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Scottish place names: Whifflet

Whifflet was originally a small village in the Monklands district of North Lanarkshire, documented in the New Statistical Account of 1834-45 as noteworthy for 'three ironstone pits, and two coal pits'. The development of the railways from the mid-nineteenth century saw the construction of an important junction at Whifflet, and in the post-industrial era the original village has been absorbed into the south-eastern suburbs of Coatbridge.

J. B. Johnston, in his Place-Names of Scotland (3rd Edition, 1934), described the etymology of the name as 'very doubtful', suggesting a potential Brythonic Celtic origin from chwif llethr 'the turn of the slope'. The first difficulty with this suggestion is that it does not fit the topography of the Whifflet area, which is fairly level ground. Secondly, the name does not appear on record until 1593, which is rather late for a name which had been in use since the Brythonic period. Finally, an examination of the historical forms of Whifflet suggests that the name is more likely to be Scots in origin.1

Quhytflott 1593 (RMS v)
Quheleflet 1603 (RMS vi)
Quheilflat 1608 (RMS vi)
Quheilflatt 1636 RMS ix)
Wheetflet 1654 (Blaeu)
Whifflet 1755 (Roy)
Whifflat 1816 (Forrest Map)

These forms clearly point to Scots flat(t) 'a piece of level ground' as the second element. A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue notes that flat(t) is found in southern Scottish place-names from the early thirteenth century onwards, and the word occurs in other Monklands names including Dryflat and Shifflat, and in Nettleflat, Fernieflat and Dockenflat further east in Midlothian. The Scottish National Dictionary reveals that flet occurs as a later variant of flat(t), in the same sense of 'a broad, flat piece of arable land'.

The first element in Whifflet is perhaps slightly less straightforward. The historical forms show considerable variation, although the three Quhele, Quheil forms in the Register of the Great Seal could be something of a red herring, as their origin may lie in an initial scribal misreading of 'l' for 't' which was subsequently copied from one document to another, or even in a misinterpretation of the entire element. The other early forms of Quhytflott and Wheetflet point towards either 'white' or 'wheat' as the first element.

'White' (Older Scots Quhite, Whit(e)) is a very common specific element, found in a wide range of place-names including Whiteinch, Whitehill, Whitefield, Whiterig and Whitehaugh, making it an entirely plausible candidate here. However, the Wheetflat form in the Blaeu Atlas arguably points instead towards 'wheat' (Older Scots Quhet(e), Quhit(t), Quhite) and the form quhyt (as found in Quhytflott) is well attested as a valid orthographic form of 'wheat' in the late sixteenth century. Examples from A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue include the 'Price of quhyt thre pund the boll' from Dysart Gleanings (1562) and 'Baikstaris of breid of quhyt and maill' from The Records of Elgin (1572).

There is also strong historical evidence for the cultivation of wheat on 'flats', as Wyntoun's Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland (c.1420) describes 'Thare flattis gret, Than growand grene off wyne and quheyt' and Robert Henryson's Fables (1568 edition) details 'ȝone ioly flat of ryp aitis...and quheit'. A parallel reference to corn flats is found in Gavin Douglas's translation of the Aeneid (1513): 'The ȝallow corn flattis of Lyde'.

It is by no means conclusive that the origin of the name Whifflet lies in 'wheat' rather than 'white' flat, given the historical similarity between the two words, and inclusion in the Scottish National Dictionary of the noun white as a regional variant of wheat, demonstrates a lack of distinction between the two terms surviving into the twentieth century. However, it would appear that on balance 'wheat flat' is the more likely explanation.

1 I am grateful to Peter Drummond for supplying these forms.

Dr Alison Grant