Abstracts of Papers


Maggie Scott, University of Salford, UK. 

“Place-Names and the Visual Imagination.”


In the last ten years, spurred in part by the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, scholarly and general interest in questions of Scottish national identity, past and present, has been reinvigorated. It has been argued that early medieval Scotland is paradoxical, being ‘the most extensively English-settled and Anglicised part of the British Isles’, yet succeeding in remaining politically independent (Davis, 170). The questions that this statement raises are currently the subject of investigation by the Paradox of Medieval Scotland Project.

While modern toponymic scholarship on the politics of name giving, and attitudes to name use (e.g. Nash 1999; the collected papers in Berg and Vuolteenaho 2009), has the advantage of being able to draw from data derived from living participants, it is often considerably more challenging to locate reliable witnesses from the medieval period. As Gelling and Cole (2000) have firmly established, the Anglo-Saxons labelled their landscape using an elaborate system of terminology that often indicated not only the type of landscape feature, but its specific shape and purpose. Hills, for example, might be rounded beorgs, copps with narrow ridges or crests, concave hliths, or hohs projecting like heels. In applying their complex naming conventions, the Anglo-Saxons can be seen to have marked out their new territory, their place-names arguably reinforcing their ‘colonisation’ of the land itself.

However, the legacy of the Anglo-Saxons took on a different character is different parts of what are now the British Isles. In Scotland, although being the ‘colonising’ language, Old English laid the foundation for the Scots language, which gradually displaced Scottish Gaelic to become the language of authority and communication within the medieval nation. The cultural and philological connections between Scots and English are extensive, yet many of the everyday terms now typically perceived as ‘Scottish’ (and not ‘English’), e.g. burn ‘small river’, gloaming ‘twilight’, law ‘hill’ are Old English in origin. Perceptions of the language have clearly changed over the centuries. Nevertheless, the cultural identity of the Germanic language variety that represents the transition from Old English to Scots remains as problematic as the cultural identity of the emerging Scottish nation.

This paper will explore the onomastic identity of early Medieval Scotland, with a view to evaluating the political role of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ place-names in the establishment of the new nation.


Berg, L. D. and Vuolteenaho, J., eds. (2009) Critical Toponymies: The Contested Politics of Place-Naming, Farnham: Ashgate.

Davis, R. (2000) The First English Empire, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gelling, M. and Cole, A. (2000) The Landscape of Place-Names, Stamford: Shaun Tyas.
Nash, C. (1999) ‘Irish Place-names: post-colonial locations’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 24:4, 457-480.