Scots-Gaelic railway map uncovers meaning of station names

Railway stations can tell you a lot about a country, from its economic development to its population centres.

But their names also provide an insight into how language and its meaning evolves over time, from describing little more than fields to vanished religious centres.

Toponymy - the study of place names - has been a subject of serious research in Scotland for more than two centuries, with Victorians in particular fascinated with the origins of their hometowns and villages.

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Place names, their sometimes confusing translations, and railway stations have become linked in recent years. Following the passing of the Gaelic Language Act by the then Scottish Executive in 2005, it’s become more common to see both English and Gaelic place names on roads. They’ve been seen on station platforms even longer, following a private initiative by ScotRail.

A dual-lingual platform sign at Partick in GlasgowA dual-lingual platform sign at Partick in Glasgow
A dual-lingual platform sign at Partick in Glasgow

That in turn has led to regional criticisms - from elected representatives to social media personalities - that Gaelic “was never spoken” in particular parts of the country.

With that in mind, Andy Arthur set out to create a railway network map with a difference. Instead of listing the usual place names, he has swapped them for the modern translation of their original meanings.

Thus, Falkirk High becomes “Church of Speckled Stone High”, Dalmeny becomes “Small Field” and Partick becomes “Thicket”.

Travellers heading between Scotland’s two biggest cities could take a train from “Cross by the River Bend” to “Eidyin’s Place Paddock”.

A section of Andy Arthurs Mongolots railway map of central and east ScotlandA section of Andy Arthurs Mongolots railway map of central and east Scotland
A section of Andy Arthurs Mongolots railway map of central and east Scotland
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Arthur, who works in financial services, used a variety of existing works to create his “Monoglot’s railway map of central and east Scotland”.

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The open source project was shared online, with the map being revised following comments and suggestions from others.

While intended as a fun creative endeavour, the map’s creator said it also served an important purpose by reminding Scots of their multilingual heritage.

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While English and Gaelic references are obvious, less well-known is the legacy of Scots, Middle English, Norse and other Brittonic languages in giving us familiar names that survive today.

“I’ve been learning Gaelic for the past two years, and there are a lot of people with strong opinions on the subject, especially on dual-language signage” Arthur, from Edinburgh, told The Scotsman.

“Many people think a suburban place like East Kilbride, near Glasgow, will have no history of Gaelic being spoken there. But Kilbride is an anglicisation of Cille Bhrìghde - or church of Bride. There were numerous churches across Scotland dedicated to St Bride. You see the same names repeated over and over again.”

The exact meanings of certain place names are open to interpretation. Many of the oldest maps in Scotland were written in Latin, while some Gaelic names were adapted from other, earlier languages.

The origin of Stirling, for example, is uncertain. Folk etymology suggests it originates in either a Scots or Gaelic term meaning the place of battle or struggle. But another possible meaning is “pool in the river”, which fits with its historic role as the most inland port reached by the Forth.

While putting together his map, Arthur quickly found many place names in central Scotland have rather straightforward meanings.

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“Many names sound romantic, but when you get down to it, they are actually just very descriptive,” he added. “A lot of place names describe low-lying hills, agricultural enclosures, or bogs.”

Other, more modern, place names need no explanation. Alexandra Parade, Duke Street and High Street are just some of the stations which Arthur has reproduced as they are.