This paper at the Perth conference was an introduction to the five-year Leverhulme Trust funded ‘Comparative Kingship: the early medieval Kingdoms of Northern Britain and Ireland’ project led by Dr Gordon Noble in the Archaeology department of the University of Aberdeen, focussing on the place-name element of the project, which I will be undertaking with Dr Simon Taylor as my mentor.

The project aims to further our understanding of kingship in Scotland and Ireland in the first millennium A.D. By comparing these countries with the international experience, the intention is to see whether these regions, which did not experience long-term Roman occupation, followed the same paths in their development of kingdoms and states as elsewhere.

The project will take an interdisciplinary approach, using archaeological, historical, landscape, environmental, and place-name studies to bring out different aspects relevant to these debates, and will use Bayesian statistical analysis to refine our pre-existing and project radiocarbon dating evidence.

The research includes studying kingship in general in Scotland and Ireland, but will primarily focus on three territories: Munster in Ireland, Dál Riata in both County Antrim in Ireland and the western seaboard of Scotland, and Pictland. In these areas four particular sites and their hinterlands will receive concentrated attention: the Rock of Cashel (County Tipperary), the primary royal site of Munster; the promontory site of Dunseverick on the north Antrim coast; and for Pictland the two northern sites of Burghead in Moray and Rhynie in Aberdeenshire. Not only these sites, but also the surrounding areas, will be investigated archaeologically, while through the taking of core samples from wetland areas we hope to build up a picture of the environment, and how this changed over time. Place-name research is a key part of the project, as it is an important way to understand people and their landscape.


The project is still in its first year, so is still in its early stages. So far, the sites of Rhynie, Burghead, and Kinneddar near to Lossiemouth have been investigated, producing significant results, and it is intended that archaeological field research on the Irish sites will begin in summer 2018.

The main place-names work, consisting of full surveys and selective studies of wider areas, will begin in the summer of 2019. However, more ad-hoc analysis, such as locating places which appear in written sources like the Irish chronicles and names of sites investigated by the archaeologists, will be undertaken throughout the project. The intention is that all work will be used to produce GIS maps which allow us to study the names of places alongside the environmental, archaeological and other written evidence.

3D model of Burghead ©University of Aberdeen,, University of Aberdeen, Archaeology

Due to constrained resources and the need not to duplicate work being undertaken by those better qualified, full surveys will be published for a few Scottish parishes. Two modern parishes on the Moray coast will be surveyed: Duffus parish containing Burghead, and Drainie (formerly the medieval parishes of Ogston and Kinneddar), thus encompassing land from Burghead to Kinneddar and Lossiemouth. This area would have been functionally nearly an island in medieval times. Rhynie parish in Strathbogie, also including the medieval parish of Essie, will similarly receive a full survey employing the methodology of the Survey of Scottish Place-Names.

Plan of the Craw Stane Complex, Rhynie ©University of Aberdeen

However, in addition to this a third strand to the place-name analysis, selective studies of parishes around the central places, will be undertaken for all case study areas in both Ireland and Scotland. This will involve studying 1:50,000 scale maps and nineteenth-century 6-inch first edition OS maps, as well as places which other evidence indicates are of interest, and further work on early sources. The project will then investigate further: pre-Gaelic (including Pictish) names; place-names potentially linked to pre-1100 kingship and governance, such as dún, caisel, and ráith names; topographical names with potential social implications in some cases, for instance names including tulach and inis; land unit and settlement names indicating the division of the land and particular land organisations, such as those including ceathramh, dabhach, pett, and baile; the main church sites, and their lands, for example the interesting annat place-names in Duffus parish identified by Alasdair Ross; and names with ‘king’ and other leader terms as elements, like Ballinree names near Cashel.

Such comparative studies contain a number of challenges. One is the much larger number of early medieval sources for Ireland, particularly Munster. We could have focussed the Irish place-name studies on reconstructed early medieval polities, but that is not possible in Scotland, so to ensure comparability the case study areas all cover roughly equivalent geographical areas and are based on parishes not kingdoms.

There are other differences, such as the variable survival of records, and the greater continuity in Ireland of sites and territorial units – most notably the townland – but there are also commonalities, such as the first edition Ordnance Survey, and the predominance of Gaelic and later Scots and English dialects. In fact, the project offers an important opportunity to consider whether varying patterns of survival and different scholarly traditions mask essential similarities in our evidence and to identify divergences which show how kingship impacted upon the landscape in different ways with long-term political implications.

The detailed work on place-names will start from the summer of 2019. We will be publishing the full surveys, and using the research undertaken for these and the Selective Studies for analysis. We will be mapping different types of names, considering their relationships with each other, with central places, with archaeological finds and sites, and with the landscape, its resources and utilisation. Another avenue of investigation will be whether or not there are correspondences with the boundaries of territorial units: medieval parishes, lordships and kingdoms, and sub-parish units like the davoch in Scotland, and the townland in Ireland. In doing all this, the intention is to show how place-names, and interdisciplinary studies in general, can be used to produce a richer picture of Ireland and Scotland, and their place in the wider historical context.

Nicholas Evans