Pronunciation and Meanings - mostly Scots

For those of you not born in Scotland the correct pronunciation of some of our words and the understanding of what they mean may be a bit confusing. Scotland has been the scene of numerous mixings of various races and they have all contributed to the names and phrases that now appear in our language. This is a short guide to many of those that appear in the various Dunnett books along with a few others of general interest such as those from Bruges and the Low Countries. Drop me a message if there are any others that you'd like to see included.

Personal Names

Most of the personal names are fairly obvious, but the following sometimes cause uncertainty


Buccleuch       Although I have always pronounced this buch-loo (ch as in loch or Bach), Dorothy told me that the Duke himself pronounces it as buck-loo. In fact the derivation of the place-name is from buck-cleugh - meaning deer ravine - so it could be argued that we're both wrong!
Culter    cool-ter. In Lanarkshire it is often spoken with a silent L so it becomes coo-ter
Lymond    lie-mond
Erskine    err-skin
Archie Abernethy Most Scots would say Archie, but he's from Partick and they'd be more likely to say it as air-chi.


Phelim   fee-lim
Oonagh   oon-a


Gelis   Easily the most difficult name in either series, and almost impossible to describe phonetically unless you are a native Flemish speaker. The nearest English would be hay-lis, but the hay part is a very gutteral sound made at the back of the throat.


Meanings and/or Origins


Archie's name is from a placename. As explained below Aber is Brithonic and means meeting of the waters. The river Nethy is from the Gaelic neitheach which, perhaps appropriately for Archie, mean the pure one.


From the Gaelic cul tir meaning back land, although Dorothy tells me that this really refers to the placename and that the family name tends to refer to the pun-meaning of plowshare, which appears in coats of arms for instance. It is also variously spelled Coultar and Coulter. A Richard of Culter is recorded as being sheriff of Lanark in 1226.


Comes from the village and barony of Crawford in upper Clydesdale. (The village is near the source of the Clyde at Elvanfoot). It was originally crau ford - literally ford of the crows. The Earls of Crawford, whose family name was Lindsay, were an important family in the west of Scotland.


Related to the name Giles (as in St. Giles) which comes from the Greek Aegidius. Giles appears to have been used for both sexes but Egidia is a feminine form mainly found in Scotland. This was apparently a book form of the name. The female form eventually became transformed to Julia or Juliana, while in Gaelic (which has no J) the name became sileas in the masculine and silis in the feminine. While I haven't yet seen Gelis mentioned in modern references, Dorothy tells me that it was common in the 15th century.


Originally the family was St. Pol from France/Brittany and the early records use the spelling Sempill, (those who have returned to France have reverted to the St. Pol version) and they were based in the area around Loch Winnoch which was later re-named Castle Semple Loch leaving the original name to the village of Lochwinnoch. The village was once a bleaching and weaving centre. It retains only the gable and belfry of St Winnoc's Church, also known as Auld Simon!

Semples held the nearby Elliston (or Elziotstoun) lands, where there is a ruin of a 15th c. castle, as early as the 13th c. and built the Peel around 1550 - a low tower on what was then an island, and a Collegiate Church built in 1504. Lord Sempill who was killed at Flodden was buried there.

Sir James Sempill of Beltrees 1566-1625 was a courtier and satirist who owed his career to James VI. His mother was Mary Livingstone - one of Mary QoS's four Marys - and his father was Sir John Sempill. Castle Semple has now completely disappeared, and its successor, the 18th c. Castle Semple House, has only the west gate and a folly remaining. The Semples sold out to the MacDowalls in 1727.

Place Names in Scotland


Torphichen tor-fich-en (ch as in loch)
Tantallon tan-talon
Hawick the broader speaking locals tend to shorten it to hoick. I've heard it described as someone clearing their throat!
Berwick ber-ick - the w is silent
Lauder law-der
Linlithgow lin-lith-go
Loch Leven lough leave-en


Meanings and Derivations

Place names in Scotland are made up of elements from a number of different languages - Gaelic, Norse, Brithonic, Scots and Anglian. Gaelic names are common over much of the country with Norse being often seen in the north and west. Brithonic is seen in the south-west and in the north-east areas, often where the Picts were found, while Scots and Anglian are seen in the Lothians and Borders which were under Northumbrian control until the formation of the territory we know as Scotland in the 11th century. Particularly with Gaelic, the names are often very descriptive of the local terrain, a fact which makes the study of that language a particular help to hill-walkers and climbers.


A Brittonic word usually used as a prefix, meaning "meeting of the waters", so in general it should mean the same in Scotland as in Wales. It never moved into the Gaelic language where the equivalent word is Inver and it generally only occurs in the Pictish areas.

Abernethy is the meeting of the waters of the Nethy - see above. The most famous Aber - Aberdeen - is not a simple example however as it was originally made up of two settlements with similar names, at least one of which had a Gaelic suffix.


from Gaelic baile meaning town or village.


Gaelic for hollow; lagan is the diminutive. So the home of Dandy Hunter - Ballaggan - is "town of the little hollow".


A gaelic word or prefix meaning a hill or mound and also a fort or castle.

It is seen in names such as Dunkeld - fort of the Caledonians, Dunblane, Dundee, and in modified form it appears as Dum, as in Dumbarton - "the hill-fort of the Britons". The old gaelic name for Edinburgh was Dun Eideann (which became Dunedin in New Zealand). However Edinburgh is a very complex name and scholars don't all agree about it.


is a Norse suffix which comes from Ey meaning Island. It has often been converted to ay in many island names. Examples are Scalpay - "boat-shaped isle", Berneray - "Bjorn's Isle", and Pabay (papey) - "Priest's Isle".


as in Firth of Forth or Pentland Firth, is related to the Norwegian fjord, both being from the Norse.


is a Scots word meaning road or walk (old form gait), so Canongate is the priests or clerics road. The best known of this name is the road that ran between the Old Edinburgh city walls and the Abbey of Holyrood and which is still there today as the lower part of the Royal Mile. To the south of that and running from the Grassmarket, is the Cowgate - where the cows walked to market.


is an anglo-saxon term meaning hedge settlement.


is an island from the Gaelic innis.

Inchcolm (one of a group of Inches in the Firth of Forth) is Island of Columba.


From the gaelic inbhir, "at the mouth of" and therefore usually associated with a river name such as with Inverness or Inverlochy.


As in Kilmartin, comes from the Gaelic cille meaning cell, as in a monastic cell. It is therefore often found associated with the names of Saints or with churches. Kilwinning is named after St. Wynnin - a rather obscure saint who was either 6th or 8th c. and either Scottish or Irish.


As in Kinlochleven, is from the Gaelic ceann, meaning the head, thus "at the head of Loch Leven". Kinneil near Linlithgow means "at the head (or end) of the wall" (The Antonine Wall)


comes from the Gaelic caol, meaning narrow, so Kyle of Lochalsh is the "narrows or straits of Loch Alsh", while Kyleakin is the "straits of Hakon" - the Norse ruler defeated at the battle of Largs.


is the Gaelic equivalent of lake. There is one lake in Scotland - the Lake of Menteith where Lymond meets the young child Mary. However this appears to come from Laigh of Menteith - laigh is an area of low-lying ground.


The place where Thorfinn was killed means St Finan's Field.


As in Mull of Kintyre or Mull of Galloway, comes from the norse word muli meaning headland, which passed into Gaelic as maol. The word also means bare, and it appears as far south as the Borders in names such as Melrose (scene of Will Scott's wedding) which means bare-moor, though that is hardly a fair description of this attractive town.


nes is a norse word meaning cape, point, or headland, and is very common in the north and in Orkney. Apparently of Germanic origin it also arrived via the English naes which means essentially the same thing. In King Hereafter we find Caithness - Cape of the Cataibh or cat-men (a pictish tribe name), and Stenness - Stone Cape. The Orkney town of Stromness is straumr-nes - cape in the current. Adorne's Blackness is self-explanatory.


A suffix used in Orkney and Shetland which comes from a contraction of the old Norse word bolstadr. bol is a share and stadr is a stead or a farm. Thus Kirkbister is "Church farm".


comes from the Gaelic srath, meaning a broad valley. Strathmore - great valley, Strathspey - valley of the River Spey.


comes from the Brittonic din talgwin - high frontier fort.

Tra or Tref

mean hamlet or village. From these come Threve which simply means a village and Traquair which is hamlet on the river Quair.


ton is an English Anglo-Saxon suffix which means homestead or farmstead. It often becomes toun in Scots, and both apply to a much smaller place than we would think of as a modern town. It is often combined with other descriptive words to form such names as millton, kirkton, castleton, but can also be joined to the names of landowners or the names of particular trades. Symington is Simon's stead. Broughton means "farm beside the brook".


The valley involved with the chase after the sheep-in-helmets means rough or turbulent water and comes from an old Gaelic word garu which is the basis for the Scots Gaelic garbh which appears often in mountain names and the water related garry, and also the English yar.


Anyone interested in further study of this subject may find the following book of help to them.

Scotland's Place Names: Expanded Edition
David Dorward
Published by Birlinn, pbk, ISBN 978-1841588230 £10.00