The origin of the name Edinburgh has fascinated me for as long as I can remember.
It was once commonly thought that the name of the Scottish capital was simply a render of ‘Edwin’s Burgh’, which was said to directly relate to the 7th century King Edwin of Northumbria.
This was the version of events explained to me by my primary school teacher, Mr Torrance, many, many moons ago, and, as a child, I had no reason to question it.
However, while there’s little doubt that the word burgh is a variation of the old English ‘burh’, meaning fort, the claim that Edin derives from Edwin flies in the face of chronological fact.
The most likely theory, as widely-accepted by modern-day scholars, is the one described by the late Stuart Harris in a book which took him eleven years to compile, the excellent The Place Names of Edinburgh.
In this weighty tome, Mr Harris gives an in-depth explanation. He explains that the name was coined by the Votadini, a British tribe which had inhabited much of what is now the Lothians since before the Roman invasion. In the poem Y Gododdin, dating from the late 6th century, the Votadini (or Gododdin to give them their Welsh title) described the place as both Eidyn and Din Eidyn. Din Eidyn was the great capitol of the Gododdin people and translates as simply ‘Fort Eidyn’. The Gododdin name provided the basis for Edinburgh’s Scottish Gaelic ‘Dùn Èideann’, and was used to name the New Zealand city of Dunedin.
Around the world there are dozens of places which have borrowed our city’s name. Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, on Tristan de Cunha in the South Atlantic, is the most remote settlement on Earth.
Stuart Harris declares the ‘fanciful form’ Edwin’s Burgh as a ‘palpable fake that appears in the time of David I and was probably an attempt to manufacture a link’ with the king of Northumbria.
Furthermore, there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that King Edwin, who reigned from 616 until his death in 633, ever set foot in Edinburgh. His descendants, however, would conquer the ancient Gododdin stronghold. According to the Annals of Ulster, the Angles of Bernicia captured Din Eidyn in 638 and subsequently renamed it ‘Edin-burh’, adapting the name used by the Gododdin. The exact meaning of ‘Eidyn’, says Mr Harris, is obscure, but there can be little doubt it belonged to the Votadini and was coined a good number of years before any Northumbrian kings by the name of Edwin entered the fray. The city appears as ‘Edenburgh’ in the 14th century Mappa Mundi, leading some to suggest a Biblical origin, but, again, this is false.
While it is still up for debate, Stuart Harris’ interpretation behind the etymology of Edinburgh remains the most plausible version we have. Sorry, Mr Torrance.