Annan History Town Festival Posts

I wrote these posts for the Annan History Town Festival. I’ll add references and notes shortly.

Detail from Joan Blaeu (1654) Annandiae praefectura, Vulgo, The Stewartrie of Annandail / auct. Timotheo Pont
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The River Annan: A Rich History

The name Annan has a long, meandering history that flows in and out of languages. 1300 years ago, in northern Italy, an anonymous cleric compiled a list of 5000 places from Ireland through to India. This sprawling collection of names is known as the Ravenna Cosmography, after the city it was written in. In the British section of the text, among a list of rivers, we find the name ANAVA. This is almost certainly an early form of Annan.

Although written in c. 700 CE, the Ravenna Cosmography used sources from the Roman period, and it is to this time that we can date the name ANAVA. Similar forms of the name appear elsewhere in the Roman world – on a tablet from Vindolanda and a tombstone in Foligno, Italy which commemorates a prefect of the ‘Anavionensian Britons’. At this time, the people around the River Annan were speaking an early Celtic language, in which Anawa was the name of a goddess associated with riches and prosperity.

Rivers named after goddesses are common in Celtic speaking regions. We only need to travel as far as the River Dee in Kirkcudbrightshire to find a parallel. This river takes its name from the goddess Deva. However, it is possible that rather than being named directly after a deity, the Annan originally meant something like ‘the one that enriches’, formed from the same root as the name of the goddess. Either way, it is an ancient name.

Major landscape features like large rivers tend to keep the same name for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. Newcomers to an area adopt the local name and adapt it to the sounds of their language, rather than coining something new. As it has flowed down to the Solway, the Annan has collected many of the languages that have been spoken by its banks. Over a thousand years ago, a Celtic language closely related to Welsh was spoken here. Its word for valley (almost the same as Welsh ystrad) is found in Estrahanent‘Annan valley’, recorded in 1124. The Gaelic form of this word, srath, appears in Stratanant. The early Scandinavian settlers swapped out these Celtic ‘valley’ words for their word dalr, which survives in Annandale. In Scots, rivers are ‘waters’. The Ordnance Survey chose ‘river’ rather than ‘water’ for their maps but Annan Water appears elsewhere. And in 500 years’ time, despite what else has changed, this stretch of water will more likely than still be called something like Annan.

Quarter Cake and Crazy Hill

Part of the appeal of studying place-names is seeing how people in the past have viewed and interacted with the landscape. Finding out a name’s meaning often involves consulting dictionaries of languages no longer spoken in the area and can be hampered by non-standard spellings and incomplete records. Sometimes a name’s meaning is perfectly clear, it’s just hard to know what to make of it. Quarter Cake, a patch of ground next the River Annan in Galabank Park, is a case in point.

However, a look at the 1st edition of the Ordnance Survey clears things up. Although Quarter Cake is now open ground, 160 years ago it was marked out on two sides by a line of trees, enclosing a triangular area that looks just like…a quarter of a cake! What’s more, when the surveyors were compiling their list of entries for the map, they took notes in their Name Books. Here’s what they wrote for Quarter Cake:

“A small patch of arable land at the south end of Ever Holm. It is bounded on the north and west by a row of forest trees, and on the south & east by a wall that forms part of the southern boundary of Ever Holm. It owes its name to its shape; being shaped like the quarter of a cake.”

Unfortunately, not all place-name puzzles are solved as easily as that. Another, more obscure ‘shape name’ might be Crazy Hill, at Barnkirk Point. Here the Name Book only tells us that Crazy Hill is “A small eminence on the farm of Waterfoot.” Crazy sometimes appears in place-names is the sense of ‘irregular’, like crazy paving, but that doesn’t seem to apply here. However, crazy is a Scots word for a sunbonnet (‘the old-fashioned scoop-like kind’) named after its resemblance to a type of lamp, also called a crazy. The outline of the hill on the map might, with a bit of squinting, look like a sunbonnet, but it really depends what it looks like from the ground. I’ve not visited it yet, and I think for now they jury is out on the meaning behind Crazy Hill.

Although not much help for interpreting Crazy Hill, the Ordnance Survey Name Books are a treasure trove of information. They include a note on every entry on the first edition of the map. You can search them here: It’s worth searching for where you live to see what was written about it over 150 years ago.

Dornock: Stones and Stanes

Dornock, like Dornoch in Sutherland, means ‘pebbly place’. However, the stones referred to are bigger and potentially more violent than ‘pebble’ implies. Dorn in Celtic languages means a fist. These pebbles were fist-sized stones, or stones which fitted in the hand. Fighting with hand stones is well attested in medieval sources and it might be the case that stones were collected at Dornock to be used as projectiles. However, we can’t be certain of their purpose. They might have been used peacefully as cobbles or the area might have just struck its settlers as stonier than the surrounding area.

Stones of a different type are found at either end of the parish. The Altar Stone on Whan Scar in the Solway marks the boundary between Annan and Dornock and is visited each year during the Riding of the Marches. Although sometimes hidden by the shifting sands, it has been an important boundary marker for hundreds of years: ‘The Altarstane in Sulway’ is recorded in a charter from 1539.

Following the Municipal and Burgh Boundary from the Altar Stone up past Woodhead, you find a scattering of boulders, one of which is named the Three Piked Stane. In the 18th century it was thought that these were the remains of a stone circle (or ‘druidical temple’ as they called them back then). Sadly, it has not been possible to determine if there really was a stone circle here or even to identify which one of the stones was the Three Piked Stane.

Brydekirk: -kirks and ‘Kirks’

Brydekirk is an unusual name. The first part, Bryde-, refers to St Brigit of Kildare, one of the patron saints of Ireland, commemorated on the 1st of February. Just north of the village is the site of St Bryde’s Kirk where the road takes you up to St Bryde’s Well. There is nothing out of the ordinary about this; Brigit appears in place-names across Dumfries and Galloway.

What sets it apart is that here, -kirk at the end of the name actually means kirk. On either side of the Solway, kirk ‘church’ almost always comes at the start of a name: Kirkmichael, Kirkpatrick, Kirkconnel etc. In those names where ‘kirk’ does appear at the end, it usually means something completely different. Barnkirk, Westerkirk and Stoneykirk have nothing to do with churches. Barnkirk is from Gaelic bàrr na circe ‘height of the hen’; Westerkirk is Old Norse ‘Styrkarr’s ford’ – recorded as Wadsterker in 1249; and Stoneykirk is Old English ‘stony land’ from stān + æcer.

Kirk is originally an Old Norse word. In Old Norse, like other Germanic languages, the generic part of a name is almost always placed at the end and the specific part goes at the start, so we would expect to find names like Patrick’s Kirk rather than Kirkpatrick. Instead, the Solway ‘kirk’ names follow the word order seen in Celtic languages where the generic part of a name comes first and the specific part second, as in Kilbride ‘Brigit’s church’.

Why should this be the case? The answer appears to be connected to the Gall-Ghàidheil ‘the foreign Gaels’ who gave their name to Galloway. These Gaels were considered ‘foreign’ because of their Norse heritage; they were people with their roots in the Viking colonies in Ireland and Scotland. Although speaking Gaelic, these people adopted some Scandinavian words, including ‘kirk’, into their language. Names like Kirkcudbright ‘Cuthbert’s church’ and Kirkbryde ‘Bridgit’s church’ are Gaelic names using a word borrowed into that language from Old Norse. It is a complicated situation, but gives an idea of the diverse linguistic landscape of the Solway Firth in the middle ages.

Brydekirk itself is relatively recent name compared to these Kirk- names. It was first recorded as Bridkyrk in 1517; before that it was Bridechapell.

Cummertrees: Troubled Waters

This name looks like it should have something to do with trees and perhaps a witch, which is one of the meanings of the Scots word cummer. In fact, Cummertrees is a Celtic name, recorded in 1204 as Cumbertres. As is frequently the case, it could be either Gaelic or Cumbric (a language related to Welsh spoken here 1000 years ago) though there are reasons for thinking it more likely to be the latter. The second part of the name, tres, has various senses covering ‘conflict, strife, and tumult’ and is often used to describe rivers. The first element is most probably cumber, a confluence or meeting of waters. Taken together, these two words mean something like ‘confluence of turbulent water’. Although this is the likely interpretation of the name, it doesn’t appear to be a particularly good description of the Pow Water that slowly passes the village of Cummertrees today. However, water courses and levels have changed in the last thousand years and names can move around. It might be that what was once a turbulent confluence has slowed to a more gentle pace.

If you are looking for trees associated with witches, there’s a gnarled tree in the woods at Woodcock Air, sometimes festooned with animal skulls that I’ve heard called the Witch’s Tree.

Peoples in Places-Names

Many languages have been spoken in our area in the last two thousand years, and it is often place-names that provide the best evidence for their use and distribution. We know Cumbric (a language closely related to Welsh), Gaelic, Old English, Old Norse and Scots were spoken here because people who used these languages named the landscape around us. Occasionally, the people themselves are referred to directly in place-names.

‘Britons’ appear in Drumbretton near Annan and Glenbertle (earlier Glenberten) near Langholm. These are most likely Gaelic names: druim Breatann ‘Britons’ ridge’ and gleann Breatann ‘Britons’ glen’, though they might just have been coined by Cumbric speakers. Cumbric names referring to ‘Saxons’ are found at Pennersaughs ‘headland of the Saxon’ near Ecclefechan and Glensaxon ‘Saxon valley’ near Westerkirk.

‘Danes’ are the first part of the name Denbie, outside of Carrutherstown. Bý is an Old Norse word for ‘farm’ which appears in place-names either side of the Solway and throughout the Danelaw area of England. Newbie, Middlebie, Lockerbie and plenty others use this element. (Not all of them were coined by Scandinavian speakers though; -bie carried on being used as a place-name element after the period of Scandinavian settlement.)

A more recent parallel for these names can be found at the Ukrainian Chapel, outside of Lockerbie. You can read the story behind its name here. The stories behind ‘Saxon Valley’ and ‘Danish Farm’ are long gone, but the names give us an insight into the connections between the various peoples who have made this area their home.

Echoes of Battle

The lands around Annan have been the site of many pitched battles throughout the years, as well as countless cross-border skirmishes. The Battle of Annan in 1332 and the Battle of Dornock in 1333 were fought as part of the Second War of Scottish Independence. Two hundred years later, on the other side of the border, the Scots were defeated by English forces in the Battle of Solway Moss in 1542. In 1593 the Johnstones defeated the Maxwells at the Battle of Dryfe Sands near Lockerbie, the culmination of centuries of feuding between the two. The last major conflict in the area was in 1645, when the Battle of Annan Moor was fought as part of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

Place-names connected with vague traditions about battles fought nearby are dotted around Annan. These are recorded in the 19th century Ordnance Survey Name Books, where the surveyors for the map’s first edition took notes on the names they were collecting. For example, in the entry for Swordwell we are told that it is “supposed to be the place where the Scotch had washed their swords after the carnage with the English.” Nearby, Battlefield is said to have been the place where “a fearful conflict took place between the Scotch & English.” At Bruce’s Acre, on the coast between Powfoot and Annan, the Name Books notes that “here it is said there was a battle fought between the English and Scotch, the latter being under the command of Robert Bruce.”

These names seem to reflect the general idea that battles were fought in the area, rather than preserving a record of specific conflicts. What they all have in common is that weapons were said to be found at these sites, and it is likely that these discoveries prompted the stories behind the names and perhaps the names themselves. Although the conflicts mentioned above haven’t left any definite record in our place-names, the Battle of Dryfe Sands made its way into a local saying. In the 19th century, it was still common to call a face wound a ‘Lockerbie Lick’, referring to the wounds the Johnstones gave the Maxwells.

The Solway: Wading through History

The shortest path from Annan to Cumbria is across the Solway Firth. People have walked this route for thousands of years, wading through the pools of water left by the receding tide. The second part of the name Solway, earlier Sulwath, refers to just that – vath is the Old Norse word for a ford or wading-place. Vath survives in Scots and Northern English as wath and appears in Booness Wath, an 18th century name for the Firth (Booness being Bowness, just across the water from Annan) and in Sandywathe, the crossing from Dornock to Drumburgh. The Old Norse word is also found in Westerkirk, which despite its modern form was originally Wadsterker – Styrkarr’s wath.

The first part of Solway is less clear – words meaning ‘muddy’, ‘swilling’, and ‘solan goose’ are all possibilities. However, a strong contender is Old Norse súl ‘pillar’. This ‘pillar’ might have been the Lochmaben Stane, the lone survivor of a stone circle which stands on the banks of the Solway just outside of Gretna.

The name of this stone has its own story to tell. It was recorded in 1398 as ‘Clochmabenstane’, showing that it has nothing to do with lochs or Lochmaben – ‘cloch’ represents a Celtic word for stone. However, it and Lochmaben do share the same second element. This is the name Mabon, the ‘divine son’ of Celtic mythology, who the Romans called Maponus and equated with their god Apollo.

The Lochmaben Stane gives a sense of scale to the region’s history. It was positioned in its great ring of stones over 5000 years ago. Millenia later speakers of a Celtic language associated it with one of their divine figures, or perhaps an important leader who bore his name. Centuries afterwards Old Norse speakers might have used the stone as a way marker when crossing the Solway. The waters of history are often murky and there is a lot we don’t and can’t know. However, place-names allow us a glimpse beneath the surface at stories that would otherwise remain hidden.

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