Celtic Place-names of Glasgow

By Simon Taylor (Celtic & Gaelic and English Language, University of Glasgow)

Glasgow, like most other parts of Scotland, has a complex linguistic history, a complexity reflected in its toponymy. The first language to be spoken here of which we have any certain knowledge is British (also referred to as Brythonic, Brittonic and Cumbric), a P-Celtic language closely related to Old Welsh, as well as to Pictish, and to this stratum belong several important names, such as:

Glasgow itself, Gaelic Glaschu, (ecclesia Sancti Kentegerni de Glasgu c.1128), ‘green hollow’, cf Middle Welsh ceu, modern Welsh cau ‘hollow’.

Govan, Gaelic Baile a’ Ghobhainn, (? Ouania (756), Guven c.1128), probably ‘small hill’, *gwovan cf. Welsh go-, earlier gwo-) ‘small’ + ban ‘point, height, bare hill’, perhaps referring to the now vanished Doomster Hill (the modern Gaelic form shows re-interpretation as gobha(nn) ‘a smith’).

Partick, Gaelic Pearraig (also Partaig, based on the Scottish English form, now often used in speech and writing) (Perdeyc 1136, P<er>thec 1186), ‘little wood, little thicket’ cf Welsh perth ‘hedge, (thorn-)bush, thicket, copse; jungle’ + diminutive suffix, once a royal estate, on a corner of which now stands Glasgow University.

Possil (Possele 1242), ‘place of rest’?, cf Old Welsh poues ‘rest, repose, stance’ + a place-name forming suffix.

We do not know exactly when British ceased to be spoken in and around Glasgow, or how long it took to die out, but we can assume that this process was well advanced by around 1100. It was being replaced chiefly by Scottish Gaelic (Old Gaelic), the language of the expanding kingdom of Alba, whose heartlands were the eastern lowlands north of the Forth, but which since the tenth century had been moving its frontier southwards into Lothian, and westwards into Strathclyde.

A key event in the linguistic history of Glasgow was the establishment of the burgh by King William I in favour of Bishop Jocelin of Glasgow c.1176 with its right to a market every Thursday. These burghs, which were privileged trading centres, seem from the very outset to have been fairly non-Gaelic-speaking affairs. As elsewhere in early Scottish burghs, the language of the first burgesses seems generally to have been a dialect of Northern Old and early Middle English, one form of which was also the language of Lothian. This language is now referred to as Older Scots, although in medieval Scotland it was known as Inglis (‘English’), Latin lingua anglica.

Medieval burgh of Glasgowfig. 1.

That Older Scots was the language of the Glasgow burgh from the very outset is reflected in the place-names from within the burgh, such as Walkergate (‘street of waulkers or fullers’), Briggate (‘bridge street’), Rottenraw (‘rat-infested row’), and Girth Burn (‘sanctuary burn’). As is so often the case, it is only some of the watercourses that hold the older languages, such as the Clyde and the Poldrait. And early forms of the Molendinar Burn (Mellindenor), which flows past Glasgow Cathedral, appear to show British phonological development (McQueen 1957).

It is likely that Glasgow and environs in the later eleventh and early twelfth century were predominantly Gaelic-speaking, as evidenced by place-names such as Barlinnie and Garthamlock (for which see under Gaelic Elements blàr and gart, below). It is just possible that in the immediate confines of the burgh of Glasgow, amongst at least some of the indigenous population, the transition might have been directly from British to Older Scots. However, there is evidence for at least one Gaelic-speaking family at Kinclaith around 1180, when King William quit claims to Glasgow cathedral church and Jocelin, its bishop, Gillemachoi of Kinclaith (Gillemachoi de Conglud) with his children and all his dependants. The name is Gaelic, and means ‘servant or devotee of St Mungo’, the final element of the name being a Gaelic hypocoristic form of the patron saint of Glasgow Cathedral, Kentigern.

Blaeu's Map of Glasgowfig. 2

Some Gaelic Place-Name Elements

In this section are listed some Gaelic words which commonly occur as part of place-names. Examples have been taken from the area in and around the parish of Glasgow, i.e. north of Clyde.

achadh ‘field; agricultural settlement’. This usually appears in Lowland place-names as Auch-. There is a cluster of place-names containing this element in Cadder parish (Lanarkshire) north of Glasgow (Auchengeich, Auchengree, Auchinairn, Auchinleck, Auchinloch). The Auch-names in Glasgow parish (Auchenshuggle, and Auchinlea by Garthamlock) may be relatively recent coinings, and more research is needed here. If Auchenshuggle is a genuinely old name, then it contains Gaelic seagal ‘rye’. Alternatively, it may be a humorous name containing Sc shoogle ‘shake’ (verb and noun), with reference to the old Glasgow trams.

baile ‘farm’. A rare element in Glasgow, and there are no place-names in Glasgow parish itself which contain this word, although an early version of Shettleston may have contained it (see above). Balshagray (Govan parish north of Clyde) (Balschagrie 1587) may contain G seagalach, the adjective from seagal ‘rye’, with dissimilation of second l (i.e *Balshaglie > Balshagrie). Bonnaughton (Bannachtane-Logane 1501, Bolnachtu<n> 1654) in Bearsden (New Kilpatrick) on the north side of Glasgow, may also contain baile + the Gaelic personal name Nechtan.

bàrr ‘hill-top, summit’. A relatively frequent place-name element in southern Scotland, it might be thought that this occurred in at least three Glasgow names: Barlanark, Barlinnie and Barmulloch. However, as is so often the case with place-names, appearances deceive. Early forms of Barlanark, such as Pathelanerhc (c.1120), show it to be a British place-name, probably containing *baedd ‘boar’ and *lanerc ‘clearing in a wood’; Barlinnie contains G blàr (see below); and Barmulloch was earlier Badermonoc, probably British, meaning ‘abode of the monks’.

blàr, a Gaelic word with a range of meanings, from ‘field’ to ‘muir’ i.e. ‘rough grazing’. Its high frequency as a Gaelic element in Scottish place-names may be the result of British or Pictish substrate influence. Blochairn (Blairquharne 1562) contains this element, as does the nearby Barlinnie (formerly Blairlenny 1562).

ceann ‘head, end’. It is probably significant that all three place-names shown here, two called Kenmuir/Kenmure (Gaelic ceann mòr ‘big end’, Glasgow and Old Monklands parishes) and Killermont (New Kilpatrick, Dunbartonshire), are at the edge of old parochial and territorial units. Killermont (ceann + tearmann ‘sanctuary’) probably refers to the girth or sanctuary around the important church and place of pilgrimage of Kilpatrick.

cuilt ‘corner, neuk’. This is another Gaelic place-name element which, as with ceann, above, can sometimes refer to position in relation to early territorial units. An example in the Glasgow area would be Cawder Cuilt meaning ‘corner of Cadder (territory or parish)’.

dail ‘haugh, water-meadow’. Not surprisingly, this element is found along the Clyde in names such as Dalbeth (second element probably G beithe ‘birch’), Dalmarnock (second element a saint’s name), and Daldowie.

druim ‘ridge’, found in Drumry and perhaps Drumchapel (both New Kilpatrick); also in Drumover, earlier Drumother (druim odhar ‘brown ridge’), the former name of Cranston Hill. 

garbh ‘rough’, this commonly occurs as a descriptor of both land and water. An early estate of the church of Glasgow, Garrioch (Garuah 1186), preserved in the street-names Garrioch Drive, etc), contains this element, with an adjectival ending meaning something like ‘rough place’. It is probably no coincidence that the lands of Garrioch lie beside Ruchill, a name deriving from Scots ruch hill ‘rough hill’. While this may be a part translation from Gaelic into Scots, it is more likely that the two names express the same response in different languages to the same feature, the roughness of the terrain.

gart ‘enclosure, field; farm’. Gaelic gart ‘enclosure, farm’ (modern Gaelic gort ‘field’) has an especially well-defined distribution in central Scotland, and may be the result of relatively late settlements in previously unoccupied land such as cleared woodland. Examples are Garscaddan (Garscadden 1369) + G sgadan ‘herring’; Garscube (Gartscub 1493) + G sguab, sheaf  of corn’, also ‘broom, besom’; Gartcraig (Garthcraig 1562) + G creag ‘crag, rock’; Garthamlock (Garthomoloch 1562, Garthamoloch 1565) + G *tamlacht ‘pagan (possibly prehistoric) grave’.

Timothy Pont Mapfig. 3

Further information can be found on the following websites:

Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba / Gaelic Place-names

Scottish Place-Name Society

The Glasgow Story


Fig. 1 - Plan of the medieval burgh of Glasgow, from Atlas of Scottish History, 461, reproduced with permission of The Scottish Medievalists
Fig. 2 - The earliest printed map of Glasgow and environs from Johan Blaue's Atlas Novus (Amsterdam 1654), created from a manuscript made by Timothy Pont in the late 1500s. Image taken from http://maps.nls.uk/ 
Fig. 3 - Detail from Timothy Pont MS 34 c.1583-96, on which Fig. 2 is based. Image taken from http://maps.nls.uk/