Manxman’s Lake and Keel choobragh

Manxman’s Lake in Kirkcudbright is a rare lake in a country of lochs.[1] The Ordnance Survey Name Book records a more dramatic claim to fame:

‘It is said that smugglers [were] wont to land here with their contraband goods from the Isle of Man, hence the name, or more probably from “Thomas Earl of Derby a young warlike chief, having succeeded to the sovereignty of Mar, to extend his fame and gratify the hostile feellings [sic] of his subjects to the Scots, made a decent [sic] upon the shores of Galloway in 1507, at the head of a formidable body of furious Manxmen, & nearly destroyed the town of Kirkcudbright, for some years afterwards many of the houses remained in ruins”.'[2]

This event (which actually took place in 1457) is recorded in the Manx Traditionary Ballad or Manannan Ballad.[3] The earliest manuscripts of the text date to the late 18th century[4] but the poem itself is plausibly dated to a few decades either side of 1500, not too long after the raid on the town.[5] Two verses, the first from the A manuscript and the second from the B manuscript, mention Kirkcudbright:

‘Er Albanee chooilleen eh Clea
As hie eh noon gys Keel choobragh
As ren eh lheid y chladdagh Thie’n
Dy vel paart ayn foast gyn Mullagh’

‘Upon Scotsmen he avenged a sudden attack and went across to Kirkcudbright and wrought such a destruction of houses that some of them there are still roofless.’

‘Myr haink Eshyn ain aynjee
Ain cha ren E foddey furraght
Losht E shaght Baljyn Ballecheeilchoobrey
As ta part jeu ayn foast gyn Mullagh’

‘When he came into the island to us he did not stay with us long (before he went and) burnt the seven farmsteads of Kirkcudbright, and some of them are still roofless.'[5]

Aside from being excellent on their own terms – who wouldn’t want a raid on their town commemorated in a Manx ballad? – these verses are interesting for their form of the name Kirkcudbright. Keel- and –cheeil- correspond to Scottish Gaelic cil ‘church’, as in Kilbride ‘Brigit’s church’ . (Ball-, in Ballecheeilchoobrey, corresponds to Scottish Gaelic baile ‘farm, settlement’ as in Balmaclellan ‘MacLellan’s farm’.)

Kirkcudbright, along with many other similar names in south-west Scotland, the Isle of Man and north-west England, is part of a special class known as ‘kirk-compounds’. These names use a Germanic word (Old Norse kirkja ‘church’) but have their element order inverted according to the usual pattern of Germanic place-names. Kirkcudbright is etymologically ‘Cuthbert’s church’ and we would expect the name Cuthbert to come before kirk. Instead, these kirk-compound names use Gaelic element order, where the specifying element follows the generic element, as in Kilbride.

The reasons behind this type of name formation lie in Galloway’s complex and cultural and linguistic landscape. Kirkcudbright demonstrates the situation well: the name commemorates an Anglian saint using an originally Scandinavian word placed in position by the rules of Gaelic syntax. The precise mechanisms behind how the kirk-compound names were formed depends on where and when they were coined.[6] But in general terms, we can say that these are names given by Gaelic speakers using a word borrowed from Old Norse.[7]

The Manx Traditionary Ballad gives us a different Gaelic form of the name. The significance of the Manx name would need more space than here to unpack. But it’s a useful reminder that Galloway’s Gaelic heritage includes its links with the Isle of Man. Keel choobragh can be added to the very first record of Kirkcudbright as Cuthbrictis Khirche in 1164.[8] And as multicultural hagiotoponyms go, three words for ‘church’ in one place is pretty impressive.


[1] On Scottish lakes see Peter McNiven (2014) “The Lake of Mentieth: Why a Lake amongst Lochs?“, The Journal of Scottish Name Studies, 8, pp. 153-166 [link]

[2] Kirkcudbrightshire OS Name Books, 1848-1851, volume 151 OS1/20/151/76. [link] The Name Book entry is quoting from the The New Statistical Account: Kirkcudbright, County of Kirkcudbright, NSA, Vol. IV, 1845, p. 13, accessed via <> [link]
There are in fact two entries for Manxman’s Lakein the Name Books, the other (OS1/20/151/212) makes no mention of the raid and attributes the name to smuggling. [link] There is a Manxman’s Rock in Borgue and (OS1/20/157/15) [link] and another in Kirkmaiden (OS1/35/81/49). [link] The first is associated with smuggling; the second with the wreck of a Manx vessel. It seems likely that Manxman’s Lake, as with the other Manxman’sX names in the area, takes its name from more recent links between Man and Kirkcudbright than the raid on the town. However, it’s not out of the question that the name preserves some memory of the event.

[3] Tim Thornton (1998) “Scotland and the Isle of Man, c. 1400-1625: Noble Power and Royal Presumption in the Northern Irish Sea Province”, The Scottish Historical Review, LXXVII, 1, pp. 1-30 (at p. 17; see also note 89 on p. 16). [link] The disparity between the dates is discussed in R. L. Thomson (1962) “The Manx Traditionary Ballad (suite et fin)“, Études celtiques, 10, pp. 60-87 (at pp. 76-78) [link]

[4] R. L. Thomson (1961) “The Manx Traditionary Ballad”, Études celtiques, 9, pp. 521-548 (at pp. 521-522) [link]

[5] R. L. Thomson (1962) “The Manx Traditionary Ballad (suite et fin)“, Études celtiques, 10, pp. 60-87 (at p. 86) [link]

[6] Text and translation from R. L. Thomson (1962) “The Manx Traditionary Ballad (suite et fin)“, Études celtiques, 10, pp. 60-87 (at pp. 75-76). The first verse is no. 52 in the A manuscript; the second is no. 33 in the B manuscript. [link]

[6] The most comprehensive study of these, and other ‘inversion compound’, names is Alison Elizabeth Grant (2003) Scandinavian place-names in Northern Britain as evidence for language contact and interaction, PhD thesis, University of Glasgow [link]

[7] Gilbert Márkus (2019, 1 December) “Unpacking Balmaghie”, [blog post], accessed from <; [link]

[8] Alison Elizabeth Grant (2003) Scandinavian place-names in Northern Britain as evidence for language contact and interaction, PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, p. 378. (There is a discussion of the significance of this early form of the name at p.184.) [link]