‘lark’s nest’. Similarly, the suggested meaning ‘Llywarch’s Fort’ might point to some real or imagined association with Llywarch Hen, ‘Llywarch the Old’, a well-known figure in medieval Welsh poetry who (if he existed outside literature) apparently ruled a kingdom somewhere in northern Britain in the 6th century.
My own preference, as expressed in my recent book on the North Britons, is for the derivation Caer Llywarch. I think this may have been the original name of the native hillfort on Ward Law. This could have been bestowed because local folklore identified the fort as the stronghold of Llywarch Hen, or perhaps of a namesake. If it commemorated the famous Llywarch of Welsh literature, then this might be a useful pointer to the location of his kingdom, or at least to the origin-centre of stories associated with him. In later times, the old name was borrowed by the occupants of the castle on the lower ground below.
Nora K. Chadwick, The British heroic age: the Welsh and the Men of the North (Cardiff, 1976), p.100 [Caerlaverock = ‘Fort of the Lark’]
W. J. Watson, The history of the Celtic place names of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1926), p.368 [Caerlaverock = ‘Llywarch’s Fort’]
George Mackay, Scottish place names (New Lanark, 2002), p.18 [Caerlaverock = ‘Fort in the Elm Trees’]