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Scottish Place-names

Buss: 'if we shake the bushes of the sea, then two come along at once: an etymological muddle'

Alison Grant


SND Buss, Bush, Busk n2 is a short entry consisting mainly of three definitions quoted from other reference works, detailing how this term can variously mean "masses of seaweed (tangles), growing on sunken rocks, and exposed at low water", "a ledge of rock covered with seaweed" and "any small sea rock that is exposed at low tide".

This information is followed by two quotations, one of which is a further definition taken from Jamieson's dictionary and the other an oral quotation from a Tayside informant. The etymology at the end of the entry notes that these instances probably reflect "an extended meaning of Bush n1, Busk n1 and Buss n1". These three latter entries all refer to bushes, shrubs, thickets and clumps of trees. It is easy to see how this vegetative sense arguably might be extended to cover clumps of seaweed, but as we move into the province of rocky ledges and small tidal rocks, this proposed etymology becomes more problematic.

It is difficult to re-assess such a small sample of data, particularly as it consists mainly of second-hand definitions from other reference works, creating an impression rather akin to Chinese whispers.

However, it is possible to expand the available data-set by taking into consideration the various coastal place-names which appear to contain this element. The Ordnance Survey 6" 1st Edition maps reveal that off the coast of East Lothian there are various small rocks named Bubbly Buss, Boys Buss, Mackerel Buss and Chalmers' Busshead. There is a similar rock named Bush Craig off the Berwickshire coast, together with Eastbush and Westbush off Burntisland in Fife,1 and a further group of small rocks off the Aberdeenshire coast: Seals' Busk, Busks of Coral, The Busks, Busk of South-head, Busk Craig and The Busk.

A second group of names refer instead to rocky outcrops projecting into the sea from the shore. Examples include Cateairn Bushes in Berwickshire, Wardie Bush in Midlothian (also recorded as The Buss of Werdie in Jamieson's dictionary), The Buss in Fife, Brighead Bush in Kincardineshire, Burnett Bush in Aberdeenshire and The Buss, on the island of Unst in Shetland.

These place-names certainly substantiate the use of buss, busk and bush in reference to both small sea rocks and projecting ledges of rock, but they do little to clarify why these rocks, whether covered in seaweed or not, might have been viewed as 'sea bushes'.

Of potential significance here is another, even shorter, SND entry: Boss, Bos n4 "a bunch or tuft of grass, etc; a projection; a round mass", which includes the 1903 quote "He was stan'in' on a big boss o' stane". The corresponding DOST entry is Bos, Boys n2 "a rounded prominence; a boss", and there is also a related OED entry: Boss n1 "a knoll or mass of rock; in Geol. applied chiefly to masses of rock protruding through strata of another kind".

There is a clear correspondence between the rocky projections and rounded knolls described in these entries and the place-name examples listed above, suggesting that these instances of buss/busk/bush should perhaps be viewed as variant forms of boss rather than as extended developments from the bush entries.

The development of regional dialectal variation in Scots is evidenced by the three slightly differing words for a bush attested in SND as Bush n1, Busk n1 and Buss n1, and a resultant degree of homophonic confusion surrounding these words is illustrated by the word recorded in English as buss 'a cargo vessel, a fishing vessel', which becomes busche and busk in Older Scots, and bush in Modern Scots. Similarly, there is some ambiguity concerning the second sense given in SND Boss, Bos n4 "the decorations of a woman's cap or bonnet", which may instead have evolved as a variant form of SND Buss n3: "ornamentation, trimming", rather than belonging amongst the projections and round masses of sense one. Both of these entries relate back in turn to an Older Scots word, DOST Busk n2 "a woman’s head-dress; a trimming, adornment", a further illustration of how originally disparate words become intermingled and merge together during the evolutionary process of a language.

It seems therefore, particularly in the early stages of the alphabet, that the editors of SND were apportioning the limited material available to them into separate entries on the basis of orthographic proximity, rather than grouping variant forms together under broader 'umbrella' entries on etymological principles. The discovery of fresh source material such as place-name evidence will allow this early material to be re-interpreted, and for the boundaries of these entries to be reassessed.


1 I am indebted to Simon Taylor for these Burntisland examples, which do not appear in the OS 6" 1st Edition maps.