Scots Place-Names on the Map

The trend for Scots place-names on maps is towards anglicisation. This process accelerated and was largely fixed by the Ordnance Survey’s first edition six-inch to the mile maps. Comparing earlier and contemporary maps – and the Various Modes of Spelling entries in OS Name Books – to the names on the 1st edition shows a concerted shift from Scots to English forms: stone > stane; laigh > low; brig > bridge; co > cave; lang > long; water > river, etc.

The standardisation of Scots names in English spelling on maps and road signs hasn’t just visually altered the linguistic landscape, it’s changing the way Scots names are spoken. Unless you’re used to hearing Auld Brig o Urr, you’re going to follow Google, the OS and the road signs and call the place Old Bridge of Urr. There’s no way to read Colvend as Co’en unless you seen or heard the latter. And being local only gets you so far. I know the Scots pronunciations of the Kirkcudbrightshire names I grew up around but I gang agley with Wigtownshire names – mostly (I assume) without even knowing it – as I have to follow the spelling on the map or road signs. The process is self-sustaining, the more a name gets ‘airtime’ in English form, the less familiar the Scots form becomes. The path from unofficial, to unused, to lost is short.

If you think that Scots matters, it’s hard not to despair at this. You can’t change the OS and while digitally editing road signs is a diverting hobby, it’s not likely to effect any real change. Fortunately, OpenStreetMap offers a way to get Scots place-names back on the map.

River Bladnoch road sign, edited to show Water o Blaidnoch, using GIMP and and Transport Heavy font which “Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0”.

OpenStreetMap, a free, open source, editable map of the world – think Wikipedia for maps – has the facility for storing multilingual names for every place in its database. Scots names can be added to the map using the tag name:sco, just as you can add names in any other language. What this means in practice is that if you search for Auld Brig o Urr in OpenStreetMap it takes you to Old Bridge of Urr, unlike Google Maps which will take you to a Wetherspoons in Irvine. (You can also change your language preferences to display the user interface in Scots giving you Sairch instead of Search, Eedit instead of Edit, etc.)

OpenStreetMap showing Old Bridge of Urr when Auld Brig o Urr is searched for. Google Maps doesn’t do this.

This is a fantastic start, but although Scots names can be stored in OpenStreetMap so that they can be searched for, the names on the map appear in English by default [1]. What we need is a way of displaying the Scots names first, with the map falling back on English names where no Scots form is recorded. The good news is that this is completely achievable.

All that is needed is someone to host a tile-server which will display name:sco names first in the hierarchy.[2] Anyone with the hardware and know-how could do this (I don’t but Chris Fleming has kindly offered to help). In terms of hardware, the Scots Language Centre seems like the perfect place to host a Scots OpenStreetMap. They’ve already produced a map and a gazetteer of Scots place-names. A Scots OpenStreetMap would take this excellent work up several notches, with thousands of names – from major settlements to minor names – displayed in Scots, with the added bonus of all the interactive functionality OpenStreetMap has to offer.

I’m hopeful that this will get off the ground soon. In the meantime, there’s plenty of work to do adding Scots names to OpenStreetMap. The first thing to do if you’re interested is sign up for an account, after which it’s just a case of searching for a place > clicking ‘Edit’ > clicking the ‘+’ under ‘Name’ to enter a multilingual name, and you’re away. The Scots Language Centre’s gazetteer is a great first point of call for finding Scots names. For Galloway, Trotter’s Galloway Gossip and S.R. Crockett’s books (available as free pdfs at the S.R. Crockett Archive) are great sources. However, local pronunciations are probably going to get you the most coverage.[3]

I’ve put links to some names I’ve recently updated below as examples:


[1] A way round this is to change the name tag to the Scots form. This is probably the best solution with minor names: there is no reason why Sliddery Stane should be entered as it is on the OS as Sliddery Stone, when the second word is pronounced locally as stane. However, settlements should probably match their official form on the OS and road signs. Even if you were to enter the Scots form as the ‘name’ of a place with the English form listed under name:en, OpenStreetMap will default to name:en over name, as is the case with Sliddery Stane (which gets displayed as Sliddery Stone).

[2] A workaround is to use, which will display the Scots names recorded on OpenStreetMap. While this sounds like what we’d want, the map is let down by the limited features it displays (the names of burns, lochs and various other major and minor features aren’t shown) and the length of time it takes to update (often weeks if not months).

[3] Local pronunciations will vary and as Scots doesn’t have a fully standardised spelling system, choosing which form and spelling of a name could cause some systems an issue. As it happens, OpenStreetMap allows you to store alternative names, using the alt_name:sco tag. Cackerbush or Calkerbush? Enter them both. Doing this will improve the search functionality. Nonetheless, one form will have to be selected for the name:sco tag, which is the form that will be displayed on the map.

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