Give Us Back our Place Names

Author: Dr. David Purves

Date: 2001

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 8 Hairst 2001

Dr. David Purves, Edinburgh

British Isles map

A case has been cited of a schoolboy in Fife who, when asked to compose a sentence containing the word bell, offered the following: The skull bell skunnert ma lug. Since this imaginative sentence, involving relevant social commentary, was dismissed as unacceptable, the boy’s feelings appear to have been fully justified.

To a significant extent, what we have had in Scotland, in place of education over many generations, is a process of deracination — a process of separating children from their roots — which is the opposite of eduation. Education should help children build on their cultural heritage. It is really a wicked thing to tell a five-year old child at school, “The way you speak is wrong and must be corrected.” To tell a child this is very damaging. The child’s cultural identity is undermined and the child’s whole family insulted. This repressive treatment of generations of children in Scotland has probably introduced a schizoid element, an element of self-hatred, into the national psyche. Associated with this is self-contempt, the well-known Scottish cringe (or cruige). An important consequence of this cringe, of loss of justifiable pride in the Scots identity, has been the parochial “zeal” of local authorities, local tourist boards and cartographers in anglicising Scottish street names and place names. Avenues, terraces, hills, crescents and lanes have been ruthlessly substituted for our native gaits, raws, braes, strachts, wynds, loans and vennels. In St Andrews, the fact that Baker Lane has replaced Baxters Wynd is proudly posted.

Church Hill replaces Kirk Brae, and the Sauchiebrae is transformed into the Willowbrae Road. The velar fricative in haugh is sometimes dropped so that a street name Pan Ha’ has appeared near Kirkcaldy on a haugh where salt panning used to take place, and history is falsified along with the place name. The surname Waugh becomes pronounced Waw and Loch Menteith becomes “The Lake of Menteith” by corrupting The Laigh o Menteith, the name of the adjoining carse. In East Lothian, the Forestry Commission names a new loch, ‘Pressmennan Lake’. In broadcasting, which is carefully excluded from the control of the Scottish Government, announcers are employed with anglicised accents which preclude the native pronunciation of place names. Whole communities have lost their Gaelic or Scots names. “Applecross” suddenly appears in the north-west Highlands, and cartographers transmogrify Muirbattle (where muir was pronounced in the same way as mair) in the Borders to ‘Morebattle’.

In recent years, there have been moves by parochial tourist boards to anglicise the native descriptions of Scottish topographical features, and attempts have been made against public opposition, to rename Clydesdale as Clyde Valley, and Strathspey as Spey Valley, although mercifully, the Clydesdale horse is still with us and we are still at liberty to dance the Strathspey. Tweeddale is transmogrified into Tweed Valley. It is difficult to discover what authority exists for such changes. In any self-governing, self-respecting country, native place names which reflect the history of the country are seen as national assets, which reflect the national history. These are seen as having great value for tourism and are given Government protection.

Against the background of enhanced national consciousness resulting from the establishment of a Scottish Parliament, perhaps the time has come to counter this aspect of globalisation. Such developments threaten to undermine our sense of national identity and it is now necessary to take a stand against them, by restoring the original native street names, which reflect our linguistic heritage. This process has already started in Ireland, where there are now hopeful signs that Ulster-Scots is beginning to be seen like Gaelic, as part of the linguistic heritage of Ireland as a whole. Ulster-Scots street signs have been erected in the Belfast, Castlereagh and Ards Council areas. It is intriguing to see Auld Loanen re-emerge for Windyridge Cottages, Wal Raa for Well Road, Sooth Enn for Main Street and The Tounheid for Moat Road.

This is one example in Ulster we might do well to follow.



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