‘Language and land in 12th and 13th century Ayrshire: Place-Names in the Earliest Cunninghame charters’

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On 16 October 2012, our seminar series continued with the University’s own, Professor Thomas Clancy, who discussed place names and charters from medieval Ayrshire, specifically the region of Cunninghame. Below is this listener’s summary of the lecture.

Comparatively little work on place names in Ayrshire has been done and Thomas’ lecture was based upon preliminary work on Cunninghame. This region of Cunninghame no longer exists within Ayrshire and the area is split between North and East Ayrshire Councils. The southern boundary is marked by the River Irvine while the north/east boundary is marked by a mixture of hills, moorland and rivers.

Cunninghame was part of Galloway in the 12th century but there is evidence of political disruption in the area. But there was clearly a Gaelic speaking context along with a Scandinavian political (possibly cultural) hegemony. Cunninghame also faced the colonising forces of David I of Scotland and his successors. Geoffrey Barrow has noted the symmetry of the settlement, which was divided near equally between the crown, the Stewarts and the earls of Carrick.

The area is linguistically complex, with influence from Gaelic, Scots, Old English, North British and even one possible instance of Old French.The texture of the place names in Cunninghame is different to other areas like Fife, Menteith and Argyll as there are no Gaelic farmstead names, commonplace in these regions.

Examples of modern parishes with North British place names are Beith, Irvine and Loudoun. Beith could be the Gaelic, beith(e), meaning ‘birch tree’ but the local pronunciation does render this only a possibility.

Parish names derived from Old English include Dreghorn and Fenwick, the latter meaning ‘farmstead’.

There are many parish names derived from Gaelic, including Ardrossan, Dalry, Dunlop, Kilbirnie, West Kilbride, Kilmarnock, Kilmaurs, Kilwinning and Largs. The frequency and regional cluster of the ‘kil’ names is notable and this is derived from the Gaelic, cill, meaning church. This is then usually followed by a saint’s name. Kilmarnock for example, is cill-Mo Ernoc.

There are only two modern parishes names derived from pre-literary Scots, Stevenston and Stewarton. The Former is derived from the personal name of Stephen (Loccard) who was a managerial presence in the area. There were also many more Scots settlement names.

The solitary example of Old French is found in a charter relating to Munnoch (Dalry) in which One of the bounds of the region is mentioned as ‘Monoch’, now Munnoch Burn’.

It has been generally accepted in scholarship that Ayrshire/Cunninghame belonged to the kingdom of Strathclyde but Prof. Clancy intimated that there is reasonable doubt about this. Notably, very few settlement names are Brittonic, only rivers, which is in contrast to nearby areas like Glasgow and Renfrew. The area was also seemingly conquered by the Northumbrians around 750 but Alex Woolf has contested the idea that this was their first foray into the region.

The definitive historical record for Cunninghame only begins in the 12th and 13th century with charter evidence from the area. This charter evidence reveals a pre-dominance of Germanic place names, cleared land names from Gaelic (baile) and new eponym names, like the aforementioned Stevenston. There is a comparable absence of local agents named in the charters, with witness lists featuring few identifiable personal names. Professor Clancy noted his extensive use of the People of Medieval Scotland database for this data and this database (headed by Prof. Broun) can be found here: http://www.poms.ac.uk/

The overall conclusion drawn by Professor Clancy was that Cunninghame was a linguistically complex area that underwent a heavy, early transformation. In the 12th and 13th century, displacement before conquest occurred and the charter evidence indicates the settlement of a fractured area of land.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

The Centre’s seminar series continues with the next ‘Vox Populi’ lecture on Tuesday, October 30th, with Karin Bowie’s lecture on ‘National Opinion and the Union Question in the Union of Crowns’. 

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