‘Settlement-Names and Society: the medieval districts of Forsa and Moloros, Mull’

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On 21 February, 2017, the Centre welcomed Alasdair Whyte (University of Glasgow) to discuss ‘Settlement-Names and Society: the medieval districts of Forsa and Moloros, Mull.’ His talk focused on Old Norse and Gaelic place-names found in two medieval districts, Forsa and Moloros, on Mull, which he discusses more fully in his PhD thesis. Below is this listener’s summary of the lecture.

Alasdair began his lecture by saying that he would be focusing on the place-names found within Forsa and Moloros, two medieval districts found in the pre-1975 civil parish of Torosay. Within these two districts Alasdair had identified at least thirty-five medieval settlements. While engaging with previous studies formed much of his methodology, he highlighted that there has been a lack of engagement with the earliest forms of the settlement names in these earliest sources. The use of these earliest sources formed the core of his thesis; he used both printed editions and manuscripts of the early charters found in the Register of the Great Seal and the Exchequer Rolls. These earliest sources range in date from 1494-1654.

One of the settlement names Alasdair addressed in this lecture is “Rhoail”, which is located in Forsa. He argued that the older forms of this place-name found within the charters suggest that it is a form of the Old Norse ‘Rossall’ names. While this place-name is typically translated as “Horse or mare-field(s)”, Alasdair argued that it should be considered more of a horse ‘ranch’ or farm and is a habitative place-name, instead of a topographic feature.  Some have argued that these “Rossal” names in Scotland reflect the imposition of political rule by the Earldom of Orkney in Mull, although Alasdair argued that there are other situations that might have led to the creation of these place-names locally.

One of the primary research aims of Alasdair’s thesis was to identify periods in which Old Norse settlement was to have taken place in the Hebrides. While the Norse raids on Iona beginning in 795 AD and the end of Norwegian sovereignty over the Hebrides in 1266AD provide potentially useful dates, the latter is a political watershed rather than a linguistic one. To search for these Old Norse linguistic watershed dates, Alasdair looked for evidence of Old Norse speakers having been productive in the creation of place-names.

Alasdair demonstrated the presence of clusters of both Gaelic and Old Norse settlement place-names. The locations of these Gaelic clusters on arable land suggest that they were not necessarily marginalized during periods of Old Norse speaking population occupation. In Forsa, it is evident that at some point the best land in the district, found in Gruline and Scallastle, was claimed by the Old Norse elite. Alasdair argued that due to the longevity of these Old Norse names it is likely that there was a certain amount of linguistic continuity in Norse settlement after these names were established.

This differs from the naming evidence found in Moloros. While this area also has Old Norse habitative names, these names refer to characteristics which suggest that these Norse were living on peripheral, low-quality farming land. In contrast, the most valuable areas of settlement have Gaelic names.  One of the Gaelic names in this area, specifically “Laggan,” might suggest an ecclesiastical significance or monastery during this time. There is additional evidence for a pre-Norse ecclesiastical site in this area, including an inscribed ringed cross which has been dated tentatively to the 8th century and a nearby dedication to St Cainnech. Near Laggan is Moy, another valuable settlement bearing a Gaelic name. This name might be derived from the Old Gaelic word “Mag”, which suggests the name is of pre-Norse origin. Alasdair argued that Laggan and the dedication to St Cainnech might have formed the centre of a church estate. Some of the Old Norse names in this area appear to be connected to Laggan in the earliest sources. Based on this evidence, Alasdair proposed that the church might have granted land to low-status Old Norse speakers in return for patronage of the local church in a mutually beneficial arrangement. A similar model might apply to the area around Glen Forsa.

Alasdair suggested that this sort of arrangement in Mull would not be surprising considering the events in neighbouring Iona during this period. The persistence of Iona’s original name and the cult of Columba continued despite the early attacks by the Norse, and the ecclesiastical community remained active throughout the Norse period. Iona’s cult persevered within this Norse context through patronage by the Norse elite.

Summary by Megan Kasten (PhD Researcher)

Our seminar series continues next week on 28 February 2017 with Alison Cathcart (University of Strathclyde) to discuss ‘James VI and I and the ‘dark corners’ of his kingdoms.’ This will be held in Room 202, 3 University Gardens at 5:30 pm. All welcome!


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