Place Names of Carrick
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Notes from a talk given to the Maybole Historical Society by Catherine Lucy Czerkawska

My own writing tends to have a very strong sense of place, and I find that if I am going to recreate a place accurately, knowing something of its history and background is important. Getting names right is part of that desire for accuracy, part of that feeling for place.

Place names are like little gems, dotted about the landscape. They have  complicated interiors, and sometimes turbulent and stressful histories. They are always descriptive and usually accurate but only if you can figure them out. They are like a host of little puzzles.  They reflect the history of an area; and looked at in conjunction with one another they paint a picture as surely as any contemporary account. And you make arbitrary changes to them at your peril.

While place names are essentially literary ie written down on maps and in deeds and accounts, they also have  a very strong oral element. They are passed on, handed down, as are the stories that go with them and the pronunciations which also tell us something about their derivations. So finding out what they mean is like detective work. As part of a postgraduate course which I did in Leeds I wrote a dissertation on Fishing Traditions in South Ayrshire. Most of the material which I used for that piece of work was oral , ie I went and interviewed old fishermen, all of whom are long since gone, although I still have the tapes. I also explored old documents, and maps.

While I was doing this became very interested in Ayrshire and Galloway place names, their immense variety, and  the way they had changed over time. I already knew from my study of Middle English just how little reliance could be placed on spelling, before widespread literacy (and printing!) . That, coupled with an understanding of the importance of traditional pronunciations, gave me a new perspective on placenames, and one of my potential plans, after I finished in Leeds, was to return to Edinburgh University to research a thesis on place names in Galloway. It was one of those alternatives which I didn’t choose. However, while I was researching the local history of Maybole and its surroundings for various creative writing projects over a number of years, I found myself again becoming interested in the remote history, archaeology and prehistory of the area and continuing to explore its placenames and their derivations in some detail.

During the time that we call prehistory, ie before written records, the ancient peoples of the island of Britain told their story only in the stones (and just occasionally in the bones and the wood, the pottery, and the beads) they left behind them. We know that initially these very earliest (Mesolithic) inhabitants  were nomads who had walked to Britain across what is now the southern part of the North Sea. But we know that across the millennia this stone age culture changed. Farming techniques developed or more likely were introduced  by other peoples moving west, now by boat.  And over a long period of time, the culture flowered into something sophisticated enough to produce Stonehenge and Avebury and Maeshowe. Our most vivid reconstruction of actual stone age life comes from Skara Brae in the Orkneys where what was essentially a stone age village survived to become an interesting (but perhaps not typical!) anomaly.

We know that the ancient inhabitants of these islands worked in stone and flint, made arrowheads,  made axeheads including beautiful ceremonial jadeite axes which never saw practical use. We know from their funeral customs that they held profound religious beliefs and from the precision of their building that they had knowledge of mathematics. But we do not know what they called themselves because they left no written records. And nor do we know what the very first metal working settlers who came from Europe  called the indigenous peoples of Britain, or even what they called themselves either. But we know that they worked in bronze and gold using sophisticated techniques at least some of which we have lost today. We know that the “grave archaeology” of Britain changed and so we can make assumptions about different beliefs and presumably ways of life which they brought with them. But again, we can’t be sure about very much and certainly not about what kind of language they spoke.

 “We have no knowledge of the languages spoken in Britain before the advent of the Celtic speaking peoples “ says Stuart Piggott . The bronze age gave way to the iron age, as Celtic speaking peoples arrived  but they took many hundred of years to establish themselves as a dominant presence in Britain, and we suspect that they came gradually.  The presence of iron using, Celtic speaking peoples in Scotland can only be inferred from the seventh century BC onwards– by their hill forts we know them, by their archaeological remains, and by the remains of their song and story, surviving embedded in later literary texts and in ongoing stories and legends.

They were warriors, people who loved horses,  fighters, craftspeople, poets and with a multitude of Gods and Goddesses, some more powerful than others. They believed in the spirit of place, sacred hills, streams, springs and wells. But this word Celtic is misleading. It makes us think of cohesion, one people. But it  is only a clumsy way of describing linguistic similarities between  many many different tribes with many different allegiances, gods, and customs.  And just as there were cultural differences between the Celts who settled in Britain and those who circumnavigated Britain in the early Iron Age and settled in Ireland, there were linguistic differences between them too, but we have no way of knowing whether they developed in situ – or were brought here to begin with. Certainly it is now thought that the language spoken by the Irish Celts was older than that spoken by British Celts. And in all the Celtic languages there are buried words that belong perhaps to some older, quite different tongue.

The tribes who  lived in Ayrshire were the Novantes, and in Galloway the Dumnoniae and  as far as we can know anything we know that they both spoke something resembling  Welsh and could understand each other. But “Welsh” is I’m afraid another red herring. We only call it that because that’s where it survived longest, in Wales.” P” Celtic is what linguists call the language of the Britons, that loose conglomeration of tribes that the Romans found living (and fighting) here when they arrived. They called the country Britannia because it was the land of the Pritani, which, they believed, was what these Celtic peoples called themselves – it meant, or they certainly took it to mean “painted people” a custom which they attributed to all the Brits and not just that part of them which we have come to know as Picts. It was a custom  which the Romans despised as savage.

There are (to put it simply) , two kinds of Celtic language. There is P Celtic,  which was spoken throughout the island of Britain and from which Welsh is descended. And there is the older Q Celtic which was spoken in Ireland and  from which modern Irish and Scots Gaelic are descended. But the situation is complicated by the fact that the people we now know as  “Picts”, lived north of the Forth Clyde Line, with occasional warlike sorties south, and they also spoke – so it’s believed by scholars – another version of P Celtic, with elements of Q Celtic and also with elements of something else – another language altogether. And  maybe the Picts  also merit their separate identity because they tattooed themselves very beautifully, (There is a sense of “picture people” in the word Pict) and because their stone carving and metal working skills were different and wonderful enough for us to think that maybe they were a distinct and powerful grouping with different religious practices. 

In spite of claims to the contrary (mostly based on a faulty reading of old texts) the Picts were never native to Galloway though they certainly visited!  There is not a scrap of evidence for Pictish place names in Galloway. There are however, the remains of three coastal brochs, said to have been built by marauding Picts as “piratical strongholds” and this may well have been the case. Maybe they came to some agreement with the native Brits who let them get on with it. The tribes who lived in this part of Strathclyde, ie Ayrshire and Galloway -  spoke a version of British or P Celtic for many hundreds of years. Modern Welsh speakers would recognise some of it, just as we recognise old and middle English as being not a million miles from what we speak today,.

Click here to view map of Carrick circa 1654.When considering the population and what they may or may not have spoken, we must also remember that although at least a ruling class of British/ Celtic speaking peoples was firmly established in many regions of Scotland by the first century AD this did not mean the complete extermination of the previous (bronze age? Stone age? ) inhabitants. Linguistically the  Brittonic (for which read P Celtic ) dialects could have existed side by side with other tongues now wholly unknown and perhaps very numerous and varied. They may have been indo-European in origin but they may not and we just DON’T KNOW. Of the 38 native place names recorded in Scotland in the second century AD by geographer Ptolemy, only less than half are certainly or probably Celtic.  The rest are…….  Mysterious and interesting! Again, looking at this part of Ayrshire, these older peoples would have lived side by side with incoming Celts, might have intermarried, might have adapted and quite possibly learned each other’s languages. Or were they eventually overcome by the power of the incoming culture and reduced to the status of “fairies” in the imagination of the Celtic incomers - beautiful but perilous, only to be defeated by “cold iron” – living in their forests or their hollow hills, making strange music, sometimes helpful, like unpredictable servants, occasionally stealing babies, or enticing young men or women to fall in love with them and wander away? Well – it’s possible.

However, to take a leap forward into history, further analysis of the place names of Galloway and Carrick shows that by the eighth century AD there were also three groups of Anglian settlements in this area, each radiating from strategic and administrative centres.

1  From the stronghold of Buittle near Dalbeattie, a cluster of parishes controlled the Solway coast.  Inland of Buittle lies the parish of Kelton, or calf village, which place has a long history as a strategic cross-roads where the Roman Road intersects with the route up the Glenkens

2 There is a second well defined Anglian district stretching from the Cree crossing in Penninghame down the east coast of the Machars to Whithorn (Old English Hwit-aerne) and Glasserton in the south.

3 And a third, more interesting “shire” from our point of view, lay in Carrick: five mediaeval parishes running southwards from Maybole, with Church dedications to St Oswald and St Cuthbert extending southwards towards Ballantrae. Even the name Merrick derives from Old English. The conclusions reached are that Angles settled in Galloway in the seventh and eighth centuries AD more extensively than used to be thought and mainly in places of continuing importance. Maybole was one of them.

After that, of course, came the Norsemen (in waves, the history books insist on telling us!) who not only raped and plundered, but also  colonised and eventually reinforced the power of the Gallovidian Angles as a ruling class.  But by then the Angles had also managed to achieve an uneasy (or perhaps easy, who knows?) power balance with their British neighbours. The Britons were by tradition cattle and horse breeders to whom the hill pastures were a natural habitat. They were also, interestingly enough, miners and occupied the areas where silver could be extracted and gold panned in the streams. Both peoples hunted and fished but this was no problem because there was an abundance of wildlife and game. The seclusion of one settlement from another by wide tracts of forest probably helped to maintain the peace between these very different  peoples.

Time marched on. And once the power of Northumbria collapsed, the kingdom of Strathclyde renewed its strength and the old balance between Briton and Angle tipped in favour of the Brits. There are many important placenames containing the Brittonic “tref” meaning homestead, and they still survive in Carrick to this day. They probably marked centres of power and wealth in these enclaves of tenth century Strathclyde . So we find :-

Troquain, Threave, Barbrethan, Tranew, Tralorg, to name but a few. (There are said to be ten or eleven other than Threave) and I haven’t got them all yet. Also Guiltreehill is probably to be numbered among British names, of which more later!  The Pin placenames are also P Celtic, ie Welsh British in origin.

And here comes a really interesting time. For in the early 10th century Galloway and Carrick were divided between British and Anglian enclaves. Then, comes an information gap of about 100 years – a mini dark age, of a certain amount of turbulence when Anglian power was waning.  And oddly enough when records begin properly again that Anglo-Brittonic culture has been replaced by something quite different! The Scots had come (from Ireland!) with a vengeance and the huge and powerful spread of Gaelic place names had happened, with great speed. In the first 20 years of the eleventh century the distribution of power in this part of the world changed enormously. The kingdom of the Scots (for which read Irish!) was established and they brought with them a language that was – for some reason – hugely vital. Why would be an interesting study all by itself.

In that short intervening period, there is literary evidence  that a host of Gaelic place names had come into existence. A multitude of topographical names, ie hills, streams and rivers, but with relatively few habitation names suggest that they were the work of the peasantry, settlers who were working on the land and claiming it for their own by dint of possession.

But that isn’t the whole story and even the personal names of the upper classes had – in quite a short space of time – become Gaelicised. It seems to have been literally the language rather than the population that changed. It was as though Gaelic had suddenly become fashionable. But the Gaelic speaking kindreds of Galloway and Carrick preserved traces of their British descent, not least in place names, well into the high middle ages and beyond. Some – like Barbrethan, Troquain and Threave have persisted even longer.

But let’s sidestep a minute and look in a bit more detail at the place names of Kirkmichael and how they illustrate some of this.

Over years of living in the village, I gleaned various bits of information about the history of the place. We live in one of the old terraced cottages in the village, but our house deeds show that the house was built between 1806 when the deeds refer to a piece of land only, (land which actually belonged to Cloncaird) and 1811 when they talk about the land and the “house built thereon. “ Houses round about are a bit newer or a bit older, but only by a margin of twenty, or thirty years or so, and even the oldest cottages in Patna Road seem to date from only 1780 or thereabouts. The village itself however, as an entity, is traditionally much older, though perhaps not a village as we know it today, but more a parish, a collection of little “clachans” with the kirk – and/or Kirkmichael House at the centre.  Or perhaps both, in different ways, as we shall see. 

Kirkmichael House has a long and distinguished history, as has the church (this one the newest of three or more buildings on the same site, continuously since the Mediaeval period) and there is a notebook which describes life in the manse of Kirkmichael about 1720 when Mr James Laurie was ordained minister, and Kirkmichael was a remote parish with a population of 700 souls.

At that time, the manse itself was by no means the grander building of later times, but was instead, a small thatched house with a kailyard in front, narrow windows, half glazed, thick walls, and four rooms divided by wooden partitions. Here lived the minister, his wife Ann,  and their children, four boys and three girls as well as the minister’s sister, Betty. There were besides three women servants, a serving man and a herd lassie who slept over the byre. The minister was funded by the local people, lairds and farmers, but sometimes his stipend was hard to come by. It seems to have been very hard for him to get  his parishioners, even the wealthy ones, to pay to keep the manse in a  good state of repair. From 1711 – 1732 James Laurie noted down memoranda of his income, his expenses and the details of his daily life. In winter the women, including Ann, and Betty were engaged in making yarn and thread which they would then have woven into cloth for their own purposes, or in some cases they would sell it on. There were plenty of weavers in the village. Or near it.

Coals are brought and peats for fuel. Linen is bleached. Shoemakers come and make shoes for family, men and maids; sometimes the weaver is paid in grain, or skin, the smith is likewise sometimes paid in meal.

Tea drinking is becoming fashionable and Mr Laurie buys a set of earthenware to drink it out of. In Edinburgh he buys seed for his flower borders: “Africa Marigold, sunflower, jelly flower, luppyns, double holly oaks, bella donna “and others. Ale is brewed at home, but he buys in wine. The manse may be cramped but he likes to do himself well. He is a fairly  prosperous man, a man of some standing in the community. Learning is a great thing and he has books which he lends to his friends, including the sons of local lairds.

So much for life in the early 1700s. But our house wasn’t built then.

Still, when we had occasion to take down a bit of wall, to build an extension some years ago, we found the stones of a much older house, a lintel, a windowsill, used as infill in the wall. Where from? From one of those much older cottages perhaps?

Within the memory of people still alive in the village, there was another “village.” The old people called it the old village, though maybe it wasn’t quite a village but one of those old “clachans” of which there were many, surrounding what we now know as the village. This one  ran along the road towards Crosshill, towards Merkland, and the remains of the Waukmill, where the cottage woven fabric was stretched. There is little left of it now, though the old mill remains, a shell of stones, down by the river at Merkland,  impossibly small. Incidentally, it is possible to trace the whole history of the parish through its mills (I think someone is actually doing it for Ayrshire) – whether they be corn mills, wauk mills, etc .

Like so much else in Kirkmichael,  habitation seems to have revolved not just around the Kirk, which always seemed to sit a little separate, along with the Manse on that side of the Dyrock, but in another direction, around the feet of Kirkmichael House. Look at the ordnance survey map, look at older maps, look at the place names and everything sits in and around Kirkmichael House rather more than it revolves around the kirk. Why? Could it be that the site of the house is site of an older settlement altogether?

Some distance to the south of the village is our  little cluster of Welsh  British names. Old sites of habitation, older than the village, older then Gaelic names like Barskelly, and Attiquin, and Bargannock. Threave, Barbrethan, (literally the height of the British) and Tranew and Troquain go back a long long way to those early British P Celtic speaking inhabitants, in other words the tribes the Romans knew as the Novantes (and could never quite subdue).

But the place names in and around Kirkmichael itself are mostly Scots Gaelic. One interesting point is that older people in the village still call the  village Carmichel, and they call the house Carmichel house. There are old documents in the archives with that particular spelling, which suggests that the vernacular pronunciation is a traditional one.  And the prefix Caer means a fort , a settlement,  (in P Celtic) and was often used in conjunction with the name Michael. Sometimes it meant a literal Michael, sometimes it was an early Christian invocation of the protective power of the archangel at sites where the older religions had been practised. The site of the church is very very old but I sometimes wonder if the house isn’t older still.

Kirkmichael House itself sits on a natural ridge, not a man made knowe or dun, but a natural height which may have been “tinkered with” to improve its defenses. This has been put forward as an argument for the house itself being of no great age, but, this is as daft as proposing no great age for Edinburgh Castle on the grounds that it sits on top of a purely natural volcanic plug. The Celts (p and q!) liked defensive positions. Within the Victorian house is a seventeenth century house, and buried deep in that is something older yet. Written records go back to the eleventh or twelve century. But the surrounding place names suggest something older still, at least going back to the time of the Scots Gaels and perhaps even further. 

 Nearby is a Fairy Knowe. Most Fairy Knowes have nothing to do with the Fairies, and this one hasn’t either. Instead it comes from the Scots Gaelic Faire, meaning watch or guard hill. But a guard hill for what? Most Fairy Knowes or Hills are strategically placed near castles or forts of some sort. Fairy Knowe is strategically placed near Kirkmichael house, looking towards Maybole, commanding fine views over the surrounding countryside. 

To the North is Drumore, the big ridge. The name suggests an outlying rampart. West of Kirkmichael House is Auchenairney or the Field of Sloes, and more interestingly within Kirkmichael Village is a cottage, of no huge age itself, called Clawbeg. But the name itself is apparently much older than the cottage – it’s a mixture of Welsh and Scots Gaelic and means the little boundary ditch, or little wall or little rampart. Again, boundary ditch, or wall or rampart of what?

Click on the images to view them full size.Much is arguable but what is plain is that for many hundreds and perhaps thousands of years this has been an area of extensive and continuous settlement and much of that settlement revolved around Kirkmichael House.  There are however, other placenames of enormous interest within the parish. Drumdarragh is a farm often referred to in old and even ancient records, which seems to have disappeared,  but in 1711 we find two farms referred to as Upper and Nether Dun-darrach, which translates as small  fort of the oaks,  (and there is an Aikenhead farm in this area today, which of course means exactly the same thing, but in English so maybe our Dun-darrach hasn’t disappeared at all! )

Descriptively Port Cheek (within the village) means the harbour where the river flows out of the hollow. And it does. And the burn is the Dyrock, which presumably also has an “Oaken” connection.  I could go on, with Arnsow – the height of the wise man or sage, Dalduff, the dark field, Ballycoach, the town of the wood, Barskelly, the top of the bare rock, Drumfad, the hill of peat, and so on and so on. These were people who were describing and naming a landscape in which they lived and worked and were occasionally referring to people they thought of as “others” (“the place where the Brits live”) even when those others had been here much much longer. The names are, if we pay attention, still describing the place to us, even as we say them.There are no dramatic conclusions to be drawn. All we can say for sure is that we are looking at a time of huge social change which is fascinatingly reflected in  changing placenames. And that almost all the places of settlement round about are going to be  much much older than the buildings thereon!

To finish:- A salutary story – an English friend had been told that Guiltreehill outside the village had been a gallows hill. But it seemed very unlikely. Justice, if any, would be administered in Maybole, and not up in the fastnesses of Guiltreehill. On investigation it seems more likely that the “tree” is another British Tref, or house. The Guil element, may have something to do with shining, or white. Gil-tref means hill of the white or shining house.

Sometimes, as in Whithorn, the very fact of a building being painted white would distinguish it, since this was so unusual. But there may be a yet more interesting explanation for Guiltreehill. Lead was mined up there, but more importantly, Silver was also mined up there. There is a tradition of items retained in the village made of silver from Ballycoach up on Guiltreehill, though I’ve never seen any. But the mine was a very old one. And as I said earlier, the British were miners, if they were anything. So maybe the shining house was the place that the silver came from. Better than the gallows any day.

Click here to connect to writer Catherine Lucy Czerkawska's website

Catherine Lucy Czerkawska is a resident of Kirkmichael and accomplished writer. Her works include novels, plays for theatre and BBC radio, television drama, short stories, articles and creative content of all kinds.  See also Catherine's story about the 200 year old Kirkmichael school records saved from the bonfire.
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