Prof Elizabeth FitzPatrick of NUI Galway has carried out a detailed study of formaoil (early formáel) names in Ireland, appearing in 35 townland names[1]. It refers to hunting grounds, in some cases identifiable as preserves of early medieval kingdoms and later lordships.  Its basic meaning is ‘bare or bare-topped’. In Ireland it is usually a round, denuded hillock with a trig point, but a foothill with a broad view rather than a main top; such a place may also be a ‘Finn’s Seat’, Suidhe Finn in a parallel mythical landscape.

In Scotland names most easily recognisable as formaoil are almost limited to Angus and east Perthshire where Gaelic names were fossilised into Scots relatively early: Hill of Formall NO 536 700; Knock of Formal (with Durward’s Dyke medieval deer park) NO 256 546, with Formal (settlement) NO 256 540; Craig Formal NN856 458; Formal Hill NO 006 339. Prof FitzPatrick has also noted Farrmheall in Eddrachillis, Sutherland: Pont’s late 16th century manuscript map Formeald.  This looks to be the same word but is an outlier both in location (NC 308 588) and in its elevation of 521 metres. Since its other most obvious characteristic in satellite imagery is its great expanse of bare rock, formaoil here could be simply a literal description of the hill.

In Carrick, South Ayrshire, Knockormal Hill (NX 132 881) looks like a reasonable candidate.

A possible case of a modified formaoil in an area of Gaelic speech into the 19th century is at Glenfinglas in the Trossachs, a favourite hunting ground of Stuart monarchs.  Sròn Armailte, ‘promontory of army’, the first minor hill-top to the north of Loch Achray, would not need a huge phonetic or semantic shift from a formaoil as an assembly place for a royal hunt involving numbers of armed men.  Adjacent Bealach Coire na h-Eachraidh, ‘pass of the hollow of the horses or cavalry’, recalls the Ros na nEchraidhe (Magherahanrush, Co. Sligo) of an Irish formaoil landscape identified by Prof FitzPatrick.

A candidate in the relatively recent Perthshire Gàidhealtachd is an Fharmail by Lassintullich east of Loch Rannoch (NN 699 570).  As with many Irish instances of formaoil on foothills its 400m top is under blanket forestry, though it was bare on 19th century OS maps.

Two other formaoil candidates, if valid, are heavily disguised. Both are in Lothian, where this Gaelic word could have been introduced only in a short period of Gaelic ascendancy, beginning in the late 10th century.

In the heavily urbanised, quarried, undermined, tipped on and now afforested SW corner of West (formerly Mid) Lothian are Meikle and Wee Eldrick (like many other El(d)ricks, from Gaelic eileirig, a very narrow valley used as a deer trap).  Five km to the ENE is Longford: Lomphard 1654 (Blaeu’s map), making it a very likely longphort / lùchairt, ‘hunting lodge’. Two Sergeant’s Laws in West Calder parish may recall the serviens/ serjeant or forestarius who guarded boundaries and kept order in a hunting reserve. A low round eminence south of the A706/A704 junction is Tormywheel (341m). As such it is a nonsense name, but could be intelligible as garbled for tòrr, ‘mound, heap’ or tarr, ‘belly’ + formaoile.

The final instance takes even more imagination to allow for the physical changes of the last millennium.  It is – just – within Edinburgh’s City Bypass.

Fairmilehead is not generally claimed to be named for a particular ‘Fair Mile’ of road as for the Fair Mile outside Henley-on-Thames, nor for any ‘fair mill’.  Harris[2] wrote that it was Farmil(l)head for a century from 1682, but appeared in the modern form in Armstrong’s map of 1773. (Adair’s MS map of 1682 has Fairmilhead with two cairns shown to the west; the 1735 printed Adair-Cooper version Fairmillhead without the cairns.) Harris noted that the huge cairns were called Cat Heaps or Cat Stones before they were quarried for road metal. He concluded that they gave rise to a Celtic name meaning ‘ridge or slope of mounds or heaps’, fair or faithir mill.  This is unlikely to gain much support.

On matters geographic Harris is again helpful. He points out that the modern Fairmilehead Toll crossroads dates from 1780, with the old north-south road on a straight and supposedly Roman line passing some 90m farther west. By the old crossroads was the cluster of buildings called Fairmilehead on the first OS 6” map. The Hunter’s Tryst pub is now about 1 km west of the Toll but in the mid 18th century General Roy’s map showed Hunterstryst south of the old crossroads. Tryst is an etymologically interesting word, probably of Germanic origin through French, and taken into medieval Latin as trista specifically for the meeting in preparation for a hunt.

Another pointer in favour of a genuine hunting history for this area is the Buck Stane and traditions associated with it.  It is now to the east of the old straight road south of the Mortonhall Golf Clubhouse but was formerly some 200m farther north at a territorial boundary. Tradition makes the small standing stone at the boundary the place where the Laird of Penicuik blew his horn to mark the start of a royal hunt, as a condition of his tenure of the estate.

Since the foundation legend for Holyrood Abbey in the 12th century places its site within a hunting landscape where the miraculous white hart appears to King David, it appears that this was in, or continuous with, the Burgh Muir once named the forest of Drumselch: ‘communem moram de Edinburgh, olim forestam de Drumselch nuncupat[am].’ (RMS 1507-8.)

Dixon[3] and others have seen ‘ridge of willows’; but from the context it makes better sense to see seilg ‘of hunting’, with the final consonant perhaps mediated through late OE / earliest Scots where the sequence ‑lχ was familiar. The adjacent name to Fairmilehead, Morton, refers not to the moor or mora but as is clear from forms in Mer-, before 1300, to a former mere (pool) where burns join south-east of the Toll.  Even so there is a fair case for regarding the druim of Drumselch as including the ridge of the Braid Hills and not just the lower more northerly ridge now covered by Morningside and adjacent 19th century suburbs.

If formaoil is thus likely to refer to a good meeting-place and outlook point in this hunting landscape between Penicuik and the city, where exactly was it?  The hump of Oxgangs Road where the two great cairns were, with the huge monolith of the Caiy Stane close to the west, has a fair claim even if it is now difficult to envisage this mature leafy suburb as an open landscape with wide views.  However, another area north-east of the Toll may be even more promising, though now so overgrown as to have glimpses of the surroundings only from the edges, through adjacent housing.

Galachlaw (Gallowlaw 1666) is marked on the 6 inches to 1 mile Ordnance Survey map of 1852 as if it refers to the gently round-topped hill.  It could have referred also to a small cairn (law) on the top, passed over by an informal path and since 1946 deprived of visible kerbstones, an upright stone and an OS trig point at the position marked by ∆ on the map of 1852.

Cromwell encamped an army on the hill in 1650, so it must then have been largely open.  For it to be useful to the Ordnance Survey for observations in the mid 19th century the cairn must still have had partly open views.

The Rev Thomas Whyte reported on Liberton parish for the Old Statistical Account (1792): “Directly west of Mortonhall, and overtopping the house and plantations, is Galach-law.  From thence is a very extensive prospect, and for this reason [it] affords a most noble situation for a Belvidere.  Here, as the name imports, were held, of old, Courts of Justice.”

About 1 km NNW, now a twee little pond within the golf course, is the Elf Loch, within a hollow “called Elve’s or Elf’s Kirk, denoting the place where the faeries assembled”.  At the “pretty natural pond … here probably in antient times have been a great many deer.  Hence the farm of Buck-staine has its appellation.” The Rev Whyte may not have been totally on the wrong track. As a rather narrow gap the ‘Elf’s Kirk’ could have been a useful eileirig a convenient distance from either candidate for a formaoil trysting placeBut it is doubtless too much of a contortion to try to reconstitute Elf’s Kirk as eileirig.

With its former value as a viewpoint, its topography, its presumed ancient burial mound, the recorded local belief that it had been a place of assembly, and even its trig point, Galachlaw has typical features for a formaoil as found in Ireland.

It could even be argued, tenuously, that with the eponymous mere of Morton and the Elf Loch, the frequent association with lakes also appears; and the traditional role of the lairds of Penicuik matches that of the ‘service families’ associated with formaoil areas of Gaelic lords as identified by Prof FitzPatrick. For the name Fairmilehead an apparently apt meaning of head identified in the Dictionary of the Scots Language is ‘high-lying part of a parish or tract which stretches into the hills’ – thus semantically close to Gaelic bràghaid, whence the adjacent Braid Hills.

Bill Patterson (condensed from material prepared for the Galashiels conference)

[1]Formaoil na Fiann: Hunting Preserves and Assembly Places in Gaelic Ireland’, at <>

[2] Harris, S. (1996) The Place-Names of Edinburgh.

[3] Dixon, N. The Place-Names of Midlothian (1947 thesis, published 2011 by SPNS).