Index of Celtic and Other Elements

Index of Celtic and Other Elements

in W.J.Watson’s ‘The History of the Celtic Place-names of Scotland’

by A.G.James and S.Taylor
incorporating the work of A.Watson and the late E.J.Basden


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Excerpted from the Introduction:

In the field of Scottish place-name studies, William J. Watson’s The History of the Celtic Place-names of Scotland (1926) still holds a canonical status comparable to that of Eilert Ekwall’s Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names (1936) in England: it is the starting-point for any serious study of the toponymy of almost any part of the country outwith the Northern Isles. In it, Watson discusses a multitude of place-names, but, perhaps even more important for the modern researcher, he exemplifies the bulk of the Scottish Celtic ‘onomasticon’, the body of Celtic vocabulary from which place-names have been formed over the past two millennia, and he raises important questions concerning the formation and interpretation of names which, even where his answers have to some extent been superseded by more recent scholarship, can still stimulate research and provide agenda for debate in the new century.

But CPNS (as it is familiarly abbreviated) is not, it must be admitted, as user-friendly as Ekwall’s Dictionary. The indexes of places and tribes and of personal names, though substantial, are by no means comprehensive, and, given the importance to researchers of the evidence for the ‘onomasticon’, the lack of an index of place-name elements is a serious impediment.

Significant progress in remedying this deficiency was made by the late Eric Basden, whose enthusiasm for the Perthshire Highlands led him to undertake, as a labour of love, a complete Index of Celtic Elements in CPNS along with an Index of Subjects. This languished in manuscript form in the National Library of Scotland for nearly twenty years, known only to a few scholars, but was transcribed and published by the Scottish Place-name Society in 1997. Mr. Basden’s experience as a scientific taxononomist (in the field of entomology) and his lifelong passion for collecting made his Index a model of accuracy and completeness, but as it stands it, too, presents problems for the researcher, most notably in the separate listing without any cross-references of each ‘variant’ of every element – so that earlier and later, mutated and inflected forms each appear at different places in the list; even researchers with a good knowledge of the numerous diachronic and synchronic changes that words can undergo in the Celtic languages is hard-pressed to locate all references to a particular lexical item. The omission of accents – surprising, given Basden’s characteristic attention to detail – and a rather unsatisfactory system for ascribing the elements to their various languages, are other shortcomings; moreover, the fact that he indexed much more than place-name elements – indeed, almost every word in any language other than modern English that he found in Watson’s text – while it may offer material of interest to the philological specialist, makes this Index all the more rebarbative for the place-name researcher to use.

So the publication of Basden’s valuable contribution as it stood was seen as an interim measure; it was felt by the Committee of the Scottish Place-Name Society that his achievement could be built upon, by using his Index as the raw material for a somewhat more linguistically sophisticated guide.

At the same time, a second very useful aid came to light, in the form of a typescript index of elements prepared by Angus Watson (no relation) in the course of his work on the place-names of the Ochils (A. Watson 1997). This lists all the main Gaelic place-name elements found in CPNS, but – much more substantially – it indexes all the Anglicised forms of those elements occurring as parts of names mentioned by W.J.Watson. Thus it complements Basden’s work most helpfully.

The present index takes Basden’s work as its starting-point, but modifies it in the following respects:

  • it omits words that are clearly not place-name elements or directly relevant to place-name study, though the approach is cautious: it retains prepositions (since these, even though they are rarely incorporated into Celtic place-names, may affect the form in which a name becomes ‘fixed’), words cited by Watson as ones related to place-name elements or otherwise explicating their form or meaning, words associated with land-holding law and custom even if they do not occur (in CPNS at least) as place-name elements, and elements of tribal names;

  • it includes, in addition, personal names, in particular names of saints, that occur as elements of place-names – these can appear in present-day place-names in bizarrely disguised forms, and not all of them are listed in Watson’s index of personal names;

  • it also incorporates, more or less in its entirety, the corpus of Anglicised forms of Gaelic elements assembled by A.Watson (it should be noted that he did not, in general, include forms of P-Celtic elements: there are some found in his index, and a few more have been added, but coverage is not complete);

  • within it, all forms of the ‘same’ element are grouped together under a preferred headword, with see cross-references from all variant and related forms, along with the Anglicised forms from A.Watson’s index; the policy for selecting headwords is explained in more detail below.

The intention of this index is, then, that a researcher, faced with an unfamiliar place-name element, whether in a modern Anglicised form or in an earlier document (in a context of Latin, Older Scots, earlier Scottish Gaelic or another of the Celtic languages) may have a good chance of identifying it and of locating Watson’s discussion and exemplifications of it in CPNS.