The last word on what's in a name

FROM the fine manners and twitching net curtains of Morningside to the faded seaside glory of Portobello, from the millionaire’s rows of upmarket Murrayfield to Dumbiedykes’ depressed high rise flats.

Today these place names conjure up vivid images of the houses, the gardens and even cars sitting in the driveways, their owners, the places they shop - boarded-up charity stores or thriving delicatessens, working men’s pubs or chic wine bars.

Used day by day, place names are simply labels to help us pinpoint areas, deliver mail or even to stereotype a person - after all, everyone knows that Morningside ladies wear fur coats and call bags of coal "sex".

But turn back the clock and you find place names say much more about an area than you might suspect.

Stuart Harris, who was responsible for naming new Edinburgh streets from 1975 until his retirement as the council’s depute city architect in 1984, made it his life’s biggest challenge to delve through thousands of years of history to find out just what our place names and street names say about the people and landscape of a time long gone by.

He meticulously unravelled each syllable, deciphered the Celtic from the Gaelic from the French and analysed centuries-old scribbles and irritating spelling mistakes, working for years to figure out how and why such places as Corstorphine, Sciennes, Saughton, Meggetland, Little France and thousands of others ever got their names.

Now his comprehensive work, detailing the fascinating and often complex backgrounds to the street names, places, landmarks and suburbs around Edinburgh has been republished five years after his death, offering a new generation of curious readers and researchers the chance to find out just what is in each name.

Of course, today we are so familiar with those names that we barely pause to consider what they may mean, but each, Harris argues, captures history like a fly trapped in amber, revealing something about the place and the people who lived there.

And while some may be glaringly obvious - it doesn’t take a genius after all to figure out how The Meadows got its name or even guess where The Cowgate originates from - others reveal a fascinating snapshot of landscapes and lifestyles now lost under a mountain of modern development, while others peel away romantic allusions to grandeur.

Such as Corstorphine, for example, which many may like to think derived its name from the French "croix d’or fine". Nice as it sounds, that, according to Harris’s research, is a "silly fable". In fact, the name comes from the ancient British or Gaelic ‘crois Torfin’, much less romantic, it relates to the water barrier which until modern times was the dominant feature south of Corstorphine Hill.

And while popular belief was that Little France took its name from the residence of the French servants of Mary Queen of Scots, that, says Harris is a thin story indeed. In fact, the name originally belonged to a mill in the area - Frenchmill on Roy first crops up in 1753 - and it is more likely that some humble French cloth workers settled there in 17th century when there seems to have been a market for their enterprise.

Beaverhall in Canonmills may conjure up images of busy colonies of little furry water creatures building dams and gnawing at fallen logs, but the reality is a touch different. The name appears in the mid-18th century as a large property known as Beaver Hall, believed to derive from the enterprising Captain Thomas Hamilton, who, in 1683, petitioned the Privy Council for a monopoly in the manufacture of beaver hats. Two experts were brought to Edinburgh from across the Atlantic to use animal skins imported from the American Plantations for the then fashionable hats.

Comely Bank is just as you might imagine - originally cumliebank, its name evidently celebrated the homely beauty of the holding on its south-facing slope in Inverleith. But you might have to look hard around Dalry these days to find the heathery dale from which it takes its name.

And it’s a similar tale at Dreghorn, now the site of army barracks, its ancient British name once informed weary travellers that they had reached the not-so-welcoming sounding farm at the bog, while Drylaw sounds so much better than its original name ‘dried up hill’.

Barnton appears in the late 14th century as Bernetoun, Berntou and Bartouns, derived from Anglian "beren tun" - meaning a farm with a storehouse for barley or other corn, while Baberton is recorded in the 14th century as Kibabertone, Kilbabertous and Kilbebirtoun. The "baberton" is thought to refer to the Gaelic "steading of Britons", while the original "kil" is believed to refer to the Gaelic coill, a wood, or cull, back or upperground.

Meanwhile Broomhouse takes its name from a mansion on a site now occupied by St Augustine’s School. It’s traced to the Scots "brume hous", literally house where broom grows. Indeed, broom - which also crops up in Broompark in Granton and Corstorphine and Broomyknowe in Colinton - was particularly plentifiul and sought after for use in making brooms, weaving or tying down thatch.

Harris points out that while around three-quarters of the names we know today were generated from the mid 18th century onwards, almost 1300 contained in his research have their roots well before then in the feudal settlement of countryside and burghs, when chunks of land were distributed to new owners who often substituted ancient names with their own surnames.

Such as Braid which owes its name to Sir Henry de Brade, sheriff of Edinburgh and probably the son of an Anglo-Norman recruited to the service of King David I. In turn, his surname probably derived from the name of another Scottish estate - the Gaelic braghaid means a throat or gorge or it may even refer to the deep cut of the Braid Burn which would have been even more prominent in the primitive landscape than it is today.

Duddingston’s name is courtesy of Dodin de Berwic, a 12th century Anglo-Norman of continental extraction who eventually styled himself Dodin de Dodinestoun.

Place names ending in "ton" often refer to the Anglian word "tun" meaning farm - which means Comiston was the farm belonging to someone called Colman.

There are, says Harris, about 220 names which have been left to us by Gaelic, Scots, Norse vikings, Northumbrian Angles and from perhaps a thousand years of British Celts. And around 135 Roman place names are recorded in the Edinburgh area and most are still in use - along with the pre-Celtic "Almond", they include the names of every watercourse of any consequence says Harris. Cramond, for example, is derived from "caer Almond", meaning a fortified place on the river Almond, while early spellings of Dalmeny appear to reveal it as a fort of the monks.

Dalmahoy is translated as meadow of St Tua, one of four saints of that name in the Celtic kirk dating from the 9th century or earlier. And since Celtic kirk dedication usually meant the saint worked there, Tua probably had some direct connection with the place.

Other place names are downright bizarre - and not terribly politically correct. Dumbiedykes - originally known as Dishflat - takes its name from Thomas Braidwood’s pioneering Academy for the Deaf and Dumb established in 1764 in a house on the east of St Leonard’s road. It was soon nicknamed the Dummie Hoose and combining it with the dykes - a reference to the rigs which divided the area - became known as the Dummiedykes. Although Braidwood’s work achieved international renown, the academy closed in 1783. The name, however, stuck.

When Sir Walter Scott borrowed Dumbiedykes as the title of his comical laird in The Heart of Midlothian in 1818, he had to wrench it out of context. This, together with the English spelling has led generations who would never dream of pronouncing the "b" in dumb to suppose the place name is the nonsensical Dum-bi-dykes.

Another name which leaves visitors tongue-tied and twisted is Sciennes. In fact, its name derives from the convent set up in 1517 by the sisters of St Catherine of Siena - the Italian town name being Seynis or Schiennes in Scots and always pronounced as ‘sheens’.

Harris’s foreword explains that the process of establishing a place name’s heritage is a rigorous one with many pitfalls. "Stories attached to names are simply not to be trusted, for almost always they will have been invented to explain them. The modern spelling or pronunciation of a name can be quite misleading. Every effort needs to be made to trace its history before starting to look at the name itself."

Such as the popular explanation for how Liberton acquired its name. Suggestions that it is a variation of the words "leper town" are, says Harris, fanciful and impossible since the place name is much older than any use of the word leper. Early spellings libertune and libbertoun show it to be Anglian - meaning the much more pleasant ‘barley farm at the slope’.

Even so, often the origin of a name remains a matter of possibility and probability to be estimated from clues such as language, landscape, land use, settlement or ownership.

Some places took the pain out of his research. The Jewel, at Niddrie, was the colloquial name for the miners row of cottages dating back to 1890s, a name which arises from the jewel coal, a notable seam worked in the area since before 1760. New development in 1983 echoed that history, with streets named after the rock and coals beneath the ground which determined the sett of the new development.

While it’s hard to imagine today, Portobello either got its name from a solitary house built to accommodate a shepherd and for selling ale or as a tribute to the capture of Peurto Bello in Panama by Admiral Vernon in 1739.

But perhaps hardest to come to terms with is the origin of the name Saughton. Today it is better known as the site of one of Her Majesty’s Prison, a place for hardened criminals and society’s worst citizens.

Yet back in the 12th century it was a far more pleasant place to visit. Then it was known as Salig tun... willowy farm.

STREET names also reveal a rich history. The Boothacre in South Leith was one of several parts of the Links in which booths or ludges were set up in 1645 for isolation of the victims of the great plague which killed three in every five of the inhabitants of the area in about six months.

Bowling Lane, also in South Leith, along with The Quilts and Quilts Wynd, is rooted in the 17th century when the neighbourhood was a centre for the sports of bowls, quilts or kyles (skittles).

In Clermiston Mains and South Clermiston the town council decided to follow a precident set earlier at The Inch by naming streets after characters and places in Sir Walter Scott’s novels.

In this case, names come from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, hence Alan Breck Gardens, Ardshiel Avenue, Balfron Loan, Duart Crescent and Hoseason Gardens.

Long before then, Radical Road at Salisbury Crags, was named because, in 1820, a committee running a scheme for relief of the unemployed in the west of Scotland brought over a squad of weavers to repair and upgrade the wild path around the crags.

The name of the road is said to derive from the political persuasion of the weavers who were brought in.

Cock Hill in Dalmeny is assumed to come from the Anglian "cocc hyll", meaning hillock hill, while Cockmylane in Oxgangs takes its name from an old Gaelic word which refers to cup or hollow in a sloping meadow.

Hag’s Brae in Dalmeny harks back to a Scots word for natural broken ground, tranches opened in the muir for the cutting of peats, or coppiced woodland.

While Haggis Knowe in Queen’s Park simply means a knoll with broken ground.

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