LANGUAGE, LITERATURE AND PLACE-NAMES (Eila Williamson)

The focus of this paper was on place-names with a literary connection that can be found among the corpus of Berwickshire place-names being surveyed by the Recovering the Earliest English Language in Scotland: Evidence from Place-Names project. Before looking more closely at five names in particular (Scott’s View, Sybil’s Well, Tibby Fowler’s Cottage, Tibby Fowler’s Glen, and Wallace’s Crook), brief attention was given to place-names in Galashiels associated with Roger Quin, the ‘Tramp Poet’ (i.e., the street-name, Roger Quin Gardens, and Quins, a restaurant and coffee shop), and with Sir Walter Scott.

Scott’s View Viewpoint

Scott’s View is the name of the viewpoint, built in 1955 and unveiled on 15 May 1956, from which a renowned view of the Eildon Hills can be seen. The view is recorded as being a favourite one of Sir Walter Scott, who had purchased the estate of Newarthaugh or Cartleyhole (or ‘Clarty Hole’) in 1811, renaming it Abbotsford. An earlier literary figure, David Hume of Godscroft (1558–c. 1630), a Neo-Latin poet and author of histories of the Douglas family, had also renamed his Berwickshire estate from Gowkscroft to Godscroft, and in his writings used the name Theagrius ‘man from Theager’ – Theager being a classicisation of ‘god’s farm’ or ‘god’s acre’.

The scene of the death of Marmion, eponymous character in Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem about the battle of Flodden, first published in 1808, has led to the naming of two wells called Sybil’s Well in Northumberland: one at Floddenhill Plantation, commissioned by Louisa, marchioness of Waterford, in the late nineteenth century, and the other built about 1935 near Branxton Church. The OS 6 inch 1st edition map for Ladykirk parish BWK denotes a Sybil’s Well in the grounds of Ladykirk House. It is likely that it acquired its name following a Grand Tour by the laird’s son, Roger Robertson, in 1750–3, and that it commemorates the classical Sibyl of Cumae. Intriguingly, though, it is situated next to Bloody Headrig, which the Ordnance Survey Name Book for Ladykirk describes as marking the spot where the battle of Flodden ended. This raises the possibility that the Sybil’s Well at Ladykirk House with its associations with the battle of Flodden may have provided an inspiration to Sir Walter Scott in his writing of Marmion.

While the Sibyl was a classical prophetic figure, in Earlston BWK are place-names relating to a medieval prophetic figure – Thomas the Rhymer or Thomas of Ercildoune. The remains of the tower house, Rhymer’s Tower, may be of later date than the historical Thomas, but the place-name serves to keep the medieval legend alive in modern consciousness, as do the other instances of the same name applied to the adjacent roadside café and its liveried van. The modern house Rhymer’s Ha’ near Melrose ROX is situated within walking distance of the Rhymer’s Stone and viewpoint.

Rhymer’s Tower, Earlston

Thomas the Rhymer was the subject of one of the ballads Sir Walter Scott collected for his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Not featured there were ballads about Tibby Fowler whose name is commemorated in two place-names near Edrington Castle in Mordington parish BWK: Tibby Fowler’s Cottage and Tibby Fowler’s Glen. The earliest versions of the song ‘Tibby Fowler o’ the Glen’ date to the second half of the eighteenth century and do not contain specific geographical information to link them conclusively to Berwickshire, however.

Wallace’s Statue and the Tree of the Helmet are two examples of Berwickshire place-names associated with William Wallace. The former is a 21½ ft high statue of Wallace, erected in 1814, near Bemersyde, while the latter was the name of a tree on the road from Earlston to Redpath, described in a 1953 interview conducted for the University of Edinburgh’s School of Scottish Studies.

A third Wallace place-name – Wallace’s Crook – was discussed in greater depth in the paper. Marked on the OS 6 inch 1st edition map, it is defined in the Ordnance Survey Name Books as,

‘This name is well known, and applied to the bend of a small Brook, that forms the parish Boundary between Coldstream, and Eccles. Tradition asserts that the Scottish Patriot Sir Wm Wallace passed a night hidden beside the stream, from which circumstance it is supposed to have derived the name’ (NRS, OS1/5/17/84).

Later OS maps reveal that the name was being applied to the whole watercourse and the direct link with the bend of the brook had been lost. The place-name Wallace Crooke can be seen on Robert Gordon’s map of c.1636–52, ‘A description of the province of the Merche. The Mers’, located beside a bend on the watercourse, while the names lie Wallace-cruikis in 1627 (RMS viii no. 1019) and Wallace-cruikis in 1645 (Retours no. 257) both refer to land. A 1613 record ‘2 terras husbandias, cum lie Wallacecruik, in territorio de Birgim’ (RMS vii no. 947) is more ambiguous.

In her 1942 thesis on Berwickshire place-names,[1] May Williamson suggests that a place-name in Blind Hary’s poem The Wallace ‘may be the land enclosed by the bend in the Tweed, or may be the present farm of Crooks near The Hirsel’ (p. 6). The name in question is rendered as Birgeane cruk in the earliest manuscript of the Wallace dated 1488 and as Birgem cruik in the 1570 edition. In her discussion, however, May Williamson makes no mention of the place-name Wallace’s Crook. An extremely popular poem, The Wallace was one of the earliest printed works in Scotland. Fragments exist of a Chepman and Millar print dating to 1507–8. Later in the sixteenth century, there were printed editions in 1570 and 1594. The seventeenth-century editions include two (in 1601 and 1611) which also predate the first mention of the place-name lie Wallace-cruik. It was proposed in the paper that the place-name Wallace Crook (whether applied to land or the bend of the brook, or both) was originally known as Birgham Crook, and that it was the popularity of The Wallace which led to its association with William Wallace and subsequently to a change in its name.

The paper concluded with three excerpts from poems containing place-names from the Scottish Borders: ‘Blind man, be blyithe, thocht that thow be wrangit’ (attributed to Sir Richard Maitland of Lethington, d.1586), which features a play on words regarding the name of the barony Blythe in Lauder parish, and the adjective blith/blyth ‘happy, cheerful, in good spirits’; Chris Morgan’s poem describing the Lauder Common Riding of 1986, demarcating a progression from place to place reminiscent of boundary clauses in charters; and ‘Stream Rhythm’ by Valerie Gillies (1989), in which the meanings and history of place-names along the Tweed are explored.

Eila Williamson, University of Glasgow (summarising a talk to the conference at Galashiels, 4 May 2017). Dr Williamson is Research Associate on the Recovering the Earliest English Language in Scotland: Evidence from Place-Names project, which is funded by the Leverhulme Trust. <www.gla.ac.uk/reels>.


[1] May G. Williamson, ‘The Non-Celtic Place-Names of the Scottish Border Counties’, unpublished PhD thesis (University of Edinburgh,1942), online: <http://spns.org.uk/resources/the-non-celtic-place-names-of-the-scottish-border-counties-may-g-williamson>.