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Scottish Place-names

A Flash in the Pan?

The Scottish National Dictionary entry for flash noun(1) is very minimal, containing only a single quotation harvested from Jamieson's dictionary "a depository for timber" (Leith, 1808), and an etymological note suggesting that this word might be related to an English term flash, flosh 'a pool, a marshy place' commonly found in place-names south of the border, and a note to compare the related word 'flush'. As a result, the word was not included in the Concise Scots Dictionary.

There is indeed an English word 'flash', meaning 'a pool, a marshy place' with lexical examples in the Oxford English Dictionary from c.1440, and place-name examples including Flass Hall in Durham (recorded as Flaskes 1313),1 Flosh Gate in Cumberland (recorded as Floshe, Floche in 1278)2, and in the field names The Flash (Lancashire), Flash Field (Cheshire) and Flash Croft (Northumberland).3

However, the word is in fact also attested in Scottish place-names with exactly the same meaning, with evidence dating back as far as the late fourteenth century. Examples from the Borders region include Flass in Berwickshire (recorded as Flas 1388-89), Flass Well, also in Berwickshire, and Flask Wood in Dumfriesshire.4 In West Lothian, the lost place-name The Flash in Dalmeny Parish was recorded as (lie) Flass in 1573 and The Flash in 1663.5 There was also a lost Flask name in Linlithgow Parish, recorded as Flasche 1550-51, (The) Flass 1569 and Flask 1653,6 and two further lost Flask names in Abercorn Parish and Bo'ness & Carriden Parish respectively.7 Additionally, there was a lost Flask Hill in Linlithgow Parish (recorded as Flashill 1531, Flaschehill 1550-51, Flaskhill 1560 and Flaskhill 1653).8 In Midlothian, there is The Flash at Queensferry (recorded as The Flash in 1573, and Flass shot in 1757),9 The Flashes at Corstorphine,10 and also Flesh Cleugh.11 In Fife, examples include Flass (recorded as Flask 1390-1405 and Flesk 1391-1405),12 Flesh in western Fife,13 and also perhaps Flisk in central Fife.14

The substantial body of onomastic evidence for flash names seems not to have come to the attention of the editors of either the Scottish National Dictionary or A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, although there is a small SND entry for flush noun, 'a piece of boggy ground (where water lies on the surface); a swampy place, a pool of water', with attestations in the Borders, the South-West and Argyllshire from 1789 onwards. The entry lists flosh as a variant form, and the editors of the original Concise Scots Dictionary linked the word to two stub entries in the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue: flush, fluche noun 'a pool or run of water' and flosche noun 'a watery swamp'. These tiny entries contain only three quotes between them (as variant forms of a single Douglas quotation appear in both entries).

This lexical evidence can be augmented with various place-name examples, including Flosh in Dumfriesshire (Floshe in 1569),15 together with The Flosh (Selkirkshire), Flosh Burn (Roxburghshire), Isle of Floss (Dumfriesshire), Flosh Burn, Floshend, Floshknowe, Floshland Burn (all in Dumfriesshire) and quite possibly Flosh in southern Kintyre. The flush place-names include Flush Hill in Wigtownshire, Flush Plantation in Roxburghsire and Flush Knowes in Ayrshire, and Piper’s Flush in Dumfriesshire.16 To these I would also add the single-quotation Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue stub entry flus, flous noun 'a pool', as the quotation in question, from Barbour's The Brus, ‘Thair...was...sua richt gret spilling of blud That on the erd the flus it stud’ seems to correspond well with the sense of 'ground where fluid pools on the surface' attested in the Scottish National Dictionary entry for flush.

What is significant here is that on the basis of the Borders examples, May Williamson had postulated a Scots word flash, flosh derived from Middle English flasshe, flosshe, ultimately from Old English *flæsc (cognate with Old Danish flask(e)).17 It is therefore quite likely that rather than being merely 'related' as is suggested in the Scottish National Dictionary, flash and flush/flosh may actually have evolved as variant forms of the same word, and that the two sets of evidence should be considered as constituent parts of the same entry.

Thus, although flash makes a very brief appearance in the Scottish National Dictionary, there is considerable onomastic evidence for its use in the Older Scots period, and the place-name formations incorporating the definite article, such as 'The Flash' and 'The Flosh', appear to imply a degree of lexical use as well. It is likely that the "depository for timber" reference is something of a red herring, as the site was probably named for its marshy state and its subsequent use for timber storage was merely incidental, something which would not have been apparent when considering the name in isolation.

The existing Concise Scots Dictionary entry for flush will be revised and expanded on this basis, with flash being incorporated as an obsolete variant. Similarly, the early place-name forms and the incorporation of the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue stub entry flus, flous will allow the revised entry to be ante-dated to the late fourteenth century. Additionally, whilst the evidence collected for the Scottish National Dictionary entry implies that usage of the word was limited to the south-western Scotland, the onomastic evidence reveals that it originally had a much wider geographical distribution, incorporating the Border counties, the Lothians and Fife as well. Finally, the place-name material provides a very useful background context for interpreting the handful of Older Scots literary quotes which comprise the existing Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue entries, unifying them within this framework and revealing them to be components of a single entry rather than three individual words.

Alison Grant

1 Ekwall, The Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names (3rd Edn, 1951), p. 173.
2 Armstrong et al, The Place-Names of Cumberland (1952), p. 187.
3 Field, English Field Names: A Dictionary (1972), p. 78.
4 Williamson, The Non-Celtic Place-Names of the Scottish Border Counties (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, 1942), p. 260
5 MacDonald, The Place-Names of West Lothian (1941), p. 9.
6 Ibid, p. 58.
7 Ibid, pp. 21, 36.
8 Ibid, p. 58.
9 Harris, The Place Names of Edinburgh (1996), p. 272.
10 Dixon, The PlaceNames of Midlothian (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, 1947), p. 88.
11 Ibid, p. 185.
12 Taylor, The Place-Names of Fife, Volume 4 (2010), p. 411.
13 Taylor, The Place-Names of Fife, Volume 1 (2006), p. 243.
14 Taylor, The Place-Names of Fife, Volume 2 (2008), p. 198.
15 Williamson, The Non-Celtic Place-Names of the Scottish Border Counties (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, 1942), p. 260.
16 See Johnson-Ferguson, The Place-Names of Dumfriesshire (1935) for further instances of 'flush' names in Dumfriesshire.
17 Williamson, The Non-Celtic Place-Names of the Scottish Border Counties (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, 1942), p. 260.