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Scottish Place-names


Sunny woodland
The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue entry for firth, fyrth noun(1) is a short entry containing nine quotes in total, from seven different sources. It states that the meaning of the word is 'a wood' and that it occurs 'Only in poetry, and freq. alliterating with felde, fell, or forest'. The word derives from Old English fyrhð(e), and the earliest recorded usage is in the late-fourteenth century text Legends of the Saints.

The related Scottish National Dictionary entry is firth noun(2) 'a wood, wooded country. Only poet. in phrs. firth and fauld'. This entry has only three literary quotations, including one from The Minstrel at Lincluden by Robert Burns.

However, this narrow semantic context is brought into question by the existence of a group of Scots place-names which appear to contain this element. May Williamson identified two examples in her unpublished 1942 thesis, The Non-Celtic Place-Names of the Scottish Border Counties. One instance is the lost Roxburghshire name Firthhouse, which appears in this form on the Blaeu map in 1662, and the other example is Firth, also in Roxburghshire, which was recorded as Firth in 1588 [L Ch] and in the same form on the Blaeu map. As Roxburghshire is a land-locked county, there is little chance of the names referring to the other kind of firth, 'an estuary or inlet of the sea', which derives from an Old Norse root and is found as DOST firth, fyrth noun(2).

Similarly, Norman Dixon recorded another Firth in the inland parish of Lasswade in Midlothian, in his unpublished 1947 thesis, The Place Names of Midlothian. This name was recorded as Frythe in 1336-37 [Bain] and as Firth in 1609 [RMS].

More recently, Simon Taylor has identified a group of firth names in Fife. There is a lost name Oxfriht, which was recorded in the Caiplie Charter of 1235, and was apparently somewhere along the boundary of Crail and Kilrenny parishes. Another name which did not survive is Firth Muir, which was recorded as Firthmure 1592 [RMS] and Firthmur 1594 [RMS]. Still current is Frithfield in Kilrenny Parish, with early forms including Furthfield c.1560s [Assumption] and Firthfeild 1578 x 1591 [RMS]. Additionally, there are two Firth names in Angus, one of which was recorded as Firth of Bellishane in 1663 [RMS], and Firthhope Rig in the Moffat hills may also potentially contain this element.

This small corpus of place-names has implications for the revision of the Concise Scots Dictionary. Firstly, we need to remove the 'verse only' label from the existing entry, as the word must have, at least originally, encompassed a wider register. Secondly, we can ante-date the entry by nearly a century and a half because of the 1235 Oxfriht record from Fife. Thirdly, we can also re-examine the definition of firth as 'a wood, or wooded country'.

Shrubby hillside

The Oxford English Dictionary entry firth noun(1) records a wider range of meanings for the term than simply a wood or wooded country, including 'a piece of ground covered with brushwood'. Similarly, in their study of this element in The Landscape of Place-Names, Gelling and Cole have concluded that in English place-names firth can frequently signify 'land overgrown with brushwood, scrubland on the edge of a forest', and Simon Taylor postulates that this interpretation should be taken into consideration for the Scottish examples as well. Certainly when you consider that firth is found in Scots place-names in combination with generics such as field and muir, with their apparent implication of open space, this would appear to lend credence to this additional sense of 'scrubland, brushland', which should perhaps be reflected in the definition of the word in the dictionaries.

Alison Grant

Dixon, The Place Names of Midlothian (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, 1947)
Gelling and Cole, The Landscape of Place-Names (2000)
Taylor, The Place-Names of Fife, Volume 3 (2009)
Williamson, The Non-Celtic Place-Names of the Scottish Border Counties (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, 1942)

Assumption The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices: Scottish Ecclesiastical Rentals at the Reformation,, Records of Social and Economic History, New Series, 21, ed J Kirk (1995)
Bain Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland, preserved in Her Majesty's Public Record Office (1108-1509) 4 vols, 1881-1888
L Ch The Laing Charters, ed J Anderson 1899
RMS Registrum Magni Sigilli Regum Scotorum (1306-1668), 11 vols